Business in Vancouver's "How I Did it" feature asks business leaders to explain in their own words how they achieved a business goal in the face of significant entrepreneurial challenges. In this week's issue, Andrew Wilkinson, founder of Victoria-based MetaLab and Pixel Union, talks about growing the web interface design company that he started when he was just 20.
“The summer between grades nine and 10, I ended up starting a website with another young guy in Hawaii. We started writing about Mac and Apple news, and we quite quickly did very well. I got to meet Steve Jobs, I got to meet Apple executives and interview them. I was 16. I thought I wanted to be a writer. I went to Ryerson University (to take journalism), but I ended up dropping out after about five months and moved back to the West Coast.
“I taught myself how to build websites. I just went into a company and managed to B.S. my way into a job. I used that time to learn everything I needed to and quickly realized I could do this stuff myself. I came up with the name MetaLab and launched the website – and within about three weeks I was making four times what I was making at my old job.
“One of the challenges was, from a small city, how do you work with these big companies? The way I did it was by doing strategic favours. I would email the CEO of a company I wanted to work for and say, ‘I noticed your blog isn’t really nice; I redesigned it for you, for free.’
“Maybe I wouldn’t work with that company, but whenever he got asked ‘Do you know someone who does web design?’ he’d say ‘You’ve got to talk to this MetaLab guy.’ From there we’ve just grown. Now we work with Google, Disney, Wal-Mart, TED – you name it.
“We evolved from just doing design for other people to building software. We launched our first product in 2009 called Ballpark, which is small business time-tracking, invoicing, estimates. We built that because we needed it.
“We had a hit software product, Flow, which we launched in 2010. Flow is a productivity tool for teams – and we built that, again, because we needed a better way to work together.
“In early 2010, David Karp, CEO of Tumblr, came to me and said, ‘We’re launching a marketplace for themes so people can create Tumblr themes and sell to other people.’ I thought maybe we’ll make $5,000 a month. Now it’s a $1 million business.
“In the last year, we went from 17 or 20 employees to 55. We went from a tiny little live-work condo – we crammed 15 people into there – then we got a really nice penthouse in a building in downtown Victoria. When I signed the lease for that, I was thinking, ‘How am I ever going to fill this?’ We filled it in about six months, and now we have two floors of the building.” •