Episode 16: Alison Knott


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Hallway Chats: Episode 16 - Alison Knott

Introducing Alison Knott

Growing up as an extroverted nerd has paid off. Alison is a community leader and artist with a passion for WordPress. Her mission is to delight and engage people through raising the bar on web literacy. She is controlled by two tiny parrots.

Show Notes

Website | http://eraserheader.com
Twitter | @Eraserheader
Instagram | @drawstrange
Other mentions:
Meagan Hanes: http://meaganhanes.com/
East Coast Creative Collective: http://e3chalifax.ca/
‘The Artists Way’: http://juliacameronlive.com/books-by-julia/the-artists-way-a-spiritual-path-to-higher-creativity/
Johnny Cupcakes: https://johnnycupcakes.com/
WordPress Halifax Meetup: http://www.meetup.com/WordPress-Halifax

Episode Transcript

Liam: This is Hallway Chats, where we talk with some of the unique people in and around WordPress.

Tara: Together, we meet and chat with folks you may not know about in our community.

Liam: With our guests, we’ll explore stories of living – and of making a living with WordPress.

Tara: And now the conversation begins. This is episode 16.

Tara: Welcome to Hallway Chats, I’m Tara Claeys.

Liam: And I’m Liam Dempsey. Today, we’re joined by Alison Knott. Growing up as an extroverted nerd has paid off. Alison is a community leader and artist with a passion for WordPress. Her mission is to delight and engage people through raising the bar on web literacy. She is controlled by two tiny parrots. Hi, Alison.

Alison: Good morning.

Tara: Hello Alison, welcome. Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself besides that really creative and awesome introduction that Liam just gave?

Alison: Hahaha, sure, no problem. The birds let me out of my cage today so I can come and chat with you guys. I am a proud Canadian hailing from Halifax on the one side of the Eastern Seaboard of Canada, and I am a– I guess I’m kind of the go-to lady locally for WordPress and for just basically keeping communities together. I run a variety of things from artist meetups, I run a WordPress Meetup. I ran the first WordPress conference east of Montreal and essentially I really enjoy watching people become educated around the web. I think so many people use it but they don’t know– it’s like we’re all driving cars but we have no idea it has wheels. You just get from A to B. And I like to help people understand what’s going on there so that they don’t get frustrated and those of us that are professionals have a better time working with everybody because we’re all on the same page, that’s me.

Liam: That is excellent. What an intro! Thank you. There’s so much to unpack there and I really want to dive into it, but first, we’ve got to talk about the parrots. Is that cabal of evil, is it a coincidence? Tell us about the parrots.

Alison: The parrots are– that’s more like a personal story. When I was going through separation, basically– which is totally fine, we’re both still totally cool friends. My friend at the time, who would eventually become my boyfriend, he had owned birds before and he got two green cheek conures which are the little tiny green guys that are six inches tall. They’re the ‘quietest’ birds you can get. It’s not true, birds are loud. So when I separated from my husband and I got my own space, I thought, “Oh, what a great pet that would make.” I got one but then me and my boyfriend got together and his female and my male got together, and now there’s two humans and now two birds. Regretfully, we lost one two years ago, he was a very sick bird. But there’s four of us in a one-bedroom apartment, we all work from home and somehow we still manage. He does Twitch streaming of animation and I do Facebook live broadcasts with two parrots in the same room. It’s pretty nuts. They’re fantastic animals if you have the time and energy for them.

Tara: That’s impressive, all of that in one apartment going on. It’s a busy place.

Alison: Sure. I’d say messy but you can say busy. Hahaha.

Liam: I feel like that’s an entire podcast, not just an episode, but entire show in itself right there.

Alison: It is. People always want to see the birds when I do my Facebook live sessions and I’m like, “If you want them, you got them, but their baby squawks will pierce any microphone equipment and they want to just basically chew all of my video equipment to pieces.” But they’re fun, people love them. I think people don’t get an experience to be that close to birds that talk to them. And they’re very social, I didn’t know that. I was a cat person, I had no idea birds could be that emotionally capable of everything from loving you to being offended. You can offend a bird. If you go to a pet store and the bird turns its back on you, it’s literally giving you the cold shoulder, it does not like you. That’s what birds do, they just go, “Pff, screw you.” And they turn around. Who knew?

Liam: We do now, thank you.

Tara: Sounds like they have something in common with cats then too. Hahaha.

Alison: Yep. More similar than we thought, even though they’re the arch enemies, as personified by Tom & Jerry cartoons. Haha.

Liam: Hahaha. Alison, you talked to– I’m getting a little bit more on track here. You talked a lot about community organization and how you do that not only with and through the WordPress community but elsewhere around art as well. Can you talk to us about how you got into community organization in the first place, and how over time, if that was over time, that led you to WordPress and how you do that then within the WordPress community?

Alison: Okay, sure. I think at the core, growing up as a kid, I was a bit of an outcast and I kind of found my way through art and through theater in that. It was interesting to find like-minded people. I always told myself when I got older I would never let anyone else be in the position where they were in a group and felt outside of that group. Through there, my first endeavor was E3C, it’s the East Coast Creative Collective and that is a monthly meetup that’s five years old now in Halifax and it is not networking, it is simply a fellowship group. We hang out at a local pub for five years religiously. And it’s a space for artists of all skill levels to hang out and just get to know each other. As opposed to going to a place where it’s have a business card and be like, “Hey, I’m a designer, can I get work from you?” It’s more about, “Hey, I’m new at this and I heard I need to do taxes. How do I do that?” Or, “I’m having a client problem.” Or even, “Look at these awesome pens I’ve bought. Who else wants to play with these $30 pens?” And people really responded to that. They responded to a lowkey thing where they can be themselves and yet still foster friendships, relationships, jobs, opportunities, right from the– we’re a very small city here in Halifax. Often, decision makers are your friend’s roommates, there’s no HR person that’s gatekeeping a place you want to work. You’re pretty much talking to the CEO or CTO right on– that was going well, I was working at a small studio and they basically– I had done web for years, I used to be GeoCities, I had like the second largest Tedy Ruxpin fan page on the planet when I was 16. I know. Super famous over here if you’re into that stuff. And they said, “Go learn WordPress. You’re a designer but we want you to learn WordPress.” I build it through Lynda.com, never used it. They were like, “Here, you know code, do it.” And I liked it and so did our clients. I was kind of bored and I was like, “I want to go somewhere. I want to do something different.” I saw this thing called WordCamp and I was like, “I’ve been to creative conferences but I’ve never been to one pertinent to a platform.” So I went to WordCamp Montreal and to sound like a converted, it changed my life. I have found a space where people were like me, they were willing to give away all their information and talk openly and positively about something. People were learning and they were sharing and they were– It is Montreal, it’s a wicked city to ever go to. So I came back and I said, “I have to bring this to Halifax.” I started the meetup and the rest is history. People respond and then they pay it forward in kind. It’s one thing to have people come to your event, something else to have someone who’s shy or feels like they’re not capable and they come back and they show someone else something. To me, that’s the spirit, right?

Tara: It’s amazing how many people that we’ve have who had similar sentiments about WordCamps that I’ve said we should be sponsored by WordCamps because so many people have that story and we came– the name of this podcast is Hallway Chats because I think Liam and I met at a WordCamp or a meetup and we found that that’s really the sentiment of the community that we love. I’m glad to hear that you’ve had that experience with WordCamp as well. The Halifax WordCamp, was it just recently that you had your first one or have you had it for a while?

Alison: Yes, we had it May and we had fantastic–

Liam: Congratulations.

Alison: Oh, thank you. Yes, it was a lot of work but it paid off. I was the only person in the entire group that’s ever been to a WordCamp. I had a wonderful gal by the name of Megan Haines. She was from Ottawa, she was our mentor and she showed up physically, she was there with us. It went really well, it was really positive. The two biggest takeaways I got from it, number one was that the speakers that were national that came said they were astounded by the literacy of the dev track. They were getting really high-level advanced questions of the developers of Halifax so that was cool. We didn’t know that locally here we have a really huge depth group that they want to know more. And then the other one was people were saying, “We had no idea that this was your first one. It was run so well.” I think planning is of the essence and people are just dying for it here. People were going to the swag tables and they were like, “This is free?” Like, “Yes, Halifax. It’s all free, take it. You pay 25 bucks, you get everything.” People are not used to that up here so it went really well, more than I ever could have hoped for. How about that?

Tara: That’s great. It speaks a lot to your organizational skills but also talk a little bit about how the WordPress community and the WordCamp mentors that you said that you had, how they interacted with you?

Alison: Okay. I would say I’m going to write a blog post about this. It’s in draft but a huge, huge shout outs to Megan Haynes. And the reason being is that you are a volunteer with volunteers and unless you were all, for example, Alison types that can run a– you have a variety of personalities and everyone can only give as much time or energy or they have certain skill sets. And I think having a great mentor is important because ultimately– we had three leads but ultimately if you’re not familiar with the WordCamp or familiar with what it’s like to wrangle volunteers to find the time and get all these assets together. That mentorship is key and I think that anybody who’s thinking of mentoring a WordCamp should not enter into it lightly. I’m a huge proponent of mentorship in a variety of ways. Mentorship isn’t handing out advice when it’s ideal to you, mentorship is making sure that the person you mentor– they’re called mentees, I call them padawans because mentees sounds like a toothpaste brand. But you want to make sure that they are supported and that you’re giving them the tools. I don’t think– it got tough sometimes to wrangle things and without Megan’s support I felt like, who mentors the mentor in that sense? Everyone looks to you as the leader of WordCamp to get it all right but you need some old experience. Anybody who’s listening who’s been thinking about mentoring a WordCamp, I think you have the power to do it. Just know that you ask your padawan what they want and together you can achieve a lot. Support means more than anything. You can take a great thing that happens, you can take a terrible thing like if your venue doesn’t come through. Way easier if you feel supported by someone who’s like, “Man, I got your back, I got your bum. We’re set.”

Tara: It’s an impressive structure, I think, that has been put together when you have an open source community and people are contributing. You still need to have some organization and ground rules and keep things consistent, and I think they’ve done a really excellent job in the community part of make WordPress in terms of mentoring but also finding people who are jumping in to help and follow the rules, so that’s great.

Alison: And between different countries, too, which really impresses me. Up here in Canada, we have different thinking methods and we have different– but different regions have concepts of taxes and what’s appropriate for deposits. Somehow it just speaks to the global view of open source in WordPress, right? We all figure it out even though it’s timezones and different ideas of what good catering looks like. I love it, it’s so interesting.

Liam: Alison, that was a really interesting point around the uniqueness of WordCamp. Even the different flavors that happen in one country, on one side a country as big as Canada, east versus west kind of thing, and everything in between. And then we take that to the US and cultures even beyond and it’s really unique, all the different flavors that happened and bring them out. Yeah, there’s still that commonality of sharing an open message, which makes them really special. I want to ask you within this context of what you do both professionally and personally is to tell us what your definition of success is, and you can give us a personal definition, a professional definition. Or maybe you have a definition that overarches both.

Alison: Sure. The personal and the professional definitely change from time to time. I think the overarching one is, to me success is anything you’ve given or thought someone they are able to successfully pay it forward. Not that if they don’t do it by rote or they do it the way that they do is wrong, but there’s so much power. To me, there’s nothing worse than when something falls flat. As in, someone comes to your event or they buy your product, you work together, and that’s the end of it, it has no lifespan past whatever it is you’ve completed. To me, success is when something lives on. It’s the idea of legacy, and I don’t mean legacy in, “I’m going to be famous.” Or, “I’m going to have 50 billion thousand Twitter followers.” That stuff’s so finite. To me, success is whatever we– we’re all a collection of our past experiences. And then another person, aka, another glob of experience comes to you and you glob together, and out of you comes a glob of experience, and it’s just globbings happening all over the place. To me, that’s success. Money only goes so far. I live in the eastern part of Canada where money does not go very far at all. I stopped banging my head against that success. Numbers of followers and in a world that’s full of funnels, and influencers, and all these other things, you’re fine. But to me, that success is no good if people do not take what you do and move it forward and influence, inspire or educate other people. To me, that would be personal and professional as well. Am I going to have a room full of 50,000 people chanting my name while I run around and jump up in a little tiny trampoline on stage? Probably not, I don’t care, I don’t care. What I care is the five people who felt that they came to see me or came to my meetups, whether artists or web people, that they have a problem and they walk out feeling capable of solving it and having power within them. Man, I’ve done my job. I can sleep at night, let’s have a beer. It’s done.

Tara: Yeah, that makes sense. How do you find that that translates, though, into working for yourself and running a business? Paying it forward, it’s great, and I think sometimes that helps get your name out there and help your business grow. Obviously, you have bills to pay so can you tell us a little bit about how you run your business, how you market your business, and even though money isn’t part of your success definition necessarily, I’m just curious about how you incorporate your philosophy into running a business and making a living?

Alison: Sure. My making a living is quite low. I have very little expenses, I live– there’s a reason we live in a one-bedroom apartment with our birds. We like low overhead, and I would be lying if I said that I am flush with cash and I’m able to do whatever I want because I can say, “I’m coming out of divorce, I’m coming out of a variety of things.” For me, it’s tough, I’m not going to lie. There’s not a way personally, I feel, that you can give so much away and yet, reap so much in an amount of cash. Essentially, what my methodology is things like Facebook Ads, really obtainable, easy to track advertising is great because it affords me a way of reaching people I wouldn’t ordinarily. I do a weekly Facebook live video session and I give away like– within 15 minutes we cover a tiny topic. I’ve had friends of friends of friends, this is a small city again, who come in and say, “You’re the gal on video and I saw you, and I’m so impressed of what you gave away. What can you do for a price?” I think in this day, the web is being so commoditized that we can’t really just show our guns in our technical abilities anymore because there’s always someone who can do it for a cheaper price. My methodology is I’m selling myself. I’m selling my openness and my willingness to have them feel prepared, and then I plant their seeds and then they come back because they know enough, they read enough, and they go, “You know what? I want to run my business.” Here Alison, come back.” I do quite a bit of retainership with various clients. Yeah, we’ll build a website but that’s not my end goal. My end goal is I’m with them every month, I’m watching their audience change and helping them to create different campaigns. I have a graphic design background, first and foremost, so I’m able to marry those two together. But is it going to be as lucrative as doing passive income? Probably not, which is why I recommend people diversify. Don’t just do passive income, don’t just– that’s why I teach locally at the Community College here and at the Art University as well as do WordPress as well as teach my own workshops. I think that’s it. I’d love to say there’s a secret sauce to it but I didn’t choose the path and as long as I’m paying my bills, I’m fine.

Tara: Where would you say that you see yourself, or what are your goals and where do you see yourself in the coming years? In a year or five years on that trajectory of paying it forward, and teaching, and helping others. I would think that would be something that would be exponential for you.

Alison: Yeah, I guess for me, my roots are growing here locally and I love it. But I would love to– I do speak nationally at other WordCamps. I would love to dip into the States, I would love to go more abroad and show a Canadian flair just like we Canadians love it when we watch a TED Talk from somebody who was in Australia or something to that amount. I think for me, travel’s great, who doesn’t want to travel? But I want to see the pain points, I want to see the conversations that are happening outside of my Atlantic bubble, and I want to see how I can bring some perspective and what perspective people can bring to me. So in a year, I hope that people– I would love it if they say, “I hear you’re fun and entertaining.” I bring candy when I do talks. I don’t know if you ever heard of a guy named Johnny Cupcakes. He sells t-shirts, that’s all he does. But what he does is he makes it such a free and delightful thing that you don’t care what the price of the t-shirt is. When you go into his shops they smell like bakeries. He gives away candy bars. He sometimes sells– you think you’re buying a t-shirt and you actually get cupcakes, even though you think he’s a t-shirt shop. He spoke at FITC two years ago and he just said, “Man, that’s why I love that. Don’t you want to be delighted every day?” Who’s like, “No man, I don’t want to be delighted. I’d like to be blase.” Come on, right?

Liam: Hahaha. Let me ask you then. I love that phrase, I’d be delighted every day. How are you organizing yourself? How do you keep yourself delighted every day? What kind of sanity mechanisms, focus mechanisms meant to emotional wellbeing, all the wellbeings that matter to you, how do you do that?

Tara: And what part do the birds play in that too?

Alison: Okay. The birds can be loud but they’re very funny. You can teach them phrases. Honestly, I forget this all the time myself but when I become uncentered, to center myself I’m an artist and I draw out of adult material. I draw boobs and I draw genitalia. To keep me delighted, this sounds crazy but I try to ruootmyself in the computer and I do that first love that keeps me going that no one can say, “You didn’t do that SEO proper.” Or, “The syntax of your drawing isn’t right.” And it’s just for me. If I put it on Instagram, cool, and I just like picking out material because I find people are funny-looking and there’s enough beautiful artists who draw things very perfectly and I like wonky, I don’t know, genitalia, and people’s knees, old pin-ups, and stuff. You guys are like, “Why do we ever have this lady come on the show?” But that’s what I do. I delight myself of removing myself from the everyday and putting me in a space that no one can tell me I’m doing it wrong and it delights me. The funny thing is people like to look at it. It often delights other people as well. Who would have thought? Doing that, I think, talking with people, getting outside. There’s a really great book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and that’s just a book where it’s got a lot of religious references. But if you just want to put God aspect of that book aside and listen to what she has to say, she’s like, “We have a little artist child inside of us that wants to be delighted. And at the end of the day what matters, people at the end of their life, they regret the things they didn’t do.” To me, I just like to be delighted with the little things, whether it’s drawing, being yelled at by a six-inch parrot, or being outside and just being with friends and being in the moment. It’s such a hippy thing to say but it’s true, it works.

Tara: I think it makes a lot of sense, everybody has to find what delights them, right? It’s different for everyone. Out of all those things that you do, is there one single thing that you would say is the most important thing that you do every day?

Alison: The most important thing that I do. Out of those, I wouldn’t say they’re important as far as every day. I guess out of that, I would say it’s important, I know better, I know I should draw more but I don’t because sometimes there’s an RFP you have to answer or there’s a workshop I have to run. Then I’ll do that and then you keep going because you want, you do need money, you do need to setup advertising. Then I’ll be all flustered, and of course, boyfriend who’s the animator is like, “Man, when’s the last time you drew a boobie?” I’m like, “Oh, you’re right. I haven’t drawn a boobie. I should go draw that. That’s why I’m uncentered.” You can handle so much more if you draw someone, or in my case anyways. But from a larger perspective, I firmly believe that the most important thing is to tell the people you love you love them. I know this isn’t very “WordpPressy” but you never know, right? Because if you’re in a position where you tell someone you love them but you’re like, “I love you.” Then no one’s working with that. Usually, if you’re going to tell someone you love them, you’re both going to feel pretty good about it. That’s important, that’s the most important thing, love each other.

Tara: I think that inspires. It’s a roundtrip thing, right? You do that and it comes back to you so I think that’s a good important thing to refer to.

Liam: I agree, you can never let people know too much or too often that you love them. I think that’s fantastic, and once you get used to doing it, it feels great to say it and it also feels great to hear that back, that, “I love you too.” And it’s just nice and it’s confirmation, it’s affirmation, it’s rewarding in its own way.

Alison: And you can’t get that from followers, you can’t get that from executing a code, right? You can have followers who do love you, they’re from far away, but the immediate people– again, you’re a big glob of experiences, those immediate people feeding you with this big glob of experience, they’re the ones that are going to allow you to feel you can accomplish anything really.

Liam: Absolutely. Let me ask you this, and this is one of our main questions and maybe our primary question. Alison, what’s the single most valuable piece of advice that you have ever received and incorporated into your life?

Alison: Ooh, the most valuable piece of advice I ever received and incorporate it into your life. my mother, years ago, said, “Don’t be a sheep and follow the herd, be a goat and do your own thing.” And I have held on to that my entire life. It came from being a lonely child outside but never losing faith in what I wanted to do, when all of my designer friends were still doing print and I was getting into web, and they were like, “What are you doing? That’s for–” I’m 33, so back in the day when you were doing that, it was like, people went into webs like, “Robotics was code.” You didn’t make money, the .com had exploded, knowing the .com boom was gone, you didn’t do that. When I wanted to run an artist meetup, E3C people said you have to charge for the event and you have to have sponsors. I said, “No, I don’t.” Not everything I’ve done has worked out but I can always safely say at the end of the day, I did it because it’s what felt right to me and the right people were attracted to that because they too, were people who do what they want to do. And it’s the most valuable advice, it makes you stand out from a business sense and it makes people find your– the authenticity is a big word, it’s like, “Oh, it’s a really hot trend in 2017.” I’m like, “Screw trend of authenticity.” No one’s ever said, “You know what’s going to trend this year? Total bogusness. It’s so hot.”

Liam: Hahahaha.

Alison: “Fake is hot. Sell fake.” Yeah, be yourself.

Liam: Maybe in the ’80s it did. Maybe in the ’80s it did.

Alison: Haha, true. I know – the hair color. But yeah, that would be the biggest piece of advice is don’t follow. Understand parameter but be a goat, do your own thing because you have to live with it at the end of the day. No one else does, you do.

Tara: Kudos to your mom for that. As a mom, I would say that’s the kind of thing that you want your child to incorporate into their philosophy. We want our kids to– I want my kids to forge their own path and not follow others. Your mom did a good job in instilling that in you and you did a good job in living it because a lot of the times kids don’t do what their parents say. Haha.

Liam: Alison, before we wrap up here and say goodbye to you, it was an absolute pleasure to have you on the show. Really, really enjoyed it.

Alison: Oh, thanks. I appreciate what you guys do here, thank you so much for running a pure true hallway track. I need more, more, more.

Tara: Well, you’re super fun to talk to. I hope I get to meet you in an actual hallway.

Alison: Hahaha.

Liam: Can you share where people can find you online if they don’t live in Halifax and bump into you in your relatively small town as you described it?

Alison: Sure. You can find me – it’s not a David Lynch reference, although he is a phenomenal artist – Eraserheader.com. It’s eraser, like the thing on the pencil that you can draw naked parts with, and header, as in the part of a website. Eraserheader.com, you can find me on Twitter. And if you really just want to check out all these body parts I’m talking about, I am on Instagram as DrawStrange. Of course, Instagram’s a bit picky about that stuff so the more– the calm items are up on there. If you are wondering what I do to center myself, you can go look at the insanity that is all my drawings on Instagram. EraserHeader or DrawStrange, you will find this hot mess at all of those locations.

Tara: Great, thank you.

Liam: Thank you so much.

Tara: Thanks for joining us, Alison.

Alison: Thank you guys, I wish you much success in this and keep it up. You keep being your own goats with this because I think we need more of these personal podcasts online that people resonate with them. They need it to cool down from all their funneling.

Tara: Right. Thank you.

Liam: Thanks, Alison, bye.

Tara: Bye, bye.

Alison: Cheers, guys.

Liam: Thanks for the listening to the show. We sure hope you enjoyed it much as we did.

Tara: If you like what we’re doing here – meeting new people in our WordPress community – we invite you to tell others about it. We’re on iTunes and at hallwaychats.com.

Liam: Better yet, ask your WordPress friends and colleagues to join us on the show. Encourage them to complete the “Be on the show” form on our site, to tell us about themselves.

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