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Creately – From Highschool Dreams To Two Million Users

Creately isn’t really a startup. In fact, this year they’ll be celebrating their ten year anniversary. But their journey so far, and the future ahead is a story worth telling.

Creately is a piece of software built exclusively so people can draw diagrams, really fast, and have a great experience while doing so. As a SaaS (Software as a Service) product—that is, software licensed on a subscription basis over the internet, but centrally hosted (think InDesign, Photoshop)—they offer a freemium service that can be upgraded to a paid service for additional features (just like MailChimp, LinkedIn etc el). In nine years, they have over 2 million users. They are probably the most successful Sri Lankan company, internationally, that you have never heard.

To get a better grasp of the product explains Co-founder and CEO Chandika Jayasundara in an interview with Roar Tech, we need to make a distinction between art for art’s sake and drawing a diagram. Art is something people want to do, something they are passionate about, while a diagram is business or academic-related, and not something some people are particularly good at, have the time for, or enjoy doing. Creately remedies that by taking the creative burden off them. The software’s goal is to get whatever is in a person’s head presented tastefully on the screen with the minimum amount of effort.

Schoolboy Dreams Become Reality

Originally founded as Cinergix by Jayasundara and CTO Hiraash Thawfeek, Creately’s journey officially began in Melbourne where the former had just finished his masters in Computer Science. Informally, however, the two high school buddies had dreamt of disrupting the IT space with an innovative product since the turn of the millennium, when they attended D.S. Senanayake College together.

Jayasundara’s collaborative MSC research project led him to discover the huge gap in the market for an intuitive diagram-drawing program. At the time, he remembers, there was a Microsoft product on the market—Visio—but that was clunky and you had to be a real expert to handle it. So Jayasundara called Thawfeek, who soon quit his job as a software engineer in the USA, and they embarked on an journey to realise their schoolboy dreams.

Friends since school: Creately CEO Chandika Jayasundara (left) and CTO Hiraash Thawfeek (right). Courtesy of Cinergix

“We began as a team of four in Melbourne. From the off, we were competing for customers in Silicon Valley and we needed an address with a well-respected startup scene, like Melbourne. Otherwise, it would have been Singapore or elsewhere”, Thawfeek said.

“Plus, at that time, we couldn’t have done what we wanted to achieve at home in Sri Lanka: with our payment gateway constraints, selling to the world is difficult.”

Regardless, they still did a lot of the groundwork in Sri Lanka. First in Jayasundara’s bedroom, and then “in a dodgy house in a dodgy neighbourhood in Borella”. But they soon managed to raise significant seed funding through Angel Investors in Australia and were able to move to their current home in Orion City in the first year.

Radiohead As Marketing Inspiration

In 2007, Radiohead rewrote the rulebook of what a band can earn in the digital age by offering their then-latest album, In Rainbows, in a pay-how-you-feel scheme on their website. One year later, at the height of the bittorrent era, and at the advent of music streaming services such as Spotify, Radiohead had albums sales at 3 million: it was an unprecedented success.

This had a profound influence on how Creately was first brought to market. They launched in 2008 with a pay-how-you-feel service for the first month, only. After 30 days, the average price-point paid was $6: meaning whilst half of the customers paid the $1 minimum, more than half happily paid $10 or more. One guy even paid £100!

The groundbreaking approach to sales clearly captured the imagination of the buying public. Jayasundara remembered:

“We got a huge amount for press that; in fact, we were the first tech product to do it. And we got a lot of subscribers. The process has guided our price point ever since, too. Our premium package is still only $5 a month.”

One Product to Rule Them All

Like any startup out there, Creately has experienced plenty of ups and downs along the way.

“We got our hands burnt in the early days. We tried to pivot a lot. We tried to do multiple products. We launched an email system that did not work out as planned”, admitted Thawfeek.

Creately is a piece of software built exclusively so people can draw diagrams, really fast, and have a great experience while doing so. Courtesy of Cinergix

So they get kept returning to Creately. Afterall, it was popular and profitable. But the growth did not match their ambitions, and they realised that the path to true success was to focus solely on the one product: optimise it to the fullest and become a global leader.

Now they are sitting on two million users and their customer list includes Amazon, Paypal, NASA, Boeing, National Geographic, and Reuters.

That said, they are far from finished. In their tenth anniversary year, they are looking at their biggest year to date. In the last 6 months they have completely rebuilt the product from scratch.

The relaunch is being fine-tuned, but they have promised the next generation of drawing software, incorporating AI and machine learning. Very soon, a mouse will be redundant in the drawing process as the keypad and predictive analysis will do the job for you.

Deploying To Production

What is striking about the Creately philosophy is their upward trajectory, even after nine years in the game.

“We want to be the best diagramming product in the world. We’re not just saying it, we really want it,” says the CTO.

For the two high school friends, to achieve that it takes two things: the best staff, and the best processes.

They have a vigorous assessment process which means they only employ “rock stars and superstars”. They look for people who can solve complex problems and who are fast learners; not just techies with precision. With the proliferation of technology, the problems they will face in the next year are ones that they cannot prepare for today, so they need people who can react.

In terms of processes, they work to an extremely streamlined model of production. Every single day they deploy something to production. As soon as an engineer writes a new code or a piece of software, it is tested immediately through peer review. If it passes, it is deployed instantly. The whole cloud is updated by 2pm everyday so their customers in the USA—where approximately 60% of their user base is located—start the day with a fresh package. This is the sort of model you would expect to find at Google or Facebook.

“That’s what we have to do to be the best diagramming product in the world,” says Thawfeek. “We have created a ‘mindset of efficiency’ where everyone is thinking about the final product and everything is eventually automated so we never waste time: that’s how we serve two million people with only 20 staff.”

“It takes great vision and a lot of hard work,” he told Roar Tech.

He is not wrong.

Cover Image Courtesy of Cinergix

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