When I read that Weebly was pushing forward profitably, I recalled the interview I did with David Rusenko several months ago. Weebly doesn’t get talked about a lot, but it’s one of those startups I really wanted to do when I was in college. I even applied to Weebly as a sophomore in school and got turned down because they weren’t looking for summer interns at the time. I remember thinking at the time: creating web sites online really sucks; the best thing that exists is Macromedia Contribute and that’s a huge piece of software that you have to purchase just to make it work. This was back in the old days, when software came shrink-wrapped and you didn’t download entire operating systems as an upgrade.
Here are a few things that stuck out from the interview:
Designers are the new programmers.
By that, I mean that finding them is difficult, and UI work is challenging. A friend of mine from UIUC who is a designer (who also taught himself iOS development) recently e-mailed saying he wanted to move to Silicon Valley and join a startup. I sent a few e-mails and within 24 hours, I had 30 different startups–nearly all of them well-known and well-funded–clamoring for an introduction to him. Frameworks like Ruby on Rails have made it much easier to quickly build applications. A lot of the issues for web developers in the past, such as sessions, injections, XSS, server deployment, scaling, and to some degree cross-browser compatibility have been taken care of by various frameworks and services. We’ve figured out ways to automate a majority of the back-end work, but the real bottleneck is UI (or more generally front-end), and it still acts as one of the distinguishing factors between good applications and bad ones.
We look for people who can make magic happen. So far, we mostly hire front-end guys because the back-end stuff is not a lot of work and most of it is pretty easy. So we hire a lot of front-end guys and we are also really looking for productive people. People who can just get an abnormal amount of things done in a week and not everyone is like that. But I think a lot of people, put in the right environment without distractions—without any meetings or anything like that—can focus and crank out new features, new code.
Appreciate modest growth early on.
You aren’t going to build a Dropbox or Airbnb-scale business overnight. Of course you’re going to want hockey stick growth, but you need to listen to your early users and make sure you’re making them as excited about your product as you are.
One thing that really helped us was that we appreciated modest growth in the early days. We were driven by this sort of naïve excitement about getting 200 new users a day. It was awesome for us and it was one of those things that you can’t un-see; you can’t go back to the norm once you get to that level. That makes it really tough because you never want to discount any growth but once you get to the levels we’re at today—I mean, one hundred seems like a joke. But, at the time, 200 new users a day was absolutely amazing.
Having said that, there were a ton of ‘oh shit’ moments. Before we raised our angel round at the end of April 2007, I think we had about $45 in our bank account and couldn’t make the next month’s rent, which was coming up in a couple of weeks.Or in December 2008—we were close to being profitable but knew at the rate we were going we’d be pretty far from making next month’s payroll. We just had to keep looking at our expenses and trying to figure out where we could play with them to make it work. It was a really tight month where we basically squeezed by and then things really started picking up so it wasn’t a problem after that. But there definitely have been some pretty scary moments along the way.
Fortunately, we didn’t have to deal with any founder conflicts. We’ve always been really good friends—I would imagine it would be a lot tougher if you were just business partners and not friends. I think at least for us it has worked out very, very well because we were friends for a few years first and then began working on a startup together. That way, throughout the whole thing, if there’s ever any tension you just go out and grab a few beers and it kind of rolls off your back. We never had any major conflicts and there was sort of this assumption that you’re sticking it out together and no one is going to bail.
I write every single new user of OfficeHours.TV a thank you note shortly after they sign up (and it’s not one of those scripts that generates them; I take time out of every day to type them up and it’s part of my routine; it’s something I really enjoy doing).
What does Weebly attribute their financial success to? Small, incremental improvements. Nothing drastic.
There was a point when revenue started to take off. That’s when we actually started charging money for things and revenue growth has been absolutely phenomenal ever since we launched paid features in mid-2008. We are very profitable at this point and there’s no one specific moment that I can say we did this one thing. It’s just a lot of incremental work and incremental improvements; just a lot of individual things that have collectively built massive revenue.
Students: you don’t need to be religious about your GPA.
Not to be confused with: you don’t have to be learning in school. You do, but even when I was in school, the work/grade tradeoff was logarithmic: the jump to a 4.0 was much harder than simply maintaining a 3.75.
Realistically, I’m just not sure there are many other points in life when it’s socially acceptable to spend that much of your time having fun, without a whole lot of responsibility. I think it’s definitely something to take advantage of. In terms of classes and then trying to balance the startup life with classes—and this is just my perspective—you don’t actually need to spend that much time in your classes actually doing the work. You obviously want to try to master material that you think is going to be important to you, but in most classes you just need to get by, and there are a lot of different ways to do that. I mean, aim for, let’s say, a 3.75 instead of a 4.0 GPA and you save a whole lot of time. That was my strategy. I graduated with a 3.76 and didn’t actually have to spend that much time doing class work or attending classes, but I still managed to master the material that I knew would be most helpful to me outside of school.
Start and close your funding round quickly. Fundraising requires a completely different mindset.
Investors don’t want to hear your problems, they want to hear how awesome your product is, and how you’re going to build a massive business from it. The problem is the mindset of programming versus fundraising is different and conflicting.
When you’re programming you think about all the problems with your system, how to solve them, and then how to build the solutions. When you’re fundraising you can’t think about the problems—how would you feel if you met someone and all they were talking about was the problems with their startup? So it’s really hard to get work done when you’re struggling to balance that sort of business versus programming mindset. That constant struggle and the fact that it takes up so much of your time is why so many people just try to start and close; get it done as quickly as possible.
Startups take time to grow. Don’t shut your site down 3 months into it.
I’ve been guilty of this one before in many projects. I felt good about building something, but I didn’t want to promote it. And that’s not good enough. After I wrote a book recently, I distinctly remember saying “okay, because I’ve done this so many times before and failed, I will now mentally tell myself I’m only 50% there. There’s no satisfaction from stopping now. The rest of the 50% is promoting this thing.” And I had put in a lot of time up to that point. But it’s true, look at your product as a halfway point. It might even be more imbalanced than that: maybe product is merely 20% and growth is 80% of the work, especially if you’re building a marketplace.
I think there is a different user-growth story for every start up, which is super frustrating because it’s maybe the number two or three problem for any startup. Our user growth has been slow and meticulous, and I wrote a blog post about this that basically said, “Even if you have a great product, it can take a lot of time to get the word out.”
You see too many people that spend three or four months working on a product, launch it, and shut it down a month later, when the problem is just that it hasn’t had enough time to reach people; to get that awareness out. So that’s definitely something to think about. There are those rare success stories, where user growth is just exponential from day one, but I think for the vast majority of companies that’s not the case and it’s something that you just have to work incredibly hard at.
I’m having the same experience while I’m building OfficeHours.TV. Instead of making one giant announcement, I’ve intentionally added high-profile Senseis and announced them individually (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). This not only allows me to draw out the press, but it makes people focus on one person at a time: the bids increase, it’s an interesting story people want to hear about, and it generates more traffic.
If you liked this article, you’ll enjoy reading Startups Open Sourced.