This post is part of Accel’s Secrets to Scaling series, where leaders from across our portfolio share their learnings and advice with the next generation of entrepreneurs and exceptional teams everywhere.
The story of Vlad Magdalin, Webflow’s CEO, isn’t a typical Silicon Valley college drop-out story, where the student leaves to spend their day building an extremely technical product. It’s actually the opposite. Vlad dropped out of college, where he was taking classes in computer science, to instead study art. But eventually, coding pulled him back in. He was quite good at it, after all. Determined to find a way to bring his creative and technical passions together, Webflow was eventually born.
We sat down with Vlad to discuss the following: 1) the journey that led to Webflow, 2) advice for building a company with a close friend or family member, 3) how he found investors that align with his values, 4) secrets he wishes he knew from the beginning, and 5) what’s in store for the future of no-code (hint: we haven’t seen anything yet).
1) Let’s start at the beginning. How did your technical and creative interests lead to Webflow?
Growing up, I did a lot of odd jobs for my dad that necessitated learning graphic design. I kind of haphazardly became a designer that way. In high school, I was so into creative work that I wanted to do it professionally. But my older brother got into Cal Poly to study computer science. And money was tight. My parents told me they could only afford to drive me to where my brother was, so I applied and was admitted to study computer science there.
I spent a year doing that and really, really hated it. Towards the end of the first year, I made the decision to drop out. Without my parent's approval and without any financial plans, I moved to San Francisco and enrolled in the Academy of Art University. It was unaccredited, private, and super expensive. This was around the same time that a lot of Pixar movies started coming out and I was so inspired to be a 3D animator. But it turned out that the first few years of art school you don't actually spend much time in your focus area. Even if your focus is 3D animation, you studied sculpture, color theory, composition, anatomy, painting, illustration, and traditional hand-drawn animation. With all the student loans I had to take out to attend this school, and the time it was taking to even start learning 3D, I was faced with the reality of whether this career track would even be sustainable. I watched my brother’s friends back at Cal Poly graduate and get jobs, but my creative friends struggled to make a living after getting an art school degree. So two years in, I dropped out of art school and moved back to computer science.
When I moved back to Cal Poly, I had to start paying off the loans I racked up during art school. I got an internship at a web design agency where my job was to take designs from our creative team and translate it to code. That's when I realized the two disciplines can come together. Around this same time, I noticed a pattern – a constant battle between a designer saying this is what I imagined and a developer saying this is what I can actually build. From my experience in 3D animation, I loved how the designer could do the creative work, and then with the press of a button it would go live on the movie screen. There was no translation required. No gatekeeper in the middle saying what you can and can’t do. I wondered if I could build something like that for web development and website development – and that was the original spark that eventually led to Webflow.
So let’s fast forward a few years. My younger brother Sergie and I are almost five years apart. He went to UC San Diego to study design. He was incredibly creative. The most creative person I knew. At the same time, I was still working on paying off those student loans. In addition to my day job, I started making websites for clients on the side. I was not the best designer, so I would have Sergie make the designs and I would then translate them to code. So we collaborated that way. Even so, we had our own lives. He was going to school, I was working a day job and starting a family. But after hours, we were building websites together. We learned to collaborate really well and had strengths that complemented each other. For almost six years we worked like this, bonded by something that really inspired us: design and development. We eventually realized that there could be so much power by bringing these two together into one unified idea: an application that enabled Sergie as a designer to go directly to production without having to rely on me for manual development.
2) Sergie Magdalin, one of your co-founders, is also your brother. What advice would you share with others building a company with a close friend or family member?
Sometimes the overlap between family and work is kind of ambiguous, but for us, it's actually been pretty easy to draw the line. We never really decided, okay we're not going to talk about work at family dinner, but those healthy boundaries happened organically. It is almost like there are these two personas. At work, he is a teammate and collaborator just like everybody else. In family circles, we kind of forget that we even work together sometimes. One of the huge advantages, of course, is that there is a lot of built-in trust by default. So we got the benefit of decades of trust on the first day we started the company, which made our working relationship so much stronger.
3) You’ve spoken openly about the importance of finding investors that align with your values and vision for Webflow. What advice would you give a founder raising capital for the first time?
I was really nervous when the time came to raise our Series A. We almost ran out of money not too long after our seed round in 2013, which led us down the path of having to become cash-flow positive just to survive. During that stretch, I had become more and more skeptical about venture capital because I saw so many founders struggle with taking on a lot of money and then feeling forced to take the company in a direction that was different from the mission and vision they originally set out to accomplish. I didn’t want that kind of future for Webflow, and wanted to do everything possible to ensure that we remained in control of our own destiny. But our revenue was not growing nearly fast enough to fund all the things we wanted to build much faster for our product and our community, so self-funding came with major trade offs.
Then I had a chance to meet Arun Mathew and Ben Fletcher at Accel. I was really transparent with them about these concerns, and my fears about taking on venture capital. They encouraged me to articulate all those fears in more detail, and went down them one by one to share how they thought about partnering with us for the long term.
Through those conversations, I shared a video that inspired me to start Webflow: Bret Victor’s “Inventing on Principle” talk, which talked about how the most world-changing work is rooted in strong principles. Once they had a chance to see it, they encouraged me to write down my own values and principles that were non-negotiable if we were to take on venture capital. And with that, we co-created a social contract that we ended up calling “Investing on Principle”. The list of principles included things like only working with investors who believed in the social responsibility of Webflow’s mission, not sacrificing relationships with family just to chase a financial outcome, seeing each other as true partners towards a common vision, and running Webflow in a way that doesn’t ever require future capital injection in order to survive.
That social contract helped forge a really strong partnership, and ultimately convinced me that we could reach our mission much faster with Accel’s help. Since then, this list of principles has not only remained the foundation of our partnership with Accel, but has been the bedrock of any new venture partners joining Webflow’s mission. It’s the first artifact I share with potential VC partners that I meet, and the reality is that most are not big fans of it – but the ones that resonate with it end up forging a much stronger relationship up front because there’s such a strong bond around shared values and goals from the very beginning. And it’s that strong bond around what truly matters in the long term that gets you through the hard times of scaling a startup.
So now I strongly believe as founders are preparing for any kind of venture partnership conversation, one of the best things they can do is write their intentions and principles down on paper, and actually spend the time up front to align on them together. It helps create a true partnership built on a solid foundation from the very beginning.
4) What do you wish you would have known back in 2019 when you raised your first Series A from Accel?
When we raised the Series A from Accel, we were encouraged to hire experienced executives. It took time to understand the value in this. It’s hard to add a lot of people all at once just because of team dynamics, but I wish we had moved faster on that effort. Every time we hired an experienced leader, you could see pretty quickly how many new ideas and ways of doing things better they brought with them. So, I wish we had been a lot bolder in building out that team faster. In fact, I wish we started doing that before we even raised funding.
I also coded a large part of Webflow myself in our early days, and I hung on to the idea that I was a good engineer and my team needed the help for way too long. That prevented me from being a good people manager and CEO. It wasn’t until I surrounded myself with a peer group of other founders at the same stage, or slightly ahead, that I understood my own development as a leader was behind. I saw these peers focus more of their attention on the business, and I considered myself a product builder, but they were well ahead of the curve in learning how to focus more on building the company rather than just the product. This transition was hard - and that is pretty common for technical founders. It is very hard for people, myself included, to move to do something that you don't understand at all. I loved organizing bits of code because it was predictable. You write this thing and know pretty much exactly what will happen. It’s a whole other world to figure out how to get people to work well together, how to motivate, and how to encourage integrity towards a common mission. Learning this takes years. I’m still constantly learning, and often still find myself in the weeds. So I wish I had surrounded myself with this peer group and started my own development process sooner.
The last thing I’ll say is I wish I would have known sooner the true value I would find in Webflow’s investors. They have seen excellence across other founders and can provide coaching. They're also so good at pattern matching – after helping many founders through their growth journeys they can say, here's what worked for this person, or here's who you should talk to. If you find the right partner, you can raise your hand and say, I don't know this thing or I'm struggling with this thing. There’s a lot of imposter syndrome that can come when you’re trying to figure out something you’ve never done before as a leader and CEO, but a good investor will be on your side and remind you the things you are struggling with are normal.
5) Webflow was one of the first "no-code" platforms designed to make software development more accessible to people with no formal computer programming skills. What would you like “no-code” to look like a decade from now?
Even though it seems like no-code is maturing right now, we’re really still very much in the early days in the grand scheme of things. I think no-code right now is like where the web was in the late 90s – it's starting to show up in these headline stories, but it's still super exploratory compared to what it can ultimately become. Over the next decade, I expect there will be a massive improvement in all of these tools – not just in the power and capabilities that Webflow offers – the same way that we saw the web blossom and mature through the 2000s. In 10 years, you'll be able to build entire applications with no-code, people will be running an entire business without a single line of code, businesses that are generating millions of dollars in revenue, if not much more.
We’re still in the “Morse code” days of software creation in that the vast majority of software today is still created by writing code manually, and that’s a huge barrier to entry to most people. There is so much potential for no-code. We haven't seen anything yet. We're just scratching the surface.