Sometimes those little side projects that take nights and weekends to build can bloom into something much bigger. Murat Mutlu was designing a prototyping tool, Marvel, in his London bedroom a year ago. Now, with a seed round closed, he looks to expand the team. In this interview we discuss the merit of side projects, issues facing advertising agencies and the future of Marvel.
Murat Mutlu, welcome to the show. Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you?
I’m a designer based in London. I’ve been designing websites, applications and such for agencies, startups for the last seven years.
Most recently I co-founded Marvel, which is a prototyping tool, and my first startup adventure.
You worked at Nokia, several agencies and now you’re building this prototyping tool, Marvel—what led you to start a business?
I’ve always really, really wanted to work on my own products.
Three or four years into the agency life I was working on all these projects, and they never really lived beyond the length of the campaign. They are alive for a short period of time and fizzle out in a couple of months.
I wanted to work on something with a bit more longevity, I wanted to speak with users, and I wanted to work on something with more meaning—something that solved a problem. Naturally, I started gravitating toward products. That’s when I started working on side projects. But it wasn’t until Marvel that I had something with the potential to be a business.
The other things were mainly throw-away ideas—mostly fun stuff. There was an Instagram photo finder that would find photos around your location. There was a song lyric analysis tool. I had a concept for a tweeting kettle. A bunch of things that couldn’t have gone anywhere.
When I started thinking about Marvel, I realized that it would actually solve a problem for many designers.
Nobody ever got fired for turning down something risky.
There was one client pitch that sparked the idea for a prototyping tool. We had lost a few big pitches at the time. And there was this one pitch I was put on. I was supposed to do the mockup for the pitch.
In typical agency fashion we involved everyone. There was a planner, biz dev person and me, the designer to do the mockups. We were heads down for two weeks on this pitch.
I did the best possible work I was capable of doing. All the UX and UI was done. I made sure to mock it up in retina, because it was an iPhone app—As someone in the agency world, I’m sure you can imagine the amount of internal resources that goes into a pitch like that.
I checked back in to see how the pitch went. We lost it.
How was that possible? It was a tremendous amount of work, and I thought it was some of the best work I’d ever done.
I asked the biz dev director to send me the pitch deck. I open it up, and my designs had been completely butchered. There’s clip art, added logos and elements that had been squished down. They weren’t at all how I’d designed them.
Every design decision in that document was lost, and out of context. It was a terrible, terrible way to show it to a client.
The presenter was probably standing five meters away, quickly pressing the left and right arrow keys on the slides. I’m sure the clients ended up with many more questions than answers.
The next pitch was for an iPad app. Again it was worth a lot of money to the agency. This time we decided I’d email my designs to the iPad to use in the photo roll. After they were done giving the spiel, I sat down with the client and said, “Here’s what the app could look like.” They thought it was incredible. The client was trying to slide it left and right touching the screen. Obviously it was just a picture slideshow of my designs, but in that instant you could see in the clients eyes that they knew we could pull of the project.
We won that pitch. The agency made a lot of money, and I saved myself a bunch of pain and time.
I figured that there must be an easier way to do this. That is how Marvel came about. It gives people that don’t know how to code a way to create something that is interactive, touchable, clickable—something that looks like the real thing.
It is definitely a great tool to help other see how little interactions might work.
Murat is a bit of a foodie. Here he eats a ‘Lex Luther’ Sandwich from Ikes in San Francisco. Oh, and what trip to the West Coast would be complete without a trip to In-N-Out?
Working on Side Projects
Let’s talk about some of your side projects. You built tuner.io, which analyzes lyrics from Billboard Top 100 songs. You built a tweeting kettle that got you featured in Wired. Tell us about some of those projects.
Early on in my agency life I felt like I had a lot of good ideas that were getting rejected. You’ve probably experienced the same thing.
I get personally attached to a lot of my ideas. When I get rejected by clients or internally, I still want to see some of them made. After about two years of getting rejected, I realized I needed to start seeing some of these things. Otherwise, I might start dying inside. Every time an idea gets rejected, it feels like somebody’s chipping away at my soul.
I reached out to Brendan, who is my co-founder now, and asked him to work with me on a few side projects. The first one was InstaBAM, which is a location based photo finder. The app actually was a rejected idea from a client. I told them that they should target this new audience around photo sharing, but they wouldn’t hear it.
For context, this was back in the day when Instagram only had a million or so users, and had just released an API. We built the app using the API, and put it out there. Today it has something like 150,000 downloads. It’s not bad for something built on evenings and weekends.
Your side project should be something where you get home, fire it up, and feel the zen.
That spurred us to do more things together. Tuner.io was a very interesting project, because we went to San Francisco to get inspired. We went to several meet ups and entered this hack day.
I’ve always had this idea—rap music is very formulaic. You could dismantle it and organize it into segments. Sing a bit about cash, sing a bit about cars, and sing a bit about women.
The Music Match API was one of the ones available at this hack day. That meant any lyric was available by API for any song. Plus we got the Billboard chart and position with it. Along side that there was a semantic text API, which we could run the lyrics through. With that we could pick out positive or negative connotations, find profanity and look for specific words.
We combined those two APIs together, and were able to reorder the Billboard Top 100 based on specific lyrics. For example, we could reorder the Billboard chart by the ones with the most profanity, or most materialistic lyrics, the most whiny, the most gushy—we’d look for words like love, hug and cry.
All of these things are just passion—just like Signal Tower. You just want to create, and always be making. Like I said, anytime I stop, it feels like I am dying inside. I need to keep moving and producing. Little ideas sometimes turn into big ideas.
We ended up winning the hack day with Tuner.io. It gave us a lot of encouragement. Plus, I had run out of money in San Francisco at that point. The $500 we won allowed us to keep buying burritos.
After we got back, I thought that we should have a go at this Marvel idea that I’d been working on. Over the course of evenings and weekends, we built the initial application.
This time last year we were still in our bedrooms building the Marvel app. That’s why side projects are amazing. We’re incredibly lucky to be able to work on it full time—I’m over the moon at the moment.
Most of the designers I know have side projects, myself included. Actually, these interviews are one of my side projects.
Murat, I’m sure you have plenty of ideas. Where do you draw inspiration from, and how do you decide what ideas to execute?
I don’t know. I think I just absorb it by reading loads.
Pocket, Digg Reader, Product Hunt—I just consume these things daily. Sometimes I’ll recognize that there is an API that we could use to do something cool.
Honestly, I’m not entirely sure where the ideas come from. I think it is a mixture of having a bit of fun and trying something interesting.
I do keep a list of ideas on a notepad for ones I think we could do at a hack day.
“Who’s going to know about you, if you don’t put yourself out there?”
A shot of the ferris wheel at the Treasure Island Festival in San Francisco. A year ago Murat was offered a job in the United States. The same week he got his visa, Marvel was offered funding. He had to make a choice between a life in the U.S and his own startup.
I think side projects are important. I did an interview with Mikael Cho where he attributed a huge part of his company’s traction to building these little side projects.
Have the projects you worked on years ago benefited Marvel?
I think so.
If anything, it gave me and Brendan a chance to work together when we might not have otherwise. We were both freelancers working on different things. Him and Jonathan, my other co-founder have been perfect people to start a business with.
Just start working on projects and put them out there. You never know what could happen—maybe you’ll meet an investor, get a bit of press, or add a few more followers. It just seems like it is a win-win situation.
It is difficult to tell when you’re working on these projects. You might think that is the next big startup at the time. Maybe it’s not, but down the road it could have a residual effect.
Totally. You don’t want to bet the house on it, but do it because it is fun.
Your side project should be something where you get home, fire it up, and feel the zen. Don’t let it stress you out.
If it does start to grow legs and takeoff, then you know to start taking it more seriously.
The Ad Agency Problem
Let’s talk about advertising agencies. One of the first things I read from you was you article Why Talented Creatives Are Leaving Your Shitty Agency, which is fantastic.
In a previous interview I talked with Matt Ström and Josh Gross about the death of the agency. What’s your opinion on the future of advertising?
I don’t know.
A ton of creative people are leaving. Many of them are not being replaced. The work loads are getting worse, and clients are not getting as much value.
What’s the result? Many clients are starting to take things in-house. Why pay an agency a ton of money, when you could hire the same people to work in-house and just on your business?
The other side of things is that brands aren’t willing to pay as much money. Agencies are fighting for scraps. It is a race to the bottom with pricing and people are doing jobs for as cheap as they can be.
Sometimes you have a few talented people set out to build their own agency. They are smaller and more nimble, but eventually that small agency is going to become a big one.
Ad agencies aren’t going to be wiped out, but I think business models will need to change.
What do you think the source of the problem is for ad agencies?
People in the ad industry work on fluff—things that aren’t going to make an impact, that nobody is going to care about, and will be forgotten quickly. I know that from experience.
There is a willingness to accept work that isn’t very good, because nobody is willing to push back on a client or turn down money. It’s a hard thing to do, but the ones that do tell clients “No” are going to have the most interesting work.
Why would you create an iPhone app to sell shower gel or soap?
On the other end clients are always afraid to push the boat out and try something new. Even if you have great ideas, your client won’t want to do it. Nobody ever got fired for turning down something risky.
Those two things combined are killing the creative vibe. I’ve worked at several big agencies in London, and they’re all the same. It’s all about money and hitting targets.
I’ve got this theory called the hamster wheel. As a business you never want to be trading time for money. Labor and productivity have decoupled, but in agencies that hasn’t happened yet. They continue to bill time for money.
You mentioned earlier in the interview that a lot of agencies are trying to move into products, but in a blog post you said an agency couldn’t create the next Angry Birds or Instagram.
That post was four years ago, and we still haven’t seen it.
It’s incredible, because the pieces are there—smart designers, developers and marketers. Most of the people that run the agencies don’t understand how products work.
Building a product is an iterative, long-lasting process. You find some initial users, you get feedback and you make things better. Campaign-like thinking doesn’t work. You can’t build a product and leave it. You must keep working on it.
Early on in my agency life I felt like I had a lot of good ideas that were getting rejected.
Prototyping a Tool for Prototyping
Let’s talk about Marvel. We touched on what it is, and how it started. What’s happening right now?
It is an interesting time. We had a £60,000 round in November, which ran out, but we are starting to get revenue from the site.
Actually, we just closed a seed round so we’ll be able to build out the team and take the product to the next level. Marvel is still very early stage.
There is a massive opportunity here to build a tool that lowers the barrier for many designers—that’s the aim. Brendan has been building the backend and Jonathan has been working on the iOS app. We need to hire a few people to support them. Up until now we’ve just been hiring freelancers.
We want Marvel to become the number one prototyping tool and won’t stop until we get to that point.
I think what we were able to do with £60,000 was pretty good, but it is a minuscule amount of money. We should have definitely raised more.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s take more money than you need. It’s hard to determine what you’ll need in that period of time, and its something we took into consideration when we raised this seed round.
Right after you raised that seed round, you ended up rebuilding the Marvel app?
When I spoke about designing and building stuff in your bedroom—you know you never really think that it’s going to be used. We built it with that expectation.
As soon as we raised that initial £60,000, the app gained traction on places like Designer News. We quickly realized that it was never going to scale.
We had to make a choice right? We could patch things up over the next six months, or we could take two months and rewrite everything to scale. We chose the rewrite.
A lot of people said the rewrite was a bad choice, and that we needed to keep moving the product forward. But we just didn’t want that kind of technical debt. The rewrite would have had to happen anyway.
The implications were serious. We were two months late on our product roadmap, we had to tell investors to push their expectations back and we had to tell the people using it that there aren’t going to be any improvements or bug fixes for two months.
That’s a tough thing for a user to understand when they keep seeing the same bug for two months. We had a lot of unhappy users at the time, and we tried to manage it in the best possible way.
It’s hard, because you want to feel progress, but nothing is changing. Looking back on it now, It was definitely the right decision.
Good. My next question was if the rewrite was the right decision.
Yeah, now it is much easier for the user to plugin their information.
I’m not terribly technical, but we’ve got our stuff sorted out. We went from a single server to this five or six server setup on Rackspace.
It was definitely worth it. Now we launch features weekly. Actually, we had one big feature launch recently that is called teams.
It just feels good to ship stuff.
Well, let’s talk about your role. You’re the designer. What does your day look like?
I get up and check customer support emails before I head into the office.
Many of our users are in the United States, so there’s always a ton of tickets that come in when I’m sleeping. That’s one thing we’ll need to address as we get bigger. You don’t want people waiting for seven hours to get a response.
Then I head into the office to meet with the team. We have our tasks for the week and month in Asana. We try and gauge where we need to be at the end of each week.
Throughout the day I do a bit of design, tweeting, talking to investors, customer support and try to think about the future of the product. Each day is different. One day might requirer me to pay bills, do invoices and speak with accountants. The next day might be dealing with legal things.
I come home and do design at night, because things are quiet.
It feels like I’m a jack of all trades. I do a little bit of everything. It is the same for Brandon and Jonathan. We all have multiple roles.
This time last year we were still in our bedrooms building the Marvel app. That’s why side projects are amazing.
Are there any features or releases coming up that you can tell us about?
Yeah, our iPad app is nearly ready to go. Conveniently, it was rejected by Apple. We’re making tweaks to how that app works.
We’ve got the launch of teams coming out in a week or two. Basically, it allows you to create a team for your company, for a hack day, for your side project, and add as many people as you want to that team. You can also have as many teams as you want.
Nobody really works in a silo, as I said before designers are working on side projects, and products with other people. You don’t want to be limited to just sharing it with people at the agency. Some products do that, but I don’t think that is the right way. Our teams are unlimited.
What else? There’s an Android app coming in the next couple of months.
There’s some stuff in the pipeline for pro users that I think will blow people away.
Networking and Building an Audience
We’re almost out of time, but I do want to touch on a few more things.
You wrote that you wished you had networked more while you freelanced and were employed. Why is that?
In the startup world, when you need investors, it really is about the people you know.
When I was in the agency and advertising world everyone new everybody, but that will never help raise money. It’s a different type of industry with a different type of people.
A startup’s funding is dependent on getting introductions. To get introductions, people that are well-respected have to recommend you.
I came into this business and didn’t know anyone. Everyone I knew was creative, it is great if you want to make an app, but nobody knew investors.
I wish I had spent more time going to events, other people’s startups and places where these people hang out. Doing so would have saved me six months.
Get yourself known on Twitter, through your blog. Start following the people that are going to be important to you at some point. If you have an idea brewing, start the idea as early as possible. You should always be meeting people, speaking to people and trying to get the word out about who you are, and how good you are at what you do.
Make a name for yourself, and make sure people keep thinking about you.
Are there any specific tactics designers can take to get known or help them start a business?
Blogging is the most obvious one. It has worked out well for me.
I wrote on my Mobile Inc blog for four or so years. It was just a place for me to release ideas, thoughts, concepts, side projects and things like that.
Through the years I built up a following. It is a great way to market without spending any money. Twitter and LinkedIn are great ways to reach out to people in your field.
Post as much as you can. A tiny thought can turn into a big thing. The Twettle, which was a tweeting kettle, was just an idea, but it got covered in Wired.
Who’s going to know about you, if you don’t put yourself out there?
Murat thanks for joining me today. Where can people find you?
I have a Twitter account. I’m @Mutlu82. I write more on the Marvel blog now than on my personal blog. You can read it on marvelapp.com. If you’re interested in my older stuff you can read it at mobileinc.co.uk.
Feel free to say hello.
Make a name for yourself, and make sure people keep thinking about you.