According to Ellen Johnston, founding a tech startup has been “an exercise in being uncomfortable.” A designer by trade, Ellen had to adapt to the competitive and fast-paced world of startups. “I really had to push my boundaries. The startup world moves at a different pace, and you have to be incredibly fast. My philosophy was do it now and apologize later,” she says. She secured venture capital funding, developed an app that enables users to easily customize brand assets like business cards, invites, logos, and letterheads, stepped into the role of CEO, and sold her company to Staples Inc. — all in just two years.
Ellen worked at boutique agencies in New York across print, product, and web design before venturing into the world of apps and development. A chance encounter introduced her to Nicholas Callaway, a book publisher at the time, who was repositioning his company to be more tech-focused. Ellen joined as creative director in 2010, the same year Apple released the iPad.
“Nicholas’ idea was to partner with companies to develop their brand strategy for these new devices,” says Ellen. “It was an exciting time. People were really given carte blanche to dream about how technology was going to shape the brands of the future.” Together, they created apps for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, and in 2012 founded Happy with the goal of creating mobile applications for big brands.
“The idea didn’t pan out the way we were hoping,” she says. “We were struggling to sell a product that was meaningful on the App Store and could bring in money to fund us. That was around the time when I had the idea for Makr.” They began exploring the idea for Makr, but diverged paths after a few months on mutual and amicable terms. “It was clear Makr was really my baby,” says Ellen. “I just needed to step into the role of CEO and run it.”
WORDS & PHOTOS BY MIA SAKAI
What is Makr in a nutshell?
Makr empowers everyone to be their own designer. It’s currently creativity software for iOS. Beyond that, I see Makr as a brand that really empowers creativity and democratizes design. We have a lot of vision around where we want to take it in the future, but right now it’s very much a branding tool. It enables you to create assets to brand yourself, whether it’s for your business or your wedding. We work with various print vendors across the US, and when you create an order, we send it to a vendor. Achieving and maintaining a certain print quality is super important to us. The core of what we do is about embracing the opportunity to be creative and enabling everyone to be their own designer. The pre-Makr landscape was all this complicated and expensive software, like Adobe or Autodesk. That stuff can get in the way and inhibit creativity because they aren’t easy to use. “Empowering creativity” is our big umbrella and where we are right now.
How long did it take to complete the first iteration of Makr, and what was involved?
I was always really psyched about this idea of creativity on mobile devices and was thinking about developing something that could be a product and a brand. I was noodling on the idea for Makr as Happy was struggling to find its feet. We started working on it in February 2013, and launched it on iPad in November 2013. It was quick, especially for a small team. The startup world talks about process as generally being one of two ways: agile or waterfall. In an agency, there’s a deadline and set schedules and there’s no going back until after a product is launched. That’s more of a waterfall process — everything flows down the line. We’re mostly agile, meaning it’s a rolling process. We do the functionality, play with it, then refine it. We have as much refinement time as development time so we can change either due to feedback we’re getting or based on what we feel.
First Three Steps for a Tech Startup
Crystallize the idea.
Kick the tires and be passionate about it.
Capitalize the idea.
Understand how much it’s going to take to build your vision, then figure out how you’re going to pay for it. Don’t sell yourself short.
Figure out what your minimum viable product is and get it to market as soon as possible.
You raised $865,000 in your first round of seed funding. How many investors did you pitch, and how many backed you?
As a founder you’re always raising money, so you’re always pitching, whether it’s to venture capitalists or a potential partner. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say I’ve pitched a hundred times since being CEO. We had nine investors and it took seven months. It takes a lot to get to that first yes, but as soon as you do, things get easier. You’re looking for someone to put their money on the table, lead the round, and introduce you to all their friends. From then on, the door is open. John Borthwick at Betaworks was the person that actually said, “Yes, I’ll back this.” We had an awesome group of investors and were very fortunate, but you have to be careful when you take money from people because then they become your partners. If you’re going down the path of raising venture capital, figure out who your investors are. Do your homework and understand their portfolio because there are certain people who just aren’t going to get what you’re doing. It can be really demoralizing to keep pitching people who don’t get it. It becomes easy to start doubting yourself.
How did you cope with investor rejection? Any tips on getting through it?
There were some dark days. Raising money was very daunting for me because I’m from a totally different background. I didn’t go to business school and I didn’t feel comfortable asking people for money; it was out of my wheelhouse. A big lesson was learning not to take anything personally. You’ve got to be really thick-skinned and persistent, but it’s hard. The first pitch deck I made had no words and illustrated a story. I got railroaded in the first few meetings! I was fortunate to have people give me good feedback and advice. I learned pretty quickly and evolved my deck but also held onto my vision. That’s important. Don’t let all this data and the way things are “supposed to be” bog you down and make you forget the thing you’re passionate about and want to do. There are companies out there that can help you refine your deck before you present it to anyone, and in some cases, even help you meet the right people. We ended up raising money without a product and just our deck.
A lean team is often an advantage for startups. How big is the Makr team and what are the roles and responsibilities of each member?
We’re a team of six right now, including me. The great thing about being a small team is we all sit in the same room and kind of share a brain. Everyone’s got one ear to the middle of the room and we all work together. The number one thing in building a team is making sure you have the right people and that they’re all communicating. Everyone on the team is a generalist. People are obviously specialized in certain skills, but everyone has to learn how to wear several hats. Alexandra is our product manager and my right hand. I do the creative side and Alexandra makes sure it gets done. Dan is our lead iOS engineer. He’s competent in full stack development, but his strength is in the presentation layer and the front end stuff. Kelsey is our editorial and marketing manager. She’s the voice of the brand and represents the person who uses Makr. Jeff is a UI/UX designer and Frank is a production artist. Frank has an unusual role in that he sits between design and development, and is responsible for truly understanding functionality and how the interface elements should be implemented. My role as CEO is managing people, and my role as creative director is specifically managing Jeff and Frank.
After being on the market for less than 18 months, Staples Inc. recently acquired Makr for an undisclosed amount. How did that relationship arise and what does it mean for Makr?
They contacted us. As we got to know them, we discovered not only the production power of their stores, but that they own several printing facilities and have all these really innovative printing capabilities. After a few conversations with them, it just made sense. On paper, it means they own us. They bought out our shareholders and now they own the company. The plan is for us to stay here and work closely with them to figure out how we can really grow the product by taking advantage of everything they have to offer, like their production capabilities and technology. The first goal is to really grow out the Makr brand and make it more accessible. Before Staples, our prices were pretty high because we had to pay a vendor to print the product, and because the vendor was our competitor, our prices were always higher. We had this great mission of being accessible, but our prices weren’t. Now, we can lower our costs and offer a better price to our customers. It’s about leveraging the power Staples has as this big company, but still be really innovative and true to our brand, mission, and customers.
There’s been a lot of buzz about the lack of women in tech, especially as founders or in leadership roles. What’s your personal experience?
I don’t like to generalize, but in my experience, women have a hard time setting unrealistic goals, like promising their company is going to be killing it a year from now, or that their revenues are going to be off the charts. I have a hard time with that. The problem is women get labeled as coming across as lacking confidence. I don’t lack confidence; I lack certainty, maybe. But I’m not going to tell you without a shadow of a doubt that we’re going to grow into the next Google. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in my idea or myself, or that I lack confidence. I had to learn how to talk about the product in a way I felt comfortable with. I had to really work on how I conveyed enthusiasm, which went hand in hand with this confidence component, and still realistically speak about goals and where we could be in a few years. For an industry that prides itself on innovation, there seems to be very little innovation in the way founders are perceived. If I’m investing in a founder, I want to know that they’re thinking about all the ways this thing could fall apart, and not just feeding me a bunch of bullshit about how it’s going to be the next hottest thing.
What advice do you have for future startup founders?
Figure out what your minimum viable product is and get it to market as soon as possible. Figure out the stepping stones to get there, whether it’s cutting back on the products you offer, or focusing on the simple interaction that makes your product successful. Descope the idea so you can actually get it done and developed in a few months, but do put the finishing touches on it. Make it look good and be attractive. Don’t build the house and forget to paint it! Then get it to market so you can start testing it and getting feedback. Don’t be afraid to fail. Do be prepared to work super hard, especially in a tech startup. With a startup, you’re never going to be 100% sure. If you’re 50% sure, go for it, but be prepared to change and go with the flow. A startup is like a sailboat on the ocean. The bigger you get, the more you’re like an ocean liner that’s moving slowly ahead and is indestructible. The beauty of a sailboat is that you can move super fast, but man, when the wind blows, you feel it. You can get knocked off course and flipped upside down. You need to figure out how to sprint really fast because these big companies can’t do that, and how to take advantage of those opportunities.
New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000.
San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 2012.
More on Makr
Johnston, Ellen. “Pitching Like a Girl.” www.pando.com. August 5, 2014.
Davis, Nicole. “Democratizing Design: A Conversation with Ellen Johnston of Makr.” www.brooklynbased.com. July 15, 2014.
Espeseth, Lauren. “Makr App: The Digital Creation that Taps into the Heart of DIY Paper Goods.” www.coolhunting.com. November 14, 2013.
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