Strikingly – Out of Failure, a Star is Born

An Interview with David Haisha Chen, CEO, Strikingly

Strikingly is a Y Combinator-backed startup that allows anyone to create a beautiful and functional website in minutes, without being a programmer or designer. Like most startups, it has a story with many twists and turns.  Where this story is different is that it started in Chicago, matured in Silicon Valley, and is finally unfolding and flourishing in Shanghai.


HostAdvice: Please tell me a little bit about the back story of Strikingly.

We started Strikingly while I was a student at the University of Chicago.  It was actually my second attempt at a startup.  My first attempt, which didn’t succeed, was a crowdfunding web site for campus group funding. Strikingly was born out of that failure.

With our first startup it became clear that we had no idea what users really needed or wanted, which led to its failure.  However, with Strikingly, we had over 800 people sign up for our dummy page within a week and a half.  We started Strikingly with a better understanding of the problem we were trying to solve and what the users wanted.

Still, we went through three iterations of the basic product before we got our first paying customer. We were originally rejected by Y Combinator and only made it in on our second try.  In hindsight, it was really important that we got rejected, because it forced us to make up our minds whether to commit to the startup or not.  We decided to march on, and worked really hard to get to be “ramen profitable” and to be able to prove to Y Combinator that we could make it work. That’s how we got in the 2nd time we applied.

It was vitally important to us to get accepted into their program, because we were looking for community, mentorship, and networking.  What we received there far exceeded our hopes and expectations – they propelled our growth both on the company and personal level. Before our Y Combinator experience, we were just 3 guys doing something we enjoy; after that experience, we were actually entrepreneurs.

In the end, we raised $1.5 Million seed funding from top Silicon Valley angel investors.  At this time, we do not feel the need to raise any additional funds.


HostAdvice: How do you define your market? Who is your specific target audience within that market?

Our target audience today is the SMB (Small and Medium Business) market.  This includes entrepreneurs, creatives, and a lot of DIY (Do It Yourself) web site builders.  A lot of these people are making their first move from offline to online business. Only a small percentage of our customers are professional web site builders.

HostAdvice: How do you see this market evolving in the coming years?

I expect to see a lot more empowerment for users to build beautiful and high-quality websites themselves. There is an increasing desire and demand for more DIY capabilities – users want to build and manage their websites on their own. I expect to see more SaaS (Software as a Service) and infrastructure products that satisfy these needs.

I also expect to see more cross-platform development.  We were the first site builder to offer responsive design for all of our design templates.


HostAdvice: Who do you see as your biggest competitors – Wix and ???

I think that our top three and most formidable competitors today are Wix, Weebly, and Squarespace.  Each of these tools has its own strengths (and weaknesses) and is best for a particular type of developer.  In very broad strokes, I would say that Wix is very free-flow, which allows you to do pretty much anything. Weebly is the Geek’s tools for building blogs and websites, having the least focus on design. Squarespace is best for high-end designed that want picayune control over every pixel.  All three of these tools, especially Wix and Squarespace, have pretty steep learning curves.

HostAdvice: How do you see Strikingly different and/or better than them?

Strikingly is truly fast and easy.  In 15 minutes, from start to finish, you can have a something beautiful and functional.  There is really no learning curve because we do a lot of the work for you.  We focus our efforts mainly on the average internet users – the people who have never built a site before.  We do, however, also grow with our users as well, so that even if they evolve into power users, the majority of them still stay with Strikingly because of the ease of use.

Because we know that users are sometimes afraid of technology and design, we put a lot of thought and effort into the design and UX (User Experience) of our product. I believe that these efforts paid off and resulted in a better product design.

HostAdvice: One of the things that I noticed on your site is the Idea Forum that is prominently displayed.

Customer support is super, super important to us and we take it very seriously. In addition to helping customers succeed at their current tasks, we always want to hear what they feel is missing or how we could improve the product.  We are constantly engaging with customers in as many channels as possible and this is a great source of ideas and understanding needs.  That is why we have a special section on our site where users can share their ideas.  But in in the end, we don’t believe that there is a clear line between support and ideas.

HostAdvice: Where do you focus more of your development efforts – on the visual designer or on the store functionality?

Our users want a site builder that is both more powerful and easier to use, so we are constantly being pulled in both directions on this one.  We are always working to make web site building as simple as possible, without sacrificing functionality. As I said, we work to listen very carefully to our users and try to satisfy as many of their needs as quickly as possible.


HostAdvice: How many active customers do you have today? Where are they mainly located?

I cannot share an exact number, but I can tell you that it is at the “millions” level.  Our customers are located mainly in the US, Europe, and Japan.

HostAdvice: It seems you started with the domain and then switched to – is that correct? Why?

I am glad you asked that. When we first created the product, we just loved the name Strikingly. We felt that it perfectly described the felling that you could quickly create a site that was strikingly beautiful. At the time, the .LY extension was very popular and available, so we went for that.

Our mentors at the Y Combinator felt that it was very important for us to have a .COM domain, so that business owners would feel that we were serious and trustworthy. They told us to not be committed to the name Strikingly and to just pick another one. But we felt very bad about that.

In any event, we came up with two possibilities for our new name and decide to email our users to get their feedback and help in choosing the new name.  Overnight we received more than a thousand replies, many of them long essays.  With the exception of four people, everyone else said that Strikingly was the name that described our product the best and that we should stick with that!

Fortunately, we were soon able to acquire the domain on the domain aftermarket for a reasonable place.

HostAdvice: What was your biggest take-away from the Y Combinator (YC) experience?

The motto of YC is “Build something people want.” It must also be truly great and amazing, so we spend a lot of time figure out those things ahead of time, instead of just throwing something out there and seeing what sticks.

A corollary of this is the idea that is not to (just) create customers, but to create super fans.  The intensity of people loving our product remains a foundation of who we are – and what we do – on a daily basis.

If I were to distill it down to the absolute fundamentals, we learned at YC that we only have 2 ½ things that we should be doing as a startup:

  • Talk to Users
  • Build the Product
  • Exercise (this is the 1/2)

HostAdvice: What advice would you offer to startups who want to get into the Y Combinator (YC) or some similar incubator?

There are actually a lot of factors that go into this, such as clarity of purpose, current product traction, and the proven track record of the founders.  But if I have to summarize it in one word it would be “determination.” That is probably what YC looks for, more than anything else.  It is not enough to just have an idea.  You must have the determination to stay committed and continue working on your startup even if you get turned down by YC or some other incubator.

HostAdvice: What more general advice would you offer today’s startups?

Focus on problems – not on your brilliant idea!!

HostAdvice: How do you see the world of startups changing in the next few years?

Things are changing very quickly around the world and many startups come and go. The trend is going back to where the market will reward companies with good business fundamentals and innovation and not just buzzwords. This will automatically filter out the fakers and the companies that are doing things for the wrong reasons.


HostAdvice: After spending quite a few years and building more than one business in the US, you decided to develop and grow Strikingly back in China – why is that?

I very much enjoyed and learned from my time in the US.  Unfortunately, however, US immigration law makes it very hard for non-citizens to build startups in the US.  This is because these entrepreneurs are considered unemployed.

While the immigration issues were the trigger for my return to China, we also realized being based in China made good business sense as well. Our target audience is international; we figured our team should be as well. It is easier for us to build an ideal, global team based in China.

Today we have about 60 employees, with 35-40 of them located here in China and the other located in the Philippines, Japan, and the US.

Additionally, Silicon Valley has gotten to be rather unfriendly from a cost perspective – although it is great for everything else associated with building a startup.  I recently found out that a friend of mine from YC moved his company from the Valley to New York City just because it was significantly cheaper to run there.

HostAdvice: How many hours a day do you normally work?  What do you like to do when you are not working?

I pretty much work from the time that I wake in the morning until I go to bed at night.  Actually, I often even dream about work.  Which is why, as I mentioned before, our mentors at YC emphasized that we be sure to exercise on a regular basis.

So in addition to exercising and swimming, I do organize some social activities for our team, such as movies and company barbecues.  With all of the hard work, we still try to keep it fun.


HostAdvice: If you were asked to give the graduation address to the class of 2016, what would be your message to them?

My main message to them would be to not rush through life.  You need to try to find what it is that you love to do and the only way to do that is to try many different things.  Rushing only serves to distract you from finding your true passions.

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