From Scratch: What I Learned Taking PencilBlue From Concept to MVP - 1

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Blake Callens is founder and CEO of PencilBlue, a newly launched content management system and publishing platform aimed to compete with Wordpress. ExitEvent relaunched its website on the platform last week, and we asked Blake to share his thoughts on the process and lessons learned. 

Last week, ExitEvent launched the new version of its website, running on PencilBlue, my company’s open source, online publishing and content management system. ExitEvent is the first news website to run on PencilBlue and we’re incredibly excited to see it live. But we’re even more excited for what’s to come.

Over the next few months, this website will be transformed into much more than a startup news and events source. It will become a complete hub for all things startup in the Triangle. It will become a showpiece for the platform my partner, Brian Hyder, and I started on just under a year ago.

We set our minds to building PencilBlue, because we saw a problem with the web development space. Nothing covered all of the market’s most basic needs: an open source, cloud centric platform, designed for programmers to build complex brand and publication sites, but simple enough for non-technical users to manage with minimal direction.

We were a few months away from making good on that promise in February, when I approached Laura Baverman with the option to replatform the newly acquired ExitEvent to PencilBlue. Laura was one of our original market research subjects, and one of the few people that knew about PencilBlue at that time. 

Much of her feedback, from her frustrations with other platforms to what she would ideally like to see, was directly integrated in our user experience design.  Having just been named as ExitEvent’s editor, she was the perfect candidate to pitch for adoption of PencilBlue. It turned out ExitEvent’s new management was already looking to rebrand and replatform. After a few months of vetting, we were selected.

There’s one thing that should be mentioned above all else here: even though they vetted us, Laura, Joe ProcopioExitEvent, American Underground, and Capital Broadcasting Co. showed an enormous amount of undeserved faith in us when they chose our platform before it had even been released to the public. They put their money where their mouth is when it comes to supporting local startups, and PencilBlue is in their debt.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing after our selection, though. Migrating a preexisting news site to a new platform takes a lot of coordination and hard work from multiple parties.

For designing the new site, ExitEvent chose Bernard Brown, an extremely talented, local user interface designer who had created the designs for PencilBlue’s admin section and our current website. To build the site they chose seasoned developers Pathos Ethos, who were in the midst of developing another engagement with PencilBlue for Durham’s G2B Gastro Pub. Finally, Brian and I were on board as advisors through the migration process, and would also develop plugins that would assist in the transition and add required features to the site.

For Brian and I, the biggest hurdle in the process was prioritizing both the ExitEvent migration and the expansion of PencilBlue as an open source platform.  There were multiple times that we worried we had bitten off more than we could chew, and we’d be lying if we said our excitement at the launch of the new ExitEvent isn’t also accompanied with some relief as well.

But that extreme challenge of juggling the improvement and expansion of our platform, responding to feature requests and bug reports from developers, marketing our new product, actively engaging with and training an international user base, and supporting ExitEvent’s significant rebranding and transfer to our platform—all while holding down day jobs—taught us how much we care about the success of our company.

That’s my biggest takeaway from this process—you have to possess a preternatural need for your startup to succeed if you’re going to make real headway.

Venture capitalists always talk about how they invest in the team as much, if not more, than the product. That’s because getting a startup off the ground sucks. It really, really sucks. The only things I’ve ever done that were harder were two military deployments. Think about it —basic training was an easier time for me than launching PencilBlue and migrating ExitEvent this summer.

You have to want your startup to succeed so badly you’re willing to go further and put up with more setbacks than the other guy. It’s a kind of whispered truth among dedicated startup founders—you can quickly surmise who has that need and who has the Hollywoodized view of entrepreneurism.

This summer was anything but a fairy tale. It was pure grit. It was working until midnight and getting up at 5 a.m., including weekends. It was arguments and reconciliations. It was bouts of frustration and helplessness mixed with feelings of accomplishment. It was a roller coaster.

But you’re elated after riding a roller coaster. You’re ready to get back on.

I don’t know if PencilBlue will become the next standard in website development, but after this summer I know my partner and I have the intestinal fortitude to take on whatever challenges come in our attempt to get there...

and I hope you enjoy the new ExitEvent.