Following the broader trend of modularization, Strikingly abstracts away lower level code and design requirements, allowing any user to build gorgeous, mobile optimized websites in just minutes. On today’s podcast, we sit down with Strikingly’s CEO David Chen to learn more about his website builder product, how it works, and how it is enabling a new generation of entrepreneurs to set up websites quickly and test out MVP products before scaling further. We also learn more about the B2B services landscape in China, how it differs from the U.S., and how to properly incorporate lessons from one market to another.
Addressing a Core Need
Adam: Hi David, can you tell us more about Strikingly, your product, and what key markets you are addressing?
David: The idea is quite simple. We want to solve this problem of websites. The focus has always been: what if you can build a website without any technical or design know-how. Why do you have to learn how to write a piece of a code or use Photoshop to design something before you launch your website? That to me doesn’t seem to be right. We want Strikingly to be your CTO, your designer. You can just pass those problems to us, and we will take the responsibility to solve them. The average time for website creation is literally 15 minutes. Here, check out a video here.
When we first stated, we launched Strikingly to serve students like me. People who are launching student organizations, running student governments, or just creating a weekend project. That was the starting point. Then quickly came the start-up crowd. The people who are in start-ups, whether it’s YCombinator start-ups or people who are bootstrapping their own.
Then came the creative crowd. People who know how to actually design something, how to take pictures, how to draw something. The artists. The creatives. The people who have work they want to showcase. Even writers. We have lots of journalists using Strikingly. That’s our core group: the creative entrepreneur.
Strikingly's Competitive Edge
Adam: What about other comparable products like Squarespace, WordPress, Weebly. How do you differentiate?
David: Let’s first look at the stats. With Strikingly, Squarespace, WordPress, Weebly, and Wix, all of us combined, we only power about 5 percent of sites. So it’s really us against the traditional ways. We are looking at the bigger market opportunity, and there’s a long way to go.
Separately, the starting point determines a lot. If you look at all of them, a very specific example is that all of them kind of use drag-and-drop. But the drag-and-drop idea is based on one thing, which is that you know where you should actually drop it to. You drag it to somewhere and then drop it. Where are you actually going to drag it to? That's a very hard question to answer for a non-designer. Basically it’s saying that you have all the freedom to design. But if I’m not a designer, then what happens?
That’s what Weebly and Squarespace do. Weebly more so for the tech people to launch their blog. That was actually their starting point. Wix has been for designers to create websites without needing to learn HMTL and CSS. That’s their positioning. They are still the product for professional people to do their professional work, a little bit easier. That’s why they are promoting freedom, drag-and-drop pixel level control.
For a non-professional, I don’t need those things. I need filters, I need things like Meitu Xiuxiu (美图秀秀). Load a picture and you apply your filters. You feel out which one’s good and then you just launch it. I don’t want to actually figure out what’s the contrast, where should I add more lights, where should I do a little bit of shades. That’s not a skill that I actually have. For most of people that’s a huge burden for them to actually do it. And drag-and-drop is one of those.
So it’s not we don’t want to do drag-and-drop, it’s just because people that we are targeting, they can’t use drag and drop the best way possible, they don’t want to use it that way. They want to get the nice design instead of having unlimited freedom. That’s the core thing for the non-professionals.
A Product for Entrepreneurs
Adam: As you mentioned, you address a user base without a design or coding background. As a broader trend, these days people who are starting companies have been able to use modularized services. For example, instead of needing to set up servers, they can use AWS; instead of building a website from scratch, they can use Strikingly; instead of creating their own voice call VoIP application, they can use Agora, or something else. That’s a definite trend, and it seems that moving forward, for people who want to start companies, they can come to Strikingly because it’s the fastest way to get their content online.
When you think of start-up 101, like the lean start-up method, you always want to create a MVP and move quickly. Once you get some validation you can move onto other stuff too. I almost see Strikingly as not just for non-professionals, people are creating nice blogs or hobbies, or portfolios, but also for people who want to test something out. Maybe they will stick to Strikingly over time or maybe they will switch to something else, but it’s still a very valuable proposition in the early days.
David: That’s a great point. MVP, lean start-up methodology, that’s something that we definitely encourage other people to think about. A simple landing page is basically the best thing for a MVP. But when I used non-professionals, it’s not just really bloggers. By non-professionals I mean people who don’t know how to design, how to do code and that’s the majority of the people. Most people who launch a business, they don’t know how to do code, they don’t know how to design.
U.S. vs China Market
Adam: I’m a big fan of your product and use it. So Strikingly started off in the U.S., but I also noticed that there’s a sister project in China called SXL.com (上线了). Can you tell us more about that piece of your overall growth strategy?
David: For sure. It’s basically our China version of Strikingly, which is SXL.cn, the Chinese is called Shang Xian Le (上线了), it literally means got online or published. That’s the key moment that we want to be able to feel, that’s why we name it that way. It’s our China product.
Because of the Visa issue, we had to move back to China from the U.S., there’s really no other way for us to stay in the U.S. because of the lack of the start-up support from a legal standpoint.
When we moved back to China, we realized a lot of things. There are so many things that we learned from China’s market. In particular, the 2C market (to customer market) is definitely more advanced than the U.S. market. There’s a lot of product models, a lot of offline use cases you have just never seen in the U.S. before. Those are the things we’ve learnt and also tried to incorporate in our product.
Also we realized that a lot of our user have been using VPN and the English version of Strikingly to publish their websites. And these are Chinese users. We had a few thousand pay-users doing that from China. As you can imagine that’s a very painful experience. Even the more severe situation is that if your website is hosted on the server that’s not based in China, it’s actually not as stable when you visit that website from China.
Since we are in China, it almost makes no sense that we don’t spend the time to optimize for their experience. We started using different methods to optimize for the China market, and one thing becomes very clear. If you want to optimize for the China market, you just have to create the entire product. That’s it, period. You just have to do the hard work. Allowing the sites to be hosted in China, add in China relevant services and things like that. At that point it becomes a decision whether we should do it or not. With a few thousand paying users, we felt that it was our duty to do that. If we are not in China we probably would have had the excuse, but since we are now in China, why not. That’s why created the SXL product.
We tried to not associate the Chinese product with that U.S. product that much, because we don’t want the association to cloud our end users’ judgement when they are picking which product to use. We want actually really test out whether our Chinese users will seek our Chinese product. In the very early stage, we didn’t advertise at all our sister product of Strikingly. Even with that, our growth rate has been more 40% month over month for more than a year now, and that’s just been insane.
Adam: Any other major differences you’ve noticed in China with regards to the tech scene, the overall environment?
David: One thing is that the infrastructure for businesses is just so lacking in China compared to that in the U.S. For Strikingly, we do have an app store that you can use Google apps, Google maps, and other stuffs.
In China however, there’s nothing that we can pick to suggest our users to use. That says something about the Chinese business, especially small businesses infrastructure. It’s just not there.
Most of the small businesses, they just don’t have the idea of how to launch the individual server from Ali Cloud or Tencent Cloud. They have to use an application or a service provider, and the service provider market in China is just completely broken. Even when you talk about 2nd or 3rd tier cities, there are more than 1000 website builder services out there, various price points and quality tiers. If you try one of them, the only thing you would get is disappointment with the quality that you got. This market has been really divided and not really in a good shape. So when we enter the China market, providing a tool with good user experience, people just naturally grab it and chase towards it. We didn’t really do any marketing on advertising, and the product just kind of took off.
The core strategy for our growth is always the same between China and the U.S. The core has always been the word of mouth users. People who really love the product and will tell other people. I do believe that the word-of-mouth people are the centers of influence you can have for the greater market. With whatever marketing campaigns or whatever channels that you go after, you have to have a group of people that are your super fans. They love you and really want to tell everybody about you. That has been a core.
Along with that core growth strategy, we have developed a bunch of China specific growth strategies. As I’ve mentioned, there’s really no great product from the small business’ standpoint. When we came in, we quickly developed a partnership with Ali Cloud, so if you check out Ali cloud and go to 万网, which is China’s Godaddy, we are listed on their front page as the recommended website builder. That’s simply because we have a better product and better service than what our competitors are offering in China. Same thing with Tencent cloud, and same thing with a bunch of freelancer platforms. The partnership between us and them has been quite mutually beneficial, so we have been able to develop them.
Also we have a bunch of resellers in China. In China there’s a big resellers market. People actively pick up products that they can resell. That’s not something you can see in the U.S. as much, because of the sheer population in China. There’s more people who are willing to pick a product and start selling to their surroundings. We have been using this reseller strategy quite extensively, and that has been another part of our growth engine.
Adam: It seems like there are a lot of potential in China. Do you see it as becoming a bigger market opportunity than the U.S.? I am primarily interested in understanding how you manage to operate in both markets, how they’ll move forward together.
David: When you conquer the U.S. market, it’s not just the U.S. market. The thing about the U.S. market is that if you conquer the U.S. market, you get the western market. Or the international market. That’s one thing that you would never be able to get by conquering the China market. If you get China market, you get China market. And if you go international, you have to do another market one by one. But if you get U.S., you have this branding high ground that can use it for any of the European markets, Japan, South East Asia, India, whatever.
We have been personally experiencing that. Strikingly has been primarily for the U.S. population to start with, but then very quickly catch on other markets that I just mentioned. The U.S. is quite unique in that sense. It’s true that China is a closed ecosystem, when you get into the China, China is China. This market is big enough that worth a separate focus, if you think about it, if you get all of the international market, doesn’t mean anything about coming into China. China is a completely different animal. Both because of the government and because of the culture. When we go up to China, we do have a separate focus. But this is only from a closed market standpoint. By that I’m talking about name, the message, the language that we use, the use case that we promote, the marketing campaign, the partners we have, the channels we go after, all of the marketing and BD related stuff.
Adam: But what about the core product?
David: When it comes to products, we fundamentally believe that great products are the same across different countries. Just like Apple with the iPhone. It doesn’t really matter if you are Chinese, Indian or a U.S. person. You would still love the same product with good enough localization, and then it should be fine. 80 percent of the product should actually stay the same. It’s only the 20 percent of the product, mostly payment, social integration, those are the things you can do a little bit of localization.
We have been trying to keep our product team as one team, not like a China team and a U.S. team. And we use the U.S. and China as two data points, for two feedback loops to tell us what features should we prioritize in. Whatever we are doing for the U.S. market, we are taking it to the China market. U.S. is great in one thing, which is user experiences. When you have the 2B (to business) product in the U.S. and compare with that in China, you can see the clear difference in user experience. U.S. is just far more advanced in that sense. When we do any of these products in the U.S., we try to bring that experience to China. When we launch any of the China product, things that are optimized for the Chinese market, we try to bring it to the U.S. as well. That’s kind of the strategy we’ve been using to optimize our product iteration, and I think it has worked out quite well so far. From the marketing standpoint, you have to keep them separate.
Adam: Makes sense. In terms of marketing, it’s just hard to apply the U.S. approach in China. After all, U.S. social media handles aren’t even allowed, so it’s got to be very much customized process.
Well David, thanks for your time. Definitely learned a lot about your company and China vs. U.S. differences. Wish you and Strikingly the best!