The summer is here, the days are getting warmer and for this interview, I’m going to our sunny homeland Croatia to meet a great guy, a friend and an active and a very important member of the WordPress community, Emanuel Blagonic. He is a designer, WordPresser, activist, speaker and what he could surely describe as his most important role, a father to his son Luka.
First of all, thank you for taking your time for the interview. Let’s get to know you better. Could you tell us a bit more about your background and how your life led you to WordPress?
Hey Ana, thanks for having me – it is an honour to be part of your interview series, something I have enjoyed so much reading in the past, getting to know all these amazing people. First of all, I’d like to say that being part of WordPress community is an incredible experience and I don’t find myself that “important”. But, it is important for me to be part of it and I see it as an opportunity to help others and learn a lot doing so.
I was a journalist and later a designer, and my first contact with WordPress was when I searched for a CMS that I could work with easily – as I was not a developer back then. And this is where WordPress helped me – to get my ideas into action. Everything in my life is a journey – something I really enjoy: learning new things, meeting new people, helping others as much as I can. In the past, I was heavily involved in projects that helped the non-government sector in Croatia, open source and design community. I enjoy teaching others the things I learnt and to help them not to make the mistakes I made.
How hard or easy was to choose what you wanted to do when you grow up :)?
Well, looking from today’s perspective I wouldn’t say it was hard. I had my share of ups and downs, as I suppose all of us do. I didn’t know what I wanted to be but I knew what I didn’t want to become – a person dissatisfied with his job. And I feel so lucky that for the past 17 years I had the opportunity to influence others while working in an industry I love and believe in.
You and your brother Lucijan founded the Blagonic Brothers WordPress agency in Croatia. Can you tell us a bit more about the experience working at your agency? What have you learned from that experience?
Actually, Blagonic Brothers started as a small design manufacture, where we worked with the specific type of clients – the one that searched for “perfection” (laughs). Back then, and I think it was 2009 or 2010, we went on our own, heavily invested in education, visited so many design conferences from the Netherlands to Germany and Italy, and started having talks on Croatian design conferences.
From today’s perspective, working for ourselves is still one of the best times we had – with crazy working hours while having so much fun doing the job we love. We worked with different clients that eventually became our friends and partners. We learned that anything is possible as long as you believe in it and we definitely learned that having high standards when it comes to client relationship and work produces comes with a cost, but it is the right way to go.
What is your mission with Blagonic Brothers agency? How are u different from other agencies? How hard or easy was to build the WordPress agency in Croatia?
We didn’t see ourselves as a WordPress agency in the early days, but people started to see us like that. That mostly came because of our involvement in the industry – from talking about WordPress, writing articles about it and generally speaking – promoting open source as a movement.
I think we just do things differently, don’t know. (laughs) Both Lucijan and me are very proactive, we were one of the first agencies to start doing responsive websites at no extra cost – actually, we were asking for extra budget if a client wanted to do a “desktop only” website. This way we showed them that we’re moving forward and so should they. Our approach is that we don’t want to have clients but rather partners. If both a client and us are on the same page, we have same expectations and if we believe in the same things – we can then help end users. We are not picky about clients, but we don’t work with clients that are not “compatible” with us, ethically speaking. Those clients might be a political party, a company that doesn’t respect their users and so on. As we really feel that our work matters, our approach must be the same. Personally, I like to call it “ethical design”.
Can you please share with us the story behind the special project for the city of Rijeka? You had a talk at WordCamp London titled “Can WordPress change the political transparency of an entire country?”. Well, from your experience, can it?
A couple of years ago the city of Rijeka—the third largest city in Croatia—approached us to develop a website on WordPress. Years later we started to work with them, not to develop their own website but to build a platform that other cities can use if they want to work on better transparency. In the WordPress theme we built tools that city officials can use to publish documents and other informations that will help make the local government more transparent. Information like budget, city council and councillor questions, citizen information, phone numbers etc. – can now be found in one place. This makes the city more transparent to its citizens and it can serve them better.
All that we learnt in that process will soon be available to other cities in Croatia (and the region), so they can use it to build their own website at no extra cost. This can be a huge saving if you know that there are more than a hundred cities in Croatia, and they usually spend at least 5.000€ for a website.
To answer your question – yes, we can change the transparency of an entire country, but first, we should change ourselves.
How hard was working on such a big project for the city of Rijeka? If you could go back in time, is there anything you would like to change in that journey?
Personally, I invested much more time and money than I would need to working on a client project, but some things you can’t buy with money. In the end, I was happier working on this project than I would be if I worked on a client project. During the project, I felt like doing something that can benefit not only myself and the city of Rijeka, but the public in general and that is something that keeps me going. It’s same when working with WordPress communities – we get a lot of questions—I get a lot of questions—about organising events, communicating events etc., and I (think that I) never left any question unanswered.
I don’t think I would change anything though. I knew it will be a lot of work, much more than I initially anticipated but in the end, I saw it as an opportunity to work on something that can make a change.
Let’s talk about the WordCamp community, another love of yours. How did Croatian WordPress community start?
Like many other communities, we officially started after the first WordCamp Europe in Leiden. That’s where I met Milan Ivanović, now a good friend. A couple of us went to the Netherlands (Lucijan Blagonic and Zoran Ugrina, not sure about other names though) and on our way back we started talking about “what can we do to kick-start Croatian WordPress community”.
We didn’t know who else was working with WordPress, so we started with an informal event called “WordPress Coffee”. And it was huge, 30 people from all over Croatia gathered in Zagreb. And not only from Croatia, this is where I met (now another good friend) Tomaž Zaman from Slovenia, other people from Croatia like Jurica Zuanović (who is GTE for Croatian language), Goran Šerić, and more. These are the people who are part of our ever-growing community.
You were a lead organiser of WordCamp Croatia, congrats. How hard was to organise a WordCamp in Croatia and do you have some tips for the future WordCamp organisers?
I wouldn’t say it was hard. We followed the rules from WordPress’ community team. We started with a meetup. Then we started with meetups in other cities (after Zagreb which happens every two months, today we host occasional meetups in Split, Rijeka, Pula, and Virovitica). And then we decided to host a WordCamp. It was a decision from all of us from different cities, not to host a WordCamp in our capital Zagreb, although we could have more attendees there. We started with Rijeka and then Split for the second WordCamp and actually, this is the first year we will have a WordCamp in Zagreb, where we expect around 300 people.
How hard was to follow your dreams? What do you like the most about your way of living?
I don’t think it’s hard as long as you don’t listen to others (laughs). The thing with others is that people constantly try to tell you what you need to do and how. It’s good to ask for advice but you have to make the decisions on your own. If you make mistakes, eventually, these are your mistakes and you learn from that.
So, I always tell people – ask for advice, talk with people, learn from their mistakes but in the end – make your own decision.
I don’t like to plan in advance. Naturally, there are some long-term plans, but my goal is to enjoy life to its fullest, and these days this means talking to a lot of people, meeting new cultures, trying to understand differences. This makes me a better person and eventually makes me very happy as I can share these experiences with my son. I can show him—although he’s just 4 years old—how to experience this world in a way that it was impossible 30 years ago. We can travel everywhere, everything is within our grasp – so many untold stories, so many experiences. I love it.
Do you have some advice for those who are just starting with WordPress business?
You will make mistakes as we all did, but try not to take it hard on yourself. The mistake is a mistake only if you don’t learn anything out of it.
If it’s not a secret, please tell us how your working day looks like? Do you have some tips on how to balance work and free time?
It depends. My brain goes from one thing to the other and sometimes I have problems concentrating on a task. Although I’m not a big fan of creating plans, I have my routine. I start with a coffee, go through tasks for the said day. I tried different things, but what helps me the most is to make a quick list of tasks for the next day. I wrote that on paper as I realised that by doing so – I feel more relaxed than if I did that on my computer (laughs). Other than that, I always write down things rather than try to remember, and I use Calendar a lot (which is synced with all of my devices).
It’s hard to balance free time as when you work as a freelancer from your home, the boundary between business and personal becomes blurry. What helps me are things that are happening at a time I cannot control. Being divorced, I can see my son Luka for every second weekend and on Thursday afternoons—something that is not enough for me, but I try to make most of it. With that in mind, I work around these fixed times. I also try to have some time off during weekends, and I’m not a slave of habits – so if I see there’s a beautiful day outside – I’ll just go out for a walk or a swim.
We are moving now a little bit to your personal life if you don’t mind ;). Beside WordPress & community, your biggest love is your son Luka. On your personal blog, you write a lot about your experience being a father and about your son. How and why did you decide to share that and what does it mean for you?
Yes, when Luka was born four years ago it completely rocked my world. He’s a bright and smart boy, I see a lot of empathy in him when he plays with others. Being a parent changes you in a way you cannot foresee before it happens. I don’t think I was prepared – nobody isn’t. This changed me, the way I look at things, the way I react. Seeing Luka I really want to do my best to make this world a better place for him, and for other kids.
When I was in high school we had to write a short essay about us “being the lost generation”. We were witnesses to a brutal war, people have been killed, we had thousands of refugees and this affected us. But I never felt like a lost generation.
You know me and we talked so many times about personal things, and you probably know that I believe in sharing experiences. I see these personal stories of mine as my stories and although there are things I won’t share, some experiences are worth sharing just because it will help others.
I had a lot of personal problems in the past few years and I talked a lot about them. People in Croatia (and the region) are afraid of talking about their problems, they see them as a personal failure. I don’t. As I said earlier – it’s a failure only if you don’t learn anything from it. The biggest reward is when I get approached by someone who had similar problems and they say “thank you for being honest and open minded – it helped me a lot”. I believe that you cannot change the world if you’re always within your comfort zone. Talking about these things is stepping out of my comfort zone and I see it—talking about it—as a selfish thing too, as it helps me a lot.
How do you balance your work and being Luka’s father? By the way, are you a Star Wars fan?:)
Ha! Why do you say that? Because I usually wear that t-shirt “Luke, I’m your father”? Well, that’s true – he is my son, so this makes me Darth Vader (laughs). Both Luka and me are Star Wars fans and you can see us play with the lightsaber (thanks, Ivan Brezak Brkan for the gift <3) – one time we almost crashed a TV.
So, how do I balance my work and being Luka’s father? My number one priority is to be a great father and work comes second. I enjoy both, of course, but being a father is just a different category. Influencing Luka, giving him advices and good examples and at the end – giving him the opportunity to make his own decisions, although being a small kid – is what is important to me. And to be honest, this bond we have makes me not only a better person, but it helps me be more creative, more open-minded – which eventually helps my work.
Do you have a role model or a person that had/have a major influence on your life?
Ana, that’s such a good question. I don’t know why nobody asked me that (well, at least I can’t remember it). We all have our own role models. My first role model is my brother. He is five years younger but different from me in so many ways. In the past, we didn’t get along (while growing up), but today we’re good friends and also business partners. The important thing is that we share the same values, ethics, morale – we believe in the same things and we help each other.
Other role models are people who eventually ended helping me in a way. Usually, they gave me the opportunity to be better. Domagoj Pavlešić was the first person who asked me to step up and start speaking publicly. Ivan Brezak Brkan was an inspiration, starting his own media company that now influences the entire region. Marko Dugonjić, one of the best Croatian designers gave me insights into his work process and ethics, and I’m grateful that we share the same values. Petya Raykovska, who I first met at WordCamp Croatia where she came to speak, influenced me with so much energy, that I simply started doing the same – sharing my experiences and my energy with others. I also talked with Petya about helping with the communication part for WordCamp Europe, and eventually I became part of the team, leading the communication team this year which proved as an incredible experience.
There are a lot other role models, people who I look up to—the entire WordCamp Europe 2017 organising team—it was an amazing opportunity to work with them and more importantly – to learn from them.
But what you have to learn, and I learned that while I was working as a journalist, is that it is ok to have role models but it is wrong to idolize them. A good role model will help you to be better yourself, it won’t give you shortcuts but will give you advices on how to achieve something you want. I like the proverb “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” and this is what I like to do myself – educating people is the way we should help make the world a better place.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I like to travel. A lot. I usually travel around WordCamps. (laughs) So, when I wanted to travel to Thailand I searched if there’s a WordCamp happening there so I could travel around those dates. And this gave me the opportunity to get to know so many interesting new people. The other thing I like to do is hiking. To be honest, I didn’t hiked that much lately, primarily because I had to take it slow for almost two months after going through mononucleosis, but this is something I’m really looking forward doing in the future. So, if you happen to have a WordCamp in your city and some hiking/trail nearby – let me know (laughs).
Finally, here’s your chance to freestyle:). Write anything you think could be interesting or useful to our readers.
I want to congratulate you Ana, and what you do with your amazing charity themes. This is the approach I really appreciate and I think it is important that we can use our expertise and influence to make people’s lives better. Thank you for the interview and I’ll just say you do such a great job with them. Keep up the good work.