Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, I’m Mike Moloney, the founder of FilterGrade. FilterGrade is a marketplace for creators where you can find digital assets such as presets, LUTs, video templates, and much more.
A lot of people originally found out about the site through popular photographers promoting their custom products, mainly Lightroom Presets (photo filters). Now the marketplace has a bit more to offer though with products for videographers, colorists, motion graphic designers, agencies, social media marketers, and all kinds of marketing and communications teams. But it’s important not to forget that FilterGrade is also for the people who just love editing photos and videos too. Like me. :)
What started this whole thing was a passion for experimenting in Photoshop (and countless other programs) for hours. Enjoying the process of trying different edits and adjustments; designing, thinking, and sharing my work with my friends. We try to build that into what we do every day in the FilterGrade Community through fun and interesting content, videos, tutorials, free resources to play around with, and even by working with teachers and professors to empower the next generation of creatives.
Today thousands of creators from all around the world buy and sell digital products on FilterGrade and more than 450,000 users visit the site every month.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I started FilterGrade in late 2013 after getting some encouragement from a friend and mentor of mine. I was selling digital products on a few different marketplaces and just starting to get curious about entrepreneurship and software. In the beginning, it was just a collection of Photoshop Actions I made and packaged under the FilterGrade brand. I didn’t even launch my website with a store at first, I sold through Creative Market to test the products and see if there was any traction. I wrote more about this on Medium where I detailed the experience of using marketplaces to build an MVP.
Business models that worked 2-3 years ago are not as effective anymore, so we are constantly looking at new ways to adapt and better serve people who are both buying and selling on the marketplace.
After 6 months and some reasonable traction, I decided to set up a full eCommerce website and store using WooCommerce. It started slow. I was just focused on product development, marketing, and building the brand and learning about the industry.
Getting traffic and consistent sales were extremely hard in the early days, but I was determined to keep trying new things. Getting more and more focused on FilterGrade, it was at this time that I realized I needed to make a decision. Should I give this company my all? Or study business and try to manage it on the side?
I made the logical decision a naive, overconfident kid like myself would make and drop out of college after just one semester. I had no plan or strategy, no real idea of how to make the business viable. I just knew that I was more determined to do this than anything I had ever done before in my life, so I committed my all to it. I was fully immersed in entrepreneurship, social media, the internet, Silicon Valley, and the like at the time.
Reading relentlessly about new ideas and companies popping up left and right. I remember Product Hunt launching and the community exploded. People from all walks of life were starting to celebrate this world of startups more and it was quite exciting.
Another year or so later my brother, Matt, joined FilterGrade as a cofounder and started to get much more involved in the business. Together we tried to figure out a way to reach a larger audience and offer more on our website. How could we appeal to more people? What problems could we solve? We pondered over these questions and many others for a long time. It was three or four months before something materialized. We were at fashion week in New York City over the summer exploring, meeting new people, and taking street style photos.
Around the same time, we started to notice photographers selling their custom presets. So we contacted a few people and worked to get their products on FilterGrade. Over the next few months, it started to pick up and we rapidly added new presets from popular photographers and influencers to the website. People started to notice and wondered what our site was all about.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I kind of already touched on it above, but the early days of FilterGrade were just Photoshop filters designed by myself and marketed under our brand. It was cool, sure, but I think the early days of the marketplace and those workflows were even cooler. So I want to take some time to explain how that came together towards the end of 2015 and into 2016/17.
Matt and I were working around the clock with new partners to bring their custom presets to the site. We still weren’t even really a marketplace yet, but we started to develop some processes that helped reduce friction when it came to onboarding new sellers.
From the perspective of outreach, we focused primarily on cold emails and phone calls to explain how the process worked for people selling their presets. In this case study about FilterGrade, I shared a bit more about how we approached cold emails and outreach. Essentially we focus on sharing benefits and well-targeted/customized emails that address a need. We were laser-focused on finding photographers with a unique editing style who could benefit from selling their presets on the platform. We emphasized the ease of uploading, the passive income stream opportunity, and other benefits of the partnership.
Using cold emails and word of mouth, plus referrals, we were able to reach our first 100 or so sellers and attract an audience of followers/fans with them. In the early days, Matt and I would manually upload products for the sellers. We’d also design the preview images for each product and write the descriptions and titles. By doing this we were able to get more cool products on the site at a faster pace, and even further reduce the friction for people trying to get their products published. We helped establish some structures for the descriptions, titles, and previews themselves so people could see what worked and how to best package their products.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Launching FilterGrade from scratch as a first-time entrepreneur meant it wasn’t just a big ‘launch’ and then the business was raking money in. The business grew into a marketplace, and somewhat more structured operation after more than three full years of hard work and tons of mini ‘launches’!
FilterGrade is entirely bootstrapped and was initially started on a single landing page that looked like this:
Starting-out I did some of the traditional things new startups do to get the word out. I shared FilterGrade on ProductHunt, which was extremely beneficial. I wrote guest posts for blogs. I collaborated with other businesses and bloggers to share freebies and content as a way of growing our audience. I started building an email list and sending special offers/discounts to learn the ropes of that. Then once Matt was working on FilterGrade too, we started to learn about social media and influencer marketing.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Because I ran a graphic design blog before starting FilterGrade, I had a bit of knowledge about SEO and using content marketing to drive traffic. So that was where I started. For the first 2-3 years, I just focused on writing tons of articles and tutorials on the blog. The core strategy we focus on is building foundational content for the business. This means educational content, written and video tutorials, free downloads to attract new customers, and other inspiration/news content.
While this has helped us gain traffic and sales over the years, it is mainly for discovery and user experience. What truly helped to attract and retain customers has been expanding into a marketplace. Working with hundreds of incredible photographers, filmmakers, video editors, colorists, motion designers, and other creators has helped us to attract an audience of people who use these digital assets in their work.
By combining our content marketing efforts with the unique perspectives from partners on the marketplace, we were able to create even more interesting tutorials and inspirational articles for our audience to help grow the site. Using these methods and distributing content on social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Youtube), we’ve been able to attract over 10 million unique visitors to FilterGrade in the last six years, with over 25 million page views to the marketplace, the products, and the blog.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
FilterGrade is going pretty well these days. We are still profitable but are working towards growing our revenue to support a larger team. That being said, the business landscape has changed a lot since we first started. Business models that worked 2-3 years ago are not as effective anymore, so we are constantly looking at new ways to adapt and better serve people who are both buying and selling on the marketplace. Along with other users who interact with the blog and content, but might not be customers yet.
Chase your dreams for decades, not a few weeks or months, or even a few years. Organize and plan. Take this seriously and give your all to what you are building.
In line with our goals of truly building a platform for creators, we offer a 70/30 commission split, with the sellers keeping 70% of each sale. Once approved to sell, it’s also free to upload unlimited products. We offer these two aspects for the sellers because we want to reduce the barrier to entry for talented creative people looking to sell their digital products and get distribution to a wider audience.
With just 30% margins on the majority of sales, it is hard to advertise and compete with some companies that have more room for higher CPAs. We do run some Google Ads, Youtube Ads, and have tested retargeting over the years, but nothing significant. The main focus is content marketing, social media, and partnerships.
We’ve got ambitious goals for the future of FilterGrade with a focus on helping creators in new ways, both for earning money and promoting their work/brand. In the short term, we’re focused on growing volume for sellers and also making it easier to upload, promote, and earn for creators of all sizes. In the long term, we’re focused on building a valuable marketplace for millions of creators.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Building this company has taught me an insane amount about all aspects of running a profitable company. But some of the things I learned that surprised me the most were to do with the mental stability and mental health. A lot of people don’t realize this, but one of the most extreme and challenging aspects of entrepreneurship is the mental game. Your mind will play tricks on you. Constantly. Every day is a new challenge, and it can become relentless at a certain point. Especially when you go through periods of intense struggle when things aren’t going well and you are trying to find a way out.
I’ve struggled with immense depression and anxiety over the years. A significant portion of that pain was related to the business and some of the decisions I made throughout my life, but some are just there. Some depression and anxiety just happen.
You can’t always predict or expect it. In talking to other entrepreneurs, I realized I wasn’t alone. This journey is so difficult and takes a toll on you. It’s important to find balance and clarity. I recommend talking to other people in similar positions as much as you can. Sometimes it can be hard to open up, I know it is for me, but it’s so worth it.
As entrepreneurs, we can feel like we’re failures because our business is struggling. Or that we are not good enough because we compare ourselves to others. Seeing the constant barrage of companies raising millions, breaking download records, gaining millions of subscribers, etc. This can play into that anxiety and depression. The truth is, it’s all noise. Entrepreneurship, like many other things, is about the journey, not the destination.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use WordPress and WooCommerce to power the FilterGrade website and marketplace. I love the freedom and flexibility of WordPress. Even though constantly updating plugins and fixing bugs/errors is a pain in the ass, it is a useful CMS for us.
Here are the rest of the tools we use:
For the majority of our product development, we use the Adobe Creative Cloud, including Photoshop, Lightroom, Premiere Pro, After Effects, and some mobile apps. We also use Capture One Pro, Canva, and other browser-based tools for design and content creation.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
For me, the #1 most influential article I read that changed my life was ‘Advice to a Young Man Hoping to Go Somewhere’ by Ryan Holiday. The article speaks for itself, but for me, it was a lot about Ryan’s advice on being realistic and understanding the world for what it is. “Don’t go expecting Plato’s Republic” could pretty much synthesize the main message behind the article.
I also really enjoyed The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho and 1984 by George Orwell. Both books were important to me at various stages of my life journey and helped me understand more about the world around me.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Two things that I think can give an entrepreneur an edge are:
- A voracious appetite for knowledge and learning new things/skills
- Relentless determination
I’m not saying you should work 60 or 90 or 120 hour weeks. Believe me, I’ve tried hustling, and it burns you out fast. It’s not sustainable or smart to just work nonstop without much structure or strategy in place.
What I’m saying is to commit to your mission. Chase your dreams for decades, not a few weeks or months, or even a few years. Organize and plan. Take this seriously and give your all to what you are building. You have to be ready for the long haul. Are you committed to this for life? Don’t start a business if you aren’t.
One other piece of advice I’d like to share. When it comes to business, focus on how you can refine and remove. Don’t always just think about what you can add.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Always looking for talented people to help us create digital products, entertaining videos, tutorials, and informational content on the blog and Youtube Channel, and more. If that’s you, please contact us! We’re looking for paid contractors/freelancers. We currently do not have any full-time roles available.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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