Tom Greenwood Interview – On Sustainable Design and Green Business

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Hello there! We’ve been taking a break lately to let people rest and enjoy their holidays but now we’re back with our interview series, talking with Tom Greenwood about all things green.

Before that, don’t forget to check our latest interview with Nile Flores if you missed it. For more variety, see our entire collection of interviews with people from all walks of life who use WordPress to make a living.

After you get to know Tom Greenwood a little bit, you can’t help thinking that his name was fated. He’s one of the people who believe that you can still do great in business and life with less pollution.

Tom Greenwood interview with Themeisle

Tom is the owner of Wholegrain Digital, a web design agency based in London that builds WordPress websites with a reduced carbon footprint. But making eco-friendly sites is not the only thing Tom and his team do for the environment. They are involved in a bunch of activities and initiatives that aim to support their business mantra, such as their free Website Carbon Calculator tool.

If you have an interest in sustainable web design, then you can consider Tom’s book for your reading list this year. Plainly named “Sustainable Web Design”, it will teach you how to bring your own contribution to this planet by building carbon-efficient websites.

He’ll talk more about these initiatives, his sustainable business, a green lifestyle, and – of course – WordPress in what comes next. Let’s hear it from Tom.

Tom Greenwood Interview – A Talk on Sustainable Web Design and Green Business with the Founder of Wholegrain Digital

When and how did you start working with WordPress? Is there an interesting story here?

Yeah, I started working with WordPress in 2007, soon after we started our business. Back in those days, we did some static HTML websites and sort of dabbled in Joomla and Magento a little bit.

Then my brother said, “Have you heard of this thing called WordPress?”. He is a really great SEO marketing guy and he had been using it loads and thought it was brilliant. So we had a look at it, played around, thought “wow, this is so much easier to use than the other things”, and basically showed it to a couple of early clients and they seemed to really like it. And it just took off. If we gave clients WordPress, they were happy; if we gave them something else they were a bit confused and didn’t know how to use it very well.

And we thought “clients love it and we love it”, let’s just specialize in this and do one thing well. That’s why we decided to be a specialist WordPress agency and just focus on WordPress.

What’s your technique for staying productive throughout the day?

My job involves a lot of different things and there’s a lot of people in our team and also clients who are demanding time and attention from me, and I want to give them the best service that I can.

So what I find works really well is to chunk my time so that I have periods of quiet focused time where I go offline. And I tell myself and other people that maybe only an hour or two I’m working on something important.

Then I’ll come back and I’ll have bursts of time when I’m just responding to people reactively. Then I’ll go back and I have another period of quiet time to work more proactively on a piece of deep work.

I think that balance, combined with taking regular breaks making sure I get some air and daylight throughout the day, keeps me productive.

How do you define “being successful”?

I think if in your gut you feel happy and content in life that you’re doing the things you want to do and following your own path, then you’re successful. Simple as that.

What do you do when you’re not working?

I like to go running and walking in the new forest which is where we live. I also just love experimenting with natural health and learning about nutrition and different aspects of pushing myself for natural health.

We’ve got a shower in the garden, a cold plunge pool, a sauna that we built last summer during the lockdown.

I like swimming in the sea, growing vegetables, experimenting with ways of doing that organically, and just enjoying experimenting with natural living.

What do you wish more people knew about WordPress?

I think I wish more people knew just how robust and capable it is as a serious CMS for serious applications. And, I think, its history as an originally a blogging platform has held it back in terms of public perception.

The reputation always seems to be several years behind the reality. WordPress is always much better than the general public perception and I think I wish that people knew the current reality of just how brilliant it is.

Describe the WordPress community in one word.

What’s the one thing you’d like to change about WordPress?

I’d like to improve the Gutenberg editing experience to bring it more on a par with modern expectations, similar to things like Squarespace.

I think WordPress was so easy to use in the early days, ten years ago. It was the easiest system and that was one of the things people loved about it. Now, it’s been overtaken and it’s trying to catch up. And it is catching up but it’s not quite there yet and that’s the thing that I’d like it to get back. To be the most user-friendly, intuitive system for editing a website.

How do you see the evolution of WordPress compared to 10 years ago? Is it on the right track?

I think it is broadly on the right track. The community has matured and it’s become really well established . There’s a lot you can do with WordPress these days that you couldn’t do ten years ago.

It’s a lot more mature as a system but, like I said in the previous question, the Gutenberg editor is heading in the right direction, but, it feels like it’s not quite where it needs to be in terms of modern expectations.

I think that’s something that the community, in general, is struggling with. I think it’ll get there but it’s going to take time and we got to hope that it catches up faster than the world moves forward.

What’s the number one thing a new business entering the WordPress space should do?

I’d say it should meet a real need. The WordPress community is now huge and there’s a lot of businesses in the WordPress ecosystem filling a lot of opportunities and there’s a lot of duplication as well which isn’t always required.

But there’s so many people using WordPress, so many unique use cases that there are still problems to be solved and people to be helped, that don’t yet have a solution. If you can provide one of those solutions then that’s the perfect starting point for a WordPress business.

What do you think is the most efficient way to market your own services at this moment?

I’d say produce great content that’s not promoting you but helping others. If you’re putting out a regular supply of content that people love and is helpful to them and in some way relates to the service or the product that you’re providing (but it’s not about you, it’s about helping them), then you really earn people’s trust. You’ll get their attention and promote your business at the same time.

What’s your definition of a “quality WordPress site”?

A quality WordPress site is one that is high performance, low energy, accessible, easy to use in the back-end, has great user experience on the front-end, and is easy to maintain long term.

What are the key aspects you’re looking into when you build a WordPress site from scratch?

The key aspects that we’re looking into at the core are meeting real needs for people. What does the client want from their website? How is it going to support them as an organization, but also who are their users, who is their audience and how is it going to help them?

What are their needs and pain points that need solving? And ultimately a website is a tool to solve a problem. So the main things we’re looking at are how is this website actually going to solve those real-world needs?

How do you make a zero-carbon website?

Until such time that the entire world’s energy grid is entirely powered by renewables, it won’t be possible to make a truly zero-carbon website because every website has to send data through the global telecoms networks and to end-user devices that the web designer and developer has no control over.

But you can get pretty close by making sure that you’ve designed the website in a way that has minimal file size for code, for fonts, for images. Make sure that all the graphic assets are as tiny as they can be, that you’ve minimized server load (so that minimal processing needs to happen on the server), that you’ve minimized the processing load on the end- user’s device (so you’re not making loads of JavaScript queries on the front- end).

So it’s really, really low-energy. You’re moving the data as close to the user as possible through a CDN and then you’re making sure that those points (the hosting and the CDN itself) are powered by renewable energy to keep emissions as low as possible.

If you do all of those things, you’re going to get as close to a zero-carbon website as you possibly can.

Any themes, plugins, or tools you’re using often to streamline the website building process?

Yeah, one of the key things to streamline the website building process, but also help make websites better for people and planet, is to do design testing in the design phase.

One of the tools we use for that is Stark, which is a sketch plugin that helps test visual accessibility. We also use EyeQuant, which is an attention analysis software that helps us identify visual clutter, where the focus is going to go within the design, to make sure that the design is well optimized in terms of user experience and accessibility before we start building it.

But once we actually get to build, we have our own Granola development framework for WordPress, which has got a lot of best practices, built-in terms of efficient, streamlined, accessible code. It’s really focused on performance and sustainability.

In terms of image optimization, we use ShortPixel as a sort of fairly standard tool for optimizing images on a WordPress site.

What other green initiatives do you adopt in your company?

We’ve got quite a lot of green initiatives at Wholegrain starting initially with our choice years ago to have a semi-remote working model so that we don’t have the impact of a full office space and always making sure that the office space that we do use has a renewable energy supply.

Over the years, we’ve built on new green practices, so as we’ve moved more towards remote working. We’ve introduced an incentive for our staff to switch to renewable energy provider at home, so they get an extra day of holiday each year if they have renewable energy at home. Now 100% of our team have done that.

We also have a no-fly policy so we don’t fly anywhere for business at Wholegrain Digital.

We have a vegetarian food policy, so any kind of company catering is always vegetarian or vegan food.

We also have an incentive for our staff called climate perks where they get some extra time off for their own holidays if they choose to travel overland instead of traveling by planes. It gives them a bit of extra time to compensate for the fact that that, for example, train travel takes them longer to get to their destination than taking the plane.

And we’ve also got a green handshake so we plant 1,260 trees. It’s a very precise number for each person in the team when they join the team as a welcome. We’re trying to carbon sync our impacts. Although we’re trying to minimize our carbon footprint as far as possible, we’re also not just trying to offset that but trying to make sure that we’re somehow drawing down as much CO2 in every calendar year as we’re emitting.

That means, for example, if we’re doing things like tree planting, we don’t just need to plant the number of trees that will absorb it over their lifetime because that could take 20 or 30 years but actually plant 20 or 30 times as many trees upfront as we theoretically need to. And that will mean that over time we actually become a regenerative and carbon negative company.

What is your favorite type of client? What about the client that you enjoy working with the least?

My favorite type of client is the one who has a really clear mission that is aligned with the things that we care about as a team and who treats us as a real partner in helping them deliver on that mission of theirs. So that we can really put our hearts into it together as a team rather than having a client-supplier relationship with true partners.

The types of clients that I least like working with are really the opposite of that. So those who treat web design and development (and our services, therefore) as a commodity. They’re not really looking for a partner, they’re not really looking for a kind of a meaningful relationship with our team. They just want to get some tasks done quickly and cheaply.

What is your number one rule when it comes to sustainable web design?

What are the main challenges of keeping up with your mission?

I think the main challenge of keeping up with our mission to help create a sustainable web is that sustainable web design as a concept is really in its infancy and so we’re very much learning as we go along and it’s ever-evolving.

As fast as we learn and as fast as we improve, we’re always learning more about the things that we could do better. In many ways, the more we learn, the more we realize that we don’t know, the more we realize that we have to do.

So the main challenge is really exploring the unknown and constantly trying to find solutions to those new avenues and new aspects of sustainable web design that we didn’t previously know about.

What do you think about the full-editing experience in WordPress? How will it affect design agencies business-wise?

It’s definitely an interesting change and it will impact the type of products that some agencies give their clients and the nature of development services in some areas. But I also feel like WordPress has had an enormous ecosystem of very flexible off-the-shelf themes for a very long time and that hasn’t changed the fact that people still come to agencies for WordPress sites. And the reason they come to agencies for WordPress sites is not just because they can’t build it themselves.

They’re also coming for the expertise in how to understand their users, how to translate their business challenges into a solution on the web. All of that expert knowledge in design and user experience and SEO – that’s the value that people come to an agency for and fundamentally giving them a full-size editing experience doesn’t solve that.

It gives them more flexibility day-to-day and that’s fantastic for them and that’s great. Probably for the agency too in many ways. But it doesn’t fundamentally eliminate the reason why an agency would be able to help them.

Did the pandemic have any impact on your business (positive or negative)? Any changes you had to make in this regard?

At the beginning of the pandemic, we did have some clients that were really affected financially and we looked to see how we could help them make sure that their web presence was not affected by the pandemic even if their financial situation was somewhat up in the air and challenging.

But I think the biggest impact was really the turmoil created both practical and emotional for our clients, some of whom were furloughed on and off since the beginning of the pandemic, but also for our own team, although we’ve been very lucky that we haven’t had to furlough anybody and we’ve really prioritized stability and job security.

It has been an emotionally difficult time for people and we haven’t been able to see each other face to face, which we used to do on a weekly basis. So I think the biggest challenge has been supporting each other as humans both within the team and our clients to feel motivated and supported throughout it all.

And the upside of that is that everybody has really gelled together to do that and now we actually feel a lot stronger as a team and I think it’s become a strength.

Are you a part of any cool online/offline communities or groups? Can be about any topic, not necessarily work-related.

Yeah, so a couple of online groups that I think have been really valuable are Climate Action Tech and Sustainable UX. They very much overlap with each other, some of the same people in both groups, but it’s a great place to find people who are really looking at how we can use technology from a sustainable point of view.

Also the B-Corp community. I think the word community is often kind of overused but what we found is, certainly in the UK, the B-Corp community really is a community of businesses and people who really want to help each other and so it’s been a great place to learn from others and share experiences and make friends.

A related thing of that is the HappyPorch agency owners group. HappyPorch podcast formed an agency group a couple of years back. I think there’s about 10 of us in the group who get together about once every six weeks and just chat about what’s going on in our businesses, what are our challenges. It’s really incredibly open and honest and collaborative, and it’s been a great place to get to know people and help get some useful advice and support.

I’m also a member of the Green Party and, to be honest, during the pandemic it’s something that I’ve sort of put on the sidelines but I love the community of people who actually believe in a better world and a better way of doing politics and government. And people who care about making the world better and not interested in power.

I kind of laugh because, in some ways, that’s the problem, they’re not interested in power. But nevertheless, it’s fantastic to be a part of a group of people who genuinely have the right intentions and have a real passion to do good things.

What motivates you to keep doing what you’re doing?

I think a combination of things. As long as it feels like we’re making a positive impact in the world then that really excites me and it really makes it feel like it’s worth getting out of bed in the morning and going to work.

But also just working with really fantastic people in our team, they’re a joy to work with. Whatever is we’re working on, even if it’s something really mundane, working with great people who you enjoy spending time with is always a motivational factor.

That sums up our Tom Greenwood interview. If you enjoyed it and want to learn more, please leave your comments in the section below. Also, if you have any ideas for who we should talk to next, feel free to share your suggestions with us!

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