When you think of Carbonmade, it goes something like this: "An online portfolio system for creative people to show off their work." That's fitting, as we do purposefully shove "Your online portfolio." under your nose on our landing page. That's what we want you to think of us as, and that's what we are today. At Carbonmade we think of our online portfolio as the trunk of the tree we hope to grow. As our trunk grows, it'll sprout branches (different Building Blocks), but you can't have healthy branches without a strong trunk. Without a strong trunk, you won't be able to build an ecosystem and have a shot at being a billion dollar company. Focus on the trunk.
Examples of Leveraging the Trunk
Think Apple and Facebook — both launched with a single stripped down product — Apple's operating system (their hardware was just a delivery system) and Facebook's simple social networking: messaging and, more importantly, photo sharing. Both focused all their attention on building their trunk and then leveraged their core product to branch out.
Apple's iPod, iPhone, iPad, iTunes, etc., are all successful because of iOS, which was built effectively on top of the knowledge they gained from developing Mac OS X (and earlier generations). Everything Apple develops today is tied back into their operating system — the trunk. I have a friend who worked as a developer on Apple's operating system team for over twenty years. Steve gave these guys more love than everyone else, and he believes in the trunk.
Facebook is an even better example, as when I first started using it during my sophomore year at Yale (2003) it was only a fragment of the product it is today. No Groups, no Events, no API, no News Feed, no Local, etc. They had a very limited userbase: college students, more specifically those at Ivy League universities, when I first signed up. They got an active core group of users before rolling it out to other colleges, then high schools, then mom and dad. It was only after they began to scale that they started to explore growing branches.
Keeping Everything Under One Umbrella
Mark Zuckerberg really believes in building a strong trunk before sprouting new branches. Without it, Facebook wouldn't be what it is today. You might argue that scale is what made Facebook's branches successful — not a strong trunk — but I'd argue that while scale is important, building out branches before you build out a strong trunk will lead you, and your users, toward getting lost in your ecosystem. Facebook will always first and foremost be a place to connect with friends, share photos, and read about what your friend is doing through status updates. The trunk is what's keeping Facebook together: Facebook's quest is to "connect the people of the world". Without that you've got a mixed message, which negatively affects your marketing and branding. You've got MySpace.
On the model of Apple or Facebook, Carbonmade's online portfolio system will always be the trunk of our ecosystem. How we play with it, what user groups we market to, and what branches we create will always tie back in with the basic idea: showing off your work.
Another example is 37signals. While 37signals is not using the same trunk approach that Facebook and Carbonmade use — everything under one umbrella — they still have a trunk: it's their brand, the design standards they've created to release features across products more easily, and their unified architecture (universal logins, etc.). This is another way of building an ecosystem, but I think one that'll never lead to a billion dollar business — something Jason Fried and DHH aren't interested in building anyway, so they say.
What's really interesting now at 37signals — and the reason why I've thrown them into this discussion — is that they just launched their new 37signals Suite. Likely it's something they've been planning since launching their second product. This is a way of re-unifying their products, with an emphasis on leveraging their success of Basecamp, their original focus. It'll be interesting to see where they go with this: Will they go a step farther and create an all-in-one product?
How Do You Build a Strong Trunk?
Building a strong trunk requires serious patience. Apple may have had its low points, but in its 35-year history (founded in 1976), they've never been as successful as they are today. It took a lot of patience, but they're finally in a position to change the world.
Too many entrepreneurs think that they need to rush to become overnight successes or they'll never get there. They think it's a sprint and not a marathon. Carbonmade has been around for five years as of December, 2010. It took us three years to be able to work on it full-time, and then another year and a half before we were able to hire our first two employees. Carbonmade is only at 1% of what it'll be in five years. Patience, my friends.
Other than having patience, you need to build a stripped down, functional product that is focused on a special type of user, but at the same time something that can still be used by a more general audience. That way you aren't discouraging anyone from using it.
For example, Carbonmade doesn't work all that well for writers, as our focus is on more visual work, but writers can still upload screenshots of their work with us, making our product usable for them. We're not discouraging writers from using Carbonmade, but we're not built for them. We can go back later and build out a template specifically for writers.
Focus on being patient while building a product that's specific but general at the same time — contradiction, I know, but you get what I mean — and you'll build up a successful base. Don't grow your branches too quickly, but perfect your trunk first, and always have this in the back of your mind: "Does this branch interfere with or enhance the trunk of my tree?"