A Grand Rapids-based tech startup is leveraging a potentially game-changing opportunity as it enters a nationally renowned accelerator program.
Payload LLC — founded by local developers Dan Ribbens, Elliot DeNolf and James Mikrut — has set out to provide web and app developers with a cutting edge and versatile content management system (CMS). The trio has worked on developing the product since 2018, bootstrapping the venture the entire way.
The company recently announced that it was accepted into the Y Combinator tech accelerator, which is headquartered in Mountain View, Calif., and has hosted prominent tech names like Airbnb, Dropbox and Reddit. Payload’s founders left for California earlier this week to attend the retreat kickoff.
“Any tech entrepreneur’s aspiration when they start a tech company is to get accepted to Y Combinator, because the network they provide — all the connections they provide that come from their accelerator program — are like basically connecting you to everyone you need in the industry,” Mikrut said. “It’s a huge deal.”
Payload’s acceptance into Y Combinator included a $500,000 investment in the company. Per the program’s standard agreement for all of its participating startups, this $500,000 comes in exchange for a 7-percent equity stake in the company. The accelerator program, which has invested in a total of 3,000 tech companies to the tune of $400 billion, also reserves the right to buy additional equity in future financing rounds.
Y Combinator hosts each “batch” of startups for a three-month program. Payload will participate in the program June through August.
Mikrut said Y Combinator will be a central resource in building a sustainable business around what he considers to be a long-needed tech product.
“(Y Combinator) has a stable of portfolio companies that have gone through the same hurdles that we have gone through,” Mikrut said. “Something as simple as selecting a lawyer to help you organize your Delaware C Corp or have an equity pool for your employees. I want to work on the product. I don’t know how to do all the law stuff. But they have a playbook.”
As Mikrut works to grow Payload CMS alongside his co-founders, he also sits at the helm of TRBL, a Grand Rapids web development firm that he founded. In fact, it was his work at TRBL that demonstrated how sorely developers needed a CMS that provided complete flexibility to create modern websites and apps that can scale into the future. Industry-standard content management systems, such as WordPress, lack this flexibility.
“We built a lot of very large websites at TRBL and a lot of them use WordPress,” Mikrut said. “In 2017, we were searching for ways to build modern websites with powerful frameworks for the front ends and still have them be powered by CMS. There really weren’t any good options. People just said, ‘use WordPress,’ and we got really tired of that. We wanted to build our clients really well architected web products.”
That’s when Mikrut pulled in his longtime friends and started moonlighting to create Payload CMS. While certainly not the only CMS of its kind on the market, Payload CMS caters specifically to developers, who Mikrut said have major sway in deciding what type of software to use for corporate web development projects.
The Payload team has bootstrapped the idea the entire time. Payload received an injection of cash in 2018 when it won $20,000 at Start Gaden Inc.’s inaugural edition of The 100, a pitch competition for startups.
“When we really dug into the problem he’s trying to solve, we were like, ‘Wow, this is a big problem for many thousands of web developers out there,’” said Paul Moore, a co-director at Start Garden. “And when (Mikrut) started to get a prototype out, there was just this kind of instant community that started to form around it and make it better.”
With the $500,000 from Y Combinator, and a planned seed round of funding tentatively slated for August, the bootstrapping is over for Payload CMS.
Since launching in beta last year, Payload averages around 2,000 downloads per week. The company announced last month that its CMS was going open source, so that anyone can inspect and change the source code.
“With the traction that we were getting, we’re seeing we really need to build a team,” Mikrut said. “Having developers come from all over the world trying to adopt the software, asking questions and contributing to the code base, there is a critical mass moment you have to reach before you can hire team members and finance it appropriately. Until you get to that point, you really need to go full-time and you’re going to go into debt trying to sustain an open source product like this.”
Payload CMS will stay in Grand Rapids and plans to open a new office at 624 Stocking Ave. NW, a site currently under construction. Mikrut bought the building last summer and plans to use the first floor for office space with two apartments on the second floor.
Payload CMS also used tech-friendly resources like the Grand Rapids SmartZone during its infancy as the region as a whole strives to spur a thriving cluster of tech startups. Mikrut both acknowledged these efforts and the work that still lies ahead to accomplish it.
“Austin is obviously becoming a huge tech hub and when you go there you can feel it much more than Grand Rapids,” he said. “When you go to San Francisco, everything is inundated (with tech). … I don’t think there is any reason that Grand Rapids can’t be that. It has all the right pieces in place.”
“I would be a huge advocate for any city leadership to take tech very seriously as the future of the economy. If they can continue the initiatives, and magnify them exponentially, that is probably the best thing we can do for our local economy — focus on tech.”