They call it “116 Beaver Hill.”
“That’s where all the initial lines of code were written,” David Rusenko said. “We have names for all of our conference rooms in San Francisco.”
The boardroom of Weebly’s headquarters is the posh, high-tech bat cave now common among industry giants — a place akin to where “M” debriefs James Bond before his next mission. According to Rusenko, the space is the nicest among the conference rooms in the sprawling, 31,000-square-foot former factory in San Francisco’s stylish South Park neighborhood.
But its nickname belies its milieu. For the three founders of the popular build-your-own-website platform, it’s an inside joke hearkening back to their days as undergraduates at Penn State.
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“Which no one really gets,” Rusenko said, referring to his old college apartment and drawing laughs from the crowd. “It really only amuses us.”
“Us” includes Rusenko and fellow alumni and co-founders Chris Fanini and Dan Veltri, who spoke at the university Thursday as part of Penn State Startup Week, a universitywide showcase of entrepreneurship and innovation that runs through Friday. The event itself was made possible by a $400,000 gift from Rusenko, and was founded in 2012.
Then known as IST Startup Week, it has expanded in 2017 to include nine other colleges and two administrative units across the school’s main campus.
“I really wanted to put on what would be a world-class technology conference because that’s what we have here,” Rusenko, 31, said. “The level of the speakers — it would be the envy of any conference in San Francisco.”
Happy Valley may be different from Silicon Valley in many ways, but in terms of entrepreneurship, the former is quickly catching up. With initiatives such as Invent Penn State and the Summer Founders Program, the university has invested more than $30 million into economic development efforts since January 2015. In 2016, Entrepreneur Magazine named State College one of the 15 best cities for entrepreneurs.
Penn State Startup Week is another feather in the school’s ever-expanding cap.
“Software and technology — it’s a really creative space,” Fanini, 32, said. “Because you can build something out of nothing.”
Weebly, which began as a class project about a decade ago, has grown to more than 300 employees, with about 50 million users who have signed up to build a website using the service. About 325 million people, Rusenko said, visit those sites each month.
“Which to me is particularly exciting because those are people visiting businesses that entrepreneurs created themselves,” he said. “So in a real way it represents the success of the people who use the platform.”
According to Rusenko, about half of the U.S. population visits a Weebly site or store each month. He said it’s been an interesting journey since 2007, the year he graduated and the year the company was officially started. In April of that year, about 14 months after they had started working on Weebly, their bank account had less than $100. It was enough for a run to Costco.
They stocked up on ramen, Rusenko recalls.
“We were sitting there thinking, ‘OK, we have food, I guess, for like a week or two,’ but rent was due in three weeks,” he said. “And rent in San Francisco, it ain’t cheap. So we were unsure of what we were going to do.”
Then came 2008 and the recession. But while the rest of the country was dealing with the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, Weebly went on the upswing, turning in its first cash-flow positive month in January 2009.
Since then, they’ve remained in the black.
“We actually saw an increase in folks coming to Weebly who wanted to start a business or online service,” Fanini said. “Now they had the impetus to really build this thing: It was survival for them.”
As people lost their jobs and pensions, more turned to entrepreneurship, often out of necessity. According to the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity, in 2009, the number of startups reached their highest level in 14 years.
It was perfect timing for Weebly.
“Things took off,” Rusenko said.
Back in State College on Thursday, Rusenko walked through the same buildings where the team wrote the early lines of code for Weebly and by the fraternity houses where he used to DJ parties to pay his way through school.
But a visit to the old haunt on Beaver Avenue was not on the schedule.
“Think stereotypical college apartment,” Rusenko said, smiling. “Six guys, two bedrooms, wasn’t particularly clean.”
The new “116 Beaver Hill” reminds them of where their business started.