On Building Products For 2+ Million Creatives

Published: April 17th, 2020
Tobias van Schneider
Founder, Semplice
from New York, New York, USA
started August 2014
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Hey, my name is Tobias van Schneider and I’m what you’d call a jack of all trades and (hopefully) a master of some. I’m originally from Germany, grew up in Austria and am currently living and working in New York City.

Right now I’m working on multiple companies and products, so I’ll give you an overview first then try to focus on just one of them to make it easier.

The company we’re going to talk about is Semplice.com, an advanced website builder and portfolio system for creative professionals. Semplice is targeted at the top 1% creatives who want to build a site from scratch. It’s self-hosted and runs on top of WordPress.

In addition, I’m running Carbonmade.com which is also a portfolio tool, but it’s fully hosted and managed, and more oriented at creating a portfolio as easily and fast as possible. Our members range from illustrators, game designers, and photographers to concept artists, copywriters, and models who use our tool to build their lookbooks.

On the side, I’m running HOVS, which is a product design studio where we take on a handful of projects a year helping other companies with product design, strategy and whatever is needed to get their product launched and off the ground. Last year we worked on a few projects for NASA as well as WAVE, a new meditation product from New York City which we had the honor of helping to launch.

Before I bore you with more of my projects, the last one worthy of mention is DESK, which is an online magazine where we publish multiple times a week, specifically geared towards creatives, makers and self-made entrepreneurs. You could say it’s part of our content marketing arm.

All these companies are profitable and completely bootstrapped with no outside investment. Semplice.com is currently one of the leading portfolio services and most often the choice of top creative professionals.

Carbonmade.com is used by more than 2 million creatives and still growing today. DESK magazine is slowly growing and reaching more than a million creatives a year.

I should also mention this now: I will continue without sharing any specific revenue numbers — I personally believe, while interesting, they’re likely not helping when comparing it to your own business. I know this might be a bit of a change to what you’re expecting to read here, but I still hope it is worthy of your time.

What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?

My story is rather simple, depending on how you look at it (if you want the long story, you can read it here). Today I call myself a designer because that’s what I love doing and what I believe I’m best at. I’m a product designer, a UX designer, a visual designer, you can call it what you want — I just happen to run my own business in addition to being a designer by heart.

Take calculated risks and go one step at a time. Take advice from others, but disregard it quickly if you don’t see fit. This is your business, not someone else’s.

I’ve never studied anything. I’m what you’d call a self-taught designer/entrepreneur. I’ve always had a strong urge to do my own thing. I’m obsessed with everything related to running a business, which I guess made me a “not so good” employee because I don’t easily fit into a specific role. This is why I ultimately ended up running my own companies, and I have absolutely no regrets.

Before I moved to New York, I ran my own design studio in Austria, but eventually grew tired of working on client projects and wanted full control of what I’m creating. I knew I wanted to work on my own products, my own vision. Skipping a few steps in the story here (one of which was working for Spotify as a product designer) I eventually co-founded Semplice.com about 6 years ago from today.

But let’s get into the details below!

Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?

About 10 years ago I was working on my own portfolio and as always, I was either developing it myself from scratch or worked together with a developer friend of mine.

At the time (I know, it’s not that long ago) most website builders, and specifically portfolio tools, had a frustratingly limited set of functionality. If you looked at most portfolios back in the day, it was just a couple of sub-pages for each project with one image after another. That was it. But for my portfolio, I was imagining fully branded case studies, designed to present each unique project like its own magazine feature, beautifully designed, walking the viewer through the phases of the project.

Since that didn’t seem possible with most CMS tools or website builders at the time, I asked a developer friend of mine to help me build something custom. Eventually, we not only built a beautiful portfolio for myself but a fairly rudimentary CMS system that I could use to add in new case studies and maintain my content. At this point, we essentially had two users: my friend and myself who were using the CMS.

At the time, nothing else was planned and we didn’t think much of it. But over the next three years or so we continued to make small changes as we saw fit, based on our own needs, and we just kept using the system ourselves.

Over those years, my portfolio was a success and more and more people adopted the style of showing off their work via more complex case studies. I received dozens if not hundreds of emails over the years on what CMS I’m using and if they can use it themselves. And for some reason, it took us almost four years to realize the potential, and simply ask the question: “Should we just make this for everyone else and sell it? Could we make it a product?”

And we did. After two additional years of designing, developing, failing and way too many sleepless nights, we announced the first version of Semplice.com.

Today, we’re in our 6th year in business. Still going, and still making the product better every day.

To summarize our story: Build something for yourself first, and then give it to others. Often that’s where the best products are made, based on a need you have yourself.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

We’re doing well (even now, in the light of a looming recession), and compared to other businesses you might read about here, we’ve kept it very very simple.

Today we’re profitable and pretty much all of our customers are coming through word of mouth. We’ve only recently started running very simple retargeting ads, but have otherwise zero spent on ads or similar acquisition channels.

While I’m sure we have a lot more growth potential, I’d like to think our business serves as a case study for “Build a great product and customers follow.” It’s our philosophy not only because we LOVE to build great products, but because we’re happy about natural, organic and healthy growth that is fueled by an honest word of mouth “funnel.”

The only marketing initiatives we take incredibly seriously is content marketing because we believe that whatever we do should add value to our brand as well as the product as a whole.

In the future, we will double down on exactly that: Building the best product in the market and meeting customers down the line when they’ve been disappointed by our competitors; maintaining a healthy growth rate that helps us stay small and nimble, and focusing on content that adds value to our core products, yet also opens our top of the funnel.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Oh yes, I’ve learned a ton and I’m still learning every day:

  1. Pricing strategy is more important than you think. It not only defines what’s on your bank account, but it also influences who you will deal with as your customers. The cheaper your product, the more returns and customer support you’ll have. Your pricing strategy affects your entire business.

  2. Customer support is EVERYTHING. Luckily I love customer support, but it is by far one of the most important aspects of our business. It’s a sales funnel.

  3. Dealing with and prioritizing feedback has been another big learning. It’s always easy to add new features and it’s easy to get sidetracked by customer feedback. Luckily we’ve always had a very strong opinion when it comes to our own product, but it can be tempting to get sidetracked working on the wrong things. Everything that gets built also gets managed, so you have to be incredibly careful about what you spend your time on.

  4. Avoiding partnerships, affiliates, etc. — Our target audience is small. Our ideal target is the top 1% of creatives and we wouldn’t reach them with partnerships or affiliate deals that bring in a fraction of the money and resources we’d spend on them. In some businesses, partnerships or affiliates are everything, but in ours, we learned they’re mostly just wasted time.

  5. On the positive side, building a fully decentralized remote team was the best thing we’ve ever done. I love working with a team of individual contributors. We barely have any meetings and we all know what to do, no politics.

  6. The amount you spend on “putting out fires” was one of the biggest learnings when running my own production company. In the beginning, you think you can just work on new features all day and have a fun day, but in the end, you’ll spend a great amount on admin work and little things that get thrown at you every day. Most founders aren’t prepared for it and I still have to learn to deal with it myself.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Semplice itself runs on WordPress and we do not use many other tools than the usual productivity tools you’re most likely familiar with (Slack, Airtable and that’s about it).

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Honestly, there’s so much out there that I can barely remember anything. But as cheesy as it sounds, Tim Ferriss with “The 4-Hour Workweek” and Gary Vaynerchuck had a huge influence on me back in the days. I don’t follow either of them now and I know they’ve reached “guru” like presence at this point, but they somehow gave me the push I needed back in the days. Both of them don’t share much specific advice but they’re so good at repeating themselves when it comes to the most basic principles, I somehow picked up on that energy and couldn’t stop myself.

Today I don’t follow or read any particular business books, but I do love reading biographies of pretty much anyone out there: Coco Chanel, Vanderbilt, Steven Jobs, Elon Musk.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

I only have one thing to say here because it might be the most important piece of someone who is just starting needs to hear:

Don’t get obsessed with inspiration. Don’t get obsessed with listening to 1,000 business podcasts. The moment you finish one, 10 new ones have been released. The only thing that counts is that YOU DO IT. You have to put in the work and risk failure. Not a single book, blog post or podcast can give you all the answers, and the more you are listening to them the more paralyzed you will become.

Just do it. Start your business. Take calculated risks and go one step at a time. Take advice from others, but disregard it quickly if you don’t see fit. This is your business, not someone else’s.

Where can we go to learn more?