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The 80s was the era of excess and vibrancy. As Gordon Gecko from the 1987 film Wall Street put it, “Greed is good”. But as the 80s jumpstarted the colorful leg warmers phenomenon, it also started the GIF trend, one that would dip beneath the waters of pop culture and make a resurgence in the 2010s upon the rise of the smartphones. What made GIFs so popular? First, they had a unique appeal – packing lots of information or something funny into a short animation. Next, with the introduction of smartphones, short form content began to take off because it was easy to watch. For example, if you were in line at Starbucks for a coffee, you could go onto Reddit and watch 4-5 GIFs before you had to order.
Only, in most cases, you probably couldn’t look at those GIFs. They took too long to load. Two avid redditors in Edmonton realized this, and figured that the GIF was only popular for what it represented, short form silent animations, not for its format. Realizing this, they created a free video encoding platform that would turn a video into a GIF like format, best suited for the platform it would go on. These days, their free tool has expanded and become the biggest GIF search engine on the internet, but it had a much simpler start.
The Gfycat Encoding System
After the great migration from Digg to Reddit, Dan Mceleney and Jeff Harris saw the problem with GIFs. They were large files. There weren’t that many colors. People liked them, and they were good to view in a variety of circumstance, but they took too long to load.
What made Gfycat so special was its cross platform capabilities. You would start with a specific file format and upload it to the platform. Gfycat would then speedily change the filetype to match whatever the user had chosen in the beginning or to match the platform they wanted to use it on. For example, if you uploaded a .mov file, Gfycat could change that into a GIF, mp4, or WEBM. What this meant was that even though the file format might not have been a gif, it kept the essential qualities of one: short, silent, animated, and interesting.
Using this new tool, Dan Mceleney and Jeff Harris started Gfycat, disseminating it on different subreddits (reddit communities). As Dan explained, “We selected different subreddits that we thought would benefit from it and we sort of said, ‘Hey, you really like this GIF; check out Gfycat, it’s the same thing!’ And later people thought it was amazing. It looked better, and it moved faster.” Dan, who was already an established member of some subreddits was able to gain many users from there. They even got banned from some communities because people were using Gfycat to create bots to spam certain subreddits and the moderators thought Dan and Jeff were manipulating them.
Most of the traction the company gained in the beginning was from this grassroots movement on Reddit. Many people liked the tool, and told others about it, slowly increasing the popularity and gained a life of its own.
Gfycat started off as a garage project in Edmonton, more of a tool to help those who needed to reduce the file size of the GIFs that they wanted to share. As they grew, they had to figure out ways to sustain themselves. Dan pointed out that, “We saw a progression from a utility to more of a social GIF platform, and we thought the best place to be would be Silicon Valley.”
Down in Silicon Valley, a consultant helped introduce Gfycat to some people who might be good for the business. Through a serendipitous meeting with Richard Rabbat, they were able to move the business there. With the entrance into a new world filled with wealthy investors and a diverse startup culture, they incorporated in 2015 and were able to engage in a series of important business partnerships.
Getting these partnerships, like many other aspects of business, was not easy. It involved lots of cold emailing, networking, and in person meetings. It took building a strong relationship and trust for things to actually begin taking off. All the hard work paid off, and Gfycat all of a sudden saw a huge change. They got a Reddit bot. Working with Microsoft, they were also able to get functionality there. They have a large presence in Skype, and most of all, they were one of the first apps to launch in conjunction with Apple’s iMessage. Even more, they were also able to create partnerships with major film studios. This skyrocketing fame allowed them to pursue other areas to expand the humble GIF into.
Creating Mass Appeal
One of the most interesting things that Gfycat has been able to do is host a hackathon. On January 28, 2017, they started a 24 hour hackathon to encourage people to use the Gfycat API and SDK to create all sorts of creative projects with. The rules were simple: come in with an idea/design; program; give a five minute presentation. Many of the projects that were submitted were incredibly creative. They ranged from a neural network to suggest memes and a virtual reality gif explorer. The event was a success and showed the increasing interest in both Gfycat and creative applications of the GIF format.
Besides a hackathon, Gfycat has also expanded into the movie industry, and more specifically, marketing for films. Partnering with big studios, Gfycat helped revolutionize a new way to advertise films: through GIFS. These days, movie trailers usually range from one to two minutes and require audio for the full experience; the only problem with this old-school method is that most people these days don’t have the time or motivation to look at them. What Gfycat hoped to do was to bring these trailers into GIFs, shortening them down so anybody could watch them with their limited schedules, and pack a lot of action into a short animation.
From Tool to Experience
Gfycat has come a long way. Much like the GIF started out as a humble animation and has exploded onto pop culture and the world around us, Gfycat’s story also shows parallels. From a small cramped office, they’ve expanded, communicating between two teams in Edmonton, Canada, and Palo Alto, California. They’ve gone from a free tool on the internet for people who wanted to make a fast-to-load GIF to a silicon valley startup, set on revolutionizing the way people experience content.
Joseph Zhang Learning Better schools, business success story, Class, Code, Coding, Education, Front end, Inspirational Business Story, inspirational business success story, Long Term, Programming, Ryan Carson, Treehouse 0
Think about this. You spend thousands of dollars for college, work late into the night, and when you graduate, you realize you never learned what you wanted to. Ryan Carson experienced this first hand and came out of college with a computer science degree without learning any of the programming that he wanted to learn. 10 years later, he created a solution to solve for this issue that has bothered him ever since he graduated.
We recently sat down with Ryan Carson, founder of Treehouse, to learn more about the inspirational story behind his business.
Turbo Pascal to Treehouse
Ryan Carson first discovered coding in high school. One day, a teacher pulled him aside and asked him if he’d ever thought about trying programming before. Ryan at the time had no idea what it was, and that teacher began to explain what programming entailed and what you could do if you learned it.
Ryan replied, “That sounds amazing. I want to try that.”
Ryan Carson’s lifelong love affair with programming began in a hallway in a high school, accelerated through a turbo pascal class, and carried him out into the real world.
When it was time to choose majors for college, Ryan went along with what he assumed would be the best choice: computer science. He said, he wanted to do “something related to coding … and I chose computer science because it was the only degree about coding, programming, and computers”. Luckily, Ryan’s parents could pay his college tuition, but upon graduation, he felt disillusioned with the whole college system.
Instead of doing all the modern, front end developing that he imagined programming to be, he ended up overpaying to learn how to code low level system applications, something that he didn’t want to do. Imagine: four years of nothing but work and money, and then after leaving with a degree, you realize you never learned anything that you actually wanted to learn. This disillusionment would provide as a backdrop to Ryan’s eventual startup of treehouse. Between 2000-2010, he worked a series of software engineer jobs and began to develop a unique entrepreneurial identity as he went.
When he got out of university, he “moved to England immediately after just for adventure and excitement”. He got his first job as a web developer in Cambridge and lost it right as the Dot Com bubble burst. Afterwards, he headed towards London and became a web developer again. In 2004, he got married, and at the same time, started his first company.
It wasn’t a success.
His first startup was called Flight Deck and the purpose was to help send large files. It was a basic web app, built off from all of his years working as a web developer. Ryan admitted, “that business failed because I got the pricing wrong and I didn’t understand how to do sales”. Although the business failed, it represented a milestone of his career, and helped him realize that entrepreneurship wouldn’t be easy.
At that point, his second business had survived for quite a duration, but there were a few problems at the back of Ryan’s head. First, the business wasn’t scalable. This meant he couldn’t reach as many people as he wanted. The second aspect was pricing. He felt the classes were too expensive for the attendees. Finally, rising from the grave again was the issue of college degrees. Ryan wanted to build a better school. He wanted others to feel the same about programming as he did in high school, and he wanted it to be accessible to everyone. That year, he started Treehouse.
What is Treehouse?
The first person he hired was Alan Johnson, an extremely talented, sharp minded developer. Ryan saw in him many of the traits that he thought were important: integrity, intelligence, diligence, and helpfulness. Soon after he promoted him to co-founder.
Treehouse is a company focused on being the best in the world at creating beginners. What is a beginner? Basically, Treehouse wants to introduce programming, web development, and other aspects of coding to as many people as possible to set them on the right path towards software engineering. Treehouse has fulltime in house teachers dedicated to teaching the many concepts on the website. They use video content to best help new, aspiring students learn the nuances and beauties behind code. A quick look at the website tells you a lot about what the company aims for.
Prospective students can learn anything from app development to building a website. Most importantly, because Treehouse focuses on beginners, they can help anybody get started.
Creating Treehouse and Marketing Mishaps
Treehouse took off fast. Ryan pointed out “I had worked for five years in this [computer science] conference and event space and built up an audience so I was able to launch Treehouse to that audience so it grew very quickly, but it was only because I had done 5 years of hard work to get to that point.” Many of Ryan’s old clients helped build the base for his new startup and it flourished.
Even with everything going well, Ryan could easily list from the top of his head the most difficult aspects of starting his company. “It was hard to create the content initially, it was hard to figure out how to teach, and it was hard to figure out how to do marketing.”
One obstacle in particular proved particularly hard, and is still one of the main hurdles that the company has to get over today: acquiring customers profitably. Ryan found the task daunting. There were many areas to it. When you market to prospective customers, you have multiple places you can potentially reach them. Learning to spend money in the right ways to get these students wasn’t easy either. Ryan had to learn a lot of this the hard way.
There was one marketing mishap for acquiring students that Ryan remembers clearly. When code.org first launched, Treehouse decided to bid on the term so that if people searched for it, they would appear in the search results. Treehouse wasn’t a competitor of code.org, but they hoped that appearing in the search results would help them out. It turns out that Google ended up messing up the terms, and the search results made Treehouse look horrible. Afterwards, the founders of code.org banned them and wouldn’t work with them for a while because they thought Ryan and his team were trying to sabotage them when in reality, they was just trying to make an ally. Ryan still cringes when he thinks of it, and he admits that this was probably one of his biggest mistakes since he first started.
Treehouse’s Marketing Strategy
Ryan thinks that “there is no Silver Bullet” in marketing. For him, it’s constantly grinding away and figuring out which ways are best to appeal to potential students and how to best curate their content. Creating useful and relevant videos and classes is a cornerstone to his marketing philosophy. He believes that you can’t expect to build a product and have it become an overnight success. In a way, his approach is long term, slow, and steady. He compares it to running, saying “put your shoes on and get ready to run a marathon”.
One area in marketing that has helped Treehouse has been YouTube ads. Most people who have watched some videos on coding have probably seen a Treehouse ad pop up every now and then. Ryan thinks it’s particularly helpful because the video advertisement format builds off their own native video classes.
Through the ups and downs of starting and running a company, Ryan sometimes finds himself thinking about giving up or questioning his motivation to continue when things happen, such as when an employee quits or one has to be fired. Digging deep and realizing why he started Treehouse and believing in his cause has helped him get through the tough times over the years.
Regardless, throughout everything, Ryan feels like his biggest achievement has been being able to connect with his students. He said, “I’ve spoken to hundreds, thousands of students personally, and so many of them have changed their lives by learning how to code, and we played a big part in that. It’s just so satisfying.”
Reaching out to so many students is a soul satisfying task, and that’s also why Ryan believes his company’s done well. Their focus hasn’t changed over the years; they still focus on creating good content. No matter what, Ryan envisions a better future. He sees Treehouse changing people’s lives through the power of coding, one line at a time.