hajj flemings interview

Hey, everyone! It’s been a little while since our last interview, but that doesn’t mean we’re done chatting with inspiring people in the WordPress universe. Today, we’re back with a fascinating interview from WordCamp Europe 2018, where we met Hajj Flemings and discussed his ambitious Rebrand Cities project.

If you missed our other interviews, you can catch them all in their dedicated category

Hajj Flemings interview
As part of our media responsibilities at WordCamp Europe, we bumped into Hajj, the co-founder of Rebrand Cities, a company that is helping small businesses without websites to get started onlineYes – there is still a huge percentage of local businesses who don’t have a website.

Hajj and his partners saw a real pain point for these businesses and their lack of an online presence. By looking at his customers as humans rather than business opportunities, Hajj wants to help 10,000 local businesses get online, start connecting with customers over the Internet, and crush the digital divide. Yes – it’s a big goal, but Hajj and his partners are already making headway.

 
Chris and I had a pleasant conversation with Hajj at WordCamp Europe about his initiatives and the ways in which Rebrand Cities’ aspirations are put into practice with the help of WordPress.

Our interviewee even had a presentation on the second day of the conference, entitled “Rebrand Cities: Crushing the Digital Divide One Website at a Time”, which awakened our interest in getting to dig more into this story.

If you prefer watching the live interview instead of reading it, we have a video version available too, which we posted on Twitter during the conference.

We split the video into eight parts, so click on the embedded tweet to see the full talk.

Hajj Flemings interview: on bringing thousands of local businesses online

How did you start working with WordPress?

Hajj Flemings:
Our relationship started in 2017 but if we take a step back prior to this, in 2015 I had the chance to meet Chris Taylor at WCUS. We had this interesting moment when we talked about what if we piloted an idea and started working with small businesses inside the neighborhoods. So in the Super Bowl weekend, Chris activated quite a few different developers, they flew out and that’s how the project was born in terms of our relationship with WP.

The WP community is a very nurturing community, of extremely passionate people, and I found it to be the perfect community to be able to work with entrepreneurs that don’t get that kind of love. These entrepreneurs work in the cities that we live and work in, but they’re not the shiny stories that everybody talks about. So having the right kind of community and culture around these entrepreneurs brings out the best of them and really keeps them energized to be able to tell their story.

Tell us about Rebrand Cities.

Hajj Flemings:
Rebrand Cities is a global design initiative, and our total focus is to bring 10k businesses that are offline, online. When we say “crushing the digital divide”, we realize that there are a lot of digital challenges. So we created experiences in cities such as providing branding resources, insights, and workshops. We do the actual web development for the business owner. Most of our business owners are working 10 to 12 hours a day. So we wanted to take this off of their plate.

And what we found was that, if you have something that they understand as tangible and you make them a part of the process, then they can engage, really be involved, and get across the finish line.

We found that our co-creation process with the business owners is not only refreshing but it’s a learning opportunity for us because we learn more about cities, we learn more about the business owners and the industry that they’re in. And so we view this as almost like our own personal MBA program in terms of learning. Sometimes we look at learning as being one-way and we think that, if you’re bringing resources and opportunities, then the people and business owners that you’re working with should be grateful. But I think we should be just as grateful as well.

You want to get 10,000 businesses online. What’s the status?

Hajj Flemings:
We’re making good progress; we have activations in at least six cities, we have multiple cohorts, we’re activating in international cities, we’re having conversations with cities like Liverpool (that’s from outside the US). So we’re really excited about where the things are going. We’re creating really good relationships and city partners. Our goal is really geared on scaling, so we’re always looking to identify channel partners that are inside the community we want to get to.

So our goal is that we want to have an activation happening somewhere around the globe every single week. And it’s not just me being on the face of it, but identifying ambassadors and people who live and work in the community we’re going to.

Who is doing cutting-edge things in WordPress right now?

Hajj Flemings:
I can look just at the core team, I can look at some of the work that John Maeda is doing with the team. Having the chance to have a conversation with Kinsey Wilson, with his background and his top process of telling the art of stories, I can see how that work is going to be paramount to making WordPress.com a platform that people look at as being the gold standard for turn-key solutions for websites. So the people that I had the chance to interface with turned out to be amazing in the part of the core team. I think Matt obviously is assembling a superstar team, not in name but in work ethic; people who are bringing something to the table, who are really committed to this open-source community.

Describe the community in one word.

Hajj Flemings:
Passionate.

I know that’s a word that’s really overused, but when I interact with people (whether it’s the developers or the creatives), they love the work that they’re doing. And you can see that it’s not only about making money, but they really want to make a difference. And so it’s interesting working with people that are… real people. I’ve had the chance to interact with a lot of good, genuine people who really like what they do.

How important is accessibility to bridging the digital divide?

Hajj Flemings:
It’s critical. When I look at society, I see the world gap. And I think that the technology gap, if we’re not careful, can make the world gap even wider. So giving people access means helping them to understand about being present and visible. And not only that, but we have to make sure it represents the business properly.

We’re trying to make our business owners understand that their sites might not get you millions of people at your door, but what they do is giving you an opportunity to be where your customers are so you can connect with them. We’re creating assets that they can use. For instance, photo-shoots, so that they can use photos for marketing materials. We are embedding all the digital breadcrumbs, all the things that are part of making them involved in the conversation that’s happening online, making them embedded into the ecosystem, understanding the players and the different things that can help them connect with their customers. Ultimately, it’s not just about crushing the digital divide but about making businesses more successful.

So what can we do to make them become sustainable and resilient in times like these? For instance, we have this young lady and, after we launched her site, she had an event, posted it and she generated $1000 in 4 days. That might not seem like a lot of money to a lot of people but to a small business… One thing that we talked about is predictable income, and so trying to thrive that kind of regular occurring activities, so that when the rent starts to rise in these communities, they will be able to maintain the space because they’re generating more money with websites. So it’s not only about the utility of a site, but about using it to drive revenue.

What are your recommendations for business owners looking to boost their business?

Hajj Flemings:
People connect with authentic stories. I think in the world that we live in it’s so easy to try to chase something that is not real. Trying to be authentic and creating a story that people can actually connect to I think is important because you have an opportunity to connect with your customers directly. So, understanding your story and being able to tell that compelling story I think is critically important.

Also knowing your customer is important; talking to a real customer. We have an avatar of our customer. For example, we have a customer, a lady from New Jersey. We have a picture of her up, she’s an entrepreneur, a mother of four, she’s in her mid-30s, and we look at that profile which reminds us of the work that we’re doing and who we’re working for. And it’s not “we’re just doing it just to do it”, but this is the person that we’re targeting. A lot of our customers are not necessarily adapted to the technology and we know that. The solution we’re bringing to the table works perfectly to be able to get them to the first base and then we can look to help them to a better scale.

Could you share an inspiring story from the Detroit project?

Hajj Flemings:
I think an inspiring story for us is from when we started; we realized back then that we were solving the wrong problem. But that worked to propel the work we’re doing today and it helped us to pivot. Because we realized that we need to work on just one thing, and that thing was making people visible from a digital standpoint. That kind of “aha” moments that happen when you have the chance to work in a community, because in the neighborhood that we were working in we had a coffee shop that generated $3500 a month. That was not profit, that was revenue. So you think about businesses like that and know they are not non-sustainable businesses. So it’s those stories that we look at and ask how can we help them to be able to generate more money. So when we looked at this business, we helped them to get acquired, which was an important part of that project because it helped that business transition into what came next.

We had a lot of businesses that we had to work with and that have been awesome. Brix… they were part of WordPress.com first ever TV commercials, and so being able to take this new business that had just gotten started and make them part of a TV commercial that was in six different markets. And now their business is successful, it’s growing.

So this kind of businesses that we had the chance to be able to take to a larger community is what really makes us proud of the work that we’re doing.

Hajj Flemings has set a high bar and what he’s trying to accomplish is far from easy. But he’s aware of that and he’s doing his best in following this direction no matter what. And WordPress will be his partner in helping small businesses around the world move into the digital age.

What do you think about Hajj’s initiative? If you find his projects valuable and want to know more about them, or maybe even need help with your own business, make sure to visit Rebrand Cities. Also, don’t forget to leave your questions, thoughts, and suggestions in the comments section below.

And while you’re at it, sharing this interview with your connections might help another aspiring entrepreneur put their work online. 

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