In our exclusive Q&A with Sanity founder and CEO Magnus Hillstead, we discuss the current state of the CMS market, the advantages of headless, and what's ahead for the structured content platform.
After a year of hyper-accelerated digital transformation, the content world might feel a little, well… unruly.
Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, companies feverishly raced to adapt in a contactless, eCommerce-driven economy, experiencing a decade of acceleration in a matter of months – an effect McKinsey christened as "The Quickening."
At the same time, the reliance on content has exploded. Now, with billions of websites and apps floating in the ether, the task of managing dynamic content and digital experiences across a growing multitude of screens and endpoints has become nearly insurmountable.
But the aptly-named Sanity – a San Francisco/Oslo-based SaaS startup – is betting that their innovative platform for structured content will help bring calm to the chaos.
Today, the company announced that it has raised $39 million in Series B funding, becoming the latest venture in the headless CMS and DXP ecosystem to acquire significant investment in recent months. In fact, they just completed their Series A in October of 2020 for $9.3 million, codifying the confidence around their growth potential.
Over the past year, Sanity has tripled its customer base and doubled its revenues while broadening a portfolio of notable brands, including Unilever, National Geographic, Figma, and others. The company has also doubled the size of its team in the same timeframe.
A compelling stable of investors
Founded in 2018, Sanity has experienced a meteoric rise with some impressive investment. This latest round, led by ICONIQ Growth – with additional venture capital from Lead Edge Capital, Threshold Ventures, Heavybit, and Alliance Venture – brings Sanity’s total funding to a tidy $51.8 million.
It’s worth noting that ICONIQ Growth General Partner Doug Pepper has joined the board, codifying the overall confidence in their growth potential. Pepper was the first investor in Marketo before its acquisition by Adobe for $4.75 billion in 2018 and has a track record of early bets on strong B2B software players like Canva, Braze, Datadog and Airtable.
“Sanity has created the hero product for building innovative product experiences, with an impressive developer-oriented approach to content delivery and a personalized product experience that breaks down silos for content creators, marketing, and developer teams," said Pepper. "We're excited to support the Sanity team as they enter this next phase of growth.”
Rethinking CMS in a world of siloed data
One of the biggest challenges facing brands in the digital age is the gap between customer expectations and reality. According to Deloitte, brands face a challenging disconnect as users access multiple touchpoints throughout the purchase experience. While 75% of customers expect consistent experiences, 58% feel like they’re communicating with a number of different divisions – and not one company.
This lack of cohesion is forcing brands to rethink the role of CMS and embrace a new philosophy around content as data. Sanity’s vision to provide structured content comes as businesses look to redefine their digital customer interactions and break the silos that exist across channels.
Sanity positions itself as a “fast-growing alternative to the traditional CMS,” uniquely treating content as data. By storing resources in their Sanity Content Lake, organizations can effectively de-silo their content – making it available for both collaboration and global distribution. By leveraging APIs, users can manage their text, images, and other media in a unified platform and build engaging digital experiences in real-time.
Sanity also enables teams to collaborate on content, design, and code in parallel, allowing them to achieve velocity and ship better products faster. Editors are also able to work more efficiently in customized editing environments built on Sanity’s open source Content Studio, which developers can customize and extend with their own React components.
Q&A with Magnus Hillstead
CMS Critic had an opportunity to connect with Magnus Hillstead, the founder and CEO of Sanity. He shares some of his views on the CMS market, the value of being headless, and what his company is excited about.
CMS Critic (CC): How would you describe the overall CMS market in 2021? Where are the gaps from your perspective, and how does Sanity address them?
This creates a shift in how organizations work with content. As digital channels become integrated parts of the product experience, the CMS needs to transform to be a part of the product stack and support organizations in extending their product experiences.
We believe that the market has just seen the first increments of a much larger motion. Having content available on an API is table stakes in 2021. Mature digital organizations should require more from their content solutions. Content should no longer be stuck in HTML silos at the edge of organizations, but rather structured, shared and reused across the organization. Organizations should be able to integrate product, customer, and transaction data together with content in order to create better product experiences.
This is the gap Sanity closes. By treating content as data, we fully decouple it from design considerations. Content can be used as a single source of truth for driving product and marketing operations. Rich data models allow faithful integrations of content systems and other data sources, allowing the enrichment and decoration of the content for better customer experiences.
This is what Sanity is all about – high-fidelity data models, real-time event-driven system synchronization, and custom user interfaces for optimal content operations for modern content teams.
CC: You mention that Sanity is an alternative to CMS. As an API-driven ecosystem, how would you say Sanity differs from headless CMS platforms?
MH: Sanity treats content as data. Content is structured and programmatically approachable for both reading and writing through real-time APIs. This enables content to be seamlessly interoperated with other sources of truth and used to better express content in context for the various applications and situations organizations communicate to their customers.
Our user interface is open source and meant to be customized and extended by the end-users. Developers can thus create the optimal content model and user interface that the organization needs, fast and with great tools for further development and iteration as their business needs develop.
In a decoupled world, all systems need to be headless, i.e. separate the presentation layer from the content platform. But being headless is not enough. Most headless CMSes are semi-monoliths with code extensions that still treat content as a situation-specific asset, integrating content and design. But they fail to treat content as data and provide a platform that centers around structured content and enables organizations to leverage a programmatic approach to content.
Sanity, therefore, stretches far beyond web content management. We provide a platform for structured content, that enables organizations to treat content as a single source of truth in any application, device, or channel.
By properly separating content from design, you avoid the typical CMS migration every time you want to iterate on your digital surface. Our content platform is meant to be iterated on as your content workflows and digital applications change, without having to rework or migrate the content itself.
CC: Would you say Sanity is focused more on the developer as opposed to ContentOps roles, such as marketing?
MH: No, not at all. In fact, Sanity enables developers to create a content platform that bends around the organization, instead of a CMS that the organization has to bend around. This provides much better tools for working with content for the various content creators and organizers.
At Sanity, we believe in finding the general high-level description of what content management systems need to do in organizations. We then carefully express this as high-level APIs that developers can use to build optimal collaborative editing experiences.
Our solution has state-of-the-art multiplayer collaboration, social presence, and per-field rollback where you can see that someone on your team mistakenly changed the hotspot of an image last Wednesday and amend it. All made to enable content creators to collaborate seamlessly as they iterate on content and presentations.
CC: As a content platform, how does personalization play into your strategy?
MH: Many of our customers use Sanity to personalize content for their various audiences, and most of the others have plans to do so in the near future.
The rich data models offered by the Sanity Content Lake let content strategists add personalization at exactly the level it is needed. Variants are expressed where you need them, from a single field, to sets of fields to entire documents. As such: personalization is just a special case of content variants like localization or A/B testing.
When it comes to delivering personalization to web users we see a variety of solutions that integrate well with Sanity, from Uniform to Optimizely. Sanity delivers the content and the metadata and seamlessly integrates with such solutions.
CC: How are you leveraging AI and automation across your horizon? For example, your asset pipeline and editorial workflows appear to provide some dynamic features. Is AI playing a role here (or elsewhere)?
MH: Sanity is an ideal use case enabled by various forms of AI. As all data is structured and programmatically available, Sanity can handle content and contextual metadata that is key for enabling machine learning.
We do not develop machine learning models for our users out-of-the-box. There is a range of third-party solutions that our users can integrate into their Sanity platform and enable machine learning algorithms on text and images stored in Sanity.
We think that we are only seeing the start of these kinds of solutions and that our key value proposition is to seamlessly integrate with your solution of choice, creating a state-of-the-art platform that enables the best AI for your content.
CC: Any innovation on the horizon that you can hint at? What are you most excited about?
MH: We’re excited about a lot of things. We’re excited about how our customers are picking up the idea of content as data and using it to break out of the CMS mode, remove internal silos, and create wider, more holistic digital experiences for their customers. They’re extending their products with digital experiences that drive customer adoption and engagement.
We believe that the world will significantly change its view on what content is and how it should be used in the organization going forward. Content should increasingly be served from a single source of truth and reused across the organization.
We also believe that the future content platform not only powers classic digital presentation layers like web and mobile, but that we will see an increasing use of our content platform as a backend to any application that needs a dynamic, versatile and scalable solution instead of having to build their own in-house.
Sanity treats content as data so teams can create transformative digital experiences. Developers use Sanity’s APIs to build optimal editing workflows and share content between systems to increase digital velocity. Our mission is to be the platform for all content - a single place to interconnect, store, author, collaborate, and distribute. Dual-headquartered in San Francisco and Oslo, Norway, Sanity is used by thousands of companies including Unilever, Puma, National Geographic, and Condé Nast. Sanity is backed by ICONIQ Growth, Threshold Ventures, Lead Edge Capital, Heavybit, Alliance Venture, Monochrome Capital, and prominent angel investors like Twitter and Medium co-founder Ev Williams, Netlify co-founder Matthias Biilmann, ex-CEO of Heroku Adam Gross and Vercel founder Guillermo Rauch. Learn more at www.sanity.io.