Innovating from India: Shilpa Shah of Hummingbird Web Solutions

Today, we have the privilege to speak with Shilpa Shah, co-founder of Hummingbird Web Solutions, a WordPress focused company with over 60 employees based out of Pune, India. Hummingbird Web Solutions sells several WP products such as SlideDeck and CyberChimps, and they’re also behind WPEka, a very popular WordPress, SEO and Marketing Blog. In this interview, Shilpa shares her experience as a WP business owner based in India and a highly active female member of the WordPress community.

Shilpa, thank you so much for joining us in this interview. Let’s start by getting to know you a bit. Please tell us about your background.

I am from India, and I shuttle between Mumbai and Pune. My earlier job involved a bit of traveling, so I have had short stays for anywhere between a month to a year in different countries, like Israel, Japan, Australia, U.K., USA and a few other countries. I absolutely love seeing new places, interacting with locals & trying out new cuisines. I have been lucky enough to meet some wonderful people literally everywhere I’ve been – many who’ve gone out of their way to make my stay welcome & pleasant 🙂

How did you get involved in the Tech business?

When I finished high school back in 1991 and it was time to decide between Medicine and Engineering (those were pretty much the two choices that were on the table), I opted for Computer Engineering. Computers were still very new back then, so it seemed like a very hot & trendy thing to study. I hadn’t even seen a computer until then, much less owned one – so I just followed my instincts. Luckily for me, I enjoyed programming thoroughly and am so glad I got into it.

About being a doctor, I am not sure I would have had the stomach for it!

How did you decide to co-found Hummingbird Web Solutions?

It was Karthik Magapu, my colleague at my last job, who actually came up with the idea and invited me to join him. I jumped at it without any hesitation. The lure of creating our own dream company based on our common values and ethics was irresistible. As you can tell, I have no regrets!

Your team at Hummingbird Web Solutions have launched several products both within and outside the WordPress sphere. In relation to your overall business, what is the significance of WordPress?

While we work on other Open Source platforms, WordPress continues to be very close to our heart – largely due to the lovely sense of community & warmth within the ecosystem. In terms of our overall business, the proportion of WordPress products vs. other products is not always constant, since we keep acquiring other products and re-aligning our strategy. Right now, WordPress accounts for roughly a third of our overall business.

How would you describe the WordPress community in Pune, in terms of dynamics and organizing events?

WordPress is very popular in Pune and there is a vibrant, enthusiastic community here. Meetups are organized regularly by the local community and the organizers work hard to come up with topics that are of interest to a whole spectrum of the WordPress community – users, developers and business owners – so as to involve & include everyone. There are casual WordPress mixers that are even more informal than a meetup, more like an opportunity to network and get to know each other – so you can reach out to someone when you need to 🙂

You have given several talks at WordCamp events. What motivated you to give those talks?

It’s always lovely to attend WordCamps and share our experiences. We are all constantly making mistakes – stumbling at times, learning from those mistakes and growing, and I am sure the challenges we face are not very different from other, similar businesses. WordCamps are a wonderful opportunity to exchange our ideas, failures and successes so that others who are going through a similar experience can benefit from it.

Shilpa Shah WordCamp Mumbai 2016

Shilpa Shah at WordCamp Mumbai 2016 giving a talk titled “What do customers want”

What are your thoughts on the importance of networking with other members of the WordPress community?

Super important! The first time I attended a WordCamp, I was completely bowled over by how amazingly helpful, generous, friendly and genuine everyone was. To say the least, it was a complete contrast to whatever conferences I have been to before.

Business owners that I have met here at WordCamps are now more like friends really – they are all so open and approachable. We even have a Slack community where we share what’s going on in our business and reach out to each other whenever we need any help – whether it is related to WordPress, hiring, marketing, legal policies or anything else.

You are selling both plugins and themes. Where do you see these two markets heading? Do you think one of them may be in decline?

What customers want from a theme is changing constantly and keeping up with what might be tough for a small business. Conversely, one theme may not be able to cater to the different set of customers out there – ranging from a simple non-techie blogger who wants a (near) single click setup to one who wants a whole host of features to control everything down to the smallest possible granularity.

I could be totally wrong and the world is changing on us constantly, but I think the themes market is likely to undergo some consolidation and then stabilize – the smaller theme stores will get acquired by larger ones.

With plugins, the turbulence is relatively lesser and the customer base still wants what they have always wanted – stable, secure plugins that work. Period. So taking a simplistic view – anyone who can deliver that (and couple it with some good marketing) should be successful 🙂

Until recently, payment gateways like PayPal and Stripe were not supported in India. How did Indian WP product sellers deal with this?

PayPal has been around for a while now. And there are alternative reseller-type solutions like Freemius and 2Checkout that are popular, so this hasn’t been much of an issue.

When you look back at all your years of business experience what are the most valuable lessons you have learned?

I think the most important lesson I have learned is to listen to one’s gut feeling, not just for small decisions but for those that have a huge impact on your business too (in fact, more so for those). While it is always good to rely on data and other relevant factors, in the end, don’t ignore the voice in your head. It is usually (or rather, always) right.

It is not so common to see prominent females in the WP product business. In your opinion, what could be the reasons for this, and how do you see this trend evolving in the future?

There may not be many women in the WordPress product business, but things are changing for sure. I am only speaking for myself here – but I think we don’t make our presence felt enough. As a multi-tasker who juggles work, family and other responsibilities, one tends to focus on finding the quickest, most efficient way of getting work done – not investing enough time in networking or creating a personal brand.

Have you faced any challenges specifically as a business woman in India and how have you overcome them?

Luckily for me, my parents, husband, in-laws and extended family have always fully supported me and encouraged me. About others, yes, there’s always the odd comment about how you have been ‘favoured because you are a woman’. For example, when my speaker application gets approved for a WordCamp – I choose to completely ignore those people. For every person who might subtly put you down, there are 10 others who believe in you. I would rather focus on the ones who do.

What advice would you give to people who want to build a successful WordPress business?

Find a good niche that you feel passionate about and keep at it through all the ups and downs. During your lows – and there will be a fair share of lows in any business – reach out to other business owners and don’t be ashamed to share your problems. You are not alone – everyone faces challenges, and it is better to learn from each other than pretend everything is fine. You will be surprised to see how open and helpful most other successful WordPress product business owners can be.

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Let’s talk a little bit about the future. What do you envision for your business for the next few years?

We plan to continue working on Open Source technologies with an increased focus on ecommerce tools. We launched HumCommerce recently, an analytics tool for ecommerce websites, and the response has been very encouraging so far. The plan is to continue to invest in that tool, drawing from our own collective experience in ecommerce. We’ve also ramped up our efforts towards nurturing our most popular WordPress theme – the Responsive Theme.

Thanks for your time, Shilpa! It’s been a pleasure chatting with you.

Thank you Brandon for giving me the opportunity. I would love to hear from anyone who has any questions – business owners who are looking for tips to promote their products, freelancers, or any one who thinks I might be able to help in any way, please reach out to me on Twitter.

Brandon Ernst

Published by Brandon Ernst

Founder of Brand on Fire LLC, specializing in premium web development and digital marketing; former Head of Marketing at Freemius, leading content development and outreach, providing valuable advice for WordPress plugin and theme developers' growth.

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