Lessons from Building Creative Market for 2 Years

At the beginning of 2014, we celebrated the successes of our first year with a 2013 in Review page, and a month ago, our CEO Bubs announced on March 19th that Creative Market had been acquired by Autodesk.

On the heels of these events is my personal two year work anniversary with Creative Market today, April 15th. I’ve been archiving the challenges and lessons that I’ve experienced leading the design efforts behind Creative Market over the last 24 months, and I wanted to share some of those with you today.

A Brand That’s For Designers, By Designers

1. In a conceptual sense, our brand existed before we shaped our idea of a platform for it.

Most folks use the word branding to describe the visual identity system of a company, its products and services. However, what branding really defines is the conversation between two people about how those products and services improve their work, goals, and life experience.

The conversations between creative professionals about the challenges of making, finding and using design assets were already happening. Creators were having a tough time figuring out what types of flexible design resources to make, and how to spread them to a target audience ready to purchase them. Designers needing unique pre-made assets had to scour the internet for independent makers to find the good stuff, compromise by using ineffective stock assets, or settle on low-quality freebies.

There was a space already carved out for a charismatic brand to step into, so when we set out to solve this problem, the design and creative communities were ready to welcome the relief that Creative Market shop owners were going to bring to market. When we decided to make a go of it, we knew that we were entering a competitive landscape filled with massive stock photo sites, indie product marketplaces, small foundries, and shops by independent designers. We didn’t need a strong proof of concept to get started, we just knew that we had to do everything better — one step at a time.

2. If you inherit a corporate identity, remember that brand visuals and messaging should change with the needs of the platform and its community.

When I joined the team, I inherited a company name, logo, partial color system, and loose product design wireframes for important sections of the site. I had to reset my internal expectations, since I wasn’t going to be making everything from scratch. That ended being more than ok. As we started building, I discovered new ways of pushing the brand identity appropriate to the seasons of the platform, and we built an ever-expanding visual component system for our digital experiences that continues to grow every month. I’ve found that there’s always freedom to create new visual dynamics (both offline and online) once you have an initial foundation — since the needs and opportunities change over time relative to the life stage of the platform. That was exhilarating, and it still is.

Pre-Site Incentives and a Delayed Launch

Our MVP (minimum viable product) was privately iterated on over 6 months, as we attempted to include as many of the core features you’d expect to find on a UGC (user generated content) eCommerce platform at launch. We shipped with a functional product editor, category landing pages, product pages, shop pages, account settings, email receipts, a blog, and much more.

3. Building an audience over the months leading up to launch was extremely important. Email (and RSS feed) sign-ups are the hero of an experience or product that doesn’t exist yet.

During our pre-launch incubation, we had an incentivized teaser page that let users sign-up and earn credits for inviting their friends to do the same. It was a pretty simple idea, and it did the trick. This teaser site shipped on April 9th, 2012 — just one week before I joined the team. It helped us grow a large pool of 60,000 initial members by capturing interested users from our previous platforms (COLOURlovers, ColorSchemer) and the larger design community (much of it by way of Dribbble). However, after launch, we didn’t see members using the free credits that we gave away. We speculated that many users must have forgotten about the credits, and we even pushed out at least one email after launch to remind them, which produced mixed results.

That was probably due to the fact that we took longer to build the site than our audience anticipated, even though we never publicly promised a launch date. Internally, we didn’t hit the deadline that we set for ourselves to ship out our MVP, because we wanted the experience to be as amazing as possible.

We were about 4-6 weeks late, because we found smart ways of repurposing PHP framework that we used on COLOURlovers to add integral features such as collections, messages, email notifications, and more. We also underestimated the time it took to create an intuitive product editor and a unique purchasing experience using Stripe. Even after launch, we spent weeks building anti-fraud tools because Stripe didn’t have them, and we didn’t launch our Payouts feature until a month after the site went live. We could have been smarter about accounting for extra wiggle room in the schedule to make these amazing experiences, but like most startups, we were moving at neck break speed with limited resources.

All in all, it was worth the extra effort to expedite these new features and required improvements. During that time, we adequately tested all of our platform’s moving parts to make sure we wouldn’t have major breaks during launch or shortly thereafter. There’s nothing more stressful than potentially watching an eCommerce system break while hundreds of expectant designers are trying to get the tools they need to work on projects due on the same day. Thankfully, we did our homework and didn’t let that happen.

This is why I take issue with blanket statements in the startup world, such as: move fast and break things. From personal experience, I’ve found that it’s impossible for a small team to build intelligent product features while operating at maximum speed. You don’t get smarter work out of team members who spend 12+ hours a day cranking away for weeks on end. And, although that startup statement implies that teams should be iteratively a/b testing new and existing features, it doesn’t take into account user frustration when key features break or when experiences suddenly change and require users to relearn how to navigate them. For me, iterating features is a delicate balance between the following: (a) maintaining the ability of various user groups to accomplish their desired tasks on the site, (b) increasing key conversions by new and existing users, and (c) ensuring that an overall layer of brand experience (familiar visuals and consistent voice and tone in the language) is ever present.

4. If your platform has product-generating users, then shop owner outreach needs to happen before the team starts building against an MVP roadmap.

We didn’t make a strong effort to onboard hundreds of shop owners and their products when we started designing the site, and I think we could have done a better job at this. For instance, if we would have set aside Friday afternoons from the beginning of our MVP build to reach out to potential shop owners and get commitments to create 10 products each, we might have had a stronger group of products to launch with. We just didn’t have someone tackling the important task of generating interest and keeping leads warm for new potential shop owners — who are the core of our entire brand experience.

However, we did intentionally build out the product editor, product page, and shop page frameworks early enough on to allow dozens of designers enough time to create and upload quality products over 6+ weeks. We made a decision to go after folks who already had created digital resources that they were selling or giving away on other sites, which was key. That decision enabled us to get more pre-made content up than originally anticipated. If we would have pursued a larger segment of inexperienced designers who were new to creating resources, we would have exposed ourselves to the risk of not having many products at launch. We had 5 main categories and 40 sub-categories to fill for launch, so we spent what little on-boarding effort we could make on experienced creators.

5. Layering on an additional pre-launch incentive gave us extra time to build the MVP, but it also created an accelerated sense of urgency on the team to deliver against the growing demands of the masses.

As members of the design community started getting anxious and vocal on Twitter about why we hadn’t launched yet, we tapped a handful of enthusiastic early shop owners to agree to give away about 30 freebies to buy us the extra time that we needed to put the finishing touches on our experience. The community loved this, and more importantly, they passed along a link to the free goods collection across the internet. By the time we launched on Oct. 18, 2012, users had a solid idea of the types of quality design resources that they could expect to find on the site based on the freebies. And, although we didn’t offer free goods as a proper feature until four months later, this tactic gave us a much needed boost (~15%) in new user sign-ups in the last few weeks leading up to our public launch.

The Early Days

Creative Market was well received by the industry when it arrived on the scene, but the numbers were growing rather slowly. We launched the MVP fairly late in the year, and were experiencing major slowing of new user sign-ups and purchases through the holidays despite the fact that we shipped digital gift cards, design competitions, and a few other small features before January 1st. Those efforts were our weak attempt at turning around a rather sluggish start. And, like most features that we shipped early on, they took time to gain traction and only started to have good return when other features integral to their success were layered on.

6. We failed to put together a post-launch roadmap that was heavy on marketing strategies for aggressively acquiring users. We needed new (and existing) shop owners to bring more quality products to the marketplace, and for buyers to share with their friends and audiences how buying Creative Market assets made their work easier and more effective.

The solution to this problem was pretty simple: we needed to hire roles on the team to pursue marketing agendas full-time. In the design industry, excellent product design rules the day. But I’d argue that many startups really suffer at the hands of exposure and adoption (which I had experienced only a little bit of while peddling fonts from my personal website). Our small team was mostly product design — all the time. We weren’t discussing how new features would impact our conversion rates. We needed to shift our point of view to see all product design through the lens of growth. Our current marketing efforts just weren’t enough. Sure, it helped to onboard new font foundries for a week in November 2012 and to run an email partnership with Threadless at the end of the year, but we needed a bigger transformation.

So, in early 2013, we hired Zack Onisko to head up growth and marketing, and he brought a big shift in thinking to the team in the areas of iterative feature improvements, content strategy, increased analytics tracking, and much more. We also hired Maryam Taheri to handle content marketing and social media around the same time, who helped execute the strategies that Zack was planning. Almost immediately, we started to see numbers moving up more quickly — reaching impressive levels as we entered the Summer of 2013.

At the end of 2013, the proof was in the pudding — we had grown 17x in our first year. And, our 1600% growth in revenue wasn’t due to just one or two things. We spread our efforts out, balancing a myriad of marketing agendas such as: new growth-focused features, seasonal marketing promotions, dozens of iterative a/b tests of existing features, community competitions, three non-profit campaigns, paid search, pay per click advertising, aggressive SEO-driven content marketing, interviews, conferences, and much more. We saw the numbers going vertical in early Spring, and it made us push even harder. Every little win made us chase after 5 more opportunities, and we had a ton of fun doing it. Heck, we’re still pursuing ways to increase our growth with every ounce of effort we can make each week.

7. No matter how many hats each team member wears, you have to constantly discuss time allocation and priorities for each individual through the lens of growing the brand.

There’s no reason that team members should produce a myriad of sub-par work tasks over 12+ hour work days. Even if that’s the widely accepted kool-aid that the startup culture is pushing, I think that’s a terrible strategy to build a loyal, long-term team. Maybe many of the tasks that strain startup teams would be better suited for outsourcing? There are plenty of great articles out there with intelligent rebuttals about this topic, so I won’t get into it much further. The main take away here is that a team that’s lean and agile has painful prioritization to do in order to make every day and week count so that the team’s work outcomes measure up against the KPI (key performance indicators). That’s no easy task. This challenge is at the heart of every startup, and still presents our team with difficulty to this day.

Designing a Marketplace for Design Content by and for Designers

The statement above reveals what I think is one of the hardest parts of our job — the quality of our product design & development work has to be at the highest caliber possible. You can’t fool designers. They can tell when a feature has been under-considered. They always expect the best user interface and experience. It’s easy for them to compare our platform with the best in the industry as designers usually have 20+ tabs open in their browser on most days. How do we know this? Because we’re guilty of doing it ourselves.

While it’s unfortunate that designers have an extremely low digital tolerance for half-baked web products (I consider myself in to fall in this camp, too), it truly keeps our team honest and ambitious about what we’re building. We attempt to hit the high standard of product design that’s expected from a startup that’s made for the design and creative communities, and we actively discuss how to do this as we scope our work each quarter.

10. Shoot for the future vision, but build for this week and this month. Consider potential brand partnerships, new user needs, iterative a/b tests, and unforeseen complications so that you can make nimble adjustments to an otherwise stiff roadmap.

We’ve always known that we’ve been working towards a grandiose future vision of Creative Market. In order to achieve the status of The World’s Marketplace for Design, we’ve got a ton of work ahead of us to get there. Not only do we need to build new platform features, cross-app extensions, and capture the full potential of the greater creative community, we need to foster an adopted, accessible environment where the creation and exchange of assets, tools, and knowledge happens wherever creative professionals do their work. That’s a big vision. And we should chase after it.

However, our team operates week to week. Team members work one day at a time. We talk as a team every Monday about what happened last week and what’s happening this week. We adjust the production schedule for the projects at hand every Friday, and many times, we shift our priorities to take hold of unforeseen opportunities that present themselves to us.

There has to be some amount of flexibility to change what’s being worked on today, this week, this month — especially if it will grow the brand more quickly into the future vision that the team has for it. It’s like putting together a rather large jigsaw puzzle, and discovering along the way that there are sections that make it bigger than the original square that we thought we were putting together. We’re influenced by the larger creative professional industry, make our adjustments, and attempt to influence it back.

11. Plan features sequentially along a linear timeline in such a way so that new ones will benefit from the success of previous ones.

Similar to how we took logical steps to build framework so that early shop owners could upload products before the full MVP site was ready for launch, we’ve made a conscious effort to plan features in a beneficial sequential order. For instance, we built our Partner program after we offered enhanced social promotion tools (logo, banner ads, widgets, promo modals), bulk credit purchasing, digital & physical gift cards, and team initiated site-wide discounts. Those features gave members the best chance of getting new users to sign-up and purchase from their promotional efforts, which would net them 10% revenue from that activity for up to a year.

But beyond stacking features logically, I’ve found that many product teams just want to build new features that are cool, and that’s usually a terrible starting point. It’s not a great idea to just keep shipping new features that may or may not be connected to the rest of the intended experience. When does too many options for the base user become a negative? Some of the questions that our team has been asking lately look a lot like the following: What improvements of existing features will remove friction so that users can more easily achieve the main priorities of the platform in order to keep the numbers growing as fast as possible? What non-feature tasks might create vast brand impressions to bring in new customers who are incentivized and ready to convert? What can our community build, write or create for the platform since they’re talented designers and developers who are passionate about the brand, too?

We’re in a People Business

12. Designing a thriving community marketplace goes beyond excellence in UI and UX product design. You have to lead by example. Show members what the spirit of the brand is, how to act on it, and then hand them the keys and get out of the way.

We try to go above and beyond the expectations of our community. We try to delight and surprise them with new unexpected features, positive brand experiences, and personal interactions with the team. We feature the faces of designers who are making the digital products for sale, find ways to reward unsuspecting buyers, and love sharing the success stories of our users. For the most part, I would say that we’ve done a pretty good job putting people first, and members tell us all the time that they appreciate how much we care about them. That’s great feedback, but we love to hear more about what they want next out of the platform.

13. This brand is not ours anymore.

However, it’s really up to our users to carry Creative Market. This is their brand, not ours. So, the design intention of our team really only goes as far as how we can shape and influence a positive, collaborative spirit in our community. I’ve learned so much from watching how our community interact and talk about what makes the Creative Market tribe special. We’ve seen that as the loyalty of members goes up, then through natural attraction, new users show up enthusiastic to participate. That organic spread is a beautiful thing.

Because ultimately, members of the community are doing the hard work of sharing their contagious excitement about what the brand (read: products for sale, how they can be used, and community support) has done for them. Users who benefit from the platform are much better at selling the tangible and intangible benefits of our brand than we are. That’s a much harder design problem to solve than creating buttons for a landing page. It’s about designing influence and shaping the work of others. It can’t be solved in Photoshop or code. It takes time and research to formalize ideas about it in writing, which can then be shared with the team to keep them aware of this dynamic. We aren’t the only ones steering the ship anymore.

14. Startups are in the business of helping people achieve their full potential, whether they’re team members doing their best work on the platform or customers making the most of the products and services offered to achieve their goals.

Over the last two years, I’ve come to realize that the health of our team is just as important as the health of our community. If there’s a weak link or ineffectual role on the team, it can cripple the outcome possibilities for a small company like ours. If there’s a troll making inappropriate comments on product pages and spamming unprofessional marketing in our messages system, it can sour the experience for all of us. That’s where we step in. It’s our responsibility as stewards of the brand to address unhelpful activity. It requires watchfulness and integrity to build and influence both a positive community and a supportive team culture.

For me personally, I’ve been really interested in what it means to build a team and community that’s passionate about design as craft and as a way of seeing and thinking. It helps that startup culture has been emphasizing the importance of design over the last few years, but there’s more work to do than just pass around awareness — especially since our platform actually sells design assets. Not everyone on our team works in a design app or meddles with code. Not everyone in our community knows how to make products to sell, or even knows how to successfully use what’s being purchased.

In my perspective, building a meaningful team and thriving community comes down to education and relationships. The reason that I include these two descriptors together is that many product designers put blinders on, dig into their project in Photoshop or code, learn more about the intricacies of digital design thinking, and capitalize off that education in their future projects. Over time, they’ve collected a reservoir of understanding that typically isn’t distributed to educate all of the roles on a team or shared with the greater design community. At Creative Market, we’ve kicked around the idea of starting an internal knowledge base for our team, much like the external knowledge base that we recently started for our community and platform. While our small team does share experiential learning by building features together, we could offer these insights to the larger design and startup communities. That would be a prime example of leading by example.

The same is true for our tribe. If shop owners shared more knowledge about how to craft quality resources and if buyers passed along smart ways of applying design assets to their projects. Then, we’d probably see a stronger community where lasting relationships are forged through a unifying desire to be better designers — and hopefully better people through the ways in which we can support and care for each other, too.

Thank You for Your Support

There are many more stories and lessons that I’ve experienced over the past two years. As you may have noticed, I didn’t share detailed information about our visual component system or why we made certain layout choices for our site experiences. Maybe I’ll make the time to write in-depth about some of our UI and UX design choices later in the year.

Thank you for taking the time to read this whole article. I hope you found it helpful! To my friends, colleagues and the overall design community, thank you for your on-going support. And to anyone whose reading this and hasn’t heard of Creative Market, we welcome you to join our tribe.

Now that you’ve read about my experiences the last 2 years, come join the team and work with me to help shape the future of Creative Market.

Gerren Lamson

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