I've been making websites since there was a web to make ‘em on.
I've run my own show for almost the whole time, with a two year dabble in corporate IT at the height of the bubble.
I'm an entrepreneur who has big ideas, works hard, and wants to provide for his family. My shop wins awards, our clients generally love us, I do everything that a good mid-sized webshop should do, yet I find myself unsatisfied.
I grew up with computers in the family. My Dad worked on punch cards and tape, so I can say with as much credibility as anyone that it "runs in the blood." I was programming my Apple ][e at 6, I was building Heathkitsin the electronics lab in our basement. I ran BBS's, I got busted for bringing a Virus to school as a kid, you name it. Think War Games, that was me. I still have an acoustic coupler in the basement somewhere. My friends all played D&D and I know what a blue box is from using one, not reading about em.
I got excited about the web for bigger reasons than a paycheck though. Yes, growing up a programmer with a passion for visual arts pretty much forces you into web design these days, but in 95 when I dropped out of college to make websites that wasn't quite so that clear to everyone. What got me excited was the idea of the web as universal expression for everyone. I believed in the power of "myPetCat.com" when you could actually buy that domain and build the site yourself. I remember telling entrepreneurs that "you can look as good as IBM on a shoestring budget using the web!".. which as we all know, turned out to be more of an ideal than a reality.
I worked my way through the bubble, I've built working solutions for some of the most bizarre ideas and clients known to man, with a smile and a voice in the back of my head saying "well this might not be the printing press for the masses that the idealistic 21-year-old Franz wanted, but I am doing a great job being a voice of reason in this sea of madness."
Well now I'm 32. I've got a 2 year old daughter and another on the way. I'm responsible for a dozen bright people who love to make great websites, and I'm asking myself hard questions about if this is where I wanted to be in life. Frankly, I planned on being dead by 27 or a millionaire by 30. Neither happened. The last 5 years have been a blur of extra-credit confusion. As I grow up and realize I might very well be coming up with interesting ideas for a long time, I look at the business I've built by being flexible and bright and I wonder if, why, and how I truly love it.
I am a plumber. (shit, sorry Plumbers Association of America) but I get paid by the hour. Like any IT services company, we want recurring income, and we've historically thought the best way to do that was license a product. It is tiresome to get paid by the hour. There's no dependability in it unless you're willing to get tied to a vertical. We certainly have dabbled with the idea, why not be the company that just bangs out lawyer websites. The reality is this strategy seems to both miss the point of making the world a better place through free communication on an uncontrollable medium, and also the fun adventure of random consulting. Given the choice of Han Solo or Luke's Uncle tending the farm… Well call me Franzolo.
We do a lot of work for bright entrepreneurs who are starting an online business, but we're constantly building ourselves out of a job. Just this spring we ended up losing a huge client from last year lemonade.com because they decided they needed to build out their own IT department as part of their rev 2 launch. I can't say I blame them, sure we built everything they've got from the ground up last year, and obviously I wish I was getting that check instead of ADP in some ways, but if I were in their shoes I'd do the same thing. They need an IT department and my shop's not it, nor do we want to be in the big picture.
We're in Portland, Oregon.. where the beer flows and the creative folk grow like the moss on roofs. I learned many years ago that competing for local web development work is a tough, gossipy, battle. There's not a lot of business outside of lumber and microchips, and while everyone in this town seems to get a hard-on for doing something for HP, Intel, or Nike – I can't say I do.
So how do I support my growing family & crew in a way that I have some clue as to where money is coming from more than 6 weeks out and I'm not competing with the client's neighbor kid? How do I do something with my life that I can point to and say "that was worth while, the world is now a better place?"
Well, I could quit it all and go start some new dot com that makes virtualized widgets for gizmogingers in the social media space. Frankly, I've built enough of those ideas over the years that it's hard for me to commit my success or failure to just one idea. These days that comes down to a competitive "who do you know" battle that holds little interest for an idea guy like myself. Frankly, I want to do a lot of stuff. I want to be more involved in music and fashion than I am. I want to have the shop I have, but have a dash of downtime so we can pursue fun internal projects that we used to when it was just me and Andy in the basement. I'm sure I'm absolutely the first person you've ever heard express this dream.
Okay, so there's my self-serving blog dribble… is there a point?
It is time for us to make a new strategic play. We've had a CMS we've been selling since 2003 quite effectively. We built it before "blogs" were the big deal they are today and we made it because we were tired of our bosses spending 6 figures on some license fee for what amounted to a publishing system. It's called Concrete CMS and it works. It's flexible to work with, easy for office workers to use, and robust enough to handle real sites. We made it because we had an AdCouncil project with an insane deadline and too many stakeholders. We knew they would never agree to a fixed scope, so we needed a modular way to deal with content and functionality where we could re-arrange things in real-time and look like heroes. We did.
It grew. For the last 5 years we've done major and minor edits to it and basically sold it as the market allowed. As a production guy turned bizdev guy, I gotta say its really interesting to see the market change. I remember when people thought we were cheap because we wanted 15k instead of 30k for a perpetual license of our app. Shit I remember when TeamSite cost 300k. The price has come down year after year. As the guy in me who cuts paychecks cries, the Anarchist industrial punk kid who dropped out of college to help the underdog take on the man is getting excited though.
So here it is.
We've been working on the next HUUUGE version update of Concrete for over a year now. It's mad web2.0. It's hella AJAXy. It's dead fucking sexy and you're going to love it. It's my job to figure out who we're going to sell it to, and how we're going to price it. There's been a lot of debate. We could tweak it around to serve a particular vertical. We could add some more eCommerce loving to it and take on Magenta and the array of OsCommerce killers that are about to come out. We could come up with all sorts of money grubbing bullshit plans that we'd implement to some degree and keep making cash off of.. but frankly.. I grow weary of the battle & bullshit.
I want two things.
1) I want financial security for my family and creative crew. I want to be able to spend time with my daughters and know that I'll be able to send them through school.
2) I want to do fun, creative, world improving things. Five figure license fees to corporate America, for software that only kinda meets the core promise behind the stated need, isn't gonna put a smile on my face.
So, oh faithful new reader… Take it.
Take it for free.
Yes, I'm drinking beer, and I'm gonna buy you free beer too.
I saw Dirty Jobs the other day where a born and bread fisherman in Oregon looked at his trade, and decided to sell everything and buy into the Cranberry business for his family and personal sanity stake. Sadly the Cranberry market tanked for 3 years immediately after he got started, but he lasted through and amazingly built a successful business at something he barely knew.
I feel like I'm making the same type of decision here. My Father certainly would not give away intellectual property, his manufacturing software shop had the same core license plus time and materials model that my current webshop, and so many others had. I've certainly loved and benefited from many open source solutions over the years, but personally have always most identified with the older Shareware movement: "have a taste, but the meal ain't free." The fact that we're giving away Concrete CMS under the MIT license, more open than ‘public domain', is a true step out of the water for me, and I'm excited about what I'm gonna learn.
Of course, I hope it will be wildly successful, we'll live comfortable and creative lives while making the world a better place from our little wet corner of the world. I can promise you, oh dedicated reader, one thing.. We will embrace this full force. We will blog on our blog as openly and blatantly as our minds take us. We may end up being seen as asses or heroes, maybe both – but we'll certainly do everything we can to go big. Welcome to the internal dialog at Concrete the Studio, you're going to hear it all.