Fllio is a new social network for artists, founded by technology entrepreneur Michael Ortali. Since Take Risks Be Happy helps creatives, artists, and entrepreneurs achieve their goals, we knew he would be a great person to talk to. In this interview Michael was kind enough to share his story about creating Fllio, how he got into the tech space, and his thoughts on art in the digital age.
Can you tell us about your background?
Even though I currently live in New York City, I was born and raised in France. In 1998 at the age of 10, I discovered the internet – which at the time was a medium unknown to most.
Through this new form of expression, I first started to build websites to help other gamers like myself. It was at the time when Roller Coaster Tycoon was still in 2D and just a few months after Tomb Raider 2 came out. The internet was slow; you had to wait long minutes to finally see the page load. But that experience of sharing knowledge ended up being a passion. A few years later, I started to build a community to teach others how to code and build websites and do UX / UI design.
When I was old enough to go to university, it seemed appropriate to attend one that focused on computer science. While the experience was good, the focus was too much on the theory and not enough on building things that could be useful. I left the computer science program to head to an art school, Les Gobelins. Learning art as a discipline is very different than learning engineering: you have to create experiences, emotions, and feelings.
Our end-of-year project ended up to be a beautiful story told around a mystical creature that lives in our world. Even back in 2008, we used virtual reality technology to create that story. You were able to walk through an installation, discover the creature’s world, communicate with it and solve puzzles. Everyone who tried it left the room amazed. It opened a door to millions of possibilities.
After graduating, it was time for an adventure. So I took a backpack and left France. Since then, it’s been quite a ride. I lived in 3 continents, 3 countries, 3 states and visited more than 35 countries.
Why did you decide to create Fllio, a professional network for creatives?
To tell you the truth, Fllio wasn’t originally a professional network for creatives. It was a collective.
Going through an art school, and with all the experience I had building websites, many of my classmates wanted to use my skills to help them create a simple, yet beautiful, online presence. The collective was created to help them in their mission. It was a way for them to get started and showcase what they can do – online. In June 2014, the collective grew organically to roughly 40 creatives.
Along the way, it became obvious that once you leave the art school, finding other creatives and getting opportunities are both more challenging. For example, I had just moved to the US at the time, and meeting the local creative community wasn’t as easy as I hoped it would be.
In that regard, I started to ask them what would help them out better. And in November last year, we started to create the professional network platform. We’ve launched in January, and now we have more than 1,000 users and a few partner schools.
How will you compete against established social networks like Facebook?
Facebook is a fantastic platform to discuss with your friends and create an audience around your art. It is also a sea of information, with a billion users and millions of pages available. For any creative who is trying to get started today, it will require quite some strategy before they start being noticed.
In that regard, Facebook (or any existing social network) isn’t really competition. They serve a specific purpose. The purpose of Fllio is to be the place for all creatives: where you can showcase your projects, find other creatives to collaborate with, or simply find opportunities. So whether you’re a musician, singer, dancer, photographer, model, sculptor, painter, or even a florist, as long as your body of work can be represented by a portfolio, you will have a place on Fllio.
What is the most challenging part of starting your own social network?
The most challenging part is definitely the amount of work. Considering I’m working on this on my own, you need to constantly wear many different hats: from designer all the way to back-end engineer. Even if those are challenges, the best part is you always learn new skills along the way. I’ve had a lot of support from my husband, which has also helped me overcome some of those challenges.
Some of the other challenges I face every day is to stay focused. There are millions of things to do, but everything needs to be prioritized. At the moment, it has been about gathering the feedback of our users, and improving their experience.
Believe in yourself and your capabilities, because you will fail – more than one time – so you will need the strength to learn from your mistakes, persevere and try again.
Can you tell us about your experience working with startups, and how has this helped you create Fllio?
Working with startups is always a great experience, mostly because you never run out of things to do, and the business constantly invites you to participate.
The teams are also much smaller in general, so your impact on the company is stronger. When I joined Pinterest in 2013, I had no clue I would be helping to launch their product in Europe and Asia, nor did I know I would be one of their first engineers on their monetization initiative. I’ve also seen the company grow from a hundred employees to 500+.
That said, When I was at YouTube (2010 – 2013), they gave me many chances to help out, take ownership and contribute to the product. At the time, YouTube wasn’t a startup anymore. So it’s really the culture of the company that makes a big difference.
The lesson that came through those experiences is to believe in yourself and your capabilities, because you will fail – more than one time – so you will need the strength to learn from your mistakes, persevere and try again.
Despite all your experience in tech, were there any aspects of starting Fllio that surprised you?
When you work for an existing company, in general you never have to worry about setting up a business and things like taxes. Compared to France, where setting up a legal structure can take months (it took my sister more than 6 months to finally be an “auto-entrepreneur”), I was agreeably surprised by how easy it was to set up a business in the US. There are plenty of online resources and services to make it painless. Even if you learn many things when you work for different companies, you never get a chance to look at that side of the business.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to start their own social network, or online company?
This will likely sound very dull, but definitely to follow your passion. The internet has plenty of space to grow, and there are millions of opportunities available. They aren’t all about being an overnight success like Facebook; it sometimes takes a lot longer. If you look at Pinterest, it took them several years to finally come up with a product they were excited about. Today, they have millions of users.
What is the biggest misconception people have about tech companies and startups?
To be honest, I have no idea. When I’m out and about, it’s always more interesting to learn about others, what they do, things they love. The subject of tech doesn’t often come up unless I’m talking to someone who is in the industry. The misconceptions I often hear are related to my home country or places I’ve lived.
Are you looking to raise venture capital?
Soon. The goal of raising money for Fllio will be to put together a team of experts that can help Fllio grow its audience and build features that would allow the platform to better represent creatives and their diverse skills.
Who are some of the favorite creatives you have discovered through Fllio?
With more than one thousand creatives, Fllio has a lot of diversity in term of users. We have plenty who are photographers, many who are musicians, singers, dancers – some more famous than others, like Paul Zizka (Canadian landscape photographer).
Out of all those creatives, the ones I know the most are Céline and Cyrill. Céline is currently traveling and documenting her journey. She has spent months in Canada before doing a roadtrip in a fixed up minivan in the US and Central America. Along the road she has met hundreds of people and shared her experiences in her blog. She has had a few hiccups though, including the loss of all her personal belongings. Cyrill is an incredibly talented florist, with an understanding of wearable greens. His work has been used in many venues, hotels, and has helped many photographers take their work a step further.
What’s next for you, and for Fllio?
For Fllio, there are so many things it can to do to help the creative community. In the immediate future, we’re looking for people to help out by talking to their creative friends about the platform, or if they are creatives themselves, then by signing up and letting us know what they think.
Personally, and over the next few months, I’ll be moving to Miami to help the growing tech and creative startup community there. Since 2009, the city has changed tremendously: the design district has grown a lot, and many well-known events are currently held there, such as Art Basel. More on the leisure side, and now that I’ve visited most of the Americas (North, Central and South), I’d like to visit Asia soon (likely Thailand, Vietnam, China, and Japan as a start). Being immersed in a different culture not only teaches you a lot about others, but it tells you a bit more about who you are and where you fit in our world.