Instapainting on Indie Hackers

Instapainting on Indie Hackers


Chris Chen explains how he bounced back from dire financial circumstances by creating a website that did $1000/week in revenue from day one.

Tell us about yourself and what you're working on.

Hi, I'm Chris Chen. I created, a website that lets you turn a photo into a painting hand-made by an artist in real life.

For the first two years I was operating purely from earned income, making about $30-$50k of profit to support both myself and the business (in expensive San Francisco, no less). Now the business is in its third year and doing over $400,000 in annual revenue. I'm still bootstrapped.

How did you get started with Instapainting?

I did YC in Winter 2011 as a solo founder working on a social music site that was a clone of I was fresh out of a 6 month hiatus from college, which I've yet to go back and finish. (I'd only completed 3 semesters of a physics major.) I survived on the money I raised from YC and my various ideas and pivots for about 3 years.

Then I ran out of money.

Luckily, by this point I had already bgeen testing more and more random ideas that deviated from "social music", and I had gotten pretty good at throwing up MVPs. I had a friend who bought paintings from China and sold them in the US, and she wanted me to build a website for her to sell art reproductions. Instead, I launched Instapainting in January 2014.

The initial prototype was a simple single-page website that allowed customers to upload any photo they wanted, collected their payment info via Stripe, and explained that a real hand-made oil painting of their photo would be mailed to them in 2 weeks. The hardest part was actually conveying that it wasn't just some print or photo filter, and this is something I still have difficulty with today.

At this point, I was about $4000 in debt, so I had to put up the single page website to collect money. I created, tested, and launched it in just a couple of days. I put the page up on Reddit, and in two weeks I'd made over $2000 in sales. It felt really refreshing to go from a stereotypical failed Valley startup to something that was revenue positive from day 1.

After that, I started trying to secure the actual artists, but I failed to do so. I ultimately ended up hiring some local friends who were artists to help paint the orders. The total profit came out to be slightly negative, but it proved that the idea was sellable. The next steps were to increase the profit margin and to make a bigger splash. A few weeks later, I launched on TechCrunch and did over $30,000 in revenue in the next 3 months.

How'd you hire artists and get the business model working?

My friend had introduced me to the concept of hiring artists from China and selling the paintings in the US, and she even referred me to one of the suppliers she was using. While I did make my initial sales before before finding any real artists, acquiring artists turned out to be far from the hardest part of the business.

Shortly after the launch I was contacted by many artists, mostly from China (they already saturate other marketplaces like eBay, Alibaba, and Etsy). The initial batch of orders were break even, but once the market-rate artists contacted us, I knew it was going to be profitable. The question was how to keep sales up and how to scale it.

Initially Instapainting started out as a single-page site with a Stripe Checkout form and with orders manually doled out to artists. Today it still appears that way to visitors for the most part, but behind the scenes is a fully-automated marketplace system

Artists and sellers on our platform directly communicate with customers and handle customer service issues, project updates, and shipping status tracking. Bi-directional feedback ratings are employed for automatic quality control, and bidding algorithms are used to select the ideal artists for each project. I've gradually adapted the software over time to automate every process, and generally I only have to step in in rare instances of high-level disputes.

What's your tech stack?

I've used PHP, Node.js, Mongo, and React.js. The stack consists largely of micro-services, which is crucial in allowing me (the only developer) to migrate the site to new technologies.

What have you done to grow and market Instapainting?

I think it took about 5-6 months for me to realize that the business was primarily sustained from SEO traffic. At that point I started to focus heavily on SEO, and I the reaped the full benefits of that approach in my second year of business when I climbed to #1 spots for the top search terms. I didn't have much experience in SEO beforehand, but I leveraged my experience on Hacker News to push out content marketing pieces that were crucial to SEO. For example:

Most of these things had orders of magnitude more traffic than the Instapainting home page ever received, and they usually maintained some traffic gains consistently afterwards. But most importantly, these efforts brought in massive amounts of inbound links from reputable sites like,, TechCrunch, Engadget, etc.

Pretty much all of these initiatives started by making front page on Hacker News, and then they'd get more coverage afterwards which would boost SEO, even if the coverage itself didn't convert to orders:

Instapainting Sessions Graph

Those massive spikes were due to the content marketing initiatives. You can see after those spikes that traffic permanently improves. That was due to improved Google search rankings.

What's the story behind your revenue and expenses?

On day one, the website was just a Stripe checkout form embedded on a single page. I mentioned earlier that, after posting on Reddit, it immediately started doing $1k/week in sales.

The business became profitable about 2 months in, which is when the real launch on TechCrunch happened. By profitable, I mean it was able to cover my living expenses. Before that it had been about break-even as I worked things out. It couldn't afford to lose much money, because the whole point of the pivot was to stave off (personal) bankruptcy.

Today Instapainting is earning about $400,000 of revenue per year. As I'm fairly intertwined with the company, this is shared personal and business revenue. This is up from the first year, which was only about $89-$90k in revenue. The main driver of the increase is improved SEO from content marketing.

In tandem with increasing revenue from SEO, I cut costs by introducing a marketplace bidding system behind the scenes, and by on-boarding more and more artists. I also cut the amount of time I have to spend in day-to-day operations by automating all aspects of the business. Things started out with me manually doling out orders and managing the artists, but today I've got a completely automated system enforced by bi-directional reviews and direct communication between customers and artists.

No one except me is on payroll. The whole point of the platform is that many independent vendors and artists can come on the site and provide their services without much overhead. Hiring people would be overhead, and would only be necessary if we were growing much faster than we currently are.

If you could go back, what would you do differently?

Initially, my biggest fear was the expected "trough of sorrow" after the TechCrunch launch. The challenge immediately became how to permanently increase growth. As soon as the site started doing well, I would divert my attention and try to branch out into other things, often times too divergent from the main products. These turned out mostly to be a waste of time.

Another thing I'd do differently is that I'd pour my time and resources into SEO earlier. It took me over 6 months to realize why we were still making sales even after the TechCrunch article's shelf-life expired.

I would have also spent less time focusing on competitors. I wasted time and money testing Google ads, and also matching features and copy from my competitors' websites. In the end they were non-factors, as the only thing that mattered was our Google ranking.

What's been most crucial in helping you to succeed?

For me, SEO. I'll admit SEO won't apply for all types of companies, but it's probably responsible for most startups' successes. Unless you have no competitors, or you spread exclusively through some other channel like word-of-mouth or the App Store, then SEO is your main way of being discovered.

A litmus test is to ask yourself if you have more than 2 competitors. If you do, then it's a pretty good sign you should be focusing on SEO, as some absurdly high percentage of people go with the first result on Google by default. This doesn't just mean optimizing your website for search engines. It means gaining publicity so that Google recognizes that you should have the most mind-share and puts you at the top of results.

What's your advice for hackers setting out to be their own boss?

The most important thing for Instapainting was just doing it, and in the fastest and most testable way possible. And, as time and sales progressed, a big help was being able to engineer and automate the systems so that I had more free time to dedicate to new features and new sales strategies.

My advice to others is: Your idea doesn't have to have hundreds of thousands or millions in funding to be realized. If it does, then it's probably the wrong idea to be pursuing if you don't already have that kind of money. Your idea doesn't even have to take months or years to implement. It can be as straightforward as some simple proposition attached to a payment form. If you don't have a simple proposition to make, go seek out a non-technical revenue-generating business and help them out with their tech strategy.

Where can we go learn more?

Check out my posts on the Instapainting blog, or leave me a question in the comments below and I'll try to get back to you.

Microsoft unveils Windows 10 Creators Update, coming in ‘early 2017’

Microsoft unveils Windows 10 Creators Update, coming in ‘early 2017’

At its Windows 10 event in New York City today, Microsoft announced the Creators Update for Windows 10. The company detailed a slew of new features coming to its latest and greatest operating system, for free. Microsoft says the Creators Update will arrive in “early 2017,” but Windows Insider testers and developers will be able to play with it sooner.

Windows 10 is a service, meaning it was built in a very different way than its predecessors so it can be regularly updated with not just fixes but new features too. The most recent significant update is the Windows 10 Anniversary Update, released two months ago.

Terry Myerson, executive vice president for Microsoft’s Windows and Devices Group, explained there are three components for this update: 3D and mixed reality, 4K gaming and in-game broadcasting, plus faster ways to share and connect with the people that matter most.

More to follow

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‘The Engine’ is MIT’s incubator for tech and science companies straight out of the lab

‘The Engine’ is MIT’s incubator for tech and science companies straight out of the lab

‘The Engine’ is MIT’s incubator for tech and science companies straight out of the lab

Posted 15 seconds ago by Devin Coldewey, Contributor
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Musk on Tesla Network: “It’s not Tesla vs. Uber, it’s the people vs. Uber”

MIT is getting into the incubator business in a big way with “The Engine,” a major fund and accelerator space aimed at nurturing early-stage companies solving big, difficult problems in tech and science. After The Engine raises its targeted $150 million fund, up to 60 companies at a time will benefit from the university’s equipment, services, and considerable pool of expertise.

While many details are yet to come, it’s clear this is serious business for the Boston-area mega-school. The language of the announcement indicates that establishing the city as a hub for commercialized innovation is a major secondary goal.

A familiar final paragraph in many a story on our own front page about an amazing new technology reads along the lines of: “It’s not clear when or how the technology will be commercialized or manufactured.”

How exactly do you take your swarming robots, soft robotic muscles, or brain-computer interfaces into the hands of consumers or — how do you even keep working on them at all once your grant money runs dry?

The Engine takes dead aim at the valley of death between the lab and the market. There won’t be cohorts, but companies will come in for 6, 9, or 12-month periods to receive a variety of help. MIT’s resources are many and various, of course, and companies will have access to lab spaces, specialized equipment, and likely things like online staging and supercomputing time as well. Administrative support for things like business management, patents, taxes and so on will also be provided.

In fact, these resources are so many and various that MIT is setting up an entire online ecosystem for providing, requesting, renting, and otherwise managing the many clean rooms, laser sintering machines, and gene sequencers (plus presumably the grad students to operate them). It’ll be called the Engine Room (an extended metaphor is announced) and although it doesn’t say exactly this, it almost certainly has designs on becoming an international tech and science resource-sharing platform.


But the average startup comprising a handful of engineers and a great idea doesn’t just need micropipettes, it needs money, with which one can buy many micropipettes. And coffee.

To that end, the MIT announcement is less than specific. An investment arm of The Engine will oversee financial contribution, which, while terms will surely differ between companies, in the form of what they describe as patient capital. Here’s how MIT explains it:

The Engine venture funds will demand less equity in startups than is typical, allowing founders to maintain more control over their companies. The Engine is also actively exploring avenues to support nonprofit startups.

I’ve asked for specifics and will update this post if I hear back. I’ve also asked how The Engine will work with existing university commercialization and IP infrastructure — that can be very tricky.

As for the $150 million it plans to fund this endeavor with, details are forthcoming there as well. MIT itself is chipping in $25 million, with the rest to come, hopefully soon. (Another thing I’ve asked about — are they looking for private investment? Public? Recurring? Foundation-like?)

Applications aren’t open yet and there’s no word on when they will be. You don’t need to have anything to do with MIT to apply to the program, but you’ll probably want to be in the greater Boston area, since that’s where all the great stuff is. Get in contact and you’ll hear more when there’s more to hear.

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White Privilege, Prison, and a Shot at Redemption

White Privilege, Prison, and a Shot at Redemption

Go to the profile of Kerri Shea Beers
Kerri Shea BeersBlockedUnblockFollowFollowing
Marketing @techstars, writer, activist, Kundalini yogi, east coast transplant, musician's wife, wrangler of wild things
Oct 16

White Privilege, Prison, and a Shot at Redemption

Last Friday I spent the day in prison. And it was the best day of my life.

About 70 miles north of LA, in the middle of the desert near the city of Lancaster, is a maximum security, level 4 California State Prison. It’s a sprawling facility surrounded by high chain link fences and barbed wire. It’s dirt and concrete and guards with guns. From the outside it looks cold and hard and scary. But on the inside, the most beautiful and powerful human transformation is taking place.

California Department of Correction and REHABILITATION, Lancaster, CA.

Inside the walls of this prison, and 20 more like it across the country, men and women whom the rest of the world have forgotten about, are being given another chance at life. They are learning business skills, taking entrepreneurship classes, and receiving intensive training, coaching and mentorship.

Led by Cat Hoke of Defy Ventures, these prisoners are “transforming their hustle” and learning what it takes to change the trajectory of their lives. They are known as Entrepreneurs in Training, or EITs. Defy is a grantee of the Techstars Foundation, improving diversity in entrepreneurship.

What is most impressive about this program is that those who go through it end up with only a 3% recidivism rate vs. 75% which is more typical. The program gives these men the skills and support they need to make it on the outside so they are much less likely to re-offend.

When we arrived at the prison on Friday morning, we gathered in a classroom along with 30 other volunteers. A bus was en route bringing 50 more volunteers. Together, our entire group was made up mostly of white male venture capitalists, investors and MBAs. Our group included ~10 women and a few people of color, but it was mostly white men in white dress shirts. The EITs had been working on business plans and we were there as judges for a business pitch competition.

We made our way through the security screening and then it was time to meet the EITs. The double doors of the gym opened and we were greeted with loud, thumping music, two long lines of smiling faces, cheering, and lots of tattooed arms and necks. We made our way down the center aisle high-fiving these guys on both sides with each hand. Immediately I was laughing and hollering with them. They were so welcoming and full of joy — you absolutely could not help but be swept up in their positive energy.

The Welcome Wagon

(As this was happening, I realized how it was the same welcome my twin 11 year old boys had received when they started middle school two months ago. At their mostly all-white school in Boulder, Colorado, they were greeted the same way with their all-white teachers in a gym, with loud thumping music and high fives. The contrast was not lost on me.)

A few other people I went to this event with have described their experience. To get the full picture of the day, read Mark Suster’s blog here and Ali Berman’s story here. They do an amazing job of walking through this day and how it affected us on a personal level and what it felt like to be the recipient of such intense empathy.

I’ve had a couple of days for this to sink in — yesterday I spent the day crying and literally telling every single person I met about it. I cried as I told affluent Boulderite parents at our soccer game at Pleasant View fields. I babbled about it to good friends at a birthday party over kickball and beers. I went on and on with my yoga teacher neighbor who indulged me and just let me get it all out.

It is hard to accurately convey what I learned and how this has changed me forever. But I want to hone in on the white privilege part. Before Friday, I had heard that term and scoffed. Yeah, yeah, I thought. I was born with advantages, sure, but come on — people who made bad choices did so of their own accord. Didn’t they? They committed crimes as a result of their poor decisions. Little did I know how wrong I was. I never fully understood all of the factors that led up to these decisions — these fateful moments, these mistakes — that end up changing their lives forever.

One of the EITs from Lancaster

The empathy exercise we did are what made me finally understand what white privilege really means. We did something called Step to the Line. The EITs were lined up shoulder to shoulder in single file on one side. We volunteers were lined up the same facing them, about five feet apart. Our job was to be honest, be vulnerable, and look at the other person in the eye. Offer empathy with your eyes. Cat read off a series of statements. If the statement was true for you, step to the line. If it was not, take a few steps back.

Step to the Line

I like hip hop music. All of the EITs stepped to the line. About half of us did.

I dropped out of high school. All EITs stepped up. All of us stepped back.

I graduated from college. All of us stepped up. All EITs stepped back.

We went through a few of these easy ones until it got harder.

I heard gunshots in my neighborhood growing up. I had a parent in prison. There was violence in my home as a child. I had a parent addicted to drugs or alcohol. I lost a sibling before the age of 10. I’ve lost a child. I’ve spent a night in jail. I’ve been in jail for 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, 25 years. I’ve murdered someone.

The picture starts to become clear. You see what you have in common and you see what separates you. Almost all of the (white) volunteers had college degrees, grew up in safe neighborhoods, with two parent homes. With stability. These men of color did not. The odds were stacked against them.

Most of their stories we heard later were around the pain and anger they had from joining gangs for survival; from committing crimes to get money to feed their families; from being overcome with frustration and rage from the loss in their lives. They do not make excuses for their crimes — they own what they did. But understanding all of the factors that led them there matters. And I began to understand my white privilege.

I’ve done something I should be in jail for.

Almost every volunteer stepped to the line. Look at that. We’ve broken the law too but somehow we are over here. Maybe we didn’t get caught. Maybe the cop let us go. Maybe there were no cops in our safe neighborhood. Maybe no one turned us in. Maybe we were able to pay a lawyer $100,000 to keep us out of jail. Because of our white privilege.

I have done things I am ashamed of. I have not forgiven myself. I have not forgiven someone else who has hurt me.

This is where it all blends together. Some of the EITs and some of the volunteers stepped to the line for these ones. By this time, many of us are crying. Tears are streaming down our faces. We are all one. We felt and realized our humanity — together.

Arsenio was across from me. He was one of the most charismatic guys I met that day. He was always smiling, grooving, nodding his head, moving around, with a Cheshire grin and a calm confidence. When I started to crumble and cry, he stopped moving and looked at me with so much care and just held my gaze. I looked away and came back to him and he was there nodding his head, smiling at me, as if to say — I got you Kerri. It’s all right. You’re all right. There was this unspoken understanding between us and this was going on ALL AROUND ME. When you looked up and down the line you could see this happening between everyone. It was the most intense, human experience of my life.


We’ve all done things we’re ashamed of. It’s hard to forgive yourself. And this is what holds us back in our lives. If this man across from me has forgiven himself for murdering someone, for being in here while his wife has to raise their kids alone, could I forgive myself for the petty things I beat myself up for? For not being the perfect mom? For not being the perfect wife? For working too much, for not working hard enough, for not being home enough? Look at all I’ve been given in my life — my white privilege — two parents, a stable family, a safe neighborhood, a college education, a happy marriage and three healthy children, a great job that I love, money and support whenever I’ve needed it. If these men can make peace with their painful pasts and work so hard for a chance at a new life — then so can I.

And, I will use my white privilege or my megaphone or whatever it takes to tell the world about them.

White privilege is a term that can be controversial. It’s defined as “an invisible package of unearned assets.” I know that it’s tricky for me to go here. It’s hard to talk about race. Who am I to talk about this? To call this out. I know that this can make people uncomfortable and defensive. I only want to highlight this piece of it because it matters. It’s relevant. It was evident as we stepped to the line. I witnessed it. It’s real and it’s a part of a broader systemic racism in our country that is overlooked. We need to wake up and understand what’s happening.

As the day went on we judged their pitches. We went through the most beautiful graduation ceremony. With blue caps and gowns, the EITs processed up to the stage as “Pomp & Circumstance” played and they received certificates from the Baylor MBA program. They had been working so hard for so long and had achieved so much. As they came up on the stage and posed for their pictures, I saw the most powerful and palpable joy and pride I had ever seen in my life. Their smiles were so huge, they were absolutely glowing! I wished that each of their mothers could have been there to witness that. My heart cracked wide open with a powerful love for every single one of them. I realized right in that moment that they were inspiring me to simply be a better human being. To fully embrace and appreciate my life.

Graduation Ceremony

Towards the end of the day, we had a closing ceremony. Each of the men had flowers to give us. JoeVaughan stopped in front of me, holding a flower. We chatted a little bit about the day. It was a quiet, intimate moment. He started to really look at the flower in his hand. I noticed it was as if he had never seen a flower before. He turned it over and over in his hand looking at every inch of it…

“Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve seen a flower?” he said as he stared at it…

“Oh. No. A very long time, huh?” I answered.

“Yeah, it’s been so long…Do you know what kind of flower this is?” he asked.

“Yes, it’s a Carnation,” I said watching him.

“And, do you know what it means, what it symbolizes?” he asked.

I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t sure, but I looked at him and said the first word that came into my head.

“Kindness,” I told him.

His eyes lit up. “Really? Oh, that’s nice,” he smiled.

We looked at each other in silence. We smiled and just held our eye contact. He said, “Wow, you have so much empathy in your eyes. I can feel it.”

I just nodded and smiled and cried. And said, “Thank You.”

Then, he handed me the flower.

The carnation I received from JoeVaughan.

Cat Hoke and her team at Defy Ventures are on a mission to change the world. To get these programs into every prison in the country. These men are intelligent, beautiful, good people. That is what many of them wanted me to tell you. That one simple thing: they are good people. I saw it in their eyes, in the way they spoke to me, and in the way they loved, supported and respected each other. Yes, they made mistakes and did bad things. But they have been transformed and they deserve a shot at redemption. Just like you and me.

Please take some time to learn more about Defy Ventures. Read the book, “The New Jim Crow.” If you live in California, vote yes on Proposition 57.

Volunteer for a day in prison.

It will change you and it will change your life forever.

EITS who have transformed their hustle.
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    Go to the profile of Kerri Shea Beers

    Kerri Shea Beers

    Marketing @techstars, writer, activist, Kundalini yogi, east coast transplant, musician's wife, wrangler of wild things

  • Apple delays AirPods launch

    Apple delays AirPods launch

    Apple is delaying the launch of its first pair of wireless headphones, the AirPods, which were supposed to come out sometime this month.

    In a statement, first given to TechCrunch, Apple says that it "need[s] a little more time before AirPods are ready for our customers." It didn't provide an estimate for when the headphones would launch, only saying that "We don’t believe in shipping a product before it’s ready."

    It sounds like there's something left to fix

    It's not clear exactly what the holdup is. Apple sent out preproduction AirPods units for various reviewers to test out alongside the iPhone 7. At the time, there didn't appear to be any major bugs. But it sounds like there's some sort of technical issue that still needs to be worked out.

    Apple delaying products is pretty rare, but it's happened a few times in recent memory. Most recently, Apple delayed the launch of watchOS 2 on the day of its intended launch after discovering a bug.

    By putting out a statement on the AirPods ahead of time, Apple gets out of the way something that it'd likely rather not highlight during its on-stage presentation tomorrow morning, when it'll announce the new MacBook Pro.

    The Surface Studio Story: How Microsoft Reimagined The Desktop PC For Creativity

    The Surface Studio Story: How Microsoft Reimagined The Desktop PC For Creativity

    Mark Sullivan 10.26.16 12:30 PM

    "Lean on it!"

    Panos Panay, Microsoft's hardware chief, is gesturing toward the company's newest Surface device. Confused, I ask him what he means. "Lean on it!," he repeats.

    I don't want to do it—after all, busting a new computer during an interview is bad optics. So he does it himself. Panay slouches over the 28-inch display of the new Surface Studio desktop PC with his left arm cradling the workspace on the screen in front of him. The display stays put.

    Moments before, he had grabbed the top of the display and pulled it downward from its upright position until its bottom rested on the desktop in front of us and the rest angled backward to a 120 degree angle above the table. It kneeled. That 120 degree angle, it turns out, is the same angle illustrators like to position their sketch pads. In effect, the whole screen—a touch screen, mind you—turned into a digital drafting table.

    Microsoft's Panos Panay gets up close and personal with the Surface Studio

    The Surface Studio, which starts at $3,000 and goes up to $4,200 for a fully loaded version, isn’t targeted at average desktop users. Microsoft named it "Studio" because it’s aimed at giving creative types like designers, engineers, architects, and illustrators all the tools and power they need to practice their craft as well as perform everyday computing tasks such as email and web browsing, all in one place.

    With this desktop machine, Microsoft took many of the features, design themes, and materials from the Surface tablets and the Surface Book laptop and applied them to a machine for the desktop—the first one it's ever designed and marketed. Like other Surfaces the Studio uses the pressure-sensitive Surface Pen as an input device. (The Studio's version is similar to the one that shipped with the Surface Pro 4, but with some upgraded electronics.)

    The Studio's other input device is an optional rotary dial that sits directly on the touchscreen and calls up contextual menus, which the display situates around its base. The Dial, as it's called, is a prime example of Microsoft's effort to blend real-world experiences with digital ones in the interest of helping creative types stay in the zone.

    Microsoft's Surface Studio[Photo: courtesy of Microsoft]

    "What we wanted to do with this product is take you from being the most productive person to the most creative person, and bring them as close together as you can possibly could be," Panay says. "That when you went to your desk, your desk was transformed into a studio—it was the thing you wanted to get back to."

    Panay oversaw development of all previous Surface devices and in 2015 was given control of engineering for other Microsoft hardware, including HoloLens, Xbox, and phones. An energetic, bearded 40-something, he can be a little intense at times. And he sometimes lapses into a Steve Jobsian "Isn't this magical?" patter. But you get the feeling that it's all coming from a good place. He believes deeply in the products the Surface group is building, and in the ways the machines pull real creativity and productivity out of users.

    What, Another Desktop PC?

    I'd come to Building 87 on Microsoft's huge Redmond, Washington campus to see a new Surface machine, but I’d been told little about it. When the device was lifted up from under a conference table by Surface Studio product lead Pete Kyriacou, my first reaction was, "Does the world really need another all-in-one PC?" The category is already well established and popular, represented most prominently by Apple's iMac, which pioneered it.

    Panay tells me he doesn't like to call the Studio an all-in-one, and I see his point. With its kneeling display, and pen and Dial input devices, the Studio seriously stretches the definitional limits of the term. When I saw the lengths to which his team had gone to put all the tools creatives need close at hand, I started to see how the Studio could be a real alternative to the Apple computers long considered the default choice by designers and artists.

    Based on the release timing of the last few Surface tablets, it was reasonable to expect the next one, the Surface Pro 5, to be announced at the company's October 26th event in New York City. Instead, we're getting a desktop PC for creatives. (The Surface Pro 5 is in the works and will launch next year, says a source with knowledge of Microsoft’s plans.) Microsoft is taking preorders for the Studio starting today and says it will ship in limited quantities by the holiday season; broader availability at Microsoft Stores and select Best Buy locations will follow in early 2017.

    And, really, a desktop PC for creatives isn't a complete surprise. Last year's Surface Book was aimed at designers and power users, and started at an imposing $1,500 at launch. In fact, the Surface line as a whole has been shifting toward the high end, as the Surface Pro found its market and the lower-priced, less-powerful Surface RT and Surface 3 failed to set the world on fire.

    Scuttlebutt about the Surface Studio, and even its internal code name, "Cardinal," had been swirling through the rumor sites for months. A 2015 patent for a "modular computing device" showing the exact outlines of the new machine showed up last winter. But as I would soon find out, the patent sketches and rumors didn’t tell the whole story—not even close.

    Microsoft's Ralf Groene and Kait Schoeck in their Industrial Design lab

    The Display As Drawing Board

    The Surface Studio consists of a low-profile base unit that sits on the desktop and houses the guts of the computer. Those components include Intel’s core i7 processor, a powerful Nvidia graphics processor, and a pair of stereo speakers, and the PC uses three fans and a heat pipe to keep it all cool. As Panay steps through these features, the included mouse and keyboard are sitting there, but he says nothing of them. He wants to talk about the display.

    A two-armed chrome hinge extends from the base to hold up the 28-inch display, which is only 12.5 millimeters thick. When the display is in its kneeling position, it completely hides the base and the chrome arms of the hinge.

    "The role of the display is to re-create the things you see in real life as accurately as possible."

    When Panay leans on the 13-pound display, the arms of the hinge behind it seem to have no trouble with the weight pressing down on it. I hear no creaks or groans. Nor does the display wiggle around. This is crucial for designers and illustrators drawing exacting lines on the touch screen, and a design concern that makers of conventional all-in-ones don't have to worry about.

    Senior mechanical engineer Robyn McGlaughlin explains to me that the chrome hinge is loaded with 11 springs that work together to create a fixed range of motion between the upright display position we’re used to on the desktop, and the 120-degree drawing-board mode. The user can position the display at any point between those two extremes. As the hinge moves downward from its upright extreme it begins rotating the display upward until it reaches the 120 degree position at the bottom of the range.

    A prototype version of the Surface Studio hinge

    Ralf Groene, who leads Industrial Design for the Microsoft Devices group, says that he believes users will use the drawing-board display position for detailed work, then use the upright position to get perspective.

    "I have this awesome picture of Matisse where he works on this huge piece and then he steps back from the canvas," he says. "You do this in your work, when you are working on the detail. . . working on this little solution here and then you step back to see how it fits within the whole—we all do this."

    Microsoft industrial designer Kait Schoeck (who is, incidentally, one of the inventors of the Surface Book's unique hinge mechanism) tells me how the display positions fit into her workflow. "I do my normal CAD, fast sketching, whatever, [in sketchpad mode]," she says. "And then kind of prop it up and zoom back and do little tweaks here and there."

    Kait Schoeck at work on a Surface Studio

    Not About The Megapixels

    You'd expect that a $3,000 computer for artists and designers would have a retina-class display, and the Studio does. But making the pixels imperceptibly small wasn't the only challenge.

    "The role of the display is ... to re-create the things you see in real life on the screen as accurately as possible," says Stevie Bathiche, a 19-year Microsoft veteran whose title is "Distinguished Scientist/Director of Research, Applied Sciences Group." As you might guess, he has a big brain. He’s also a personable guy, tall and gangly with slightly out-of-control black hair. He talks fast, but, it seems to me, not quite fast enough to keep up with his brain.

    Bathiche says that the strategy for building the display was to get it tuned perfectly with the operating system and apps, rather than going for spec records. Perhaps the most striking example of this optimization was when the Surface team decided to make the display true-to-scale, so that a character in 12-point font on the screen would be exactly the same size as the same character printed out on paper. An 8.5-by-11 piece of paper held up to the screen matches perfectly the size of its digital cohort—a major benefit for designers creating stuff that will eventually end up in print.

    Microsoft researcher and display guru Stevie Bathiche

    When Bathiche and his team were working out the specifications for the Studio monitor, Apple had recently released a 27-inch iMac with a 5K display. "I had the option to very easily beat Apple without really doing anything in resolution," Bathiche said. "So I went to Panos and said ‘we can beat Apple by a megapixel, or we can do a true-to-scale display.'" Panay and Bathiche agreed that true-to-scale trumps bragging rights.

    But the screen resolution and dimensions had to work out just right mathematically to make it all work. This started with a hard requirement that the display’s have 192 dots per inch (DPI), because it made it possible for Windows 10's scaling software to work out the number of pixels necessary to display text and objects in their actual size on the display. That key number then dictated some of the other key specs, such as the screen's diagonal measurement of 28.165 inches.

    The Studio display ended up having 4.5K resolution versus Apple’s 5K. "That gives us 13.5 million pixels, which is a million and a half less than Apple, but more than enough to make the pixels disappear," Bathiche explains. "I’m trading off this tiny bit of resolution that doesn't matter at all."

    When I stared closely at the Studio display, I could see no pixilation. And the clarity and color depth is as good as anything I’ve seen on a screen that size.

    How the Surface Studio's hinge works

    The Disappearing Computer

    During my Microsoft visit, I heard the Surface Studio's inventors say over and over that they wanted to make a piece of hardware that brings creators up close and personal with their work. They like to talk about the theme of "floating pixels," meaning that the person using the machine is engaged with the touch screen, and everything else on the machine stays out of the way, or better yet, disappears.

    This sounded familiar—it’s a mantra repeated by Steve Jobs when Apple introduced the iPad. I also heard a lot of talk about tight and elegant integration of software and hardware, another big Apple theme from way back. Apple may have embraced these themes long ago, but both seem very relevant at Microsoft at this point in its history, as it takes on the challenge of building great hardware to run its operating system.

    "Part of the philosophy is that the computer creates a stage for software, and we keep everything else quiet," Groene says.

    Panos Panay gives the Surface Studio display a push, as Pete Kyriacou observes

    Groene and his industrial design team did a lot to achieve that. There’s almost no bezel around the screen, and no "chin" or "forehead" of black space below and above the display. The base unit and the chrome hinge hide behind the display when it's in drawing board mode.

    The squarish base unit sits squat on the desktop, its outside surface nondescript (but not ugly) and almost completely devoid of details. A narrow groove runs around the machine just below its top edge; it contains small cooling vents, which were a problem for the designers because they created something to look at.

    "We have a machine that paints the groove inside here and reduces the contrast that you have between the holes," Groene tells me. "And [senior industrial designer Tim Escolin] spent weeks with many trips to China making sure that the color is absolutely right and we get everything quiet."

    All of these things have a cumulative effect. The base says "nothing to see here" so well that the eye just moves on. Same strategy with the chrome arms that hold up the display. The designers decided to use chrome so the arms camouflage themselves by reflecting the environment around them. And that’s about the best a piece of metal can do to disappear.

    The Suface Dial

    Dialing It In

    As Panay continues his conference-room demo, he produces a small aluminum alloy dial—about the size of a large tuner knob on an old stereo receiver—and puts it smack down on the touchscreen, which is then in drawing board mode. The touch screen immediately produces a circular menu around the physical perimeter of the dial. Then he starts turning the dial. By highlighting various menu items, he switches between various modes and functions of the app on the screen. I hear the word "whoa" come out of my mouth.

    This was the Surface Dial, a totally new concept to me—if not altogether without precedent. It provides users with an outboard, tactile controller for navigation and selection that would normally be done digitally by tapping on the touch screen. It has a rubbery material on its bottom so it doesn’t slide off (or damage) the Studio’s touch screen. While a mouse’s specialty is pointing, the Dial is designed for scrolling and moving quickly through menus.

    The Surface Dial, as seen with the StaffPad music app

    "The vision for a long time when Pete and I were designing this product was connecting digital and analog worlds, and to continue to blend them until everything digital starts to feel analog," Panay says. "The idea that I can put something on the screen and watch it start to come to life, and this theory that you can blend these two worlds is a pretty impactful one."

    The Dial can be used on the physical desktop or on the touch screen of the Studio, but it’s when the user has the Dial up on the screen in one hand and is using the Surface Pen with the other that the Studio really sings. Back over in Industrial Design, Kait Schoeck sits in a tall drafting chair sketching in the Sketchable app. She has the Pen in her right hand and uses the her left hand to change ink colors and adjust stroke thicknesses with the Dial, which is sitting on the touch screen, in her left. All I see on the screen is a continuous line that keeps getting thicker and narrower and changing color. She tells me she gets so engrossed in sketching or designing on the Studio that the hours pass quickly.

    Microsoft will launch the Studio with just seven app developer partners that have created custom on-screen Dial controls in their apps. They are: the CAD app NX (Siemens), the PDF navigation app Bluebeam Revu (Bluebeam), the PDF markup app Drawboard PDF (Drawboard), the illustration app Sketchable (Silicon Benders), the 3D sketch app Mental Canvas (Mental Canvas), the music composition app StaffPad (StaffPad), and the animation app Moho 12 (Smith Micro Software). The developers used an API Microsoft quietly released in August with the Anniversary Edition of Windows 10 to create the Dial controls.

    Note that big-name apps such as Photoshop and AutoCAD are not included in that list. Microsoft says it’s now talking to or working with a number of larger developers—including Adobe for Photoshop—that plan to add deeper Dial menus and controls to their apps next year.

    StaffPad app on the Surface Studio

    The apps I saw that already have Dial integration use it to keep users locked in on their work rather than fumbling around with app controls. The device is especially handy in apps that use timelines, like music and animation apps. In StaffPad, for example, the Dial lets the music composer move forward and backward in a piece of music, changing notes here and there, all the while hearing the changes in the music through the Studio’s speakers.

    The Dial's arrival is the fulfillment of a very long-standing dream of Microsoft's.

    StaffPad also wanted to radically simplify navigation by putting many of the most-used tasks, such as play and pause, in a single menu around the Dial. In one of the wilder uses I saw, a composer can pick up the Dial and use it like a rubber stamp on the touch screen to paste oft-used figures to various points on the timeline.

    The coolest app I saw running on the Studio with Dial was a 3D illustration app called Mental Canvas. It’s a bit hard to describe, but it helps users make 2D drawings into 3D experiences by mathematically working out the 3D perspectives of objects.

    Mental Canvas is the brainchild of a Yale professor named Julie Dorsey, who says that the Studio’s display, pen, and Dial make it the perfect machine for her software. It uses the same general layout and some of the same tools you see in other illustration apps—color wheel, layering, pen settings, etc.—but rather than using a menu around the Dial on the touch screen to switch between modes and tools, the user just moves the Dial near a mode button at the bottom of the screen to go into that mode. This is a big click saver and can help keep the user focused on the work and not on the software.

    "There was this kind of confluence of pen technology, and multi-touch through the tablet and so on, that all made the timing for this particular technology just right," Dorsey says of the Studio. "It’s really like the device. When I saw this I was elated."

    The Dial can be used to do some basic functions in third-party apps without requiring the developer to do any integration work. That’s because the Windows team at Microsoft built a number of Dial functions into Windows 10. These include things like selecting, scrolling, or zooming. For instance, it will work for undo/redo and zoom in Photoshop, no work required on Adobe's part. Users can also use it in Windows 10 apps such as the Edge browser and Maps.

    The Surface Studio and Dial work so well together that it seems like an odd decision on Microsoft's part not to have bundled them. Instead, the Dial is a $99 add-on, sold separately. It also works with other PCs that run Windows 10 Anniversary Edition, but only the Studio lets users place the Dial directly on the screen.

    Annotating a map with the Surface Pen

    The Surface Dial's arrival is the fulfillment of a very long-standing dream of Microsoft's, dating all the way back to the Surface table computer that the company released with much hoopla in 2007. (It didn't take off and eventually gave up its name to the Surface tablet line.) For that project, Bathiche's team used infrared cameras that could detect objects placed on the Surface's, well, surface—such as a board game with real pieces.

    "The whole point was that we wanted to have physical objects interacting with digital objects," Bathiche says. Now the Dial does just that, in a way that enhances the Surface Studio's emphasis on creative productivity.

    Seeya, Cintiq?

    In some ways, the Surface Studio's biggest competitor isn't any Mac, but rather Wacom's Cintiq, the pen-and-touch digital display popular with many designers and illustrators. A current model with HD, touch, pen and a comparably sized screen—the 27QHD touch—costs $2,800. That's not including the cost of a Windows PC or Mac needed to drive the device.

    The Studio combines a digital sketchpad and computing functions in one device. "We want to remove all these things around your desk that you think you need to work on, including papers, including a Cintiq or some other thing you were writing on, including any other device that might be on your desktop," says Panay. "I don’t want to say [the Cintiq] is gone because I’m a big fan of Wacom but, fundamentally what this product is doing is replacing that."

    "It’s nice to stay focused on one device," says illustrator Mike Krahulik, who cofounded the video-game webcomic site Penny Arcade. He was one of a handful of artists Microsoft chose to beta-test the Studio and the Dial. And before he got his Studio, his desk was dominated by his Cintiq.

    "My desk was for drawing and that’s it; I’m not going to play games on my Cintiq, and even if I wanted to I can’t make it sit vertically," Krahulik tells me. "If I wanted to answer email I did it on my laptop on the little screen."

    Krahulik adds that his only qualm about the Dial is that it doesn’t have the customization options he’d have liked: "It’s incredibly handy and works great out of the box with my drawing software, but I’d love the ability to really go nuts and customize everything about what it can do on a per-program basis."

    People like Krahulik do their design work from a home desk, but the Studio could begin to catch on with companies full of designers, too. I can see a scenario where a large design firm or ad agency might buy Studios for a whole department of creative people. If they'd otherwise need computers and Cintiqs, the Studio's price tag starts to make sense—assuming that nobody's so Windows-adverse as to make the Studio a non-starter. Krahulik told me the Surface Pro 3 and Surface Pro 4 have helped Microsoft's image among creatives.

    Panay seems to have realistic expectations about the Surface Studio’s acceptance curve, especially given that its price puts it at the tippy-top of the market. "Don’t get me wrong I hope the demand is off-the-charts great, but it starts at $3,000, so it’s not like we’re coming out with an $800 PC," he says. "This is a premium [device], it’s for professionals, it’s for creators..."

    The Surface Group at Microsoft isn't desperate for an immediate hit.

    Yet he doesn’t believe that the Studio will ultimately be limited to commercial customers. "I believe that creators are everywhere," he says. "There’s going to be a whole group of people who just want this device in their home because it’s beautiful."

    As for sales expectations, "we’re going to take our time; this isn’t one where I’m worried about ‘are we going to ship 100,000 units, or a million units or 10 million units or 20 million units day one," he tells me. "We’re going to ship the right amount to get it to market so that people can get their hands on it."

    It’s not like the Surface Group at Microsoft is desperate for an immediate hit. Only a few years ago people were making fun of the original Surface, but you don't hear that very much anymore. In Microsoft’s most recent earnings report, it said that Surface sales (mainly of the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book) jumped to $926 million for the quarter; that’s a 38% jump from the $672 million in Surface revenue in the same quarter last year. Bulk sales (read: enterprise sales) of 500 devices or more increased 70% year-over-year, the company reported—a fact that helps explain how Microsoft's PC line fits into the company's overall strategic emphasis on workplace productivity.

    That growth is proof of Panay’s understanding of the market, and it’s gained him some real cachet within Microsoft. It could be that he and his people had some breathing room to plan and build a Surface machine they always hoped to create.

    Still, he’s not taking anything for granted. At the end of our meeting he shows me the Studio promo video that will be shown at the October 26 launch event. The music is a cover of "Pure Imagination," the late Gene Wilder's signature song in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. You see some sexy shots of the Studio—the thin display, the chrome arms. You see the Dial in action on the touch screen. You see people getting really into creating things. You see the Microsoft designers, and some of the people who developed apps for the Dial. It's slick.

    As we walk down the hall after our meeting, Panay isn’t sure about the music and whether it will play just right with the audience at Microsoft's October 26th event.

    "When you’re creating, at this point everything is at a paranoid stage," he says. "You’re powering through and it’s our baby, it’s our latest, you know, and you don’t want to miss, you don’t want to make a mistake."

    Hits and misses are hard to predict, but it's already clear that Microsoft has brought fresh thinking to the desktop PC with the Surface Studio.

    Slideshow Credits: 01 / Photos: Brian Smale;

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    Imzy, your new home on the Internet – imzyhq

    Imzy, your new home on the Internet – imzyhq

    Go to the profile of Dan McComas
    Dan McComasBlockedUnblockFollowFollowing
    Co-founder of imzy and Former SVP product @reddit
    23 mins ago

    Imzy, your new home on the Internet

    Hey, I’m Dan. I’m the CEO of Imzy. I like to belong somewhere — I think most people do. I am a community geek. I’ve spent many years in the punk scene and have built some great communities online and offline — communities have been present and important my whole life.

    My love for community became a passion when we founded redditgifts, where we brought together hundreds of thousands of people in nearly every country to do something unconventional — send gifts to each other.

    As our lives have shifted online, we’ve found that our communities haven’t followed, and it makes us feel kind of lonely. So we decided to create Imzy, a place where communities can develop and thrive in a healthy way, and members can discuss and organize around all the things they’re passionate about. We’ve been learning a ton during our private beta over the last six months and have seen amazing people come together to connect and inspire one another.

    Today, we’re announcing our series A funding, and we are ready to bring Imzy to everyone on web, Android, and iOS!

    It’s our goal to build the first truly flexible platform for all of your communities, because your communities can’t fit into a simple bulletin board anymore. We intend to do this in the most responsible way for you, your communities, and the world at large. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes, and we’d love to share what makes up our foundation. The cliff notes are below. See here for more detail.

    • $$$: We are excited today to announce that we have raised another $8,000,000 ($11,000,000 in total so far), led by Index ventures. This capital will give us all the time and resources we need to make your communities the very best we can. We had previously raised $3,000,000 from CRV and OATV. Danny Rimer will be joining the Imzy board along with existing board member Saar Gur.
    • Home sweet home: We’re all about helping people find a home on the internet where they can connect with others, build friendships, and more — and that happens through conversation, just like in real life. We will be innovating around the kinds of discussion you can have online, and we’ve already started with live chat and threaded comments.
    • Who you are is up to you: Our members have the ability to make multiple identities, have multiple usernames, use their real name, or be anonymous. The community specifies the type of identity that is important to it. You get to be you, in the way you want, in the communities you want. These are all easily managed under one account.
    • Everyone’s welcome: Diversity and differences makes communities healthier. At Imzy, everyone has a voice, and we’ll do our best to make sure our members don’t experience harassment for speaking up.
    • Communities evolve: We recognize that communities evolve and their needs change. It’s very hard to build a platform to support all of the things a community needs to do. We are building a developer platform to allow developers to work with communities so that they can solve this problem for themselves, and other similar communities. For example, your community may want to hold meetups, listen to podcasts together, or hold a crowdfunding campaign. The possibilities are limitless!
    • Healthy communities are the best communities: By thinking about community first and questioning the way every single feature we build works, we can set the stage for positive community experiences. A healthy community needs time to evolve and grow at the right pace for the community. I have a lot of thoughts on this topic, which I’ll share over time.
    • No ads, and members can profit: We want to grow in the way that makes the most sense for our communities, and that means a business model that our members benefit from and contribute to, not one that uses them. We believe we can make money in a way that actually benefits our members.
    • Communities in your pocket: Desktop & mobile web, iOS, Android — you name it, we’re there.

    Everything we just described is required to give communities what they need. What we are launching with today is just the foundation.

    We need your help to make it great. We want to talk with you every day and learn from you to help us create something that fits your needs, interests, lifestyle, hobbies, and relationships.

    Let’s build your new home on the Internet together.


    Dan McComas + the Imzy team

    Read the full version of this post on Imzy for even more community goodness.

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    Go to the profile of Dan McComas

    Dan McComas

    Co-founder of imzy and Former SVP product @reddit

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    Community as _____ as you are.