Last week, I sat down with Craig Fitzpatrick, the CEO of PageCloud, a web hosting company that aims to reinvent the design and development process of creating and maintaining websites. PageCloud formally launched on November 30th, after a six month pre-sale preparation and a one month technical preview.
I asked him about his background, the history of the company, and some of the more interesting aspects of PageCloud. Our conversation is below, edited for clarity and length.
Let’s start with the history of PageCloud, from its conception leading up to the launch. What got this business started?
It goes back a long time. There’s a few things that happened years ago that I think pushed me in this certain direction. One moment that jumps out is when I started my career, I quit school for a programming job in multimedia.
I was lucky. It was unique in the sense that there were two designers for every developer, which is a very unusual ratio. It’s usually one designer for every ten developers, because it was a multimedia shop. And so even in my first job, I was pushed into this user interface sensitivity. I always enjoyed the front end more than the back end.
We’re taking an old problem of publishing on the web and re-imagining it from a user experience point of view. At one point in that job, I peered over the cubicle wall at two of my co-workers, a developer and a designer, sitting side by side at a single desk, with one computer, both trying to figure out HTML and build a website.
I’d never seen HTML before, but I knew code, so I said, “Oh, that looks like code.” Open bracket, close bracket, I get it, but it doesn’t look like the code actually does anything. How do you make it do something? They said that it’s just for laying out the page.
So there I was experiencing the web for the first time ever, and it took about 60 seconds to load the homepage, and it took about 30 more seconds to conclude that the internet is stupid, and that it will never catch on.
That’s why this problem meant so much to me. So when I started working on the code, almost 4 years ago, it started as a hobby, or a challenge, because I had thought for years that somebody’s gonna fix this, because you shouldn’t have to write code to publish a page.
“It took about 60 seconds to load the homepage, and it took about 30 more seconds to conclude that the internet is stupid, and that it will never catch on.”
We’ve figured this out on the desktop, what’s different about the internet? Fast forward 20 years from that moment where I saw that designer and developer. We’ve got e-commerce, social networks, we’re all carrying computers in our pockets. So much has changed, and yet for most websites, it you want to start from scratch it’s still a designer and developer trying to figure out HTML.
I thought somebody was going to fix this. I personally got to a point after running several companies, refusing to hand code HTML. I was looking for a tool to help me with this, and when iWeb [the old Mac product] was shut down, when I was expecting it to become a pro tool, that was it.
I went home that night and started writing code. I thought, a giant was leaving the arena, there’s a gap here. For two and a half years, every evening and weekend, I was obsessed with fixing this problem. And still at that point mostly because I didn’t want to have to do that anymore. It was very much a personal problem to solve. And then September last year we opened our doors.
It’s weird because I’d like to say we reinvented web publishing, but in a sense what we did was apply the solution of desktop publishing to the web. We just recreated that experience. And I don’t know why somebody didn’t do it sooner. It was really hard, I’ll tell you that. There’s some deep tech there but the magic is in the simplicity.
I imagine the goal is to take someone who has the experience with publishing a website, and make it very easy to just move to the web.
There’s a couple of principles there, one being that you shouldn’t have to write code to publish a page on the web. I would estimate that 1 percent of the world’s population knows how to write HTML. So the other 99 percent are limited to relying on these people, or buying a pre-built, rigid template, where they can swap out an image and write some text.
Another one is that content on the web seems to be treated differently than content on the desktop. And I don’t buy that. An image is an image, text is text. Why is it so different? I viewed that as a failure of technology. We took it 80 percent of the way there, but didn’t finish the last 20 percent, and that’s where the magic is. PageCloud is the sum of a whole bunch of little details that I think we got right.
“I would estimate that 1 percent of the world’s population knows how to write HTML.”
I think what you want to do is grab an image off your desktop, drop it on the page, have it appear where you dropped it, then be able to resize in the familiar ways you’re used to. It just behaves the way you would expect it to be. If you want a video on there, you go over to YouTube, find the video, you copy the URL, paste it on the page and boom, there’s the video. So it’s all these little details.
You’re talking about basic integrations. In your demo video, you show other widgets that you can drag and drop as well.
Yeah, lots. There are a few different levels, so there’s probably about 20 or 30 very popular services, with which we’ve just baked integration in. Things like Eventbrite, or Shopify, where we’re not an e-commerce solution, we’re a publishing solution. So we’re not doing the e-commerce, but we can lay it out the most beautifully, and give you complete freedom.
All the social networks, you can drag in follow buttons, Facebook like buttons, YouTube, Vimeo, Google Maps, any kind of form. We know people like them, so we’ve built them in. The next level from that is if you know HTML, we can use iframes to embed bits from another site into your page. You can just copy iframe code, paste it on the page. PageCloud recognizes it, wraps it in an object, and lets you manipulate it, just like anything else. That’s super powerful, and that gets us a thousand other integrations.
“But unlike some of the other players, we don’t lock you out of the code.”
The third way is that we focus on showing the world how much you can do without touching the code. But unlike some of the other players, we don’t lock you out of the code. We encourage you to get in there, if you want. On any object, you can bring up a code editor, add animations, click-through events, go get data from a third-party service. It’s highly dynamic.
You can even open the web inspector, which exposes all the code on the page. The difference is, you can actually go muck around in there, and when you hit save, your changes are kept. That’s one of many firsts.
And what you’d normally have to do is go make changes to the live website, then you’d have to go and copy that code out into your actual code-base.
Every other web platform in the world is what I call one-way publishing, they push it down to the browser. We are the first to have two-way. So once it gets down to the browser, you manipulate it and the code can go right back.
In terms of code, we kind of have this ProTools heritage, although we don’t talk about it a lot. Sometimes we call it the Photoshop of the web.
It’s not the cheapest, it has advanced features that some people don’t care about and won’t use. But if you watch a pro use Photoshop, the things they can do are amazing, it’s a really powerful tool.
One of them is called Photoshop Actions. So what you can do is hand code 10 lines of code in PageCloud that knows how to take an image, re-size it, add a white border, add text to label it in marker felt font, add a drop shadow and rotate it randomly so it looks like a scattering of Polaroids. So you can code that in a few lines of code, and save it as an action, and then anytime you want, you can drag that action onto your page, and it runs. So there’s a tremendous amount of extensibility for developers there.
It sounds like you’d have a pre-built set of actions, but then developers could also write their own.
Yes exactly. And so for us, coming next year will be our app store. So this is a platform play, where third party developers and designers can sell their wares. There will be a ranking system, and ratings, and feedback. And developers can sell their extensions, or give them away for free.
What was it like doing this in Ottawa? Compared to Silicon Valley, or even Toronto, were there any difficulties or unexpected challenges?
My viewpoint on that has changed a little bit. I’ve been building startups, PageCloud is number seven that I’ve been a part of, the second one I’ve founded but I’ve run five others for other people. I call those my apprentice years.
When you’ve been here that long, you develop a pretty rich network, so I know a lot of people in town. Even still, when we started this one, I went down to the Valley in October last year, open-minded about moving there, about a 50/50 chance I stay in Ottawa.
And when I got down there, I was fundraising, talking to angel investors, and they overwhelmingly said “Don’t come here. It’s ridiculously expensive, it’s a diminishing return. If you’re a SAAS-based (software as a service) company, you can sell globally.”
If you’re marketing and not a direct sales play, so you don’t need to be walking down the street bumping into customers. So they convinced me to stay here (in Ottawa). Fast forward a year, we did another round of funding in the summer, Boston-based, and it was the same thing.
They said, “We love Canadian companies.” The Americans are a lot more aggressive in business, and said, “We love coming in to Canada, finding the hot company we want to invest in; we can outbid any other VC around.” Cost of labour is low, we’re got good talent, mostly on the R&D side, though sales and marketing types are a little harder to find.
We live in a world of remote working, so the boundaries have come down. I don’t think it’s a huge disadvantage anymore, over the last 3-5 years. You still have to be willing to travel, and you have to convince yourself that just because you’re living here, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be doing business with people here.
“We love coming in to Canada, finding the hot company we want to invest in; we can outbid any other VC around.”
If you’re fundraising, get on Skype, fly every once in a while if you have to, sometimes there’s no substitute to looking somebody in the eyes and shaking their hand. Fundraising, for entrepreneurs here, definitely look for funding outside of Canada. The US dollar is really strong right now, so you can pitch a valuation, and get the funding you need, and they look at it as a bargain.
The big launch day was November 30. What have the challenges been the last couple of weeks, and do you see those changing in the next couple of weeks as PageCloud launches?
It’s probably going to be smoother than you’d think. We did things a little differently compared to a lot of entrepreneurs. You typically end up spending all of your energy on R&D and getting the product, and then you press the button to switch gears, to try to figure out how to support customers and how to do sales and marketing.
I knew from past experience how difficult that is, and I think it’s actually a tragic mistake. We’ve started a bunch of things that you would typically do around the launch way earlier. We first started selling in May, so we’ve been in-market for six months. That means, launch doesn’t change that. We were selling before, and we’ll be selling after.
Launch day isn’t the first day we’re supporting customers. We’ve been letting our tech preview customers play with the thing for the last month, so we get 100 emails a day for support. We’re even at the point in the R&D where the guys will develop something new, they’ll quietly put it in and leave it turned off.
When we launch, all you need to do is flip the switch, and the feature appears. We’ve structured the business so that not much changes on that day. That’s good for risk, it also means you have a higher probability of hitting your launch date, because it means you’re taking away a lot of last minute headache.
So PageCloud is starting at $24 a month, and you opted to go with one pricing tier at launch. Are there plans to diversify that in the works?
Yeah, it’s $24 a month, with a 15% discount if you are willing to sign up for the year. We wanted to keep it simple at first, and a little bit of diversification is probably inevitable, but we’re not rushing towards that.
A lot of people think we need to round out our catalogue, becaue we’re going to get different people at different price points, and maybe there’s some truth to that. We’re taking a very different position on pricing and brand than a lot of our competitors.
We’re the last kids to the party. There’s Wix, WordPress, Squarespace, these are all billion dollar companies, millions of users. Then there’s the B tier, where there are probably a hundred other web builders out there. I think they’ve made some critical errors.
Most of these guys are giving their product away for free, hoping that they can come up with some premium feature and convert them into paying customers, but the ratios suck.
Wix, for example, has something like 100 million users, only 1.5 percent of those are paying them any money. So the operation is supporting 98.5 percent of free users. That puts an incredible support burden on you, I think they’ve given way too much away for free, which is the reason they’re having trouble converting people.
They’ve effectively commoditized themselves, so all these guys have convinced the world that software should either be free, or be pennies a month, and I don’t believe that. I think quality products worth more. I think people will pay for quality.
And let’s face it, in the grand scheme of things, $24 a month doesn’t break anybody’s bank. The difference between $24 and $8 to a customer it isn’t a big deal. To investors, when you multiply it by a million, it’s a huge deal. It means I can reinvest in R&D. It means I can support you better.
There’s a whole bunch of things I can do with that price difference. So while they’re giving away for free, we’ve actually said no free trial, no free version. We are kind of a higher end, better experience. We believe we’ve priced it very fairly with lots of value.
If you look at the price list we are more expensive, but if you look at the total cost of ownership, we’re 100 times cheaper. Because every day it saves you a developer’s time, instead of fighting with a tool, that’s a thousand dollars right there.
“We’ve actually said no free trial, no free version. We are kind of a higher end, better experience.”
We also believe very strongly that if you sit a person down and you say, “Here’s WordPress, here’s Wix, here’s PageCloud, here’s Squarespace,” you will choose PageCloud every time. We’re trying to put our money where our mouth is.
A lot of sites are going to want the ability to integrate with other backends, to be able to create a template to quickly add pages or posts. What’s PageCloud’s stance on that?
There are a couple of answers to that. First off, we have ways of making our pages non-static. Because you have access to the code, developers can create active widgets that pull data from somewhere. With a few lines of code, you could create a PageCloud widget that pulls in a post from WordPress.
Right now, we don’t have those available, because we’ve been working on the core product, but once the app store is up and running, we’ll seed that marketplace with the top 20 widgets a person would want, I’ll bet a WordPress or blog post widget is something people we’ll want, so we’ll probably write one of those.
The second part of the answer is that there’s no one tool that’s good for all users. As business people, we tend to think of users as one homogeneous group of people, but that’s not the way it is. It’s different slices of a pie.
There are some websites that are 30 pages or less, mostly static, with rich photography, some YouTube clips, maybe an e-commerce widget, and it’s a marketing site. That’s a very different beast than an article-driven blog, linear and searchable and so forth.
Our philosophy is to do less better, so we haven’t touched blogs yet, because we’re not ready to raise the bar. For now, we’re making sure that for our kind of perfect audience, 30 pages or less, with any interactivity being contained in a widget.
We believe that accounts for about 99% of the world’s websites. When you into that one percent, you’re either talking about blogging, or you’re talking about enterprise sites. And you wouldn’t build Walmart.com on PageCloud. But we’re trying to fix this problem for the masses, and that one percent can use different solutions.
Another thing that comes up when talking about visually designed website builders, is that pages tend to get really big and slow, you can end up with a lot of junk left over. Is there a plan to deal with that problem?
We already outperform everyone else on the market in this respect, but you touch on a couple things. One is that if you use a lot of the traditional tools, your workflow is very ugly, and it still requires a developer.
When you put Dreamweaver in a designer’s hands, they do the beautiful visual design in Photoshop, they have to cut their images, save them to the desktop, put them in a media library, hook them into the code. Then they get the page looking the way they want, they still have to put in on the server, and that’s unacceptable.
The other thing is that, in terms of performance, our architecture is incredibly different. In fact, I think we’re the only people in the world that are approaching the problem this way. We forget about the database, forget about the application server, stop sewing 20 templates together to make a page in real-time.
“We have the world’s best editor for HTML files.”
We’re careful about over-modularizing, which all these platforms do, because they have app ecosystems. When you look at the anatomy of a PageCloud page, it’s an HTML file. We have the world’s best editor for HTML files.
That sounds a little bit silly, but when you look at performance benefits you get: they’re highly cache-able, they load faster than any app server on the market, they’re perfect candidates to be put behind a CDN, so they can be globally replicated.
The average PageCloud site response time is 800 milliseconds. The average for a WordPress site is four to six seconds. We’re almost an order of magnitude faster and simpler, it’s a very different approach.
Can you take me through the typical process you might go through when you’re making your first PageCloud page.
I think PageCloud is actually unique in this respect, I don’t think there’s anyone else who can do this, in a couple of ways. Number one: once you’re signed up, we have a set of bookmarklets that extend the browser, that go right in your toolbar.
What those allow you to do is use the browser as a keynote, or PowerPoint window. So anytime you want to create something from scratch, you open the browser, you hit “New Page”, you add whatever you’d like to the blank canvas, you hit save, and it’s live on the web. There’s no other web publishing technology that does it that way.
First of all, when you start with that blank page, it integrates with everything. So if I want to copy a slide out of keynote, a chart from excel, text from an email, you can just paste them in and it will just work. Even layers straight out of Photoshop. This will radically change a designer’s life.
When you can open up a multi-layer Photoshop file, and just copy and paste everything onto a page, adjust the sizes and save it, you can cut a design in minutes. We’ve seen designers cutting a pretty advanced homepage in about 15 minutes. There’s nothing that can touch that.
Equally important though, if not more important, is what we call the spot edit. So if you already have your site, you may want to redesign it every year, but what you’re going to do at least a dozen times a year is just make a small change.
What you don’t realize is that you’ve got this horribly complicated, delicate HTML mess with 15 templates, 12 external CSS files, it’s not so simple. What we wanted to do is say, let’s change the workflow. Any time you want to make a change on the site, you go to that page, hit edit, drag something over, or change some text, drop in a new video, hit save, and that page is now live.
There’s nothing else in the world that approaches the problem in that way. This changes people’s experiences on the web entirely. I think there’s going to come a time in the not too distant future, maybe in a few years, where this is how everyone is putting content up on the web.
In terms of going from a regular desktop site down to a mobile site, how does that work with PageCloud?
We took a good, hard look at that problem, and it’s a multifaceted one. We’re big fans of basically starting over. The industry is going mobile, over the last 5 years usage has skyrocketed. Our approach is very different than most, and it’s predicated on practicality, accessibility, and that a mobile site isn’t just a desktop site that’s been squished.
Really, what we want is websites to be viewable everywhere, and beautiful everywhere. We also want everybody in the world to be able to create them. The problem with many other responsive design is that they have to be meticulously hand-coded, by not only somebody who knows HTML, but probably an expert.
That takes the one percent and brings it down to 30 percent of those. So we say start with your desktop site, get it exactly the way you want, that’s going to look great on a tablet, and then hit the mobile bookmarklet, and you can move things around and focus on what you want your mobile experience to look like. It shouldn’t be just 15 screens of scrolling, because mobile users really are a different set of users.
You’re not going to sit and read articles and surf the web on your phone. You’re standing in line, you’ve got 30 seconds, you’re trying to look up where you’re going. I think that any desktop experience that’s just squished onto a phone is going to be a bad experience. You might want to reorder things, hide them. You may want things that only show up on the desktop.
Lastly, is there anything that you can share that’s coming up in the next few months, or in the next year?
We’re definitely thinking big. Part of our DNA is to try to break down boundaries. For instance, I don’t see the difference between desktop content and web content. We’ve already started to break down that boundary. I don’t see why some tools should be used by developers and others by designers. For the first time they can all just work in PageCloud.
We see designers actually skipping Photoshop. They just open a browser and start creating from there. The only time they would need to go back to photoshop is to do hardcore image manipulation. Developers, instead of working in CODA, or whatever text editor, just going right into PageCloud, pulling up the code editor and going for it.
“Five years from now, the web will never be the same.”
What we have is essentially the world’s best content editor, and there are a bunch of different places we can apply that, and I think that’s probably the limit of what I can say right now. The most gratifying thing about this for me, and I don’t want to come off as arrogant, is that I really think this is going to chnge the internet forever.
I really believe that whole-heartedly. I see this as being on par with the invention of desktop publishing, which is on every single computer in the world. I see it as on par with the invention of email, because we’re talking about something that is relatable to everybody.
Maybe not everybody is building a corporate site, but maybe you’re just going to the cottage with some friends, and you want to share a map, the details of the trip, and a message, save it and share the link with friends. I mean, that’s not really a website, but what’s the difference?
This is why I really believe that five years from now, the web will never be the same.