Webflow: $4B making building websites easy

What’s up! This is Sheldon from The Zero to One. Helping you build and scale your business with proven product and growth tactics from the world’s most successful startups.

Today’s deep dive is one of persistence and bouncing back in the face of failure. And it’s packed with actionable takeaways for you to apply to your business. So strap in, because this is a good one!

There’s this awesome concept of Inventing on Principle, which is this idea that if there is something in the world you feel is wrong and you have a vision for what a better world could look like, that should be your guiding principle on what to work on.

And this is exactly what inspired Vlad Magdalin to start building Webflow, for the 4th time - but this time was different. He had found his guiding principle.

He believed that the world could be a better place if more people could use the power of technology, specifically to build sophisticated websites. And so, he convinced his brother, a designer, of his vision, and along with their third cofounder, Bryant Chou, they set out to democratize web development by making it intuitive and visual.

11 years (and a bit more if you add in attempts 1 to 3) and a $4B valuation later, Webflow powers over 3.5m users to bring magic, in the form of websites, to life.

This is the story of how Webflow went from Zero to One. 🚀

Today’s deep dive at a glance:

  • Webflow’s Growth Timeline

  • How Webflow got the ball rolling: Think like a developer

    • Finding their wedge

    • Used their ICPs as hubs

  • How they became the Webflow we know today: Responsive scaling

    • Bring their users along with them

    • Added ICPs to scale

Webflow’s Growth Timeline

The story goes that Webflow was founded in 2013 by Vlad and Sergie Magdalin and Bryant Chou.

But it actually begins much earlier than this. With 3 false starts before finaling going all-in and coming out on the other side.

It was 2005. Vlad was studying computer science. And for his senior project tried to build a tool that automated some of his development work.

He was obsessed with the name “Webflow” and even maxed out his credit card debt to buy the domain for $4k - a typical college project…

And so Webflow was born.

Problem was, Vlad was finishing college and needed to find a job. Which he eventually did, at Intuit. Sadly, Webflow came to an end - for now.

Because then a bit over a year later, Vlad got the itch to start building it a again - working nights and weekends while at Intuit. The problem this time?

He was too all over the place. Depending on the client, the requirements changeg a ton and he was never clear on what he was building.

But 2 years later, he gets together with some of his buddies from Intuit and they give it another go. Only for it not to go quite as planned:

  • They didn’t find traction.

  • They had a trademark denied (and received a cease and desist threat)

  • One cofounder lost motivation

  • The tech wasn’t quite sophisticated enough yet

  • Their jobs got more interesting

  • They got rejected from YC (again, for now)

And so once more. Webflow came to a close.

But then almost 5 years later and guess what appears in his mailbox…

A letter from his mom.

Underneath the trademark for Webflow. Completely unsolicited.

This re-energized Vlad and so he went at it again - this time focusing more on frontend development than backend.

Around this same time in 2012 everything changed for Vlad. He came across a video, “Inventing on Principle” which really challenged him to think why he did what he did - but also exposed him to the idea of interface manipulation - which is a fancy way to say how can he create a product that is intuitive, where you directly do the thing - traditional coding requires interface between the code and the outcome. His idea was to make it visual and easy to understand.

He phoned his boss the next day to let him know that he planned on quitting.

And in September he asked his brother - an awesome designer and the ideal person to build this with - to move in with him.

They pooled all the money they had, sold stocks, withdrew savings, and decided to put $15k into making a Kickstarter video. Only to be kicked off the platform because they didn’t know SaaS products weren’t allowed.

Around the same time they were rejected from YC. Again. And almost had no money left.

They went into survival mode, brought in Bryant Chou as their third cofounder and CTO, and created a demo to show the world. And to their surprise, it exploded on HackerNews. Getting 20-30k users to sign up on a waitlist.

They used this traction to re-apply to YC for S2013.

They got in.

This gave them a bit of a breather in terms of money, but they still didn’t have a customer.

And the launch to their waitlist didn’t bring in many paying users (~50).

By the time demo day at YC came they were ramen profitable (enough for the three of them to afford ramen and nothing else).

But fundraising was hard. They initially only raised $300k (I say only because the YC culture is to raise in the millions for your seed).

They then decided to stop fundraising and focus on building - this ironically drew in over $1M in additional investment. Leading to a total seed raise of $2.9M (split between 2013 and early 2014).

But growth was slow. Too slow to raise a Series A. And so the Webflow team went into a default alive mode - i.e., profitability hunting. They stopped hiring, cut costs, and focused on becoming financially sustainable. They didn’t raise again for over 5 years.

The interesting thing about Webflow is that from here, there wasn’t some crazy inflection point where growth couldn’t be contained - but rather consistent growth, year after year, for half a decade. Until the no-code revolution and their $72M Series A in 2019 that is.

Growing from 4k customers and $1.5M ARR in 2015 to 45k and ~$25M ARR at the end of 2019 (profitably as well).

To exploding in 2020. Reaching $66M in ARR.

In March 2022, Webflow crossed the $100M ARR mark and today that number is closer to $140M ARR, with more than 3.5M users and a $4B valuation.

Short on time? 4 Tactical Insights from Webflow

If you only have a few minutes today, here are 5 of my favorite actionable insights from this deep dive:

  • Find both a technical and position wedge into a market that only you have. This eliminates any competition and you create a competition of one. Once you win with this market, you can begin to expand.

  • Look for growth opportunities that are one-to-many. For example, hubs that are connected to as many people as possible, like influencers. This way you only have to make the sale once, and then your customers will grow your product for you.

  • Make your customer more successful in finding, onboarding, adopting, and succeeding with your product. Create processes, content, features, and resources that create this viral organic loop that spurs growth. Webflow does a great job of this by bringing their users along this journey with content, their marketplace, and its product wishlist.

  • Incentivize User-Generated Content (UGC). UGC is one of the most scalable growth channels as your customers are doing most of the work for you. So find ways you can incentivize this - for example, commission on template sales, exposure to your other customers, or even gifts in the mail. UGC is often viral, so once you get a few people to do it, more will follow.

Keep reading for more on these, plus plenty more tactics you can replicate from Webflow.

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How Webflow got the ball rolling: Think like a developer.

🧀 1. Finding their wedge

The first question asked to Webflow is always how are they different to Wix, Squarespace, and Weebly, i.e. your common website builders.

And it’s a great question. Because website builders seem like a solved problem (even at the time).

But there’s a fundamental difference between that group and Webflow.

Webflow is an abstraction on top of code. What this means simply is that you are still thinking like a developer when you use Webflow. It is just in a visual way.

The Wix group is more Photoshop-like, in that it is template designs that drive the website.

But even this might sound confusing to us non-technical nerds (we are still nerds, just not the engineering type). So to compare it:

Webflow = FinalCut Pro and After Effects.

The others = iMovie.

Both have important use cases. But approach different use cases in a different way. With Webflow you can build a customized and sophisticated product and not simply a website.

So their positioning became clear. They empowered designers to create powerful and unique websites without any code.

This became the core of their business. You could now design, build and launch unique products with Webflow.

You’re probably thinking why no one else had done this yet? Well, Webflow took advantage of new technology - responsive design (the lack of which had even stopped them in the past). In simpler terms, making code more efficient for all screen sizes and views.

So it became the core foundation of their product.

But it was a tight window of opportunity:

  • All the new startups in 2013 were focused on mobile.

  • Responsive design was so new that all the industry giants (like Adobe) couldn’t react fast enough.

They used responsive design as their wedge, and in doing so, became a competition of one.

They truly gave designers the ability to create beautiful and powerful websites without the need for an engineer.

They could design, build, and launch - with no code, but with the full power of code (i.e. responsive design and HTML-level customization.

Find your “in” into a market. That one thing that makes you different from all your competitors and makes you a competition of one. And use that to expand from there.

🎡 2. Used their ICPs as hubs

As I mentioned above, Webflow had a very clear positioning when launching. And what this led to was a very specific Ideal Customer Profile (ICP) - freelance and agency designers.

They had essentially given designers the ability to become visual developers - democratizing the development process with a visual and intuitive interface.

If you think about this persona, they need everything: hosting, design flexibility, interactions, customization, and powerful websites.

And Webflow was the only one that could give them this without an engineer.

But Vlad, Sergei, and Bryant realized one critical thing about this ICP. They are basically a customer-led sales team.

For every new project they did, they brought more customers to Webflow.

This is the ultimate leverage in marketing: One to Many.

Alex Lieberman and Austin Rief used the term “hub and spoke model” when building Morning Brew.

Essentially you want to find hubs that are connected to as many people (spokes) as possible. And this is exactly what Webflow did by using freelancers and agencies as a growth channel. They only needed to make one sale. And from there, the responsibility was on the customer.

Webflow didn’t leave its customers on their own though. As part of their content strategy, they support these freelancers and agencies. For example, blog posts on how to convince clients to use Webflow over WordPress.

When you find a hub, don’t just leave them hanging. Support them. Give them content to share, referral bonuses, merch to give away, and guides on how best to sell you. Bring them into your business. This will also make them feel a part of something bigger than themselves and they will feel more committed.

How they became the Webflow we know today: Responsive scaling

❤️‍🔥 1. Bring their users along with them

From day one, Webflow was committed to building sustainably with the long-term in mind. It shaped many of their business decision, including fundraising and their product roadmap.

Key to this vision was to ensure that they brought their users along with them in their growth - as they grew and became a better product, so did its users grow and build better products.

This led to an alignment of incentives between Webflow and its users. I’ve talked about this concept before, so I won’t go too much into it. But what Webflow highlights here is just how critical aligning incentives between you and your users is to a sustainable business.

It makes you think long-term.

You have to think about how you can consistently build your product so that it continues to add more value to your users, so they can be more successful, and therefore use and share your product even more.

It forces you to put your customer’s success first.

And that’s exactly what Webflow did. By bringing their users along for their growth ride. Building a more resilient business in the process, while also making their users more money.

There are a few key ways Webflow brings its users along with them:

Blogs, Ebooks, and other resources: Helping potential users find the product (and be successful on it)

Webflow is big on content marketing.

It’s a core part of their growth with over 400k organic monthly users coming to the site. One of the biggest drivers for this is the Webflow blog.

With dozens of long-form, information-rich blogs each month about design, development, engineering, bts at Webflow, entrepreneurship, innovation, and strategy. And importantly, spread throughout the customer journey:

  • Top of the funnel: Things like “11 best fonts for web design”

  • Middle of the funnel: Content like “6 featured Webflow projects”

  • Bottom of the funnel: Specific pieces like “From Figma to Webflow: turning your static designs into interactive websites”

And although Webflow’s blog brings in around 20% of its organic revenue - this is only part of their content strategy. Another important part is what they call their “Resources”.

Webinars, Ebooks, White Papers, and reports.

Now this is not really a strategy to help more users discover Webflow, but it is one to help convert users by providing endless content that will help their ICPs build websites and businesses.

Webflow understands that to convert users, you first need to get them to your site, so they use a funneled SEO approach which generates them millions of dollars of free organic traffic each month.

Webflow University: Making users more successful onboarding onto the product.

The next way Webflow brings its users along their journey is by making them more successful in using the product. I.e. getting them better at web design with courses, documentation, interactive learning, community, and certifications (and the resources I mentioned above).

Let’s think about the three main ICPs for Webflow:

1. Freelancers and agencies:

The better websites they can build, the more clients they can make. Which leads to more money for both them and Webflow.

Plus, with Webflow’s certifications, they can add another layer of legitimacy when selling to new clients.

2. Marketing teams:

Marketing teams are typically non-technical. But they need to be able to iterate a website quickly to test different copy, positioning, and add new landing pages.

Webflow University gives them a place to learn how to do this as efficiently as possible. Making them more successful in their jobs and less dependent on engineers.

3. Founders:

At the early stages of a business founders typically have two main goals. Growth and revenue. Having access to Webflow University helps them onboard quicker, removes the need for an expensive designer and developer, and they can launch an MVP quicker.

The University is a great way to reduce the learning curve, onboard users faster, and increase adoption and activation.

Webflow Marketplace: Making users more successful with User Generated Content (UGC).

One of the most successful features Webflow introduced was the Webflow Marketplace - giving you everything you need to create an amazing website, by the community. This includes:

  • Templates - to give you a headstart when building.

  • App Integrations - to superpower your website.

  • Libraries - to build faster.

  • Expert job board - to find Webflow-approved partners.

  • Community inspiration - to be inspired by what’s possible.

Focusing on UGC has been one of their biggest growth drivers. From driving SEO traffic to the templates page (which ranks on Google for “free templates” and is one of their most visited pages), to the scalability and inherent virality of UGC.

What the marketplace allows is for users to feel more confident in starting projects. It gets users to quickly register an account and start building.

And a lot of this is driven by other users. And this is by design. Webflow leaned into UGC from early on, incentivizing it by paying commissions on UGC sales. For example, if you create a template and sell it - you earn money.

This means that you are directly incentivized to promote Webflow. Driving traffic, increasing conversions, boosting domain authority, and growing their brand.

What’s become even cooler about this is that we see a bunch of creators having a freemium model with their templates - with the more basic ones as free lead magnets. This is all giving Webflow free content to give to new potential customers.

This has become so scalable that it produces over $50k equivalent in organic traffic.

The same applies for all their other UGC content - just not as popular - the more Webflow grows, so does its customers.

Product Wishlist: Making the product better through its users.

Webflow has one of the coolest ways of bringing their users into the product roadmap that I’ve seen: The Webflow Wishlist.

Where users can vote on new product ideas, in a Reddit-style upvote. However, to make it even more effective, the Webflow team limit the amount of upvotes you get, so that you have to be extremely thoughtful about which features you truly want.

Some of the core features of Webflow today came from this wishlist, such as user login and membership functionality.

By doing this, Webflow outsources ideas and can speak to its customers at scale. Then Webflow can use this and align it to their strategy and vision to shape its product roadmap - it’s important that you don’t just blindly build what your customers say they want. If you do this, you’ll end up looking like everyone else.

You need to translate what your users say they want into something that solves the underlying issue of what they truly want and make sure it aligns to your overall vision.

Over the last 11 years, Webflow has become a champion for its users’ success. They have brought them along their journey and as they have grown, so have their users. Leading to more true fans and greater customer loyalty.

The results of this are hard to fully quantify, but the keyword “Webflow” is by far their most organically searched keyword, accounting for ~15% of traffic.

And for a company getting over 400k monthly visitors, this is a good indication that the Webflow word-of-mouth is strong, and that is driven by customers loving the product.

🪴 2. Added ICPs to scale

Remember Webflow targeting freelancers and agencies as hubs?

Well, if you think about they work, they usually hand over the website to their client. Meaning they hand Webflow a different user - with different needs. Typically this is the marketing team within a company.

Soon these users became a large portion of Webflow’s customer base. And Webflow was awesome for them, because it helped them stay closer to the website process. They could launch landing pages, tweak messaging, and add content all without engaging devs - freeing up engineering resources for core product development.

And so Webflow leaned into this. (Plus there were only so many freelancers and agencies Webflow could sell to and they were limiting themselves by not expanding their ICP after winning over the first one)

First highlighting their visual way to build for the web and adding messaging on handing clean code off to your devs.

This then changed into a full emphasis on no-code and the product’s ability to create powerful websites, for marketers that are constantly changing things without needing developers’ time.

This addition also opened up their expansion into enterprise. They could have their marketing team design the landing pages, hone in the messaging, A/B test different flows, and all without coding - they could even hand this over to the dev team in a way that worked for everyone.

But importantly, this was an addition rather than a replacement. Adopting a product-led sales motion by adding a sales team to leverage their existing PLG momentum.

This change in positioning was aligned enough with their previous ICP that Webflow didn’t need them to split into two separate audiences. They could convey their value to both audiences with the same product and proposition.

And importantly for their freelance and agency users, it opened the potential for their businesses by making Webflow more enterprise-acceptable - another example of them growing together with their users.

Alongside this, Webflow also leaned more into early-stage founders who:

  1. Wanted to launch and test an idea quickly.

  2. Had a proven idea and wanted quick feedback cycles to optimize their website.

Webflow works great for these personas for a few reasons:

  • Reduces the time to build a product = A quicker MVP.

  • Fully customizable = Unique UI/UX.

  • Visual and intuitive UI = Non-technical founders can be closer to the product.

  • There is instant feedback to changes. Faster tweaks to copy and design.

  • It is powerful enough for most non-core product use-cases = Technical founders can focus on developing the core product and reduces need to hire additional engineers.

Today, their user base is about 50% freelancers and agencies and 50% teams (and founders) within organizations. But key for Webflow’s mission, this happened very organically. Meaning they didn’t lose that uniqueness that made Webflow, Webflow - they are still very much a platform for everyone (and not tailored only for enterprise).

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