Webflow is enabling a new breed of worker to take over the modern web: the ‘visual developer’
The easiest way to introduce Webflow is to mention that this page (and all of Startup Snapshot) was made with it. In fact, a small but growing proportion of the web is made with Webflow. You can think of it as a web design tool and CMS that sits somewhere between WordPress and Squarespace - it is not designed for hardcore hackers nor is it designed for complete noobs. Instead, Webflow sets out to cut down that dichotomy, by merging the design and creative process into one and creating a new breed of ‘visual developers’. The software allows you to drag and drop HTML components and have all of the power of a web developer, but in a time-saving, iterative way that gives instant visual feedback and requires no traditional hand-coding.
Having been a user of Webflow for several years, I am rather excited to go and see where it is all made. With a growing team, the company has moved into a new converted warehouse premises in the northeast of San Francisco’s famous Mission District.
Coming through the entrance and strolling along the ground-floor corridor, I can see why this building was the choice home of a company that puts design before all else.
On coming into the office itself on the second floor, two things struck me. First, how roomy it is (by the standards of SF, where space is at a premium). And more strikingly, how peaceful and quiet it is. It feel like I just arrived in a library, except for the indie rock music playing at a very low volume in the background and the sound of keyboard keys striking softly.
Two of the three co-founders, Vlad and Sergie, are focused intently on their laptops in the office kitchenette as I come in. The company’s punny slogan hangs above them in the background, lit up in neon: “Design Responsively”. Feeling the need to whisper, I disturb them from the Zen-like trance that seemed to have a hold on the office.
Sergie gives me the tour of the office, which is clearly a thing of great pride. In one sense, it is a typical open-plan rectangular space. But as the eyes wander to the walls and nooks, it becomes clear that this place had a unique style and a personality. And the more I talked to Sergie and Vlad, it is clear that it is the very same personality as their own - eclectic but organized; quirky but restrained from excess. It is the little details that make the Webflow office what it is.
From the combined skateboard and horsehead collection adorning the wall…
… to the Star Wars Lego men that have somehow made their way into most of the office’s crannies…
...to the many one-of-a-kind choices of furniture...
...and of course the obligatory startup Nerf guns everywhere.
The chair all the way in the back of the office is occupied by Webflow’s furriest employee. Sergie is quick to tell me that his name is “Wolfdew” and that he had been the company mascot since the early days. (Bonus points for realising that his name is ‘Webflow’ spelled backwards).
As a YCombinator alumnus, it came as no surprise to me to see Paul Graham’s adage hanging on one of Webflow’s walls: “Make Something People Want”. The founders’ YCombinator story is a well-known one, so we glossed over that as we chatted about the company’s history.
There are around 16 people in the office on this particular day. The company is 37 people strong, but most of them are remote workers. Vlad tells me that they managed to make a distributed team work for them from the early days, despite much advice to the contrary.
The strong culture of remote work also finds it way into the founding team itself. Sergie and Vlad patch in via Google Hangouts with founder Bryant, who is currently working from Berlin.
As lunchtime approaches, the space becomes a little less quiet. People wander around to trade notes about common projects, and a bit of muffled banter and laughter breaks out. People slowly make their way over to the kitchen, where a catered lunch is being served. Sergie entertains the crowd while Vlad is off in the far corner sorting out a time-sensitive issue that has just popped up.
After lunch it comes time to sit down with Vlad and Sergie and talk about where the company backstory, and their plans for the future.
The two are brothers, and they force me to try to guess who is older… (Turns out it is Vlad by five years, despite him having slightly more hair then Sergie). For the record, the third founder and CTO, Bryant, isn't a brother!
Vlad is a 3D animator turned software engineer turned CEO. Initially Vlad comes across as the more serious of the two brothers. But the more we chat, the intensity of the 'thinking face' he has when at his laptop gives way to an extremely warm demeanour that is equally reflected in the team he has hired.
Vlad admits that at the outset of his career, he actually hated programming. It wasn’t until he realised its power in automating his 3D animation workflow that he fell in love. He had the original idea for Webflow (including the name) in the mid-2000s, when he decided to do his computer science mini-thesis on the topic of a visual web design tool. He commented that doing a thesis on what was essentially a business idea felt like a “cop out” at the time. Back then, he was interning at a web agency building CMS tools for clients, when he happened to catch a glance of how much was being charged to clients for ‘rinse-and-repeat’ kind of work. Webflow was originally conceived as a idea to make this whole process easier.
Sergie’s training background was a very different one.
He started off as Biology major, then studied the very niche discipline of ‘Interdisciplinary Computing and the Arts’. It was taking on some side work designing a website for a local skateshop that sparked his interest in user interface design.
My first impressions of Sergie from my tour of the office and lunchtime conversation were of a very playful and cheeky character. But now sitting down to chat about the company's journey and strategy, I see another side of Sergie - an intense and firm passion around what it is that they are building here.
For Sergie, the vision Vlad had painted in the early days all clicked when he realised that such a tool would free him from dependence on developers to be able to execute on his web designs. The skateshop that Sergie worked for (which has a custom scateboard building tool) became the initial proof of concept for the embryonic Webflow.
As brothers, the backstory is much longer than that for most startup founders. We dive back into the very beginning - their childhood growing up in Russia, which they describe as a very humble one.
Their family migrated to the US as refugees two years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, in 1991. Vlad was nine years old and Sergie was four. Their parents were relatively uneducated migrants, and given what their family has managed to do since, the current political attention on shifting towards a policy of only skilled migration is one that sits uneasily with the brothers.
When I ask whether computers were a big part of their childhood, we unearth a wonderful little detail from from their migration experience. During the flight to the US, two of the family’s bags were lost, and the airline paid out $1,200 per lost bag. This was an enormous sum of money for them at the time. With it, their Dad decided to purchase an IBM 486, and so began an early interest in technology.
Observing Vlad and Sergie, the two seem to have a way of communicating with each other in very few words. I wonder if this brotherly sixth sense is one of the reasons why the office manages to be so quiet!
We start talking about the early days of the company. It didn’t kick off properly until many years after Vlad’s thesis, in 2012, after Vlad departed from his day job. At the outset, the plan was to turn the vision into a reality via a Kickstarter project. After shooting the concept video, the plan came crashing down when they realised that Kickstarter didn’t accept SaaS software projects! Then after one failed attempt to get accepted into YCombinator, many 100-hour weeks spent on a prototype, a withering down of their bank balances, and a personal financial emergency when Vlad’s daughter became ill, Bryant came on board as the third member of the team. He filled a few major holes - most importantly bringing the backend engineering prowess that Webflow ultimately needed to build a publishing platform. He also saved the day by bring a rescue loan with him.
By mid-March 2013, it had reached the point where they had stitched together a prototype but things were hanging by a tether. Their plan was to post it on popular tech insider site, Hacker News, and hope to generate some buzz. You can still view the original prototype that they shared here.
“When we posted on Hacker News, it was our ‘last Hail Mary’ - we thought, if this doesn’t work, we are going back to our jobs as we will not survive.” - Vlad
It was the turnaround moment that changed everything. It was the top post in Hacker News that day, and went on to become the third most popular 'Show HN' post of all time on the site (at the time). It spawned a high-engaged base of early supporters and adopters that have continued to power the company up to the present day. With Hacker News being a creation of YCombinator, it also gave them a great platform to reapply to the accelerator, this time with success.
Four years on, and the dream is realised and they’re the powerful product and large highly-engaged startup team that we see today. They tell me that they’re now profitable, and how much of a relief that milestone was when they reached it. As Vlad described it,
“It's a big shift in going from survival to planning for the long-term. You start considering all sorts of options you didn’t have before about what gives you an edge when you don't have to worry about paying bills … it just frees you up to focus on growing your company”
Sergie and Vlad stroll off to grab a coffee at their local neighbourhood jaunt after our chat.
Talking to the Webflow founders about their plans for the future, it becomes clear that this is just the beginning for them. Their medium-term goal is to reach feature parity with Wordpress (which had a 10 year headstart on Webflow), while being accessible to many more people. I mentioned how important third party applications were to the success of Wordpress, to which Vlad replied: “We are actively working on third party component marketplace. That is the top priority which we hope to get up this year.”
But their bigger vision is to give the power to create websites and applications to new people, and democratise the web in a similar way to what AWS managed to do.
“The percentage of world’s population who can code has stayed static despite all of the new training options out there”, says Vlad. Vlad, Sergie and Bryant want to 10x the number of people making software.
“Who knows what potential it has to increases the GDP of the world”
Listening to this vision for Webflow and the future of the web, it is clear that this is no half-hearted sales pitch. These guys mean it. They may be on the cusp of taking over much of the web and unlocking a whole new future workforce. And as a user of Webflow who has seen its transformative power first-hand, I can only hope they do.
You can see how Webflow works here.