Vlad Magdalin was working for a web design agency in 2004 when he saw an astronomically hefty invoice for one of the firm’s clients that made him consider the barriers to designers realizing their work on live websites. “The agency had clients like Apple and HP, and they were charging hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said. “That confirmed that the work is valuable and helped me recognize that larger agencies have art directors and this crazy hosting infrastructure.” But what if he could remove the middle man — the developer — from the designer-to-client process?
It was from that question that Magdalin first conceived Webflow, which allows people to create graphical interfaces without writing a line of code, though the journey to becoming a business that would gross $100 million in revenue a year would prove to be tumultuous and long.
“Before no-code design tools came along, designers had to rely on front-end developers to implement everything. Changing a piece of text on a website to a different font size could take days,” writes Mayank Sharma, a designer for Toptal. “Even for a small marketing website or a simple landing page, designers would send over the designs, sit back, cross fingers, and pray that it will all come back pixel-perfect. The process was like watching paint dry.”
Calling for Backup
By 2012, Magdalin had begun moonlighting as a startup creator. He would work his software engineering day job at Intuit from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and then on Webflow at Red Rock Coffee in Mountain View until 8 p.m. every night. However, Magdalin, who left Russia with his family for California in 1991 as a religious refugee, quickly realized that a few hours each day wouldn’t cut it. With Intuit’s $10,000 retention bonus, he quit his day job to pursue his dream full-time.
Magdalin soon recruited his brother, Sergie, who was doing design work for a skateboarding shop, and the pair would sit side-by-side — Vlad writing code and Sergie working on design — from 7 a.m. til midnight. The only exception was Sundays before noon, which Magdalin’s wife had requested for family time.
With no income, Magdalin added $15,000 from his savings to the retention bonus to fund his startup. Of that $25,000, the brothers spent the first $5,000 on incorporation, the second $5,000 on computers that Magdalin recalls they could have gotten for cheaper, and the remainder on a crowdfunding Kickstarter video they never used. At this point, Magdalin, who had started a family, was racking up thousands of dollars in credit card debt and was close to bankruptcy. Finally, the brothers recruited Bryant Chou, Vlad’s former colleague from Intuit. As Vlad recalls, they had less than $500 in their account. Chou, now the CTO of Webflow, came on board and added some of his own savings into Weblow. But they still needed to build a product.
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The Tide Turns
Even though Webflow had failed to take off with Kickstarter and Reddit, and they had received their first rejection from startup accelerator Y Combinator, since no-code wasn’t a buzz word yet, their setbacks didn’t sink in. In March 2013, the tide changed. The trio submitted a prototype to Hacker News and received tens of thousands of requests to join Webflow’s beta program, and overwhelming support. “You beautiful bastards!!” wrote one fan. “This is what I have been waiting for!”
This encouraged the Magdalin brothers and Chou to reapply for Y Combinator, which prepares startups for pitching to investors. This time, they were invited in for a meeting. In preparation, they contacted startup founders who had gone through Y Combinator before.
“Ash [Rust] from SendHub channeled his inner Paul Graham, and in 10 short minutes showed us exactly how intense the YC interview can actually be — to the point that we walked away sort of shell-shocked, but with the total determination to rise to the challenge,” says Magdalin. “Wade [Foster] from Zapier also asked us so many hard questions that we were forced to reevaluate our approach significantly.”
Despite that reevaluation, working with a speed coach, and the trio quizzing each other on hard questions for long periods, the interview lasted 10 minutes.
In the car on the drive back, Magdalin remembers all three feeling they had failed. But after they went to a movie theater to take their minds off Y Combinator, they received a phone call asking if they wanted to join, only to receive an email minutes later informing them they didn’t make it. Confused and disheartened, they left a voice message and responded to the email. They even got in the car to see if they could find anyone in person at Y Combinator for clarification when they received another phone call: The email was a mistake — they were in!
A Win for the Designers
What eventually made the difference? First, sites using Webflow’s code could now be supported by Google’s Chrome browser. The second factor was their submission to Hacker News and the community they subsequently built. Initially, Webflow did well with web design freelancers, which eventually persuaded Y Combinator to admit Webflow in 2013.
“I think Vlad saw the market coming. We pushed them early on to go for bigger customers or add marketing tools. But they felt they needed to spend their time developing a reputation with the community,” says one of Webflow’s initial angel investors and former Intuit co-worker, Eric Bahn.
It took five years before freelancers using Webflow took the tool with them in-house. Edgar Allan, a digital agency based in Atlanta, claims that the no-code tool allows a single developer to do the same amount of work as three developers. Shaving off development time is exactly what gave venture capital firm Accel — which has backed other success stories such as Qualtrics and Slack — confidence in Webflow.
Magdalin hopes to offer other no-code software and app development alongside Webflow’s ability to build no-code websites in the future. Its customers include accounting giant PWC, and Latinx cultural and Spanish-speaking broadcasting service, Univision. By March 2022, Webflow had 480 employees and was valued at $4 billion.
The lesson from Magdalin’s experience is not just to never give up, but that timing matters when it comes to the readiness of the market. “A lot more people are starting to believe, including software engineers,” Magdalin told the Makerpad podcast. “[They] are like, ‘OK, this is just a faster way to do things using the same kind of underlying principles. So it’s a good time to be alive, would you say?”