Online Entrepreneur, WordPress Developer, Logo Designer, Surfer Dude

10 Years Ago I Founded A Tech Startup in Hawaii – This Is Our Story

Ten years has passed since I co-founded Organic Themes. In that time, I’ve encountered several personal and professional trials.

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Organic Themes is a software company. More specifically, we provide themes and plugins for WordPress websites. The business was founded by myself, David Morgan, and my friend, Jeff Milone. In early 2010, we launched our website in Lahaina, on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

Until recently, Jeff and I lived in the Hawaiian Islands. Maui is an incredible place to live. It’s truly paradise. However, it’s a difficult location to start and grow a software company.

In this article, I’ll share the unique story of what brought us to Maui. The personal and professional challenges we faced, and ultimately what led us away from the islands.

The Genesis

Jeff and I have been friends since the 9th grade. We grew up in a small town in Central Florida. There, we attended a visual arts high school in the mid 90s. After class, we often hung out playing street hockey, going bass fishing, or playing Warcraft II over a 56K modem.

In 1996, we created our first Geocities website together, similar in style to our 90s Retro Theme. It was a review site for TI-85 calculator games. The website didn’t score us any cool points with the ladies, but it was fun building it together. Additionally, the learning experience introduced us to HTML code at a young age — and plenty of animated GIFs, like this classic:

So, Jeff and I go way back.

Later, we attended college together at the University of Central Florida. Jeff and I were roommates. I majored in Computer Animation. Jeff majored in IT and Marketing. Our college days were spent partying, camping in Ocala, surfing at Playalinda, and playing LOTS of Mario Kart.

We talked about starting a business together. For a brief time, we sold animated 3D logos to businesses. However, we were too engrossed in the college experience to build a lasting business.

After graduating from “U Can’t Finish” in 2005, our lives took us in different directions. Still, Jeff and I stayed in touch.

I was working within the corporate design industry in Orlando. It was a great experience designing websites for Fortune 500 companies. However, the Office Space lifestyle was soul crushing.

I felt as though the path of my life was already paved, and I could see its boring end. So, I left my corporate job behind in search of something more.

My love of surfing inspired me to move to Hawaii. I had never previously been to the islands, and had no idea what to expect. So, I sold all my belongings, drove across the country, and shipped my car from California. When I finally made it to Oahu, I lived out of my car while trying to find an affordable apartment.

On Oahu, I experienced the freedom of working as a freelance web designer and animator. I loved walking barefoot through the streets of Waikiki to surf between gigs. Honolulu was my first true urban experience. The mesh of Hawaiian, Japanese, and American cultures was exciting and illuminating for a Southern country boy from Florida.

A New Publishing Platform

Jeff was living in Atlanta. He was experiencing a similarly bleak fate with his career. While exploring other opportunities, he was introduced to the new web software, WordPress. He began volunteering his knowledge in the Revolution Themes support forums. That company eventually became known as StudioPress.

During that time, Jeff and I began working remotely on freelance projects together. I would design the theme. Then, he would develop it.

WordPress was still in its infancy, but we recognized the potential of the platform. Soon, every website we created was using the new publishing software.

In 2009, Jeff called me while attending the first WordCamp Chicago. He was inspired by the event, and eager to start a WordPress theme business together. I loved the idea, and invited him to Hawaii to discuss a plan. So, Jeff boarded a plane to Oahu.

Jeff’s arrival on Oahu. David on the left. Jeff on the right.

We spent the time surfing at Queens in Waikiki, drinking kava smoothies until our faces went numb, and discussing the possibility of building a WordPress theme business.

During Jeff’s trip, we visited Maui for the first time.

Maui captivated us. The island had all the beauty of Oahu, but without the congestion. In particular, we loved the West Side. At the time, Honoapiilani Highway was only a two-lane road through Lahaina. There was no bypass, and no traffic. The waves were perfect and uncrowded. It was heaven.

We agreed Lahaina was the location to build our business — however naive that decision may have been.

Ramping Up

Jeff and I didn’t waste any time getting started. By mid 2009 we were working out of Jeff’s little apartment in Napili. We would enviously peer out the window as neighbors loaded up their boards to go surfing at Honolua. Instead, we remained dedicated to the task at hand — building our WordPress theme company.

After 6 months of struggling to create the first suite of products for Organic Themes, we began developing the brand and website. However, selling products online wasn’t easy like it is today. The infrastructure didn’t exist. So, it was taking time to build the site — time we didn’t have.

We were balancing freelance work to pay the bills. Unfortunately, that freelance work was drying up. Finding new clients on a remote, unpopulated Pacific island isn’t easy. Rent on Maui isn’t cheap either. As a result, we were literally weeks away from living out of a tent in Olowalu.

We needed to create some buzz around our new business. So, Jeff spread the word within the WordPress community, and I designed and developed the Structure Theme to release for free.

Miraculously, the theme went viral. Downloads poured in by the thousands. It was the sign we needed. It was time to launch Organic Themes!

We opened the doors in early 2010, and directed traffic from the Structure Theme to the new Organic Themes website. With Jeff’s connections in the industry, news of our launch spread throughout the WordPress community like wildfire.

Launching Organic Themes from Jeff’s apartment in Napili

To our amazement, we sold multiple products on the first day. Sales continued to pour in with each passing day. We couldn’t believe it.

It seemed we wouldn’t be living in tents after all.

Sudden Success

Suddenly, our business became immensely popular. The products we created were in high demand, and the design was appreciated.

Our brand resonated with customers that were seeking a similar holistic lifestyle, and freedom from the corporate machine.

It was exhilarating. We were in disbelief with each new sale — and dubious about its longevity.

We took pride in our products. They helped small businesses grow in a time of economic recession. We felt good about what we were doing, and we wanted to share it.

So, Jeff and I began traveling to the mainland for WordCamps. Soon, we became known as the guys from Hawaii. We reveled in the association. The islands became a part of our identity, and our inflating egos.

We hired our friends, Travis Totz and Nick Pelton, to help manage our growing support needs. Eventually, they moved on to found WerkPress, purchase Press75, and work with Modern Tribe.

With newfound success, new opportunities became available for the first time in our lives.

Personally, I moved out of my tiny, horrible, tick infested (literally) apartment at Sunset Terrace in Honokowai. Now, I could afford an occasional fish dinner at Merriman’s in Kapalua. I bought a new Hawaiian Island Creations longboard shaped by Steve Morgan. I could even travel home to Florida and visit my family without going in to massive debt.

Things were looking up!

Mostly, success provided freedom and security. My lifestyle stayed roughly the same, but it was no longer immediately threatened. The same things that brought me pleasure were still free — surfing, hiking, snorkeling, etc.

Hawaii tends to attract people looking for peace and simplicity. Tourists that rent convertible Mustangs and stay at the Grand Wailea are a joke to most locals. I never had an allure for that opulence. It was wasteful and unappealing.

Success wasn’t a burden, but it certainly wasn’t Mercedes and Rolex watches either. However, it did teach me some things about myself, and Hawaii:

The struggle of living in Hawaii provides part of the pleasure. It connects you with the other people on the island who share similar stories of survival. Those people become your ohana in times of trouble.

Success killed that.

It isolated me in Hawaii. I was no longer working with locals, or having random coffee shop encounters. As a result, I wasn’t making many new friends, and my old friends were leaving Hawaii — as most do.

Despite the isolation, I liked the success. It was the validation. Every sale was a customer telling me, “I love what you’ve created! It helps me, and I find it useful.” That’s an empowering feeling. It was so much more satisfying than a client complaining about the alignment of their website buttons in Internet Explorer.

Jeff and I wanted more of that feeling. Which meant that we needed to grow our business.

Growth In San Diego

Unfortunately, Maui doesn’t attract many ambitious young people with the skills we needed to grow Organic Themes. If we were starting a yoga studio, surf brand, or wedding business, things may have been different. As a growing software company, Maui had little to offer. So, we decided to leave the island — for the first time.

Deciding where to move our location independent business was a difficult and calculated decision. The location needed to support the lifestyle of which we were accustomed. However, we also needed a thriving startup and tech community.

So, we settled on San Diego — La Jolla to be exact. The environment provided a similar lifestyle and environment to Hawaii, but with a much larger population and flourishing tech scene. The surf was great too, albeit, cold. Plus, being on the mainland meant we didn’t have to spend thousands of dollars traveling to events.

The year was 2012. It was the heyday of WordPress.

We were making the right moves — establishing partnerships, diversifying revenue, working on new projects, speaking at WordCamps, and even juggling a potential deal to sell our company to an advertising agency — which we are happy didn’t work out. Overall, it was an exciting time of growth for our business.

Our WordPress hosting company, Kahuna Host, was making innovating steps. We developed a form that automatically installed WordPress and a theme of your choice upon signup. We called it the WordPress Instant Setup form. It was revolutionary at the time.

Jeff and I were working with Jason Schuller and Brad Touesnard to create a new content management system for one-pager websites called Leeflets. Despite working long distance, and the challenges of a 4-way partnership, we managed to launch the CMS. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a major success. As a result, the partnership disbanded. The project has since evolved into a landing page solution. However, we did learn a lot from the process.

Organic Themes established a partnership with Automattic. We were among the first premium theme shops on WordPress.com, and have consistently remained a top seller among 30+ theme shops. It’s still our most valuable partnership.

Jeff and I hosted an intimate WordPress business gathering at Scripps Pier in La Jolla. We invited friends and colleagues within the industry such as Cory Miller of iThemes, Carl Hancock and the Gravity Forms guys, Grant and Clay Griffiths, and several others. We spent the time connecting, sharing projects, and working on a theme for charities.

Business was good. We were achieving goals, and San Diego was providing the environment we had hoped.

For those of us fortunate enough to wander, certain locations may appeal to our sensibilities more than others. San Diego was a perfect fit for me. Particularly, the coastal north county towns.

The area has a perfect balance of nature, weather, culture, education, technology, micro breweries — and great surfing! I loved riding my scooter through the ridiculously charming streets of La Jolla, past the cliffs of Bird Rock, and into the lively town of Pacific Beach. The marine layer made the air crisp. It felt calming and peaceful. I would have happily settled in the area.

Unfortunately, not everybody in my life felt the same way. My ex-wife was not happy in San Diego.

Back To Maui

Life has a way of balancing itself out. While our business was flourishing, my personal life was falling apart.

I was raised in a very Southern, conservative, and religious environment. While my political and spiritual views have evolved considerably over the years, it’s difficult to shake some indoctrinated beliefs. Among those, was the belief that a good marriage takes a lot of work, and divorce is not an option. As a result, I was loyal — to a fault.

I got married at a young age. It was my first major relationship. We were together for a long time, nearly 10 years. I confided in that person. I trusted and respected her, even when the love had faded.

Love can be rekindled. However, when the trust and respect disappear, it’s truly over.

The thing is, I loved San Diego. My ex-wife did not. That’s an understatement.

Despite many counseling sessions with multiple therapists, we were unable to reconcile our differences. Instead, my respect for that person faded with each session.

Therapy wasn’t working. So, my ex-wife resorted to an ultimatum, because that usually works. We return to Hawaii, or divorce.

I’m not one to give up easily. So, I made a huge compromise. In a Hail Mary attempt to save a dying relationship, I reluctantly agreed to move back to Maui.

Hawaii would solve our problems!

When I broke the news to Jeff, he didn’t take it well. Understandably, the life-changing decision threw a wrench in the momentum our business was gaining in San Diego.

Ultimately, Jeff and I agreed it was best for the partners to work together in the same location. As a result, he decided to move back to Maui as well.

After all, we built the business in Maui. We could continue to grow it there.

If I had known what was to follow, I never would have left San Diego.

Divorce

Moving to an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is no small feat. Over the course of six years, this was my fourth move across the ocean:

Florida to Oahu.

Oahu to Maui.

Maui to San Diego.

Now, San Diego back to Maui.

By this time, I was tired of uprooting my life every couple years. It’s a mentally, emotionally, and physically draining endeavor. I was anxious to plant roots, and truly make Maui my home.

So, I purchased a home on island. I volunteered at Maui WordPress Meetups. I became involved in the community. I was going to save my marriage!

Unbeknownst to me, my ex-wife had other plans. In fact, she was planning a whole new life — with somebody else.

The signs were there. She suddenly began a rigorous exercise routine, which was out of character. She often disappeared for hours on long, personal phone calls. She stopped going to family events, like funerals and reunions. She stopped contributing to bills, claiming she needed to save money for her business. I discovered she had been taking birth control pills behind my back… The list goes on.

I should have known something was going on. However, she was my wife of 9 years. I trusted her.

Then, one afternoon I got home from surfing, and we had “the” talk. She wanted to separate. That prompted me to pry deeper. Eventually, the truth came out.

Ten years of trust was shattered in a moment.

It hurt. A lot.

I felt betrayed, manipulated, and used. It destroyed my confidence, and my trust — in almost everybody.

I mean, if you can’t trust your wife, who can you trust?

So, we divorced.

They say when you die, your life flashes before your eyes. Well, in the fallout of a divorce, your marriage flashes before your eyes. Every moment is framed in a new perspective. As a result, the pieces of the puzzle started coming together — faster than I was prepared for. The blinders fell off, and I saw our relationship with new eyes.

It was a lot to process.

I didn’t self-medicate to numb the pain. I just observed my feelings, and listened to lots of Bruce Springsteen. At times, I felt pure, powerful rage, deep despair, and most surprisingly, extreme euphoria. It was a roller coaster of emotions, and I let them wash over me. I believe that was key to processing the trauma.

Such drastic changes in life will strip you down to the core. The layers of ego that you’ve spent years building are violently ripped away. It transforms you. In many ways, it’s an opportunity to rebuild a life, as much as it is the loss of an old life.

In truth, it was time. We had grown apart, and I was holding her back from the life she wanted to live. I wish I could have seen our relationship more clearly, and ended it myself. But that wasn’t who I was.

Still, my first marriage was my biggest failure. The mirage of stability that I worked so hard to maintain came crashing down. Unfortunately, that realization hit me like a ton of bricks.

Death And Temporary Insanity

Around the same time, a number of other things went REALLY bad for me.

My amazing, sweet grandma passed away.

My Australian Shepherd died young and horribly of an aggressive bone cancer. After amputation and other treatments, she had an adverse reaction to the euthanasia — a truly horrible thing to witness.

My Dad suffered a massive heart attack in front of my Mom and I on a family vacation. We watched him flat-line on the ER table. After what felt like an eternity, they miraculously shocked him back to life.

Then, my uncle died suddenly of a heart aneurysm.

It was all too much. I lost it. I had a mental breakdown.

I was powerless to what was happening. Each event was painful and traumatic. As a result, I began to question the trust and motives of people in my life — and life itself.

I had paranoia attacks. I thought people were out to get me. My mind was relentlessly moving in circles. The universe was chaos, and I was in a black hole.

If you ever want to feel truly alone, I recommend having these experiences in the most isolated chain of islands on the planet.

Hawaii, for all its beauty, was a prison at that time.

But wait, there’s more! Work wasn’t going so great either…

Hackers

It wasn’t enough that my personal life was in smoldering ruins. Our hosting company was under attack — literally.

At first, Jeff and I thought it was an average malware attack. We just needed to change some passwords, delete a few Viagra links, and call it a day.

Unfortunately, this was something different.

Kahuna Host was among the first WordPress hosting companies, along with Pagely and WP Engine. While it wasn’t highly profitable yet, the company was on the verge of growth. It was enough to garner some attention. Unfortunately, that included the attention of a real life, flesh and blood hacker.

Being hacked in real-time sucks — tremendously. It’s invasive, infuriating, and relentlessly demoralizing.

The best way to describe it is using an analogy:

Imagine a thief in your house while you’re at home. Except, you can’t see the thief. Valuable possessions disappear around you. In their place, a note appears before your eyes. The note is personally insulting to you and your family. You keep trying to lock the thief out, but it doesn’t matter. He’s already inside. You try to follow his footsteps, and anticipate what he’s going to do next. You start to think he’s exhausted, maybe he’s gone, or maybe you finally locked him out. However, you never really know. Then, a couple days later, something else valuable disappears.

Imagine this persisting for weeks.

The hacker exposed a very big weakness — Kahuna Host was a small, bootstrapped startup. We didn’t have the team or resources to combat the attack of a dedicated hacker. Unfortunately, this was a particularly volatile time in the life of that company and our personal lives.

My role within our company is the design, development, and distribution of our primary products — WordPress themes and plugins. I know very little about running a hosting company, other than I enjoy it about as much as having my teeth pulled.

I helped with Kahuna Host where I could, but my primary responsibility was to Organic Themes. As a result, the role of managing Kahuna Host fell on Jeff’s shoulders. During the hacking, that burden took a heavy toll on him.

Here we were, back on Maui. All the resources we gained by moving to San Diego were gone. Jeff was grasping at straws for help in his fight against the hacker. His best friend and business partner was distant, and struggling to maintain his sanity.

Things were grim.

Eventually, with help from another hosting company, Jeff managed to get things under control. However, the damage was done. We wanted out of the hosting business.

I was angry at the hacker. I was angry that our small business didn’t have the resources to effectively combat the attack. Mostly, I was angry at the heavy losses and failures in my personal life. Unfortunately, Jeff took the brunt of my misplaced anger.

The Fallout

The blow-back from my personal life and the the stress of managing two businesses reached its boiling point. Mine and Jeff’s relationship suffered heavily.

I had to get off that rock. So, I left Maui and traveled home to Florida, then to Costa Rica, and California. I visited with family and friends, and sought advice and support wherever I could.

I worked during my travels. However, Jeff and I communicated no more than necessary. We were resentful of each other. It was a scenario in which 99% of business partnerships would not have survived.

After a couple months, I reassembled the pieces of my sanity, and came back home to Maui. Eventually, Jeff and I agreed to meet for beers.

The conversation poured into the night, with the crowds on Front Street passing below. It was a difficult conversation. If the quality of life is measured by the number of difficult conversations, this was a turning point.

I attempted to explain my feelings and apologize. It was a plea of temporary insanity — which I now know is a real thing. Ultimately, we forgave each other, and agreed to keep the business together. Jeff and I started down the path of what would be a long healing process.

The Holidays

The end of a long year was coming to a close. I flew to Florida to be with my family for the holidays.

My Dad was still recovering from his brush with death earlier that year. However, his newfound zest for life resulted in him taking on the role of matchmaker. He introduced me to a beautiful young lady. She was the daughter of a family friend. Although our histories were intertwined, we were ships passing in the night — until now.

We met in Tampa a few days after Christmas. It was our first date. Emily and I connected immediately.

It was like we had known each other for years. There was so much shared history and weird coincidences, it was impossible not to notice. The chemistry was palpable. Unfortunately, I only had a few more days in Florida before returning to Maui. So, we made the most of our brief time together.

On the flight back home I couldn’t stop thinking about her. We kept in touch every day, often spending hours on the phone together. We were quickly falling for each other. However, there were 5,000 miles between us, and I had a life on Maui.

WordCamp Maui

While my love life was on the incline, Jeff and I were co-organizing WordCamp Maui — ironically scheduled for Valentine’s Day, 2015.

WordCamp Maui was the first and only official WordPress conference ever held in Hawaii. Our friend Jon Brown, owner of 9 Seeds, was the lead organizer.

Organic Themes sponsored the event. I managed the design, which involved creating the logo, website, signage, and swag. Jeff organized the speakers, who flew to the WordCamp from all over the world. Additionally, Jeff and I spoke at the event, interviewed by Chris Lema.

It was exciting working with our WordPress friends in the Maui community. Also, the event forced Jeff and I to work together again— in a healthy way. We began reconnecting, and laying the foundation for trusting each other again.

WordCamp Maui was a huge success. The event sold out, and everything went according to plan. Afterwards, we celebrated with our friends, fellow organizers, and volunteers at the new Maui Brewing Company.

It was the kind of win we needed to see.

Sarasota

A couple months after WordCamp Maui, my relationship with Emily had grown stronger. However, if we were going to give our blossoming relationship a fighting chance, we needed to be together. So, I planned to move back to Florida on a trial basis.

Fortunately, my location independent business provided that opportunity.

The trip was open ended. If it worked out between us, fantastic. If not, at least we gave it a real chance.

Spoiler alert: It worked out!

I packed my bags and my dog on a plane, and left Maui behind — once again.

Around the same time, Jeff’s Dad was having serious health problems. He came back to Florida as well to be near family. It’s a shame it wasn’t under better circumstances, but it gave us the chance to work together in our homeland.

During my year back in Florida, I fell madly in love with Emily. In the process, I fell in love with my home state all over again. I was reconnecting with old friends, and enjoying time with family.

It turns out, I didn’t need to plant roots elsewhere. My roots were in Florida all along.

When the time was right, I popped the question. Emily accepted. We made plans for a wedding the following year, and settled on Arenal Nayara in Costa Rica.

Life was good — for me.

Unfortunately, Jeff’s Florida experience was very different from my own. He found himself in the suburbs of Bradenton, continually dealing with family medical drama, and driving hours in traffic every day. It was everything he didn’t want his life to become. The experience was mentally and emotionally draining for him.

Plus, our downward trending sales added to the stress.

Making All The Wrong Moves

If you want to make poor decisions, let stress and fear be your motivator.

Jeff and I thought operating more like a traditional business was the answer to our falling sales. We needed an office, more employees, and revolutionary website solutions!

Unfortunately, we forgot some things about ourselves in the process.

  1. We don’t like working in a traditional office environment. The whole reason we started our business was to escape that environment!
  2. Neither of us enjoy the stress and distraction of managing full-time employees — if it’s not absolutely necessary.
  3. Our best products are simple, clever, and well designed. However, I wouldn’t call them revolutionary. We’re not AI developers.

Of course, we had to make these mistakes ourselves.

So, we hired a full-time developer — a friend from Maui. We flew him out to Sarasota, and trained him from an office space downtown. Then, we put him to work on our revolutionary website solution for nonprofit organizations — a new business idea that wasn’t generating any revenue.

I mean, what could go wrong?

Jeff and I have volunteered our time, expertise, and products to several organizations over the years. We created the NonProfit Theme and free GivingPress Lite themes for nonprofit websites. The response towards those products was phenomenal. As a result, we recognized a need for better nonprofit websites. So, we decided to build it!

GivingPress was designed to meet the website needs of small to medium sized nonprofit organizations. Upon signup, the organization would instantly receive a securely hosted website, featuring our highly simplified and customized WordPress interface, a page builder solution, the powerful GivingPress Pro theme, and the ability to immediately accept on-site donations — all for a low monthly cost.

Honestly, it was pretty damn good.

Jeff and I showcased GivingPress at the NTEN Nonprofit Technology Conference. The experience confirmed the need for such a solution to exist, and we attracted our first customers from the event.

Unfortunately, we were continually developing the platform to meet the needs of those first few customers. Our time was spent adding convoluted integration’s that complicated the product — all to keep a few customers happy.

GivingPress tried to solve all the website needs of every nonprofit organization. That was our mistake.

The low monthly payments from a handful of customers didn’t cover the time we were spending on the project. After all, GivingPress wasn’t a charity. It took countless hours to develop the solution. Ultimately, we needed to recoup those costs and become profitable enough to sustain the business.

That never happened.

Eventually, changes with our hosting partner resulted in the original solution falling apart. GivingPress de-evolved into a web development service for nonprofits.

GivingPress was a failure, but it wasn’t a total loss. We learned a lot:

  1. Don’t put newly hired employees to work on a project that may not generate any money unless you’ve got VC funding.
  2. Don’t spend time and resources to meet the needs of a single customer if they’re not paying for it.
  3. Just because an industry need exists, doesn’t mean that building a solution for it will be profitable.
  4. If you plan to pivot, don’t change course altogether.
  5. Your heart must be fully in the business in order to succeed.

Through the development of GivingPress, I discovered a different approach to building custom page layouts using the WordPress Customizer. This seed of discovery evolved into the Organic Builder Widgets plugin. The free version currently has over 150,000 downloads and a nearly perfect 5-star rating in the WordPress plugin directory.

Working together in Sarasota had its advantages. However, it was difficult to gain momentum. The trust between Jeff and I had not been fully mended. We needed to heal our partnership, and that required cleaning up our past.

The Final Return

Jeff was eager to return to the islands. As it turns out, I was missing Maui as well. Plus, I had a house and life waiting there for me.

So, we devised a plan.

It was simple enough. After mine and Emily’s wedding, we would return to Maui. Emily and I would stage my house, and sell it within a few months. Then, we would all temporarily move somewhere new and more conducive to our business. Ultimately, Emily and I planned to settle in Sarasota near family, and start a family of our own.

The hope was to re-spark a passion and purpose for our business, and rebuild the trust between Jeff and I. We believed an exciting new environment would fuel the results.

The temporary location was decided to be a tech hub. We planned to take advantage of the unique opportunities provided by such a location.

But first, I needed to wrap up my life on Maui.

Emily and I were married in Costa Rica. It was a beautiful and intimate ceremony. Upon our return, we celebrated with family and friends at Pier 22 in Bradenton. Then, our plan was set into motion.

We began packing for Maui.

Jeff couldn’t wait to get out of Florida. He was way ahead of us.

Stuck In Paradise

I came back to Maui to leave. Emily and I staged my home, and listed the property for sale. It was a nice little cottage in a great neighborhood. We assumed it would sell fast.

However, I had to release the islands before they released me.

The thing is, Hawaii suits me — very well, almost as well as San Diego. It’s such a comfortable lifestyle.

I would often ride my scooter down to Lahaina Harbor, sitting atop my surfboard. I’d park by the docks, walk past the tourists waiting to board their whale watching excursions, and jump into the crystal clear water to go surfing. Hours would pass. With each perfect wave I caught over the reef, I would ride it into the channel, waving at the passengers aboard the boats as they sailed back and forth. Then, I would exit the water, get some Bad Ass Coffee, and scoot back home to work on a new theme or plugin.

Being a Hawaii local feels like being part of an exclusive club. It was a great life, and I knew it. It’s a hard life to let go. Pele recognized that in me.

While it’s an amazing place to live, and I genuinely appreciated every moment there, Maui no longer challenged me to grow as an individual. So mentally, I was ready to move on. Emotionally however, it was more difficult.

The island was a part of me.

I thought selling my house would be the catalyst for releasing those emotions. However, it wasn’t working out that way.

What was supposed to be a few months back on Maui, became a year-and-a-half. Selling my home was not as easy as I had anticipated.

Of course, there are worse things than being stuck on Maui. So, we made the most of the time.

Jeff and I were working together like old times. Emily had the exciting opportunity of exploring a new place. Plus, she was learning more about our business and WordPress during the time. The 3 of us were connecting as friends. However, none of us had the intention of being back on Maui for this long, and tensions were slowly mounting.

Then, one day, I drove up to Honolua on a whim. While rounding the curves, I saw nobody in the water and nobody parked along the dirt road. However, I did see waves. Excitement took hold. The butterflies in my stomach fluttered.

If you know anything about surfing, you might know that Honolua is one of the best places to surf on the planet. Also, the likelihood of surfing it entirely by yourself is practically zero. It just doesn’t happen. When “the bay” has waves, the coconut wireless lights up, and everybody and their cousin is in the water. So, this was a rare opportunity — to say the least.

I surfed Honolua for 4 hours on an incoming swell — entirely by myself. This was nothing short of a miracle.

After exiting the water, climbing the cliff to my car, and peering back out over the bay, I had a feeling…

It was sadness.

That was the pinnacle of my experience on Maui. It couldn’t get any better. In that sad realization, I released the islands. Then, I believe Pele released her grip on me.

Within a couple weeks, we accepted an offer on my house.

Back To Basics

While on Maui, our business went through several changes.

Our brand and website may give the impression that we’re a large company. In reality, Organic Themes has only ever had a handful of employees — at most. That’s including Jeff and myself.

As it turns out, the company was about to get even smaller.

GivingPress was a flop, and Organic Themes sales continued to fall. As a result, we had to let our developer go. Then, our support lead left for a job at Automattic. For the first time in 8 years, our business was back to only Jeff and I.

It was a much needed change. It forced Jeff and I to take a hard look at our business, reconnect with the needs of our customers directly, and make informed plans for the future.

The old methods of promotion were no longer working. Newsletters and new product releases were not enough to generate sales. We needed to update ourselves with current marketing trends.

Gutenberg, WordPress’ new Javascript based content editor, was looming on the horizon. Meaning, the way people use the software that our business relied upon was about to change. As a result, we needed to prepare for those changes in our industry.

The WordPress theme market had become extremely saturated. Marketplaces like Theme Forest, the Walmart for WordPress themes, dominated search rankings and sales — making it difficult for independent theme shops like ourselves to survive. As a result, we needed to broaden our focus to include more than just themes.

Next, we needed a new support employee ASAP, so Jeff and I could focus on making those necessary changes in our business. My wife, Emily, was a natural choice. She had a vested interest in keeping our customers happy, and reporting their needs directly to us. So, we hired Emily to manage customer support. She has been fantastic, and regularly receives glowing reviews from our customers.

Now that our home on Maui had sold, we began implementing the rest of our plan — which involved a new environment.

Boulder

Despite my reluctance to give up surfing, we all agreed to move to Boulder, Colorado. What an important mutual decision that was.

We ultimately agreed on six months. That would give Jeff and I enough time to utilize the resources of the area, work on our partnership, and begin the necessary changes for our business. Then, Emily and I would move on to settle in Sarasota.

During that time, Emily and I took up yoga. Jeff and I began mountain biking together, and we all enjoyed hiking in the majestic Colorado Rockies.

Jeff and I started seeing a business and relationship therapist, David Pasikov. He played an integral role in relinquishing the demons of our past, and giving us the tools to move forward as friends and business owners.

We joined Galvanize — a tech co-working, incubation, and education community. Jeff and I took Javascript courses to familiarize ourselves with changes occurring in the WordPress platform.

Jeff began taking marketing courses at Galvanize as well, and familiarizing himself with the latest methods of online advertising.

Being part of a tech community was illuminating. We built our business over the course of 10 years, largely in isolation. As a result, we always wondered if we were making the right decisions.

Perhaps the biggest surprise came from exploring the mentor hours offered by Galvanize. Ironically, the most helpful “mentor” was actually the least helpful. In fact, he was a dick. We had high hopes, considering how similar his business was to our own. However, he acted like we were a waste of his volunteered time. He provided no advice or help, belittled us, and rushed us out the door as fast as possible. Eventually, we came to realize that he couldn’t help because he lacked the answers. He was struggling with the same questions. We were operating at the same level. His ego was just too big to admit it.

Jeff and I always imagined our business as a startup. In reality, it’s a bootstrapped business that has operated successfully in the tech space for 10 years. It’s probably not going to make us millionaires. However, it does provide the freedom and lifestyle we seek.

The Galvanize community helped open our eyes to the success we have achieved, and obstacles we overcame during our time in business. Additionally, they provided us with much needed resources.

Our therapist helped us come to terms with the anger and resentment of our past. He mended our partnership, and provided us with tools for keeping it healthy.

The Present And Future

Mine and Emily’s time in Boulder came to an end. We thoroughly enjoyed Colorado, but we were ready to build a foundation in our home state. So, we purchased a home in Sarasota in 2018.

When I moved to Hawaii, I abandoned my home. I wandered the country for nearly 15 years, searching for the best place to live and work. For a long time, I was unsettled.

If you’re physically unsettled, you’re mentally and emotionally unsettled. As a result, your life, business, and relationships will be unsettled.

When I finally came back to Florida, I was a new person. I saw it with new eyes, and a renewed appreciation. I love being settled back home.

I’ve been extremely fortunate to live in some incredible places. However, in my experience, the best place to live is where the best people in your life are.

I’m making new friends, reconnecting with old ones, and enjoying time with family. To my surprise, the surfing in Sarasota has even proved to be better than expected.

Mine and Emily’s relationship is better than ever. She is my soul mate. Our prior lives were only grooming us for each other. We’re starting a new chapter together, and the promise of that adventure is more exciting and fulfilling than any other adventure.

Jeff is currently in Boulder. He survived his first ever “true” winter. Although, he doesn’t seem to be in love with the freezing climate. However, he is making the most of his time, and planning his next move.

Jeff and I have repaired our partnership and friendship. We are maintaining a healthy relationship and communication while working long distance. Additionally, we’re collaborating on new projects and ideas. We’re even playing video games together again, like the old days!

We’ve focused on pivoting Organic Themes into more than a WordPress theme company. The popularity of our website builder plugin continues to grow. Plus, we have introduced new services for monitoring website performance and security.

We’re seeing a renewed interest in our brand. Additionally, sales are on the rise for the first time in several years.

I’m sure there will be more trials in the future. The WordPress industry and our business will continue to evolve. But right now, we’re in a good place, and looking to the future.

I’ll leave you with a video of what pure joy looks like — surfing with friends in Sarasota.

4 Comments on “10 Years Ago I Founded A Tech Startup in Hawaii – This Is Our Story”

  1. full wets..? murky water…? deflated shaka’s..?
    I’ll take H-bay brah…
    but it’s good to see u still reppin the HIC

    • Oh yeah, there’s no comparison. I would take H-bay almost any day over anywhere else. I can find stoke on any wave, but I can’t find any other wave like Honolua. 😉

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