Publit is a product of YJ’s personal frustrations with the general website building process. With Jason Silberman, he co-founded Publit to make creating personal websites quick and easy.
YJ grew up in southern Indiana and went to Swarthmore College in Philadelphia. Swarthmore had a plethora of resources for anyone interested in social entrepreneurship. YJ was awarded a grant to start a public health NGO in southern Venezuela, where he had previously spent a summer as a physician’s assistant treating malaria patients.
Over several years, he and his team created and managed a summer program that would bring students form all over the world to remote villages in southern Venezuela to help administer vaccinations, run environmental health projects, and help treat patients. This was a unique and exhilarating experience for YJ, leaving him with an immense excitement from building something up from an idea. He would later realize that building startups and being an entrepreneur is truly what he wanted to do.
YJ’s experiences in college led him to spend a few years abroad funded by a few national fellowships he had won. These years abroad gave him ample time to build up his skills in UI/UX and web design. One of his best friends from the fellowship program was a Stanford graduate who insisted that YJ move to the San Francisco Bay Area. At the time, many of his classmates were turning down offers at Google and Facebook to start their own companies. YJ remembers the things they would say, “You can always go to medical school… but before you drown yourself in debt, you should take a few years to live in the Bay and see if design work is what you really want to do.”
Upon his move to San Francisco (just a few years after the Great Recession) YJ met hundreds of startup entrepreneurs. He felt an overwhelming sense of optimism. Seemingly everyone had a hundred ideas and hopes to build "the next big thing." But, many failed after raising hundreds of thousands of dollars. YJ realized without funding (or a trust fund), the journey would be difficult. He thought, maybe if he built a sustainable, service-based business in web design he’d be a bit more immune to the normal booms and busts of a startup— that in a few years he might still have a living ‘institution’ to show for his work.
This is when YJ founded Midwest Design Lab, which would bring in enough income that allowed him and his team to incubate their own products. Over several years of investment, they were able to launch FLOAT. Put simply, FLOAT is a phone mount that allows you to use your phone at eye-level, hands-free in front of a mirror or even in the shower. YJ had always listened to podcasts while he showered by placing his phone in precarious positions, inevitably leading to his phone dropping. He imagined that when the time was right, others could also see the benefit of a product like FLOAT, which is now used daily by thousands of happy customers (they haven’t received a single product return!).
It was YJ’s first flight over the magnificent Marin Headlands. He flew nervously, as this was his first time piloting this type of aircraft. Jason and his mother were with him, taking pictures of the landscape. YJ had flown too far out, reaching unknown territory, anxiously trying to find a way back to safety. Amidst his inner turmoil, Jason’s mother, oblivious to the situation, was merrily telling tall tales of Jason’s apps and websites that he made on his own throughout the years, despite only being a freshman in high school. When in a life-threatening situation like this, your senses tend to sharpen. Especially when the aircraft you are piloting is the latest and greatest DJI drone that you just received. With those heightened senses, YJ sensed greatness in Jason.
Thankfully, the drone was piloted back safely. Perhaps more thankfully, Jason reached out to YJ that same night. Ever since then, they have been working on projects together.
As a ‘kid from Indiana’, YJ had always known that talent is equally distributed everywhere, and it didn’t matter to him where someone came from, what they looked like, or what their age was. YJ and his team at Midwest Design Lab could tell that Jason was extremely talented. Jason is now in his early twenties, maintaining their products after having built the vast majority of the software infrastructure for FLOAT and Publit. YJ oversees design and also manages all the other aspects of the business.
“Amidst launching multiple products, I’ve benefited from my ability to forget and move beyond all the ‘nos.’ Sometimes market conditions and external factors can kill a product, but I will work relentlessly to maximize what I personally can control.”
- YJ Heo
Publit (a portmanteau of “publish” and “literature”) was originally created for PhD students and academics but has now expanded to any individual who wants to own their personal brand. Publit is a product of YJ’s personal frustrations with the general website building process. He believes that the building process should be easier for websites, especially personal websites. No more $100 per year maintenance costs or complex designing layouts and inaccessible coding features— it should just be as easy as filling out a Google Form with information and pressing a single button to launch a personal website.
They wanted a personal website builder that both a 50 year old and a 10 year old would be able to use, at an accessible price. Because that didn’t exist, YJ and Jason decided to make it themselves.
With Publit, YJ and Jason are building a better way for you to create a personal website in minutes. All you have to do is take your current CV, copy and paste relevant links, add a profile image, select a color, pick a template, and press a button to fully launch your personal website. With more people having content they want to share with the world, infrastructure and tools like Publit should exist to enable the growing amount of content. Along with PhDs and academics, they now have college students, national fellowship applicants, entrepreneurs, lawyers, journalists, and many others using Publit to share their perspectives with the world.
Eventually, they want to build up an extensive library of templates that would allow anyone to switch between new designs with one or two clicks (it is currently at four). For YJ and Jason, this is the future of website creation, and they hope to influence the ecosystem to make website building more accessible and easier to do. With scale, they’ll be able to make their product even more accessible more people. Currently, at full price, Publit is about 50% of the price of a Squarespace site (college students get 25% off their first year). You can choose between multi-page and single-page templates. Publit also makes it easy for customers to acquire preferred URLs. In addition, Publit doesn’t run any ads, resulting in a clean and professional look.
Build your personal website today. YJ believes that at every stage of life, we have important projects, media, or writing to share with others. Publit is live and open now for anyone who wants to get online and share their ideas.
"While this journey can feel impossibly difficult at times, the beauty of building of a startup is that, ultimately, your product will be judged by its usefulness (or lack thereof). It doesn’t matter what you look like, where you’re from, what mistakes you’ve made along the way. Generally, people will judge your startup based on your startup alone. So, go build something that someone wants.
Everything you see around you has been made, adapted, updated, changed, or removed by someone else. If you are a founder, you have chosen to contribute to progress–progress that others will be able to identify and build upon in the future. Amidst this desire to change the world around you, there are many who are satisfied and content. These are people who may not be as optimistic about what you’re trying to do. They will say ‘no’ to you. They may not respect you. They may even disparage you. None of that matters. Ignore them and continue to choose to try to make a contribution.
Ask your friends and family what they do NOT like about your product. Thoroughly investigate those problems and solve them. Keep asking folks around you what they do not like about what you’re making. It’s difficult for people who care about you to be honest about disliking something you do. Make it easy for them to reveal the truth, and use the truth as a mechanism to improve your product–eventually you might be able to prove them wrong."
-YJ, CEO and Co-Founder of Publit
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Be sure to check out YJ's YouTube Channel where he provides information and guidance to students who are interested travel-abroad programs.