Jonathan WilliamsonCo-Founder and CTO of CG Cookie, Blender Market, and Mavenseed
Jon PenlandCOO at Kinsta
In this episode of the Reverse Engineered podcast, Jonathan Williamson joins host Jon Penland to discuss his experience in co-founding and running three companies. CG Cookie, Blender Market, and Mavenseed are all intricately linked and are all focused on the creator community.
Jonathan talks about how his upbringing allowed him to pursue curiosity, eventually leading him to become the successful entrepreneur he is today. He and Jon chat about his passion for Blender and how it became the driving force behind CG Cookie and later Blender Market.
If you want to hear more about how these three companies became leaders in the industry, tune in to the latest episode of Reverse Engineered.
- Encourage and empower childhood curiosity. Jonathan says his parents allowed him to be curious when he was little. Since he was unschooled, he didn’t have a strict schedule to follow. Instead, he was free to use the computer and explore as much as he wanted, which ultimately led him to become curious both professionally and personally. “I had that time just to be curious, I didn’t have a schedule to follow, I wasn’t being graded on any of the work that I was doing. It was just my curiosity leading the way”. According to Jonathan, curiosity is the most powerful skill a kid can have.
- Softwares need constant maintenance. Maintaining software is important. Regular maintenance keeps it healthy and allows it to grow alongside trends. The same goes for open-source software. However, Jonathan realized that people need economic motivation to update their software, so he came to the idea to develop a commercial model for software that has never had a commercial model in the past. “I sold it as a commercial plugin. And I got a lot of vitriol for that. I remember a small subset of people, but there were a lot of people pretty upset that I was selling open source software. But it worked. And that product still exists to this day in a slightly different form on Blender Market. It was the test case for if there were enough people willing to spend money on a Blender tool to use in their workflow. And the answer was yes.”
- Done is better than perfect. When asked to advise people who are thinking of starting a business, Jonathan’s response is pretty straightforward – just do it! He says that when you’re at the beginning, it’s normal to make mistakes. You’ll have plenty of time to fix them and change things later. Just start. “Sell your first product, get it out there. Even if it falls flat, you’re going to learn more falling flat on your face than you will be trying to plan out ten years ahead before you ever sell your first product.”
Today’s Guest: Jonathan Williamson, Co-Founder and CTO of CG Cookie, Blender Market, and Mavenseed
Jonathan’s entrepreneurial journey doesn’t end with the above-mentioned companies. He recently co-founded a small craft brewery! In his words, “it’s his creative outlet for creating a truly tangible asset”.
- Company: CG Cookie, Blender Market, Mavenseed
- Where to find Jonathan: LinkedIn | Twitter | Personal Website
How Blender Became the Driving Force Behind CG Cookie
“If you didn’t want to pay for an expensive license or couldn’t pay for an expensive license, you could use Blender. Now at this point in time, you got to remember that it was almost a professional embarrassment to say, ‘Oh yeah, I use Blender, and I produce 3D animation.’
It was looked down upon by the entire industry by professionals. And so what we had, without even realizing it at the time, was this huge group of people using Blender who couldn’t get inroads into the established industry because they were using Blender, but they couldn’t get inroads because they couldn’t afford the licensing.
And there was nobody producing content for them. And so we came along and started producing these tutorials and just discovered by chance that there’s a lot of people here looking for content, looking for interest. And we just consciously realized that at the time, but we embraced it and just went with it.”
Value Selling vs. Code Selling
“The community has grown and evolved enough to recognize that what you’re selling is your time and your commitment to support and maintenance more than anything. When I sell a copy of our software, I’m not selling you the code. No, I’m selling you a guarantee that I’m going to support your use of that.”
Targeting Broad Unfamiliar Audiences Is Challenging
“Mavenseed does not pick and choose, which is the best and worst thing about it. The nice thing about being targeted in Blender, it’s very easy to target our audience. There are three community forums. There’s one group on Twitter. It’s very easy. And particularly because I’ve been very involved in the Blender community my entire professional career, that’s not hard. I don’t think I ever really appreciated how fricking hard it is to attract an audience in a space that nobody knows who you are. That’s really difficult.”
Advice for New Business Owners
“Sell your first product, get it out there. Even if it falls flat, you’re going to learn more falling flat on your face than you will be trying to plan out ten years ahead before you ever sell your first product.
Assuming that you’re not secretly Apple incorporated, and you’re slowly making a very smart, strategic move with existing resources, assuming that you’re actually building your business from the ground up, you don’t have the luxury of time that way. You also are just spinning your wheels, answering questions that you don’t actually know what you don’t know. So just dive in.”
[00:00:04] Jon Penland: Hey everyone. My name is Jon Penland. This podcast is brought to you by Kinsta, a premium managed hosting provider. In today’s episode, I’m talking to Jonathan Williamson, CTO and co-founder of CG Cookie, Blender Market and Mavenseed. Jonathan, welcome to Reverse Engineered.
[00:00:23] Jonathan Williamson: Hey, thanks for having me, Jon.
[00:00:24] Jon Penland: It is our pleasure to have you here. So to get us started, can you introduce yourself to our listeners?
[00:00:29] Jonathan Williamson: I can try. So like Jon had said, my name is Jonathan Williamson. I co-founded and still have a large role in running CG Cookie, Blender Market, and Mavenseed. All three of these companies are intricately linked.
[00:00:41] But for the most part, it all starts with CG Cookie. So basically we run a 3D animation training platform for teaching game development, visual effects, 3D printing, you name it, all based on the software, Blender. Blender Market then is the marketplace to go with that for selling professional assets, resources for Blender.
[00:01:02] And then Mavenseed is a whole another topic underlying the CMS that we may get into later, but it’s a little harder to put that into a direct pitch.
[00:01:12] Jon Penland: Yeah. Yeah. So usually my next question, which you’ve already answered a little bit, is to ask folks to tell us about their particular company and venture in your case, you’re doing a lot of different things, right? So I do also know that, and we’re not going to spend a lot of time on these, but I want to give you the chance to speak about all your different ventures. So I know that in addition to Blender Market, CG Cookie, and Mavenseed, you’re doing some other stuff. So let our listeners know what else you’re working on.
[00:01:37] Jonathan Williamson: Yeah, like a lot of people that grew up immersed in the tech world and still spend my entire professional career behind the laptop and the most part. Sometimes it’s really nice to get away from my laptop completely. And so I also co-founded a small brewery, which is actually where I’m sitting now.
[00:01:56] So the being a small craft brewery, one of the best parts about it is that there is almost no software involved. There’s software involved from marketing and recipe design and all that, but in short, it’s my creative outlet for creating a truly tangible asset that doesn’t have a return on investment for the customers coming in the door. It doesn’t have anything like that. There are no churn rates. There’s no lifetime values. No, it’s…
[00:02:27] Jon Penland: Sure.
[00:02:27] Jonathan Williamson: I make beer. I sell the beer. People enjoy it and I try and keep it pretty simple. So that’s my sanity in the professional sense, when I get tired of technology. It’s your balance to all the technical online work that you do. That’s exactly it.
[00:02:41] Jon Penland: All right. So backing up a step, there’re CG Cookie, there is Blender Market, there’s Mavenseed, there’s your brewery as well. Where are you spending most of your time right now? What’s your primary focus?
[00:02:50] Jonathan Williamson: So my primary focus is Blender Market. So within, just to, for anybody listening, to try and clarify, basically we have CG Cookie as the corporate company. CG Cookie then owns CG Cookie the education platform, Blender Market the marketplace, and Mavenseed, the CMS. So when we’re talking about CG Cookie at the company, that’s the whole team involved, but my focus is Blender Market.
[00:03:17] And Blender Market started in 2014, originally as a little as a side project for the company. Sorry to set a phone off the background. So Blender Market started in 2014 as a side project for the company and everything that we’ve done has been bootstrapped from the beginning. We definitely try to take a slow and steady approach to it.
[00:03:43] And that one was definitely slow and steady, but slow to begin. And it’s not slow anymore, which is a good thing, but it means that it’s taking a lot of my time.
[00:03:59] Jon Penland: All right. Okay.
[00:03:59] Jonathan Williamson: So that’s my core focus.
[00:04:00] Jon Penland: Nice. Okay. So just to make sure I’ve got the picture straight in my mind, you have CG Cookie, which is both a company and a platform.
[00:04:05] Jonathan Williamson: Yep. Yep.
[00:04:07] Jon Penland: Then CG Cookie is the parent company over Blender Market and Mavenseed. And this is not tremendously important, are Blender Market and Mavenseed actual separate business entities, or are they just products of CG Cookie?
[00:04:23] Jonathan Williamson: They are separate business entities owned by CG Cookie for the most part.
[00:04:28] Jon Penland: All right. So now you said your focus is on Blender Market. So I assume there are other folks who are focused on CG Cookie and Mavenseed. Do you have some co-founders, business partners in the mix as well?
[00:04:40] Jonathan Williamson: I do. On CG Cookie and Blender Market, I’ve got one co-founder, his name is Wes Burke. He’s actually the original founder of CG Cookie. He started it shortly before I joined and then we really solidified it. And he basically leads CG Cookie. I lead Blender Market. And then on the Mavenseed side, we actually brought in, Nick Haskins as a third co-founder, who was also one of our key employees for CG Cookie. And so between the three of us, Nick leads the development efforts, I lead Blender Market, Wes leads CG Cookie, and then we all balance Mavenseed.
[00:05:17] Jon Penland: Yeah. So if you are CTO, does that imply that you focus on technical? Because it sounds like what you’re telling me is that for Blender Market, you’re all things to all people, like you are the product or you are the mastermind.
[00:05:31] Jonathan Williamson: For lack of a better word, I’m CTO, because we didn’t know what else to call me.
[00:05:40] Um, Like a lot of small teams, we all wear a lot of different hats. We’ve all kind of grown into the roles that we are now. And sometimes, I can say flat out that between Wes and myself as the original co-founders we never really put a whole lot of weight on titles and roles. We just did the work that we needed to do. As the team has grown, and everything has grown since 2008, there are some reality checks that come into play. And so technically I’m the CTO. I do everything I dabble in just about everything and…
[00:06:20] Jon Penland: Yeah, no, I’m familiar with that phenomenon.
[00:06:22] Jonathan Williamson: Yep.
[00:06:22] Jon Penland: When I joined Kinsta, Kinsta had 15 people, but even at 15 people, several of us were wearing a lot of different hats. And there was a time at which I was doing everything from working in customer support, to sales, to client care; basically, anything interacting with a leader or a customer I was involved in. I was also doing legal and I was helping out with finance. And basically the only…
[00:06:49] Jonathan Williamson: Sounds pretty familiar.
[00:06:50] Jon Penland: Yeah, the only thing I wasn’t doing was writing code. And that may be about it, write code, marketing. I wasn’t doing, I wasn’t writing code and I wasn’t involved in marketing. But aside from that, I was…
[00:07:03] Jonathan Williamson: How many people has Kinsta now? I assume it’s 200. It’s not quite there.
[00:07:12] Jon Penland: We’re at about 160 I think, right now. So I do expect we’ll be at 200 before long, cause we’re hiring fast. Particularly on the technical side, so yeah.
[00:07:16] Coming back to a Blender Market, CG Cookie, they’re both oriented or they both operate within the 3D animation community as you’ve already described and I want to just reiterate for our listeners. Blender Market and CG Cookie are actually closely linked. And yeah, I want to let you speak a little bit. Go ahead and speak a little bit about the relationship between CG Cookie and Blender Market.
[00:07:39] Jonathan Williamson: So ultimately the relationship is this. CG Cookie teaches you how to use Blender, the animation package to produce 3D animated content, whether that is for 3D printing and medical visualization, games, visual effects. You name it. Like at this point, there’s a much shorter list of things that it can’t do then the things that it can do. And CG Cookie teaches. That’s all we do is we teach Blender.
[00:08:08] It used to be that we also taught 3D Studio Max and Maya and Modo, Zbrush. But ultimately where, in the last couple of years we’ve actually come back where it was like, we started because of Blender. And then we branched off and try and diversify that a lot more and ultimately we’ve come full circle and now have just embraced the fact that we are a Blender training platform. That’s what we do.
[00:08:33] Blender Market, on the other hand, is then solely focused on allowing professional Blender artists, developers, creators, et cetera, to actually sell those professional resources, add add-ons, scripts, you name it. So in short, CG Cookie will teach you how to do it. Blender Market allows you to build a livelihood around it, to release that component of a livelihood for some people.
[00:09:00] Jon Penland: Yeah. How did you first get into the 3D animation space yourself? Did you get in just as a personal interest? What was that, how did that happen?
[00:09:12] Jonathan Williamson: Yes. It happened when I was 12 or 13. I’m 32 now, so I’m coming up on 20 years. And it really was a family friend who knew that I was always into art, I was always into computers and he was super involved or at least very passionate about the early open-source projects. And in this case, it was a small one that I don’t even know if it still exists, but it was called Free Craft.
[00:09:37] And it was literally just an open-source recreation of StarCraft again. And they were looking for artists and it’s “Jonathan likes art, Jonathan likes computers. Hey, you should try Blender.” I had no idea what I was getting into. At the time, Blender looked more like a really bad avionics panel.
[00:10:00] The UI was horrendous. The amount of options was daunting, but I started dabbling in it, throw it away. Got my interest peaked again, about three months later. Downloaded it again. And never stopped, for a while there. So this was when I was about 13. I was spending about eight hours a day on it and duck dove into the deep and very quickly.
[00:10:28] Jon Penland: And that, that has to beg the question, right? You’re 12 or 13 years old. How are you spending eight hours a day on animation?
[00:10:37] Jonathan Williamson: I was unschooled, so I never had any formal education until I reached high school.
[00:10:47] And my parents basically afforded me the opportunity to just spend as much time as I wanted, and I think they were pretty nervous about how much time I was spending on the computer at the time. But ultimately that was something that they decided to permit. And we had a computer in the house and…
[00:11:04] Jon Penland: Yeah. That’s what I did. And I have to ask. So as the parent myself, of a 14-year-old, who spends a lot of time on the computer, he’s deep into the Linux community and his current, his current interest is not spurred by folks in that community, but it’s ham radio. So what advice would you have? I was not when I was 12 and 13, I was not spending eight hours a day on the computer, the way that my son is and I’m allowing it, but I do have that same nervousness that maybe your parents had.
[00:11:35] So I’m curious, how do you reassure me as a parent about letting my kid spend that on the computer?
[00:11:43] Jonathan Williamson: Cause I’ve actually, I’ve talked to my parents about this too. I now have a young son. He’s about, he’s going to turn three in a couple of months. And my wife comes from a very different educational background than I did. And so obviously we’re starting to have those conversations with what route do we go, what do we want to encourage, et cetera, et cetera. And ultimately what it’s come down to for me, like looking back at my own experience, and obviously, everything is rose-colored glasses, and I only see the best of it.
[00:12:18] But ultimately I think what my parents afforded me, even if they didn’t realize that at the time was the time and ability to just figure out what I was interested in and just pursue curiosity with no, obviously within reason, but basically no limits. If that was exploring, drawing, 3D animation, programming, I had that time to just be curious. I didn’t have a schedule to follow.
[00:12:50] I wasn’t being graded on any of the work that I was doing. It was just my curiosity leading the way. And ultimately that has played out in my entire life and that everything that I’ve done professionally and personally, even when it includes CG Cookie, Blender Market, Mavenseed, Sandhills Brewing, et cetera, every single one of these has been because I became curious about that thing. And obviously, it’s not just me, I’ve got co-founders and I’ve got a team, but in terms of that initial spark and the interest is all of that was based on curiosity. There was never a point in any of these endeavors where I thought “I need to start a business. I need a business plan. I needed a way to pay the bill.”
[00:13:38] No, it was, “This is something that I’m interested in. Let’s just do it and we’ll figure out the rest as we go.” I guess my suggestion is that curiosity both in the professional sense and in the educational sense is probably the single most powerful thing a kid can have. And the last thing you want to do is stifle that.
[00:13:55] Jon Penland: Yeah.
[00:13:56] Jonathan Williamson: I know, I don’t want to, without getting too into it. I don’t have very good feelings about the way our public education system is set up in the sense of enabling and empowering curiosity.
[00:14:11] Jon Penland: Sure. Yeah. And I’m curious, so you said you, you were unschooled, and then did I catch correctly – you transitioned into a more typical educational setting in high school?
[00:14:23] Jonathan Williamson: I did. Yep. Yeah. My brother and I both decided to, so it was our call. I don’t actually, I think my parents at the time were probably pretty against it. I don’t think they wanted us to go to school at that point.
[00:14:38] Particularly my dad has some pretty strong feelings on the way that at least in our area, the way the schools were set up. But ultimately my brother, we were just looking for, we want to try something new. And so we enrolled in one of the local public high schools for our sophomore year, graduated three years later as seniors and loved it. There was plenty of problems with it.
[00:15:01] And I think had I done that in middle school, I think it would have been awful. But one of the advantages of starting in high school was like, I had already figured out for the most part who I was, what was important to me and what I wasn’t going to put up with. And so I just got to take the best of it and leave all the credit behind.
[00:15:25] Jon Penland: Yeah. Yeah. That’s obviously this, I didn’t know this about your background and unschooling and that whole transition. It’s a very close parallel to some of the decisions we’re making right now, particularly with my oldest, he’s 14, he’s been homeschooled, but there’s a lot of freedom in that. And he spends a lot of time working on his own projects and he has expressed an interest in going to a regular school next year. And so we’re trying to…
[00:15:50] Jonathan Williamson: Why do you think that is? Is that from a social standpoint or, wanting to fit in, just that more exposure, or?
[00:16:00] Jon Penland: I think it’s, I think it’s social, right? So he was in a co-op-type organization. And the organization didn’t have enough kids in his age group to continue putting together a group at his age group. So younger kids still participate in the co-op. He is entirely on his own. And having done the co-op for a couple of years, which was only one day a week, it was just Mondays. But having done that, he’s like, “All right, I actually like having friends and seeing people.”
[00:16:30] Now he does other stuff, he swims and he does some other stuff to interact with folks, it’s not like he’s at home all the time but, but it is, I do think it is largely about the social aspects.
[00:16:48] Jonathan Williamson: Honestly I think, looking back, I think that was the best thing I got out of it. And I, cause, I still I’ve always kept a pretty small friend circle.
[00:17:02] And by, let me know if background noise ends up, we can come in an issue. I can move to another room. I’ve always kept a pretty, pretty small friend circle just out of preference. I’m very introverted and very okay with that.
[00:17:14] But some of my closest friends of all time still to this date, 15 years later, are all from high school. And so I think that the social value there is very hard to understate.
[00:17:31] Jon Penland: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:17:31] Jonathan Williamson: So of course that’s not true for everybody.
[00:17:35] Jon Penland: Yeah sure. So I actually started that. We went down a nice little rabbit trail. I had actually started with the question of how did you get into the 3D animation space, and the answer was that you picked it up as a 12 and 13-year-old and just started playing with it.
[00:17:52] And you have the time to invest in it because you were unschooled. So you had this time to invest in it. I’m curious, you’re 12 or 13 and you’re learning how to use the software. You’re getting really good at it. How does it transition from being just something you’re interested into something that you’re building projects around?
[00:18:14] Like how do we go from 13-year-old Jonathan who knows how to use Blender to the guy who’s jumping on board with Wes Burke at CG Cookie?
[00:18:23] Jonathan Williamson: So I think it was the, so I started dabbling professionally in Blender at 15. And one of the – I had started doing a couple of little freelance projects were commissioned and whatnot. But my first real commercial project was I, produced and sold a training DVD, when DVDs were still the hot thing. And I don’t actually know what started it other than I originally produced a free tutorial that I published online, which publishing at that point of course was very different than it is now. YouTube was hardly a thing. And I just released it for free just for fun. And it got a lot more attention than I expected it to.
[00:19:16] And I think that’s what then led to doing the full training DVD. And I actually worked into a high school project where it was, I guess that’s my second one. So somewhere along the lines, I worked it into my high school senior project where I was supposed to spend a semester working on something.
[00:19:36] And so I spent all my high school hours literally recording training videos. I’m in factoring up in a DVD and then sold the actual DVD online. And that was my first real taste of a commercial endeavor, endeavor sorts. And I basically used that as the starting point for basically building a freelance business around doing video tutorials and training and whatnot, which directly then resulted in doing the very first work with Wes Burke, my co-founder.
[00:20:04] Because he was starting, he had started a little 3D tutorial new site called CG Cookie, and he never even heard of Blender, but he was paying people to produce tutorials for it. I sent a tutorial request. I think he went “What the hell is Blender? Sure, whatever, do it.” And it worked really well. And then we did another one and another one, and now…
[00:20:28] Jon Penland: Yeah. Yeah. So originally you were a content creator on CG Cookie, which Wes was running. So you were the original Blender content creator.
[00:20:40] Okay. Okay. Interesting. And so then at some point, I guess Blender became the driving force behind CG Cookie and Wes said, “Why don’t you just come on board?” Or how did that happen?
[00:20:48] Jonathan Williamson: From literally the very first tutorial, it was very apparent that there was a need to be filled in the Blender world that hadn’t been met when we started publishing tutorials on CG Cookie. Keep in mind it, truly at this point in time, CG Cookie had no idea that it was going to become a Blender site.
[00:21:08] Wes definitely didn’t plan on that. And in the beginning, I had no plans of becoming a co-founder in a big project like this. It just organically happened that way. And really what it was is that Blender was growing very quickly. And I think that in 2008, it was already one of the most used 3D softwares out there.
[00:21:36] And just in the terms of the user base in part, because at that point in time, all other 3D animation software, the big ones being Maya, 3D Studio Max, LightWave, Houdini, et cetera. All of these were very expensive, proprietary tools that were used exclusively by professionals and particularly professionals in the context of a studio. Freelancing as a 3D animation artist was barely a thing at that point. If, and if nothing else, it was mostly relegated to two small-time amateurs and nobody could afford that software.
[00:22:07] The closest parallel I can make for people not familiar with the 3D world is Photoshop. How many people, 15 years ago using Photoshop, professionally actually own a legal copy of Photoshop? Far fewer than we’ll admit. And so Blender was the alternative for that type of scenario was like, if you didn’t want to pay for an expensive license or couldn’t pay for an expensive license, you could use Blender. Now at this point in time, you got to remember that Blender was like it was almost a professional embarrassment to say, “Oh yeah, I use Blender and I produce 3D animation.”
[00:22:47] Like it was, it was looked down upon by the entire industry by professionals. And so what we had without even realizing it at the time was we had this huge group of people using Blender who couldn’t get inroads into the established industry because they were using Blender, but they couldn’t get inroads because they couldn’t afford the licensing. And there was nobody producing content for it.
[00:23:11] And so we came along and started producing these tutorials and just discovered by chance that, “Oh, there’s a lot of people here looking for content, looking for interest.” And we just, I’m not even sure we consciously realized that at the time, but we embraced it and just went with it.
[00:23:30] And it was, I think, about two years later. So I think 2010, we launched Blender Cookie when other it’s just a subset of CG Cookie posts exclusively on Blender. And that, that was about the point that we decided “All right, this is it. We’re going all in.”
[00:23:49] Jon Penland: Yeah. Yeah. And I’m curious because one of the things you said a little while back is that when you were a teenager, a young teenager, you had the freedom to pursue things that were interesting to you. And that’s really where you developed this initial interest in the 3D animation space.
[00:24:12] And I get the impression that as a an older teenager heading into you’re probably into your early twenties, you can basically continue to exercise that curiosity as you’re putting out tutorials now. And so you’re really exercising the same skillset at a time when most of your peers on educational and financial liabilities that don’t let them pursue those things. And so I’m curious was that an intentional? Let me back up and say. Did you find ways to maintain the freedom to pursue your curiosity after high school? And if so what are the sorts of choices you were making so that you had the time to pursue things like writing tutorials and investing your time in something like CG Cookie, as opposed to working 10 hours a day for minimum wage somewhere?
[00:25:11] Jonathan Williamson: Oh, good question. Yes, I don’t really, I never consciously made that decision. But the reality of it was that by the time I graduated high school, I was already earning for an 18-year-old, pretty good money doing my own work, both on a commission basis, selling my products, et cetera.
[00:25:37] And then through partnering up with Wes Burke, then I was producing content on a paid basis. And at that point, before we actually established the company, it was very simple, like I would credit tutorial or I’d submit a tutorial idea. He would greenlight it, I’d produce it, deliver it to him, he’d pay me. And then we just kept that rolling for a while. And so I think I unconsciously enabled myself to continue pursuing that curiosity. Because I wasn’t bogged down by a nine-to-five job or a part-time minimum wage position.
[00:26:15] And that, I think some of the proof of that is I have quite, it sounds like I’m tooting my own horn when I say this and I don’t mean it this way. But I’ve literally only ever held one real job. And that was a media lab assistant for the Kansas State Research and Extension Office at K-State University in Manhattan, Kansas. And even there, because I was the media lab assistant, everybody in the lab, which in this case was basically three people (it was my boss, myself, and one other, media lab assistant) basically meant that we were recording speeches, we were recording seminars. We were managing the website, publishing recordings onto the website, digitizing scans from research and extension offices. We were, producing custom graphics for the video intros. And so even in that, I was sneaking Blender.
[00:27:24] Jon Penland: Right. You’re developing the same skills set there…
[00:27:25] Jonathan Williamson: And then at the end of the day, my bosses credit at the time who I’m still in contact with this day, he was very patient and lenient, and also a classic case of, as long as I got the work done that I needed to do, he didn’t care what I did rest of the time.
[00:27:37] And so the reality is I spent the rest of the time learning Blender, learning Photoshop, sleeping on my keyboard sometimes. That was literally the only, only non-self-employed job I’ve ever held. And so in that sense, yeah, it was, I was still pursuing that curiosity, even as an employee.
[00:28:00] Jon Penland: I think the thing that strikes me is that, intentional or unintentional, you didn’t find yourself in a position where you’re having to balance the demands of, “I want to launch this venture, but I also have to pay my bills.” It doesn’t sound like you ever found yourself, which I think is awesome for somebody who got started coming straight out of high school.
[00:28:27] Jonathan Williamson: Yeah
[00:28:29] Jon Penland: Were there challenges that you’ve had to balance at different times?
[00:28:33] Jonathan Williamson: I would say yes and no. I never really had the problem of having to choose between a paycheck and pursuing the venture in part, because my paychecks have always come from those same ventures. I would rephrase the question. Have has my ability to pursue those ventures been limited by cash flow? Absolutely. Many, many… Sure.
[00:28:57] But I think just because of the circumstances, ultimately end of the day, the interest that I was trying to pursue were the same ones paying my bills. And so it actually worked out well, particularly when I was, I was a college kid living in a dorm room or an apartment, with very few obligations financially, legally, et cetera.
[00:29:18] That I could just work 16 hours a day. And I don’t condone that. That was, not the healthiest decision. But I had the time.
[00:29:30] Jon Penland: You had the ability. Sure. Yeah. Okay. I want to shift a little bit and go back to something you were talking about earlier, which was that when you first came into the picture with CG Cookie. You’re putting out these Blenders tutorials and you guys recognize there’s a huge community here that’s underserved.
[00:29:50] And where making a living off of these assets is difficult because this tool at that time is not recognized professionally necessarily in the way that it might be today. I’m curious if that was a part of the motivation, I don’t know where in the timeline Blender Market came into the picture, I’m okay. But I’m struck that if you have this audience that is it’s developing these assets, but they’re having a hard time making a professional connection with the deployment of those assets. That that may be oblique, maybe Blender Market’s the answer to that problem.
[00:30:34] Jonathan Williamson: Well, and ultimately that was the chance that we were taking when we decided to do it. Because we believed it was at least an answer to the problem. I would rephrase it a little bit and maybe touch on why we started with Blender Market to begin with.
[00:30:54] Because, and really what it was is Blender being an open-source product in the same way that WordPress is an open-source product. There has always been this kind of tug and pull between the commercial interest within Blender and the open-source free with no exceptions side effects. And this goes into the classic, free as in freedom and free as in beer discussions.
[00:31:16] At the time, so this was 2013 before Blender Market, I had become really frustrated with the state of add-ons in Blender, plugins, for lack of a better word. Because what would happen is his Blender had a pretty good Python API, and you could write custom tools in it, improve your workflows, et cetera. Just like any other plugins for any other software, you can go beyond what the base software adds.
[00:31:56] And it was great. There were a lot of people doing really cool things as add-ons that were very applicable to what I was doing and what other people were doing, but they didn’t necessarily fit into core Blender. That wasn’t on the Blender Foundation to maintain and release for everyone.
[00:32:12] But the problem was that they were free. They were open-source and they kept falling into disarray because Blender has always followed a very fast development cycle. And like any other modern software, the API changes and you have to maintain your software. And so what would happen is people would release these add ons that’d be amazing, and you’d want to implement them into your professional workflow. And three months later, a new version of Blender would come out and so, and then, I don’t know, nothing had worked.
[00:32:43] And what we didn’t have in the community at that time was the intrinsic motivation for those people that are releasing these add-ons to maintain them. Because frankly, the vast majority of the items that were released for free to the community were done as just little tiny side projects or experiments, or, somebody would say, “Hey, I have this problem on the forums. Is there anybody that can help?” And then somebody would just pipe up say, “Oh, I’ll just write a little script for you.” Sweet.
[00:33:09] Jon Penland: Yeah.
[00:33:10] Jonathan Williamson: But then three months later, the script no longer works. You as an artist, have no idea how to go in and fix it. And the person that fixed it has their own, full-time day job and they can’t be bothered to fix it. So what I saw not just as an opportunity from a business sense, but a need that needed to be filled with the community was to give creators specifically developers.
[00:33:40] Since most reusable models, graphics, et cetera, those for the most part, just keep working. Software does not. Software needs constant maintenance. And so I thought that there was a real need for people to have an economic motivation to maintain their software. And I had gotten so frustrated with it that I said, “Fuck it. I’m gonna do this.”
[00:34:03] And so I commissioned somebody to write a tool. Cause I was not a coder at the time. I barely consider myself a coder now. So I commissioned them to do it. They did it. And then I sold it. I sold it as a commercial plug plugin. And I got a lot of vitriol for that.
[00:34:22] Remember a small subset of people, but there were a lot of people, pretty upset that I was selling open-source software. But it worked. And, that product still exists to this day in a slightly different form on the Blender Market. And it was the test case for if there were enough people willing to spend money on a Blender tool to use in their workflow.
[00:34:49] And the answer was yes. And that number has just continued to grow and grow and grow and grow.
[00:35:00] Jon Penland: So that’s really fascinating. So you guys are running the CG Cookie website and you have this audience there and you see this problem of, the animations continue to work, but because of the development speed of the software, add-ons fall into disrepair very quickly.
[00:35:16] And there’s no motivation for creators to maintain these products. So you ran a test case, you put out your own commercial add-on to see if, just to have a proof of concept and then said, “All right let’s create a marketplace that will provide a financial incentive to developers who create add-ons for Blender so that they’ll maintain the software.
[00:35:44] Jonathan Williamson: Yep. That’s exactly it.
[00:35:47] Jon Penland: Wow. Okay. That’s awesome. So really then again, Blender Market is this add-on to CG or not an add-on, but it is a project running along. There you go. Yeah, there, you got two complementary businesses operating side by side. One provides education. The other provides a marketplace, both operating within this community.
[00:36:09] And I’m curious, you’ve already touched on it a little bit where, you know, when you first released this commercial add-on, you’ve got a little bit of vitriol from maybe some purists within the community. I’m curious how much time you spend thinking about how to maintain the right relationship towards this community?
[00:36:29] Is it, is this a community? Is this something you invest a lot of time in, or are you just so deeply embedded in the community at this point that your work, your websites, your projects are just part of it?
[00:36:40] Jonathan Williamson: I don’t know how to answer that, actually. I think your second half of the question is closer in that…
[00:36:54] Jon Penland: Okay. Well, let me back up and ask the question a different way.
[00:37:00] So the way that I first formulated the idea is, how did you attract the community to these projects? Because, I know you had CG Cookie and you had the community coming there, but it’s a leap to ask the people who are used to operating one way to say, “Let’s embrace a commercial model for the software that has not had a commercial model in the past.”
[00:37:20] How was there an intentional strategy around getting the community to make that leap from purely educational to saying “We’re going to embrace a commercial model within the Blender community?”
[00:37:28] Jonathan Williamson: No, I don’t think so because we had already done that with CG Cookie. Pre-CG Cookie, I was mostly releasing tutorials for free on the community forums. And then I sold my first training DVD and then another one. And so I’d already reached that gap already of basically saying, “Hey, it’s me, Jonathan Williamson, I’m creating this content.
[00:37:55] I’m giving a lot of stuff away, but I also value my time. And if you’re willing to buy a copy of this, I will invest my time to create it.” So I had already done that. And then with CG Cookie, our business model has changed three or four times for CG Cookie. And in the very beginning, everything was free with the exception of source files. You could purchase the source files for a couple of bucks and you’d get the models, the textures, the downloadable video, et cetera, et cetera. Which, by the way, it’s a terrible business model. Nobody pays for it.
[00:38:35] And then we went from there to selling individual courses. And from there we launched a subscription model, as subscription models were starting to take off. And so I don’t think it was a very big leap for us to go from CG Cookie to Blender Market, because we’d already breached that cap of the commercial divide.
[00:38:54] Now I’ll tell you early on those same purists that were like, how dare you sell open-source software, et cetera. I felt the same way about selling educational content that used open-source software. And they felt that all content should be free.
[00:39:08] Jon Penland: Yeah. Interesting. Interesting. Okay. So were you already and I might be getting into the weeds a little bit too much here, but it strikes me that there’s a distinction between selling software and selling assets that you’ve created. Because I know you sell, not just you sell, but on, on Blender Market, you don’t just sell add-ons.
[00:39:27] You sell all sorts of different assets for people to use in their projects. Was there a distinction within the community between this is okay to sell, this is not okay to sell, or was it simply a matter of your audience was ready for that transition?
[00:39:39] Jonathan Williamson: I think there was a distinction at first. I think now the community has grown and evolved enough to recognize that what you’re selling is your time and your commitment to support and maintenance more than anything. When I sell a copy of our software, I’m not selling you the code. No, I’m selling you a guarantee that I’m going to support your use of that. And I lost my train of thought.
[00:40:11] Jon Penland: That’s all right. So the question was, was there a distinction between or did those who gave you a little bit more trouble about selling? Did they make a distinction between selling software and selling creative assets?
[00:40:29] Jonathan Williamson: Not so not in the beginning. Later on, yeah. So in the beginning it was “How dare you sell anything around Blender?” Like “How, what would the Foundation think if you were selling their products or selling content around this free thing that they’ve created?” Later on, as more and more tutorial authors came onto the scene.
[00:40:40] So early on there, there was no distinction. Later as basically educational content became understood and appreciated. The selling of software products was where the focus was because they’re basically saying, “Hey, this code is open source.”
[00:40:56] You can’t sell that. And I don’t know, WordPress obviously went through all of these same discussions and everything. The parallel that I’ve always drawn between the Blender world and the WordPress world is that basically WordPress from a commercial sense was about eight years ahead of Blender.
[00:41:13] Jon Penland: Yeah. It was, it sounds about right. Cause these do sound like the same types of conversations that had several years ago in the WordPress space. That’s interesting.
[00:41:20] Jonathan Williamson: Do those still happen in the WordPress world?
[00:41:22] Jon Penland: They do. Yeah. I don’t think anybody necessarily argues too much about the idea of selling code anymore. But yeah they do still. I think the big push right now is to make sure we’re not the big push, but the conversations that I hear now are primarily around licensing and around building services and products around WordPress and how far does the GPL reach. So outside of the core itself how far does it reach?
[00:41:52] And so it, at this point, I think probably it’s a little bit different in the WordPress space because Automattic and Matthew Mullenweg one of the two original developers of the WordPress software, because they’ve embraced a commercial model. So I think that has affected the conversation to a degree as well, which… know. Yeah. A little bit. And so when you have that happening at that level, it becomes a lot less controversial for somebody else to sell.
[00:42:29] Jonathan Williamson: Sure. I can definitely appreciate that.
[00:42:33] Jon Penland: These days, the primary conversations that I hear or that I see and occasionally participated in are around licensing and how far does the GPL reach. So I am aware that at this point, I don’t think your projects are built on WordPress.
[00:42:46] We’ve been talking about WordPress a little bit. You guys have really developed your own CMS internally there, which you refer to as Mavenseed. So I’m just curious how this project grew out of the other projects that were happening.
[00:43:08] Jonathan Williamson: Sure. So everything, CG Cookie, Blender Market, and Mavenseed are all built custom on Ruby on Rails. And so Mavenseed is basically the refined version of the CMS that we built for CG Cookie first and a lot of the pieces and parts that we learned for Blender Market. So maybe at this point, Mavenseed does not power either Blender Market or CG Cookie. It will power CG Cookie.
[00:43:43] So basically what we’re doing right now is, early on and we, so we started on WordPress. And from 2008 to 2016, I think, we’re on WordPress. And then we decided to go to a custom platform and built it on rails. And we started it by building Blender Market, launched that, and then we built CG Cookies as well and learned a lot. Blender Market was literally the very first Ruby on Rails project we had ever done. And some of the problems with it being our first project are still alive on the codebase today.
[00:44:31] But one of the things that we learned very quickly was that ultimately for CG Cookie, specifically as an education platform, we’re not really doing anything unique. Anybody that is creating video content, text content, et cetera, and releasing those to one-time customers, subscribers, you name it, they all, for the most part, have the same needs. That, there are very similar products out there. Podia, Teachable, they’ve all realized the same thing. What we realized is we already have it.
[00:45:05] Let’s just license it for other people to use. And so that was originally what we were going to do is we were just like, “Hey, let’s just let people use the CG Cookie CMS.” And then as we started exploring that.
[00:45:18] Jon Penland: Right. Yeah. Right. That was going to be my question. Did you take the software that you were using and just release it now? It sounds like you’re saying flat-out no.
[00:45:30] Jonathan Williamson: We’ve flat out, started from the ground up and we said, “Okay, if we were to build CG cookie today, how do we do it?” And that’s what we’ve done. So that is Mavenseed. And we are selling that as a standard SaaS, for anybody to use. So if you want to sell one-off purchases, if you want to sell your eBooks, a newsletter, course subscriptions, you name it.
[00:45:58] If you want to sell digital content and just about any format, you can do it on Mavenseed, complete with community, and everything else. And what we’re doing right now is we are basically building Mavenseed for ourselves. So we have millions and millions of records in the CG Cookie database.
[00:46:18] And we have gone through and basically said, “All right, what are we keeping, what are we not? Here’s all the functionality that we need to build inside Mavenseed.” If that functionality needs to be built such that it’s available to everyone, or maybe at the more of a niche use case. All right, we’ll build it as a plugin. And so for the last year, we’ve been building Mavenseed even for ourselves in the lens of allowing anybody else to use it. And we will actually be switching the CG Cookie platform over to Mavenseed in the next couple of months. And it’s a lot of stuff.
[00:46:59] Jon Penland: Yeah. Yeah. I have a couple of thoughts. One, I was talking to somebody else and they referred to what it sounds like you’re doing as commoditizing your by-product. And I loved that line. They were like, you know, we have this by-product that we’re creating through our work.
[00:47:18] And and so we’re going to commoditize that, and I need to give credit that with Shane Pearlman, the CEO of Modern Tribe, who said that. And yeah, and so it’s an interesting approach. I think it’s, I think it’s, potentially incredibly valuable, but what I’m struck by is that with CG Cookie and with Blender Market, you’re in a very targeted market. And Mavenseed has the potential, I think to be a much more broad application. And as you think about these different projects, and I know your focus is primarily on Blender Market, but Mavenseed is under the CG Cookie umbrella here. How do you think about Mavenseed in the long term?
[00:48:00] Do you view it as a small, sub-project or do you guys view Mavenseed as long-term, this is going to be a really huge part of what we’re doing?
[00:48:10] Jonathan Williamson: I think that Mavenseed, if we play our cards right, and are patient enough, Mavenseed stands to be dramatically larger, more successful, and more flexible than Blender Market and CG Cookie can ever be.
[00:48:27] Because of the generalized audience. Blender Market targets Blender creators. CG Cookie educates Blender artist. Mavenseed does not pick and choose, which is the best and worst thing about it.
[00:48:46] Nice thing about being targeted in Blender, it’s very easy to target our audience. There are three community forums. There’s one group on Twitter. Like it’s very easy. And particularly because, I’ve been very involved in the Blender community, my entire professional career, that’s not hard.
[00:49:05] I don’t think I ever really appreciated how fricking hard it is to attract an audience in a space that nobody knows who you are. That’s really difficult. And so I guess, for us, Mavenseed is the long game. CG Cookie and Blender Market are both long games, we’ve always taken a slow and steady. What do we want to be doing in 10 years approach as opposed to what has to happen now today?
[00:49:33] So we definitely see Mavenseed as that, that it has the ability to be the core of the business, at least as far as our offerings go 10 years from now. But it also, maybe more importantly for us, is how we see as a company our ability to make an impact and also create some longevity when we are not as actively involved. One of the things, and one of the downsides, for example, is CG Cookie is very content-driven. CG Cookie fails when we no longer have the energy, the ability, or the means to produce content for it.
[00:50:08] Mavenseed on the other hand and Blender Market kind of fits in the middle here. Mavenseed so long as we maintain the platform, we don’t have to produce content. So it’s not to say that there’s less work on the platform. No, there’s a ton of work. It’s very different work. Rather than saying, “Hey, I’m going to sell you my content.” We are saying, “Hey, I’m going to enable all of you to sell your content. And I’ll just take a small piece.” And that’s been the big thing that we’ve learned from Blender Market too, is that CG Cookie scales based on the amount of effort that we put into it directly. Blender Market scales based on how many people we enable and incentivize to put their own time into it. And for example, Blender Market has gone from the very first year that we started it in 2014, we processed on average $12,000 per month processing.
[00:51:25] And then we would take us, take a commission out of that. Last month, February of 2021, we did $480,000 processing. And that’s happened in seven or six and a half years basically is where we’re at now. We didn’t pass a hundred thousand a month until I think, I’m probably going to get my dates wrong, but I think it was, April of 2019.
[00:51:52] Jon Penland: Yeah, I would say it can’t be that long ago because I looked at the total revenue and $7.8 million has gone through Blender Market since it was founded in 2014. And if and if you did $480 back in February, again, just doing kind of some back-of-the-envelope math here. You guys are pretty close to doing your total revenue, almost at a monthly run rate right now.
[00:52:16] Jonathan Williamson: Okay. I just pulled up our actual numbers. So the very first time that we hit a hundred, so we did a $100,000, $157,000 in 2015, $480,000 in 2017. And in February of 2021, we did $484,000. So in 2019, we processed $2 million almost on the dot and we’re a quarter of the way there in one month.
[00:52:52] And the reason that I think in the context of this discussion why that’s important is simply that we didn’t market to all of those people. We didn’t bring all of those people at. No. We brought the creators in and then they brought their own audience. And ultimately that’s what we’re trying to do with Mavenseed too, is we want to enable the small business owners to come in.
[00:53:19] Jon Penland: Yeah, right, Yeah. Kinsta has taken a similar approach now. Obviously, we don’t have necessarily folks reselling content on our platform, but what we do have are agency partners or developers who use our platform and they bring their customers on board. And it is very much a similar trajectory.
[00:53:39] I don’t have numbers in front of me, but it is a similar trajectory where, you know, if you look at the number of new customers that come in the door today, and then look when I started, we have more new customers coming in the door every month, then our total customer base when I started in 2016.
[00:54:00] Yeah. Yeah. So it’s the same. It is the same type of there, I feel like that you reach a sort of a point of critical mass uh, where you do have to continue to develop to put out a quality product or quality service. Like that can’t suffer. You, you have to continue to deliver the goods, but if you can continue to deliver the goods your existing customer base really becomes what propels you forward more so than any specific efforts you’re undertaking.
[00:54:32] Jonathan Williamson: Absolutely. Particularly in a platform-like service where all of your customers are incentivized to bring in their own customers because they succeed even more when they do.
[00:54:51] I will say if, we never managed to crack that with the CG Cookie side. There’s obviously, zillions of words that can be said about affiliate marketing and the value or lack thereof, depending on the business model and whatnot. But I will tell you that referral-based marketing is so much harder when you are the content producer and the platform.
[00:55:19] Jon Penland: Sure. Yeah. For sure.
[00:55:19] Jonathan Williamson: We never managed to crack that with CG Cookie though we tried.
[00:55:29] Jon Penland: Yeah. All right. I do, I’ve mentioned Kinsta, we’ve talked a little bit about WordPress. A lot of our listeners are going to be coming from that WordPress space. And I would be remiss not to mention that you do have a brother.
[00:55:42] Jonathan Williamson: I do.
[00:55:46] Jon Penland: What’s that?
[00:55:47] Jonathan Williamson: I do have one yeah. Last I checked.
[00:55:51] Jon Penland: Yeah. He’s a very well-known plugin developer, lots of our listeners are gonna know Pippin Williamson. And so while you guys have very different businesses, it is interesting to me that you’re both entrepreneurs and you’re both in the open-source software space. And I’m curious, do you think there’s something about your shared background that nudged you both in this entrepreneurial…
[00:56:09] Jonathan Williamson: Without a doubt.
[00:56:12] Jon Penland: Yeah. What was that?
[00:56:13] Jonathan Williamson: I’d say it was two primary things. One is our dad was is a custom database developer. So he works in file FileMaker. And growing up, we always had computers around. We always had computers in the professional sense.
[00:56:27] I have so many memories growing up where our dad “No, you can’t install games.” So early on, there was always this association that, not only are computers fun and cool and all that, but they’re incredibly work and productivity based. You can get work done and you can make a career on the computer. So there was then, but the other one is that early on being probably 2003, 2004, maybe when we were 12, 13, something like that, we both got very heavily involved in Lego Mindstorms.
[00:57:15] So we were building like, robots. And we discovered pretty quickly that, at the time this would have started with the third generation Lego Mindstorms with it, the first ones with the yellow brick. They had built-in programming languages that were all drag and drop. And it was awful.
[00:57:37] For one, we were a Mac household from day one and it only worked on windows. So that was a problem, but we discovered, I don’t, and I don’t even remember how we found it, I think we probably got a, got probably the same guy that introduced me to Blender, also introduced us to NCQ or not, but are in NQC, not quite C, which was a Spacey adaptation for Lego Mindstorms.
[00:58:07] And you could program your Mindstorms, NMC on a Mac and then downloaded to the Lego block. I forgot what it was called, the RCX or something via an AR sensor, and it allowed us to really explore and fall in love with true programming super early on. And we started building fun robots and I think the best one we built was a pool robot where you could have a remote control and it was, it would just go up and it would grab a pool ball and then you could drive it off and you can drop any ball you want it. And we built it specifically because we were in something called Science Olympiad at the time, and they had a challenge.
[00:58:50] “Hey, you have to build a robot that can put all of these pool balls within the time limit into their designated pockets.” And the faster you can do it, the faster, the more points you get, et cetera. And so that’s what we did.
[00:58:59] Jon Penland: Yeah.
[00:59:01] Jonathan Williamson: And we would’ve won if he hadn’t picked up the block. There was a sort of like you could remote control and you could do whatever you wanted, but you could not touch the board.
[00:59:11] And literally on the very last block a piece fell off the controller and just, through instinct, we go to grab it and oh, instantaneously disqualified. But I think that was really our introduction to all things, software and programming.
[00:59:32] Jon Penland: Sure. So you’re in a household where you see, your dad is working with databases and computers being used for work, earning a living on a computer, you’re developing technical skills. I feel like there had to be a piece there where you guys were also encouraged and I’m just guessing here, but it seems to me that there had to be a piece where you guys were encouraged a little bit to be non-conformist or independent or something along those lines. Am I striking in the right direction there? Was that an attitude that was instilled at a young age?
[01:00:11] Jonathan Williamson: I think my dad probably gave you some hints. You’re spot on. Yeah, anyone that has ever met our father will learn very quickly that he is the most non-conforming person and this is in the best, most loving way possible and that, he’s very independent. He always considered himself the black sheep of just about anywhere he goes, because he doesn’t fit in.
[01:00:39] Never has. Would rather not. And he’s very okay with it. And I think he definitely rubbed off on us a lot in that sense, in that we’ve always just I’m just going to go do this thing that I’m interested in.
[01:00:57] And, of course, that has some downsides. But in terms of – we were never had it instilled in us that like we had to follow a traditional career path or an education path or anything like that. And I think that’s helped a lot because basically there are no pre-conceived notions for us.
[01:01:21] Jon Penland: Yeah. Yeah. I agree. It does sound like this combination put you guys both on a path, you and your brother of, “We have these technical skills and we’re going, we have the growing up”. You have the time to pursue your own interests and then, “We’re, we’re not going to, the traditional go to college, get a good job.” It doesn’t sound like that ever held any sway.
[01:01:45] Jonathan Williamson: No. I think. I will say that there was some pushback there. Yeah, and my dad will be the first to admit it because he had, he basically had two, two main sayings that he loved. One was, that I am not – my dad’s name is Mike – “It’s it is not my job as a parent to raise a little Mike. No, I’m raising a Jonathan and a Pippin.” And “You have to do forge your own path.” But really, he wanted us to be a biologist.
[01:02:23] Because he’s a biologist and he actually even admitted to me the other day, he’s “Yeah, I really struggled with that for a long time, because I felt that I had failed as a parent because neither of you guys became a biologist.” And frankly don’t even have, we have a deep appreciation for science and biology and specific in particular.
[01:02:45] But never felt passionate, you know? No, not even remotely. And it was literally just two weeks ago, it’s almost like, “I finally came to terms with the fact that I had not failed by you guys not becoming biologists…” But it took him ten years.
[01:03:03] Jon Penland: Right, Yeah. You’re both successful, independent business owners, but somehow he had failed because you didn’t turn into biologists.
[01:03:17] Jonathan Williamson: Yep. And, so for me, I dropped out of college. So I went to K-State University and dropped out after my sophomore year. And I know for a long time that I think because of the biology aspect that, my parents would never tell me this directly, but I’m sure that they were very worried. Like “What, why are you dropping?”
[01:03:32] Jon Penland: Right, right. What do you just finish? Yeah, I just finished then you can go to your thing, right? Yeah. I hear ya. Interesting. Fun. Okay. All right. I do have a question for you about advice based on your experience in, as a business owner, as an entrepreneur.
[01:03:46] So let’s say that one of your friends came to you, they’ve got an idea for an online business, they’re really excited about it and they say, “Jonathan, what advice do you have for me as somebody who’s about to launch my first venture?” What do you tell them? What are some pitfalls to avoid early on?
[01:04:03] Jonathan Williamson: Can I curse?
[01:04:04] Jon Penland: Yeah. Go for it.
[01:04:07] Jonathan Williamson: Just fucking do it. Okay. That honestly, that’s what it’s for me, what it’s come down to is, and this basically goes back to the classic. Anybody that, that spends a lot of time in software, particularly online software, we’ll hear this over and over, get your MVP out.
[01:04:30] But really just do it. And I’m realized that is a very, privileged outlook. I fully recognize that I was very privileged in the, I had time. I had enough money to start because of the fact that I had the time and I had family that was very willing to let me explore those things. Fully recognize that. However, I have a lot of friends that have tried, that have wanted to do this and express and basically asked for that same type of advice. And then will spend years analyzing their business plan carefully and decide “Oh, is this the thing that I want to do. I’ve got this whole thing laid out, I’ve got the corporate structure figured out, I’ve got the product’s design. I know our path to market. I know all these things.” And yet they don’t have anything to show for it.
[01:05:22] Jon Penland: Haven’t pulled the trigger. Yeah.
[01:05:28] Jonathan Williamson: And ultimately you don’t have a business. Until you have, you sell your first product, that’s it. So, sell your first product. Get it out there. Even if it falls flat, you’re going to learn more falling flat on your face than you will trying to plan out 10 years ahead before you ever sell your first product. Because you’re assuming that you’re not secretly Apple incorporated and you’re slowly making a very smart, strategic move with existing resources.
[01:05:56] Assuming that you’re actually building your business from the ground up, you don’t have the luxury of time, that way. You also are just spinning your wheels, answering questions that you don’t actually know what you don’t know. You don’t know what you don’t know. Just dive in.
[01:06:11] Jon Penland: Yeah. Yeah. I was not part of Kinsta’s founding team. I joined after they’d been around for about two years, but that mirrors Kinsta’s founding in a lot of ways. Kinsta was born, over a weekend as an idea, they just threw up a landing page. And then initially, literally initially the first customers that they that came through the door, if you needed support, it was an email, right?
[01:06:35] Like you were emailing [email protected] or whatever and as far as setting things up they just manually were setting up VPS’s. There was no interface. There was no control panel. Like it was just…
[01:06:52] Jonathan Williamson: It’s the classic example of doing the things that don’t scale. And I think that the inverse of that is what paralyzes so many people without even realizing it. It’s I have to have this whole team in order. I’ve got to figure out the support structure and all that. But because basically there are so many people planning ahead based on, “Yeah, if this gets to where I want it to be, and suddenly I’m making several hundred thousand dollars a year selling this product that I’ve designed.” Then, yeah, you’re going to need those.
[01:07:22] Jon Penland: Sure.
[01:07:26] Jonathan Williamson: But you sure as hell don’t need them at the beginning, and the best way to prove whether or not you actually need to put in all that time is by getting those first customers born. It’s obviously very daunting getting those first customers one, just because it feels impossible. “How am I ever going to convince somebody to buy my product the first time?” But it also becomes very daunting because once you get them, you have an obligation to them.
[01:07:49] Jon Penland: Now all this.
[01:07:51] Jonathan Williamson: That’s really stressful. But one of the best things that I don’t think enough people recognize is there is almost nothing that you can’t change. If you launch a product and then realize that you completely failed in some form or another, or you discovered that the way you were doing support doesn’t work, you discover the pricing was wrong, whatever it was, just change it.
[01:08:17] That’s fine. And if you need to go back and tell your former customers like, “Hey, I’m so sorry that I way overcharged you.” Have that conversation. People are very understanding when you don’t try and pull the full shade over their eyes. If you don’t intentionally or at least appear to intentionally deceive them.
[01:08:46] Jon Penland: Yeah, absolutely. So just go ahead and do it and then be upfront and honest about what’s going on with your customers.
[01:08:54] Jonathan Williamson: And it’s ok to fail.
[01:08:56] Jon Penland: Right. That’s okay, too. Nice. Okay. All right. So as we wrap up our conversation down, I do have two questions to wrap things up with. So the first is, do you have a resource that you would recommend to our listeners? Could be a blog, a newsletter, somebody that you follow, a book. Is there anything that you would go “Listeners to this podcast should check out this thing.”
[01:09:22] Jonathan Williamson: There’s a couple that I would recommend. And my recommendation is always changing. Maybe not as often as I would like, recently, because I haven’t been reading nearly as much as I would like.
[01:09:37] I love to read, I’m just not in the last few years, I haven’t been very good about reading. But, I’m definitely an admirer of Basecamp, the company, and specifically Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, both of them. Actually, both were two very different reasons. A particular reason for each of the three. As a company, I really appreciate, and, full disclosure, we use Basecamp products, but Basecamp’s approach, particularly in the tech world, to say “it’s okay to slow down.”
[01:10:16] I really value. And particularly, I think a lot of companies that probably discovered the value of remote work and the fact that it’s possible and all that, but to then see, see all of these things that Basecamp, in particular, has basically been a thought leader on for the last 10 years to suddenly see those things forcefully put into action because of COVID has been a great testament for how thoughtful they’ve been over the last 10 or so years. And basically committing to say, “We can build a better workplace and be more respectful of people’s time and energy.”
[01:10:58] And to realize that at the end of the day, we work because we’re interested, but ultimately we work so that we can have a lifestyle. And that, yes, there are people that would choose their job over the rest of her life if they had to choose one or the other. But for the most part, there are very few people out there that are going to say, “You know what? I think I would rather keep my job instead of my family.” No, your family comes first. You’re so, comes from like all of those things. And so having a workplace that’s built specifically around those policies and respect for that is, is awesome.
[01:11:33] So in long way to answer that is, they released a couple of books, specifically “Rework”, and a couple others that are just, they’re awesome. They’re to the point, they’re short. And they’re also very broad. And so then the other two that go with that then would be, Jason and David are the two owners of Basecamp. They bring very different attitudes to the table.
[01:11:56] Jon Penland: Sure.
[01:11:59] Jonathan Williamson: David is great at just saying, “Fuck it, this is the way that it,” like it’s, he’s so succinct, so abrupt, but very refreshing in that sense, and then Jason is the opposite where you tend to be, so much more calm and not more thoughtful, they’re both very thoughtful. But in, careful in the things that he says for the sake of thinking through it very deeply. And so I value that a lot and I appreciate that. And so if you haven’t looked at them, their resources are awesome. They’re really good.
[01:12:32] There was another one that I was thinking of that’s completely unrelated, but I can’t think of it. If it comes to mind, I’ll shoot you an email on it. And if you want to put it in the show notes or something like that.
[01:12:41] Jon Penland: So last question to take us out. If you were going to direct folks, a place to connect with you or the best place to learn more about CG Cookie or Blender Market, where would you send them?
[01:13:01] Jonathan Williamson: I would send them to jw3d.com. It’s my personal site. It’s very short. I am awful at updating my personal site, I would love to be writing and doing all that. And I’ve just discovered that I just don’t do it. And so instead, JW3D is just a very quick bio and a link to each of my projects. And from there, each of them can be discovered in full.
[01:13:19] Jon Penland: So jw3d.com. Awesome. Jonathan, I really appreciate you taking some time out of your day to chat with me today.
[01:13:26] Jonathan Williamson: It was fun, Jon. I really appreciate it. I’m looking forward to seeing it live.
[01:13:29] Jon Penland: Yeah. Yeah. Awesome. That is it for today’s podcast. You can access the episode show notes at kinsta.com/podcast. That’s K-I-N-S-T-A.com/podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to subscribe to Reverse Engineered. Leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or the platform you’re listening on right now. See you next time.