The one who started Dribbble with 50 T-shirts

  • January 30, 2019

Dan Cederholm is the co-founder of Dribbble, an online community allowing people to showcase their graphic design, web design, illustrations and pictures. He looks back on his career, talking about how he started coding, the challenges he faced at Dribbble as a founder and as a front-end developer, how writing has been the key to his success and much more.

Hi I’m Dan Cederholm, co-founder of Dribbble and founder of SimpleBits and I come from Salem, Massachusetts.

From music to web design

My dream job as a kid was to be a rock star. I played music from an early age, I think I was around 8 years old when I started playing the drums. That was really the focus up until I was 23 or something. It wasn’t until like the web came along that showed me another way to be creative. I got a really terrible job at a record label in Cambridge, Massachusetts called Rounder Records. I worked my web to a desk job and it had Windows 3.1 machine that was hooked up to the Internet and I was just blown away by it. It was literally like within a few months it kind of shifted my all thinking in OK, here is something I can make a living doing but also learn so much by using it.

Learning by viewing

So to learn web design back in the 90s, it was viewing source and that’s the beautiful thing I think about web design. The blueprints for everything that’s out there is available to see, to dissect and pull apart. And I just loved that. If I saw something I thought was cool, I would view source and figure it out how I could recreate that.

The mentors

This was kind of an early dial-up Internet company. And there was a guy named Paul Yasi there who was the only guy with a Mac in this room of customer support people on PCs and everything. I really gravitate towards him and I specifically remember him using the command line to FTP something. And I was watching him do it. And I didn’t know anything about command line at the time. He’s typing and he said bye and the Internet left. And I was like he’s talking to the computer, that’s incredible. That blew me away. And I learned a ton from him, not necessarily in terms of how websites are built, but how the Internet works and how the web works. I was fortunate to be taken under his wing in a way. And then fast forward, several years after that, it was the web standards movement that I sort have got swept out into. Tons of mentors in there. Like Jeffrey Zeldman. I owe it a ton of gratitude to him for his caring and all his sharing. And Doug Bowman, Dave Shea, Molly E. Holzschlag and all those folks in the early days of web standards.

Dribbble as a side project

So Rich Thornett and myself we’re really good friends, living in the same town in Salem, Massachusetts. We were neighbors, I could see his back door from my door. We ended up working together, sharing an office a few days a week. And it just so happened that Rich was also a programmer and product designer as well. This was right around the time when I had this idea for Dribbble, with 3 bs because the domain name was available. Selfishly I wanted to be able to look over the shoulder of people that I admired and see what they were working on. So Rich and I, we talked about a little bit and literally he is like OK, we’ll just start a (Ruby on) Rails project and let’s just make it as a side project. And that’s what we did. We just started that as a side project, just the two of us, part-time. That’s how it began really.

T-shirts to start the community

One of the things that really helped us initially is we invited like 50 to 100 friends or colleagues that I knew were great designers. So we ending up sending them a T-shirt and a hand written code to get into the site. Hey, hello friend, please try out our site Dribbble. And here is the URL. And the T-shirt was great because it kind of guilted them into actually checking the site out. Rather than me just sending an email saying hey, we’ve got this new product we’re working on. So what was great about that is that this group of 50 or so really good designers, they set the tone of what was being shared and uploaded. And they immediately shared really interesting, visually compelling stuff. That was the foundation for the next wave.

Challenges as front-end developer

One of the challenges is that this site was a site for designers, and many of them front-end people themselves. So you have to grow a thick skin when you’re designing or building something for designers as a designer. We intentionally made the interface generic in a way so that it would sit back and that the work will be showcased rather than the UI of Dribbble itself. That was always a challenge to really hold yourself back and really focus on the artist and not what I wanted to do interface-wise. I think the other challenges I touched down a little bit was the fact that it was just me doing front-end for so long. I had been a freelance front-end person for years before that. And the nice thing about that is that you can kind of reinvent your skills set every projet. Whereas if you are working on one product for over years, it becomes difficult to throw out everything and start over again. And then you’ve got other team members coming on board that are hungry to use better technology and organize it differently. So now you’ve got this large code base that could work better and it can always work better. And I think that was something I need to keep in mind. You’re gonna have to embrace the imperfectness of your code if you’re living with it over a long period of time otherwise you drive yourself crazy.

Growing by watching the community

So we did a lot of just watching the community and reacting to how they were using the product. A lot of the features came out of recommendations from the community itself. They started using it a certain way and we sort of adapted the UI to that. Paving the cowpaths they call it. There were a lot of just observation on how they were using it and then reacting to that and building in the features. Like rebounding for instance. That was one feature early on that we created. It was a way of replying to a design shot with another shot of yours. People were doing it in the comments and we sort of took that and made it into a feature.

Remote as a way of living

Initially Rich and I actually rented a much larger office than we needed in Salem, Massachusetts, thinking that we wanted to hire locally. It turns out that there is not a ton of product folks in Salem. Actually there is now but not at the time. And I think couple of first hires were remote and that kind of just snowballed. We realized that even Rich and myself we’ll be in the same room but we’d be working in Slack anyway because it is just more efficient to communicate that way for a lot of stuff. So couple hires remote set the tone and then we realized that opens up a whole market of talent. But aside from that, I think I couldn’t go back to an non remote job because remote is much better for life balance and I don’t think I’m employable anymore.

People and relationships above all

I feel like the biggest joy I get is finding new talent on Dribbble every day. I’ll go on there and find somebody that has a couple followers and is creating just incredible work. That motivates me. I know that’s gonna happen every morning. It happens. There’s new people up there that are sharing their stuff for the first time or just something I didn’t come across until then. Being able to shine the spotlight on that and help them either get hired, get more visibility, get a job or whatever. It’s wonderful and I think the people that I’ve met through the web design world are not an achievement but the relationships feel like an achievement. I feel like finding good people that share the same view of the world, when it comes down to it, that’s one of the most important thing I think for us to have.

Writing!

The success I’ve had up to this point, I feel like was because I wasn’t afraid to share as I was learning. That switch of hey I don’t need to be an expert to be talking about how I work and sharing that with the world. And I feel that is really valuable for anybody to do. To not wait until you have a complete grasp on the subject to actually share your thoughts about it and how you are using it in your current work. Whether that’s a blog or Twitter, whatever it is, it doesn’t matter. Because that’s gonna be crucial. Writing skills are just crucial anyway: communication with the team, copy on the websites. All of that just are the foundations of interfaces too.

More abstraction in the future

For the future, I see more abstraction from what’s going on. I think the design tools that are happening are really interesting right now. And I don’t mean let’s go back to front page or anything like that. But there is a level of abstraction that probably could happen. Something like Webflow for instance is really interesting to me because they’re taking that sort of visual approach while still providing solid standards base code underneath it. I feel like it should be easier to do some of the things that we do. Some things could be automated. Design systems are growing. I feel like there is this combination of design systems and tools and the browser technologies are all coming up to a place where hopefully we can spend more time worrying about the experience and the content rather than how we are getting things to work.

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Illustration by WTTJ

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Anne-Laure Civeyrac

Tech Editor @ WTTJ

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