The software from this small, thriving 4-person Norwegian start-up is known to virtually every front-end web developer in the world. I sat down with the founder figure out the secrets to this success.

An interview with Torstein Hønsi, creator of Highcharts and Highslide

During my Easter vacation, I returned to my small hometown of Vik i Sogn, Norway, to reconnect with family, friends and cross-country skiing!

In this remote part of the world (it took me nearly 18 hours of trains, planes and automobiles to make it here from New York City) something interesting has taken place over the last years. My friend, Torstein Hønsi, has grown a software company from a garage operation to a small, thriving 4-person software vendor known to virtually every front-end web developer in the world. The company, Highslide Software, is the marker of Highslide JS, a JavaScript gallery solution and  Highcharts JS, the popular non-flash based charting platform.

I sat down with Torstein in his new offices to learn more about his company and software entrepreneurship deep in the fjords.

Vidar: What are your products and how do they differ from competitors’ solutions?

Torstein: Our company started out with Highslide JS,
the JavaScript image, gallery and media viewer, in 2006 and extended the portfolio in 2009 with Highcharts JS, the JavaScript/SVG charting solution. Currently Highcharts is our most important product with 80-90 % of the revenue. Both products have had great success in their respective markets. I think the main cause of the success is the quality of the products themselves. If you do a Google search for “javascript charts” you’ll find Highcharts JS as the number one hit. This achievement can be attributed to the quality of the product, all the way from the code base, to the focus on the user experience for all types of users – implementers, designers and end users. The open business model and our focus on open user support also has a lot to do with spreading the word.

Vidar: How did you come up with the idea?

Torstein: Ever since I started logging weather data on my personal home page in 2003, I’ve been wanting a JavaScript charting solution as I didn’t want my users to be met with warnings that they had to install Flash or Java to read my content. This was before SVG was widely supported, so I started out with a primitive solution based on drawing a row of 1×1 pixel divs in the chart. Obviously this had some performance problems, so after a while I developed a solution that added an interactive JavaScript layer to JPG charts created on the server using JPGraph. This solution has been working great, but still relies on a server installation.

Vidar: When did you decide to turn your project into a full time business?

Torstein: In 2008 Highslide JS was my main income, and I saw the need to devote more time to it. At the same time, I started working more on what was to become Highcharts JS.

Vidar: Why do you think you’ve been successful so far?

Torstein: I think the key to the success is to keep a firm eye on all aspects of the user experience. The graphic design needs to be top notch, but so does the code design. The implementers need to have a clean and intuitive API, but the end users also need to have an intuitive GUI. Also our “freemium” business model has been a great success. The open source code allows the product to spread virally. Users can download the software, test it, get unconditional and professional help in our forums, and eventually perhaps tell their friends and readers about their positive experience with our products.

Vidar: Do you spend much time and resources on ‘traditional’ marketing or advertising to get the word out?

Torstein: Our home page is the only traditional marketing we’re doing. In the early days of Highslide JS I experimented with buying ads, but the effect wasn’t too clear. And nowadays, with our great Google rank, we have better marketing than we could buy for money. I try to write some blog articles now and then, but our philosophy is that at the end of the day the contents of our software upgrades and maintenance releases are more important than the contents of our blog articles.

Vidar: What are the greatest challenges in growing the business?

Torstein: The greatest challenge obviously is to keep focus on the product when so many other things are happening. Expanding the business is a lot of work in itself, and especially going from a one man band to a small business is challenging, as all systems and experience must be made available for others. However, keeping focus on the product in this phase is key to further growth.

Vidar: How can a small business like yours compete against companies like Google and other larger companies with vastly greater sales and engineering resources.

Torstein: I think there will always be room for different products. There will always be users that wish certain kinds of features that make one solution stand out from the others.

Vidar: Is a small town in a remote area of Norway an unlikely place to for a software entrepreneur to succeed?

Torstein: Generally employers in a small town tend to be more loyal than in greater markets, so I think an important aspect here is that once you get the right people, you will have them for a long time. It is not the kind of place where you build your business to 20 employees in a year then lay them off and move it all to a low cost country. Our objective is to create a stable, solid company in order to deliver quality, long term products and services.

Post script

Too often I’ve heard from business ‘advisers’, venture capitalists and other members of the metropolitan Digirati, that you’re dead without the right address (and that 30 minutes outside of Manhattan isn’t ‘right’ enough). So there you go. It’s not about whether you’re in the heart of the biggest city or sitting in the midst of the Fjords. Great products spread like wildfire.

Links:

For those who consider entrepreneurship in the Silicon Fjords, here’s a link to some pictures I took from and around this town last summer. Just bring your own mobile data card.