Startup Lessons with Taiwan’s ‘Adobe-Killer’

Startup Lessons with Taiwan’s ‘Adobe-Killer’
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Ten questions with the co-founder and CEO of Vectr.

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Vectr is a Taiwan-based startup going places in the world of graphics and design software. It has already netted close to US$1 million in angel investment from Silicon Valley and has more funding on the way. Chief executive and co-founder Nick Budden talks to The News Lens about the exciting journey so far and plans for the future.

The News Lens International (TNLI): Can you briefly describe what the company does and how it makes money?

Nick Budden (NB): Vectr is building Creative Software (think "Adobe-killer"). Today we're working on a collaborative vector graphics editor. It integrates Google docs-style collaboration, and has a low learning curve.

In the future we'll be building products for 2D animation, video editing, audio editing, 3D modelling, and 3D animation. We really have a big vision, for a full connected suite of easy-to-use creative software. We want to spend a decade of our lives doing this. It's something we really care about.

We aren't yet making money, but when we do we'll do it in two ways:

The first is a built-in design assets marketplace (icons, fonts, stock photos, templates, etc.). Designers will be able to build/share/sell these assets with one another inside the app.

The second is a pro account. We're integrating a designer's full workflow into one platform. That means we'll have mockups, prototyping, feedback/annotation tools, version control, etc. all built into just one platform. These features will each be part of a pro account, with a SaaS model.

The basic editor itself is free, and will always be free. It's important to us to make design and creativity as accessible as we can, available to as many people as possible. Part of that means making the app easy to learn, and easy to use. Another part of that is keeping the basic editor free, so that there's no barrier to getting started.

TNLI: Where did the idea for the business come from?

NB: When I was in university I started an online magazine for action sports (snowboarding, skateboarding, surfing, etc). I had never designed anything before this, but I knew that I wanted to learn. This magazine was my opportunity to learn.

So I downloaded PhotoShop. But I was overwhelmed. It was so complicated! So hard to learn and use! It was extremely frustrating. In the end I did learn, and after university I became a professional designer as a result. I loved it. But it almost didn't happen only because the software was so difficult and frustrating to use.

Years later, I knew that we could fix that. I knew that we could make the software easier to learn for beginners, and more enjoyable to use for professionals. So I started building a prototype of Vectr.

My co-founder also has a similar story. Back in San Francisco, he built a CNC milling machine in his basement. Just like me, he found the graphics software for his CNC milling machine was extremely hard to learn, and extremely frustrating to use. So he started building a prototype for easier-to-use graphic design software as well.

At this point, we had never met each other. We were each building prototypes, with the same vision, on opposite sides of the world. I was in Taiwan, and he was in San Francisco. We each built our prototypes for about one year, before we met each other.

When we met, it was pretty awesome. Two people with the same dream, and complimentary skills. I was a designer, marketer, business-type person and he was a deep technology expert. We joined together to make a company less than 24 hours later. After we each spent a year paying rent/food with credit cards, while each pursuing our dream independently, joining forces was a major turning point for us and was the true founding of the company.

TNLI: How much R&D was involved before launching the company?

NB: A lot. Much more than most people expect.

We spent two years building a collaborative filesystem that's built to support complex creative software collaboration. In other words, we had to build a filesystem that's much more powerful that Google docs just to put a foundation under our app.

The reason Adobe and other big companies aren't trying to build an online editor is because they don't think it's possible. They think the web browser's performance isn't high enough to support professional creative software yet.

But we have a very specific background in related technology, that has put us in a position to do something that Adobe and others think is impossible.

TNLI: Who is your target market and who are the key competitors?

NB: Today, we're targeting beginner designers. The current version of our product is great for beginners, marketers, and students.

But over the next year we're going to develop Vectr into pro-level software. That means in about a year, we expect to improve the product to the point that professional designers can start to use it. When that happens, they'll become our primary market.

Adobe and Figma are our two biggest competitors. Each of these companies are trying to integrate the design ecosystem (mockups, feedback/annotation, etc.) into one product.

Adobe's new product is Adobe XD. Yes, the name is hilarious in Taiwan. The "XD" face is not used in the United States, so I guess they don't understand that it's a hilarious name. Anyway, Adobe XD is a desktop-only product that integrates mockups. There's no online collaboration, or any of the other benefits of building with web technologies. Like I said, Adobe doesn't think that's possible.

Figma is a San Francisco startup, that's more similar to us. Our company and theirs started at the same time. They've got some serious performance problems with their product. Actually, these performance problems are specifically why Adobe thinks pro-level online creative software is impossible. Figma may be better known than Vectr today (mainly due to famous investors, helping them get PR), but according to third-party data we are growing much faster than them.

TNLI: What scale has been reached so far, in terms of customers and employees and markets?

NB: We've been growing between 20-50% each month since coming out of beta, last September. We're not yet monetized, so no customers.

We have seven full time employees right now, but we're closing some more investment and soon going to grow much larger. Our team is about half Taiwanese, and half from abroad. We've got a few ex-Mozilla engineers, an ex-Ubuntu engineer, and a PhD in Mathematics in our team. We're very proud of our team.

TNLI: How much investment have you attracted so far and when will the next funding round be?

NB: US$890,000 so far. We're currently raising more money. That fundraising will be closed soon, but we plan to keep the details about that investment private for a few months.

Resolute Ventures is our largest investor. They're a top-performing Silicon Valley VC. Their partners were the first investors in WordPress, and in only a few years and a small number of investments they've hit multiple billion dollar companies. They're great, and very supportive.

Normally they don't invest outside the USA, but they made an exception for us because of how strongly they believe in Vectr. They've invested in us three different times already, and they're going to invest a fourth time in our new round.

We're also backed by a number of angel investors in North America. The best known is Guillermo Rauch, a famous JavaScript developer and creator of Socket.io.

TNLI: What have been the biggest challenges, both personally and professionally, of founding the company?

NB: That's tough to answer concisely. I could talk for hours about the challenges. There's always a lot that's difficult. But let me just choose two things.

Personally, starting the company was very difficult financially. In the first year of the company, we didn't have investment. After spending all my savings, I maxed out all my credit cards. I applied for more, until they wouldn't give me more. My parents don't have much money, so they borrowed money from the bank to support me at the same time. My girlfriend also lent me money.

It got to the point that I was in San Francisco trying to get investors, and I was almost ready to sleep outside because I had put absolutely everything I had into starting the company. I really believed in what we were doing, and I was willing to put absolutely everything I had into getting it started. But I was within a few days of not being able to pay for food, and sleeping on a bench. That sounds like a joke, but I'm serious.

Then, just when we thought we were doomed, we got our first angel investor.

Trying to put the feeling of getting that first angel check into words here would be impossible. Words wouldn't do it justice. Let's just say it was an awesome feeling.

TNLI: What are the company's most exciting upcoming plans or products? And, what do you hope to achieve in the next five years?

NB: Over the next one year we're going to prove two things: prove we can build professional-level creative software in the web browser; and, prove our business model works.

After we prove those two things, we'll raise another round of funding. That round of funding will be to support the other Creative Software products we want to build. We'll continue to improve Vectr, but we'll also start working on an animation tool, a video editor, audio/music editor. Eventually we'll also work on a 3D modelling app, and 3D animation app.

Some people think this is crazy, but we actually have a 10-year roadmap. We know exactly what we want to do.

TNLI: What do you think the government could do to improve the environment for startups?

NB: Honestly, I think the government is doing a good job. They've changed a lot in the past few years. They've backed some VC's as an LP, and they've changed some of the visa laws. Myself and my cofounder have benefitted from Taiwan's startup visa program, for example.

The changes they've made aren't perfect. There's lots that can be improved. But compared to other countries, I think they're headed in a good direction and making smart changes.

I'm a foreigner, so I'm obviously bias to notice the problems foreign entrepreneurs have. But with that said, I do have one suggestion. Today the startup visa essentially only applies to people who already have a company. But I know a lot of foreigners who want to start a company in Taiwan, but because they need to spend six months or more building their company before they can get the investment etc. that's required for the startup visa, they can't actually get a visa to start their company here. It'd be great if it was easier to get a visa start a company from scratch here, at the stage when you're just a person with an idea.

TNLI: Any advice for other startups?

NB: Be like Yoda: "Do, or do not. There is no try".

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Editor: Edward White

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