Mark Zahra of RebelCode

Mark Zahra – CEO of RebelCode

April 12, 2021 / Agencies, Plugins / 0 comments

My name is Mark Zahra, CEO of RebelCode – the team behind WP Mayor, WP RSS Aggregator, and Spotlight Instagram Feeds. While most people in my position may have a background in tech, I was studying to become an architect until the age of 22.

I was always into building and designing things from a young age, oftentimes with Lego, so I thought architecture would be a natural fit. Two years into my university course I realized that I didn’t have any passion for the profession itself, so I left and started looking for my next adventure.

The Journey Began

After leaving university I spent a few months working in real estate, I dedicated one summer to learn some basic coding skills (HTML and CSS). I had never learned to code before but since I was passionate about design and wanted to find a job that I could do remotely, I gave it a shot. This was back in 2014.

Around the same time, my hockey club needed some help with their website so I started to dabble in WordPress. While continuing to do some online coding courses and breaking a few WordPress sites, I met Jean Galea, founder of WP Mayor. Jean is my cousin but we hadn’t seen each other in a long time. When we met and I told him what I was up to, he asked whether I’d like to try my hand at writing about WordPress on WP Mayor.

My first ever contribution to WordPress - a theme review on WP Mayor

Mark Zahra first ever contribution to WordPress – a theme review on WP Mayor.

One article and my first paycheck later, my journey into the WordPress world had begun. I was hooked by the customizability of WordPress and intrigued by the community around it.

Between August 2014 and today I’ve worked in many different roles. Starting as a content writer, then became an editor for WP Mayor. While doing that, I also started helping in plugin support for WP RSS Aggregator, which led to a Support Lead role, then Project Manager as I got more involved in our product development, and eventually CEO overlooking all WordPress projects.

The Need for Spotlight

Spotlight Logo
Spotlight Logo

Spotlight Instagram Feeds is our latest venture but its inspiration came from WP RSS Aggregator, our (currently) largest plugin with 70,000+ active installations on WordPress.org.

We had a lot of people asking us to support social media feeds via RSS, but at that time many social media platforms were removing their RSS feeds so we had to resort to 3rd-party services.

Those services weren’t reliable and were oftentimes discontinued after a couple of years, so the frustrations grew. In late 2019 I was looking for our next potential plugin idea and started researching social media feed plugins. That’s when I noticed that all plugins in this niche were either too basic, too troublesome, or simply not user-friendly at all.

We had just found our next product idea. Now it was time to execute.

Launching a New Product in a Crowded Market

When deciding how to differentiate Spotlight from the competition, we focused on the user experience. This was something that bothered me in all the plugins I tested during my research, so it was going to be our first and biggest differentiating factor from the competition.

Spotlight intuitive UI makes the user experience incredibly simple
Spotlight’s intuitive UI makes the user experience incredibly simple.

Beyond that, we started looking into other ways that Instagram feeds could be used on websites, not just simple galleries. From that, we developed a long-term roadmap that we’re still following today.

Some of our competitors have user bases that go into the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and even millions of websites, so we knew we had to build something amazing to even get in the door. That psychological barrier was our first hurdle to overcome, but after a few weeks of back-and-forth on how to design the plugin, we were confident that we were onto a winner.

We stuck to the format used by the WordPress block editor with the thought that familiarity is key to offering a smooth initial experience. Miguel, our CTO, is responsible for the development of Spotlight and he’s done a brilliant job in building a solid foundation that we continue to expand on.

User feedback has shown that Spotlight’s ease-of-use and customizability far exceed those of our competitors and that’s shown in the growth of the plugin.

Today we’re incredibly proud to say that Spotlight Instagram Feeds is used on 10,000+ websites in less than 9 months after launching and our premium option, Spotlight PRO, continues to grow daily.

Managing Multiple Projects

At the same time, WP RSS Aggregator has also seen further growth and we’re expanding it even further in 2021. We’ve learned a lot from our experience with Spotlight over the past year and will apply that knowledge to WP RSS Aggregator in the coming months.

This was certainly one of the advantages of starting a new project – it gave the entire team a whole new perspective on what’s possible and what we can achieve. It offered a great learning experience that we wouldn’t have otherwise had if we stuck to just one product.

The WP Mayor website before and after the redesign
The WP Mayor website before and after the redesign.

While these two plugins take up most of my time today, I can’t forget WP Mayor. Last year we celebrated our 10th anniversary with an entirely new website design. We’ve seen an increase in traffic and readership in the first few months since the relaunch and we’ve got more planned for the site in the near future.

Gaby, our Content Manager, is doing a great job to improve our content and the services we offer for other WordPress businesses. We’ve just launched new service packages to help with anyone’s content marketing needs and the response has been very encouraging.

Myself with my Brilliant Team

Team RebelCode
Team RebelCode

Advice for Business Owners

These are some of the lessons I’ve learned over the past few years:

  1. Always keep learning and trying new things. If you have a business idea and you’re confident that people will like it, speak with your potential audience. Read up on the topic and research your competition in detail. Get as much feedback as you can and then do what you think is right.
  2. Don’t be the cheapest option. Differentiating yourself based on price is not a long-term plan. I’ve seen this happen too many times in the WordPress space and it has devalued many products and niches to the extent that many people expect to get access to amazing solutions for free. Price your product or service based on the value it provides.
  3. Stop waiting, ship it. This is something I struggled with for a long-time, always wanting to perfect something before I put it out there. Although I believe you should always deliver a quality product, set realistic expectations for your MVP, and get it out there to start collecting some real feedback.

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WordPress & Beyond

As a team, we’re constantly looking for ways to grow our business – whether it’s updating our existing plugins, creating new products, or evolving WP Mayor, there’s always something going on at RebelCode. We’re a small team that is passionate about what we do and, more importantly, how we do it.

The growth of WordPress itself is important for us. With WordPress’s foray into full site editing later this year, I expect to see a shift in the way WordPress products are built in the next 2 to 3 years.

We’re already seeing some creative uses of the block editor and our experience building Spotlight was heavily influenced by that. Although I’m not sure about the initial stability of this next step given my experience with the block editor, I do think it’s a step in the right direction if executed well.

WordPress’s market share continues to grow rapidly and I don’t expect that to change any time soon. I believe many companies will look to build on it and develop products or services that make working with WordPress even easier. It’s worth keeping an eye on the evolution of other platforms at this point.

Those who work outside of WordPress have a completely different perspective and set of limitations, so the creativity and ingenuity applied by them can be a source of inspiration for WordPress product owners and service providers for years to come.

My Love for the WordPress Community

The community aspect of the WordPress industry is not something I’ve experienced anywhere else. The open communication channels, the willingness of everyone to help each other, and the light-hearted nature of (most) interactions give us the ability to learn from each other every day.

On top of that, WordCamps are a great way to make new connections and catch up with the people you often speak to or work with online. I haven’t attended one in a few years and our plans in 2020 were derailed due to the virus, but I look forward to the next one.

How I Keep Myself Updated

WordPress as an industry is evolving at a rapid pace lately. Keeping on top of the latest trends and, more importantly, the innovations are very important so as not to fall behind. I’m constantly on the lookout for what’s new and what people are doing.

Whether it’s on Twitter, Slack channels, or various blogs, I keep an eye on the conversations that are happening on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Although it can sometimes be a distraction, it’s also been a great way for me to get more involved within the community, learn from others, and develop new ideas of my own.

I also use one of our very own websites to stay on top of the blogs – WP News Desk. We built it using WP RSS Aggregator and it automatically imports all the latest posts from many sources daily. It just goes to show that RSS is still alive and kicking, even in the age of social media!

I Have a Life Other Than Work

Working remotely during a pandemic when being out and about is not always a possibility hasn’t been easy. I often find myself working late or over a weekend since I keep a flexible schedule, but having my downtime is very important to me.

Sport has always been a big part of my life. I started playing Padel around a year ago and I play every week (when possible). It keeps me active and I love to have some competition in my hobbies. I’ve been that way since I was young – always into sports and looking for my next win.

Holiday periods are always spent with family and friends so I’m thankful to have that support system around me, especially during times like these. Since we live on an island – Malta – we’ve got sea views and beautiful weather throughout most of the year, so I try to take advantage of that as often as I can.

With that being said, traveling to other countries opens up your perspective on life. Although I don’t have a single favorite destination, I loved my trip to Morocco and every time I’ve gone to watch a football match. I’ve been lucky enough to experience Old Trafford, San Siro, and Camp Nou over the past few years and I’ll never forget those trips.

I Reward Myself by 

Even though travel hasn’t been a big part of my life lately, it’s always been one of those bigger rewards for working hard. Apart from that, I like to spend my time away from work with family and friends, whether it’s for dinner and drinks or just watching a movie.

Having moved into my apartment just over a year ago and still having a passion for architecture and interior design, I like to spend some of my time alone on home projects or helping friends and family design their own homes.

From time to time I also find ways to help charities that I’ve been close to over the past few years, whether it’s a simple donation or helping them with their websites. It’s my small way of giving back to those who have helped me and those around me.

Connect With Me

You can connect with me and our team on Twitter and Facebook:

Or use the contact forms on any of our websites to reach out directly.

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