Today’s interview is with Aaron Epstein, one of the co-founders of Creative Market, which is a platform for hand-crafted, mouse-made design content from independent creatives around the world. In our discussion, we dive deep into the strategy Aaron and his co-founders used to get 70,000 user signups in their nine month pre-launch period.
The History Behind Creative Market’s Creation
Even though Creative Market has only been around since 2012, the story of the company actually started 15-16 years ago in Aaron’s dorm room at the University of Maryland.
In 1999, he started a web design company with some friends, and they set up a business model where their clients would give them a logo, and they had to find matching colors to go with the logo colors for the websites they were making.
At the time, he thought there must be a way to make a tool that you can put a color into and have it tell you what colors would go with it, but he couldn’t find anything at the time.
So he set out to do it himself. He did research into color theory and figured out all the math behind what makes harmonious colors and what colors look good together. He built a tool called ColorSchemer, which was a web based tool that takes one color and gives you that color’s triads, complimentary colors, and so on.
He put that tool on the market during his Freshman year of college, but realized he could make a lot more advanced features if he created a downloadable version instead of a simple web tool.
He taught himself Visual Basic on PC, and built a paid version of that had sales from day one, since he’d already built up a user base for his freemium version.
By the time he graduated in 2003, he was making $1,500 per month, which he thought was awesome, because he didn’t have to ask his parents for money like everyone else just getting out of college.
He went full-time with ColorSchemer and spent the next six years, through 2009, building a Mac version of the software, creating more advanced versions, and doing the business strategy, customer support, partnerships, and technology by himself.
But by 2009, even though it was passive income and he could set his own hours, he started to get really bored because the business was so automated, so he started looking for the next big opportunity.
He connected with Darius and Chris, who were the co-founders of COLOURlovers, which was a creative design community they’d created in 2005 where people could create and share color pallets and other creative projects. (They were also looking for the next big thing.)
They decided to merge their businesses and got into Y Combinator a few months later. They were trying to figure out what the scalable business was that they were going to build using the properties they already had… because while both of their businesses were already profitable, they weren’t in a scalable way.
Torn Between Two Paths
The first path they were considering for merging their two businesses was to build a really cool color data company like Pantone. They thought if they tied demographics of color from their community, they could give marketers a tool to determine what colors they should use for their next fashion line, and so on.
The other idea was for a marketplace. They knew they had tons of people making creative content all day, and in the November after they went through Y Combinator, MetLife came to them because they wanted a pattern that a member had created on COLOURlovers for their building’s Thanksgiving display in NYC.
This was what set the idea in their heads that a marketplace was a great opportunity if they could build it in a scalable way.
They set up Creative Market as a website separate from COLOURlovers and focused on launching a brand new marketplace.
Creative Market’s Numbers
Before they launched in 2012, they’d used a bunch of different tactics to get 70,000 people signed up for the site.
One year later – to the day – they hit $1 million in revenue, and a couple of weeks after that, had two acquisition offers.
In February 2014, they were acquired by Autodesk, and now they’re 18 months into the acquisition.
Since they’ve launched (and since being acquired by Autodesk), they’ve had double digit month-over-month growth.
Getting Those 70k Pre-Launch Signups
Before they started working on Creative Market, they decided they would start over from zero rather than maximizing on their existing COLOURlovers community that had more than one million members at the time.
With Creative Market, they wanted to capture the type of people who would come to spend money, and not just those who wanted to play around with design – which was a lot of what COLOURlovers had.
So before they ever launched the Creative Market website, they launched a teaser page that gave a free $5 in credit to anyone who signed up.
The instant after someone put in their email ID, the next thing they saw was a viral refer program that gave them the opportunity to spread the word to their friends, and to earn more money in credits for the more friends they had sign up for the community.
For example, if someone referred 50 friends, they’d get $200 in credits, and they had dozens who referred more than 50 friends before the site launched.
Once they had the growing buyer side of the marketplace, they went out to find people creating content for sale on other marketplaces, told them they had thousands of people signing up who wanted to be their customers, and asked if they were interested in selling their content with them. They also asked if they had anything they’d like to offer for free while the teaser page was still up.
They got 30 different free products to offer and put together a free goods page that was visible to anyone on the web, but in order to download anything, people had to sign up.
Time From Teaser to Launch
They launched their teaser site in January 2012 and launched the full site nine months later in October 2012.
They didn’t launch the free goods page until April or May.
Building the Seller Side vs. Building the Buyer Side
For Creative Market, building the buyer side was more difficult.
It was easy for them to get sellers, but if those sellers didn’t see sales early on, they knew they wouldn’t continue to engage.
They got the sellers to sign up because they offered super seller-friendly terms:
When they were first getting started, says Aaron, they were always thinking of milestones that would let them know that they were on the right track.
Some of it was seller success rates. First, they had a seller that reached $10,000 per month on Creative Market, then $100,000 per month, and now they’ve got their top seller that’s about to reach $1 million in sales in one month.
As long as people were coming in and being successful, says Aaron, that’s the thing thing they cared about and would optimize for.
If the sellers are being successful and making a lot of money, then they will be successful too… which is the main thing they try to focus on. Once there’s enough great stuff in each category, he says, it’s mostly just about driving more buyers to buy that great content.
User Acquisition Today
Before the launch, they offered 30 different free assets, but now they offer six free goods of the week.
They don’t have free goods in the marketplace, but any artist can opt any of their products into the free goods of the week program.
To help spread the word, they send out an email blast every Monday that shows the six new free goods of the week so their users will come back, download something for free, and share it with their friends.
This drives a lot of new people to sign up for the site and download what’s only free for one week.
Beyond that, they send out an email on Wednesday that shows the top new products added over the last week, and on Thursday they send out a message that shows products that are trending that week.
Aaron says they’re confident that if they just get people to sign up (even if it’s just for a free download), that they’ll be the type of people in their target audience and they’ll ultimately get them to buy something.
The High Standards of the Design World
Aaron says they’ve always felt that there’s a high standard that gets applied in the design world.
Even when they were building the site, he says, it wasn’t good enough for them to just put out a rough design version of a marketplace and be able to attract the people they wanted and actually get them to have respect for it and like it.
Even with COLOURlovers, he says, the standard was higher in terms of UX, visuals, UI, and so on.
He says that Creative Market does hold themselves to a very high standard, which they hope sets the bar for people coming into the community and so they have a great experience and share it with their friends.
The hard thing, he says, is trying to find the balance of not over-designing things and going too far down the perfectionist road. At some point, you just need to get something out there and start getting feedback.
Finding & Hiring Great Designers
Aaron says that their secret weapon to finding designers is Dribbble. They’ll post ads there on the job board and are fortunate enough to come from the design world, so it’s easier to attract people.
If you want to hire a designer, says Aaron, you can go to a site like Dribbble and find people who are doing work that looks like the type of work you want done.
The biggest thing, he says, is to go for someone who already does work with the feel you’re looking for, otherwise there will be a lot of back and forth and you’ll be on the wrong page on a lot of different things.
THE Question to Ask a Designer
One of the most telling questions to ask a designer, says Aaron, is to ask them to describe their process.
Some people will talk about the tools they use, others will talk about the workflow they go through, but the right answer he looks for is when people start with solving problems.
If they skip the problem-solving stage, he says it’s an indicator of where someone is at in their design career because most senior designers will want to identify the problem first before getting to work.
One Big Struggle of Growing Creative Market
Their biggest struggle, says Aaron, was the decision to stop everything they were doing on COLOURlovers, to give up the one million plus community there, and to start over with zero members on Creative Market.
They had already spent a number of years trying to make COLOURlovers into a big, scalable business, and they’d tried a lot of things.
While it’s cool that color is in everything, says Aaron, no one pays directly for color. They spent more time than they should have trying to build the color business into something big, whereas they should have just went down the marketplace road in the first place.
He also says that startups are really hard because you’re not just trying to build a really cool product… you also have to build a really cool company that people want to work at.
They’re two things that are intertwined and feed off of each other, and you need both for the startup you’re building to be successful.
Advice to His 25 Year-Old Self
He said his favorite quote is “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”
He says a lot of people (his past self included) wait around to start things because it might take them a long time to accomplish. But, he says, you just have to get started.
Aaron’s ‘Do Next’ List
Because his days are typically full of meetings that have random amounts of free time in between them, Aaron keeps a ‘Do Next’ list.
Whenever he has downtime, he jumps into that list and goes down it until he finds the most important thing that he can fit into the amount of time he has before his next meeting.
Four Must-Read Books
Aaron says he’s a huge fan of founder stories because he can identify with them and it is nice to feel like you’re not the only one going through particular struggles. He also likes to learn from the successes and failures of other people without having to make them himself.
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Eric Siu (@ericosiu) is the CEO at Single Grain, a digital marketing agency that focuses on paid advertising and content marketing. He contributes regularly to Entrepreneur Magazine, Fast Company, Forbes and more.