How Sketchfab Got Started

None Alban Denoyel (E08) and Cédric Pinson, co-founders at Sketchfab

Back in 2012, Alban Denoyel (E08) co-founded Sketchfab, a platform to publish and find 3D models online. It is now the leading company on the market. As he’s about to celebrate the start-up’s 7th anniversary, he goes down memory lane with us and explains how it all started. An inspiration to all aspiring entrepreneurs!

I often get asked how Sketchfab got started, and how we came up with this “great idea”. Sketchfab started as an encounter, which happened on this day 7 years ago, here is the story.

First, a bit of background. Back in 2011, I was working at Polka, a magazine and gallery dedicated to photojournalism. It was great, but I had been working there for 4 years, and I really wanted to start my own thing. I always knew deep inside that the only job that could truly fulfil me would be a job I create for myself. I’ve always had an entrepreneur mindset, from a combination of enjoying to make things as well as “doing business”. Throughout the years, I had tinkered with many ideas and projects by myself: a platform to mutualise office supplies buying for SMBs, a service to send handwritten postcards, a gallery for screenshots from movies… Nothing ever took of, probably because I was just by myself.

So I started meeting as many people as I could, going to entrepreneur events in Paris, having lunch and taking coffees with friends of friends, etc. By the end of 2011, I figured the only way to be serious about this was to quit my job, and I did. I started building websites on the side, to pay for rent.

Another piece of context is that I do sculpture as a hobby, initially wood sculpture. I was commissioned a large piece, and as the deadline was approaching, with a few months left, I realized there was no way I could do this in wood, while working full time in Paris. So I started looking for other ways, and that’s how I discovered clay, molding, and finally 3D printing. Back in 2011 in France, it was very new, and I was telling everybody about it. I was thinking about ideas around it, and in early January 2012, I asked my wife for feedback on the idea of starting a marketplace for 3D printable files. It was “yet another idea”, and at this point I was still just by myself…

A few days later, I got invited by a former colleague from Polka (thank you Constance) to a party at the new office space of a start-up (Stupeflix) where her brother was working (thank you Guillaume). I was preaching the 3D printing gospel again, and someone told me I should go and chat with a guy back there, as he was “a 3D guy”. The guy was Cedric, he had never heard about 3D printing, but he had been working as a 3D programmer for the past 15 years. It turns out he was one of the very first guys to work on WebGL (the underlying tech behind Sketchfab), and was hired by Mozilla to make the first demo of WebGL for the launch of Firefox 4, back in 2011. He was now working on WebGL-related projects, which sounded cool, so we decided to have lunch the following week. At that time he was freelancing full-time around WebGL, usually working at night. He showed up 1 hour and a half late. I didn’t have much going on anyway so I sticked around and waited. He shared more about a project he was working on, called ShowWebGL. It was a proof of concept of a web based 3D viewer. He was working with 3D artists in the gaming industry, and they were sharing 2D screenshots of their 3D work (be it for review or for showcase), for lack of a better solution. This sounded crazy, and he wanted to fix that. So he essentially built a tool solving a problem he was facing, but he was mostly focused on the tech and building the tool, and had told pretty much nobody about it. I didn’t know anything about 3D on the web, but it sounded interesting and looked promising, so I offered to help on the side, for any and all non-tech-related things.

I started adding very simple things, like a contact address and an faq. After a few weeks, I also suggested ShowWebGL might not be the best name, and that we might want to change that. Cedric trusted me on that, and I spent almost 10 days full time looking for a new name that would be memorable, catchy, relevant, and available in dot com. We finally landed on Sketchfab, a combination of Sketch to convey the concept of a drawing, and fab which was a mix of fabrication and fabulous.

Sketchfab was officially launched in March 2012, I’ll share more about that story when we get to the 7 year anniversary of that!


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