Learn about Webflow's early days in this case study and how the company became a leader in the no-code space.
Bryant Chou can recall the exact moment when he realized the Webflow team was building something special. In the summer of 2013, Bryant and his co-founders Vlad and Sergie Magdalin were building a working prototype of their product to launch at Y Combinator’s demo day. Bryant remembers that it was a Thursday afternoon. The team has just finished eating lunch and were “hovering around Sergie’s laptop watching him design a website for the very first time in Webflow. And we saw him drag a div container onto the page, we saw him style that element, we saw him put some text on it, we saw him publish it. And that was the very first time that I ever saw the circle completed with Webflow.” Thinking about that moment still gives him goosebumps.
Bryant joined the Webflow team in early 2013 as their CTO after he was approached by Vlad — they had previously been coworkers at Intuit. At Intuit, they had built what would become one of the company’s first enterprise SAAS products. But this experience convinced Bryant how insufficient existing web design tools were. So when Vlad came to him with an idea for a product that would allow designers to seamlessly transition from design to production, he was intrigued, but he didn’t think it would be a billion-dollar idea. It wasn’t until he spoke to Vlad’s brother Sergie, a designer by trade, that he was able to conceive how a tool like Webflow could democratize the web design process by empowering designers to ship professional websites without technical support.
Vlad initially came up with the idea for Webflow in 2004. In college, he interned at a web design agency where his job was to translate the work of web designers into code. He came across an invoice for one of the agency’s big clients and realized that they were billing these clients to the tune of thousands of dollars, while the designers and coders who implemented the work were being paid much less. Vlad was inspired to come up with a tool that would put power in the hands of designers so that they could directly implement their designs without having to code or rely on someone else to code for them. Webflow started as Vlad’s senior project but it would take almost a decade and a few false starts before his vision for the company really got off the ground.
During his first few attempts, Vlad modeled Webflow as an agency. It was a side business since he needed to keep working full-time. As he described it, he would “take on some clients just for regular web design work, and then use those as a way to battle test whether I can build things manually, but automate more and more over time.” Vlad’s third attempt at starting Webflow was in the form of an LLC in 2008. He found some clients and built things for them on a very early version of what would eventually become the Webflow platform that we know today. However, with two kids, and a full-time job, he found himself unable to keep up with the demands of building the company on the side. During this time, he teamed up with his youngest brother, Sergie, who would design the websites for Vlad’s clients, and then Vlad would translate his work into code. While their third attempt at building Webflow failed, the partnership that Vlad and Sergie established during this period would set them up for success when Vlad decided to give Webflow another chance.
In late 2011, Vlad was notified that after a 5-year dispute with another company, he finally owned the trademark for Webflow (he had maxed out his credit card to purchase the domain name back in college). He took this as a sign that it was time to reinvest in Webflow and move to the Bay Area. Around the same time, in early 2012, he came across a Youtube video called “Inventing on Principle” by Bret Victor which argued that creators need to be immediately connected to the act of creation, and not have delays “in the feedback loop between thinking of something and seeing it and building on it.” Vlad credits this video as the spark that put him on the path to re-engaging in Webflow. As he puts it, Victor presented “some ideas around direct manipulation and the type of tool that Webflow became. But also, the main question he asked was, why are you doing the work that you're doing? What is the purpose behind the work that you do?” The next morning, Vlad quit his job at Intuit, called Sergie, and together they began working on Webflow again.
As Vlad describes it, Webflow was one of the “early pioneers in the no-code space” though this phrase was far from being named yet.
The co-founders rejected the binarized notion that “only designers design, and only coders code.” Their founding insight was the idea of bringing “the power of software creation, and programming into the hands of creative people who don’t have either the energy, or the desire, or just the time to learn how to code.”
In the beginning, Bryant recalled that people often told them that “this is going to be too complicated for designers to learn and it is not going to be powerful enough for developers to actually adopt.” It took time — nearly 5 years — for the company to prove that their concept had traction and for people to understand that “you can do things visually, to the same degree of performance, responsiveness, and professionalism as the actual developer building it.”
The Webflow team didn’t have to look too far to find their initial ideal user—Sergie served as the perfect proxy for their user base of professional web designers. In 2012, Webflow was entering a fairly crowded market space for website builders. Companies like Wix and Squarespace had already captured a segment of the audience that was interested in creating websites that required no coding. These services were meant for anyone who was interested in quickly building a website from several pre-made templates. However, Webflow differentiated itself from these products by focusing on professional websites that typically required a collaboration between a web designer and a developer. Webflow wanted to position itself as the platform for designers to launch custom professional websites that can work as powerful marketing assets, reach customers, and generate leads for businesses.
Exhibit: Early differentiation: Webflow vs. Wix and Squarespace
|Choice of no-code website builder
|Freelance web designers working for businesses or large companies that need a professional website.
|Webflow allows for greater customization and creativity including animations and interactions.
|Individuals setting up their personal or business websites.
|Squarespace or Wix — user-friendly, pre-made templates that offer little flexibility for modification.
Vlad and Sergie’s experience working together previously had cemented a close working relationship, but Vlad found the task of translating design into code tedious. As he describes it, “Webflow came out of asking ourselves how we could allow Sergie to use his creativity and automate the implementation work I was doing.” They wanted to “productize” what had historically been a service-based approach to web design work, where a designer had to necessarily partner with a developer/coder and pay them in order to implement their designs.
As Bryant explains, the freelance web designer persona grounded the company for the first five or six years. Their entire go-to-market motion, community-building strategy, and product roadmap were “centered around that particular persona. We gave that person a name, we had a poster of this person in our office and that's how we routed all of our priorities in the very beginning.”
Webflow’s core user persona has evolved since its early years, but its laser focus on its initial beachhead — freelance designers — helped the company eventually cross the chasm into enterprise. We cover those tactics later in this case study.
Webflow applied to Y Combinator with the hope of getting into the winter cohort in 2012. At this point, they had a “non-functional demo and zero traction” which led to a rejection. In his personal life, Vlad was facing several challenges — after quitting his job at Intuit, he had no income and about $25K in savings, most of which was allocated toward incorporation, buying new laptops, and the production of a Kickstarter video that never launched (since Kickstarter did not support SAAS products on their platform). At this point, Vlad was pretty much out of money and had taken on $30,000 in credit card debt to support the company, as well as his family. To put it mildly, things were not looking up for the Webflow team and they started trying to get their old jobs back. As Vlad explains, “everybody we tried to talk to, everybody we user tested it with, said that either the product isn't ready yet or we just don't know where to go to reach users.”
While they weren’t in a place to build out their full product, they decided to create “a demo or playground that could hint at what the future product could be” as a last-ditch effort. In March 2013, they launched http://playground.webflow.com/. Since they were mainly targeting designers and non-technical users, they posted the demo on places like Digg, Reddit, and other designer-centric forums. But they found no significant traction. None of the founders had a meaningful following on social media so they didn’t want to post the demo on those spaces. As yet another last-ditch attempt, they posted the demo on Hacker News which is mainly a space for programmers and developers. As Vlad puts it, “this is just pure luck — right place, right time. I don't know how it worked, but it just took off. It was the number one post of the day. We had 20,000 people sign up for updates. It went viral on Twitter.”
While none of the developers on HN really signed up for the product and only about 50 people paid to use the product, the posting “generated enough hype” that it gave the team just enough traction to keep going.
As they approached YC’s Demo Day in August 2013, the team didn’t feel comfortable launching because they had built only the very basic parts of Webflow and it was only possible to build one-page websites that had limited utility. But their partners convinced them to launch anyway which Vlad credits as one of the most pivotal and positive decisions in the company’s history. They secured $2.9 million in seed funding.
In their early years, Webflow followed a product-led growth model with a free plan and a self-serve upgrade experience for paying customers. Bryant explains that in the early days, they always had a “very, organic lead business, word-of-mouth was always very strong for us.” Since freelance web designers were their core user base, they effectively became Webflow’s sales channel and operated as an extension of their marketing and sales team.
As Bryant puts it, “every single freelance web designer that we converted as a customer would have to go and find businesses for themselves to go build websites on top of. So, that was an economically efficient way for us to grow at scale, especially (in the) early days.”
In 2015, two years after their seed round, Vlad realized that unless the company stopped burning cash, they would be “default dead” within the year. He decided then that they would become “default alive” and find a way to turn around the weekly decline in their cash balance. The team decided to focus on growing revenue which eventually put them on the path to becoming sustainable. Instead of focusing on profit, they decided to use incoming revenue to hire people slowly so that they could speed up product development.
Though the company had rapidly grown its user base, this did not manifest in “durable paying customer accounts as people were trying out the product.” The team decided to focus on retaining and converting users via a customer support forum that made all three founders available to answer customer queries.
Bryant also realized that at some point organic growth would level off, so he started thinking about “growth engineering” to create more awareness about the company. An early effort involved creating flexboxgame.com which was “essentially a game of Froggy but it was implemented in the Webflow designer, and you have to use Webflow Flexbox in order to progress through the game.” The Webflow team also tried to use virality to drive growth by experimenting with content marketing, affiliates, and influencers — a strategy where they found success. Bryant explains that a single design influencer is responsible for “tens of thousands of Webflow customers. And not only that, but he's probably also responsible for really solidifying with those brands in the design world as well.”
Bryant’s approach to growth involved running a lot of experiments such as these to measure their impact and find ways to grow the company’s user base. In order to make the best use of their resources when they had not yet found product-market fit, they were very selective about the experiments they ran. When they found one that worked and if it resonated with their core user persona, they implemented that strategy.
In 2019, after growing their business to 45,000 paying customers, Webflow raised $72 million in series A funding.
In 2019, Ryan Hoover, founder of Product Hunt, published a piece titled “The Rise of No Code” where he wrote about the growing no-code trend that was making the internet more accessible and turning more people into makers. He pointed out that “today anyone with a computer and access to the internet can build a website using tools far more powerful than Dreamweaver from two decades ago.” In this piece, he listed a number of companies as vanguards of this movement, including Webflow.
When Hoover published his piece, Bryant explains that suddenly “no code became a thing.” There was a growing understanding of how no-code products were filling a much-needed space that allowed more people to build things on the internet, and “empowering a new wave of makers from different backgrounds and perspectives.”
While Webflow became bucketed into the no-code movement after Hoover’s piece came out, they had in many ways anticipated this conversation. For instance, in 2018, Vlad published a piece in which he declared that the “future of web design is not code.” In this piece, he provided visual examples of how Webflow provided “a very granular level of control within the constraints of the medium of the web.” Vlad has since argued that Webflow democratizes the act of software creation in the same way that Youtube democratized video creation by not getting rid of code entirely, but by “building abstractions to hide that complexity away from folks having to learn that in order to get the job done.” Even though Webflow hadn’t created the term “no code” or set out to create the no-code movement, what they were doing aligned with this movement at a grassroots level.
In his book Crossing the Chasm, Geoffrey Moore argues that the “development of a high-tech market lies in making the transition from an early market dominated by a few visionary customers to a mainstream market dominated by a large block of customers who are predominantly pragmatists in orientation.” According to Moore, the difference between these two markets is so vast so as “to warrant being called a chasm, and crossing this chasm must be the primary focus of any long-term high-tech marketing plan.”
In its early days, Webflow’s founders decided to focus on its early adopters — freelance web designers who helped them organically grow the company. Once they had enough traction with this community and given their growing prominence within the no-code movement, they were able to cross the chasm to capture more mainstream customers.
By the time Webflow raised its series A round, its customer base included individual freelancers, as well as Fortune 500 companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Yelp, among others. Vlad sees no-code becoming the de-facto way people build software in the future. He has argued that no-code technologies can provide automation that would free up engineers’ time to work on more interesting projects and newer innovations.
In 2021, Bryant related a story to Michael Grinich about recognizing the opportunity for Webflow in the enterprise space. He recalled getting an email from the head of a digital bank in Australia who was eager to use Webflow but needed commercial agreements in place so he could explain the purchase to his boss. Bryant explained that this was when he understood that Webflow was potentially leaving behind enterprise customers because they did not have the right motion to onboard them. Until then, the company required users to just provide a credit card to purchase Webflow’s services. A key indicator that Webflow was ready to move upmarket was the increasing demand for their product from enterprise customers who found them through their self-serve channels.
For their first group of enterprise customers, Webflow put agreements together that emphasized three dimensions — scalability, security, and service. They also built single sign-on functionality in Webflow which became their first form of product differentiation.
Since enterprise customers tend to have more people working in Webflow at the same time, there needed to be increased roles and permissions. Webflow’s enterprise product also has branching capabilities that allow multiple people to work on different parts of the site.
Since their initial days, Webflow’s core personas have evolved to include the following roles:
As Bryant explains, the Webflow team realized that their core freelance designer personas had eventually gone on to work for businesses where they build websites, but that persona was “just a tiny fraction of the overall lifecycle of a website. After you launch the website, you’ve got to maintain it, you’ve got to update content, you’ve got to write your blog posts, you have to work on your SEO, you have to drive traffic to it.” So they invested in their go-to-market and product marketing strategy to understand all the different stakeholders in the web design process. As their product has grown, the company has to take all these personas into account.
In 2015, Vlad published a piece titled “Let’s Redesign Web Design” — 2 years after Webflow’s launch. He wrote that while it seems “a foregone conclusion that code will always dominate serious web design work,” designers should have better tools for web design that don’t “use code to manipulate things better suited to visual manipulation.” This was the early stage of Webflow’s messaging campaign to normalize the idea of creating for the web without writing code. From 2013 through 2015, this messaging was prominently displayed on their website.
In 2016, the company changed its messaging to emphasize its visual CMS. Bryant explains that based on customer feedback, Webflow created a visual CMS experience that allowed customers to “create custom fields and describe relationships to data, but then, most importantly, you had the ability to bind dynamic content to the UI on your Webflow site.” Early feedback suggested that customers wanted a WordPress integration in Webflow, but the founders decided to assess what the overall CMS market looked like at the time and how Webflow could further disrupt that space. Webflow created a visual CMS experience that did not require additional coding or reliance on plug-ins and other add-ons. This version of their website highlights the platform’s ability to produce “clean, semantic code” that can be handed off to developers. This trend continued for the next couple of years.
In 2019, Webflow’s messaging pivoted again to emphasize its no-code foundations, given the rising popularity of the no-code movement (we discuss this in the section below). At this time, Webflow’s home page messaging changed to “Break the code barrier.”
Over the last couple of years, as the company has crossed into enterprise, Webflow’s messaging on its home page has pivoted again to emphasizing its visual canvas, as well as the platform’s ability to create powerful websites for marketing businesses, without taking up developers’ time.
As they continued to move into the enterprise space, Bryant wanted to be very intentional about building their sales motion.
As he did in Webflow’s early days, he led experiments where he partnered with one of Webflow’s customer service representatives since the CS team handled emails from customers every day and understood their needs. Additionally, members of this team were also very familiar with Webflow as a product and could provide insights into which enterprise customers the company should pursue.
Finding the right partner on this team helped Webflow sequence its product roadmap and go-to-market motion for enterprise customers. For instance, customers in the fintech or insurance sectors required more security features — the CS team was aware of this from their previous interactions with these prospects. Through much trial and error, the CS rep that Bryant partnered with was instrumental in helping Webflow close half a dozen enterprise accounts. Building on this success, the Webflow team hired a VP of sales and customer success to help scale the team further.
The GTM strategy that Webflow first pursued to land in the enterprise space is best described as product-led sales — layering on a sales team onto an existing successful product-led growth motion. Whether it’s for enterprise or self-serve, Webflow has kept its core value proposition and product the same for both audiences instead of trying to create a separate product altogether.
Webflow’s initial beachhead persona — freelance designers — was key to helping close enterprise customers. Bryant and the sales team converted some of these designers into what they call “enterprise partners” who team up with Webflow’s sales team during negotiations with enterprise customers and provide a neutral voice to help communicate the value of Webflow’s platform.
These freelancers who were early adopters of the product have helped Webflow cross the chasm into the mainstream by championing their product during the enterprise sales cycle.
Over the years, Webflow’s messaging for enterprise has stayed true to their core product — build powerful websites without relying on expensive engineers. Today, Webflow finds enterprise customers through a mix of product-led and sales-led strategies. While some enterprise customers come to them after trying their self-serve product, Webflow’s sales team also targets companies that are in the process of phasing out legacy tools. The sales team figures out what these companies care about in terms of cost and effort, and shows them the value of Webflow in helping them reach their goals.
Bryant recommends being extremely strategic when it comes to hiring at the early stage. While hiring people for their expertise is essential, Bryant recommends that founders not defer too many decisions to new employees.
Incoming hires at any level of the organization should be given time and the opportunity to really learn about the business so that they fully understand the customers, the product, and the problem that the company is solving. A clear understanding of all these elements gives employees the context to discern what is important so that they will feel empowered to make decisions that are in the best interest of the company and its customers.
Until employees are confident that they have learned about the business, founders should rely on their intuition since they are experts on the business at the early stage. As the business scales and founders spend less time on particular aspects of the company, they should gradually come to rely on their employees’ expertise in those areas.
It was also important to hire people who could move with urgency in particular areas such as content marketing and performance marketing. Agility in these areas was key for building awareness. However, when it came to roles that involved thinking through exactly how a product or a feature should work, the team decided that a slower approach was best because quality was paramount.
Webflow’s incredible story is one of authenticity, focus, and extreme resilience. Vlad and Sergie understood their early customers — professional website designers — exceptionally well. Bryant’s realization that their ability to convince developers to trust the product created a focus in their product strategy that allowed Webflow to differentiate and stand out. Lastly, one can’t read this case study without realizing that Webflow almost died many times. It took many attempts for the founders to find their audience and even longer until no code became a movement. Through all this, their throughline was staying laser-focused on what mattered — customers and empowering their creative expression.