Full Interview Transcript | Todd Ross Nienkerk, Co-founder of Four Kitchens

24 May, 2023

Alethia [TDT] 0:12

Hello to all the TDT readers, uh, on this case viewers. I'm Alethia Braganza, and I'm joined by Todd Ross Nienkerk. Todd is the CEO, owner, and co-founder of Four Kitchens. He has had a long list of contributed roles to his name and is an active member of the Trooper community. Hi Todd, thank you for taking the time to sit with TDT

Todd Nienkerk 0:31
Absolutely happy to.

Alethia [TDT] 0:37

As an active member of the Drupal Community, would you be able to tell us or do you recall your first Drupal encounter? And, do you remember the first time where you thought to yourself, "Okay, it could be Drupal from here on"?

Todd Nienkerk 0:58

That's a great question. So, I co-founded Four Kitchens in 2006 with three other people: David Strauss, Aaron Stanish, and Kristen Hillary. We started as a publishing company, so we launched a paper in Austin, Texas. We were looking for a CMS to build the website, and since we had just graduated from university and had no money or investment, we knew we had to use a free and open-source CMS. At that time, I had taught myself WordPress, but it was more suited for blogs, and we wanted to launch a magazine-like website, something more complex. So, WordPress didn't feel like a good fit.

We ended up building the first version of the website in MediaWiki, the open-source CMS that powers Wikipedia. Looking back, it was an odd choice because MediaWiki is a complicated CMS designed specifically for running Wikipedia. However, two weeks before the site launch, David Strauss approached me and suggested switching CMS. I was hesitant since we were so close to launching, but he convinced me that Drupal was a better fit with a more vibrant community and well-suited for a publishing site.

So, we made the switch and spent those two weeks completely rebuilding the site and migrating the content from MediaWiki to Drupal. This was back in 2006, using Drupal version 4.7.2. Due to the complexity of the site, we had to write custom modules and make contributions to the Drupal core. As a result, we quickly became experts in Drupal. It became clear to me that Drupal was the CMS we would be using for a long time.

Additionally, getting to know the Drupal community during that time was a great experience. The WordPress community had a different feel, not better or worse, just different. They had different business models. But the Drupal community felt genuinely fun and great, and we were excited to get involved.

Yeah, Drupal does have quite a strong community.

Alethia [TDT] 4:42

But also, of course, your social media platforms, do talk about your background. I think you had, I think, a degree in Communications that is Radio, Film, as well as Psychology. What inspired you to switch over to Tech?

Todd Nienkerk 0:58

I've always been interested in technology and in the web. Um, I started building websites probably in 1994 or 1995 when I was in middle school. In high school, that was back in the day of platforms like Geocities and Tripod, and free website platforms like that. It was also a time when, if you had a subscription to a dial-up internet service provider, sometimes they would give you a little bit of space on their web server, like two megabytes, and you could put whatever you wanted on there. So, I started making websites for myself and for my friends. Publishing was really when it started and how I got started with that.

Um, I created an underground Zine, an alternative to the student newspaper at my high school. I was able to set up a newsletter system. This was back before MailChimp or anything like that, none of that existed at that point. So, it was a creative outlet. Learning the technology was a way to be creative technically but also to publish writing, photography, stories, and things like that. Stuff that I was interested in doing in my spare time. It was fun to have people read that stuff and talk to me in person about the websites I built, the stories, and articles that we had published. It was really rewarding to know that people were actually seeing this and they were seeing it because of the internet and because they had access to that.

So, when I went to university, I started in computer science. But I very quickly became disillusioned with that program. I went to the University of Texas at Austin, which has a very good computer science program, but I was interested in the internet. What they were teaching in computer science was all academic, theoretical computer science. It wasn't applied computer science, it wasn't engineering. When I asked my professors and the dean of the program when they were going to start offering some classes that touch on the internet or have internet-related technologies, I was told that the internet is not programming. Oh, so I realized these people are kind of dinosaurs. They're not following technology, they aren't paying attention to what's relevant. I realized that if I wanted to learn PHP, JavaScript, and all of these things, I would have to teach myself on the side, on my own time.

So then I thought, if I have to learn that on my own time, I should study something that I'm genuinely interested in because I'm not genuinely interested in calculating the number of loops that can be processed in a millisecond or these languages like assembly, scheme, lisp, and all of these esoteric, machine-level, academic languages. That's just not very interesting to me. So, I left the computer science program and I enrolled in psychology and in radio-television film, which is like mass media. So, I have two degrees, psychology and media. I didn't know it at the time, but it turned out that those two areas of study are really relevant to what we do on the internet.

Psychology is about, in part, how people perceive information, perceive the world, and how they interact with it and other people. Media, mass media, is about how information is broadcast to large audiences and how people receive information through different channels. So, it could be film, radio, television, the internet, or podcasts, or whatever. So, I didn't intend to study these things through the lens of building websites professionally, but it turned out that knowing how people interact with each other and how people receive information at scale is very relevant to making websites and working.

Alethia [TDT] 9:54

I love that decision that you made, and I do agree that psychology has its place in many different sectors. Um, coming to Four Kitchens, I think I'm also interested in knowing about the timeline of Four Kitchens. Could you tell us a little bit about it, especially from the establishment? what was that moment that made you understand; that okay it's kind of taking off from here ?

Todd Nienkerk 10:36

Uh, when we first started Four Kitchens, we thought we would be a publishing company, so we wanted to launch a paper. In Austin, all four of us had met at the University of Texas where we worked on the student humor publication, so it was like satire comedy. And that's what we enjoyed doing. So as we all started to graduate, we thought, well, that's a lot of fun. What if we could turn that into a job? We had nothing to lose because we had no money, and the jobs that some of us had, we didn't particularly like. So we decided to launch this paper, and we had to learn web design along the way, web development, design, in order to build the websites for these things because we couldn't hire people to do it. We had no money.

And that time period that we were in school, which for me was 2000 to 2005, and for some of the other co-founders, it was like 2002 to 2006 or so, that time frame is when CMS's were invented, essentially. So before the year 2000, it was flat HTML files or desktop programs like Dreamweaver where you would write an HTML or edit something through WYSIWYG, and then it would upload HTML files to a server. In that period where we were in school and not really paying attention to how web design was evolving, that's when things like Drupal and WordPress and MediaWiki were invented. So when we graduated, we had to learn all of that stuff all over again. It was like a completely different internet by the time we graduated. The moment that we realized this was really probably the future of the company was after launching the website for the paper. We started to get some attention within the Drupal community because this website looked really, really good. It was really well designed and it was kind of complicated. It was one of the larger Drupal sites on the web at the time. We didn't know that, but it didn't look like a Drupal site. It didn't look or act or feel like a Drupal site at that point. And it got some attention as a result because this is back before people were doing really creative, interesting things in the front end.

Everybody was still kind of figuring out what Drupal was going to be and how it was going to work. And as a result of building this site that looked really good, we started getting calls from people who were running their own Drupal sites or companies that had Drupal sites or publishers that had Drupal sites. And they asked us if we designed that, and we said yes. And they said, "Well, we need help with ours. Would you be willing to help with our Drupal site?" And we needed to pay the bills, so we started doing a little bit of web design and consulting and things like that on the side. But very quickly, we realized this is the business, and Four Kitchens shifted from being a publishing company to being a web agency and helping other publishers and now nonprofits and universities and all kinds of organizations build websites for themselves.

Alethia [TDT]13:57
Uh, from what you just told me, it does seem like Four Kitchens was always ahead of its time, and especially at the time when CMS was still starting out. So there's definitely a considerable difference now, especially post-pandemic. Four Kitchens had quite an acquisition. Could you tell us a little bit about that and how it strengthened Four Kitchens?

Todd Nienkerk 14:32

Sure. Well, there have actually been two mergers and acquisitions in the past few years. So in 2021, we merged with Advamatic. Advamatic had been around even before Four Kitchens and was very involved in the Drupal community. Automatic is very well known for working with advocacy organizations, nonprofits, labor unions, and also some universities. That aligned really nicely with the work that we were already doing at Four Kitchens. We kind of got our start in publishing, but over the years, we had taken on more and more higher education and nonprofit clients. And we saw this as a really nice complimentary merger of our clients and our skills. So that happened in 2021.

And in 2022, we made the decision to expand internationally, to build our team outside of the US and Canada. We had a long-time friendship with Beto and Lou at Manatee, and we had talked about maybe doing something like this in the past, but the time wasn't right. I honestly didn't really have a good understanding of how that would work or the right vision for it years ago. But after merging with Advamatic and understanding how that process works, we then decided this would be a good time to do it, and we had the experience to do it. So I reached out to Beto and Lou, and we started to have a conversation in 2022. And we finalized the acquisition on October 1st.

Alethia [TDT]16:25

Four Kitchens underwent a rebranding. In a blog post, you stated, "We're more capable and diverse, larger than ever, yet our brand has remained the same. It no longer reflects who we are or who we want to be." What was the target behind this rebranding, and in what aspects has Four Kitchens yet remained the same?

Todd Nienkerk 16:48

Great question. There were a few reasons why we wanted to rebrand, and what rebranding means is not just changing the logo. It's changing how you talk about what you do and how you communicate with the people you want to hire and the clients you want to work with. It's about how you sound, how you look, and how you present yourself to the world. It's not just a logo.

What we needed to do at that point, because we had merged with Advanatic, acquired Manatee, and expanded our business into other areas, was to redefine our identity. We had been working with nonprofits and higher education clients for years, but most people knew us for our work with large media companies like The Economist, Time Inc, Meredith, or NBC. However, we weren't doing as much work with those types of organizations anymore. Our focus had shifted, and we were utilizing different CMSs and business models that weren't aligned with those media conglomerates. We weren't the right fit for those organizations anymore. So, we had been shifting more and more towards higher education and nonprofits.

With the changes in our business, the addition of new team members, and our international expansion, we had become a completely different company. We felt different on the inside, and our public-facing work had shifted. This rebranding presented an opportunity to realign how we talk about ourselves to potential clients and attract the clients we wanted to work with. It also served as a chance to hit the reset button internally with our team.

Roughly half of the team had joined Four Kitchens through Advanatic or Manatee, and about 75 percent of the company had joined since 2020. It was like having a brand-new team. We wanted to start fresh, with everyone having an equal opportunity to contribute to building this new version of Four Kitchens. This meant changing how we presented ourselves to the world, how we talked about ourselves, and how we looked. By starting over with a new logo and a new way of communicating, everyone, regardless of their tenure at Four Kitchens, had an equal opportunity to shape this new company.

Alethia [TDT] 20:06

the mission and vision does of four kitchens does resonate. Another question that I did have was has the name for kitchens caused confusion and um why is four kitchens called four kitchens?

Todd Nienkerk 20:19

Um, so I realized I didn't, uh, I didn't answer part of your first question there, but this will actually answer that. Um, so some of the things that remain the same, we still work with the same kinds of clients that we have been for years: universities, non-profits, trade unions, non-advertising publishers, public media. All of that, we still work with all of those organizations and our underlying mission, vision, purpose, and core values have not changed. Our name didn't change in the rebranding, so all of those things remain the same. We also kept the color green, so when we went to, uh, the branding agency that we worked with called Focus Lab, we told them that the only thing we didn't want to change was the color green and that we wanted to hear their suggestions about anything else, including the name. Uh, and very quickly they came back and said, "We don't want to change the name, we won't change the name, we won't change the color green. Everything else is going to change," and that's because the, uh, the origin story of Four Kitchens and how we got our name really speaks to our culture and, uh, our values and, um, how we like to work with each other in the company and with our clients.

So, where the name came from, uh, when we were first getting started, when it was me and Kristen and Aaron and David, we were basically all living together because we, some of us had jobs, some of us didn't, uh, we were all living and working out of an apartment, uh, and we were looking for some additional space because we knew we wanted to bring in, we were running this paper, right, so we needed writers and photographers and illustrators. We needed a whole collection of people to help us do this thing. Uh, and so we knew we needed more space, uh, so we started looking around for places where we could maybe work, and we were, at the same time, we were also attending all of these meetups. So we went to some open source Meetup somewhere in Austin, and we met this guy who had built a coworking space outside of town. Uh, it wasn't called a coworking space then because the concept of coworking didn't exist as a word, but that's what it was. Uh, but he built this place outside of town, and we went and visited it, and it was this really, like, unusual structure that I think he had probably built himself, but it was this big, like, building with all of these different work areas and living areas in them. Uh, and it had, like, a really fast internet connection, which at the time was a big deal because that was hard to find. Uh, but what was interesting about the space was it had four separate living areas, each with its own kitchen, and there were four founders. So we, this just felt like, "Oh, this is a place where we can live and work." We didn't actually wind up moving into this place or working out of this place. We, we found someplace else to be, but we really liked the concept of calling the company Four Kitchen Studios, which was the original name, uh, because it was a reference to all living and working together, being creative and scrappy, uh, and just making cool stuff as a team. Uh, and that has been at the core of why we got started. It's why all four of

Alethia [TDT] 24:27

I think it's such a beautiful story to tell I I'm going to be moving a little bit towards uh your work with Drupal in terms of as a presenter as a volunteer especially at Drupal events and Drupal cons um um what what does it mean to you to be able to participate and how would you encourage others to do that as well. 

Todd Nienkerk 24:46

Um, um, what does it mean to you to be able to participate, and how would you encourage others to do that as well? Well, I have to admit that my personal participation in the Drupal community and project has scaled back over the years, and that's because I've shifted more of my attention into the agency community. So, when I was actively involved in the Drupal community, there were lots of people on our team that were involved in the day-to-day and contributing to modules and initiatives. Open source is deeply human, allowing us to freely share our work, ideas, and innovations. It's important for us as humans and also beneficial for business. In the world of open source, we can quickly focus on delivering services and customizations without spending excessive time selling a product. Knowledge should be free, which aligns with Four Kitchens' mission of setting knowledge free through working with open source platforms and sharing expertise.

I have some deep issues with how we try to control ideas through patents, trademarks, and copyright. While there may be some importance to intellectual property protection, it is often abused. More transparency and freedom in using knowledge would benefit us all. Ideas cannot truly be owned, and I believe we would be better off with a more open approach. That's my soapbox.

Alethia [TDT] 30:42

I think my last question to wrap up uh this conversation would be well of course today you are the CEO for kitchens uh but there was a time when you were just starting out to uh would do you have any kind of words of advice towards anyone regardless of age starting out especially not just the do's but you know the don'ts as well

Todd Nienkerk 31:19

Yeah, I have a lot to say, let me try to be brief. Well, let's see. I have a lot to say about that, I'll just pick a few things. Yeah, um, so I think the first thing is my perspective is from client services. We have almost always been a client service company. We build things for other people and other companies. If that's the kind of business you want to get into, then you could be an independent contractor, start an agency, or work with one or two other people. There are lots of different ways you can do that. My first piece of advice would be to do it. Don't be afraid to do it. It will be scary and stressful, and there will be times when you maybe regret it, but it's really valuable. The freedom that you get from running your own business or being an independent contractor is super rewarding.

The other side of that coin is the uncertainty and stress that can come along with it. So, my second piece of advice is you need to figure out how to manage your stress. There are literally hundreds or thousands of books in the world about how to manage stress. It can range from therapy to yoga to exercise. People do all kinds of things to manage stress, but you need to figure out what works for you. This job can really be heavy at times, especially when the economy isn't good or you're dealing with things like a pandemic, and you feel the weight of everybody's jobs on your shoulders.

The next piece of advice would be that it's easier to specialize. If you go into the world saying, "I want to make websites," and you are willing to make websites for anybody and everybody, then it's actually going to be harder for you in the long run. You won't be able to make as much money, and you'll be competing against many more people and companies. You need to have a focus. You need to really understand the kinds of clients you're working with, the type of work you do, and the technologies or techniques you employ. The smaller the specialization, the better off you'll actually be in the long run. For Four Kitchens is not super specialized, we're pretty specialized, but I've met other agencies that do very specific things, and as a result, their sales pipeline is always full. They're the only ones in the world that do this kind of thing for these kinds of companies, and they all line up to work with them. You have to constantly refine your specialization because the market and technologies are always changing. What you specialize in now probably won't be what you specialize in five years from now. So, you also have to be thinking ahead to what's the next thing we need to specialize in. It'll be harder at first, but life will get a lot easier in the long run if you narrow the work that you.

Alethia [TDT] 35:27

well thank you for that advice. Specialization, right I should take that advice from myself as well
um thank you so much uh Todd for giving us your time it has definitely been an insightful conversation for me and TDT. We wish you well thank you once again and have a good day  ahead thank you

Todd Nienkerk 35:47

I appreciate it

Alethia [TDT] 35:47
this is signing out goodbye


Note: The vision of this web portal is to help promote news and stories around the Drupal community and promote and celebrate the people and organizations in the community. We strive to create and distribute our content based on these content policy. If you see any omission/variation on this please let us know in the comments below and we will try to address the issue as best we can.

Advertisement Here
Advertisement Here

Latest Opportunities

Upcoming Events

Advertisement Here