How a Handful of Weeblies in New York Built Promote from Scratch

Weebly had an idea.

Build a new team in New York City, and have that team focus on special projects. These projects would obviously be related to Weebly (no rockets to Mars or other Elon Musk style super villainy), but not be a part of its core service.

Why build the team in New York instead of at HQ in San Francisco?

There was a notion that this team would work much faster in isolation from the larger San Francisco office. Not because there wasn't incredible value in being part of the main office, but because the SF team is so focused on the Weebly website editor that it would be challenging to spin off a senior team to work on new projects without them getting continually pulled away from their new work.

Thus, in 2015, Weebly's New York engineering team, and Weebly Promote, were both born.

Now, the story of how some Weebly engineers moved from San Francisco to NYC so they could build a new email service without being distracted due to other engineers being too loud may not sound like it'd have much value to you as an entrepreneur. You're probably hardly in a place where you can start sending employees off to other cities to work on “special" projects. You may hardly be in a place where you can even have employees at all.

The thing is, though, that this New York office was essentially a semi-autonomous startup within Weebly, tasked to prove its value by building new products completely on its own at a speed faster than the main office could do. This meant they had to face and conquer many of the same challenges any new business would encounter.

"We had some big ideas about how we wanted to do this," says Drew Richards, Weebly's second employee way back in 2009 and Director of Engineering in the New York office. "In some ways, starting things from scratch allowed us to build even faster than if we'd started with an already established code base. And since we were essentially a startup within a startup, we really felt like we could be scrappy in what we put out there, picking the exact feature set that could be most impactful up front, knowing we'd build out more features over time."

Richards wrote the very first lines of code right after he moved to New York in July of 2015. And Weebly Promote was a finished and launched product by January of 2016. Building a new, functional software application that had to appeal to customers of an already established product in six months borders on crazy. Creating just one new feature can sometimes take that long.

How'd they do it?

First, they had to put together the right team. Weebly asked for volunteers to join Richards in New York, and both Dustin Doiron, another early Weebly employee, and Devon Reed made their way to New York a couple of months after he arrived.

Joining them was a Product Manager, Katie Miller, who had been working in New York for a while as part of Weebly's BD team. As well as a new Product Designer, Derick Anies. A few more people would join their team ahead of launch, but this was the core group who got everything started.

"It was a very collaborative process," says Dustin Doiron. "Basically the whole team was able to bring good ideas to Katie Miller (to go along with her own good ideas) and she did the hard work of figuring out which of those ideas was best and most likely to make it to the final product."

Richards adds, "The way the team came together, we just really gelled and we had a productivity that I hadn't seen before."

As Miller lead the way on determining where the team should focus its energies in terms of which functionality to roll out and when, Richards began designing the user interfaces and the engineers wrote the code that would make those interfaces function and send the emails out.

So they had a small team plugging away in New York, getting some help from Weebly's SF office for operations issues when needed but otherwise getting things done at breakneck speed. Is this all just the story of how things were super easy and everyone had a great time? Not quite.

Most of the team had been living in the website world for a long time and writing code that generated websites. You might think this wouldn't be all that different from writing code for email, and in a more reasonable alternate dimension it might be, but here in our dimension many email clients are really primitive in terms of what they support, being more than a decade behind modern web browsers. Outlook, a rather popular email client, even uses Microsoft Word to render emails. While Word is very nice for writing documents, you would never use it to look at a website.

"One of our biggest hurdles was that we got super close to the finish line before we'd thought too hard about the actual HTML output we'd have to make for specific email clients." says Richards. "And it was a much harder problem than we'd expected."

But the team had two factors on their side that helped them tackle and overcome this problem to still hit a January release date: they found a service called Litmus that enabled them to test emails out in every possible email browser and their newest engineer at the time, Ji Sohn, poured a ton of her time into becoming an expert on each email client's limitations and what the team would need to do to overcome them, and so they did.

"One of the most fun things we did in the early days, was that we had a big dashboard that tracked key stats for Weebly Promote and on everyone's desk we had these plastic trumpets (Trumpet was an early code name for Weebly Promote), and when we saw a new customer come in everyone would blow their plastic trumpets in celebration."

"It made it feel real, like we'd achieved something with each new customer," says Dustin.

When it comes to launching your own new business, there's a lot to learn from the Weebly Promote experience:

  • Bring in other people (even if they're family and friends) and tools (even if they're free) to help you achieve your goals. You can't do it alone.

  • Just as Weebly Promote would not have been the same had the team dealt with the distractions of the much more crowded SF office, your own business needs space from distraction. Carve out set times away from your usual work to ensure you can focus on your new business.

On top of that, email is a super helpful part of building your business and keeping customers coming back. Try out Weebly Promote features like Lead Capture Forms (that can be added to any Weebly or non-Weebly website) and Automated Emails (messages that can be sent to any customer who takes certain actions on your site that you determine). And know that as you do so, a small team of smart, friendly people in New York may be blowing their plastic trumpets in celebration.