Interview with Josh Williams of Firewheel Design, IconBuffet and Blinksale

July 25, 2005 in A person, An interview

Firewheel_1Unless you've been under a hibernating bear you're aware that the brilliant chaps over at Firewheel Design are about to release something that should have every freelancer/entrepreneur drooling. The product is called Blinksale (our review) and looks poised to take the headaches out of invoicing. I can't wait. (Rumors have it that Blinksale will be released this week).

Josh graciously agreed to offer some wisdom and thoughts here for us. So without further babbling...

1. First, tell us a little bit about how you got started as an entrepreneur. You've built a very impressive and successful company in Firewheel Design and IconBuffet and now you look poised to conquer the world with Blinksale.

Ha ha, well... world domination wasn't the number one goal with Blinksale, but we'll see how it does. I'd be fine with domination of north Texas. But seriously, both of my parents were entrepreneurs, and I grew up working in the family business (a landscape company and retail gardening shop).

My parents split the business when they divorced, and shortly after I was out of highschool my mom lost an eight-month battle with cancer. So I ended up with her company at the ripe, old age of 18. Gratefully, as the company had been around my entire life, it was pretty much a machine. The core employees all knew me, and were able to handle the day to day operations while I got my bearings with the ins and outs of the business.  My mom also did an unbelievable job of bringing me up to speed on most of the business details before she passed away.

When it was all said and done, I ran the landscape company for another three years before selling it off. That time was invaluable, as I was able to learn so much about running a corporation. It was like getting thrown in the pool and being told to swim. When I decided to start Firewheel, a lot of the details that can be a bit unnerving when you're starting a business, like contracts, taxes, and balance sheets, were already old hat to me.

2. Branching from a services oriented company to a product/software-oriented company is something you've done before with IconBuffet. I think it's probably every service-oriented entrepreur's dream to "go 37signals" and do that. So what prompted you to build Blinksale besides perhaps wanting it for your own use?

IconbuffetBoth IconBuffet and Blinksale have been born out of some flavor of necessity. A few years back, we realized that there was no way we could keep up with all the requests for custom icon design work we were receiving. We also realized that a large portion of the requests we were receiving were for the same kinds of icons (email, copy, paste, music, etc.).

So it made a lot of sense to launch a stock icon site. If we weren't able to take on someone's job due to our schedule, at least we could offer them the opportunity to still purchase icons with the same Firewheel quality, albeit stock images. Of course, for a lot of software developers and web designers, the stock work was perfect for them.

The idea behind Blinksale came to fruition early this spring (2005). The idea bluntly grew out of my frustration with the current small-business financial offerings as it pertained specifically to invoicing our clients. We've used MYOB to manage our finances at Firewheel since we got started and it has its place. I used to use Quickbooks for the Mac back in my landscape company days, but when they dropped payroll support, we jumped to MYOB.

All that to say, regardless of what you think of its other features, MYOB is downright crappy when it comes to creating invoices. It's extremely difficult to layout custom templates, and then you're forced to take those nasty-looking invoices and print them out or attach them as a PDF to an email.

Then, if a client goes AWOL on you, or accidentally throws away your invoice, you have to repeat the entire process. Attach a new (crappy looking) PDF, send a new email, and then follow up again if the invoice is still past due. I guess at some point in February or March I finally snapped. There had to be a better way... only I couldn't find it. Sure, there are other invoicing apps out there, but none were easy to use, and none solved my problem with crappy looking documents.

So one evening I'm at home with Rachel, my wife, and I grab an orange pen. I start drawing out my ideas for how I would design my ideal invoicing application. A handful of hours later I had finished mock-ups for about 80 percent of the primary pages in Blinksale. And I looked at Rach and said, "We need to do this." And she looked back and said something like, "Uh, yeah, hello?"

I had been to 37signals' Building of Basecamp workshop last fall to help solidify some ideas for IconBuffet (which are still coming, mind you). I knew that a lot of the work that went into Ruby on Rails, the framework that Basecamp and Backpack are built upon, would definitely ease the development of our yet-unnamed invoicing app.

So I looked at my pages of orange-pen sketches and said, "Yeah, let's make this happen." At that stage, it wasn't necessarily about creating a salable web-application. It was simply about a challenge to see if we could actually solve this problem. So Scott Raymond of redgreenblu came on board the project as our developer, and here we are, about five months later. Blinksale is ready to go 1.0 in a couple days, and we have huge running list of ideas for taking the application forward in the weeks and months to come.

3. The question I'm dying to ask is in reference to the way you're marketing Blinksale. You've managed to foment a frenzy like few I've seen. And maybe it's because I'm in the froth of frenzy myself, but it seems pretty genius. You've given beta slots to some pretty high profile members of the community, and now you're all scratching each other's backs in public about it. Was that a deliberate marketing move? And what else are you doing to help spread the word?

We definitely wanted people to know what Blinksale was before it hit the public. To be honest, the Firewheel website, having been through three revisions in less than 2 years, wasn't the ideal venue to initially spread the word. We're largely known for our icon and UI design, but not for our blog. With the most recent redesign, we're hoping to change this a bit. That said, we're really grateful for the handful of bloggers who have helped us build interest in Blinksale.

Regarding the beta, we pretty much went straight to a small handful of people we know personally who, to one degree or another, either manage their own business or engage in freelancing on continuing basis. Small businesses, freelancers and contractors have been the primary focus of Blinksale since day one. We knew that these individuals would be a good measuring stick on whether or not we've created a solution to the invoicing problem.

It's a risk. We're certainly not paying these folks anything to beta test Blinksale. If it works, they'll hopefully tell their friends it works. If it sucks, they're going to tell them it sucks.

4. What can you tell us about how you built Blinksale and your development philosophy? You'll have to forgive the inevitable comparison to 37signals, but it's quite interesting to read how they built Basecamp with Ruby on Rails, their "quick, solid, less features, fewer buttons, easy to use, 'get real'" philosophy. Any thoughts you care to share about your approach/technology/philosophy?

I have a tremendous amount of appreciation for 37signals and the Get Real philosophy. Basecamp did a ton to educate the masses on what a web app could be. We certainly took some cues from the usability of 37signals' products.

Regarding our own approach and philosophy, I'm a firm believer that if it's not fun you shouldn't do it. When it came to building Blinksale, this was a huge principal we kept in mind. I wanted it to be clean and usable and whatnot, but I wanted it to bring a smile to people's faces. I mean, let's face it: Making money should be fun. Getting paid is a good, happy thing.

Blinksale2Billing clients and creating invoices can be a bit anti-climatic. You've spent all this time and effort to finish a project for a client. You should feel rewarded at that point. You shouldn't feel like creating the invoice to bill that client is a project in and of itself. Blinksale aims to be fresh, quick, easy, and fun. And as the application matures, this will only become more and more apparent.

5. What advice do you have for other aspiring Josh's out there who want to build a business with the kind of following and success that you've created?

Ah, advice... that's always a tough one, because everyone comes from different backgrounds and circumstances. For me, I was very fortunate to have had a lot of people pour a lot of time and energy into my life, especially while I was in highschool. The landscape company experience was extremely invaluable as well. All that said, there are definitely a few key things that stand out as reasons why Firewheel has become a success.

First, we've focused on a few core niche-type services. If you're a small shop looking to get started in design, web development, or whatever, it's a lot easier to sell yourself if you're an expert at one specific discipline than it is to sell yourself if you're semi-competent in a variety of disciplines. If you only focus on one or two core services, you're more likely to become highly regarded as that expert that people seek out. There are a ton of design companies out there. What specific service is going to set yours apart?

Second, we've developed a visual brand that people know and recognize.  People know Firewheel because of the name itself, its flower-like logo, and the orange and black color scheme. Crafting your visual brand isn't always easy to do, but it's crucial for people to know where to place you in their mind. Khoi Vinh's Subtraction website is a wonderful example. It's stark black and white visuals stick in your mind. Greg Storey's Airbag is another great example. That Zeppelin and the hula girl are really hard to forget. It's difficult for me to see a blimp now and not think of Airbag. Cuban Council is a final great example. Their single page portfolio with the somewhat kitschy (and often updated) San Francisco street scene speaks volumes about their attitude. You have to have a strong visual brand and persona, and you can't rip that off of someone else. You have to look down deep inside, discover your style, then stick a giant magnifying glass over it for the world to see.

Third, learn everything you can about business. This usually means reading a lot. I'm speaking a lot to designers here, but it applies to anyone. Us creative types tend to suck when it comes to business stuff. We can make things pretty, but we don't know much about contracts, business communication, or managing our finances. And if you need to get help in this area, get help! Find a business owner or entrepreneur who is willing to mentor you a bit in the finer things of business. Join a professional organization like AIGA. You can learn a ton from the people you'll meet.

Finally, if you grow the the point you have to hire additional talent, hire the best you can find. Gratefully this is not a mistake we have made with Firewheel. A couple years ago when we hired our first outside employee (besides Rachel and myself), we went straight to the person I felt like possessed the best skills for the job. Even though John Marstall, our first hire, lived hundreds of miles away in St. Louis, I knew he was the man for the job. Gratefully he was up for the task. Now, there's a caveat here... the best person is usually not the cheapest. But remember, you get what you pay for. If you're looking to hire someone just for the sake of hiring somebody, you should take a step back and reevaluate your needs.

Ok, 3 quick fire questions:

Speaking of Firewheel Design, IconBuffet and your existing business success:

6: What advertising or marketing venture has been more successful than you anticipated?

Word of mouth... and that includes direct referrals from clients as well as people who stumble upon our website because they randomly found a link somewhere else.

7: What advertising or marketing effort has been less successful than you anticipated?

Certain types of paid banner advertising. It depends on the site—some sites work well with banner ads and some don't. We've paid money for a handful to advertise IconBuffet, and they'll turn out to be bombs.

8: Do you come by all your smarts naturally, or do you read any magazines/books/etc that you might recommend?

I do naturally like to read, and I read quite a bit.  I've enjoyed reading both Seth Godin and Malcolm Gladwell recently, but really my list of books could go on a while. In terms of magazines, we keep the usual suspects around the office (Communication Arts, HOW, Step) but lately I've been enjoying Metropolis, a great architecture and design publication. Dwell is also a staple here. For business periodicals, you definitely need a subscription to Creative Business. And that about rounds it out.

Thanks Josh!

You're welcome Carson. It's been fun.

Well, as mentioned by Jason Fried when he threw down the guantlet about Side-Business software the time certainly seems ripe for an application such as this. We wish you all the best Josh!

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People who have entrepreneurial parents are set up very well for leading their own business to success. If your have grown up seeing your parents do it right (or even wrong) you learn so much than you could ever learn in school or otherwise. Unless you do it yourself of course.

Posted by: Wesley Walser | Aug 3, 2005 12:15:57 PM

Our company develop the synchronizaion between Blinksale and MS Outlook. We think it would be useful - because Blinksale is really good application, that has the sync only with BaseCamp. So we decided that it should also have sync with Outlook (to import and invoice clients and customers from MS Outlook without having to re-enter their data into Blinksale).

I hope that it would be useful for you.
To learn more, please follow the link:
or you can Email me personally: [email protected]

Thank you

Posted by: venera | May 18, 2007 3:30:46 AM

Thanks for taking the time to write that, I found it very educational. If you get a chance you should visit my site as well. I hope you have a great day!

Posted by: Office 2007 Product Key | Dec 6, 2010 6:28:44 PM

Interesting article. We have been using Freshbooks but I will have to take a look at blinksale. The ability they have to process payments could be very interesting.

Posted by: Sam Kidd | Feb 18, 2011 7:38:14 AM