This is a post I've been wanting to write since I started this blog, so buckle your seatbelts, it's a doozy.
I'm a Software Engineer by trade. I never completed college(or even got close). In fact, I've never had a computer class in my life. I learned at a young age that traditional schooling just wasn't for me. I'd spend all of my free time teaching myself things at home, or outright skipping school and hitting the library for the day where I'd read things from art theory all the way to classical mechanics. At the time I wanted to be an artist. I found myself doodling in class constantly, and the tests I turned in were covered with my artwork. Some of my teachers loved that, but most didn't. I was indifferent.
At the time I had an account on an online art community: sheezyart.com. SArt was an awesome place at the time, and had a great, thriving community of amateur animators. Everyone was very supportive of each other, and it was a great environment to improve yourself. Though, sometime in 2008 things started to noticeably go downhill. The moderatorship became corrupt, and because it wasn't a commercial venture, the owner had no real incintive to fix things. In fact, he'd all but left the community entirely, letting the leftover moderators battle amongst themselves. Bugs accumulated in the codebase, really good users were banned for ludicrous reasons, and the community started to fall apart.
When I was fourteen I was enamored with two things: animation and building an animation community. I browsed the Newgrounds programming board constantly, sapping up as much good information as I could. I wanted to make the next newgrounds.com. Little did I know, this teenage fascination would turn out to be the most important thing I could've done with my life at that time.
People loved the idea. I got near unanimous agreement that this was the way to go. I kept up the work on the site for a long time.. but eventually trailed off course. I guess looking back, an entire social artsite was too much for me at the time. It would have been my first real project other than little website layouts and personal sites, and I had a lot of experience to gain before I could make it perfectly fit my vision.
So I lingered on the idea and continued high school. I graduated(just barely), and moved to North Carolina with a girl that I'd met on Sheezyart when we were both kids.
Catherine and I had a long past together, and somebody like that you just know is going to still be around on your 100th birthday. She's an extremely detail-oriented person, and I'm an extremely high-level strategic oriented person. Her strengths complimented my weaknesses, and vice versa. We were perfectly compatible for building something big.
During my first Christmas living with her, we were just fucking around(Not literally guys!) in her room, and I mentioned Daftart. I could tell she was really impressed. It had been my dream since forever to run a social artsite like that, and she said she shared the same dream. She said I should keep working on it, and that she'd help me in any way she could.
That night we were both set on making our dreams happen. Drawrawr was conceived and we set to work on it.
Drawrawr's development was a near-constant death-march. Our lives basically revolved around it for the next six months, and it only took those six months to launch with a good number of features.
Too many all-nighters were pulled. I wish I remembered it better, but you stay up so many nights in a row and your brain just completely forgets to store your memories.
Golden Corral became our home-base; our greasy, low quality, high fat & sugar content, All-American buffet, home base. Every day we'd bring our laptops in, pay for breakfast and work until the evening, picking up a free lunch buffet along the way. Would I ever choose Golden Corral as my homebase again? No way. The diet that comes with it really wrecked our health in ways that I don't think we completely comprehended, but I have to admit that the place was extremely conducive to hacking out code. You don't have to think about much. You're allowed to indulge in 100% tunnel vision, and also eat a ton of bacon.
Our team worked beautifully. Catherine was the designer, artist, and most crucially the most amazing community organizer I think I'll ever meet. She's anal, really, haha. She can put her soul into things I can hardly put my hands on.
I was the implementer and the engineer.
This was still new ground to me. I'd never worked with JQuery, Ajax, or MVC before. In fact, the first invocation of Drawrawr didn't even have a framework or a pattern to it. The entire site was just a pile of statically served HTML pages with PHP scripts in them. Scalable? Forget it.
And thus the seed we planted for Drawrawr gave it both its life and its poison. Catherine and I sat down to build Drawrawr initially as a fun project between lovers and friends. We never expected our feelings for it to grow to the extent that it did. Five hundred active users maybe, tops. We didn't want more than that. We weren't going to build something to support more than that.
We wanted to build it fast, and launch it early. Architecture was hardly even an afterthought.
Yet, two months in we realized the potential extent of this idea. We would immediately have the entire userbase of Sheezyart clamoring at our door, and more. We were bringing back features the community loved that Sheezyart had dropped years ago. We had a philosophy that contradicted Sheezy's, and gave hope and energy to the users again. Catherine's amazing ability at socially engaging the communities was a big part of it. The idea went viral.
I knew there was no way we'd be able to handle the load we'd be getting when we finished by the summer. There wasn't a chance. Our server would go down, and that'd be it. It would take a complete re-write to build the system to scale.
So Cat and I decided to implement a password on the site to lock it down. No password? No joiny. We hoped this would turn people off from the site. It didn't.
We didn't get the intended benefit from locking down Drawrawr, but we did learn the important lesson of how much more valuable something becomes simply by making it exclusive.
People misconstrued the reasoning for the lock-down as Drawrawr being made into an exclusive club, and in many ways it was being made into one. Because Catherine was actively filtering the signups, the userbase was rock solid. Except for a few trouble-makers, the artists on the site were a very mature lot. We were getting some big names to sign up very early on. This only furthered the notion that Drawrawr was exclusive.
So very obviously we had launched Drawrawr at this point. Launch day was a nightmare in its own right. Are you familiar with Murphy's Law? It's this silly notion that everything that can go wrong will go wrong, at the worst possible time. The day we launched we had a tropical storm hit the coast of the Carolina's, and we lost power for two days.
Imagine working on something for half a year; exclusively pouring your soul into this dream with the love of your life, and then when you decide to unveil it, you completely lose contact with the outside world.
Drawrawr was running on by itself, on a server at Hostgator, but we didn't know for sure. For all we knew, Drawrawr had a fatal error that was denying users entry. Or worse, we'd been hacked, unable to patch a release-day security bug.
Catherine and I gathered around candlelight, eating Cordon Bleu, trying to distract each other from the utter terror of the unknown.
When we finally were able to get back online, everything was surprisingly wonderful. The users were loving the site, we had a steady amount of bug reports coming in, and miraculously the users loved everything.
I immediately jumped into a bug-fixing routine. I think this is what impressed the users the most. In many cases, the users were able to report a very severe and complex bug, and get it fixed and launched within hours. This was quite the opposite of Sheezyart, where the owner completely ignored bug reports for years.
If you want to impress your newest users, listen to them. Retention rate is so much more important than bringing in new users. You want your users to want you. Even if you disagree with their advice, let them personally know that you're considering it, and be honest.
In part two I'll cover the development, community drama, and ultimate fate of Drawrawr, as well as the lessons learned and my future in building social communities.
Image is a screenshot of Drawrawr from 2011