Episode 31 of The SitePoint Podcast is now available! This week, Kevin Yank (@sentience) sits down with SitePoint cofounders Mark Harbottle (@daxatron) and Matt Mickiewicz (@sitepointmatt) at SitePoint HQ.
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Kevin: October 9th, 2009. This is the SitePoint Podcast #31: Interview with SitePoint Cofounders Mark Harbottle & Matt Mickiewicz.
Kevin: And this is Kevin Yank coming to you from SitePoint Headquarters in Melbourne, Australia. Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve had the rare pleasure of having our two cofounders in the same place at the same time, so an interview seemed a must. We’ve gathered from questions from the SitePoint forums community and I am joined by Mark Harbottle…
Mark: Hi, Kevin.
Kevin: …and Matt Mickiewicz.
Matt: Hi guys.
Kevin: We’re going to go through these questions. We’ve got plenty to keep you busy. The community has come up with some great questions. So let’s just dive right in here.
I want to give you guys an opportunity to tell in brief the story of SitePoint. BPartch on the forum asks, “When you started Webmaster Resources,”—and I guess this is a question for you, Matt—“did you ever imagine that it would blossom into such a large entity? Is it ever overwhelming?”
Matt: It’s definitely been a wild ride and I never anticipated that we would be at the point where we are today. I always took it day by day, month by month and just rolled with the punches.
Kevin: Tell the story. Like, you started Webmaster Resources—for those who have never seen that, what was it?
Matt: Webmaster Resources was basically a directory of useful resources and tools and services an online references for people who were starting out and building their first web site. I started compiling it for my personal use at the very beginning, but it evolved and became something that became publicly available and grew to become very, very popular with time.
Kevin: How did it become SitePoint?
Mark: I was working an internet company based in Melbourne, Australia, and I was doing some work with Matt at Webmaster Resources. We were promoting some products which were targeted at web professionals through his web site. I got chatting to Matt offline and found that he had quite a popular web site and some great knowledge in this space but he didn’t really have the capacity beyond that to kind of grow that out and continue to expand the business or the web site, which it was at that point.
It made sense at the time for Matt and I to team up and just to kind of take some ideas that I had for helping to grow that web site and turn it into a business. We formed SitePoint off the back of Webmaster Resources. I believe that was in 1999; so 10 years ago just last September. We’ve proceeded to grow that out into the business that you see today from the small site that Matt founded all those years ago.
Kevin: Matt, that deal must have been like the worst deal of your life, right?
Kevin: Any regrets?
Matt: No, absolutely no regrets. Before I decided to team up with Mark, I actually had an offer on the table to sell Webmaster Resources for, what was at the time, to me, a decent amount of money, but I really thought we could make it much bigger and much better than what it was. I wanted to remain, at least, partially in control of the business and decided to have a gamble and see what turned out. I’m very happy I did.
Kevin: BPartch, on the forum still, continues, she says, “Putting any financial gain to the side, is it rewarding to know that over the years your efforts have helped web developers to learn more and help others at the same time?”
Obviously, she’s a fan, but why don’t you talk about what you’ve achieved, besides the business goals.
Matt: It’s really cool when I’m out about at conferences and events, when I run into people who learn, for example, PHP or HTML based on SitePoint content or even your book, Kevin, and then they move on to bigger and greater positions in life. They grow in their careers, their roles.
Mark: I think for Matt and I, obviously, there is a financial benefit for being in your own business but when you consider that we’ve been at this for 10 years and the amount of hours that we’ve put into this business, it’s probably—if you worked it out on a per hour basis, it’s probably quite low in terms of what we’re doing. So obviously, you’ve got to take other benefits and other things out of running the business.
The help that we’ve provided webmasters and obviously, with the other businesses that we have now, 99designs, which is obviously a marketplace for designers and providing opportunities for those guys and Flippa.com which is helping people to get an exit from their smaller web sites. That’s what we take it out of it every day, helping those people, not just the financial gain.
Matt: I’m also really proud about how SitePoint has played a leadership position in terms of promoting web accessibility, web standards, cross browser compliance, and all these other factors, which still have a long ways to go in terms of a widespread adoption among web developers and web professionals.
Mark: The other thing that we’re quite big on across all three companies is giving back to the community. You might have seen last year, we raised $315,000 for the bushfire appeal which was something close to us here in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, and that’s something that we’ve been doing for 10 years.
I’m not sure that many people know, but we give proceeds from every single book sold through SitePoint to charity and that’s something that we’ve been doing and will continue to do, and we look to doing the same thing across the other businesses, giving back.
Kevin: I want to jump in with a pointier your question here. hairybob says, “How much of your current success has been the result of sharp strategic planning versus natural evolution and opportunistic exploitation?”
Really, he wants to know how much is luck.
Mark: A lot of it’s luck, definitely. There is a famous quote by Woody Allen which says that 80% of success is showing up, and I think that that’s true and how that applies to us is that that by having a popular site in sitepoint.com and having all the traffic and a large community that we have, we get the privilege of seeing a lot of things that is going on in the web community. We see a lot of opportunities go past our eyes everyday and so certainly, I guess, that’s the luck, part of it that we’ve been able to grow to that position to have a view on the overall market and what’s happening.
I guess the other 20% I’d put down to sharp strategic planning. There’s a lot of opportunities that we see go past our desk and obviously we can’t act on every single one of them. The most recent two, which I mentioned before—99designs and Flippa—are hugely successful now in their own right and obviously, we had to make a decision to execute on those two particular opportunities so I put it down to 80% luck and 20% great planning.
Kevin: You agree with that, Matt?
Matt: There’s been a fair amount of trial and error along the way as well and certainly everything we’ve tried has not been successful. For example, before we ever ventured into print publishing we decided to put out an ebook, which was a terrifically massive failure at the time [laughs] but we persevered, we took onboard the feedback from the customers and the users of the site and what they really wanted was something that they could hold and put next to their keyboard and follow along while they were learning to program and develop web sites.
Kevin: So, here’s another question for you Matt, this is from Cameron Todd on our Facebook group. He wants to know how you make the step to become self-employed or to live off the income of your own site. What do you suggest are some good first steps?
Mark: I think good first steps are not giving up your day job until you’re sure that you’ve got a steady income. So I’ll let Matt speak on the tips for web site owners but just in business terms in general, I think if you can do some things, perhaps start with your hobby; so if you can do some things in your own time that bring in some extra income and you actually enjoy doing it, it’s not so much a chore and you can kind of build that up over time in your own time to the point where it does become profitable enough to give up your day job and then start a business. That’s what I would recommend for kind of anyone out there that’s thinking about starting their own business, SitePoint employees aside, of course.
Matt: I definitely agree with those starts, one of the things that people may not know is that when I started Webmaster Resources, I was still in high school. So I was going to school 9 to 3 o’clock everyday, coming home working and running a web site that was turning over six figures a year, so it’s definitely very possible to do some of these internet things on a part-time basis, get some traction, promote the concept only when you’re confident that you have something that’s a viable business, go ahead and pursue the idea on a full-time basis.
Kevin: Alright, well you guys sound like you’re very much on the same page but molona asks if there’s ever any differences of opinion between you. Do you ever discuss when a particular decision needs to be taken with you both in agreement?
What she means is, if you have kind of a system to sort out when this happens; she says she’s sure you don’t agree all the time. Matt here is making rock, scissors, paper moves with his hands.
Matt: Yeah, it’s probably—we don’t really have a documented system or system to making decisions that we’ve discussed but I guess kind of the way it works is that if it’s a big decision, so if it’s a what we call a below the water line decision, meaning that if we get it wrong we’re going to sink the ship, definitely we’ll both have to be in agreeance before we would execute to make that decision. If it’s kind of a small to medium thing, I guess what we do is whoever has the most information or the most knowledge or the most experience will probably win.
So for example, I tend to kind of manage more on gut feel, whereas Matt’s a numbers cruncher, so if Matt has data to prove out that his decision is the right one then generally he wins; if he doesn’t, then I win because we go on gut feel and I tend to be better at that. [laughs]
Kevin: [laughs] So speaking of keeping the ship afloat, she also asks how the world financial crisis has affected the business and how you’ve dealt with that.
Matt: Because we’re a diversified business and we do have multiple revenue streams, we haven’t been as affected as other companies may have been. Certainly, we’ve seen some evidence of downward trends in some parts of the business, particularly in the kind of publishing area but we are noticing things starting to pick up now and we are able to kind of sustain that growth through the other areas of the business that I mentioned earlier.
Kevin: So Matt, you’re the numbers cruncher. Do you agree?
Matt: I think diversification has definitely been very good to SitePoint, 99designs and Flippa. While one part of the business may be in the rut or static, others are growing quickly making up for the difference.
Kevin: Alright, so diversified revenue streams it is. AlexDawson wants to know what he can look forward to in the future from SitePoint. Are there any new services coming up, can you hint at what we’ve got coming in the pipeline?
Mark: That’s a good question and one of the things that we’re looking at with sitepoint.com at the moment is getting back to the core business and getting focus back to what sitepoint.com is all about.
So obviously, Flippa and 99designs have been spun out of that business in the last two years and in a way that was kind of holding SitePoint back, and so what we’re doing now is going back to the drawing board and really speaking to our customers and our users of SitePoint and seeing where they’re at and what knowledge that they would like to gain, what they would like to learn about so we can start to develop future books and even other products in that area that will help them out and that’s going to be something that we’re doing over the next 12 months.
The other thing is that we just appointed a community caretaker manager whose full time job it is to kind of get involved with the community a bit more, get everybody’s feedback in terms of where they’re at and what they would like to see on SitePoint and basically be the conduit between head office, so to speak, and the community, and we think that that’s going to play out over the next year in terms of you’ll see a lot of growth in the community that you probably haven’t seen in the last couple of years. Obviously, we’ve got limited resources, so we have to really decide where we put our focus and the community is the focus for the next 12 months.
Matt: Now that we’ve spun off 99designs and Flippa, I think we can really get back to the three Cs which have historically been the driver of SitePoint. Those three being content (the blogs and tutorials that we publish), the community (we have appointed the community manager whose full time role is to look after that aspect of the business, as Mark mentioned), and commerce, which is getting better at selling our products online, developing those products and creating new ones as well.
Kevin: SpacePhoenix wants to know if we’ve ever thought of publishing a print magazine?
Matt: We’ve definitely discussed the idea a few times in the past, but as mobile devices and smart phones have become more prominent, we think that it’s more practical for people to simply consume our content online. For example, in the past few months, we’ve launched a mobile version of SitePoint which makes our content much more accessible if you’re using an iPhone, a Blackberry or a Palm Pre device.
Kevin: I don’t want to talk out of school, here, but there were definitely some mock ups done once upon a time for a magazine called Soft, and I think you have to be an old school SitePoint employee to have access to that file. That’s all I’ll say.
So you mentioned that we’re focusing back on the community, and I know that in the past, Matt, whenever something was going on in the forums, you were the one who emailed me to say, “could you go check out this thread. I think they need an answer from SitePoint headquarters.”
RyanReese asks if we get into the forum a lot. And I know we’re all getting into the forum a lot more now.
Matt: Haven’t we banned this Ryan Reese guy? [laughing]
Kevin: Have we? [laughing] Really?
Matt: Ryan, if you’re listening, we really need you to stop registering new accounts. [laughing] What was the question?
Kevin: Well we’re getting into the forums a lot more now.
Matt: Now that we’ve appointed our community manager for the forums and SitePoint at large, I think people are much more willing and excited about going back into the forums and participating. I’ve definitely seen that among the staff here in the office who have SitePoint forums loaded up on the screen at least once or twice a day, in many instances.
Kevin: Yes. I know, I’ve definitely gotten back into the CSS and PHP areas in the forum, especially since I’ve published a couple of books in that area lately, suddenly, I’m back in the conversation and it’s great.
Matt: I still visit the forums two or three times a week as well, particularly the advertising and business and legal sections to participate in discussions and answer questions that come up.
Kevin: But we don’t spend all our spare time in the forums and molona asks, “If you were forced to leave behind SitePoint and everything related to it—that’s Flippa, 99designs, all of that—what would you do? Would you create a different business? Would you even be associates and colleagues again?” Is there something about SitePoint that makes this partnership work or would you guys be business partners, no matter what?
Mark: I think one of the things that Matt and I do that we have built up over 10 years is implicit trust in each other. So, on that front, definitely if our interests took us in a similar area, I think that there would be and I’ll let Matt speak for himself after this, but from my point of view, I’d definitely work with Matt again on another business.
Matt: I think the partnership between Australia and Canada makes a lot of logical sense as well. And I’d definitely will work with Mark again on another business after this.
Kevin: That’s something that people might not realize is that Mark works here in the office in Melbourne. And Matt, you’re in Vancouver. So why is that? Why does that make sense?
Matt: It makes sense because a lot of business is done in the US and it makes sense to have someone in the US time zone to take customer calls, resolve issues, deal with some of the clients that we have, such as Microsoft and Adobe who advertise with us, as well as taking PR opportunities, attending conferences and events.
Kevin: But Mark, it makes sense to have a head office in Melbourne as well. I mean, there’s a reason we haven’t all moved over there, right?
Mark: Definitely, I guess, again, this is kind of a luck thing. Obviously, I was based in Melbourne. So when we were starting up, it kind of made sense to hire people in Melbourne but over time, it’s actually proved to be quite a strategic advantage in that we’re able to sell our products in US dollars and pay our main expenses, which is obviously staff in Australian dollars and we’re able to use that extra income to hire better people based in here, in Australia. So what we’ve got now is essentially a development arm of the business in Australia and we’re doing more of the sales and marketing out of our office in San Francisco, which we recently set up.
But I guess on the other level back to why the partnership between Matt and I works, being in Canada and in Australia, I think that one of the common issues that two founders have when they’re working in the same office is that they tend to step on each other’s toes a lot and they tend to kind of have to refer to each other for every single decision, and I think in a lot of ways that slows them down. So Matt and I have clear core strengths and clear areas of the businesses that we focus on and that kind of keeps us focused on those areas and we catch up probably once every week or once every two weeks to discuss what we’re doing but we don’t get in each other’s way.
Kevin: So if you did have to start a new business together, would it still be web or is there some other area that you guys would love to tackle?
Mark: For me personally obviously my skill set is in the Web so most likely it would be in the Web, but down the track I would like to do something more in the kind of consumer brand space, something that perhaps is not just an internet business. But that’s just a personal interest thing, and I’d like to see whether my skills kind of apply in a kind of parallel universe, if you like, if you can take those skills online and use them in the real world.
Matt: I really like the internet for its scalability, ability to get started at a low cost, and ability to test concepts and ideas really quickly. In the retail space, it’s much harder and much more expensive to make a mistake. Whereby if we a mistake on SitePoint, we can usually fix it in less than half an hour.
Kevin: But speaking of taking things off the Web, what do you guys do when you’re not behind a monitor? What are your hobbies?
Mark: My hobbies outside of work are probably more centered around my family. I have three kids and a lovely wife, who I hope is listening. So I spend a lot of time on the weekends obviously with my family and of a night. I also like to get away a few times a year and I tend to go to… we have a lot of great beaches over here in Australia, so I tend to head north and I find myself on the beach for a couple of weeks a few times a year and I really love that. I’m very much into water sports as well, water skiing, anything that involves water, I’m into.
Kevin: Definitely Australia for the beach lifestyle. What does Vancouver give you on your off hours, Matt?
Matt: I’ve been known to travel a bit as well to sunny destinations. I’m definitely a beach over a snow person. While I’ve snowboarded a few times in the past, I prefer to sit on a beach sipping a margarita.
Kevin: Some like minds there. I guess that gives you a good reason to come down to Melbourne every year to visit us down here.
Matt: Definitely, and with Canada I can travel to Mexico or the Dominican Republic quite easily as well. So it’s a great location.
Kevin: Alright. We’re coming to the end of this thing, guys, and kohoutek wants to know, “With having such a large company, what do you find to be the single hardest thing in your business? Is there anything you find yourself struggling with even today and if so, how do you combat and resolve it?”
Matt: Remembering everyone’s names? [laughing]
Kevin: Matt comes down here about every year and every time it seems like we’ve hired a few more people that he’s never met. And definitely in the past year with Flippa and 99designs starting up, there’s a lot of new faces around, Matt.
Matt: Definitely, I think we had 15 new people on this trip. I’ve learned everyone’s name so far but it’s definitely been a challenge keeping track of all the new people that we’ve been adding from overseas. The other big challenge I guess is keeping track of all the numbers and vital statistics across all three businesses. There’s a lot to digest, a lot going on, a lot of customers, and things to look after.
Kevin: I know, Dax, you worry a lot about company culture.
Mark: Yeah, definitely. Company culture is a big thing for me and it’s kind of something that we talk about a lot now but it kind of came naturally in the beginning. It’s just kind of treating staff how’d you like to be treated yourself. We like to hire the best people and that’s not always easy. So it’s a challenge to find the best people. It’s a challenge to find people that kind of fit with the company culture so we’re always on the lookout for good people.
Matt: The thing to keep in mind too is Australia is a really small country. We only have 22 million people here so when it comes to recruiting a new community manager, someone to edit our books or a kick ass PHP developer, we only want the best and that takes a long time to find.
Kevin: Alright, and that’s it, guys. You’ve survived the grilling from our community. Good work.
Listeners out there, if you have any lingering questions feel free to leave some comments on the episode. I know Matt and Mark will be watching closely, so feel free to follow up with some tougher questions if you’ve got any, and thanks for listening to the SitePoint Podcast.
If you have any thoughts or questions about today’s interview, please do get in touch. You can find SitePoint on Twitter @sitepointdotcom and you can find me on Twitter @sentience.
Visit sitepoint.com/podcast to leave a comment on this show and to subscribe to get every show automatically.
We’ll be back next week with another news and commentary show with our usual panel of experts.
The SitePoint Podcast is produced by Carl Longnecker and I’m Kevin Yank. Bye for now.
Theme music by Mike Mella.
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