What is one thing you get about this space that your competitors don’t?
I think that there are two things. The most obvious is that we started with phones. Universe is an app that you can download on your iPhone and make a site in a couple of minutes without coding. All the other website builders are wonderful businesses, but they started ten to fifteen years ago on desktops. When we first started the idea of building a website on a tiny screen was laughable. Literally, some of the competitors I chatted with laughed at the idea.
It’s become clear is that the phone is not a phone, it’s a computer. You can do anything with it if the right tools and software exist. It’s about turning the computer in everyone’s into a tool that allows anyone to build the internet.
The second difference is that the other products are easier to use than writing code, but they’re certainly not fun. The act of making a website on a Shopify on a Squarespace still feels like work. They’re still professional tools.
With our product, it really is a DIY tool. We had people building websites that never thought they could make a website because their skills lie in their passions. Universe allows them to translate that passion into something online.
What was your strategy for getting your initial a hundred customers?
We did get some press to lunch which was helpful. We got our first users through that and I recommend that as a tactic if the thing you’re building is easy to understand.
The second thing is we’ve invested in the App Store as a distribution channel. We invested in getting featured, which is investing in the Apple technologies. We also invested in search. If you search “website builder” on the App Store, we show up. We don’t show up if you search in Google, that’s a very crowded market. The App Store was an open playing field and we went after that.
Who did you look up to when you were growing up and who inspires you today?
It’s cliche, but I discovered Steve Jobs when I was ten and he was my hero, still is in many ways. This expression that he’s famous for, the computer as a bicycle of the mind, really resonated with me. The combination of art and science vibrated on the same wavelength as me because I think that magic happens at the intersection.
He was uniquely articulate and a philosopher of technology and business. It helped make sense of what was happening in the world with this technological shift in a way that was inspiring and optimistic.
She was the founder of Sirius XM. She had a kid who developed a very rare disease and was told by doctors that there was nothing they could do to save the kid. She then found a promising medicine that was being used for something else. She went to the company and tried to convince them to use the drug, but they wouldn’t allow it.
She started a company, bought the technology, developed it, cured her daughter, started a pharmaceutical company, and saved tens of thousands of lives. She created an electric helicopter. She’s a transgender activist, just an incredible human with an amazing perspective on the world.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?
It was probably dropping out of college. I dropped out of Wharton to start my first company when I was 19. I didn’t even know the extent of the risk, but that set the course for my career. It put me in a situation where I needed to take more risks and be more adventurous.
If you look at my career, it’s been big risk after big risk. I think, especially as a young person, you have to consider what you have to lose. The idea of not doing something interesting and unprecedented was terrifying. In many ways, those things didn’t feel like risks because the alternative would not work for me. I was writing my own story from that point on.
I think taking risks is a practice, and you get good at it. I’ve heard the expression that the best entrepreneurs are great risk managers. They don’t like risk, but they understand that you need to take risks to do interesting things. The process of building a company is just sequential de-risking. You’re de-risking the next biggest risk.
Risk is a really interesting area that isn’t studied or appreciated as much. There’s a lot of nuance to it.
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