by Catriona Mitchell
Ubud Now & Then’s uber-talented web developer, Ric Shreves, did a degree in music and another in law in the US; he then worked in Seoul, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing and Bangkok, picking up tech skills at every stop and making and losing his fortune in the dotcom boom, before moving to Bali to set up his Seminyak-based web development business, water&stone. Most recently he packed that business off to Singapore and his leisure-time (and his pets) up to Ubud. The author of 20 books including 13 leading titles on technology, Ric’s first “For Dummies” book hit the shelves a matter of days ago, and he’s on a mission to make WordPress – which now powers between 20-40% of all websites online – accessible and user-friendly to site owners via a ‘how to’ launch in May. Catriona talked to Ric about his tech obsessions, his affection for Ubud after a two decade-long working tour of Asia’s megacities, and the unusual way he chooses to wind down after a hard day at the screen.
Ric, you’re multi-talented, you’ve lived in some of Asia’s most fascinating and vibrant cities, and your business is now a portable one. Why have you picked Ubud as a place to lay your hat?
I first came to Bali in 1997 on a holiday, and found it really charming and wonderful and really enjoyed Ubud. It was very relaxed… at that point in time the ratio of cars to motorcycles was pretty much the opposite of what it is now. It was much easier to get around it wasn’t as stressful or intense.
When I lived down south, it was strictly because of business reasons. water&stone was set up as a PT company and had 13 staff. I shut down the Bali operation and moved offshore to Singapore in 2011. When all that happened I no longer had a business reason to be down south, and I was really fed up with watching Legian turn into Kuta and Seminyak turn into Legian and Batu Belig and Umalas were next… the writing was on the wall. I’d had a lovely house completely surrounded by sawah, and by the time I left there were restaurants up to my back fence and it wasn’t fun any more to be there.
For me, Ubud has the right combination of climate, scenery and vibe. I love the fact that the restaurant scene has taken off. While the town is not so much fun in the daytime, at night it retains its charm and is a joy.
Having cast off all the staff and the overheads, you must have adopted a much simpler style of living up here.
Sure. I really focused on writing. All the web development took a back seat.
Did that feel like a liberating thing to do?
Dragging around staff is always difficult, right? Yeah, it was very liberating
Do you find Ubud a conducive place for writing?
When I’m writing I can pretty much write anywhere. I write five pages a day; that’s it. That’s the goal. I’m to the point now where I can do that pretty much anywhere, but sitting here at the house, staring out across the garden, is the best spot I’ve found.
You haven’t had any formal training in IT at all, and yet you’re a world expert, writing leading books on the subject. You’re entirely self-taught. What’s been your process in acquiring all that knowledge?
I’ve been involved in Internet technology since there was an Internet. I started out on the Mozaic browser. There was no training at that point in time. I had multimedia skills and those sort of morphed into coding and online interactive design. Over time, I’ve invested in developing those skills, but I am largely self-taught. I don’t claim to be a programmer, rather I am someone who understands how to bridge the gap between technologists and business people.
Your latest book is your most high-profile one to date; it will be sold in bookshops around the globe and has just been released.
Yes. I just finished ‘Social Media Optimization for Dummies’ which is part of the really popular ‘For Dummies’ series. It hit the bookshelves on the 20th of April.
Can you give me a low-tech run-down of what the book is about?
Social media optimization is the discipline of turning your social media practice into more of a process and making it more effective, more efficient. It’s about identifying tools that help you become a better social media practitioner. If you’ve done any social media work, you know that it can suck up massive amounts of time; it’s really easy to wander around and not have a plan. This book is all about being more effective in doing that job. It’s literally as the title says: social media optimization. A lot of people use the term narrowly to refer to using social media to drive traffic to their website, but I took a larger view.
Which major issues does the book focus on?
It’s built around goals. There are some basic nuts and bolts chapters, and a whole series of chapters that are focused on specific goals, for example you want to drive traffic to your website, there’s a chapter on that. You want to promote products; there’s a chapter on that. You want to promote your event; there’s a chapter on that. It’s very task-oriented.
Is this only relevant for small business?
No, it’s aimed at all social media practitioners, whether it’s do-it-yourselfers or people employed by a corporation.
This is a print book, but you also recently launched your first e-book too
Yes. In October last year I moved into self-publishing; I published my first e-book title called ‘HowTo: WordPress 4’. It’s very much a book aimed at WordPress site owners, to make it easier for them to own a site. It’s about how you accomplish all the common tasks in short, succinct, step-by-step form.
You’re taking it a step further though aren’t you? Last week at Hubud you gave a session on your newest ideas for the book, which take it beyond e-book format.
The book has done fairly well, and what I’ve done with it more recently is, I’ve taken the book and converted it into website-type material so it can be published online in individual units. I’m setting up a website that sells access to that.
E-books don’t give you the level of interactivity that you can get out of a website; it’s difficult to embed videos, it’s hard to update, that sort of thing. So the website is actually a much more responsive platform for interactive media. I’m just finalizing that site and will be launching in May. It’ll be a subscription site that gives you access to all the content from that book, plus the next book that I’m working on now, plus webinars and other resources and a forum for the users to interact with each other, that sort of thing. And there will be video versions of all the lessons.
Why does WordPress not issue its own user guides?
Because they’re techies. Techies’ documentation normally leaves a bit to be desired. It’s really fine if you’re a developer. But if you’re a site owner who just wants to figure out how to change a user’s password, you have to dig around and search and maybe eventually you’ll find something that says ‘do this’, but more likely you’ll find a long description of how the function works and then you have to translate that into actions. So what I’ve done is stripped it all down to bare minimums. How do you change a user’s password? Step one, step two, step three, step four, click “save.” It’s that sort of approach.
You’re basically living inside the head of a tech expert, and communicating as a non-tech person.
That’s what I’ve tried to do, yes. I’ve always tried to act as a sort of bridge between the tech people and the business people.
I’ve heard that in addition to your deep interests in technology, you’re a horologist. The Dalai Lama is the only other horologist I’m aware of; it seems such a throwback to another era and a total contrast to your cutting-edge tech insights. What’s going on there?
My hobby is restoring vintage mechanical watches, typically pre WWII. It’s one of those hobbies that started off as an interest that turned into a passion and now verges on obsession. I spend so much of my time sitting in front of a computer, writing, doing things that I’m not going to see the output of for months and months. When I’m writing I’m always multi-tasking: I’ve got two or three monitors on, I’m researching something while I’m writing something else… but when working on the watches, I’ve got the magnification on my face, I’ve got these tiny tools, these tiny parts, I’ve got to breathe slow, and I’ve got to be right there. I can’t be anywhere else. If I’m distracted, I screw it up. If I’m in a rush I screw it up. If I’m tired, I screw it up. And so I have found that I’ll go on these long tears of writing, and then I’ll take a break and go over and sit and work on a watch. It’s almost cathartic.
Yes, in a sense there is an overlap with meditation.
When you want to relax in Ubud, what do you do?
I’m a real homebody so I cook, I watch movies, I get out on the motorcycle, go out for a nice dinner. That’s when I’m not in Singapore working.
Both the new For Dummies title and HowTo:WordPress 4 are available on Amazon.com. Ric’s new site — the online interactive version of the HowTo series will be launched in mid-May at http://HowTo-WordPress.net