Nathan Wrigley: [00:00:00] Welcome to the PressForward podcast. I’m Nathan Wrigley, and I’d like to thank you for joining us again, and if this is your first time with us, I hope that you like it and that you find it useful. We release the PressForward podcast each week and we’d love it if you added us to your list of podcasts, the ones that you consume regularly.
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Today we’re going to be talking to Puneet Sahalot. But before that, let me tell you a little bit about WP&UP, what we do and how you can get involved. We’re a nonprofit working in the WordPress space with a mission to offer support to those who need it. This could be with your mental health, your physical health, or perhaps with your business or even your skills.
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So today we’re speaking with Puneet Sahalot. He’s a WordPress developer heading up the IdeaBox team in India. You might have heard of some of the plugins that they’ve created, things like Power Pack for Beaver Builder and WP Fomify. We talk about what the tech scene is like in India and how it differs from other parts of the world.
We also spend quite a lot of the conversation talking about Puneet’s approach to growing and maintaining his team. How he likes to treat them like a family and encourage them to grow and develop in their roles. We also get into the subject of mental and physical health and the way that these areas are becoming more important in the workplace.
It’s a lovely interview with a very humble man. And so, without further ado, say hello to Puneet Sahalot.
Puneet Sahalot: [00:03:47] Hello everyone. Hello, Nathan. Thanks for having me on this podcast. I’m Puneet from Udaipur. I run a WordPress design and development agency called Ideabox Creations, and we build premium WordPress plugins.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:04:04] As a WordPress developer Puneet clearly has an interesting technology. And I wanted to know how far back his fascination with gadgets and tech went.
Puneet Sahalot: [00:04:15] I have always been interested in technology. I remember I got my first personal computer back in 2000 so that was, that’s like almost 20 years back now. Right immediately after that, I started programming so, that was the time when I was building that business using micro… There was some software called Microsoft FrontPage, and after that I started learning C and C++.
So, I think by the age of 10 or 12 I had already started programming. So when I started learning HTML and CSS, it was from a textbook in my school and some of the reference materials from the library for C and C++. Again, there were some textbooks. So I started reading those books and I also had a tutor for C and C++. So my tutor helped me learn programming in that time. I learned, remember using Internet for learning programming. I completed my schooling in 2008 and that was the first time when I built a website which was actually live on the Internet.
Otherwise, it has always been like a hobby project and just designed it for some fun things at home or school. And in 2008 I made two websites, which are online after that for a while, for a couple of years. And then I decided to go for engineering in electronics and communication. So for the next four years I was learning electronics and communication engineering.
But at the same time, I met another blogger from my city and we started a city blog. Around 2009 or 10. So that was the first time that I got introduced to WordPress and I started working with WordPress.
Nathan Wrigley [00:05:53]: So Puneet dabbled with lots of technology as he grew up, and he first encountered WordPress. I was a little later to the party, but since I discovered it, I’ve only used WordPress for building websites. I wondered if the same were true for Puneet.
Puneet Sahalot [00:06:11]: I think for a few months I started, after I started exploring work with, I got to know about the concept of content management system. So I started exploring other things like Joomla and Drupal as well. But that was just for a few months. And then I decided to continue working with WordPress.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:06:29] Puneet now heads up the IdeaBox team. They make plugins for WordPress and have grown to 12 members. Looking back to the early days when Puneet was a solo freelancer, I asked him how he’d managed the transition from solo to team.
Puneet Sahalot: [00:06:48] When I started working as a freelancer, that was during my college days itself. I continued with that, even after completing my college. So, the good was to save some income from my earnings and then keep it as a reserve fund or just make sure that I can, I have enough money, even if I am not looking for a while. After working as a freelancer up almost four or five years, I realized that I was somehow kind of bored of working alone.
So I think I should start building a team or go work with some other company. That was the time when I realized that starting a team will be a good thing to do because I already had experience with WordPress and there were some limitations in my skill set as well. So I thought, if I have someone on the team, probably they will be able to help me do better things and do some more interesting stuff with WordPress.
So after saving some money for almost two years, I decided to invest it back into my business and to start hiring people to build a team.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:07:52] I’m only familiar with how things work in the UK but hiring someone is quite easy. I don’t mean that the ideal candidate is easy to find, but getting the word out that you have a vacancy, that’s easy. There are myriad companies and websites which will enable you to reach out to potential employees. I don’t know if the same is true in India. So I asked Puneet about his first hire.
Puneet Sahalot: [00:08:22] Our first hire was by word of mouth. Someone recommended me like, this is the person looking for a job, and this person is not very experienced with the programming, but has a decent skillset. So maybe if you can train this person, they will be able to do better in the coming time.
So that’s how it was.
And most of our hires have been through word of mouth, because another reason for that is Udaipur is a small city. It’s like a spread in a radius of five or seven kilometers. So somehow you’ll get those references or connections with everyone on your team. So it’s easier to find people that are here with word of mouth.
And yes, there are agencies who can help you hire, like more people from maybe from another city or probably from another company. So we have those kinds of setups available here as well.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:09:16] It seems like there’s a real boom happening in India right now regarding tech. I hear about new tech ideas coming out of India all the time and see many SaaS platforms and WordPress plugins being developed there. Is that the impression that Puneet has too?
Puneet Sahalot: [00:09:36] As much as I know about India, I know a lot of people who are focusing on WordPress, working with WordPress, and I know there are some amazing products which are built in India. And are respected in the WordPress ecosystem. So yes, there are a lot of people working here.
Another reason for that is because the availability of resources is so high here that if you, if you like, look for the right, the right resources and right people, you can build almost anything, or you can work with almost any kind of technology and build anything that you want. So it’s easy to find people you are looking for and groom them for the kind of work you want to do or the technology you want to work on.
And comparatively, if we talk about numbers or expenses that you would have on while building something, the cost of development or the cost of production, you can say it might be less as compared to, like, US or UK.
So even if we are going with the best of the talent in the industry, we can, like, build some good products at a decent pricing and I’ll go out there in the market. So I think that gives us an edge over everyone else.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:10:50] I’ve met many people who have WordPress agencies and often they’re very focused upon growing their team. It’s almost the raison d’être. Others that I know don’t want the team to grow at all. They’re happy as they are, and yet others didn’t intend to grow, but circumstances meant that they had to grow. It had to happen. Did Puneet identify with any of this?
Puneet Sahalot: [00:11:17] I think it had to happen. It just happened because my goal always has been like it should be a small team, which always stays connected and it’s easy to manage small teams as well. So if you hire the right people and if you are offering like, services or truly building a good product and it gives you a good income, so you don’t need to make your team size big or like hire 50 people or a hundred people and to get the work done.
There are so many companies out there which have like less than 50 or less than a hundred people on their team, but they are million or billion dollar companies.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:11:56] As I said earlier, IdeaBox is now a team of 12 people. They have developers, designers, content writers, QA and support staff. The stuff that you’d expect to find in a growing agency. Hiring staff in different parts of the world can be very different. The legalities about what employer and employee must do, holiday and sick pay requirements, dismissal arrangements. The list goes on and on. I was curious to know how Puneet thinks the system in India might differ from other parts of the world.
Puneet Sahalot: [00:12:34] There are some differences here. As much as I know, like you can set up an agreement for hiring and firing things, and then there are certain rules where you need to follow the procedure of some sort of provident fund if your company or team size is bigger than X number of employees. So that’s when that comes into action.
So as your team size increases, as your organization structure is, it depends on the kind of setup you have. So if it’s a private limited company, if it’s a limited liability partnership or it’s a sole ownership.
So there, there are variations of rules for these companies. And there are certain limitations on every kind of organization structure. I think UK or US has much more employee benefits as compared to India. I feel so sometimes.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:13:25] Prior to recording these podcast episodes, the guests often share some notes about what they’d like to discuss. In Puneet’s case, the line that caught my attention was this: great teams are built and not hired. You need to nurture and mentor them by exploring the human side instead of just seeing them as a resource. I asked Puneet just to say why he wanted to talk about this.
Puneet Sahalot: [00:13:55] When I started working alone, there was no restrictions, like I could do anything I want and I didn’t have to manage anyone. So when I moved into the situation of working with a team, it was a different experience for me because then you are working with people. Everyone on your team has a different kind of temperament, thought process, logical approach, illogical approach and everything. Or maybe emotional question, you can call it.
So when it comes to working with our team, it’s very different from what you do as a person. And I think this is something that everyone who is running an agency will be able to relate to. So I thought maybe I can talk about it and share my experience, share my learnings.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:14:42] Puneet is heading up his agency and as such, the responsibility falls on his shoulders to hire new team members. As we’ve just heard, he’s keen to ensure that he hires people so that he can nurture and mentor them along the way. But what does that actually look like? What does he do?
Puneet Sahalot: [00:15:04] I usually start with a personal interview after going through the profile. I feel like, okay, this person might be, has the kind of a skillset we are looking for.
Because when you’re going to a document, that’s all you can judge and what kinds of extracurricular activities this person has been involved in too. So I usually look for people who are high on energy, who are motivated enough, who can accept challenges or learn new things, who are open to changes.
When you start talking to them, meet them in person, and… I like to keep it very casual, so it’s like we talk more about personal life, what the person has done, how they want to grow in future or what are their plans or something like that.
There are times when you start talking to people and you start getting those vibes like this is the person I would like to work with. So that’s the first connection. So, if you get those positive vibes, it’s a good sign that you had. This might be a person, this might be a good fit for your team. And then we look at how this person can improve or work within the team. So then the next part of the interview is I would give them an assignment, which they have little bit of experience with.
So let’s see, we are hiring for someone for the position of a developer. Then I would like to talk to them about what they have done, what kind of projects they have worked on, and if they have experience with WordPress or not. So, depending on their experience with WordPress, I would give them a task or assignment, let them explore WordPress or something which they have not done so far.
So this helps us identify that this person is willing to learn, make an effort, and can understand new things. So that shows their dedication and willingness to improve and grow the team. It works really well, I think, because if you have a personal connection and if you are able to identify the person to an extent, it makes things easier to communicate. Communication is actually a key part of working with our team as well.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:17:00] I really like the idea that Puneet is interviewing people and asking them more generic questions first, trying to work out if there’s a common bond, something that seems comfortable. Whilst I’m sure that this is effective most of the time, I’m also sure that this way of doing things doesn’t always work.
Puneet Sahalot: [00:17:21] Well, no one is perfect and we all make mistakes. It happened, I think, a year back I had a couple of people on the team who I thought are very enthusiastic and will be able to do really good, but it didn’t turn out that way and then we have to, like, work out a way and let them go.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:17:40] I thought that it might be interesting to chat about what work looks like in India. In the UK most companies follow a fairly typical pattern of: start work at 9:00 AM and finish at 5:00 PM with an hour off for lunch. Repeat this Monday through Friday. From all the time I’ve heard about India, life is different in many ways. So what does work look like for Puneet and his team?
Puneet Sahalot: [00:18:10] So, this culture of five days a week has come to India like a couple of years back, only worked. I’ve been following this personally, even when I was a freelancer. So for me in five days a week has been there for me since 2010 or 2011, you can say. And I wanted the same for my team as well. So the day we started our agency. Cause then we have been following this same concept of five days a week.
Some companies here follow a pattern of alternate weekends. Like you get second Saturday and fourth Saturday off, but you have to work on the other Saturdays. Then… some companies follow a six days a week as well. And in terms of timing, for us, it’s like 40 hours a week, so it’s completely flexible. Our standard timings are like 9:30 AM to 6:30 PM but if you want to come a little late or a little early and then adjust your timings accordingly, you can do that.
So it helps them access their entire schedule as per their comfort. If I get it right, 20 years back, yeah, 20 years back, I think it was Monday through Saturday. A normal working week. Yeah. It is becoming a more, a normal thing now. Most of the ideal companies are now getting into five days a week culture, but there are still agencies which are following, like I said, alternate weekends. So you have two weekends off in a month.
So usually we do not have anyone working on the weekends. Personally, I check my emails and support emails as well at times on weekends to see if there is anything urgent which needs to be addressed. If there’s something like that, we would go and fix it or reply to that email and make sure that it’s answered in a timely manner because that’s important for our customers as well.
But yes, it definitely gives us an edge. It helps us that our customers, this is international. Most of these countries are following a five days a week culture. And when it comes to us, the kind of expectations we have to meet is almost same.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:20:11] So, we’ve talked a bit about the way that Puneet hires his staff and the kind of week that they can expect to have. I now turn to the subject of retaining staff. Keeping them happy and interested in their work, making it so that they want to do their best for IdeaBox as well as stay with the company in the longer term.
Puneet Sahalot: [00:20:36] I think everyone out there is always looking for growth, maybe in terms of money or maybe in terms of a skillset.
So if you are able to help them grow, they are going to stay with you. I’m not saying that they will always stay with you. Even when someone plans to leave and maybe start something of their own or join some different company, we are always happy to help and we are always happy to see them grow.
So if you can give that kind of positive attitude and open culture with your teammates, it, it’s easy for them, for you to retain them and to work with them.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:21:12] Puneet knows that keeping his staff interested and happy is in everyone’s best interest. He calls the progress within the company a learning path. But I wasn’t too sure what that was.
Puneet Sahalot: [00:21:27] So let’s say a new team member has joined us, and this person is new, new to WordPress or new to development. But he has some sort of experience with development, basic knowledge. And now we want to train this person and groom this person for further development and working with, with our team and our product or services.
So we know that there are certain things which need to be done and now we need to check with this person what, what their comfort level is, where their current skillset is. So someone from the team will be coordinating with them, helping them learn things one by one. Then there are certain things which you just, sometimes people, what people do is, you are given a course, here’s an online course, go through this course, learn things yourself, and do this assignment assignment at the end of the course and come to us.
So that’s one process a lot of people follow. But what we do is we keep a personal connection with them. Okay, this is the first thing you should be doing. Now, if you are facing any issues, we are here to help, help you after you are done with this. We’ll give you some sort of assignment so you feel happy about your learnings. You can implement those learnings and do that assignment and then move on to the next stage.
So everything here happens in person. And depending on what kind of skillset the person already brings in. So with someone who is new to Linux we’ll start helping them with Linux and then make them comfortable with command line interface and those things. Then we’ll teach them about things like setting up the workflow so they have a proper environment for the system on which they are working. Then we would help them with setting up their, let’s say, we use visual code. So yeah, it’s a code editor. So we help them set up code editor. Then we, we help them do other things like WordPress coding standards and everything.
So this is a step by step process and it should not be an overwhelming experience for anyone who is coming into your team. Because if you give them everything at once to learn and they have a long to-do list they will be burdened by this learning part. They will feel like they need to complete these tasks as soon as possible and get into working mode, otherwise they might lose their job or something.
So it’s important to keep your new team members comfortable, help them and keep communicating with them so that they are able to learn things, adapt things and know, do new things one by one. Otherwise, that mental stress can kill their productivity and can break their learning path as well.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:24:04] I wondered if Puneet actually allows his staff to do their learning as part of the working week time that they’re on the clock, so to speak, or is this the sort of thing that they have to pursue during their own free time?
Puneet Sahalot: [00:24:20] We are open to like all these kinds of learning programs because eventually it leads to growth, a personal growth and company growth as well. So if someone is investing their time in learning new things, it makes us feel good that this person is taking an initiative to improve themselves. And probably they will bring their learnings back to us, share their learnings with other team members, and help them do as well. So if they’re doing this, even during office hours, it’s fine, it’s good. There are no issues with that, and if they’re doing it outside of office hours, that’s completely fine as well.
We usually go from monthly meetings where we have, like, in-depth discussions about what they are doing and what they want to do in coming months or coming weeks. So those kinds of things.
Our meetings can happen once in a month. Otherwise, usually it’s every morning. We have a very, the standard kind of talk about what we are working on today and what we are going to do for the for this week or something like that. So when you are talking in-depth about their plans once in a month and what they have accomplished so far, it helps you figure out what can be a good thing for them to do in the coming weeks.
So let’s say someone who has been with us for three years as a developer. And is now showing some sort of interest in taking a lead for the entire web development cycle, or maybe taking a lead on project management. So, after having a discussion with them, I would be happy to, like, give them a chance to try this out and see if this is something they can really do.
So, if they are facing any issues, we can have ongoing discussions about how to solve those problems, how to make their process better. And if they feel uncomfortable about doing this, like probably after two months of trying out this role, they feel like, no, this is not something I want to do and I want to continue being a developer, it’s fine. They can go back to being a developer.
So, this gives them, gives everyone a chance to learn new things, to explore new things, to figure out if this is something, a good fit for them or not.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:26:32] Puneet used the word family in several places. And I think that’s quite interesting. My impression is that in India, the family has retained an importance that it has lost in the West. The ambition of a typical teenager in the UK is to get to the point where they can move out of home and be independent. It feels like this might not be true in India, that the family was still vital in people’s lives, and Puneet describing his team as a family seems to imply that this extends to work as well as to relations.
Puneet Sahalot: [00:27:10] In India, as you said, yeah, that’s right. We are, like, brought up in a way that we have a strong connection with our family and even right now, as much as I know, almost every team member, is living with their parents and family. Even if they are married or single. So that’s a part of our culture as well.
When it comes to making your team a family, it’s about establishing those connections where you can openly talk about your personal problems as well. And not just office problems or not just your career. So, and I think it’s much more easier to build that sort of relationship when your teams are small.
So if you are openly talking about everything in your life to your team members, they are also more receptive about things and they’re also more open about everything, sharing those things with you. So as you start sharing your thoughts, other than just office and work, you build a connection and a, you are not normal, like just a boss or an employee or an employer.
So that kind of morning actually helps you grow in a better way, so even if, even if we are done with our work, sometimes we don’t normally plan out or then over a small group, like two of us or three of us would go for some dinner or some dessert or anything, or we will just go for a coffee or tea or something like that. This is not something, like, official, like this is an official meeting retreat or something like that. It’s just a casual thing to do.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:28:39] Puneet mentioned that most of the people in his team are living with their parents, and again, this reinforces the idea that family is still very significant. I wondered if the model that seems to dominate elsewhere, in which you go to live where the work is, is becoming more common.
Puneet Sahalot: [00:29:00] It’s kind of going, this kind of culture we are experiencing now in India as well. Not exactly the same, but yeah, it’s mostly because of the career path. So if you’re looking for a job opportunity, you won’t find those good jobs or lucrative jobs in the small cities, and that’s why people tend to move out to metro cities, with the cities that they can have more career options.
But somehow they are still connected to their families or occasionally people are always looking for chances when they can go back home so that that connection is still there. I have a few friends who are living in different cities, but they are always looking for chances to come back home, be it in terms of some festival or some long weekends. They keep coming back in like two or three months to their home. So, different.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:29:47] When I was a child, it was still very unusual for people to be open about their mental health. Problems were ignored or brushed under the carpet. Over the last few decades this attitude has changed and we’re more open. Charities like WP&UP are helping people in this space. Perhaps this change in openness is also reflected in India. Broadly speaking, is mental health talked about or not talked about?
Puneet Sahalot: [00:30:21] I think it’s not much talked about right now. I would compare it to the nine to five business week, which took a while to come in play here. It’s working the same ways for mental health as well. Now, in the last just one or two years, I have started to see more of activity around this topic. More of discussions, more of meetups. And more of awareness around this thing. Otherwise, before this, I don’t think I’ve seen any activities around this topic or people talking about openly of this thing, but now see that things are changing, and I think it’s also because of the technology that we are more open to the information through Internet. So it’s becoming easy for people to look on, mitigate and learn new things and adapt new things. So this topic about mental health is being talked about now.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:31:11] So the topic of mental health is getting attention. Perhaps Puneet has made some changes at IdeaBox, changes to assist people who have mental health concerns.
Puneet Sahalot: [00:31:25] This is where actually the family part or the kind of family warning helps you to do better. So then usually I think it might be difficult for someone to open up about their mental health to talk about it in an organization, inside an organization to speak up about it.
But when it’s, when you have that connection with, like when you can to talk to them like a family and they come and they’re like, they are not feeling well, they are not in a good state right now, they need a break. We always make sure that they have enough time to recover from that and then get back to work.
So it’s important for them.
That’s why we all also focus on things like five days a week, 40 hours a week, and flexible timings. So if you are, if you need some rest and if you want to work late or if you work, want to work from home, you can do that as well. Because sometimes we get into that zone that where we, we can work to distract ourselves from some issues. But you don’t want to be around people. So in that case, I think work from home will be a good idea.
Sometimes because of mental health we are not able to sleep well and we might be late for office, but we don’t want that to be another stress. Like I’m late for the office, it’s going to be a half day for me. I’m late, so I should be ashamed of going to office today because I’m — it wasn’t. You have the freedom to come and go whenever you want, it helps them.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:32:50] What about the physical health side of things? I was keen to hear from Puneet about the kinds of activities that are popular in India activities which promote physical health.
Usually people here go for gym. Then a lot of people also go for morning walks. The running, I have not seen a lot of people doing that here. But your morning walks and gyms are the most common things people do. Cycling is also another thing, which is mostly based on interest groups. So if you can find a group of people who are interested in cycling, would go for weekend trips or something like that.
But that’s rare. Most common things are gym and morning walks.
We have two team members who go for gym together in morning or evening, I don’t know. But yes, they go for gym. And I also go for gym. There is another team member who goes and goes for gym in the evening, so like four or five of us, five of us are actively working out.
It’s also a kind of a stress buster. Personally, if I’m kind of stressed, I would go for heavy lifting at the gym. It’s like you can see yourself grow. That’s how I see it. Like when you’re working out and you are pushing yourself to do something better, just by lifting the weights, you know this is how you go beyond your limits.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:34:05] To finish off, I asked Puneet to share his vision for the future of IdeaBox. What are the plans that he has in his mind for the company moving forwards?
Puneet Sahalot: [00:34:17] I think I’m quite happy with what we have accomplished so far. We are doing really good. There’s always, always room for growth. There’s always a scope for doing more things but it should not come at the cost of your mental peace.
So I draw a line where I think, where I can manage things to an extreme, and I think that has reached almost for me. I would not go for anything more than 15 team members at this position right now. Maybe if we have a better structure, maybe if we come up with something new where I don’t have to worry about everyone on the team when there’s some sort of different structure set up, I might be open to making it even bigger, but right now this is what I’m happy with.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:35:17] One of the purposes of the PressForward podcast is to lift the lid on topics that don’t get talked about enough. To allow people to share their stories, so that other people might listen, and by listening, they may gain an understanding that they’re not alone.
There are other people out there who have faced the same situations that you are facing. They have found a way through and can offer support to you on your journey. Maybe that person is already in your life, but they might not be. And that’s what WP and UP is here for, to connect you with the support that you need.
So, if you’re able to, please help us, so that we can continue to support the WordPress community. You can donate at wpandup.org/donate/.
That’s it for this week. Please let us know if you’re enjoying the podcast. If you’re finding it useful or helpful, you can reach out to us at wpandup.org/contact/. There’s a serious point to all of this and that is that WP&UP is here to provide help and support. That help is available to you or the people that you know and can be easily accessed at the wpandup.org website.
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