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Interview with Steven Bradley (vangogh)

Lately, I have invited Steven Bradley of The Van Blog, known as vangogh on multiple web development, SEO and small business forums, to guest blog here.

The main reason I invited him to guest post here is that we share common views on various aspects of website development and optimization, so he should be a valuable addition to this blog. Moreover, a different perspective on the same things should give you a broader view on various aspects of website optimization and marketing as well.

To know him better, feel free to read an interview with Steve (vangogh) below.

Yuri: What is your education background?

Steve: I have two undergraduate degrees from schools in the state university system of New York where I grew up. The first is a bachelor's degree in History and the second, also a bachelor's degree, is in Civil Engineering. I'm not exactly using either at the moment, though I do think having a diverse background is a big help in search marketing. The history degree does make everyone want to be my partner when playing Trivial Pursuit too.

The only formal training I have in relation to the web is two continuing education certificates I earned a few years ago when first getting involved in the web. One is a certificate in C++ programming, though I haven't programmed anything in C++ since then. The other is a certificate in Web Design, but there wasn't much to the program and I consider myself mostly self taught.

Most of my education comes from reading and trying new things. I taught myself (x)HTML and CSS when I first started designing sites and shortly after started teaching myself JavaScript and PHP. SEO work is also an ongoing learning process and I try to learn a little something new about it every day.

Yuri: What were you doing before you got on the Web?

Steve: The last job I held for someone else was as a software tester for Rational Software. I was hired as a temporary employee and unfortunately for me and most everyone I worked with IBM bought the company just as we were about to become full time employees and decided to let us go. They actually decided to close the office here in Boulder since the product we were responsible for duplicated something IBM already offered.

I've worked all sorts of jobs in my day, though. Many retail jobs in a variety of different stores. Prior to getting involved on the web I worked building custom picture frames. I enjoy working with my hands when I can. I've worked indoors and outdoors and in many different industries. I guess I like diversity

Yuri: Have you ever thought that you spend a lot of time sitting in front of a monitor and you need a more physically active work? Or is web development the thing you'd like to be associated for good?

Steve: When I was growing up everyone assumed I would be involved with computers. Computers weren't as common when I was a kid as they are today. I'm dating myself a little, but I can remember when my high school first installed a computer lab. Our teachers were taking classes for themsleves and then teaching us what they learned the next day. At the time I wasn't interested in them at all.

It wasn't until the web hit the scene that I really wanted to become involved. It's more the web that grabbed me than computers in general. Of course now that I use computers all the time I have come to learn quite a bit about them.

I do like to stay active and have always enjoyed jobs that kept me active. For a time I loaded and unloaded trucks, which is a very demanding job. It used to keep me in great shape. Though I'm not nearly in the shape I was then, I still stay active. I play softball, hike, and bike regularly. Boulder has a lot of bike paths and trails so there's always somewhere to ride.

Yuri: What got to you to web development?

Steve: The job I held right before Rational was working for a dot com in the days before the bubble burst. It was my first job working for a company that had a connection with the web. We produced ebooks in the days before people wanted to read them and my job at first consisted of scanning a hard cover book and manually editing it in Microsoft Word.

Soon after getting the job I was promoted and worked on the next stage of the ebook which involved working more on the code behind what would be the online version. The code was similar to HTML and I soon found it easier for me to find things in the coded version of the book than in the MS Word version. I knew I was meant to work on something with this kind of code.

After the bubble burst a very large portion of my department was let go. I think we went from having 200 people to 100. It was apparent that in time we'd all likely be gone and when I started thinking about it I knew very little of the skills I had acquired at the job would transfer to another job. That's when I started on the certificate programs. Once I started learning web design and development I knew this was what I was supposed to do.

Yuri: How did you go from hosting to designing websites?

Steve: It's actually the other way around for me. I started designing sites with a friend who was also out of work and we attempted to build our own business. That business never really got very far, but I learned a lot about web development and business. My friend decided to go on to other things, but I continued. I freelanced for awhile mainly setting up a site for a web hosting company.

When I was setting up another business, my current one, I thought it would be a good idea to add hosting to the mix and liked the idea of the recurring fees. A little over a year later I've realized I'm not really a web host, but a web designer and seo, who also happens to offer web hostng. I'm working now to redesign my site and re brand the business. I still plan on offering hosting, but I'll likely only offer it to my design clients.

Yuri: As you were into hosting for some time, can you share some tips on finding the right host? Any tricks to be aware of?

Steve: I think the most important things with hosting are to find a reliable company and not be misled by price and some of the numbers. It's worth taking the time to understand a little about what all the features mean and what your requirements are. Many web hosts will offer GBs of disk space, but most websites will never use more than a few hundred MBs.

Many web hosts do what's called overselling. They offer 100 people 1GB of space on an 80Gb server. If you add that up something's wrong. They're able to make those offers since they know most sites will never use all the space they have.

There's nothing wrong with overselling since the host can always move some sites to a new server if it gets full, but keep in mind you probably don't need as much space or bandwidth as comes with your hosting plan.

I prefer Linux servers since I think they're a little more secure and typically cheaper because the operating system and much of the software is free, but many successful companies run on Windows servers.

One thing to look for in a host is customer service. Many of the larger companies won't be there when you need them, but the majority of small hosts will. Most small hosts are resellers so often the servers a small and big host offers are sitting next to each other. The smaller host offers a level of customer service to the package.

Yuri: Did you get to the stage where you can select your clients? How do you decide whether to start working with one or not?

Steve: I wish I was at that stage. I still sometimes have to take clients I'd prefer not to work with in order to pay the bills. I am getting more choosy though and more willing to turn someone away if I don't think the relationship will work out. Different people have different ideas in how to design, build, and market a site and sometimes those people can't really work well together to create something good.

I prefer to work with clients who see the value in what I can bring to their business and most of my clients do. I'm hoping the re branding of my business will allow me to take on more of the clients I want to work with. In time I hope to be able to pick and choose the projects that interest me the most. I think the best designs come when you feel passionate about the business. I also think believing in the business makes it much easer and more enjoyable to market it.

Yuri: Do you follow a certain philosophy or principles when creating and developing websites or you are simply aim at achieving the highest effectiveness?

Steve: I think the philosophy and principles that guide me are to produce the highest quality I can whatever I'm working on and also to treat people with respect and understanding. I believe if you're going to do something you should do it as best as you can. It's important to me to make sure all the small details are working right even if no one will ever notice, but me. I want to be proud of the work I do.

The respect and understanding is part of who I am more than a philosophy. When I was a kid I'd see other kids teasing those who weren't as athletically gifted or didn't fit in. It always bothered me when I'd see that so I would often take time away from other things to get to know those kids that got teased more often.

Later when reading forums it always bothered me when someone would dismiss a question as though it were beneath them. I decided when I started posting I would take the time to answer any question as best I could and treat the person asking the question with the respect they deserved.

Yuri: Tell us about your forum life. What brought you to forums, what was your first forum, your most memorable forum and perhaps the most memorable moment on any of the forums?

Steve: As you know I post to several forums under the username vangogh. It all started with reading them. After putting up my first site I had that usual what now feeling and realized the now was search engine optimization. I read every article I could find and pretty soon came across most of the SEO forums like Search Engine Watch and Webmaster World. I started reading as much as I could in an effort to learn as much as I could. I stayed away from posting though.

When I launched my business I decided one way I would market it was through forums. My thought was to answer other people's questions and hopefully show them I really did know what I claimed to know. I joined one webmaster forum and one small business forum and began posting. The feedback and traffic I got was pretty good and I started picking up clients through the forums. It didn't take me long to decide I should be posting at more forums.

I think there are five now that I post to regularly, and many more I still read. I have even joined the moderators at webmaster-talk.com. Being asked to moderate a forum after I'd only been posting for a couple of month was a pretty memorable moment. As silly as it might be whenever someone gives me a boost in reputation at a forum because I've helped them it's pretty memorable. I've had some really appreciative comments left for me to say thanks. The connections I've made with the people are still the most memorable.

The only thing keeping me from posting at more is time. There have been days where I've spent 6 hours posting, but when I can I'll probably join a few more forums.

While it started more as a way to market myself I've really come to enjoy the friends I've made and the communities themselves. I find myself looking forward to logging in and being able to say hello to a few people I'll probably never get to meet in person, but feel like I've gotten to know pretty well.

Yuri: I am sure most people would love to know what and how to post on the forums to get clients. Can you share some advice for the small business site owners?

Steve: The key really is to not actively market yourself. I never suggest my business to anyone. I just try my best to give good advice and answer questions if I know the answer. All the clients I've picked up through forums approached me. It's never been the other way around.

Forums are communities and the community can easily recognize when someone isn't there as part of it and only there to promote themselves. That just won't work. What I would say is look for communities where your client are likely to be. While I post to webmaster and seo forums my clients have come from small business forums.

Look for forums where your clients or customer will spend time. Join those communities and offer advice related to your business. And add a link to your site or some contact information in your forum signature. If you do all three, and especially if you make truly helpful posts people will contact you.

It won't be immediate. You need to build up your reputation in the community, but in time they will be in touch. It's not a get rich quick thing, but it can bring more business your way. I even met one of my better friends through a forum when he contacted me to help with his business.

Yuri: What is the most fascinating thing about the Web for you?

Steve: There are so many things really. It still fascinates me that everything we see on the web or on our local machines is still just a 1 or a 0 to the machine. I think the reach of the internet is great. Here I am being interviewed for a site in Novosibirsk, Russia, while sitting in my home in Boulder, Colorado.

The now common ability to email or chat over messenger still amazes me. I don't think I can live without them anymore. I recently bought a new phone in part so I could check my email when I'm not in front of my laptop. I remember a few years ago when I first started designing sites I was visiting my family in New York. I made a few changes on my laptop in one room to update a site for a client in Illinois through a hosting company in Colorado on a server in Dallas, Texas. It's a journey of a few thousand miles.

When I made the change, which took all of a minute I called out to my mom in the next room to have a look on the computer she was in front of. It's amazing the route that simple change made to get from one room to the next in the same house.

I think more than anything though it's the wealth of information that exists. I'm an avid reader and I often get the urge to just know the answer to something. When I was growing up that would have meant a trip to the library or a bookstore, but now I can hop over to a search engine and begin looking. Within a few minutes I usually have an answer.

Yuri: If there was one thing you could change about the Internet, what would it be?

Steve: That's a good question. I think as long as the internet remains open and free it will never need changing. It will always adapt and change to meet the demands of those who use it.

If I had to change something though I would like to see more attractive and usable sites. There's a lot of very ugly and very unusable sites. As a designer and developer I want to stop every time I see one and recode it. Little things like when I see all the text centered on a site or the whole page aligned to the left edge of my window.

I know how easy it would be to change those things and make the site so much more attractive. It also frustrates me when I'm on a site that overlooks some obvious usability things like slow loading pages or making it difficult to navigate the site. Those things frustrate me.

I really just want to see the internet free for everyone and open to everyone. The internet can bring the entire world so much closer together and I hope everyone can have access to it in some way. It's not so much the internet that I would change, but the offline world. I'd like to see people offline be able to communicate with each other across the barriers currently between them.

Yuri: While Internet is becoming more easily accessible to the people, do you think people should spend more time together in real life instead of online? What do you think about people communicating less in the real life?

Steve: I think it's vert important to have time away from the computer and the virtual communication and spend time with friends and family. I admit I spend a lot of time in front of a monitor, but I do make time to get out and commnicate with people in the real world too.

One if the good things about the online communication is it makes it much easier for people to work together. Most of my clients for example live pretty far from me and I could never have them as clients without being able to email or IM them. There are also companies that can exist virtually without the need for a central office. Things like that are great advances.

But they do isolate us all somewhat. I haven't worked in an office in years and sometimes the camaraderie you'd find in the workplace would be nice. My work is isolated. That's why I think it's important to make time for the people in your life and to make time to get to know more people. Communicating online is great, but so is the ability to talk to someone sitting next to you.

Yuri: Now a tricky question: how do you think it is possible that two different people with completely different backgrounds from around the globe could have similar points of view on website development and marketing? A coincidence or a number of factors?

Steve: I'm not sure I believe in coincidence. I think there's some kind of meaning in everything. The meaning though is often beyond me. I just learn to accept it and find when the universe is ready it will reveal the things I'm ready to know.

I think a lot of factors go into it, but I'm sure if we looked we'd find many more people with the same points of view no matter how different the backgrounds. The reason it's possible has more to do with us being able to find each other. The web really does make the world a smaller place in a good way. I'm sure there are people who share similar views living all around the globe.

While we may all come from what seems to be very different backgrounds living in different countries we all have a mother and father who want a better life for us than they had for themselves. We all really are much more similar than different.

Yuri: I know you are impressed by Vincent van Gogh. Though you have quite a piece on your site, can you sum it up here: what made you choose the vangogh nickname and how you implement Vincent's principles in web design and development?

Steve: I've always like the paintings and drawings of Vincent Van Gogh, but it was a friend of mine in New York who really got me to see his work. When I was moving from New York to Boulder not everything was good in my life. It was a down time for me. As I was moving I realized I wouldn't be able to take everything I had with me.

One of the things I had to give up were some of the many books I had collected over the years. I took most into some used bookstores and traded many of my books for a three volume set of Van Gogh's writing to his brother Theo. It was his writing more than anything that made me feel the connection with him.

The current name of my business, YellowHouseHosting, was named after his painting "The Yellow House." The image of the house that's in the background of my site is a drawing I made based on his painting. It's the house where Van Gogh lived in Arles. The same house where he had a run in with Gaughin and sliced off a part of his ear. The idea behind the house though was to provide a place for all Vincent's friends to come and share what they knew about art with each other. It was meant to be home to a community of artists who would work together and help each other.

That's how I saw my business, and still do even though the name will be changing. Using vangogh as a username just seemed like a natural.

Thank you for a great interview, Steve. I hope our readers have enjoyed it and will enjoy your posts as well.

By the way, Steve interviewed me on his own blog as well, so feel free to check it out.

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