Inside: Cactuslab

Inside: Cactuslab

Cactuslab rose from the ignominious demise of development shop Webmedia in late 2001. 

Webmedia senior designer Matt Buchanan teamed up with full time(ish) developer Karl von Randow and with nothing but their wits and two clients, the pair started their own dev business.

(Top: Matt Buchanan; Bottom: Karl von Randow)

Buchanan now leads Cactuslab's creative side, while von Randow heads the technology team. For several years the company was solely a two man act, servicing around 100 clients from Cactuslab's headquarters in Newmarket, Auckland. Cactuslab now has seven staff including the two founders.

I chat to Buchanan and von Randow about their decade old company, the transition from mostly client work to a lot more of internal projects, and how they're building an online community for film buffs with Letterboxd.

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Is there a difference between work for clients and creating things for yourself?

Karl: The biggest thing is you don't have a client to blame for your bad decisions... The decisions you make, you own – and you might look back at that later and kick yourself. 

Matt: It just means you have to trust what you're doing is the right thing to do... Aside from our ongoing client services work we've got two projects, Letterboxd and Verifi. We're putting some serious development time into that.

How do you balance your services work and internal projects like Letterboxd?

Karl: That's our biggest challenge day to day. We're good at the services thing now, all our people are autonomous and just go ahead and do their thing.

We've moved towards doing more substantial pieces of work and away from short, sharp projects. It's a lot of stress to meet people and clients for the first time, it's like we've had 600 first dates. But when we're doing less service work it requires more investment into the company from Matt and myself.

Letterboxd is very much like a movie version of the book recommendation social network Goodreads. Over the weekend Goodreads was bought by Amazon, one of the world's largest book retailers. Is that your endgame, to be bought by an Amazon or Netflix?

Karl: We did look at the Goodreads thing with interest, yes. We're still in really early days with Letterboxd. Goodreads is five years old, they're well down the track. We're focused on building up our user base and the people that make Letterboxd what it is. We want to add features and services that give people value out of Letterboxd and makes them a part of our community.  We're not just building this to the point where someone acquires it before we go bust.

A lot of companies seek investment and plaster you with ads to stay afloat, while they're running in the wind. This doesn't do the company any good and it definitely doesn't do the users any good. That's why we've introduced [in early February] our paid Letterboxd Pro service ... A lot of nice things just go away, but I think there's a movement towards asking your users to contribute so you stick around and don't forsake them.

How many users does Letterboxd have? How many are paying for Pro?

Matt: We have a little bit over 50,000 users ... There's around 750 Pro users [ Karl jokes it's 750 approaching 1000, approaching 16 million].

Working from New Zealand, has it been difficult to establish an online community which more than likely will be US-centric? Do you need to be in the Silicon Valley to get a social network going?

Matt: I think we do a pretty good job of not letting global boundaries limit us in that space. However, there's always the potential that if we're not on the ground in The Valley, we might not be mixing with some of the movers and shakers.

When you look at companies like Xero, they're not marketing themselves overseas as just a New Zealand company. Brand New Zealand is how you celebrate wool and pure water. If you ask our members most won't realise Letterboxd is made in New Zealand, even though it says so at the bottom of the page.

Has building your own community given you an appreciation for the likes of Twitter and Facebook?

Karl: Yes definitely... When Twitter changed how @replies worked, everyone went mental. People were threatening to circumvent things by starting every tweet with a full stop, getting carried away. What you need to understand is the people who are responding to your change don't necessarily understand that change or the long term impact it's meant to have. I don't think were trying to take lessons from Twitter on handling community communication, that's some dubious role modelling right there – but you have to admit the @replies thing is much better now.

Matt: Usually it's the vocal minority that like to complain. We've learned not to be swayed in our decision making.

You mention that not being on the ground in The Valley might keep you out of the loop with some of the important players in the global tech scene. What are you doing in New Zealand to help with that?

Karl: There's a pretty good startup community in New Zealand. It's more a group of friends that we meet up with regularly to discuss things and share thoughts and that's been really beneficial for us. When you're talking to people from The Valley you make connections which you then take to your next startup. We don't do that so well in New Zealand, so it really makes a difference putting some effort into building a group of like minded people to just talk with.

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