Franz Maruna is the founder of CMS concrete5. He gives us his views on all things CMS and concrete5 related!

Hi Franz, and thanks for doing this interview! Could you tell us a little about yourself, and what you do?

My Dad ran a manufacturing software shop in the ’70s and ’80s so I grew up knowing how to program computers back when that wasn’t cool at all. My own interests were more towards the arts and by high school I was winning awards for photography and multimedia. When the web came out in 94-95 I saw the perfect mix of design and development for my skills and passion, so I dropped out and starting doing anything I could find web related. 

In those days you could really be a jack of all trades. I did production work in HTML and ActionScript, I did digital strategy and project management. I moved out to Portland, Oregon and just freelanced for every ad agency in town so I could to get my name out there as a solid problem solver. This matured into a job at a big IT company at the end of the days, and then me starting my own shop. 

We started what became concrete5 when we had a gig with a short timeline and too many stakeholders. We knew they’d never stay true to fixed requirements, so we needed a more flexible building material than the systems we had worked with. I jotted down some high level architecture, not quite on a cocktail napkin, but yes in a notebook at a bar. Andrew Embler, our CTO, took what made sense and built Concrete CMS. After five major rebuilds from the bottom up, we went open source in late 2008 and called it concrete5. 

These days my roles at PortlandLabs encompass CEO down to project & product manager. We have a full time designer and a handful of flexible programmers. I don’t touch code, which is probably good for everyone. That gives me some room to have prospective and occasionally chime in when the guys who are far smarter than me are beating their head against the wall. Every so often I still have an alternative approach to suggest, but these days I’m writing emails and briefs.

How would you describe concrete5 for those who have not heard of it before?

A very powerful open source content management system for building pixel perfect web presences, but with a in-context editing experience your clients will love. 

Obviously there are many open source CMS applications out there. What did you feel was lacking in CMSs at the time, and why do you think people are drawn to concrete5?

In open source at the time everything was something else first. A blog, news site, file sharing system – they were designed to serve some specific need and then someone bright said, “hey we could probably use this as a general cms too!” While creativity is always awesome, at our own shop we found ourselves fighting against the architecture of a lot of systems as much as benefiting from it.

Still today, in open source, there’s not a lot of solutions that do in-context editing well. There’s a whole batch of newer closed source hosted solutions like Wix, Weebly, Squarespace that bring this type of experience to small sites – but not everyone wants that type of interface. If you’re reading a page and want to change something, having to go find it and deal with some form on the backend is like asking someone to throw out their word processor and get out the printing press. 

Once developers start really learning concrete5, they often marvel at how powerful and flexible concrete5 is under the hood. There’s a great override structure, robust permissions & user model, built in workflows – the list goes on and on. 

We’ve noticed you have an active community with hundreds of add-ons and high levels of forum activity. Were you surprised at the level of engagement in concrete5?

Well one always dreams of success, but yes we’re often pinching ourselves. It’s been quite a ride.

When we first launched we’d be trading high-fives if we got 100 visits in a day, and I’d personally answer every post in the forums. As things have grown, we’ve had to continually change how we serve and speak with our community, which has been a learning experience for me particularly. There’s certainly been bumps in the road, but I believe there are with most open source projects. One has to take everyone’s passion as flattery at some level. It’s a lot like a family, you don’t have to agree on every decision to believe in each other and a larger goal. It keeps you going on hard days to know that hundreds of thousands of people enjoy the product of your labours.

How do you see Internet technologies changing in the future, and where do you see concrete5 progressing in the next five years to keep up with these changes?

In the next version of concrete5 we are using Composer, Laravel, Symfony, Zend, Doctrine, LESS and more.

On the business side, I’m not the first to point out that there’s fewer and fewer players solving smaller and smaller problems, and I don’t think VC is always helping. This whole culture of “don’t bother with a revenue plan, just get an audience and sell it to Facebook or Google” sucks. I also get that good design is all about eliminating things and making the complex feel simple, but 4 billion dollars for making pictures look old? 16 billion for a chat service a few smart people could make in a couple of months? I get that there’s larger value there (the audience),I get that it took a lot of effort to build an audience around those products, and I wish the people behind Instagram and WhatsApp the best. I’m sure I’d take those deals with a smile too. I still can’t help but to scratch my head and think we’re going to look back at this stuff in a different way one day. Sadly I don’t think it’s “another tech bubble,” but rather the continued extraction of wealth from the middle class into the hands of a very few. The VC folk I’ve met with have all struck me as smart as hell and perfectly happy to fund poop on a stick if they believed it would turn 20 million into a 1 billion in 3 years, that’s their job – who can blame them. It’s a horrible cycle of very smart people with very immediate goals.

When my Dad started his business, you made a product that people needed, you charged them money for it, you watched your margins and repeated the process. Maybe you got a loan or line of credit along the way to get through some dip. Eventually you’d buy a bigger house, maybe a boat. You didn’t start with an “exit strategy” and outside of wineries and restaurants we didn’t expect 19 out of businesses 20 to fail. I think it’d be great to see more smart kids coming out of good schools shooting for building nice sustainable business that would give them some power to make the world around them and their employees a better place. 

I once had a VC tell me that anything short of being #1 in our industry and being worth a /BILLION/ or more would be considered failure. We’ve never taken on outside investors. It seems like the business equivalent of always living above your means until you cash out with an IPO or buyout that makes the original investors rich at the expense of the new one ones. 

I dunno, to me if a company can gross $10-20mm annually with a 20-30% margin, that sounds pretty ‘effin amazing. If you can do that with a product that people benefit from, and in a fashion that doesn’t ruin your family life, I’ve got a lot of respect for you. Either that, or be Elon Musk and apply the “go big or go home” nonsense to the actual problems you’re willing to take on – not just your funding model. 

So expect concrete5 to continue to bring really intuitive editing to the web, but stay open source. Expect to see more large sites powered with it like you may have noticed recently, but also expect to see hosting companies white label it and add their own content and support to target it for specific verticals. Expect more mobile/tablet focus. By not being beholden to a board room of sharks, we can plod along at our own pace trying out stuff that doesn’t always work. We’ll just focus on making good stuff that people benefit from while we earn a living.

I sound like a grumpy old man. Dagnammit.

Outside of concrete5, can you tell us about some of the other projects you are working on?

We just beta launched – It’s an iOS sales app that holds all your marketing material and lets you configure complex products. I also have two lovely daughters that are by far the best project I’ve ever started. 

And outside of work, what are some of your other creative pursuits?

I still take pictures, I’ve been getting into time-lapse stuff recently. 

I play music, sometimes with Andrew. Typically the bass although I’ve recently picked up guitar which I had abandoned after high school. Turns out once you learn your power chords you never forget them. *throws horns and bangs head*

Finally, what really drives you to do the things you do? Where does all your passion and enthusiasm come from?

I want to make the world a better place, and I want to see the world. I like to solve problems with creative solutions. 

All sorts of people use concrete5 to build websites that are important to them. Some of them I agree with, some of them I don’t – it gives me great joy on the worst of days to know that we’re even a small part of enabling their self expression, businesses, clubs, churches, brony fan sites – you name it.

NuBlue host Concrete5 sites, and we are a bunch of friendly professionals. Please get in touch to discuss your requirements.

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