The midsummer that Strikingly.com was born was as hot and muggy as any of Chicago’s dog days, and Hyde Park had the heavy calm of a university town that had emptied. The mood at the startup’s offices, then called JoinStart, mirrored the climate. The startup’s team had wanted a shot at changing the world, or at least at building a product that would make it a better place. They had focused so much on that vision, with visions of startups like Kiva and Kickstarter, that they had lost the path in front of them, and no longer knew where to go.
The four kids that lived in the lake front apartment had sacrificed their shot at prestigious banking internships, at travelling for the summer, at making a dime or two before the school year, for the chance to change the world. They’d all said no to some sweet deals to spend the summer in the quiet of Hyde Park and code. David Chen, the unofficial leader, was financing the whole thing out of his own pocket; they lived in his apartment. Dafeng Guo had flown from China on a one way ticket. Jesse and Forrest hadn’t applied anywhere, but both were talented students that could easily have created a different route for themselves. Teng Bao was the only exception, working an internship at a derivatives trader in New York and slaving nights on the project, living with the team via skype. They all dreamed of success, but they were lofty dreams, less of San Francisco and TechCrunch articles as of hosting a thriving community of social entrepreneurs, and enabling entrepreneurial visions. They dreamed of impact.
The problem was that nobody in the room agreed on what that meant. By about midsummer, with their project dead in the water and not much to show for months of work, everyone had at least a few moments where they thought about the decision they had made to be there.
The Strikingly.com team. From left to right: Teng Bao, David Chen, and Dafeng Guo
I (Morgan) spent more than a few afternoons there in the heat of 2011, showing up to leech their wifi and steal some Budweiser, which was the only thing I could ever find in the fridge. Sometimes I would sit on the floor and write while they worked, but much of the time we would simply discuss the project, trying to nail down an angle that they could actually sell to someone.
JoinStart headed in many directions in its one year of existence. It had been a platform for student organizations to connect with each other, for individuals to connect with organizations, and, at the need of Student Government, had temporarily transformed itself into a voting platform for student organization competitions. The most consistent goal was to create a crowd funding platform for student projects, but it never really got there. Indeed, the name itself was a manifestation of the confusion: nobody could decide if they wanted to use it to join things or to start things.
It was easy to tell how lost the ship was in the office. Everyone would be working quietly on a new feature they had dreamed up the day before, and then Jesse might ask for input on how the page flow should be laid out, and it would, within minutes, spiral into a discussion about where the company was actually going. That is to say that questions like “What fields should we put into the profile creation form?” might get answers like “hey man, here’s an idea! Maybe we should move ahead of crowd funding and into crowd investing.”
Sometimes David and I would go for runs along the lakefront, and he would confide what was happening with the company. “We don’t know where we want to go next,” he would tell me. “We want to create a positive impact, to help people make their ideas happen, but we don’t know how to get there.”
Things around the office started to slip. The workspace became dirty, cluttered desks among minefield of unwashed rice bowls and papers strewn all over the floor. The gorgeous lake view was marred by windows stained from whiteboard markers; diagram after diagram had been drawn for ideas that were never built and new features they couldn’t agree on where to place. Forrest and Jesse started to stray; Forrest began spending as much time on other projects as on Joinstart. The momentum was gone. There had been a year of sleepless nights and ditched classes, countless hours of coding new features, and there was no product the team could be proud of. JoinStart was dead.
In Indian style discussions on the living room floor, the team split on where to go next. The team had to keep working, mostly because they were all stuck living together in the apartment for another two months, but the debate raged on what to work on.
They only agreed on two points: there didn’t seem to be a market for students who wanted funding, and much less a crowd waiting to give them money, and that all the students they had talked to wanted a better, easier way to develop a web presence.
That’s when they found the page.
It was a single web page, designed to scroll like a powerpoint conversation and promote a new product or idea. Push an arrow, and it brought you down to a new slide. Each slide had a simple graphic, phrase, or picture. It was beautiful to look at, presented ideas well, and most importantly, the user could guide themselves through the whole presentation intuitively. They decided to build an entire company around it.
Strikingly.com was born, along with their first tagline: conquer the world with a single page (it’s now the more boring “gorgeous, mobile optimized sites in minutes”). There was no discussion. Everyone just sat down and started coding a beta, which was essentially a way for users to change the content on the page that had inspired them. David’s mood didn’t improve. He was still reeling from the failure of JoinStart, and wondered whether he really had any interest in building simple web products without a bigger goal.
“It was something interesting that would occupy the time,” said David. “My attitude was to build it, see where it went, and then move on to some other world changing project.”
David, in fact, would not throw his whole heart at the project until January of the next year, long after the team in Chicago had dispersed. He went back to Shanghai and worked on other projects. It was Dafeng who kept Strikingly.com alive, updating the code and promoting it to fellow hackers from Shanghai. Teng worked on the project sporadically, but had to focus on his last year of school in Chicago. Forrest and Jesse left the company and went back to school.
But Strikingly.com simply would not go away. People loved it. When Dafeng posted the idea to the Chinese site Gurudigger, it was voted to the top spot within hours. Friends that they showcased it to clamored for licenses to build pages with the tool. Little by little the trio moved back together. Sometimes Dafeng, Teng, and David would work together on skype, not even talking, just letting the cameras roll while they worked on their own projects; they wanted to feel like they were still moving forward.
Eventually, the trio was ready. The Strikingly.com idea was well accepted, the team committed, and the direction set. “We loved the idea of just one web page,” David said.
What had bothered David was that the product was just so simple. It had no grand vision behind it. But with maturity, and the encouragement of Teng and Dafeng, he came to see the products full potential. “With JoinStart, there were so many hypothesis- they were all stacked on top of each other. It was hard to see where something we did today would lead us tomorrow,” he told me in an interview for this piece. He used to tell me “I want to build a product that helps social entrepreneurs and changes the world.” Now he tells me “I want to be the next AirBnB or Dropbox.”
In April, they all flew to San Francisco to apply for Y-Combinator. They were rejected. The team was not yet unified in clarity, their product was still too undeveloped. They had worked apart for so long that they didn’t move as one, and couldn’t give the crystal clear answers that investors want to hear. Perhaps part of the problem was that the interview was the first time that Teng and Dafeng actually met in person: they had been working together for years via skype, always missing each other by a few days.
The rejection, however, only strengthened the team’s resolve. After a year and a half of work and trial and error, they were ready to dive headfirst into the startup world. They moved to San Francisco in July and started building Strikingly.com in earnest, preparing themselves to apply for the December batch of Y-Combinator.
The rest of their story reads like the first half of any textbook startup fairy tale, with shared beds, ramen noodles, and much doubt abounding. In December, YC took them. But in the year and a half of doubt and struggle before that, they had learned the hard way what YC preached: make something people want.
They team had been so distracted with lofty visions that they had never grasped what that really meant—what people really wanted. But with sweat, failure, a little maturity, they accepted the idea that what the world clamors for is practical things, things that make their life easier. And who knows? If you make enough lives easier, you change the world.
I think their product is awesome, but I’m a biased friend. You can try it out for yourself here.