A few weeks ago we’ve had a pleasure of interviewing Emanuel Blagonic and today we are going back to Croatia to meet the other half of Blagonic Brothers. It is my pleasure to welcome Lucijan Blagonic. Lucijan is a front-end designer focused on accessibility and usability. He is a gamer, ABBA fan and an active member of the WordPress community. All in all, a great, down to earth guy and I’m sure we all have something to learn from him. So, let’s get started.
First of all, thank you for taking your time for the interview. Let’s take a peek into your life :). Could you tell us a bit more about your background and how did you discover WordPress?
No problem. Sorry, it took so long to answer it. 😉
In the early 2000s, it was normal for everyone to build their own custom CMS but if you weren’t a developer yourself than you had to pick from some that were available for free, such as Joomla and later WordPress. As I was working in a company for a few years that used Joomla primarily, I got used to the way things work there, but I didn’t like it. The main problem was that I couldn’t make my layouts semantic, due to the complexity and the current state of Joomla themes. Since Emanuel was using WordPress heavily at the time and spoke very highly of it, I was sold on it.
I used WordPress on several projects, but since my PHP knowledge was (and still is) limited, you could say I’m a Stack Exchange developer — copying chunks of code from Codex or other sites online and keeping my fingers crossed that it works. Good thing I’m a designer. 😉
How did you start your career path? Did you know exactly what you wanted to be when you grow up ;)?
My child hood dreams were to pursue a career in science — either astronomy, physics, engineering (influenced by Star Trek). I thought I wasn’t smart enough for academia or didn’t have the educational background for any of these — and I think I was probably too lazy for that. I loved playing games though; I loved building things with my hands — either digital things (mods, game levels etc.) or physical things (mostly things with wood).
My design career started more than 15 years ago when my older brother Emanuel, showed me how to work in CorelDRAW 9 and later Photoshop. Even a few basic things like gradients or editing shapes made me dream about possibilities that computer graphics offer. I was (and still am) a science–fiction enthusiast and watching Star Trek would inspire me to design similar things by myself. I experimented with 3D Studio Max and 3D modeling, but eventually, I would continue using Photoshop primarily for creating digital graphics (textures, images etc.).
In order to be able to present my work on the internet, I learned HTML and CSS. At the time, I used FrontPage 98 to build my website using table layouts. Over time, as the web standards movement started gaining momentum, I also jumped on the train and started doing websites properly, separating structure and styles.
I wanted to design things. I was working in various fields of design (branding, print, digital…) and the vast experience I got shaped me in the designer I am today.
Together with your brother Emanuel, you co–founded the Blagonic Brothers WordPress agency in Croatia. Can you share with our readers a few interesting things about Blagonic Brothers? When & how did you start your business? In what way did it change your lives?
The first thing and the most obvious is — there is only two of us, and we are brothers. 🙂 We like to say that we run a family agency. We started by combining our knowledge, experience, and networking together into a single brand. We branded ourselves as an agency, but we weren’t interested in quantity, only quality. As our network and visibility grew stronger, we had more project inquiries. We started bringing other people into the company, and we grew to seven people at one point. We underestimated ourselves.
Emanuel and I are both multidisciplinary designers and are quite organised and effective in our work. As we had more people and more levels of communication, we eventually started being project managers instead of designers. By wanting to deliver top–notch projects we would often spend extra time to make sure everything is taken care of — which, considering that more people were working on the project, wasn’t cost effective. It would work if we were only two, but more people means more noise. Not everyone can manage themselves, and not everyone can work remotely. We assumed wrong things (based on ourselves) and failed. We also learned much from our mistakes.
It certainly did change our lives. Although I learned a lot of things like managing people, projects, clients… I also needed a year or two after that to recover emotionally and financially. Emanuel and me are both individuals with strong opinions and we couldn’t work on projects or people who didn’t care about same things as we do. We are just too passionate and too emotional to not care about things we produce.
You pay a lot of attention to building interfaces that are usable and accessible to all. Can you describe your workflow and how do you present it to your clients?
Being a part of the web standards movement during the 2000s made me aware of problems people had using poorly built websites and appreciate things like usability and accessibility. As a designer who does HTML/CSS as well, I can appreciate a simple but functional design. I’m all for minimalism, not because it’s a current trend but because it forces designers to think what is truly necessary for the project to achieve a goal.
While talking with clients I always put myself in the role of people using the product or a website and advocate their rights. If you put it like that, simple to use interface, basic usability and accessibility will always be high on your priority list.
Is there one special project that you are particularly proud of and why?
One of the recent projects that I’m most proud is all the work that our design team did at WordCamp Europe 2017. I think we did a good job on the website, new theme, branding and all sort of design assets but the biggest lesson for me was that we are all different. We have different backgrounds, and we see things differently. Working within such talented team made me appreciate different perspectives. In fact, the experience was so rewarding, that I am happy to do it again for WordCamp Europe 2018 where I’ll be leading the design team.
How hard is running a WordPress agency in Croatia? If you could go back in time, is there anything you would like to change in your journey?
I probably answered this question partially above. While we were working on one of our company projects, we didn’t realise in time that we took the wrong approach. This made us lose valuable time and money. I would force myself to not wait for too long before making hard choices. A hard choice can be stepping outside of your comfort zone or saying no to something. Having clear goals helps.
Would you have some advices for those who are just starting with the WordPress business? Do you have some special advice for developers in Croatia? I know from my own experience how most simple things can be quite difficult in our country.
Running any type of agency takes time and effort. The good thing is there is plenty of work in the WordPress ecosystem that you can fit in and leave your mark.
Hiring the right people is also not always easy and can bring you down. If you aspire to work with international clients than you have to think in those terms — even if you are hiring locally. Company culture is extremely important and it’s a priority that all your employees are on the same page regarding vision and direction. We alwayes tried to surround ourselves with people who would outgrow our small company and do great things after. We tried to offer opportunities which we would like to receive ourselves if we were in the same position. We even started doing custom hiring pages (before it was cool) in order to attract that talent and stand out.
It’s not that easy though. You have to trust people you work with. If everyone is not working in company’s best interest than it’s going to be really hard to accomplish that goal. But it goes both ways — the company has to trust its employees as well.
Be transparent in your decisions. Aspire to be a better communicator. Practice empathy. Lead by example.
Where do you find your inspiration?
I find inspiration all around me. Cheesy answer but it is true. When you use a product or a service, and it feels good. When you get immersed in a story of a video game or watch a movie that changes your perspective on things. When you talk with someone, who shares his ideas and experiences which make you look on the problem with a fresh pair of eyes.
What do you think about WordCamps and how are WordCamps beneficial for the people? Is there a strong WordPress community in Croatia?
WordCamps are great and inclusive events. Opportunity to meet new people and learn new things. Croatia has a yearly WordCamp and number of meetups throughout the year (mostly in Zagreb though). The community is diverse, and we have several big agencies working with WordPress primarily. The community is strong in that sense.
I feel there is room for improvement. I think most people don’t understand what’s the point of volunteering or doing something for free. They see that as a wasted opportunity but it’s quite the opposite. I would love to see our community grow further, in the sense of more meetups or conference organisers, open source contributors… But we’ll get there in time.
How did you become a part of the WordPress community & how did you involve yourself in organizing WordCamp Croatia? What does WordPress Community mean to you?
You could say I officially decided to become a part of the community after visiting WordCamp Europe 2013 in Leiden, Netherlands. I visited other conferences before that, but WordCamp Europe was specific in a sense that it was an affordable event with good content and interesting people. After that WordCamp, we kickstarted the Croatian community through regular meetups and over time WordCamps.
I’m currently leading the organising team for WordCamp Zagreb, our biggest WordCamp in Croatia so far. Emanuel handled WordCamp Rijeka and Ivan Blagdan WordCamp Split — I wanted to step up as well. There are several reasons I am dedicating my time for this conference. I think everyone benefiting from the community should return something back, regardless of their skill or free time. By volunteering my time I can learn new things, as well as help others in the community. It’s really inspiring to see people around you and their path to success over time — how they went to find better jobs and live a happier life partially thanks to our community and networking it offers.
WordPress community (and open source community in general) helped me expand my circle of friends and role models. The set of values that our community promotes is key to meeting diverse and interesting people — which is important to me.
How hard was to follow your dreams? Very often our friends and families find this way of living not so secure or “normal” and tend to push away from such careers. How did you manage to make it your own way? Do you have some practical advices for our readers?
The biggest problem for most people is not pursuing your dreams, but dealing with the decision what dream to pursue. I wanted to create things as a kid. The design was just one of possible career paths. As I dug deeper, I had to specialise in the specific area of design. Do I want to do graphic design or web design? Later as I got more experienced with web design, I kept asking myself: do I want to improve my front–end skills or design skills. And so on, every few years I have doubts whether I’m pursuing my dream. It’s not easy to deal with.
In the end, I just end up asking myself questions. Am I happy with what I am doing currently? If not, how can I change it, improve it? I think it’s important to look at things from a different perspective every once in a while. Life is complicated. Sometimes unexpected things happen and you can’t do anything about it. And that’s perfectly fine, just play the game to the best of your abilities.
What I have learned over time is that everyone is different. We tend to look people around us, keep thinking how successful or happy they are. How they earn a lot of money or have a job you would want for yourself. The truth is — we are all different and you shouldn’t be comparing yourself to others to see if you are successful. The only thing that matters in the end is if you are happy. I know I am.
That being said, it’s great to have role models who inspire you to do your best work or to be the best person you can be. I have been lucky to surround myself with a lot of people, friends, mentors and role models who helped me become the person I am today.
Do you see your future in Croatia or you want to move and explore some other possibilities?
As I get older, I don’t see myself living in Croatia. I would like to experience life in a different country, explore different cultures and new experiences. Croatia is a beautiful country nature–wise but it seems a shame to spend my whole life in one place. One of the places my partner Ana and I have our eyes on is United Kingdom or Ireland.
We are moving now a little bit to your personal life if you don’t mind ;). In April 2015 you decided to make some big changes in your life and you started working with a personal trainer to get yourself in better shape. Is there a special reason that motivated you to do this?
I felt I should take better care of myself. My situation was quite stressful at the time and I didn’t feel I was at my best. I had a steady income and I was working on some projects that weren’t that challenging, so I decided to spend that extra time and energy by focusing on my well being and creating better habits. Eating and exercise habits mostly. That was the first step, everything after that was easier. It was important for me to have a good work–life balance (if there even is such a thing).
I know that your favourite sport is running and that you already ran a marathon. Congrats on all achievements you made through this journey, respect! Can you tell me what role do running and marathon have in your life and why?
Thank you. The funny thing about running is there is always someone you can aspire to. When I ran my first 10K, I thought running 21K or even a full marathon is impossible. I was looking as people crossed the finish line after running 42 kilometers. It was surreal. But I was motivated and I decided that I will run a half marathon. It was easier than expected. Marathon was the only logical step. I’ll be honest — I was scared but it was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life.
When I talk to people, they say I’m modest when I say that running a marathon is not a big deal. And how can it be? People run for 50 or 100 kilometers, and even they don’t brag about it. From our perspective, it’s not a big deal, but for other people, it can be inspiring. Running a marathon represents one of my life achievements, the one I trained for hard and accomplished. If you asked me 2 years ago, I would say it was impossible and still — here we are. That’s probably life in a nutshell. If you want something badly — you will get it if you work hard for it. Today I try to keep myself in shape by running, and while there are times when I’m not in the mood to run, I find that kind of activity perfect to clear and sort my thoughts.
What do you like to do in your free time?
When I want to relax, I usually play games on PlayStation (I never thought I’d say this, but I’m a PC gamer turned console). The level of details and immersive-ness today’s games have is astonishing. I find inspiration by playing games. Other than that, I just try to get out of the house as much as possible. Hiking, walking, running… I love to travel and WordCamps provide a great excuse to travel. 😉
What are your plans for the future?
My biggest plan is to continue growing professionally and personally. I’m on the lookout for interesting job and project opportunities which can accommodate that growth. I’ll continue speaking at conferences since that puts me out of my comfort zone. On a personal level, I’m hoping to get that marathon under 4 hours and try a triathlon.
Finally, here’s your chance to freestyle:). Write anything you think could be interesting or useful to our readers.
Did you read the whole interview or are you looking for a quick advice? Whatever the answer, here is a quick tip — surround yourself with positive people with can–do attitudes. Your life will improve significantly after that.
I’d like to thank you, Ana, for finding the time to keep the interviews going. I really enjoy reading them, as I am sure many do.