“The best things we did to be successful were to spend a lot of time talking to customers before building the product, and to focus on making a truly excellent product. We spent way more time there than on sales and marketing, and that made a real impact.”
Kate Kendall talks programming, startup lessons, the Irish tech scene and San Francisco life with Paul Biggar, founder of CircleCI.
Having been based in San Francisco for some time now, have you found it has changed much over the past few years?
The main difference is how ubiquitous tech is. SoMa is bursting with startups, rents are through the roof, the market for developers is skyrocketing, and venture money is everywhere. When I started coming here in 2009, there was a lot of tech, but it wasn’t quite popping the way it is now. And the resentment (around Google buses, etc) certainly wasn’t there.
You have worked extensively on dynamic scripting languages. Why do you think their importance has grown in software development?
I attribute it largely to the rise of the web, and also because of a dissatisfaction with Java. When the web as a platform (“Web 2.0”) was really taking off in about 2005-ish, there was massive frustration with Java. Up until that point, there were limited alternatives, and if you weren’t using Java you were probably using Perl (which was frustrating in different ways). That’s when PHP and Python and Ruby really started taking off.
Python had been slowly growing in popularity for about a decade. PHP had become the defacto language for individuals to build websites, since it was incredibly easy to deploy them. The Ruby on Rails came along and really took the world by storm. By 2009, a vast majority of new startups were using Rails, something still true today, even though there are many more options now than back then.
Most of the frustration from static languages came from inflexibility – Java was a giant ecosystem of heavyweight components, and an ugly type system. By contrast, dynamic languages were freeing. It was an easy sell.
You are a co-founder of CircleCI, a hosted continuous deployment provider, how would you describe the benefits of CI to a less technical team/person?
Developers write code, and every time they do, CircleCI automatically tests their code to make sure it still works (that’s “Continuous Integration”). It’s a productivity tool for developer teams, that lets developers ship code much faster, meaning they get their products to market faster, and keep them more reliable.
What have been some of the hardest challenges you’ve faced to date and what insights do you now have from navigating them?
Every three months brings new challenges. The challenge you have as a two person startup trying to get some adoption is a different challenge from being a 14-person startup with thousands of customers and millions in revenue. I’ve spent a lot of time looking forward to figure out what the challenges are going to be three and six months from now, and asking other founders and CEOs what the future is going to look like.
I would say the hardest thing is getting to traction. Once we got to a million in annual revenue, the future became fairly straightforward and was well carved out. But that journey to make sure we had a product that was useful, find customers for it, try to get them to pay, etc, that was a hard journey.
The best things we did to be successful were to spend a lot of time talking to customers before building the product, and to focus on making a truly excellent product. We spent way more time there than on sales and marketing, and that made a real impact. Nothing helps a customer make a decision like a recommendation from their friend, and the higher the quality of the product, the more likely that is to happen.
Do you think your previous company NewsTilt was before its time?
Yes and no. NewsTilt was predicated on the idea that journalism was becoming more niche. Instead of a reader going to a newspaper for all their news, they’d read news from many smaller sites related to their interests, like TechCrunch, or The Fetch, or other small-ish communities built around niche topics. That prediction was totally correct, in my opinion.
The other side of this is that while we anticipated the problem, I’m not sure we got the solution right. We were trying to build a platform where we’d solve all of a journalist’s problems in trying to achieve that, like distribution, revenue, etc. Nobody else has done what we were trying to do, so its hard to see if it would have really solved the problem today. Companies like Medium and Svbtle are doing well with high quality publishing and better tools for publishers, but are not really looking at community as part of their platforms.
What’s the Irish tech scene like? Do people feel they need to move to the US to build a global company?
Dublin has a nice tech scene now. There’s a lot of people building products and tools and starting companies. It wasn’t that way when I left in 2010. One of the major changes since then has been the massive explosion of US companies setting up in Ireland. Dublin was always a tech hub, and Google very famously set up there, but in the last few years about 40 large US companies like Yahoo, Facebook, Hubspot, Zynga, Dropbox, etc, have all set up there too.
During the mid-2000s, when the Celtic Tiger was booming, tech wasn’t a very glamorous profession, unlike finance and real estate which were major drivers of the economy. Now, developer salaries are rising, tech is booming, and most of the rest of the economy still hasn’t recovered. So tech is important and interesting now in a way that it never was before.
There is a lot of debate in Ireland about whether you have to move to the US and to San Francisco to build your company. I suspect its the same debate being played out in New York and Austin and London and Berlin, with the caveat that emigrating for better opportunity has been something the Irish have done for hundreds of years.
Whether or not to move has the same factors in every city: does your market and company and product benefit from being in SF, through access to capital, customers base, press, engineering talent, startup experience, etc. I’m a firm believer that the best thing an Irish investor can do to help their company is to buy the founders a one-way ticket to SF.
Where’s your favorite place to relax in San Francisco?
This sounds a bit lame, but my most relaxing time is walking my dog near my apartment in SoMa. We live just by the Bay Bridge and walk down to AT&T Park along Embarcadero and under the Bay Bridge.
What local events do you recommend checking out?
Once your company starts kicking off, you kinda stop going to that many events any more. I really enjoyed going to tech meetups once I got to SF, and then more once I started using them to network and find customers and early hires. Once CircleCI really took off, I’ve mostly stopped going to meetups, with the exception of particularly high quality events, in particular events where successful operators are presenting.
For me, the best recent events I’ve been to are at Heavybit and Y Combinator, both of which are unfortunately members-only.
About our writer // Kate Kendall is the founder of The Fetch and CloudPeeps. She also blogs about startup life and advises businesses on the role of community. Follow her via @katekendall.