A conversation with Chris Coyier

Chris Coiyer at home

Hey Chris, in case anybody don’t know who you are, how would you introduce yourself in three sentences?

I write about the web at CSS-Tricks. I talk about the web on ShopTalk. I am co-founder of the web app CodePen.

Okay, great. So that’s the present. Let’s dive into the past.
Where are you originally from and how did you get into web development?

I’m from the winter wonderland that is Wisconsin (north central United States). I lived there until I was 27. Through college and my first couple of jobs. My last job in Wisconsin was for a small design agency and I got to the be sole web designer/developer. We had a lot of web clients so I was learning fast how to build and maintain websites. I started CSS-Tricks during that time. I’m 32 now, so in the past five years I’ve lived in five states: Wisconsin, Oregon, Illinois, Florida, and California.

Oh, that was a lot of moving. I imagine that wasn’t that much fun, was it?
Last year before you switched to CSS-Tricks full time you were working at Wufoo, an online form builder. I have to say I don’t like coding forms very much and I haven’t met anyone who does. So did you like working there and how was it like to constantly deal with forms?

Going to work for Wufoo was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Before I worked there I was already a super fan. Like you, I also don’t like coding forms very much. I used Wufoo for every form I needed, client and personal. When I got the job offer, I jumped at the opportunity. It got me out of Chicago, which I wasn’t loving at the time. Wufoo was in Tampa, Florida, which I ended up liking a lot. The team at Wufoo was awesome. Many of my best friends today were/are from Wufoo. It was a pleasure to work with such smart, good people. Everything about it was great: great people, great product, great working style, great location. If it sounds like I’m gushing, I am. Even though it isn’t actively developed anymore, it is still actively maintained. There is still no better form builder out there and I still use it for every non core web app form I need.

Sounds great! So the obvious question is, why did you leave Wufoo?

Wufoo sold to SurveyMonkey in April 2011. The entire team moved out West to work out of their offices. SurveyMonkey is a great place to work too, but it wasn’t the same after that. Everyone was pulled off Wufoo right away and put on different teams. What made working for Wufoo great was melting away for me, so I decided to leave and go off on my own.

So if I remember this right, you are on you own since the beginning of 2012, right? How is it going so far and are you doing client work as the typical freelancer would do? Or is it “just” CSS-Tricks and CodePen which keep you afloat?

Yep it was April 2012. No client work for me. I don’t have the chops for it. Good freelancers are great at making clients happy. They can guide clients through their process, hold their hands (so to speak) through difficult things, and steer them towards the best decisions with grace. I don’t have that grace or that much patience. It’s noble work, I salute anyone who does it.

I have my big three things like I mentioned at the top: CodePen, CSS-Tricks, and ShopTalk. At the moment, CSS-Tricks is the big earner for me, which is no surprise as I’ve been chugging away at it for over five years. But all three of them turn a profit now. CodePen has the biggest potential and I’m very excited about that. The team and I are working or butts off on it so we can turn it into the site (and business) we know it can be.

Okay, I can totally understand that. But not everybody has the chance to make a living from their blog. But let’s assume someone tries to monetize his blog to someday maybe live from it. What would be you advice, since you’ve successfully done it?

I’m sure there are a number of different ways to approach it, but they all start with getting an audience. That’s means a lot of writing over a long period. I don’t believe there is any shortcut to that. Then once you have an audience, you’ll need to make money off the traffic they provide. The most traditional way to do that is display advertising. But you could also have a subscription model for the content you write, or a subscription for some of it. You could use affiliate networks and take commission on sales. You could do sponsored posts. You could sell a product of your own. You could ask for donations. Most likely, you’ll do a combination of several of these. I don’t think you need a master plan to guide you. Just try different things and keep writing. Through persistance, you’ll get to the point of being able to live from it.

Yeah, that sounds right. I think you’re doing a great job at CSS-Tricks, btw.
Let’s talk a bit about CodePen. For those you don’t know it: What is it and how came it about? Who are your Co-Founders?

I think of CodePen as a playground for front end code. You might come there for inspiration. To browse different ways people have built, for example, breadcrumb navigation. You might come there to build something yourself, to show off some cool new thing you built and to get feedback on it. You might come because you’re having a problem with some code and want to demonstrate the bug to someone with easy to edit code. We also have PRO accounts that open up a number of features and there is more focus on education. For instance, our Professor Mode gives you a classroom where students can watch you code things live, as well as chat with you and fellow students, in real time.

Alex Vazquez, Tim Sabat, and I are all equal co-founders. We worked at Wufoo together, then we all moved out to California together as well when the SurveyMonkey acquisition happened. We’re all still out here in California for the time being. We all have different skill sets. Tim is more back end and server oriented. Alex is front end and back end engineer. I’m front end with more design focus.

It’s great to build something with friends rather than people you barely know.
If I’m right, you guys don’t have an office. So how is working together over the distance? Do you meet from time to time to discuss important things in person? Do you use any tools to help stay organized and informed about what the others are working on? We at QUOTE.fm for example are using Basecamp to stay organized and IRC for communication.

We all live in the same area for now and you’re right, we don’t have an office. The other two guys are full time at SurveyMonkey, so it would be a pretty baron office anyway. Every Tuesday we go to lunch and talk about what’s happening that week. It’s a good routine that keeps us all in check. We meet at the same place at the same time and sit at the same table with the same waitress and order the same thing. It’s what we talk about that’s always different. We learned this at Wufoo where we also only had a meeting once a week on a schedule. We all work best left alone most of the time, but the face to face meeting is crucial to set priorities and clear away blockers. For mid-week communication it’s a combination of chat (we often use CodePen Collab Mode), email, and a lot of GitHub issues. I’m likely going to be moving back to my home state of Wisconsin in a few months so we’re going to have to make a special effort to plan get togethers pretty soon. Google Hangouts work pretty well though as well, which we use a lot when someone is out of town.

I like having a routine like that.
Why do you want to go back to Wisconsin? Had enough sunny days? Just kiddin’.

A bunch of reasons really. My family is in Wisconsin so that’ll be nice. It’s a lot less expensive to live than silicon valley, so that’s nice as my income is down since going off on my own. I have a bunch of friends there as well. And a change of pace is always nice. I haven’t lived in the same place longer than about a year and a half since I’ve been 17.

Wow, that’s really not that long. So maybe Wisconsin is where you can really settle down, again. Hope everything works out quite nice. :) Let’s talk about ShopTalkShow for a moment. I’m a fan and am looking forward to every episode, so thanks guys. How did the podcast come about and how do you know Dave Rupert?

I think I knew Dave from the internet basically and then ran into him at a few different conferences. I had been wanting to do a podcast but knew I didn’t have the time or skills to do it all on my own. Dave just up and asked me one day and I jumped at the chance.

We split up the work it takes to make it happen. It’s quite a bit really, between booking guests, communicating with advertisers, managing the incoming questions, the ever-changing equipment and tech to record the shows and broadcast live, post-editing the show, and handling the website. We’ve always tried to go with the choices that involve the least amount of effort, since we’re both very busy, but it still takes a good amount of time to get it all done and be consistent about it.

I hope both of you will always find time for the show in the future.
Since you don’t go to an office every day, do you have any tips for working from home? Or what are possible problems that can come up? I for one would like to work from the comfort of my home but maybe I just don’t see the problems which can come with it.

The traditional thinking is that working at home is difficult because there are all these distractions around you (My XBOX is right over there…) or that there is nobody looking over you, ready to scold you for slacking off. Personally I don’t find this to be true. I enjoy my work so I prefer to be doing it than anything else. I literally can’t watch a movie in the middle of the day, because I’d get bored of it and go get my laptop and start doing stuff. Toward the end of the day I do start to feel “done” and do other things though (most days). If you love what you do, I don’t think you’ll have any problem working from home. If you’re luke warm on your work (or sadly, don’t like it) working from home is going to be tough. You might want to stay at the office so you can be forced to actually do your job. Hopefully while planning to move to something you’ll enjoy more.

Okay, that’s how I see it, too.
Recently I thought about looking around dribbble and then coding one of the awesome shots I would find. Have you thought about collaborating with the guys from dribbble in any way? I think there are many cool crossovers possibilities.

We’re happy to look at any kind of integration possibility. Dribbble is fantastic and really helped light the way in many ways for CodePen. At the moment we have a huge list of things we want to work on that will keep us busy for quite a while, so we’re not actively developing any specific integrations.

This brings up a point worth mentioning about integrations. When I was at Wufoo I did a lot of the talking with other apps about integration possibilities and now it’s happening at CodePen with more regularity. A lot of apps have have business development people who’s job it is to grow business through partnerships. I’m sure there are some great biz dev people out there, but in my experience these people are a waste of time. They want to get on the phone and “blue sky” some possibilities (that end up going nowhere). Real stuff gets done when developers talk to developers about big ideas. If you desire an integration of your app with another, come to them with a fully formed (yet flexible) ideas and the promise to do actual work to get it done.

What are your plans for CodePen on “mobile/small screens”?

At the moment we’re just chipping away at it. For instance when I redesigned the profile pages I made sure they were happily responsive. Most of the site, layout-wise, shouldn’t be too hard to make work on small screens. The code editor itself will be more tricky. I have yet to figure out exactly the best way to handle that. It will come though. And then making sure all the functionality bits work with touch. We have a number of menus that are hover-revealed that will need some attention.

Okay, yeah, I can’t really imagine myself coding on a smartphone or tablet.
So Chris, we talked a lot about your work projects, but what are you doing if you are not working? In case that even happens. :D

I play the banjo. Just recreationally now, but I’d like to get back into a gigging band someday. Otherwise I’m pretty normal. I like TV and movies. I like American football. I like hitting the pub. I like video games.

Cool, what video games are you playing at the moment? I’m really into Battlefield 3 on the XBox and looking into buying a windows pc for gaming only.

I play Starcraft 2 pretty regularly with friends. Looking forward to the Heart of the Swarm release. I’ve also been playing Guild Wars 2 a bunch. About to the hit the level cap and get into more pvp and wvw stuff.

I played SC2 as it came out but relatively fast lost interest because only one of my friends played it.
So what does a typical day in your life look like?

On a normal day at home, I get up about 7:30am. I generally set the computer down for good around 9:00pm and unwind with some TV before hitting the sack around 10:00pm. Pretty normal schedule. That’s a lot of work hours, but I break it up constantly with little breaks to play with the dog, make meals, do chores, have meetings, etc. It’s a lot of work hours but I don’t feel like I work particularly hard.

Nice, so thank you Chris for taking the time out of your day for making this interview possible. I really appreciate it and I hope we’ll someday might meet in person on a conference or so. I wish you all the best for CSS-Tricks, CodePen and ShopTalkShow.

9 Comments

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  4. Tim

    Tuesday, 12 February 2013 at 16:44

    The end was very cool and funny to me. Thanks for the interview :)

  5. Michael

    Tuesday, 12 February 2013 at 22:19

    Great interview–it answered a lot of questions about Chris, a guy who I admire a lot for his skills and ideas. I think a lot of what he’ll owe his success to is just coming across as such a nice guy who sincerely wants to be helpful. That, and knowing his stuff and being diligent about getting it on the web, like he said. You can’t do a search for anything anymore it seems without his face popping up in the first few search results :-) .

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  7. Florian

    Sunday, 17 February 2013 at 09:42

    Nice Interview, thanks. <3

  8. alasda asdam

    Sunday, 3 March 2013 at 14:36

    wow! many thanks for that incredible post. I actually liked it to your main. Hope you retain posting these amazing article conten

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