The Great Discontent

Brad Smith

Brad Smith

About Brad

Brad Smith

Brad Smith lives in a small box on an island named Manhattan. By day, he is the CEO & Founder of Virb—the social network turned DIY website builder. When the sun sets, he is an advisor, investor, end user of fine whiskey, and snapper of Instagrams.

In 2001, he founded Neubix Studios, a corn-fed, midwestern design agency, which became widely recognized for its simple, yet groundbreaking designs—apparent on sites like The Big Noob: a big, blue blog about nothing.

Circa 2005, Brad took a hiatus from client work and moved his company to Boston to join forces with the team at PureVolume. Now hailing from New York City, Brad and his team have charted a course into the land of easy-to-use, do-it-yourself website builders.

His next destination: Unknown. To be continued…

Interview date: April 15, 2013

Introduction

Stories are powerful reminders that we are never alone and we’ve been continually reminded of that since beginning TGD in August 2011. Over and over again, we’ve received responses from readers who have felt a connection with the experiences of people we’ve featured. From the beginning, we have encouraged those we interview to be as open and honest as they’re comfortable with—those moments of vulnerability are the moments of deepest resonance. This is Brad’s story, uncensored. Drawing upon his wealth of experiences, he offers us what he’s learned about business, risk, purpose, community, and finding success in the unlikeliest of places—because sometimes success first looks like failure.

Interview

Describe your path to becoming an entrepreneur.

I always knew I wanted to build a business. As a kid, instead of playing “house”, I played “business”. I “sold” items out of my bedroom and, when my sister came into my room, I’d sell her items in exchange for Monopoly money.

I discovered web design during my college years when I dropped out of college to work at a “communications” company in Springfield, MO. There, I discovered web design and fell in love with it. I was teaching myself new things and succeeding at something, faster than I was in higher education. It was 1998 and the company’s offerings were dial-up Internet access, pagers—yes, pagers—and cell phones and a small web department. I was hired on as a designer, but within six months, I was managing the department. We had grown from five people to nine. In addition to managing the department, I was learning to design in Photoshop and programming in ASP.

I worked at that company for almost two years, but business wasn’t going too well for them. To cut costs, they were going to kill the entire web department, which had the most people. The president came in and told us he had to give everyone two weeks notice. I thought about it over the weekend, talked with my stepdad over the phone to ask for advice, and went into my boss’ office on Monday morning and said, “I’ve done a lot of work and kicked a lot of ass to grow this department. I don’t want to just let this go away.” He agreed to give me access to all our existing clients if I were to start my own company. I immediately had two weeks to start a new business. I was completely naive and made some of the worst business decisions of my life, but two and a half weeks later, I had an office space rented; we had computers and desks; and we were running a web design shop.

How old were you?

I was 23.

Was the company you started Neubix?

Yes. Actually, Ryan Sims was one of the people who was working with me at the previous company and I had asked him to come join me at my new, hot little unknown startup that was making zero dollars. What could go wrong, right?

[Ryan] Wait—I thought he was working at Staples?

(laughing) He was working at Office Depot when I hired him at the communications company six months prior to them killing the web design department. I had put a job letter up on Monster and Ryan replied. We met for lunch at McAlister’s Deli in Springfield and I immediately knew we’d work great together. We continued to work together for 10 years, through three different startups, and he’s still one of my oldest friends.

What was your path from starting Neubix to Virb?

We did Neubix from 2000–2005. Meanwhile, two of the founders of PureVolume reached out to Ryan saying they liked his work and wanted to hire him as a freelancer. In 2005, Ryan and I went to SXSW, met the guys from PureVolume, and we all hit it off; it was fantastic. That’s when Brett, one of the PureVolume founders said, “You should close down your client shop and move the company to Boston so we can team up together.” There was no way I was going to do that—I had put five years of my own blood, sweat, and tears into building Neubix. It was my baby.

After SXSW, I went back to Missouri and, in the following months, started to have more phone conversations with the PureVolume guys. They invited us to come out to Boston, see the city, and talk more details. Ryan and I went out there and ended up getting to spend some quality time with them. I really loved Boston and had always wanted to get out of Missouri and live in a bigger city. I said to them, “Look, I have worked myself into a bit of debt with the early days of Neubix. You help me remedy that and I think we’ve got a deal.” Ryan and I collectively decided to wind down new projects at Neubix and prepare for a move to Boston; we notified all current clients and sent out a notice to all of our hosting customers—I had a little hosting business that I operated as part of Neubix. It consisted of six servers in a coat closet and hosted over 150 customers, which was the most profitable part of the company. It was also the most stressful. Every time a thunderstorm rolled through, I thought, “Oh no! A tornado is going to suck my servers away.” That nearly happened in 2002—true story.

“‘It was great; it was beautiful; it was fun to use, but I didn’t stick with it.’ Therein lies the flaw of any community you’re going to launch. No matter how much people like it or want to be a part of it, if their friends aren’t there, they are never going to stick around.”

Did you all move to Boston?

At that point, there were five of us involved in Neubix and I had a couple of people who didn’t want to move a thousand miles. I knew I wanted Ryan Sims and Keegan Jones to join me. When Keegan started working for Neubix as an intern, his mom brought him to work because he was too young drive—he’s going to kill me for saying this. He was unable to move to Boston with us because he was still in high school, but he continued to work with us remotely for about four months. Even though we closed up shop at Neubix, we still had client projects to wrap up and he helped with those.

In Boston, we worked on building PureVolume and the company grew from six to eighteen people. The PureVolume product was making enough money to support the company, so it was time for product number two. We had already known that we wanted to create a MySpace alternative. At the time, Facebook was edu-only and MySpace was king. We knew there was a better way and wanted to make a beautifully designed social network. We released Virb as a MySpace alternative in private beta in the winter of 2006 and ran it invite-only for the first three months until we officially launched with a big event at SXSW in March of 2007.

Around the time we launched Virb in private beta, Facebook had stopped requiring .edu email addresses and opened up for everyone. We had launched Virb as a MySpace competitor and out of nowhere, here was Facebook. In hindsight, it was the social network battle checkmate, but Virb still saw a really good run. Our peak was around 500,000 active users and we had a good pull with the creative crowd, which is why I believe it continued to thrive; we pulled in the tastemakers and people go where the tastemakers go. We had a lot of content creators—photographers, filmmakers, musicians, and people like that.

Once we realized there was no way to compete with Facebook, we decided that we would focus on only being the social network for creatives. Then there was Tumblr and FriendFeed and Flavors, just to name a few. We were now competing with other services that weren’t even on our radar six months prior. Features got watered down and messy and we were losing focus. It got to the point where I couldn’t wake up in the morning and look in the mirror knowing that my career was running a social network. I knew—and everybody in the company knew—that it was time for a change. The website builder wasn’t our first idea. We had discussed something between a social network and website builder, but after we talked it through, we decided that our idea needed to graduate to a full-on website builder.

Prior to any ideas of pivoting the company into a website builder, Virb was still partnered with PureVolume, but we had physically grown apart as I was focusing on Virb and my business partners were focused on PureVolume; we had two separate offices in Boston. Virb was in a tiny office in the back Bay and it was Ryan Sims; my developer, Stephen; my programmer, Dave; and myself. We were redesigning Virb the social network to refresh the overall design and add in new features. This was a big project so we were searching for a launch partner to sponsor our “relaunch”.

That’s when I met Alex Capehart, who was in business development at Media Temple. He said they would definitely be interested in being a sponsor for our redesign. After two months of talking, Alex mentioned us to his CEO, Demian, who liked the work we were doing and requested that I come out to LA. Ryan and I went to LA and sat down with Media Temple’s CEO and CFO. They really liked the work we were doing and were interested in seeing where the Virb platform would go, as they believed it had potential. In fact, they didn’t just want to be a sponsor; they wanted to invest in the company. The only issue was that it wasn’t just my company—I had three business partners back in Boston. To put it simply, Media Temple wanted to invest in Virb, but didn’t want outside involvement from stakeholders who weren’t part of Virb on a daily basis. Media Temple bought out our other investors and put money into Virb so that we could grow it. That was late 2008 and we continued with the social network for another year after that.

I then reached a point with the product where I truly felt like there was no end game. We were only keeping our heads above water, doing whatever we could to keep our ad revenue up and build features as fast as we could. We were being surpassed by Tumblr and Facebook and all these other services we didn’t even want to compete with. We were asking, “Why are we even fighting this fight when we don’t want to fight the fight?” It got to a point with Media Temple when it had been a year and a half and the product wasn’t thriving. We were all frustrated.

In late 2009, I flew to LA for a board meeting and proposed the idea of pivoting the company, shuttering the social network, and completely changing direction to the website builder. Ryan and I had created a keynote deck, which explained where we wanted to take the company, to show at the board meeting. We had 15–20 slides and when we were only a few slides in, the CEO Demian said, “Yes, let’s do this.” They realized that something needed to change; we knew something had to change; the passion for the product as a social network was gone. To be honest, the pivot should have happened a year sooner, but it was a scary endeavor. With our investors giving us the thumbs up, we began to build Virb the website builder in December 2009. We launched the new product in August 2010 after eight months of development. The social network continued to float and exist during that time, but we had reached out to our community to let them know we were changing the company.

Hanging out at an East Village bar
Hanging out at an East Village bar (photo by Ryan Essmaker)

“The people who never get the spotlight for Virb’s successful pivot is my team…My team that was invested in the social network was also invested in throwing away everything they had built over the past four years to create something new…they took a huge risk in sticking by my side.”

[Ryan] I remember that, but I was still sad about it.

That email campaign that went out in April of 2010 disclosed our plans to eventually kill the social network and launch a new product—and that was the scariest moment of my career.

The second scariest was August 16, 2010 when we flipped the switch and killed one company and launched another. We knew it was either going to be amazing or go down in flames. A mediocre outcome was not an option.

So Virb as we know it now has been around for less than three years? You’ve done a lot in a small amount of time.

Social network Virb made all revenue from ad inventory. Virb the website builder would have no ads. The day we killed the social network and launched the website builder, we knew we could make zero dollars. The only money we would make was when someone said, “Hey, I really like your product and I’m going to give you $10 a month because you guys are fixing a problem for me.” The day we killed one product and launched another, I watched people subscribe to pay for Virb within the first few hours. It was an amazing feeling.

[Ryan] I think I was one of those guys. I remember reading about the pivot and being disappointed, but I also was excited to see what you guys were going to do next because of your reputation with stuff. There’s a cool factor in what you guys do.

That is what is still really impressive when I meet people who used Virb the social network. People say, “It was great; it was beautiful; it was fun to use, but I didn’t stick with it.” Therein lies the flaw of any community you’re going to launch. No matter how much people like it or want to be a part of it, if their friends aren’t there, they are never going to stick around.

[moment of silence for Virb the social network]

I’ve been asked twice to speak at conferences about the Virb change and what it was like to take a company and pull the plug on it to launch a brand new product with the same name. People come to me and say, “That was so smart,” but, to be completely honest, we didn’t have this master game plan all along. I didn’t know if it would work; all I did know was what we were doing was not working. The people who never get the spotlight for Virb’s successful pivot is my team; the mere fact that I wanted to change the entire company and my whole team was on board with it is amazing. My team that was invested in the social network was also invested in throwing away everything they had built over the past four years to create something new. Those are the guys who need their time in the spotlight because they took a huge risk in sticking by my side.

Was creativity a part of your childhood?

We didn’t have a computer in the house until I was a senior in high school. I was involved in yearbook class for a couple years in high school, which I loved, but we didn’t use computers; we’d do physical cut and paste page layouts and crop photos with wax pencils. It was old-school, but I loved it. I liked art class growing up. Also, my parents purchased this huge camcorder that took the full-size VHS tapes—that changed my life. I gave up all outdoor Missouri-boy things and decided I was going to chase after creative things. I remember doing my first design illustrations in Microsoft Paint on a 256 color screen. I didn’t know where that was going, but I loved it.

The first time I ever used the Internet was my first semester of college. I had a floppy disk of 500 free hours of AOL and I tore through it. I bought my first domain name and built my first website on Tripod—it was delorean.org and I still own that domain.

(all laughing)

That’s amazing.

I’m thinking of turning it over soon to DeLorean Motor Company because they’re launching a DMC charity and are interested in using it. I totally went off track here.

So, that AOL disk. I found the Internet and fell in love with it. What I didn’t realize was that when you have that 500 free hours of AOL, it doesn’t cover the long distance fee for the number that the modem is dialing. At this time, I was working two jobs—I was a janitor at a middle school and a waiter at a restaurant. Needless to say, for the next few months, everything I made went to pay my dorm mate’s phone bill.

“A [college] classmate and I decided…to start a school paper and we did…That was the first thing I ever created that someone could hold, read, and enjoy. The ability to build something out of nothing and watch people use it fascinated me.”

Did you have an “aha” moment when all of your interests came together?

I had my first “aha” moment in college. I had bought a copy of Aldus PageMaker—this was before Adobe. A classmate and I decided that we were going to start a school paper and we did it. We designed it up, took it to a printer, had 300 copies made, and distributed it to whoever wanted a copy. We made something out of nothing and it was thrilling. That was the first thing I ever created that someone could hold, read, and enjoy. The ability to build something out of nothing and watch people use it fascinated me.

It was a good three years later before I realized that I wanted to start my own company. I made a ton of terrible decisions along the way. Once, during the Neubix days, I had to take a loan out against my car to cover payroll (laughing). I hadn’t had any business training; I only had a desire to build something fun and, maybe, successful. Maybe I shouldn’t have rented the nicest office or purchased brand new computers and pretty desks or a pool table.

No, you didn’t!

Oh, yeah. And it was a nice pool table. It hurt the company in so many ways. One, I shouldn’t have spent the money on it and, two, people played pool way too much (laughing).

Have you had any mentors along the way?

Yes and no. A mentor who has taught me a lot is someone who I never considered a mentor at the time. Before I had the job in the web department of the “pager and ISP” company, I worked at a computer repair shop in Springfield called Computer Renaissance. We bought used computers and resold them and also offered custom built computers. The owner’s name was Tom and, at the time, I thought he was a hard ass boss; he pushed us all to work our hardest. I was young and naive and stupid at the time, but I’ve taken so much from him in regards to business. He had created several startups and it was Tom’s entrepreneurial bug that rubbed off on me to start my own company. He was fantastic and I didn’t realize that until a lot later in life. He was smart and always had a plan. One day I’ll reconnect with him and send him a link to this interview.

Along the way, I’ve never had anyone who I could lean on for advice in business decisions. So many of my decisions have been straight from my gut because of this. One of the best things that came out of the early Media Temple investment was getting to know the CEO, Demian, who I could bounce business and product ideas off of. I’d never had that before and it was invaluable. Demian was the first successful entrepreneur who I could lean on for trusted feedback. Virb was fully acquired by Media Temple in December 2012 and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it has been odd to go from running my own thing for so long to having a boss, but I’m making an effort to learn things from that, too.

My stepdad also did a lot of hand-holding with me when I started Neubix as I needed to take out a small loan to get started. I had no idea how to go about that. I didn’t know what a business plan was, how to use spreadsheet formulas, or how to project budgets, but he would stay up all night to help me figure it out.

You mentioned a few things that could be considered risks, but is there one big risk you’ve taken to move forward?

I look back at Neubix as a risk because so much could have gone wrong; I was an immature college drop-out who wanted to build my own company. But it didn’t go wrong; it wasn’t the big risk, either. Thirteen years ago, I had nothing to lose. I was going to launch a company and build websites, but we ended up doing more than that—we created television commercials and even worked on large rebranding projects. I look back and know it was a risky move, but it didn’t feel like that at that point. The adrenaline was pumping, I was excited, and there was no lack of money or knowledge that was going to stand in my way.

The Virb shift was easily the biggest risk because, at that point, I realized risk and knew that if it didn’t succeed, then we had reached the end of a road with a lot of things—with Virb and with Media Temple.

And there was no back-up plan?

That was the back-up plan!

You don’t know what the outcome will be when you’re faced with a decision like that.

I’m going to write a book on failure one day. Despite the fact that we grew Neubix and became well known for what we were creating, financially speaking, that company failed horribly. I was able to decently pay my team for midwestern salaries, but the word “profit” could be found nowhere in the company’s mission statement.

The weird thing with my path is, in a way, I’m still doing Neubix. Neubix became the PureVolume thing; that became Virb; Virb became Media Temple. I’m still doing the exact same thing I was doing thirteen years ago; it’s just a different iteration of that company. I’ve never left one thing and moved into something else; this is still my first start-up which has only evolved. That is refreshing and scary all at the same time.

Brad in McNally Jackson
At McNally Jackson, an independent bookstore in Lower Manhattan (photo by Lisa Weatherbee)

“…I haven’t felt satisfied and, as a result, I’ve assumed there was either something wrong with me or I was doing the wrong thing with my life or career. I’m realizing that there are many who feel the exact same way…and that that’s actually not a bad thing at all.”

Are your family and friends supportive of what you do?

Yes. Completely. Though I don’t think my mom and sister really have any clue what I’m doing, but my mom is extremely supportive. She would likely say, “My son travels a bunch and spends all day on the Internet.”

Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?

I most certainly do, every goddamn day. And every day I feel that, in some way, I’m not yet doing that. I don’t know why that is; I’ve just always felt that no matter how hard I work or what I do, I’m not yet truly contributing to something bigger than me that makes a meaningful difference in people’s lives during my short time here in this celestial sphere.

Are you satisfied creatively?

Not even close. I’ve dealt with this nagging feeling for a long time because I haven’t felt satisfied and, as a result, I’ve assumed there was either something wrong with me or I was doing the wrong thing with my life or career. I’m realizing that there are many who feel the exact same way—who don’t feel creatively fulfilled—and that’s actually not a bad thing at all. There’s this damn creative void and maybe we’re striving for something that can’t be fulfilled at all. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, right?

Taking that into consideration, are there things you’d like to be doing in 5 to 10 years?

Yes. I truly love what I do and I’m thankful for everything, including this company I’ve built and the amazing people I’ve built it with, but there’s also a part of me that is growing exhausted from sitting behind a lifeless computer screen. I think I have above average human interaction skills and I want to interact with people more and be out from behind a screen. I don’t know what this looks like or what it will be; I only know there is this talent, and a desire to act on said talent, that is not being utilized properly—yet.

If you could go back in time in your DeLorean and do one thing differently, what would you do?

I would be less scared to fail and make risky decisions. I’ve found out that, through failure, there can be success. I’ve always been way too damn concerned with what it would look like to fail. I’ve missed several big opportunities in my career because of that. I’d go back, find my 23-year old self, and give him a talking to.

If you could give advice to a young person starting out, what would you say?

Two things. One, just like I’d tell a 13-year-ago-Brad not to be afraid to fail, I’d say the same to any young person starting out. That’s not to say that every failure will turn into success, but whatever happens will certainly open a new door into something else. In some weird way, I think we need failure to keep us adhered to our proper path. What I’m doing now is not what I thought I would be doing, and it took a couple big failures to realize that.

Do you think you wouldn’t be where you’re at now if you hadn’t “failed”?

No. Not at all. Alt-universe Brad can keep his architecture degree. I’m happy with this universe’s path.

My second piece of advice is do what’s hard. The lack of this in the “youth” of our industry has become more apparent to me recently. We don’t see things the same as we did even a few years ago. We’re becoming more fickle and riddled with ADD. I’m watching more and more industry peers work to push multiple products or ideas, instead of picking one, digging in, and focusing on making it really good. I’m not trying to sound like an asshole, really.

[Ryan] Years ago, it was more about getting to build a cool business, like Neubix or Virb. Nowadays, I feel like it’s just about building something up to the point where you can sell it and make a bunch of money.

Exactly. What is fast? What is easy? What can be acquired before it’s even out of beta? We have peers who do this and are wildly successful, but it’s a small group. As the Internet grows older, I fear that we’re going to have a lot less people wanting to do what’s hard and go through shit to build something that’s really innovative. A lot of products we use now went through a lot of shit to be so good. It worries me that so many startups start out with an amazing idea, but then the product is acquired and dissolved into the parent company. We must continue to truly innovate and do something new and better.

We once had tons of websites dedicated to showcasing the beautiful websites out there. Now, there are just too many great looking products and websites to only pick a few. Good design is being held to a very high standard—thank god—and now it’s like, “Guys, that looks really really good, but it doesn’t we-eerrrrk.” It’s easy to find a mediocre functioning app that looks beautiful but isn’t the most functional. iCloud much?

You live in Manhattan. How does that impact your creativity?

I tried to get to New York twice before I successfully moved here because I had visited and fell in love with this city. I was at Neubix at the time and came here to meet with a client, NYC Peach. They were the first widely popular company to do all that crazed phone studding. They worked with clients like Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, and Beyoncé. When I lived in Missouri, they would ship phones or iPods to me to photograph for their website. They would overnight me a device and I’d have to photograph it that night so I could ship it back the next morning. After that trip, I knew this place had to be home. Wow, that was a tangent.

I love this city for so many reasons. One, it creates constant drive. There is a very high competition factor in the city. You want to be successful because making it in New York does mean something. The other thing is that I love how this city makes me feel very small and insignificant. There is something very comforting about laying my head down on my pillow at night, knowing I am closely surrounded by millions upon millions of people, all crammed in around me, in shoebox sized apartments. I’m an anxious person and, in a weird way, there is something extremely calming about how this city makes me feel insignificant. New York, for being what it is, can also be the loneliest place in the world. You walk the streets with millions of people or sit on the subway next to some of the most beautiful and interesting people, but we rarely say a word. There’s something wildly romantic, yet heartbreaking, about that.

Is it important to you to be part of a creative community of people?

More now than ever before in my life.

Do you have a creative community in your life and what does it mean to you?

Yes. New York has opened that door for me. There are so many creative people all around. It’s important to see what other people are doing and what they’re challenged and inspired by. It gives me drive to find what’s next for me.

What does a typical day look like for you?

It’s not something anybody would want to read! There’s nothing glamorous about my typical day (laughing).

What music are you listening to right now?

I’m a late Rdio bloomer. It took me a while to hop on the bandwagon, but I’m finding so many new artists now. Yet, I always go back to my “desert island” artists, like Ryan Adams’ early stuff—no, not Bryan Adams.

Do you have a favorite TV show or movie, like Lost?

Has there been any other TV show that has aired since Lost? I’m kidding—kind of. I recently started watching The West Wing and despite the fact there has not yet been time travel in the show, I love it. It sort of makes me wish I was in politics—but only sort of.

The movie question is tough because there are too many to name. I watched Ratatouille for the first time this weekend (laughing). It made me want to be a better cook (still laughing).

Favorite book?

I wish I read more. I’m constantly trying to remedy this and am currently rereading The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway. It reminds me to be spontaneous.

Your favorite food?

I’m doing this thing where I’ve given up meat temporarily. With all the traveling I’ve been doing for Virb recently, I’ve found that if I lay off the meat, I feel so much better. Maybe I’ll stick with this. Fish doesn’t count though; I’ll never give up seafood.

Do you have a favorite place to eat in the city?

Black Market is currently up there on my list. They have an amazing veggie burger, an even better beef burger, and oysters. What else do you need?

What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?

I would feel lucky enough just to know that I had left a legacy, but I don’t yet know what it would be. For now, just be good to people, don’t be an asshole, and do what you love. I’ll get back to you when I figure out the legacy part.interview close

“As the Internet grows older, I fear that we’re going to have a lot less people wanting to do what’s hard and go through shit to build something that’s really innovative…We must continue to truly innovate and do something new and better.”

Brad in an empty Grand Central Station
In an empty Grand Central Station, Christmas 2012 (photo by Ryan Essmaker)
Matthew Smith Esther Havens