A decade of work at digital marketing agencies in Los Angeles lent Blake Callens a career-altering insight.
That someday, there had to be another option besides WordPress and Drupal.
Little did he know that he and now co-founder Brian Hyder would be the ones building it. Today, they launch the public beta of PencilBlue, a software they hope will become the leading online publishing platform for at least the next decade. Read Callens’s blog post about it here.
It’s a tall task for the two-man startup in Raleigh- more than 74 million sites around the world are built on WordPress and it offers at least 29,000 plugins allowing virtually unlimited customization. Drupal is a popular open-source option for enterprises, with about a million sites. But the developer and publisher community appears to be ready for something new- simple site or blog-builders like Squarespace and Weebly are growing in popularity. Nationally-known blogger and software development guru Jeff Atwood first complained about WordPress since 2008.
Callens calls WordPress “a 10-year-old blogging platform that has been shoehorned into any genre imaginable and doesn’t do any of them exceptionally well” and Drupal, he says, “is built by developers for developers and is a nightmare for the end user. Nine of 10 people don’t need something so intense.”
He and Hyder solve these problems by targeting a specific audience: developers of sites that typically cost $30K to $100K (though a casual blogger could easily set up a site on the platform for free). They use the most modern programming language and databases (Node.js and MongoDB, both built for the cloud), offer the customization desired by most consumer brands and enterprises and design and functionality that is easy for the end user to understand and control.
By year’s end, they’ll launch a PencilBlue Plugin Marketplace, a first-of-its-kind online store (similar to the App Store model) with themes and plugins that can be purchased and downloaded for use building a PencilBlue site. Callens describes it as “the best extension marketplace ever built for open-source.”
Bold, he is. His goal is to be the standard for online publishing platforms.
“WordPress is the past. We are the future,” he says.
The back story
Callens and Hyder came together through the Raleigh Entrepreneurial Acceleration Lab (REAL), the nonprofit Raleigh startup accelerator that Callens started in early 2013. His day job was as lead developer of SpotTrot, a provider of mobile e-commerce solutions for the entertainment industry, but he left the company to focus on PencilBlue and work as a freelance contractor. Hyder is a software engineer at StepLeader Digital– he spends nights and weekends on PencilBlue.
Callens shared with Hyder his early work on PencilBlue, and his insights from his experiences building websites (at agencies Enhance Digital and Zuhara) for companies like Reebok, Nestle, Toyota, Sony Pictures as well as local pharma companies Amgen and Biogen.
When he realized that he needed a co-founder, Callens invited Hyder to join him as CTO (He wrote about the decision for ExitEvent in March). They’ve bootstrapped the company so far, and expect to continue to do so unless the right strategic investor comes along. Callens believes the two can operate without hiring additional staff until about 20,000 PencilBlue sites exist.
The go-to-market strategy.
To help meet that goal, they’ve developed a plan to partner with web hosting companies and development agencies, eventually establishing a certification process to distinguish the most capable PencilBlue developers. Four projects are already underway with local developer beta-testers. (Full disclosure: ExitEvent plans to use PencilBlue for its coming site redesign.)
“I am more optimistic than I was when we started this thing,” Callens says. “Every person in the IT industry that we demo it to tells us how excited they are about what we’re building.”
PencilBlue expects to set up revenue-sharing agreements with partners and eventually those who offer up plugins and themes in the PencilBlue marketplace.
In the meantime, developers around the world can download the software and begin building today. The first of a handful of tutorials is below. Callens hopes at least 500 sites will be up and running by year’s end. And as word gets out, he expects the pace to accelerate.