Matthew: Hi, this is Matthew Wise with FounderLY. We empower entrepreneurs to have a voice and share their story with the world, enabling others to learn about building products and starting companies. I am very excited today because I’m here with Darius Monsef, aka Bubs, who is the founder of COLOURlovers. COLOURlovers is a creative community that is making design super simple. With that said, Bubs, we’d love for you to give our audience a brief bio.
Darius: Sure, so my beginning is both as a designer and as a developer in terms of how I got to the design world. I was a guy that did a little bit of both, probably neither extremely well, but that just sort of led to learning a little bit of both: how to do development and then how to do design. And over time, I found the right people, my co-founders, that were experts in both space to kind of support me.
But my story for, even as an entrepreneur, has this good tinge in it in terms of a philanthropic trip that took me to Thailand after the Tsunami. I spent two years creating and running a non-profit that runs volunteer centers and disaster areas at the same time that the COLOURlovers project, when it was really just a project at the time, was continuing to grow and kind of organically get new users.
So, my story as an entrepreneur existed both in the for profit world and for the non-profit. And I think in some ways they’re very similar, and you’re both trying to solve problems for people. One just ends at receiving a dollar amount, the other one receives in good will, or happiness in the world. So,yeah.
Matthew: What makes COLOURlovers unique? Who’s it for, and why are you so passionate about it?
Darius: Sure, so it’s probably a different audience than I think a lot of people first assume. So, if you think about a site where almost 2 million people a month show up to play with color, you’re going to assume that these are like crazy color fanatics or they’re just designers, professionals. And a majority of our really active users aren’t designers. They’re just general people who they might be an accountant during the day but are looking for some kind of creative outlet. Something that they can do and put their ideas out there for the world to see.
We created this awesome supportive community where they get this positive feedback. And so, it’s more encouraging to create and share your ideas. And that for me is where it gets the most exciting. We want the average person to be able to create and share their ideas. Another fundamental belief about our business is that we can make design super simple, genuinely, so that anybody can be a designer.
You might have an idea for a t-shirt but you lack the skills and illustrator to like really put it together. Whereas if we can make those tools really easy and then give you access to a wealth of beautiful content, then you should be able to put that together yourself, and there’s amazing companies like Threadless where you can submit the design to. Or Turkley [SP] that will take your design and make it into a greeting card or wrapping paper.
And so, the rest of the startups get to solve the fulfillment part, we just want to make design genuinely easy so that you can be a designer as well. And that gets exciting for me because I’m not perfectly skilled in illustrator and have yet to design a shirt for Threadless, but I’d love to do it someday.
Matthew: What are some of the technology and market trends that currently exist, and where do you see things developing in the future for your space?
Darius: Sure. I think in any of the creative design spaces technology is really helping make it easier for more and more people to do professional creative work. We’re on the flip camera right now which is amazing technology for a really affordable cost, compared to if we had done this ten years ago you would have had some Canon 3 chip thing that would have cost you several grand to get. And then even the production content, being able to edit the videos. So, we’re in that similar space. We’re just trying to approach it from the design software side.
So, Photoshop is an amazing design tool, we use it. But if there was a Photoshop that only had like four or five features, like what would that be and how do you make it super simple so that the average consumer can design something beautiful? And as the sort of technology catches up and makes it so that you can just instagram your photo and make it look beautiful, we’re kind of on that next leg of helping consumers take not just their creative content, but package it into things that can become products.
So, right now we have a partnership with Spoonflower that would let you take a pattern or palette on COLOURlovers and turn it into fabric. Then, you can turn that into a slip for your couch or clothing or some awesome pair of pants.
So, for us as the limited run manufacturing catches up, we believe the next frontier in retail is personalization. And for that to really succeed, the consumer needs access to a breadth of really awesome content that they can feel is really personal and customized to them. Or access to tools that make it really easy for them to create something personal to them. So, we can fulfill that on the design side and then limited run on the manufacturing that is going to make it easy for that person to get, not just blank fabric, but eventually like a finished shirt, a hat, maybe someday a car. So, we want to really want to drive towards that, supporting design and personalization.
Matthew: We covered your background and a brief overview of the market. We’d like to dig into the details of the COLOURlovers story. What inspired you to start it? Was there an “aha” moment or, you know, what’s the story behind that?
Darius: There was probably a sound but I don’t think it was “aha”. It was really just sort of a creative inspiration half joke one weekend. I was a developer and designer, went back to school as a fashion major because I had a hot interest in fashion and someday wanted to be a journalist. So, I was going to check out that space. And I took a color theory course which we spent an entire semester just mixing paint. So, it’s useful to know that, you know, blue and yellow make green and all these different shades of it. But, it was just painful. Because it was just like the science of mixing colors and I thought that the thing that they missed the most was how we see color. It’s completely individual.
One, our eyes are different, so we’re going to interpret the light differently to see color differently. And then, we both have different either personal experiences around color that have an impact on how we see that color. There’s different social norms around color, depending on where you live. So, the fact that it was such a different thing yet there was such hard, strict rules on what colors look good or what work with you. It inspired me just to make this joke, say, which really started as [inaudible 06:27] for color. At the time you could just upload a color square and then other people could rate it as like zero to ten on like is this attractive to you or not?
And so, I thought it was just funny. Like, is this color attractive to you, and it’s ugly to somebody else. But I shared it with a small group of designers that were on this flash forum called kirupa.com. And they were the first users of it, and they gave me feedback and they thought it was really fun. But somebody at some point had asked about having color palettes. And so, you know, I was just playing around with this. Literally, I built the first version in a weekend and then just tacked on some features in the next couple of weeks. And in hindsight, the palettes really were what made it survive all the way until now. Because if it had just been the colors, it would have been this funny little project that gets some attraction and then leaves.
But the palettes became really useful for everybody else. So, the community started showing palettes, and then other designers came and used them for their work. A community created around it that they were sharing each others ideas and supporting them. And so, the first years, there’s three years of COLOURlovers life where it was just a side project thing.
And I mentioned the non-profit that I co-founded. I started COLOURlovers December 15, the tsunami happened eleven days later, and then I was in Thailand about a month after that. I ended up staying for five months there, working and co-founding the non-profit. So, I would come back from a project and I’d work and I’d add features and try and do something that the users wanted.
And then, I went to Biloxi, Mississippi, for five months to work on the Katrina Project. So, it was really building COLOURlovers only between those disaster projects that I was doing. But I’d gotten a couple of years into that and the non-profit was running, we had other project directors. And I just kind of like kept looking at COLOURlovers as there was really something here to it. And at that point, a couple of hundred thousand registered users had signed up. This is all organic. And it just made sense that I should go back to the technology well.
I’ve genuinely thought we were doing meaningful work in the non-profit space, and I really enjoyed it. But I have this technology skill set. So I could have just stayed on that track and did amazing work for all that I could do. Or I can come back to the tech space, I can leverage my skill set, hopefully have this big exponential win some day, and then do that for the rest of my life on a whole different level than what I was able to do before.
So, I came back to do COLOURlovers. I started trying to work on it more full time, got actually recruited to go work at Microsoft on the Photosynth project, which was in their live labs. And I saw it as this opportunity to go work on incubator space in a big technology company and could I learn lessons and leverage COLOURlovers into that.
What I learned is that it was just a soul crushing brutal experience compared to the speed that I wanted to move in the web space. And that’s a big technology company that’s built mostly software. So, we shipped our site every six weeks, and that was just killing me. Because we’ve got to move quick. There’s a whole another startup that’s going to show up tomorrow, and they’re going to make this cool social thing that we’ve got to use. And if it’s two months down the road, then we’re just slightly behind everybody.
So, I learned a lot of lessons which I’m using now. We now have nine people on our team in terms of like management, how we run and number of people working on the same vision. But at the time, I just wanted to move faster than it was happening. It was just driving me nuts.
And there was another guy named Aaron Epstein that had software called Colorschemer. And we’d known each other for about four years, because the color world isn’t that big, two guys that have big color technology companies. And I reached out to him, we talked before and said, “Look, I’m going to do COLOURlovers full time. I think there’s something to it. I’ve got this great community, you’ve got this killer software. Maybe, we should just merge this together and go at it.” And I met him in Boston for a weekend and we did this, probably difficult two days of like negotiating whose company is worth what and who’s going to get what position.
But it actually worked out really well, and I think that helped us to see how we’d work together as founders because that’s a really difficult conversation to have. It’s like, I think you’re worth this, I think you’re worth this. And you can end up hurting feelings and kind of beat each other down. But we came out of it feeling comfortable about the new company and excited to kind of run it together.
And then, the third co-founder, Chris, is a developer that I hired probably three years ago because I knew that the site was getting bigger than my skill set would allow for programming. And I’m not the right programmer. I hack things just well enough to work where Chris is a guy that cares about doing something right, and he’s always improving and making things work. And it’s so key to have him on our team as the site continues to grow and scale, because it would have died long ago had I been developing it. So, that’s kind of where we’re at now.
We did Y Combinator about a year and a half ago. Got all of us here in San Francisco for another three months to work together. I’ve since stayed and been able to network with tons of other founders. And it’s really kind of a different place being here in San Francisco which allowed us to get connected with some great investors and we raised our seed round in March, which is allowing us to grow a little bit faster than we would have on our own. We’ve been bootstrap profitable. So, we could have continued to grow as we were. But we really saw finally that there was an opportunity in what we’re doing and had we raised we could just kind of grow a little bit faster than we were on our own. So, now we’re in this big growth phase.