Creating a community is no easy task. When LayerVault founders Kelly Sutton and Allan Grinshtein saw engineers were edging out designers in other communities, they built their own.  Designer News now receives visits from some 200,000 designers each month. In this interview I talk with Kelly about minimalism, the early days of LayerVault and building a community for designers.

Welcome to Signal Tower Kelly. If you would, tell us a bit about yourself.

My name is Kelly Sutton. I am the CEO of LayerVault, a company based here in New York City.

There are eight of us working at LayerVault. Half are here in New York and half are remote.

Most people probably know us for Designer News. It’s basically Hacker News, but blue and for designers. We’ve been working on it for about three years now.

I love that—Hacker News, but blue and for designers.

Hacking College

I want to talk about LayerVault and Designer News, but before we get there I want to try and understand who you are.

I’d like to take a couple of steps back and talk about your previous projects. The one I’m most interested in is HackCollege. You started this blog that was about hacking college, could you tell us a bit about it?

When I was in college, I started a blog called HackCollege, because I was a big fan of Lifehacker.

So, back around 2006, I was a bored college student. As a college student most have a lot of spare cycles—I still did all of the normal college things, but I started this blog, which I wanted to be Lifehacker for college students.

I ran that for a while. Later more people came on board. We had a solid team of five or six folks. I still keep in touch with most of them.

I ended up selling the site to another company in 2011—mainly because I was no longer in college, and I didn’t want to be the guy running a college blog when he was in the professional workforce.

Layervault Logo Chalkboard
A shot from the LayerVault office in New York. LayerVault's logo scribbled on a blackboard.

There had to be another reason you started it other than having a lot of free time.

I felt like it filled a niche.

It was a very weird time to be going to school. YouTube existed, but it wasn’t what we know today. College is a time when you start figuring things out. It’s the first time many will do laundry, cook for themselves and things like that.

We called it life hacking for college students, but it was really helping students learn how to be a normal human being—the internet is a very fascinating place for that. I find myself going to the internet to learn normal human being things. You know, the type of things people would traditionally ask a friend or parents about.

We ran the gambit from serious to silly things, but tried to take it pretty lightly. We had a video podcast with a great section called Now for Someone Shotgunning a Beer, which was literally just somebody shotgunning a beer.

We’d get video submissions of college students from all around the world shotgunning beers.

“I’m an engineer by trade. And when an engineer has a problem, they often think about what they can build to solve that problem.”

You mentioned that the team grew to five or so members. Who were these people—friends from school, people reaching out about writing? 

The site started in September of 2006, and was just me.

Two or three months later I met a young woman online named Rosario, who was an undergrad at Yale, and ended up going to USC Law. She helped me out early on writing blog posts. Then a good buddy from school, Chris Lesinski, came onboard in March of 2007. That was the core team for a while.

We all knew that we would be leaving undergrad eventually, so we started thinking about a contingency plan. Who was going to be on the next shift?

That’s when a few other folks—Mike Bertolino, Laura Schluckebier, Emily Chapman, Shep McAllister—they took over when I was out of school.

MINIMALISM AND THE CULT OF LESS

The other project I’m interested in is The Cult of Less. I’m interested, because I'm a minimalist. When people come over, I often get asked if I just moved in.

The Cult of Less was covered in BoingBoing and a few other publications around 2010. You were going through the process of getting rid of the stuff you owned and built a site to talk about it. The end goal was to fit all your possessions into two suitcases and two boxes.

What was it that made you want to get rid of everything?

The Cult of Less, as you mentioned, started in 2010. About that time I was traveling around a lot. One summer between semesters I was living in Berlin for a bit, and New York for a bit—that’s where the idea came about.

I had to leave a ton of stuff behind with friends in Los Angeles where I was in school. I was gone for about four months out of the summer, and when I got back to LA I couldn’t remember all the stuff I had with me.

That’s when I started the Cult of Less. I also knew that I’d me moving out to New York upon graduation. Rather than list things on eBay and Craigslist, I decided to list everything on a site I built myself.

I’m an engineer by trade. And when an engineer has a problem, they often think about what they can build to solve that problem.

I did that for a year. Then it got extremely popular, almost overnight. That was due to a piece BBC Online wrote. Boing Boing and a ton of other sources picked it up and was fascinated by it for about a month—that includes NBC Nightly News.

I believe Brian Williams has said my name before, which is pretty neat.

Yeah, now you can put that on your resume!

“The Cult of Less is really about the idea that you shouldn’t be needlessly buying things all the time.”

Layervault Muji Notebooks
A Muji notebook with a LayerVault stamp.

I still try and follow the tenants of The Cult of Less. I admit that I caved recently and bought a couch.

But I do try and be very aware of what I’m purchasing and buy as little as possible.

So this was four years ago and you only recently bought a couch?

Yeah, well, the dirty little secret about The Cult of Less is that the all apartments that I’ve been living in have been furnished.

Aha!

[laughter]

Well, I haven’t been sleeping on the floor without sheets this whole time.

The Cult of Less is really about the idea that you shouldn’t be needlessly buying things all the time.

What about things with personal meaning? Isn’t there sentimental stuff that you regret giving away?

Surprisingly, there isn’t that much.

I didn’t have a whole lot of sentimental stuff—tchotchkes that remind me of different things in my life.

Actually, that stuff might be the easiest to give away. Most of your memories are digital and can be online, or in a hard drive. As long as you back those photos and such up, you aren’t in danger of losing those memories.

What about birthdays, holidays and when people just want to give you stuff? How do you handle those occasions?

Well, you know. My family and friends know that I’m The Cult of Less guy.

Unless it is exceptional, or replacing something I currently own that is worn out, I probably don’t want it.

It is always a fine line to walk, because you don’t want to be rude and refuse a gift.

Layervault Office Expresso 2
Layervault Office Expresso 1
The LayerVault office expresso machine.

Since you started that project, do you think that has had an effect on how you perceive money?

Totally.

All that I spend money on these days is experiences. Rather than save up to own something, I usually save up for a big trip or something fun with friends.

Although these experience are very short lived, I find myself looking back on them much more fondly than a new set of speakers that just sit in a room you never spend time in.

What are some of the trips you’ve taken?

That’s a good segue into starting Layervault and what I did with the small amount of money I got from selling HackCollege.

After selling HackCollege, I was in a position where I didn’t need to work for about a year. Rather than sit around in New York, I decided to travel and work on this LayerVault thing.

My first stop was in Berlin, because that was familiar territory. I ended up meeting my girlfriend there. I was actually planning to travel around the world, but I met this nice girl, and stayed there for three months.

I guess the rest is history.

A VERSION CONTROL SYSTEM FOR DESIGNERS

That’s interesting. Because you sold HackCollege, you had a bit of a cushion. You didn’t need to get a job to make rent, and because of that you were able to start LayerVault.

Definitely.

Also, it was pretty easy for me to rent my current apartment in New York. I found a friend of a friend that needed a place to crash and was willing to pay rent.

She moved into my apartment, and off I went without a clue about what I was going to do, or where I was going to end up.

“To this day our biggest obstacle has been underestimating the technical complexity of things that seem simple from the outside.”

You created LayerVault with Allan Grinshtein. You had a few months to work on this project, why a version control system for PSDs?

The idea for LayerVault was born out of Allan and my own personal needs.

We were working at a little startup in New York called Blip.tv. We sat next to each other at work, and got into plenty of trouble. One day Allan was working on a site redesign, and was trying to keep track of his work in Photoshop.

He was having a lot of trouble. If you know how git works, you know it doesn’t really work with large documents. Allan leaned over and said, “Kelly, can you build something for me that could handle this?”

I ended up writing this gross Ruby script over the weekend, which plugged into a Rails server. When you saved a file, all it would do was show the PSD online. I don’t think there was any CSS attached. It was just a list of image tags.

We spent a bit of time on it, and got the rest of the company using it. Then we left Blip to work on LayerVault full-time.

After you were out on your own trying to build LayerVault, did Blip become one of your first customers? How did you find your first paying customers?

Well, we were our first customers.

Our first paying customers—who are still paying us to this day—were Ian Storm Taylor and a guy named Tyler Howarth. Ian works at a company called Segment, and Tyler works at Pushd.

In the early days we were going to bootstrap LayerVault, which we failed at doing. At the time we were pretty gung-ho about bootstrapping this business.

We were charging for the product within the first three months, which is pretty aggressive in retrospect.

You said that you were planning on bootstrapping but didn’t, why did you change your mind?

With SaaS businesses the revenue ramp tends to be a bit slower. This is especially true in the early days.

We spent a year on LayerVault—also our costs tend to be a step function. As we moved the ball forward, we had to upgrade our hardware to make sure the customer experience didn’t degrade.

We had a lot of these good-problems-to-have issues about a year in. It made sense to take a bit of seed financing to jump start things that probably would have happened anyway, but it would have taken three or four years.

Essentially, we had some problems that money could solve.

Did you have to push up your price tiers? If so, did you have any push back from customers?

Taking on funding didn’t really effect our customers. If anything, it made their experience better, because it gave us the resources to throw money at problems.

“LayerVault doesn’t really need any new features, but we need to make sure the experience is both consistent and consistently good.”

What had been your biggest obstacle with LayerVault?

To this day our biggest obstacle has been underestimating the technical complexity of things that seem simple from the outside.

It’s just a normal engineering thing to do. You might say, “surely this won’t take me more than a few hours to fix.” Then after working on it for a month, you finally admit that it is a complicated problem.

For us it took a very, very long time to get our syncing technology right. Syncing is something you see a lot of businesses doing these days. Make no mistake, it is a deceptively simple problem.

There is so much logic, and so many edge cases that go into it, even the established players have a hard time getting it right. We’ve spent a lot of time and a lot of effort going over syncing again, and again, and again to make sure that it is enterprise grade.

We actually have people switching to us from a lot of the big players. We’ve focused on syncing for so long that ours is better than anyone else’s out there.

It is something we thought we’d have solved and out of the way in a few months. As it turns out, it is never done. Mainly because of changes in applications, operating systems—we still don’t support Windows. This is just our Mac clients syncing to the rest of the service.

It takes a herculean effort to make sure it runs smoothly.

Your decision to not support Windows is interesting. Was that decision because most designers work on Macs?

Most of the customers we initially wanted to target had Macs.

Now we’re getting into the situation where the average size of the company using LayerVault is growing quite a bit. Once design teams start growing, you start to see a few Windows computers in the mix. It’s something that we’ll need to address pretty soon.

Moving forward, what are some of LayerVault’s challenges?

The product is in an interesting spot.

LayerVault doesn't really need any new features, but we need to make sure the experience is both consistent and consistently good. Now we need to work on refinements.

Everything needs to be perfect. We need make our current customers happy and unable to live without us.

Kelly Sutton's Layervault
Kelly Sutton and Allan Grinshtein created Designer News, because they felt the opinions of designers were getting drowned out by engineers on Hacker News. Rule number one is be nice.

LIKE HACKER NEWS, BUT BLUE

I’m always interested in the side projects a company takes up. You’ve got Cosmos, which is a collection of your open source projects, there’s Delivery and Designer News—and I don’t know if I said it in the beginning, but it’s one of my favorite sites on the Internet.

I’m curious what impact these projects have had on LayerVault?

Side projects are very, very dangerous, right?

Sometimes they can split your focus and take you in directions that might not be the best. Instead of having one great product, you end up with two OK products—we’re trying to get away from that.

Things like Cosmos—which involves open sourcing some things we’ve built and giving it back to the community—that doesn’t take a lot of effort.

Designer News is tough, but it is amazing. It has wildly succeeded all expectations.

Designer News started like most side projects. We had an idea and let it cook for a while. We started building it and playing around with different implementations of the idea.

We put Designer News online in December 31, 2012. By the time we awoke from our New Year’s festivities we had 100 users and were already off to the races.

Now it is a matter of making sure that it grows in a healthy way over time.

It is the one side project that I would consider a good side project.

Why did you decide there needed to be a Hacker News for Designers? What was your motivation?

We spent a lot of time reading Hacker News and a lot of designer voices—UX Designers, UI designers, everyone on that side of the aisle—they were getting drowned out by the engineering community.

We saw an opportunity to make a community for designers. It’s kind of a yin to their yang. I think both communities are important. It is important to have discussions around different technologies on Hacker News, but it is also important to have discussions about different design patterns on Designers News.

In short, we were reading Hacker News a lot, and figured we should make a Designer News. The rest is history.

“We spent a lot of time reading Hacker News and a lot of designer voices—UX Designers, UI designers, everyone on that side of the aisle—they were getting drowned out by the engineering community.”

Layervault Badges
Post badges on Designer News. Part of what Kelly Sutton says gives Designer News it's own character.

Why go after the reddit and Hacker News model instead of a traditional forum?

The thought process was to try and build something familiar, but also more flexible. We wanted a platform that we could build on and make our own.

The very first versions of Designer News were actually Hacker News, but blue and for designers. Now it has grown into it’s own character. Designer News tends to be a lot more colorful. We’ve got badges on some stories. The pixel avatars have been an interesting experiment—that is the type of thing that can only exist on designer news and nowhere else in the world.

We started with the seed of an idea, and took it to our audience and then to the nth degree.

Within this past year you started hosting Designer News events. How did those go?

The events have been amazing. I went to 8 of the 10 we put on—just to meet everyone on the site.

The events are an extension of the site itself. It is important to have a good respectful place to have discussions online, but it is also important to meet other people in the community.

Moving forward what can we expect from Designer News?

For us, the most important thing is to make sure that the quality stays high as things grow.

Designer News has quadrupled in almost every single metric over the last 12 months.

Obviously, when that happens the community starts to look a little bit different. From our own observations, when that happens the quality tends to decrease—both discussions and stories submitted.

Really, we want to stay an honest community for designers.

We’re getting toward the end of the interview. Is there any advice for entrepreneurs that you’d like to share?

I always get asked this question and my answer always changes.

[laughter]

Maybe that is the answer? Be flexible and roll with the punches—I know that is a little vague.

The thing that has helped me the most is to build and use the products I create on a daily basis. That is the most important thing.

HackCollege was a site I wanted to read, so I created it.

Cult of Less was a yard sale I wanted to have online, so I created it.

LayerVault was something I wanted to see exist in the world so I created it.

Every single day we use LayerVault to build LayerVault. Because of that we don’t have to ask people when something is wrong with the service. We know, and it’s already on our radar.

Kelly Sutton thank you for joining me today. Where can people find you?

People can find us at layervault.com, you can sign-up for free. We offer a free 30-day trial.

If you’re looking for me, I’m on Twitter @KellySutton. I’m on the web at kellysutton.com. I tend to be Kelly Sutton just about everywhere you can go.

Layervault Office Door Logo
The entrance to LayerVault's office.