As Format approaches its 10th birthday(!), we sat down with our Format co-founders Lukas Dryja and Tyler Rooney to look back at how they built a startup from scratch—all without investor funding. No small feat in the tech industry!
Back in 2008, Lukas had just graduated from OCAD University. He had been planning a career as a designer when he noticed something—none of his friends and classmates had the tech skills required to create a portfolio website to showcase their creative work. He partnered with co-founder Tyler, an Amazon alum with a desire to create a startup of his own. The pair offered their product—a subscription-based online portfolio platform for creators and visual artists—free of charge for the first two years while they worked out the kinks.
In 2010, the team hired their first employee, Stefan Pintaric, in a part-time Customer Success role. The company’s budget was so lean at that time that Stefan had to bring in his own computer. Still, with the company as the Director of Customer Success today, he now leads a team of 10 Format Experts around the world, providing 24/7 customer support (and no one needs to bring their own laptop to work!).
Most tech startups take in outside funding from investors, but Lukas and Tyler knew from the beginning that they wanted to keep the company 100% independent. “With outside investors, there are always terms,” says Tyler. “We’ve never had to make those decisions. That’s what makes us different from other tech companies: we can really define our own path and decide what tradeoffs we want to make.”
“I am very proud to have built Format from the ground up with no outside funding,” says Lukas. “We are close to 60 employees now, thriving in a gorgeous office in downtown Toronto, plus we have a number of team members working remotely from various parts of the world. We’re proud of our incredible retention rate: we have people working with us who have been here right from the beginning.”
That employee retention and commitment to growth earned Format the 24th spot on Canadian Business’ PROFIT 500 list of fastest-growing Canadian companies. Even though it’s respected as one of the best Canadian startups, Tyler says he still doesn’t think of Format as a traditional tech company, largely due to the decision to keep things self-funded. “Some companies use VC [venture capital] perfectly, become crazy growth machines, and put that money to great use, but not every business fits that model and, in the tech world, we sometimes forget that.”
Another key way Format sets itself apart is that the product is built for creators, by creators. Most website builders target anyone who wants a website; at Format, the focus is on helping creators succeed. Format is so creative-driven that many of the company’s employees are also creators outside of Format as well. “Even with a full workload on their plate, many of our team members have side gigs as creatives themselves,” says Lukas. “We have a lot of photographers, writers, visual artists, makers, and entrepreneurs on the team. At Format, we fully support our team’s amazing creative projects and we try to encourage them as much as we can. For instance, when one of the artists on the Customer Success team had a gallery show, we sent our team members there over lunch to support her. When another team member created a side-business to support people’s privacy online, we purchased her products for the whole company.”
Lukas also wanted to build a space where creators could offer input on how they can work smarter and improve the company. Everyone at Format is driven forward by a set of company values that inform every decision the team makes: Impact, Care, Trust, and Simplify.
The duo has worked hard to make Format a place people want to work. Employees are welcome to work remotely whenever they like, and there are plenty of opportunities for everyone to hang out, from movie nights, karaoke jam sessions, and baseball games to catered lunches and casual beers on the patio.
So, what does the future hold for Format? “In the next 10 years, I’m focusing on ensuring every creative in the world knows about Format, and considers our products as the go-to solutions for showcasing their work online,” Lukas says. “We want Format to play a significant role in creatives’ lives.”
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