Darius Monsef – COLOURlovers – 2 of 2

"The best support you can have is passionate engaged users." COLOURLovers is a creative community that helps people discover their inner designer.

Matthew: Are there any unique metrics or social proof about COLOURlovers that you’d like to share with the audience?

Darius: Hmm, I think I can just share numbers and see how it goes. Now, we’re almost 700,000 registered users. We get almost two million visitors a month. They’ve named four million colors. There’s 16 million that exist on the web, so we started working our way through people being able to name colors. I think there’s about two million created and shared color palettes that are on the site, and then also it’s not just about the content creation. It’s also about the combination of content.

We built a tool called Themeleon which eventually will be a platform that just makes web design, template design super easy, because any web design is basically a background of some sort and the colors and the layout. So, if you take a palette and a pattern, you merge it together, it’s basically like voila, site design, And we built a prototype and we launched that with Twitter almost a year and a half ago as well, and it’s been great. Twitter loves it, it’s linked right from the side bar on Twitter, and there’s about 50,000 profiles a day that are designed with that tool.

We’re working on WordPress integration next, but eventually that platform could solve a lot of headaches for people trying to design sites that allow for profile customization for their users. They can just pipe in their API and voila, that’s done.

Matthew: We know founders face unique challenges when they decide to launch a company. What was the hardest obstacle in launching COLOURlovers, and how did you overcome this?

A: Our launch is probably different than a lot of people, and I would love to have the different, sort of stereotypical startup, like you have an idea and then you all pour yourself into it and you go from nothing to something in a short period of time.

COLOURlovers started six years ago as a project, and it really was a project for a few years. That was me spending my own money. I got friends and family angel investment from my non-profit co-founder actually a few years ago that I used to hire Chris, who is now a partner, just because I couldn’t keep up with the development, but it was brutal for a long time. I mean you’re dealing with trying to survive this site, it’s not making money, I’m spending my own money to keep it going.

At the time, we were mostly ad-driven, so I’m waiting on checks from ad networks that pay 90 days out. So, the hard thing for me was just surviving through it, but I think that’s better for us now. We got really lean as both founders and as a company, so now that we’ve raised money, we’re efficient in what we do. We’re working on getting back to profitability and we have a road map. We have revenue, we have products that we sell. It’s probably a lot less riskier for our investors than a lot of other “right out of the gate.”

Some ideas are still very much projects when they get funded, when they probably could have benefited from a few months of just flushing out bugs on their own before they get that investment and then they light the rockets. When we raised our money to light our rockets and go, there was a lot of time of flushing out the bugs and really understanding what we were doing, before we went and did it. So, I think the challenge for startup founders is maybe survive a little longer, niche shopping than I think they do now.

It’s just a great market right now to raise money. It’s entrepreneur friendly, cash is available, so a lot of people are just doing it because they can. I guess if you can do that, do that, but there’s probably a benefit to you as a founder and to your company, if you just work through a lot of bugs on your own first, when you’re really bleeding and sweating your own sweat and blood. I think that’s probably a good thing for a founder.

Matthew: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned since launching COLOURlovers?

Darius: I think COLOURlovers has been this other metric that could have shared a five time Webby nominee for “Best Community.” We’ve lost mostly just to Flicker, which is obviously an amazing community, so I’m okay with that, but that was something that really continues to grow our site. It’s the users, it’s the community, it’s the experience that we’ve created for them, and we didn’t do anything. I didn’t make the community.

We built the tools and the experience around it, but it was those people that showed up, and it was the way that, even if it was unintentional, the fact that love is in our domain name. You love things, you have lovers, it’s just creates a positive atmosphere and we have probably one of the best communities on the web. There’s very little trolling. We do a good job of moderating the spam, and it’s just the best support you can have, it’s really passionate, engaged users.

We did a complete redesign last year when we were still moving from this small startup team to a bigger resource team, and we made some changes without really running it past the users. We were just moving too fast and we had a ton of push-back, so the lesson there is knowing that your community really is your most valuable asset, and at the same time, you can’t let them also drive what you’re doing.

I’m not going to remember it right, but Steve Jobs’ quote of community, it’s like you have to be visionary about what you’re doing or to go to the Henry Ford quote, if he asked his customers what they wanted, they would ask for a faster horse. So, we try and bring our members in our community really into the design process rather than just releasing this stuff on them after the fact. So, probably the best lesson is involve your users, but also have a vision about what you’re doing and where you’re going.

Matthew: What bit of advice do you wish you would have known before starting COLOURlovers?

Darius: There’s probably some really key advice that I could say, but I think it’s good to make a lot of mistakes along the way. We learned, as long as you’re learning from all the mistakes that you make, then I think it’s actually good for you and that’s the reason why you probably should bootstrap, is you learn a ton of lessons as you go. The difference for me even living in San Francisco has been pretty huge, so I’m not sure what specific lesson there is there, but if you can surround yourself with other entrepreneurs, other founders that are really launching companies.

When I lived in Portland, I did a lot of work to try and surround myself with other founders, and I just couldn’t find it. It made it so much harder for me. Coming down to San Francisco, there’s just obviously a wealth of founders now, but even Portland’s getting more incubators that are popping up, that are really helping entrepreneurs. New York is a great startup city now. Austin, Boulder, Seattle, find those entrepreneurs, surround yourself with them, and you get to learn lessons together, and it’s an amazing support group.

Matthew: What mentor has played a significant impact in your professional development?

Darius: It probably is my non-profit co-founder, David Campbell. I met him in Thailand just a month or two after the tsunami, retired businessman, and he was doing what I am now hoping to work to do in my life where you work through technology. He was the CEO of a bunch of large technology companies, now on the board of billion dollar ones. Now, he is using his time to help the world in a different way, so him for me, as both a mentor on the non-profit, philanthropic, do good for the world side, as well as understanding and running the business. I counted on him, he was my first angel investor, so he’s been involved with COLOURlover since the very beginning, and even at the stage where he was really investing in me, not the company.

It was like this color site, he didn’t understand it, I didn’t really understand it, but he saw that there was an opportunity with what I was doing, and it’s good sometimes that he’s from a different generation of tech, so he can give me real business feedback about the way you grow a company, the way you generate revenue. It’s good to get the balance of that because again, if you go back to just surrounding yourself with San Francisco entrepreneurs, you’re all working on this different world and I can do this and this, get acquired in a period of time, which is different than learning how to grow a business that you believe can last a long time.

Matthew: What advice would you like to share with our audience about launching a startup? If you have to distill it, what are the key elements?

Darius: Do something that you’re passionate about, really believe in it, because it’s going to be a lot harder than you think. We’ve talked about this before. If you just look at TechCrunch, the main coverage of start-ups, it looks like it’s amazingly easy and those guys just started and now they’ve got funding, now they got acquired, it’s amazing, but that happens rarer I think than you think. There’s so many smart people out there, so be really passionate about what you’re doing, because it’s going to be difficult, and work hard. If you really believe in it, it’s going to amount to something meaningful to you as well.

Matthew: Before we close, Bubs, I would love for you to give our audience a vision for COLOURlovers and how you hope it will change the world.

Darius: Sure, we really do believe that we can change the world. It’s cliché in the startup world sometimes, but that’s what we’re working towards. We really want to make design super simple for anybody and everybody. It started with the color palette, which is the basic element of any design, it needs a color palette, and the way that we just chose five colors to make it into a palette, made it so that anybody could do that, but the end result is artistic. So if you can just take that model of super simple, oh, it’s just arranging colors and then changing that, that is art. We want to continue to see, as a challenge in ourselves, how far can we push that. We made it into patterns, now it’s designing patterns, and then it’s web templates, maybe it’ll be being able to custom design a font, even if you don’t understand how to do that.

Maybe it’s the one example that I mentioned, just designing a car. Maybe, technology will catch up at some point where all the elements are there for somebody, if we can make tools that continually push the envelope of what can be achieved by a novice designer in the professional design space. That’s what we get excited about so we’ll be hopefully involved some way in most products design in the future.

Matthew: Bubs, it’s been a great pleasure having you as a guest on FounderLY. We’re rooting for your continued success at COLOURlovers. For those in our audience who would like to learn more and join their community, you can visit their website at www.colourlovers.com.

This is Matthew Wise at FounderLY. Thanks so much, Bubs.


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