On this week’s episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Johnathan Grzybowski, co-founder of Penji and on-demand graphic design service. Johnathan and I talk about the changing face of graphic design and the new trends making it easier for folks to build and launch new things. Let’s get started.
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Interview Transcript with Johnathan Grzybowski, Co-Founder of Penji
Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I’m your host, Brian Ardinger, and as always, we have another amazing guest. Today we have Johnathan Grzybowski. He is the Chief Marketing Officer and co-founder of Penji, an on-demand graphic design service. Welcome Johnathan.
Johnathan Grzybowski: Brian, thank you so much for having me appreciate it.
Brian Ardinger: Hey, I’m excited to have you on board. I wanted to have you on as a founder to talk about what it’s like to build a startup outside the Valley, but I also want to talk about some of the new tools and trends that we’re seeing that’s making it easier for folks to build and launch new things. Penji’s one of those. And so, what is Penji and what do you do for them?
Johnathan Grzybowski: Penji is an on demand graphic design service, where our customers can essentially sign up for the service, get immediate access to the top 2% of graphic designers in the world, and be able to receive a completed project in under 48 hours. That’s essentially the nuts and bolts of it.
We want to make graphic design more easily accessible and not necessarily this commodity where you have to spend thousands and hundreds and thousands of dollars in order to receive something really good and custom and unique to you. So, we’re really trying to just challenge that mindset, that old school mindset of graphic design.
Brian Ardinger: So, talk a little bit about the genesis of Penji. How did it start and how did it grow?
Johnathan Grzybowski: We were a digital marketing agency that necessarily wasn’t the best at a lot of things. However, a lot of people kept mentioning about how good our graphic designers were. So, we started interviewing people and we talked to them and we said, well, what are some problems that you have, or it comes to the marketing space.
And we started to see trends and people say that they had an issue with finding reliable talent. And then we realized that that talent translated to somebody who could execute the graphic design. So that’s one aspect of it, but more so we also thought about the big picture of who we wanted to be as a company.
We are a digital marketing agency. We only helped, you know, maybe 10, 15 customers a year, new customers a year. People cancel people, come and go and et cetera. And I remember the time when I sat inside of a meeting at Rutgers with like a chancellor of some kind. They wanted like a website. And I just remember sitting there, and this person’s like talking to me and sharing to me about like what they want to do and how they want to promote to get more people.
I realized that the thing that we were creating was only benefiting like the higher ups. It wasn’t necessarily benefiting the actual students or, or anything like that in which we really wanted to change the philosophy and say, who do we want to be when we grow up? And we thought to ourselves, well, we want to make an impact.
Well, how do we make an impact? And then we kind of put the two, all of the pieces of the puzzle together. To basically say we want to make graphic design more easily accessible. So, you know, your company can actually come in and get some really cool graphic design work done. Or what about like Jimmy who decides they have this amazing idea, but they can’t necessarily hire somebody full time in order to complete their idea, their app, their whatever it may be.
And then what about the person who is. A marketing manager in a really big corporation. They have all these brilliant ideas. They don’t have the time or the technical skill to actually do graphic design themselves, but they don’t necessarily have the ability to hire somebody else for their right hand. All of those scenarios are really essential as to why we created Penji.
Brian Ardinger: It’s interesting you mentioned impact. We talk a lot about on the show, we’re kind of entering this age of impact, where, you know, access to new tools and new talent has never been easier. You know, quite frankly, if you think about starting a company, you know, 20 years ago, especially a tech company, what you had, they go through and now everything’s in your pocket or available in the cloud or other places.
So, talk a little bit about that trend of democratization of tools and things for builders. How are you seeing that affecting your business and what do you see for the future of this trend?
Johnathan Grzybowski: There’s always going to be people out there. They want to do a DIY. There’s always going to be people that want to create their own website that do the graphic designs themselves. But I think you have to look at it as like, how much is your time worth? Yeah.
You can get something to what it is and you could probably get it to be somewhat manageable, but there’s always going to come a point in time where it has to go above that. And so that ultimately depends on what you want you to do with your business.
For us in particular, we want to talk to the people who have that need. There’s always going to be that sector of people that want to DIY. There’s always going to be people that want to be able to, that just need that additional help. And those are the people that we really want to talk to.
Brian Ardinger: And so that kind of brings to the question, like there are all sorts of new tools for, I guess, that you wouldn’t typically think in the past, you’d have to go to creative agency to do it. So now you’ve got tools like Canva, for example, or even like Photoshop and that are technically getting a little bit easier for the person to hack together things or see templates and utilize that in such a way that makes it more graphically sound or more visually appealing than ever before. What’s the difference between something like that hacked together versus going to like a Penji or…
Johnathan Grzybowski: So, I think when it comes to the DIY aspect of this, the company that you mentioned, there are skill sets of graphic designers. Let’s just say you want to create a website, that’s a technical skill. You might be able to put pieces of a puzzle together to do like a social media meme. Right. You could do that, but can you create a website and then when you create the website, and you send it to a developer, can they actually code what you do?
And the short answer is probably not. So, the benefit of Penji is essentially that you have a pool of hundreds of graphic designers that specialize in very specific things. So, if you could do like the big things, like, let’s just say you are a web designer, but you can’t necessarily illustrate, well, then that’s where Penji can come in because we have illustrators.
If you’re able to do social media memes, but you want to have an artistic element that you can’t physically do again, that’s where a Penji comes in. So, I think Penji is more so the once you know, you can’t do it on your own and you hit a boiling point, then you hire an outsource. I think that is the reason why Penji is successful to this day is because all of us focus on the things that we’re really good at.
And then we move on and then we outsource, you know, we hire somebody else in order to take the things that were really bad out, off of our plates.
Brian Ardinger: How do customers typically use the service? Is it at the beginning of a project when they’re trying to build out the new logos and letterhead and that kind of stuff, or is it more ongoing marketing campaigns and things like that?
Johnathan Grzybowski: All the above. So, we work with a lot of agencies that have clients that have needs. If I were to put percentages, it would probably be 80% of people that have ongoing needs of some kind, whether they are an agency or whether they are a graphic designer themselves. And then maybe the 20% of people that have like a, I mean, again, those numbers are probably lower of people who just kind of have that one-off tasks that need it.
Either way, that’s the beauty of our service. We’re cancel anytime. We have no contract, so to speak. So, you can cancel, you can get a refund within 15 days if you’re not satisfied. But for the most part, we pair you with as many graphic designers as we can, until we find the right team that works for you. And then you really build a team.
Then once that team happens and you can just ask for anything, you have a guy, so to speak in order for you to go to and say, Hey, do this because you’re really good. And Hey, this other person you do that because I know you’re really good at it.
Brian Ardinger: As a founder. Talk to me about like, how did you build out this particular service? Is it freelancers? Is it, how big is the team? Talk about like the thought process you had about what you thought for the original idea then kind of where you’re at right now.
Johnathan Grzybowski: The original idea was all based out of Trello. So, we had about our first 100 customers. And as soon as we got a customer online, we created a Trello account, a Trello board for them, and we added them into Trello.
And then we really started to look at the scale and we realized that we need our own technology in order to actually scale this higher and be able to help more people. In which it probably took about six months to a year in order for us to even create that. We’ve had multiple iterations when it comes to the software and in order for our customers to experience what they’ve experienced.
And now we have over 150 designers and growing. We have helped thousands of customers being able to assess their graphic design needs. None of them are freelancers. They are all employees. And that is done, and when I say employees, we don’t really call them employees. We call them team members. So, we have over 150 team members on our team and growing. And I think this is just like the start of this.
Brian Ardinger: You are in some ways disrupting the existing creative services marketplace. What’s been the reaction from traditional creative service firms and that, to this new model that you’re trying to introduce.
Johnathan Grzybowski: It’s very similar to like a political climate. You’ll meet people who are like very strongly against it. And you’ll have people who are very strongly for it. And I think that people who are obviously strongly for it, they understand the value.
If you are listening to this right now, and you are agitated by us disrupting the market, then you just simply don’t understand the, I mean, this with respect, you don’t understand the value because we’re not trying to take away jobs. We’re trying to enhance them.
We’re trying to take off the things that you don’t want to do to give you more time for more things that you can do. You know, like, I’m sure you can think about a hundred things, hopefully not a hundred, maybe 5 or 10 things that you simply hate doing every single day.
And as you could never do that again, I’m pretty sure you live a pretty happy life. And I hope you think of those things right now, as I’m talking. If you’re a graphic designer, I can assure you, you have those same problems. If your creative agency, I’m sure you have those problems. We’re fixing that problem because we don’t want people to be stuck doing the same thing every single day.
Brian Ardinger: So, are some of your clients, actually some of the creative agency firms that are outsourcing it to Penji?
Johnathan Grzybowski: Absolutely. Yeah. A hundred percent. A large majority of them are actually that, and that’s on purpose because we were our first customer. So, we, as a creative agency would die for Penji, because we didn’t have the money to, or the necessary resources to hire somebody internally. We solved our own problem and it ended up, the solution, ended up being the business.
Brian Ardinger: Absolutely. So, you guys are based in Philadelphia. I always like to ask founders that are building companies outside of traditional Silicon Valley places, what are some of the good things and bad things about building outside of the Valley?
Johnathan Grzybowski: So, we actually tried to be the first, so to speak, to try to create a business inside of an economic city that their economy is just like really bad, in like Camden, New Jersey. It was one of the most dangerous cities in America. We really tried to create the Silicon Valley of the East Coast, so to speak, because it was a very…outside of Silicon Valley it’s not like the sexiest place on planet earth. Right. A lot of people don’t know that.
And so, it’s kind of the same aspect. Well, you know, here’s this place that had unlimited possibilities and very cheap rent. And we tried to create that ourselves. We had a lot of in the very beginning, a lot of notoriety from that to trying to bring more people to do it.
And then politics happened, and it ended up just like the city ended up just crashing and burning, and we just got out. So, we actually moved to Philadelphia and I would say a large majority around 100 to 200 of our first customers. I’ll say 90% of our first 100 to 200 customers were from a 15-mile radius of Philadelphia.
So, I guess when you ask the question, is it hard to necessarily grow a company? For us, we didn’t have that problem because we’re cashflow positive and we’ve never actually received an ounce of funding. And we’ve been that way ever since. So, I can’t necessarily speak to that type of growth because usually Silicon Valley is immediate like, you need capital.
I can say the VC community in Philadelphia specifically are very tight. And are very understanding. However, Philadelphia particularly is a lot of Eds and Meds. So, I can see that if a company were to come into Philadelphia or the surrounding region and have a business that isn’t that sector, that category, I can definitely see them having a hard time.
And then on the flip side of that, I would say if you can bootstrap as long as you possibly can. Do that, that is always the safest bet. Don’t just immediately create the idea and try to seek funding, like actually live your life and do your own thing and push it for as long as you humanly possibly can.
Brian Ardinger: Makes sense. The last question I want to ask is what’s next for Penji? What’s next? What are some of the things you’re excited about?
Johnathan Grzybowski: The thing I’m most excited about now is we want to change the landscape and the definition of the terminology of Penji. So, we don’t want Penji to be associated with the words, unlimited graphic design.
We don’t want people to associate Penji with affordable graphic designer, cheap graphic design or whatever you may be. We want it to be associated with the word graphic design. So very similar to the company that you mentioned, you have that name in your head, you immediately know exactly what it is that they do.
I’m sure if you think about other marketplace software or services, you’d have that same feeling. The thing I’m most excited about and why I jump on podcasts and things like that is to try to simulate the name Penji with the word graphic design. So, within 2021 and 2022 and beyond, that is the main goal.
When it comes to other things that I’m excited about, we’re going to be launching a pay-per-click model, pay per project model, to widen our fan base of graphic design. And then also we may be launching a content service, very similar to Penji. Where not only can you do Penji for unlimited graphic design, but you can do content fuel, which is the name of it, where you could do unlimited blogging.
Right? We all need blogs. We all need content in order to generate some type of SEO or even just notoriety and content in general and make it look like you’re in business. And that’s kind of what we want to create as well as that additional service to, to be the perfect partner to Penji.
Brian Ardinger: Well, Johnathan, thank you again for coming on Inside Outside Innovation, telling us a little bit about what’s going on in the world of graphic design and, and some of the new trends that we’re seeing when it comes to the world of work. So, appreciate you coming on and look forward to continuing the conversation.
Johnathan Grzybowski: Thank you so much.
Brian Ardinger: That’s it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.
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