The Startup Story of Carbonmade

Future of Web Design London 2010

Author Note: Spencer Fry has offered up 5 Carbonmade “Whoo!” Accounts. To be entered to win one, follow instructions at the bottom of this article.

Sign-up : Carbonmade_1269272412127

Back in 2009, around the time when the global economy broke, a lot of creatives found themselves out of work. It became increasingly important to have a strong online presence, even if the medium was more of an offline commodity (sculpture, painting, illustration, poster design, etc.).

A well-designed and much under-the-radar portfolio app, Carbonmade, experienced a surge of growth as a result of these conditions and the creative collaboration and vision of the three co-founders: Spencer Fry, Dave Gorum, and Jason Nelson.

About : Carbonmade_1269270952778

Carbonmade is a simple, beautiful, portfolio application for a range of creatives (photographers, web designers, sculptors, and even user experience designers) to organize and promote their work within the community and outside to clients and prospects.

The Story

I’m a sucker for a great startup story. I find stories of startups to be as more fun than teenage vampire love stories.

The arch looks a little like this: co-founders find each other, and in spite of all logic and possible/impossible circumstances they get together, experience an emotional and at times stormy relationship in which they make good, bad, and future-altering decisions, and with smarts, love, and a bit of soul selling sorcery luck build and launch a successful app, idea, product, and produce a magical revenue stream. Errr, well, either that or they’re totally drained by what was an epic-worthy love.

Let’s dive into the story of Carbonmade, I can guarantee love, high-class drama, an affair with another app, and much more .

Carbonmade : Your online portfolio._1269270416947

Origin Story

Three bright guys co-founded a small web design and development consultancy. Among their pet projects, Dave created a small personal content management app to manage and display his often-changing and growing portfolio. Within a few months he scaled and distributed the app among friends in the design community who shared the same need.

By the end of 2007, Dave, Jason, and Spencer put aside their consulting work to focus on Carbonmade full-time, self-funded, they launched a $12 per month plan. Viola! Instant ramen revenue! They never marketed it outside of friends and family, and yet, its user base grew at a steady rate.

The team planned to create a series of products for creatives like 37 Signals does for small businesses, and by 2008, this trio was fully focused on an entirely new app. A funny thing happened, towards the end of 2008 they asked the ever-wonderful, obvious, and existential question:

What the hell are we doing? We have a app, a passionate community whom we love, and making Carbonmade is just fun!

In spite of having another creative app close to completion, the decision was pretty easy, Carbonmade could be even better, bigger, and more useful to the design community if it was the sole focus and product.

Carbonmade Today

Fast forward to today, in anticipation of a very aggressive upgrade (to be delivered summer 2010), Carbonmade upgraded to some spiffy new threads about a week ago, and pushed out a gutsy feature to provide transparency into the upgrade taking place.

Marvel away at the striking, whimsical, design (unicorn, moustache, octopus, mountainscape, and all-too-cute rendering of the founders themselves), but don’t let the eye candy fool you, looking under the hood at the inner workings is just as sexy as the pastel pixels on the surface.

Carbonmade Community Members Come From All Over

Finer Features for “lovers”

  • Lead generation loverslook at the sign-up experience, and try it out! Choose from one of two plans: “Meh.” (free) or “Whoo!” ($12 per month). Pay close attention to the sign-up button, which changes from “Sign Up” to “Moustache.”
  • Content strategy devotees - examine the copywriting, I think you’ll find that it’s a rich repository of awesome and exceptional examples of how to infuse voice into clear calls to action, user instructions, and brand expression (they call Carbonmade’s headquarters “The Magic Distillery”)
  • Damn good designershave fun scoping out the iconography, color palette (changes per page), and the self portraits of these guys. Rules are definitely broken, but in ways that may make you want to break some rules of your own!

Progress : Carbonmade_1269270583610

Carbonmade, The Gutsy Progress Page, & This Summer’s Launch

I’d like to drawn your attention to Carbonmade’s “Progress Page.” As Spencer explained, back in December, amidst advent calendars and a love for the popular MacHeist system, he floated an idea to Dave and Grant–how could the development of Carbonmade’s next generation app be shared with the community and involve and inform users around major milestones?

Ultimately, they scrapped the MacHeist and voted for an advent-calendar-like approach, which has been brought to life on the Progress Page. Look closely and you’ll see the guys at the bottom of the mountain, with each milestone, they’ll use update this page to tell the story, trickle out feature developments, and share some struggles and they’ll update the design as they go along (don’t be surprised if at some point Spencer is dangling by a thread off the side of the mountain).

To date, I haven’t seen this kind of transparency employed by any other web app and I’m excited about following the story and being a part of it myself. The Progress page will be complete when the “explorers” have reached the top of the mountain.

Sure, they’re leaking their feature development and roadmap to the competition, but they’re doing it out of a love for the community to create conversation about design, development, and user input, and if it really is about the execution of the ideas themselves, I’m betting Carbonmade will own the space regardless of competition.

Q&A With Spencer Fry

Q: You three have been together for several years now, and it seems like you’ve been able to leverage a small team to create a big product. What advice would you share about how staying small has helped you? Has it ever hurt your ability to grow or scale to your user’s requests or needs?

Because Carbonmade started as a little side project of ours during our design firm’s consulting days, we’ve been fortunate to take things slow. As more revenue came in through Carbonmade, we were able to take on fewer and fewer consulting jobs, which allowed us to spend more time on Carbonmade.

Money was still trickling in from our consulting gigs during the early days, this meant that we weren’t forced to rush features or come up with annoying marketing techniques to drive sales. We could just bide our time and develop things slowly. Far too often you find startups being encouraged to “fail early and often”. We prefer to never fail at all. :) Although, that’s hard to do . . . taking your time certainly helps reduce risk of making an irreversible mistake.

Q: Will we see the Carbonmade team grow any time soon?

Yes! We’ve begun by hiring talented designers like Grant Blakeman and Sam Brown for small consulting gigs. Carbonmade is definitely looking to expand our band of explorers during the next few months by bringing on some more full-time people — especially designers.

We’re a design first company, which means that everything we do is led by design. This is why we have an abnormal ratio of designers to programmers.

We’ll probably be four designers to one programmer by the time we hire another programmer. That, and Jason Nelson is that good. :) We like to compare ourselves to Apple in that if the design and implementation doesn’t make sense then we’re not adding that feature to Carbonmade just for the hell of it or because it might drive sales. That’s like playing with fire to us.

Q. How do you optimize your conversion practices when you do things that are so dramatically different (e.g. using “Moustache” instead of “Sign-up”) from typical conventions?

We really go with our gut. If we’re building something that’s fun and makes us want to spend lots and lots of time working on it for Carbonmade then we think other people will use it. We don’t like boring.

We don’t like being the same as everyone else. We want our brand to elicit joy, fun, and happiness. If you smile when you come to Carbonmade because you see a “moustache” button instead of a “sign-up” button then you’re the type of creative person we want using our service.

We’ve got the best members ever. Ever. Ever. They’re all so kind and nice to us. Even when they e-mail with a problem or a question, they always lead in with a “I love Carbonmade so much. You guys are the best. I’m soooo happy to be using your service!” Then they follow that first sentence up with a question. Where else do you ever see that?

Q. How did Dave become an expert on portfolio design?

How people’s portfolios look on Carbonmade comes from Dave’s brain. Without a doubt I can say with 100% confidence that Dave spends more time looking at online portfolios than any person alive in the world today.

Like a mad scientist deriving a formula, he’s looked at positioning and displaying portfolios in every which way and distilled it down to what you see when you view a Carbonmade portfolio. We set out to showcase your work in a beautiful and simplistic way and draw the viewer’s eye to what’s being displayed and not how it’s being displayed. And Dave nailed it.

Q. What’s the story behind the logo? Why a girl with a unicorn horn?

One of Dave’s best friends is a beautiful and kind girl named Bee. Bee is a bundle of joy and one of the coolest girls on the planet. She’s also extremely funny and should be followed on Twitter and Tumblr. :) Hi, Bee!

Dave and Bee are roommates and one morning she woke up with “morning hair,” and Dave mentioned she looked like a unicorn as it was sticking straight up. From then on she was known as “Uni” for short and an illustration of her became our logo.

Q. You’re headquartered in New York, a city that’s art community is nearly ubiquitious, and you’ve mixed both art and tech. What’s it like being part of this scene?

I love New York more than anything. It’s a city full of life and there’s always great things to do — especially in the art scene. I don’t think anyone would dispute that New York is the center of art and culture, so being here both as a technology company focused around creative people and art lovers is a perfect match for all of us.

It’s great walking around the city, visiting art galleries, museums, etc. and talking to artists about their work. It just happens that we run into a lot of them that have portfolios on Carbonmade, which always makes us blush.

Q. Where do you fit into the competitive landscape? How is Carbonmade different from Sortfolio and other services?

For one thing, Sortfolio is more of a billboard for artists. Post your work there and you may receive leads. It’s a better style of job board. With Carbonmade not only are you getting potential leads from the millions of visiters every month that come through our portfolio listing, but our main focus is that you’re getting your own personal portfolio.

You come to Carbonmade to show off your work in an elegant and simple way. No fuss. No hassle. Simply your own portfolio without any advertisements or nonsense. At Carbonmade you’re building a portfolio that you can be proud of showing off, and other benefits like getting hired or meeting other cool creatives is icing on cake!

And, boy do a lot of people get hired through Carbonmade. It’s the best part of the day to read through the astounding the number of e-mails, tweets, and messages from members who have been hired for work because they had a Carbonmade portfolio.

Q. With 200k+ users, can you break down any metrics on your user groups? Who’s using Carbonmade and in what capacity?

Carbonmade’s members are made up of all types of creative people. I don’t think a more diverse group of artists lives anywhere else on the Web. While we have over 200,000 members and growing very quickly, our highest single category are photographers of about 15,000.

The nearly 200,000 others are made up of fashion designers, illustrators, web designers, make-up artists, typographers, print artists, fine artists, and everything else under the sun. If you do anything creative, part-time or full-time, you can put your work on Carbonmade and have it admired by all your friends, family, and the rest of the world. We really encourage a diverse mixture of people. That’s what makes it so fun to flip through our portfolios.

Q. You’ve offered up 5 “Whoo!” accounts to Think Vitamin’s readers, how should we give them away?

To be entered to win one, create your free “meh” carbonmade portfolio and post your Carbonmade url in the comments on this post by Friday, March 26, 2010 at 12PM ET.

We’ll pick the 5 winners Friday and announce them in Think Vitamin’s Friday’s news roundup. I’ll  feature our favorite on Carbonmade’s Examples page, which draws an audience of over 10k readers per new post! Insta-audience!

Startup enthusiast Andrew Hyde also wrote about Carbonmade’s launch, and shares more perspective on his blog.

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Comments

0 comments on “The Startup Story of Carbonmade

  1. These guys are great and its a top notch service.
    I had been looking for this kind of thing for so long and its finally here.
    The portfolios are easy to make look great.

  2. “We want our brand to elicit joy, fun, and happiness. If you smile when you come to Carbonmade because you see a “moustache” button instead of a “sign-up” button then you’re the type of creative person we want using our service.”

    Art should be fun, and I am proud to be a part of a community where its creators can exemplify the balance between imagination and professionalism.

    (kwaleska.carbonmade.com)

  3. I was daunted by the thought that the only way to get my work online was to learn web design. But Carbonmade does that for me and makes it all so simple, plus it looks really professional. Keep up the good work guys!

  4. Thanks for the article and to carbonmade for the app. I always wanted to test it against behance-portfolios.

    At first glance it seems, that behance has a wider choice to customize the portfolio (colors, etc.) and that it allows external media to be embedded.
    But I like the Slideshow-Feature of carbonmade.

    Here is my first meh-attempt:
    http://sehrausch.carbonmade.com

  5. I had Carbonmade recommended to me and I snapped up a Meh account straight away! It was so impressive how I could simply upload photos and info and have a really snappy online portfolio as a result. I love love love it!

    http://gracemayer.carbonmade.com/