Dan Tocchini, Founder and CEO, The Grid
Changing the World (Wide Web) with Dan Tocchini
Dan Tocchini wants to change how we use the web. His website design startup The Grid is about to launch, and they might just pull it off.
Dan’s definition of a change maker:
“There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew.” – Marshall McLuhan
To make change takes more than one person…we have been blown away by the community that we have created with our pre-order. The very fact that we have 40k plus Founding Members tells us that there is a website problem. We aim to change that.
It’s really important to us that we think like Steve Jobs…. “Real Artists Ship!” Everyone is putting in the time.
For all of the advances in how we use the Internet in recent years, the options for the average person who needs to make a website can still be simultaneously dizzying and uninspiring. It usually comes down to either paying someone a bunch of money, learning to do it yourself, or buying a template.
Dan Tocchini wants to change that. His startup The Grid poses the questions: What if having your own unique website was as easy as posting to Facebook? What if you could just supply the content, and a program just did the rest for you?
The answer he and his team came up with is an automated alternative to services like WordPress or Squarespace. And if Tocchini’s right, it might just change how people view the web. While the company hasn’t gone live yet, the team has racked up two hit Kickstarters, two rounds of funding, more than 31,000 preorders, and an offer from Facebook (they turned it down).
So what’s all the fuss about? Well, the corners of the Internet that are thriving these days have developed fancy algorithms and design features that make it as simple as possible to connect and share information (think of the curated Facebook feed or Twitter’s 140 characters). They take the flurry of anxiety-inducing decisions away from the average person (see Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice). But website creation has been sort of left behind, Tocchini says, and relatively few Internet users have their own sites. For those who do, it’s kind of a pain.
“Websites are like the atomic building block of the web, and they’ve been completely ignored by the big tech companies,” Tocchini says.
He thinks the web can do better. His team has spent the past few years creating a platform that starts with content and uses software to automatically turn it into a website. Think of it as having your own web designer that makes all of the decisions for you, except that web designer is artificial intelligence.
“When we say AI, a lot can be kind of misread into that,” Tocchini says. “But really it’s just about automating a lot of complex decisions that people have to make right now, and that we’re paying people to make.”
The Grid wants to make creating a website as easy as using social media, only resulting in a unique, personalized look. There are plenty of competitors out there already, but The Grid wants to be the leader in website creation with its unique AI spin on things, offering something nobody else does.
The Website Problem
The Grid has yet to launch, but there is a lot of buzz. So how, in a phase of the Internet when social platforms and walled gardens are king, did Tocchini decide to revolutionize websites? It started at a time when the “website problem” was very much front and center for him.
Tocchini had done the “technical thing” at Berkeley studying computer science and physics, but after burning out in an academic setting, he wandered into diamond sales of all things. Things were going well, and he needed a website.
“I started getting some bids in and they were just ridiculously expensive. Everything from the initial build to the support contracts. And then just the gamut of bids, how wide that gamut was, was just crazy.”
So he decided to do it himself, and then got hooked. Before long, Tocchini had his own small, interactive design firm. And yet, he still found himself hating websites.
“Websites were the worst. Largely because no matter what you did, people weren’t satisfied.”
He found that people who needed their own sites were stuck with paying big sums to designers, and even then they didn’t have the level of ongoing control they wanted. Or if he could give them control, in the form of an easily customizable platform for clients, they were stuck with more design decisions than they wanted or knew how to handle.
“I would sit people in front of this thing and it was really clear why it didn’t work,” he says. “Oh great, now they focus all of their time on making layout decisions—making designer decisions about color and typography when they didn’t have the training to do that.”
Design, as designers will attest, is a very difficult field, one with tons of small, confusing decisions. Not only that, there are larger, more existential questions about what exactly a website is, or ought to be.
Meanwhile, with the rise of social media, people were cranking out content, and connecting with each other with a level of ease and regularity that the Internet had never seen. Websites were still using really basic engineering principles, while there were all of these exciting programming concepts in play.
That’s when he started exploring how he could use algorithms to publish content with the ease of social media, but with something coming out on the other end that looks like a designer created it. He wanted artificial intelligence (a scifi sounding term that really just means teaching a computer to make decisions instead of humans) to be a personal design consultant for users.
“When you have a bunch of images and text and you want to create a website out of it, there’s a lot of design decisions that humans manually make right now,” Tocchini says. “We can basically kind of codify and create this system that if you input the best practices, it can figure out a unique layout or unique design based on those best practices.”
If they can pull it off, it could open the floodgates for high-quality personal and professional websites, shifting more content publishing outside of walled gardens like Facebook or LinkedIn, and allowing individuals to more easily set up their own (nice-looking) camps on the Internet.
It’s a principle that Tocchini believes in so strongly, he and his team have spent the past three-plus years doing deep research and development, building new programming tools and fleshing out the platform, instead of cashing in on hype or the idea. They wanted to release something they owned, and something that would be 10 years ahead of its time. Contrary to common startup wisdom, they wanted to come out with something fully baked.
And then Facebook came knocking. As it tends to do, Facebook either really liked or really didn’t like what Tocchini and The Grid were up to, and offered to buy them out. This was about a year and a half into The Grid’s development, Tocchini says.
“It was very hard to walk away,” he says. He had a small team, and they even lost one of their engineers over it. They barely had any prototypes at the time, but the team had faith that the computer science, the theory behind what they were building—there was something big there.
“It didn’t make sense to sell because the moment this is out there, we’re just worth so much more,” he says.
So they kept building for two more years. The slow and steady route proved to have its benefits. They hammered down on the engineering concepts, while doing rounds of fundraising as needed along the way. As they developed their ideas, people liked what they were doing, and The Grid now has a team with some very impressive credits, including former Googler Brian Axe, and Leigh Taylor, the original designer of the blogging platform Medium.
This gradual approach also helped them gain experience as a business, and as fundraisers. As the team built out the tools it would use in its platform—one called Flowhub and another called GSS—it held successful rounds of crowdfunding on Kickstarter to build up support and attention.
By the time the preorder stage launched in October, The Grid had a small army of followers, a crack team, a soft roar in the press, and had already turned away the king of the Internet, checkbook in hand.
This approach is working out well for them, but you can imagine drilling down so aggressively on a concept can be dangerous, and quite contrary to what many tech startups are trying to do these days—get something out there, get customers, get a “minimum viable product.” Nonsense, Tocchini says.
“I’m just sick and tired of all the really small, stupid ideas. Make something crazy that’s really freakin’ difficult to do,” he says. If you’re going to be a tech entrepreneur, fall in love with tech. Make something profound.
“A lot of people are thinking of this whole ‘minimum viable’ idea, of like, oh I want to build an Instagram for cats or something. Instead of minimum viable— maximum viable. At least that’s been our philosophy.”
So will The Grid revolutionize the web? At the very least it looks like it will be a super slick alternative to WordPress or Squarespace. Users can throw a bunch of content at the software, and it promises to automatically whip up an elegant, responsive layout to match the subject matter. New images are automatically color corrected and cropped, and accompanying text formatted for the best look.
Tocchini says the team is currently working to build in enough variation so websites are unique, and heading into the summer will gradually start bringing Grid-powered sites online. Beyond that, he’s optimistic that The Grid can become an integral part of the web, as the number of websites continues to grow.
Tocchini hopes they can offer people something better than a template, or a patch of space on Facebook. That could very well give the current options a run for their money. And it might even kick off a new phase for the World Wide Web.
Dan Tocchini on Motivation
When you spend three years on R&D, and stick to your product’s vision to the point of even turning down a Facebook buyout, you’ve got to keep you and your team driven. For Tocchini himself, that’s not a problem.
“I’ve never really seriously considered giving up,” he says. “If that thought pops up, you just gotta kill it. Especially if you’re the founder. You can’t entertain anxieties. You just march on.”
When it comes to keeping his developers working hard, Tocchini’s found that two things help: “Really hard problems and a lot of freedom.”
He’s never personally been the type to succeed in an overly structured environment, and he doesn’t expect his team to be either. So he tries to give them a lot of space, coupled with vague, tough problems that they can take on however they see fit.
“The engineers we hire, we put a lot of faith in them, so we’ve really kind of given them control over their domain, and giving them a lot of freedom is really important.”
- Why you would turn down a buyout offer from facebook
- Leadership 101
- ow to come up with an epic idea
- How Dan’s vision is going to revolutionize the web
- The problem with websites right now and how the Grid plans to solve this massive problem
Full Transcript of Podcast with Dan Tocchini
Nathan: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Foundr Podcast, my name is Nathan Chan, and I’m coming to you live from Melbourne, Australia.
Now, I’m batching quite a few of these recordings because I’m actually going to the States which is very, very exciting. And today’s guest, I’m planning to go hang out with Dan and a guy I connected, one of our community members, Jeff, and just hang out and check out what these guys at The Grid have going on, because, man, this was an epic interview.
Now, I’m super, super pumped to bring this one to you guys. If you don’t know anything about The Grid, or you haven’t heard of them, pretty much it’s websites powered by artificial intelligence. So they’re websites that build themselves and they grow over time. It crazy what these guys have going on, and the founder, Dan, just shares so much gold with us.
They had an offer to be bought out by Facebook early on, all sorts of crazy stories.
Before we jump into this episode, I just want to share with you one of my favorite quotes that I’ve pulled from this episode. It’s not something I usually do, but I just wanna really, really get you guys excited for what’s to come in this interview. Dan says, “I’m just sick and tired of all the really small, stupid ideas. Make something crazy that’s really freaking difficult to do. If you’re going to be a tech entrepreneur, fall in love with the tech, make something profound. A lot of people are thinking of this whole minimum, viable idea of like, ‘oh, I wanna build an Instagram for cats or something.’ Instead of minimum viable, maximum viable. At least that’s been our philosophy.”
So, look, I’m gonna leave you guys to sit with that quote because there’s a lot in that, and it just goes to show what it really takes and the kind of mindset you have to do, to do such game-changing and compelling work. I like what the guys at The Grid are doing, they are trying to disrupt the internet and how websites are built. So I highly, highly recommend you check out thegrid.io, it’s crazy. I’m a founding member, I’m gonna be using The Grid to create my personal website, nathanchanblog.com.
So, that’s it for me guys. I hope you enjoy this episode as much as I did speaking with Dan. If you are enjoying these episodes, please do take the time to leave us a review. Tell your friends, help spread the Foundr mission. It’s great to hear from you guys, and the more and more people you tell, the more it helps us serve as many entrepreneurs as we can. All right, let’s jump in.
Can you just tell us a little bit about how you got your job?
Dan: My job? I could kind of go back a little bit to kind of describe how I fell into the website problem, and then ended up where I am now.
So, I did the technical thing at Berkeley, I was doing computer science, really didn’t like the academic scene much, kind of putting me out from everything technical, and I went into actually diamond sales for about a year through a family friend in Europe. Was really cool, but it’s a lot like narcotics, it’s kind of dangerous and crazy. Yeah, this is random.
And it was going really well and I needed some kind of inventory tracking software with the website, the whole kind of standard web stuff. And I start getting some bids in and they were just ridiculously expensive, everything from like the initial build to the support contracts. And then there’s the gamut of bids, you know? Like how wide that gamut was, was just crazy. I mean, there was some people say they can do it for $8,000, some people say $60,000. It didn’t feel right.
So programming, I figured it can’t be that hard. And that was really my first foray into a whole web stack and web development, and I just got addicted, I just really liked it. I just plugged in and basically never unplugged.
And one day I was like, okay, instead of selling diamonds, what happens if I go sell kind of this newly-gained interactive service today, or skills I just acquired? And so I went out and sold some websites, and like the first day I killed it, and it was like $25,000 to $30,000 in sales, and I was like, “Oh my god, this is so cool.” And it’s just the opposite of diamonds, right? Like a pure abundance, not scarcity.
Anyway, so for the next five years, so I started little…kind of grow a interactive design firm with a couple of buddies, and we just hop on any kind of proposals we can get in on like for iPhone apps, desktop software, we started doing a lot of motion graphics and stuff.
What’s funny is I really hated doing websites at the end of the day. Like websites were the worst. And largely just because no matter what you did, people weren’t satisfied. Like if we built somebody an iPhone app, it could be really expensive and take time, and they understood that, they wanna pay for that. But if you build someone a website, it was the opposite, it’s very commoditized. They are like, I really want something that’s simple and clean, which means really hard to execute obviously on the design side, and then they ultimately wanted to update it themselves, no matter what we did.
I did a lot of WordPress sites, I would install, you know, I’d put tutorials into the WordPress admin, so right when they log in, here’s a tutorial on how to do these different things. And they still would come back with the same questions like, “Okay, how do I add a YouTube video?” Or “I wanna add a shopping cart and this plugin I just installed is not working.” And it was just this really frustrating process and really annoying.
And the whole website problem was very kinda in my face, and I really wanted to tackle it, but it took a really long time to kind of identify the principles and how people should interact with websites, and really the kind of existential questions around what is a website. And so things like what would be absolutely important to The Grid is, content dictates form. So, you just throw content in, and then all the design and everything kind of generates itself around the content to adapt to the content.
And I remember like responsive web design is a big trend and very obviously a clear win for everyone, right? Interfaces adapt to different screen, different types of screens and different types of functions, large screens, small screens. But more importantly, and is something that I think The Grid, when the first kind of people pushing it is, our interfaces really need to adapt to the content and to the kind of context around the content. That’s the biggest thing.
Anyway, after like five years of kind of in the trenches, I was ready to go to full-time product development around The Grid, and that was about three years ago. And around that time I hooked up with the co-founder of mine, his name is Brian Axe. He was a former Googler, a guy who brought Google AdSense to market, and he’s just been amazing friend and also mentor in many ways on the product kind of management, well kind of lifecycle on a level I wasn’t used to.
And this full year, the team started forming from there and we’re about 25 people now. Yeah, that’s kind of how I arrived here.
Nathan: I saw The Grid, I was just fascinated by it, and then we were connected. So I’m really curious, how did the idea come about? Because artificial intelligence for websites…like I told one of my friends yesterday that I’m speaking to you, and he’s like, “Yeah, I saw that.” And I was just like, I’m so curious how this came about, how it all works, and I’m sure all our audience is. So can you give us a little bit of an insight? Because you guys haven’t launched yet, you’re just taking preorders.
Dan: So, really the whole AI thing, and when we say AI, there’s…a lot can probably be kind of misread into that. But really it’s just about kind of automating a lot of complex decisions that people have to make right now, and that we’re paying people to make manually.
But the whole AI thing really came out of the kind of algorithms I was researching. So things like constraint solvers, classifiers, stuff like machine learning. And you know, a lot of the website platforms, things like WordPress, they’re great for what they do, but they’re really kind of built on really old technology, like very simple kind of engineering. You take a list of posts and you just render them in the order in which they appear, in a kind of like manner, right? They all kind of look the same.
And so when I was getting ready to build The Grid, it was clear that there’s all these advances, like there’s all these really cool algorithms out there, and kind of just cool programming gems from history that no one’s really taking advantage of for websites or for any kind of web platform. And so I really wanted the stack to be kind of composed of those kind of more exotic things. And the idea is really simple, like what do people wanna do? You don’t wanna sit like…how should I say this?
Okay, so a very early version of The Grid, like, it wasn’t even The Grid, this is back when I was doing client work, must be like seven years ago, was a kind of drag and drop builder, similar to things like Wix, right?
Dan: And the moment I would sit people in front of this thing and show it to them, it was like it was really clear why it didn’t work, right? It’s like, oh great, now they focus all their time on making layout decisions, making designer decisions about color and topography when they weren’t…they didn’t have the training to do that. And then the most important thing, like content, that was not what they did there.
And then if you look at things like Facebook and Pinterest and Twitter and things that we do on our free time almost for fun, it’s completely different than the web platforms and website builders, right? Website builders are all focused around making designer-type decisions. And so it’s kind of obvious, like, “Wow, how can we make it so you do the same thing you do on these social networks, where you’re just focusing on content and connecting people to content, but you end up getting on the other end something as if a really great designer created it for you?” That was like the kind of impetus.
And then the whole AI thing was just really because of the type of algorithm we’re using came out the whole kind of AI research field. So, it was the easy way to kind of describe what we’re doing. Because if I said like, “It’s a website platform built on finite-domain constraint solvers and machine learning,” like building team map, like all these crazy terms, you’d be like, “What the hell?” But AI is a really nice way to package that up, you know?
Nathan: And just to unpack that a little, there’s a couple more questions around this piece. You said that it’s not actually AI, it’s stuff that is done manually in the background.
Dan: So, AI is a funny term. And there’s a kind of a who thinks we have soft AI versus hard AI. Hard AI is like you’re trying to build a brain that thinks and does stuff, like the whole “Terminator” AI or Skynet. That’s not the AI we’re talking about, we’re talking soft AI. And that’s really like if you kind of search AI on Google, like the definition, it’s that kind of AI. It’s basically automating what traditionally requires humans to do. And so that’s…and when it comes to design, that’s basically what we’re doing.
So, right now like when you have a bunch of images and text and you wanna create a website out of it, there’s a lot of design decisions that humans manually make right now, but that we can basically kind of codify and kind of create this system that if you kind of input the best practices, it could kind of figure out a unique layout or unique design based on those best practices. And that’s basically what it does. And again, if you want, I can just kind of shed some light on that.
Nathan: Look, I’m just fascinated by how this idea came about, because when I saw it, I watched the video, like you guys got your marketing down pat, I can see why you’ve almost pre-sold like 20,000 licenses, because you guys, you know, your design, the story that you’ve told, it was really impressive. And I look at your team, you’ve got like all these people with really impressive backgrounds. So yeah, I’d just like to really just delve deep on this idea and how it all came about because it’s something that I’ve never seen before, I just don’t know how you thought of this, and it’s just… it looks amazing. Seriously though, it’s very impressive.
Nathan: So, was this idea something that just popped into your head, or did it evolve as time went on? Like how did you think, “This is how I’m gonna do it,” or did it just come from starting like you said, creating like a Wix kind of model, kind of service and speaking to people and then iterating and this is how it just came about, or…yeah, I’d really like to understand and know how that happened.
Dan: One thing real quick that’s really cool about our creator campaign. So we’re the number one most successful consumer software crowdsourcing campaign ever right now. Really cool. Traditionally, consumer software, and this is not in gaming consumer softwares, in games that have kind of had huge similar campaigns.
In terms of like the kind of products we’re producing, the biggest one before us is App.net, and they had pre-orders, I think their sales is around 800,000. Yeah, that’s really cool, it’s just a great milestone and data point.
But yeah, the idea, you know, I think it’s just really been a kind of a slow baking of the principles of like content should dictate form, people should just focus on content. It should be like a master designer is working for you around the clock, giving you ideas, suggesting things, and make it so you can’t screw things up. Like you can’t say, “I want the logo bigger.” If you told that to like Massimo Vignelli or someone, like a really great designer, he might tell you, “You’re wrong,” right? So really kind of have it so it’s like the service or The Grid is like almost this intelligent designer working for you.
So like all these principles that we really wanted to accomplish these things, it kind of took a long time for it to develop. But I mean, I think those principles were there from the beginning, and the beginning was about two years ago. So, it’s just, you know, it was a slow process, there was no like…I think the only eureka real moment like that, other than kind of the little wins we have in product development, when I was with my wife. And this is right before we started going to full-time product development, and we’re just laying down together like on a couch or something, I was walking around, pacing, she’s laying, and she’s like, “You know what, it’s so frustrating, 12 hours. Like why can’t it just be like this brilliant designer working for me and why can’t we just throw in the content?” And it kind of really catalyzed in that moment, and we didn’t use the term AI, it was just like basically why can’t we have it be like just designs itself, right?
And then at the time, I was really deep into researching these tech items for constraint solvers, there’s one in particular that we’ve released a library on called GSS or Grid Style Sheets.
Anyway, if you look that up, it’s pretty cool, it’s just like…it’s basically kind of like a language for describing layout within CSS, and it’s based on this algorithm called Cassowary, which has a really interesting history. It was created by this guy named Greg Badros in like 1988 as part of his Ph.D. And Greg is this brilliant guy who was recently retired from Facebook as a VP or Product Engineering, basically one of the top like five guys at Facebook. And this algorithm kind of like was lost in like academic circles for 10 years until Apple took it. And now all of Apple’s operating systems uses his algorithm to keep layout. And so I basically took that algorithm and brought it to the web. And now Greg is actually a good friend and he’s an investor in The Grid.
I was kind of researching that at the time and that algorithm comes…like, the history of it comes from a lot of AI stuff. So, it kind of all just kind of fit together, you know? It was like that AI really matched the principle we wanted to hit.
Nathan: And this algorithm, just to touch on that, was that patented, did you have to purchase it, or…
Dan: No. So, fortunately, Greg had open-sourced it as a part of his Ph.D. work. That’s the beauty of open source. The algorithm is very kind of low level, and it’s really not…didn’t have to do with the kind of core AI, it’s just in that kind of field, and it’s just something that we use on The Grid and how we construct the layouts. Everything was the topography or kind of layout, like topographic design. It’s so subtle and so much more complex than you initially think. You think like you build a layout, it’s not that hard, it’s freaking hard, right? I mean, CSS, it’s hard to even feature something, it’s ridiculous. And then the things that we wanna accomplish are like…you know, there’s just so much subtle crap around it, so we have to kind of build all this tech around it. Oh man, it’s just ridiculous.
Anyway, where were we at?
Nathan: Well look, you guys are disrupting a massive industry, like a massive space or, like, the internet to a certain extent. So, I’d like to touch on that, but before I do, I still wanna go back to the grassroots. So, you’ve come up with this idea, you’ve kind of stubbed but it all came together, so what was next? Did you need to get funding? How did you validate this concept, or did you guys just launch? And this launch that’s going on right now was the validation period, or how did that work?
Dan: So, initially we just kind of self-funded ourselves, and then probably about six months into it we had a very small seed round with kind of family and friends, kind of showed the initial ideas, some early prototypes. And we, for the first year-and-a-half, was very deep R&D. What we do is very untraditional with startups, it wasn’t the minimum viable product, right? And we were going to areas of research that it’s probably dangerous for startups to go just because how much time it takes and you may not come out alive, right? You may just waste a bunch of time.
But you know, it was like the…it was how aggressive our goals were, so it felt like it’s what we needed to do.
Very early on in that stage we started kind of making some progress, not very long, about a year or so. And at that time we actually out of the blue got a buy-out offer from Facebook that we walked away from. And this is the time, and we had like, there was only a handful of us, like four of us, and we barely had prototypes to kind of show for what we had, but the theory and the kind of the computer science is very solid, right? So, it didn’t make sense to sell because the moment this is out there, we’re just worth so much more.
Nathan: And how long was this in?
Dan: This is probably about…probably a year-and-a-half in, and has been about maybe three and a half years now. Maybe like two years ago, a year and a half ago, I don’t know.
We kind of had the…our fundraising strategy was very…just as we need it, we kind of get it. So, it was just a ruling strategy for the first two years as we just slowly raise money when we needed it. And then we did a series A, and that lasted for quite a while. And then that recently closed right around launch, and then we’re actually starting our series B right now.
So, our strategy around fundraising has been don’t waste a lot of time on it, but always be kind of fundraising. This has worked out I guess.
Nathan: Yeah, I see. And when you said that you were going into heavy R&D, which was quite dangerous, why did you keep going? What compelled you guys to keep going through that?
Dan: Well, one of the principles that was important to us is the platform first, the technology to be real. Like we didn’t wanna build…and this is no offense against or Rails [SP] anything, but we didn’t just wanna build like a Rails app thing, you know? We wanted to own the platform, and we wanted the platform to be kind of 10 years ahead of everything else as much as we could. So, we invested a lot of time in building the tools, and before that it was, what tools are needed, right? You know, I think it’s just one of those things that just…there isn’t just no other way for me to do it, I don’t know. But we’ve launched a couple developer tools pretty successfully, one of those is GSS or Grid Style Sheets. If you just search GSS on Google it comes up.
That project we launched, did really well, we had like a couple 100,000 visitors in the first month or two, but a lot of big people are using it now like engineers at Facebook and stuff.
And then another big tool we launched was this one called Flowhub, or NoFlo is a platform that uses that…or I mean, a part of that tool chain. And we actually launched a Kickstarter around Flowhub, and we got…and at the time, topped five most successful Kickstarters for software.
And it’s a really cool tool. If you see Flowhub, it’s a visual programming environment. It’s basically a way of defining your software logic on visual graphs, and what’s cool is like…so we have these different kind of pieces to our stack and Flowhub is one of them and GSS is another, and we have a bunch more internal ones, and they all stand on their own, but combined together it’s very cool. And so to kind of describe the metaphor, so Flowhub you define these visual graphs of software logic, like a networker graph. Almost like a neural network, right? It looks like all these little nodes and wires, and things are firing around.
And then we have these other things like these constraint solvers that are basically really strong at making complex decisions or solving puzzles, which is a lot like designing. Or creating design for your content is very similar to solving a puzzle, right?
And then we have things like machine learning which is kind of how it improves itself over time. And so if you can combine those…in our stack, you combine those together and that’s kind of like our AI brain, right? You have this kind of…this neural network, this graph of like how logic kind of flows through the system. Then we have these pieces that are like, this is the decision-making or this is the part that improves and learns. So, it kind of fits itself to the whole AI thing.
Nathan: So, I think it’s safe to say you’re a super talented guy, very, very technical. When it came to the launch, and when did you guys launch? Like you’ve done this public launch, it’s like a crowdfunding campaign but just on your own platform, when did you guys launch?
Dan: That was October 8th, I believe it was.
Nathan: And you’ve received almost…I had a look last night, almost 20,000 people have pre-ordered the service, the yearly service license. So, what’s… Yeah, look, you guys have smashed it. So, my next piece is…I’ve really got a really good understanding of your story, it’s really fascinating. So with the launch, what can our audience learn from launching what you guys have? Like you’ve got an amazing story, you’ve got your marketing down pat, you know, what are some really big things that our audience can take away from everything that you guys have accomplished and learned or done so far?
Dan: You know, around crowdfunding, in particular, we’ve learned a lot, particularly because we did first and follow-up campaign on Kickstarter, and then The Grid on our own around kind of like a platform, right? Outside of Kickstarter or anything like that.
I met with this president of a company that’s called Ouya. I don’t know if you remember that, it was originally like an Android gaming system. But their Kickstarter did amazing, and they got like upwards of 7 million, 8 million, a lot of money. Like gaming hardware especially gets a lot of money. And he told me, he’s like, the way to look at crowdfunding is not really…it’s not a way to raise funds. If you’re fundraising you’re gonna…and you’re good at it, and you know, if that’s gonna give you more money, then you’re gonna get out of this.
But what’s really powerful about this is that it’s a way to get exposure, but most importantly turn press into money. And so the most important thing for a successful crowdfunding campaign is to…it needs to be in a lot of press. So that was a big kind of principle that made a lot of sense, I guess.
I think the most important thing is it’s got to be something that’s interesting enough that people will write about it, right? And the whole PR kind of thing, I never…is my first kind of…you know, play around with all that stuff is the press really does help. What else?
You know, for us I think the most important thing was practicing before we did the big one. Like The Grid was our second campaign or third launch for our company really. The first one was the Flowhub Kickstarter, the second one was GSS, the third one was The Grid. So we had practiced…our team…it’s funny, we joke like…it’s almost like we have three or four startups within our startup. And so we went through the whole process of getting all the materials ready, like the press finds out, getting the website ready and all stuff you have to do with like retargeting and just our whole shebang after doing it twice, we were kind of really writing the really important one, which is The Grid. So I think just the practice really helps.
So if there’s any way you can lock something that’s not as critical as your most important locks [SP], right? And to see…just go through it so you’re not sitting there wondering what do I do next or…and kind of in the dark, I think that’s really important. At least it helped us, it helped us a lot.
Nathan: And what is, like you’ve got…like when I looked at the team, you’ve got some people with some seriously impressive backgrounds and accomplishments already. How did you structure that team, how did that come about?
Dan: You know, this is the…I think been the big benefit of the whole platform-first strategy that we’ve taken, and so like what happened with our engineering, the whole recruiting strategy has just been we develop these tools like GSS and Flowhub and NoFlo. And basically the guys in the community that rise up, who are really good and who are…we start giving conference talks about our technology, who start talking to us and contributing on GitHub or are really active, that becomes our hiring tool. So that’s our kind of long-term strategy and really, it’s just really worked out great for us.
The initial hires though, the first few that were most important was Henry and Lee. Lee is the…he’s our kind of creative lead and he is the dude who’s behind the design for Medium in the first design hire, those guys. And Henry is just a brilliant programmer. All the Flowhub, NoFlo stuff is really his brainchild and he’s like the leading figure in that area. So that’s like the keynotes talk at the conference and stuff.
And basically, I was just fortunate to land those two guys. Like with Henry, he was on GitHub, we started just, you know, talk it up. I was just really frustrated with the state of kind of a lot of the web frameworks, and all the different kind of tools. It felt like it’s still old and they’re just missing something, and we just started kind of complaining about things together and sharing. You know, I was working on the constraint stuff at GSS and he was working on this. Things like Flowhub and this flow-based programming. And it just made sense. You know, I was lucky to get him. And same thing with Lee, it was just like I found his work on Behance and on Dribbble.
Nathan: Behance, yes, that’s how I’ve recruited designers too. That’s a good tip right there for the audience. Behance and Dribbble.
Dan: Yeah, exactly. Like GitHub for engineers and Behance and Dribbble, and just like kind of make sure your vision is aligned and that was really it. And then the rest of it came mainly through our open source tools.
Nathan: I’m loving this conversation, Dan, I could pick your brain all day, man, but we have to work towards wrapping up. Couple last questions, one, how was launch, like Go-Live coming along, and is there any…I’m sure you’ve had some hiccups and struggles and roadblocks. Can you tell us a little bit about those, and then also when do you plan to launch?
Dan: Yeah, definitely. So, launch is end of spring. So we’ve kind of just marked the actual end of spring as the absolute deadline, and we wanna make sure we wanna release stuff before that, end of spring being like…you know, like the summer solstice is the absolute last day. But we’ll have stuff out before that.
I mean, I guess the…some of the bumps on the road were more like, you know, after we launched the website and all that craziness of kind of getting everything together and all the late nights and stuff, it was like about a month afterwards that we just…like the whole team was dead, we couldn’t do anything. It was like…it was very hard to get back started after that. So, is nice having the PR campaign be quite a bit away from the actual launch, so we can kind of rev things back up.
And so now, yeah, we go full blast working on getting…the next thing that we’re gonna do is get another site up, which is gonna be my website, and then after that we’re gonna get some other team members’ sites up, and then we’re gonna start to allow certain people to come and get their sites up. So kind of slowly roll out more and more sites.
And the core focus for us is in having the engine-produced variation in the design. So right now like if you were to put your content in, it would be…you could kind of tell it would be similar to The Grid site, it would be different colors, different sections, but it would still be almost too similar. And that’s the thing that no matter what, it’s really got to have variation so that it looks like a completely custom design.
And all the groundwork’s there, it’s just now that it’s like basically what we have to do is feed a lot of rules into the system, and things like different types of color systems. So like The Grid’s website is a very adaptive color system. We just focus on the color palettes, more on color systems. So like The Grid’s website, you scroll through it, you’ll notice that there’s lots of colors, but we didn’t pick any of those colors, we didn’t pick any of those sections. All the colors were extracted from the content. So it’s a very adaptive color system.
But there’s also color systems that are more in terms of like go towards this brand color, Right? This red or this brown. And so we combine things like different color systems with different types of layouts with different types of animations or different types of rounded corners and different types of textures, you start to really get a really unique look and feel, almost like a desire to create something custom for you. So that’s where our focus is right now, is just feeding the system with more variations so that when you get a website, it’s basically…your website is the only one that looks like that. So, that’s what we’re just working really hard to make sure that happens.
Nathan: And you said this has kind of been something that was conceptualized in your mind seven years ago, was there any point in time that you felt like giving up? Like what has been some of your biggest struggles?
Dan: That’s a good question. You know, I think it’s like…you know, I never really seriously considered giving up. I think you just kind of…if that pops up, you just got to kill it. At least essentially if you’re like the founder, right? I mean, this is… It’s like you can’t entertain anxieties, you have to…you just march on.
I think one of the big struggles was when Facebook gave us the offer very early on, it was very hard to walk away, and at the time we had an engineer who’s no longer with us, and we were a very small team and he really wanted to go. And so when we walked away, he actually ended up leaving the team. And we were a very small team at the time, so it was like, “Oh, shit.” And so yeah, that was difficult.
And what else? Oh man, it’s just like difficulties around like I like just getting into the engineering and the product and the design side of things. To all the freaking other stuff like the emails and the meetings is like, oh god, that’s the worst. I can’t handle that shit, that’s the worst.
Nathan: Yeah, I know what you mean, I can see you’re very technical, you love just getting in, playing, and just bringing something to life, I can really see that.
What are your visions for the future of The Grid, and where do you see it going in disrupting this…the internet? I like this side of the internet because it’s crazy, like you guys are trying to disrupt how websites are built.
Dan: It’s funny, like websites…I mean, they’re like the atomic building block of the web and I think it’s completely ignored by the big tech companies, right? I mean, Google had this really crappy website build. There has been no answer there, right? There’s no incumbent. It’s a really interesting time. Like this is when chart and one of our shows, you know, the whole website market. And right now there’s actually not that many websites relative to…in terms of internet scale, there’s only like 600 million websites or something approximately.
And in terms of websites and internet scale, that’s small, right? There’s more than a billion users on Facebook. But the growth of websites right now is accelerating really fast, and pretty soon, in the next four, five years the number of websites is gonna be greater than number of internet users.
And the growth is just accelerating and there’s no established solution to service this field. I mean, WordPress is the biggest one but it only owns like 15% to 18% of the market. And to put that in perspective, like you look at search, Google owns about 70% of search. The second biggest, Bing, which is like nothing compared to Google in search, they have about 15% to 18%. So we’re talking like the biggest one in the website space is actually really small, right? So there’s like, it’s a wide open field. I think it’s really exciting the opportunity to kind of… Whoever owns that space is gonna be kind of in a very important role for the internet.
And so like for us, like in the near future we’re focused…like we wanna be the number one solution, like the leaders for websites. And websites, I think, start from this existential thing, like what the hell is a website? Is Facebook a website? Is your Facebook page a website? Is Google a website? You know, what is a website? And I think that as we…our vision for the website is very big and more than just blogs and stuff. So, I think I’d like to see how we can kind of just go from website to more than that and just have like our kind of AI designer design more than websites, right? Eventually things like what we consider apps today, stuff like that.
And then to me, like, the technology behind The Grid really solves the kind of 2D interface problem that a lot of people face and really long-term thinking. To me, I think there’s really exciting opportunities in how you go from 2D to beyond, and how you interact with information in those environments in a really intelligent way. I think that’s exciting.
So, obviously really crazy, long-term vision of going from like AI websites to interfaces that aren’t 2D. I think that’s where we’re…just keep out, keep finding crazy ways to find this stuff.
Nathan: I love it. This is really, really inspiring.
Last question, how do you keep your team motivated?
Dan: The engineers we hire, we really put our faith in them, so really kind of giving them control over their domain and giving a lot of freedom I think is really important. I know for myself like if I had a very structured environment, I wouldn’t thrive, I’d try to break the rules. So we look for those kind of people, because that’s what our environment is like, that’s our culture.
So I think giving a lot of freedom and giving them really difficult problems and big, big projects, like figure out how to do this, and then they can kind of employ whatever they want as long as they can kind of figure it out. Like for example, I can tell you a problem one of our engineers tackled in a really great way.
So like when you have an image and say a part of that image has a low contrast area or like a negative space. So you have like you take a picture of a tree against a blue sky. There may be a section of the blue sky in the left at large and that’s suitable to put text on top of. We’ve got a background because it’s like a very low contrast background.
And so we’re like, figure out the best way to do this. So he would really find all these cool research papers and you know, we use this technique called maps which he employed, and he just really kind of had a lot fun with it. It was a very big, big project.
And same type of thing like…that same engineer like on his free time, we do a lot of analysis of the content you post on The Grid so we can kind of find a good design for it. So we detect if there’s faces in the picture, obviously. But he went a step further and he started adding like are the faces smiling? Like what’s the expression on the face? Like the sentiment of the picture, things like that. So, kind of open-ended, like how can we extract the sentiment from a photo and just start to run with it? I think that’s…if you find great engineers, I think that’s the way you motivate them, you know? Really hard problems and a lot of freedom.
Nathan: That’s a great one. Okay, look, really enjoyed our conversation, Dan, I got a lot of gold from you. Really fascinating story, thank you for just sharing and really giving it your all.
Is there any final last pieces that you’d like to finish off on, any questions that I didn’t ask you, that you wanted me to ask, that you’d like to share with our audience of aspiring novice and early-stage entrepreneurs and startup founders?
Dan: I mean, I guess I’ve kind of talked a lot.
I think in the high-level thing in terms of general startups and all that is I’m just sick and tired of all the really small, stupid ideas. Like make something crazy that is really difficult to do. If you’re gonna be in a tech company, you’ve got to be tech, you’ve got to like…I don’t understand how a lot of the…if I was gonna, you know, be a fashion designer, like I’ve got to fall in love with fashion. So the same thing with tech. Like if you’re gonna do software, you’ve got to fall in love with it. And there’s a whole culture there that…there’s these gems just waiting to be extracted and used, it’s not just a business like from a business perspective, but from like…the inside, you can find it and pull it out and use it in a way that no one’s used it.
And I think there’s so many things, like these constraint solvers and the AI stuff could be used and apply in so many fields, it’s just… You know, a lot of people are thinking that this whole minimum viable idea of like, “Oh, I wanna build an Instagram for cats or something.” I figured, you know, instead of minimum viable, fucking maximum viable. At least that’s been our philosophy.
Nathan: That was awesome. Well, thank you for sharing that with us. Look, thank you for taking the time, absolute pleasure.
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