Mark Harbottle is a co-founder of sitepoint.com, and founder of the recently launched 99designs.com. On this 10-year anniversary of Webmaster-Resources.com (now sitepoint.com), Chris White corners Mark to reminisce about the past and talk about what’s in store for the future.
SitePoint: First off, thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. In a few months, sitepoint.com will be 10 years old. How does that feel?
When you put it like that, it makes me feel old! No, seriously, when I think about the last 10 years, I feel proud of what we’ve been able to achieve. We’ve seen a lot of sites in this space come and go, and larger competitors fall by the wayside. But by believing in what we do, focusing on quality, and having a strong customer focus we’ve been able to not only stay in business, but rise to the top.
SP: How has the Web changed since you started SitePoint all those years ago?
The nuts and bolts of the Web haven’t changed all that much — we still code web pages in HTML, we still view them with a browser, and we still find stuff using a text-driven search engine. Sure, all of these things have improved, but the real difference in my mind is how the world has changed as a result of the Web. Ten years ago, my parents didn’t understand what I did for a job. Now they’re asking where they can download the latest movies. In a relatively short amount of time the Internet has become a major part of our daily lives, and that’s remarkable when you think about it.
SP: What recent trend would you consider to be the most important in shaping the future of the Web?
If you’re talking about technical issues, one of the trends I see shaping the Web over the next few years is the rise of web application infrastructure as a pay-per-use service, which is something we’ve embraced in a massive way at SitePoint and 99designs. Amazon’s virtualization platform and Google’s new AppEngine platform allow developers to write web applications faster and better. Writing a fast, scalable and complex web application has never been easier or cheaper. The uptake of these platforms by startups and other innovators looking to build not just cheap, but smart apps has given us a glimpse of what will be possible as more providers come onto the scene over the coming years.
SP: At what stage after founding SitePoint did you think "Okay, now this is a successful business"?
I’ve always believed that if you can remove yourself from the day-to-day running of your business and it can continue to prosper without you, you know you have a successful business. That happened for me a couple of years ago, but I have to say, I’m lucky that we have a fantastic team of people at SitePoint — these guys are much better at doing their jobs than I ever was.
SP: With the recent launch of 99designs.com and your new role in that business, what’s the next big step you plan to take?
My job is to try to build on the initial success we’ve had with 99designs.com. I see 99designs.com first and foremost as a community of designers — a central marketplace for them to promote their work, improve their skills, communicate with peers, and win new clients. While we’ve already got over 10,000 registered designers, we still have a long way to go. Right now we’re focused on putting mechanisms in place to better protect designers — one of the biggest things we’re working on is handling payments and the safe transfer of design work between clients and designers. We expect this to be finished soon.
SP: What’s the secret to recruiting quality staff?
At the end of the day, if you don’t love what you do, you can’t expect to be very good at it, especially over the long term. So what I want to know most when hiring someone is what they’re passionate about — what they love doing in their time off.
If we’re looking to fill a creative role, I may be impressed to find out that the candidate loves photography or painting in their spare time; if it’s a network administrator role it may be that the candidate has a UNIX network setup at home; if we’re hiring editors, it could be that they have personal blogs or perhaps they write poetry for kicks.
Passion can be demonstrated in different forms, but the single biggest reason we have a quality team of people at SitePoint with very little turnover is we get to the bottom of what really drives our people, and we make sure that not only are they right for the roles, but — more importantly — that we’re right for them.
SP: Speaking about passion, what do you do in your spare time for fun?
Excellent question Chris, but I’m not looking for a job…
Actually, I don’t have a lot of spare time these days. I have two little ones and a third on the way. I spend most of my spare time changing batteries, building towers, playing hide-n-seek, and answering strange questions such as the one I answered over the weekend from my 3 year old: "Dad, can I have something dangerous to play with?"
SP: So, how do you juggle your business commitments with a young family?
My thinking is that if I can’t get my business-related work done during business hours, then I’m either not working fast enough, or I’m spending too much time on things that aren’t as important as they might seem. I’ve found that the more you take on in your life the better you seem to get at prioritizing. It’s funny how things that seem important at the time tend to go away if you ignore them!
SP: In the last Community Crier interview you did, you mentioned a company jet. Can you tell us a little more about that?
You really have done your homework, Chris! Unfortunately construction of our "party jet" has reached a standstill over a minor dispute that Matt Mickiewicz and I are having about the interior of the plane. You see, Matt has requested a long California king-size bed, but my bedroom can only fit a queen size. I was told yesterday by our general manager that I can have whatever kind of bed I want in my room; and Matt can have whatever kind of bed he wants, so I think we’re close to resolving it.
SP: Any parting words of advice for up and coming web developers?
Don’t start a business, it’s too much hard work! Come and work for SitePoint or 99designs instead — we have a foosball table, Guitar Hero III, and an espresso machine.
SP: Thanks for your time, Mark. We’d now like to pass the mic to readers! If you have a question you’d like either Mark or co-founder Matt Mickiewicz to answer, ask it in the comments thread for this article. They’ll be only too pleased to respond!