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July 26, 2010

A brief history of Cabanova – Chapter 1

When I think back now to the time we started Cabanova back in 2000, it gives me the feeling of a wild rollercoaster ride. We have had numerous ups and downs on the way to where we are now, which has given us an action-packed ride with thrills and spills all along the way.

It all started back in 1999, when Karl Weyers and I (Sebastian Schmitz) joined forces and set up a small Internet agency together in Düsseldorf, Germany. Back then, anything with the word “Internet” in it was a big hype and bound to be successful no matter what. The aim of our enterprise was to make individualized websites for small and medium sized businesses.

Our first office was a small, unrenovated attic room in the building where Karl was living at the time. It was just the two of us, and an A0-sized poster of a model wearing a bikini from a discontinued summer collection hanging on the wall to keep us company. We had been focusing a lot of effort on finding new customers, mainly small companies who didn’t have a web site yet, or had one that was in dire need of improvement. We noticed again and again that these companies had three things in common. Firstly, they were all very keen on getting a new website. Second, they showed us examples of websites that they thought were great and wanted one just like it. And thirdly, after we told them we would be happy to make them a site like that and what it would cost, the few we heard from again explained to us that their actual budget was a mere fraction of what we had proposed.

These wasted consultations and calculations didn’t go down too well, but then we did some brainstorming to figure out how we could turn this situation around in our favor. We realized there were so many potential customers who wanted a great website but did not have a big budget for it. They were willing to sit down themselves some evening to work on their sites, but needed a way to work without having to be a programmer. Some of them had a “nephew” or acquaintance that could do some HTML programming, but they could never get the good-looking site they wanted with them. And that’s how the idea for the Cabanova sitebuilder was born. There were already a handful of sitebuilders on the worldwide market, but they were largely unknown in Germany, so we decided to give it a go and we did. That decision we made in 2000.

We started designing a prototype, made lots of sketches and designs and had many late-night brainstorming sessions. We decided to go for a Flash-based sitebuilder simply because it was the only technology available that allowed us to make an easy-to-use interface. Java was also out there, but it was nowhere near as platform-independent as Flash.

The dotcom bubble had already begun to burst at the time we started our development, but we joined forces with a company in the Netherlands who were specialized in helping startups such as ourselves to make a suitable business plan, find a good management team, and find venture capital. All started well and with the best intentions from both sides, but pretty soon Karl and I both realized that we disagreed with most of their proposed procedures, and in some cases it seemed as though we were consulting the consultants. So we cut ourselves loose from this cooperation. Soon after that we made one attempt to raise startup capital, but they (as had most) had already been burned badly by dotcom bursting investments that went nowhere fast. After their refusal, we decided to go it alone. By then we had picked up some customers for our regular website work, so we were able to finance the development ourselves. We realized the development would be slower than when there are millions in the bank to push things along, but the advantage there was that we could do things the way we wanted, without any investors trying to push us around and force us to go directions we didn’t agree with.

We got on the job and by July 2001 we had the first beta version of Cabanova up and running online – our first milestone was reached.

I will continue this story next week …