Chronicles of a Young Serial Entrepreneur
Matt Mickiewicz is far from your average 27-year-old. He launched Webmaster-Resources.com in 1999 to educate web developers and help them build their businesses at age 14 and has never really looked back. He partnered with an Australian marketing expert and re-launched the site as Sitepoint.com in 2000, quickly growing it into a profitable multi-million dollar company without any venture capital or outside funding. The site is now ranked #845 in the world in terms of overall web visits according to Alexa web rankings, but that's only a small part of what he's working on today.
Mickiewicz barely finished high school as he was already making more money than his teachers and has since founded two additional highly profitable sites in 99designs.com and Flippa.com. His three sites combined are turning over $20 million in revenue. With the interest that each business has had in the past year, a conservative combined estimate as to the value of all three companies is about $100 million.
As he prepares to launch his fifth site, Learnable.com, in the first quarter of 2011, Mickiewicz shares his unique insight on being a young entrepreneur, why business school is not for everyone and the excitement around startup costs to launch an Internet company today.
Why did you launch your latest company?
I was really just a hard-core geek if you will in 1996 and was building websites as a hobby. I started doing a lot of web design and development and built my first website on the now-defunct GeoCities platform. But as I was doing research on all of the tools and resources needed to learn web design, I started compiling everything because I realized there was no single resource for this information and I began sharing it with the world.
So on April 1, 1998, I launched Webmaster-Resources.com, and I remember that date specifically because it was the date that the price of a two-year domain name registration dropped from $100 to $70, and considering I was funding this out of my allowance, that $30 made all the difference. I knew I was on to something when within the first six months I was being written about in USA Today, the LA Times and The Washington Post.
Windows Magazine, which at the time had nearly one million subscribers, gave me a full-page write-up and then a column to write. And really quickly, Webmaster-Resources became the leader in the space to help web designers and developers learn design and search engine optimization, tools that nobody else really understood at the time.
You re-launched the site as Sitepoint.com in 1999. Why was that a logical next step?
After about one year, I was offered nearly a half million dollars to sell Webmaster Resources. But I wanted to take it to the next level, and so I partnered with an Internet marketing manager in Melbourne, Australia named Mark Harbottle. We decided to become business partners and we wanted Sitepoint to be a comprehensive resource and community for people in this field. It's been profitable every single month since we launched, and we now have over 300,000 registered web designers. We saw that users wanted the tutorial materials next to their keyboard while doing web development work (this was before many people had double screens).
We were originally able to sell advertising and sponsorship on the site, but when the NASDAQ crashed in 2001, we had to get creative to stay afloat. So we decided to see whether people would pay for a printed version of our most popular tutorial, which was about PHP & MySQL. We used a print-on-demand company to limit our risk and started marketing the book online – and it went on to sell nearly 20,000 copies for $35 each.
In terms of your other businesses, flippa.com and 99designs.com have been great moneymakers and grown quickly. What were the ideas there?
For me, its all about the emails and interactions with my customers. If I go to a conference and someone tells me that they learned how to develop websites on Sitepoint and now they're a CTO at a company earning almost $200,000 a year, that lets me know that I'm doing the right thing. When someone sells a website on Flippa, which we launched in 2009 as a marketplace to buy and sell small websites via auction, that could change their life. Each month, we see nearly $2 million worth of website assets selling on a monthly basis, which is terrific.
With 99designs.com, which was recently awarded the 2010 Webby People's Voice Award for Best Web Service, we have almost $15 million a year flowing through the site and we've completed over 55,000 graphic design projects for big and small brands. It quickly became the leader in crowdsourced graphic design and turned the industry upside down, allowing designers to bid on projects. The American Association of Graphic Design Professionals is quite angry about our existence because we're lowering the barriers to entry, but I simply view it as disruptive innovation. It's really no different than what Expedia did to the travel industry or what eTrade did to stocks.
How did being a young entrepreneur both help and hurt you?
I think I was very naïve early on, but that also meant I didn't know what couldn't be done. I love what business school teaches in terms of the failures of past companies and how not to do things, but I don't have that background. I never would have thought I could create a top ranked website or that we could publish and sell a book without cross selling at Barnes & Noble, Amazon or Borders. We relied solely on our community for that promotion and fulfilled all of the orders ourselves.
I never really felt like my age stopped people from wanting to work with me. I was speaking at conferences and lecturing at universities at 18, and I think that was mainly because web developing and management was a really young industry.
Talk a little about Learnable and why you're starting another website?
When I see a hole in the market, I want to do what I can to create a sustainable solution. Learnable.com is going to be an online marketplace for education that allows people to create and sell an online course. Really, the idea for the site came out of my experience in hiring people and building up our companies. We've found over time that the skills a lot of people are learning and being taught in university or in college, at least in terms of the web, are obsolete. Because of the lengthy amount of time it takes to get textbooks written and through the approval process, and then to be printed and sold, some of the concepts are outdated. So people are learning skills like programming, IT, web design, web development and more over the web. The idea here is to create an online platform that offers students a place to learn about what interests them most, and for teachers to share their knowledge in a live environment. We're excited, and I'm hoping it helps the educational model.
What excites you most about the ability to launch a web enterprise today?
I'm just amazed by the tremendous opportunity ahead of us and am constantly astonished by the abilities of companies like Groupon and Zynga to compete with the massive brands. I mean, to go from nothing to a $1 billion valuation in 2-3 years with the right idea is great. The pace of change for entrepreneurs is rapidly accelerating, and the cost and risk of launching a new business and getting off the ground is just amazing. The ability to gain user feedback really quickly and adapt to what your consumers want is totally different with the web as it is now. But finding a new market, helping people and taking that original idea and turning it into a business is really exciting right now.
To learn more about Mickiewicz and all of his projects, you can follow him on Twitter @sitepointmatt.