100,000 Users And So Can You

A history of Carbonmade.

This article was published on October 21, 2009.
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This is the history of Carbonmade from its start in early 2006 up to our reaching 100,000 registered users in March 2009 and how we got there. It’s not a story of rock stars and energy drinks; just three guys working on something they enjoy and grinding it out every day. When Carbonmade started, it was nothing more than a small tool for Dave to update his portfolio. Today it’s a healthy, thriving business supporting the three of us full-time without any outside investment.

Carbonmade: A Not So Brief History

Before Carbonmade

The stars were first aligned in 2004, when Jason and Dave began working together formally, having founded a small design studio called nterface. They’d dabbled on projects together as early as 2001 as freelancers. Jason was working out of San Francisco and Dave was in Chicago. Jason has since moved to Chicago. They did a lot of great design work for bands, popular websites like Scribd and MerchNow, record labels and other websites: see Dave’s portfolio for more of their work.

While Dave and Jason were making a name for themselves running their design studio, I was running a startup out of my college dorm room at Yale called TypeFrag, founded in 2003 and later sold in January, 2007. I was a brash nineteen-year-old when I started it, but it wasn’t the first thing I’d done. I’d been running Internet startups since I was eleven years old and I have some stories to tell if you happen to be in NYC and want to grab a beer. Just to name a few:

  1. A small ISP I started back in 1995 as a summer job was shut down after a run-in with the FBI. Apparently our servers were compromised and government computers were hacked using them.
  2. A few years later, I was running some web hosting servers out of my parent’s house on the Yale campus (my parents are professors there and this was before I attended). I was forced to shut that down after a phone call from the IT department on the night of the Oscars. They thought our house’s bandwidth usage was my mom, a film professor, running some sort of Oscar-night website.
  3. Then came Game Communications. My business partner at TypeFrag and I entered a business plan contest at Case Western Reserve University (where he was a student) and took the first prize of $75,000.

That all sounds great, but I was never truly happy with what I was doing until I met Dave and Jason and began working on Carbonmade. Carbonmade just felt like home. I’ve always been fascinated with art and design — my grandfather having been a full-time painter, my father a painter on occasion, and my mom a film professor. I had an artsy childhood to say the least.

The Early Carbonmade Years. How’d We Get Started?

In early 2006, Dave came up with the idea of creating a simple tool to enable him to manage his personal portfolio. We all know the pain of having to keep things updated manually. So Dave designed and Jason coded the first version. Although it was originally conceived just for Dave and a few of his design buddies to use, we opened Carbonmade up to everyone after many requests. “Who the hell would want to use this,” we thought. We were amazed.

At the request of many of our new users, we released two quick bursts of updates: one two months after Carbonmade was first introduced and one six months after that. The first consisted of minor bug fixing and tweaks. The second had some more significant features: we launched Whoo! a paying plan at $12/month. (Originally everything was free, but server costs add up in a hurry. We just hoped to offset those costs.) The other two things we added were captions for images — for which we’d had many requests — and a strategy for building up our extremely popular portfolio listing. The portfolio listing was originally just for us to be able to track the few dozen people who were signing up, but it quickly grew into something unwieldy.

How’d We Market Carbonmade?

A few bloggers started sharing Carbonmade with their communities and growth began to pick up: there were 3,504 portfolios on August 7th, 2006, when Tom Coates wrote his review (the first detailed description). Our appearance was much the same then as it is now, though. It’s fun to look back at how ahead of the curve Dave’s design was; some people think Carbonmade is less than half a year old.

Throughout most of those first couple of years, we never imagined that Carbonmade would reach 1,000 portfolios, let alone 100,000. But things really picked up quickly, and it was all through organic growth. We’ve spent only a few thousand dollars advertising Carbonmade.

Organic growth is funny. People we never thought would use it are using Carbonmade. We figured we’d get illustrators and photographers, but we had no clue going in that makeup artists, architects, fashion models, and landscape artists would use it too. We have an incredible variety of creative people from all walks of life. How could we anticipate that São Paulo, Brazil would be the city where we’re most in demand? And that half our traffic would come from overseas?

We are very fortunate to have enthusiastic people using Carbonmade. It shows once again that if you build something that people enjoy using and care about, it’ll market itself. We benefit from the people using Carbonmade sharing not only their portfolio but their positive experiences with their friends. Creative people are likely to be friends with other creative people who turn out to need portfolios themselves, and this creates a rapidly expanding circle. Unlike users of Facebook or Twitter, our users derive a direct benefit from showing off their portfolio, which in turn is free marketing for our service.

I also attribute our success to our commitment to making sure everyone has a good experience. We constantly say: “This thing is big. We’re no longer just building it for Dave and his friends. We’ve got hundreds of thousands of people to worry about.” It’s what keeps us up at night. It’s no longer about what’s best for us, it’s what’s best for our users. I hope that doesn’t come across as bullshit, because it’s the truth.

Then There Were Three (2007 and 2008)

Fast-forward to 2007. It’s funny how small the world is. Dave and I actually first talked back in 2006 when I asked him to design some business cards for TypeFrag. He declined the job. I was later able to convince Dave and Jason to design and develop Uncover — a Yelp-like restaurant and bar review website geared toward nightlife — and we all just clicked. Uncover proved difficult to get launched and slowly fizzled out. But I had met Dave and Jason, so it all worked out.

Our working relationship developed out of the camaraderie we felt working together on Uncover, and I began doing odds and ends for Carbonmade unofficially in 2007. I then joined nterface officially as an equal equity partner and the “everything else” guy in January 2008. It might have happened months earlier, but we put off the legal stuff until the start of 2008 for accounting and other reasons.

When I joined nterface in 2008, we were still doing client work to make ends meet (and working on a second app — more on that later). But after drastically overhauling our attitude to Carbonmade — within a very short period of time — we changed our little side project into a legitimate business. Since then we’ve become profitable enough through Carbonmade to be able to focus all our efforts on its development.

While from time to time we released a few changes in 2008 — most significantly portfolio search and PayPal as a form of payment (PayPal really helps for International customers) — 2008 was sort of a lull for us, except of course for our amazing growth. We just didn’t get all that much done on Carbonmade.

Why were there no significant updates? Well, making the transition from doing client work to a small startup (even wrapping up a few small projects) takes a large shift in attitude and takes more time than you might think to get adjusted. (It’s also something I hope to talk about in 2010 at SXSW with Danny Wen if our panel gets approved.) We still did put in thousands of hours of behind-the-scenes work. There was also adding a third person to the mix, which naturally took a while to get used to, as well as Jason’s move to Chicago. These all presented new challenges.

However, the biggest thing that held us back was that instead of going all out on Carbonmade, we decided as a group to create a second product for creative people. We spent the first nine months of 2008 developing this. We put so much time into it that we even have a working beta that’s been seen by, and praised, by a dozen or so of our close friends. However, none of the three of us were satisfied with how it turned out. And above all, we didn’t enjoy working on it. Not only that, we’re only three people and that’s hardly enough to support one product, let alone two. So that was a mistake.

All wasn’t lost, though, as we did a lot of research and development for this product, and we’ll be able to incorporate parts of it into Carbonmade. We learned a lot, and, best of all, we found our calling, which is to continue to develop Carbonmade. 2008 was a year of transition and self-discovery for us, and we’ve emerged with renewed purpose. Sometimes you can trust your instincts, other times you have to learn from your mistakes. Now more than 100,000 people have spoken. Carbonmade is our future, and nobody could be happier about that than we are.

100,000 Users and Beyond (2009)

As I mentioned earlier, by the end of 2008 we felt that Carbonmade was our future and we needed to focus all of our attention on that. We reached the benchmark of 100,000 users in March 2009, and we’ve continued to grow at a fast pace, with 158,000 users as of this publication — nearly 10,000 new users a month.

While our good fortune continues, we are working at a fever pitch on our new version. It’s taking longer than expected, but we don’t subscribe to the "Release Early, Release Often" philosophy. Admittedly, we’re perfectionists to a fault, but when you’ve got 158,000 pleased users, you can’t simply disrupt things with a series of bells-and-whistles updates just to follow a silly motto. You have to take your time and do things right or you risk upsetting a lot of people. But more on that in another article.

We’ve got a fancy new office with the boys and girls of Harvest, Dave has moved to New York City, Jason is coming in early 2010, and things are picking up quickly. We are now more accomplished than ever before, and hope to get out something new and significantly different shortly. Keep your eyes and ears open — and, of course, remember that successful companies are not built overnight.

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