Markup Factory

4 comments | Posted: 8 August 09 in Interviews, by Nathan Smith

Josh Cramer is a person I admire, one with the tenacity to start his own business and see it through to fruition. I first met him at SXSW several years ago, and since then have continued to bump into him at conferences such as Ministry 2.0 and Echo. Recently, I interviewed Josh and his colleague Mike Biang. Designer extraordinaire Daniel Marino also fielded a few questions.

Markup Factory

Nathan:

What is the Markup Factory – How did it start, what is the business focus, and where are you guys heading in the future? Also, please share some examples of sites that you have built that utilize Markup Factory’s capabilities.

Josh:

Markup Factory is a hosted CMS, which supports valid user generated HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. It offers a rich feature set including a blog, user database, email newsletter engine, podcasts, e-commerce, form builder, and online event registration. Unlike some other content management systems, Markup Factory is not only a blog-centric platform. Our goal is to offer an integrated set of ready made applications that can be extended to build a web presence.

Mike:

Markup Factory began as a idea several years ago. It arose from the need to have a CMS which would support any markup it was given, but still be easily managed by someone unfamiliar with HTML/CSS. Over the last two years, we’ve added some significant features to the core CMS, such as an online database module and a form builder, which allow Markup Factory’s users to create custom datasets and forms that link to them. We’re excited about the next few years, as we continue to enhance the system. These two ministry sites use Markup Factory:

Great Commission Churches

Mars Hill Church

Daniel:

CramerDev.com is an especially good example because it uses a lot of Markup Factory’s special features. Our staff bios are using custom database records and wildcard URLs. The contact form was constructed using our form builder, which generates a form – on the fly – by parsing simply formatted JSON.

Cramer Dev


Nathan:

How many people are there at Markup Factory? Are all of the employees primarily on-site, or do you work as a distributed team? What are some of the benefits and/or trade-offs of remote work?

Josh:

We have a distributed team of six working out of four cities. We have an offices in Coralville and Iowa City, IA. Mike Biang works out of Chicago, IL and Daniel Marino works from somewhere deep in the woods of New Hampshire. We use a number of online collaboration tools to keep in touch: Redmine, Harvest, Skype, etc. I think a degree of separation has proved beneficial to our productivity by limiting the amount of interruptions and providing an opportunity to focus for longer periods of time. However, human contact is an important part of the work experience and we try to get together on at least a quarterly basis to keep in touch. A recent session is detailed on our dev blog here:

http://cramerdev.com/weblog/the-making-of-cramerdev-com

Mike:

One of the questions we are often asked is if our productivity is limited by our ability to communicate as a distributed team. I’ve found that our ability to communicate is nearly identical to what we would have if we all worked in the same location. With the number of audio, video, and chat applications freely available, our communication on projects doesn’t skip a beat. You do end up missing some of the “inter-office banter,” but as Josh mentioned, that may actually boost our productivity :)

Josh:

With a seasoned and experienced team, I think that having everyone work out of the same location is a preference and not a requirement. In our case, having the right people on the team is much more important than having people who live close to each other. We have intentionally removed that requirement in most cases when searching for new hires.

Daniel:

Being one of the remote workers, I can say it definitely has its ups and downs. Sometimes I miss the workplace interaction, but as Mike mentioned, we are constantly connected. We also meet up once a quarter in Chicago, which is a blast. It gives us something to look forward to.


Nathan:

As a relatively small company, how did you initially get the endeavor off the ground? Most companies take on a first round of funding, just to help keep the lights on, but you guys did it via bootstrapping. How did that work, and what were some of the challenges and/or rewards?

Josh:

There certainly are challenges to bootstrapping. Much of our decision to bootstrap came out of our desire to get a venture up and running without going into debt to banks or investors. One benefit to taking VC funding is that you get a tremendous boost of capital to hire people and to get the product off the ground quickly. In exchange, you give up a degree of control and percentage of ownership to investors. Sometimes, this is the best path forward. In our case, we wanted to maintain total control over the direction that we took the product and eliminate the pressures that would come with answering to investors. It has been a much slower road going this way and we’ve had to get creative working with a smaller pool of resources, but overall we are quite happy with how things are turning out. As with fine wines, a business take time to produce and gets better with age. This organic approach is most aligned to how we see our business growing.


Microsoft .NET Framework

Nathan:

You are a Microsoft .NET shop, specifically ASP.NET – which carries with it a bit of a stigma amongst open source enthusiasts and web standards fanatics. What drove the decision to use Microsoft technologies for your business?

Josh:

We don’t usually admit using MS technology unless asked in an interview! :)

Seriously though, we chose this platform because we wanted to leverage an existing codebase that we had in use. In addition to speeding along our development efforts and enabling us to bootstrap the venture, we’ve actually discovered a diamond in the rough in this scenario. Much of the platform is now powered by a Prototype based Server Side JavaScript framework that we’ve created and run on top of IIS. This has proved powerful at times, especially when creating server-side components that interact with the client side. One example is our Form Builder (currently in beta) which actually runs the same codebase on both the client and the server. Eventually, we may migrate the platform away from Microsoft and run on Linux servers. One reason we can even consider this is that when you build a site on Markup Factory, you actually don’t interface with or write any .NET or ASP code at all. You’re writing your code in standard HTML, CSS, JS. We’ve also created a basic language called MFScript that is processed server-side and allows you to add dynamic functionality to your templates.

Mike:

When Josh and I started working together around seven years ago, Microsft’s technologies were much more advanced than their open source counterparts. MySQL for example, was at version 3.23 and didn’t include support for unions, stored functions or routines. Much of our decision to use Microsoft systems took place out of a desire to be using the most advanced systems available at the time. The decision was a pragmatic one at that point. Since then, the open source community has grown by leaps and bounds, and I think this trend will only continue. Markup Factory has been developed with this in mind. Our goal is to migrate all server-side code to JavaScript, in order to make the system as platform agnostic as possible.


jQuery 960 Grid System

Nathan:

Are there any client-side frameworks that you have found helpful?

Josh:

Actually, many of the sites that we build – using our own CMS on the back-end – are using jQuery and your 960 Grid System on the front-end. Markup Factory allows you to implement any client-side framework that you please.


Nathan:

You guys run a for-profit business, but I know from in-person conversations that you are both committed Christians. How has your collective faith in God influenced your entrepreneurial efforts?

Josh:

My faith has significantly impacted every area of my life including my business ventures. The Proverbs were especially influential in my early years. Passages talking about honesty and integrity have shaped my view on how to interact with the business world, how to treat customers, and how to deal with vendors. Verses on wisdom and foolishness have also helped me to make wise decisions and to see danger as it approaches. The Bible has also influenced the way I view and manage money. I personally have benefited from Dave Ramsey’s material on personal finance and recommend it to everyone we work with. God has asked us to be good managers of the resources he has entrusted us with (including money) and there is much wisdom in the Bible about how to do this.

Mike:

I’ve really appreciated working with Josh, largely because of our shared faith in Christ. I believe that our faith greatly influences the flavor of our business. Personally, I believe that God is honored when we strive to be excellent in our work. Colossians 3:23-24 has been an important set of verses for me:

“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.”

I also believe that is important for me to remember that while we are to be excellent, our work should not be primary focus of our lives. Matt 6:33 calls us to seek first God’s kingdom, and comes with a promise, that he will take care of all our needs.


Nathan:

Lastly, please share the occasion or process by which you first came to know Christ, and the impact that has had on your lives.

Josh:

Halfway through my college I took a year off from my education. It was during this time that I left the traditional church I had grown up in and began a search for whatever “The Truth” might be. I began taking philosophy courses, visiting a variety of places of worship, and engaging in debates and conversations with people who held all different kinds of world views. I spoke with people ranging from atheists, agnostics, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and people who just didn’t really care one way or the other. It was during this search that I encountered a gentleman speaking on campus and relating all of the claims of Christ to the questions I had been asking. This was the beginning of my discovery of a reasonable faith in Christ and this ultimately lead to a relationship with Christ. I think that faith in Christ is not something that anyone can prove to – or choose for – another person. It is something that is a personal interaction between a human being and his maker. Deuteronomy 4:29 says:

“But if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul.”

Mike:

I accepted Christ when I was 5 years old. My dad was the pastor of our local church, and I remember him explaining to me that Christ died for my sins, and that to receive his forgiveness, I needed to believe in him and accept him as my Lord and Savior. I remember being excited as I asked Christ into my life at that point. During my high school years though, I chose to really make my faith in Christ my own. I had been going through a period of rebellion, but God was pursuing me. One night, when I was sixteen, I received two speeding tickets with a half hour. For whatever reason, that just broke me. I cracked open my Bible, and read Matthew 16:24-26:

“Then Jesus told his disciples, If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?”

I realized that in my rebellion, I was seeking to save my own life for myself, rather than let Christ be lord. I told him from that point forward that my life was his.

Discuss This Topic

  1. 1 Darren

    Nice! Josh and co. are great folks. Thanks for the interview —

     
  2. 2 Nathan Smith

    Darren — Agreed, they are good guys, even if they do use .NET by choice. :)

     
  3. 3 Josh Cramer

    I seem to remember someone else around here working in .NET too. Now, who was that again?

     
  4. 4 Nathan Smith

    Josh — Touché!

     

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