Anthony Casalena, CEO of website builder Squarespace, on presenting your business online, sponsorship, and how mobile design has trickled up to desktop
What does Squarespace do and what makes it stand out from the crowd?
It’s a publishing platform that helps anyone build a home online. The thing that makes it different is our emphasis on branding and design. Anyone using a platform can make the best version of themselves online. Most small businesses don’t have the time or resources to create the kind of sites you can create with us. We have sites ranging from portfolios to major e-commerce sites, so you can do a lot with it.
You started Squarespace from your dorm room in 2003 – has website building remained the same, or changed?
The reasons you have a website are roughly the same. If you want to maintain a professional presence that represents you where you have your own domain; if you don’t want to have ads on your site, you don’t have to; you can present things however you’d like. That part is even more important than 10 years ago when we started.
Where things have changed is the technological landscape, which is completely different. Ten years ago you would still see flash websites, there was no iPhone, and the mobile web was non-existent. People’s consumption of websites is very different now, and the technology we use to build it is very different as well. The current version of Squarespace doesn’t share any code with the one that started in my dorm room.
Squarespace sponsors a lot of podcasts – where did that strategy come from, and how do you judge success?
All of our advertising initiatives start organically and small. Back in 2004, when the site launched, it was just me buying Google Adwords. As we moved on and experimented with other things, podcasting came along. It started with one sponsorship on This Week In Tech around five years ago. It was immediately successful for us and we scaled it up from there. We realised this one show worked, and could we do more? Some worked and some didn’t. We organically go through and figure out by hand what’s working to reinvest in and what stuff we need to cut.
You’re a judge on D&AD Impact. What creative work truly inspires you?
It’s always a pleasure to see art blended with design. Design in a lot of ways is a very functional thing. If a kitchen is well designed, it functions well. It could be aesthetically great as well, but it’s about its utility as well as its form. There’s another side to all of that with Squarespace – there’s an aesthetic side to it which is not utilitarian in nature – but it’s the personality behind something. Take Bang & Olufsen – they make very well designed objects that have a personality that’s independent of their utility. When people can bring both those elements together, showing us something new while also making it really useful – I think that’s inspiring.
What are the opportunities and challenges ahead for website builders, and Squarespace?
Squarespace is a powerful platform, but also a pretty one. It’s important for small businesses to understand the importance of their brand online and owning that identity because for small businesses, that’s how you win. You’re not going to compete with Amazon on price, logistics or shipping speed – you’re competing with your story. Getting that into a prime spot in people’s minds when they’re starting a business is really important. For us, reaching a certain scale, moving from the US to the rest of the world, comes with its own set of logistical and engineering challenges. We face the challenge of spreading the message in a scaled-up, worldwide way.
How different is website building for mobile, and what does it mean for web design?
We’ve got a lot of things coming up in this space. What’s interesting is that some of the paradigms that you adopt on a mobile device have trickled back up into desktop and tablet experiences, and that’s a positive thing for the web as it makes people focus. Ten years ago you might have had 18 levels of drop-down navigation and three sidebars of every page, which doesn’t work on mobile devices. Consequently, people have dropped them and adopted simpler navigation – things that are cleaner.
People will continue to consume websites more and more on mobile devices. It remains of primary importance and it’s something we’re always thinking about and developing for.