One of our themes is Protocol. We’ve been investing in companies built around technology protocols since 1994. One of my first investments, when I moved to Boulder in 1995, was in a company called Email Publishing, which was the very first email service provider. SMTP has been very good to me.
We made some of the early investments in companies built around RSS, including FeedBurner and NewsGator. RSS is a brilliant, and very durable, protocol. The original creators of the protocol had great vision, but the history and evolution of RSS were filled with challenges and controversy. Like religious conflict, the emotion ran higher than it needed to and the ad-hominem attacks drove some great people away from engaging with the community around the protocol.
And then Facebook and Twitter took over. RSS Feed Readers mostly vanished, and the feed became the “Twitter feed.” After a while, Facebook realized this was a good idea, and created the “Facebook news feed.” I think it’s hilarious that the word “feed” is still in common usage – The Dixie Flatline is amused.
Over dinner, after he had become the COO of Twitter (but before he was the CEO), Dick Costolo (who had previously been the founder/CEO of FeedBurner) told me that he viewed Twitter as the evolution of RSS. At a protocol level this wasn’t true, but at a functional level (providing another way to get access to everything going on any website that was publishing content) this became true. Our investment in Gnip (which Twitter eventually acquired) helped extend this, by allowing companies to build products on top of the Twitter firehose (which was the name for the entirety of everything being tweeted on Twitter.)
Time passed. Facebook and Twitter gobbled up all the direct attention of end-users. Publishers pushed their content through Facebook and Twitter, not realizing the control over the user they were giving up to these platforms. For some reason, there was more focus for a while on Google, and how they were aggregating content. The beauty, and brilliance, of the web, started to become the walled garden of Facebook. For those of us who remembered AOL’s walled garden vs. the web (and Microsoft’s failed attempt as MSN as a walled garden), there were echoes of the past all over the place.
Some smart people started talking extensively about decentralization and lock-in right around the time that the Facebook privacy stuff became front and center. As it unfolded, and the dust settled, there was nothing new, other than a continued schism between the effort to control (and monetize) users and the effort to create broadly democratized and decentralized information. Oh – and privacy. And legitimacy (or authenticity) of information, much of which is wholly subjective or imprecise anyway.
In the middle of all of this, Wired’s Article It’s Time For An RSS Revival caught my attention. I’ve been using RSS continuously for over a decade as my primary source of information. My current feed reader is Feedly, which I think is currently the best in class. It’s one of my primary sources for information that informs me, is private, and allows me to control and modulate what information I look at.
While RSS has disappeared into the plumbing of the internet, there’s still something fundamental about it. Its durability is remarkably impressive, especially in the context of the lack of the evolution and perceived displacement of the protocol over the past few years.
The tension between walled gardens (or lock-in, or whatever you want to call it) and a decentralized web will likely never end. But, it feels like we are in for another significant turn of the crank on how all of this works, and that means lots of innovation is coming.
This morning, Mapbox announced a $52.55 million Series B financing. We’ve been on a wonderful ride with them ever since we led their first financing – a $10 million round – in October 2013.
Let’s start with the simple stuff. My partners and I have a massive founder crush on Eric Gundersen, the CEO of Mapbox. My partner Ryan McIntyre was introduced to Eric by another CEO we’ve backed, Zack Rosen of Pantheon. I remember Ryan raving about Eric and pushing me to squeeze in a meeting before I had to run out of town one day.
Zack is also a total star who I connected with immediately so his referral carried a lot of weight. I first met Eric in the summer of 2013 on a trip he took to Boulder to buy imagery from a satellite company in the area. I remember feeling super rushed at the end of the day and wasn’t in the mindset to sit through a presentation. Eric clued on in this immediately, or maybe Ryan warned him, so rather than drag me through slides Eric just started showing me stuff that Mapbox did.
He started with an algorithm that made clouds go away. He then launched into a custom map design tool which Foursquare had just used to switch out Google Maps. By this point my jaw was on the floor. Words kept tumbling out of Eric’s mouth and amazing maps kept appearing on our large conference room monitor. I looked over at Ryan and he gave me that “yup – I wasn’t kidding – this is fucking awesome, isn’t it” look that we share between ourselves when we see something beautiful, incredibly hard to do, presented by an entrepreneur who is completely and totally obsessed by what he is doing.
I knew Gnip was doing some Twitter data visualizations with Mapbox, so I asked Jud Valeski, the technical co-founder of Gnip, to see what he thought. Jud responded with something akin to “Mapbox is amazing.”
Even better, Eric and team had been at it for several years bootstrapping development and had just decided to raise their first outside capital. They had done this amazing amount of stuff with no investment. No hype. No bullshit. Just crazy deep tech abilities.
In 2013, the mapping space was in yet another wave of turmoil. Waze had been snatched up by Google for over a billion dollars just a few months earlier, further consolidating a space dominated by a few giants. Those giants were investing billions a year in maps. And we were still getting over our fresh scars that confirmed how hard the geo technology was after our failed investment in SimpleGeo (acquired by Urban Airship). Mobius, our prior firm, had been a long time investor in deCarta (now owned by Uber) and had been mostly recapped out of the investment after years of struggle. So mapping didn’t feel natural to us.
But in 15 minutes of watching and listening to Eric, I realized something Ryan already knew. Mapbox is an API company, not a mapping company. The map simply was the output of the API. And, like the best API companies we’ve been involved in, such as Gnip (now part of Twitter), it was right at the intersection of our Glue theme and our Protocol theme.
Seth and Jason had similar reactions. So we invested. Since then Eric and team have built an incredible company that is the foundational building block for any developer, large and small, who wants to include mapping in their product. In case there is any question about scale, MapQuest, which still has 40 million active users, confirmed it was switching all of their maps to Mapbox.
Eric and gang – we are buckled up and ready for the next part of the ride!
My partner Ryan McIntyre says that any company doing business on the web should be practicing some form of DevOps. One of the biggest trends in tech today is DevOps, which is closely tied into Agile, Cloud, PaaS, and SDN.
If you remember Gene Kim’s guest post on the importance of DevOp post, or recognize some of the investments we’ve made in our Glue and Protocol themes that are focused on DevOps, such as JumpCloud and VictorOps, this will be a familiar topic.
Last fall, JumpCloud and Softlayer/IBM hosted a DevOps Conference in Boulder for the companies we’ve invested in. At this conference, I heard of an effort to put together a new community site that would pitch a tent big enough for anyone interested in DevOps. This would be a place where technical folks could learn and communicate, where novices could find out more, and where business people could understand why and how DevOps matters.
Alan Shimel, who I have known for over 15 and has been writing for Network World and a bunch of other places was heading up the effort. In typical Shimel fashion, Alan simultaneously put together a top flight collection of content providers while doing a deal and partnering with Martin Logan who had a blog over at the domain, DevOps.com. If you are going to have a DevOps community media site, it is hard to imagine a better domain to for it to live at.
Since that time Alan and Martin have been working hard retooling the old blog into a full-fledged online community e-zine. They launched the site this week with SoftLayer and JumpCloud as founding sponsors. Another one of our portfolio companies, VictorOps is a sponsor and VictorOps CEO Todd Vernon has a regular blog on the DevOps.com site.
The list of contributors to DevOps.com reads like a who’s who of the DevOps world with a goal of having over 100 unique content pieces a month at DevOps.com. But media content is not the only mission. Alan, Martin and team are planning to help amplify the DevOps grass roots efforts around the world through conferences and community events.
I am jazzed to see what Alan makes of it, but I am even more excited to watch the continued growth and influence of DevOps.
Two of the themes we love to invest in are Protocol and Glue. We’ve especially been interested in companies that make software developers and DevOps lives better. Some examples include SendGrid, Urban Airship, VictorOps, Pantheon, MongoLab, and Cloudability.
To that end, Raj Bhargava and I created a company called JumpCloud late last year (our eighth venture together). After being involved in hundreds of technology companies, we know that young and fast growing technology companies have little time to devote to the details of managing their server infrastructure. Often, there is a perception that things are fine, until they aren’t. And then much pain ensues.
My partners and I often worry about companies we’ve invested in having enough bandwidth and resources to adequately cover issues of reliability, availability, and security. We know firsthand what that entails, especially as companies hit high-growth inflection points.
Enter JumpCloud. JumpCloud helps DevOps and IT attain high levels of reliability, prevent unplanned downtime, and manage their environments like the big guys, without slowing them down. Watch David Campbell, one of JumpCloud’s other co-founders, explain JumpCloud at TechCrunch Disrupt.
JumpCloud is an agent-based SaaS tool designed for both cloud and physical Linux servers which provides full user management across all your users, all your servers, and all your clouds. JumpCloud also monitors your servers, identifies missing security patches, watches for attacks in progress, and identifies anomalous resource usage. JumpCloud is completely complementary to your Chef / Puppet / Opsworks configuration / automation tools. Think of JumpCloud as taking over server maintenance, management, monitoring, and security once the provisioning tools have done their thing.
JumpCloud closes the gap between what you can do and what you know you should be doing with regard to user management and security of your cloud infrastructure. That means fewer late-night calls, an easier to manage environment, and more reliability for your customers.
Also, if you are a DevOps person or senior technical person in your organizations, Raj, Paul Ford from SoftLayer, and I are hosting a private DevOps Conference in Boulder on October 24th. While the event is for Foundry Group, Techstars, and Bullet Time Ventures portfolio companies, we have a few open slots in case a few folks would like to join us. Just reach out to me via email and I’ll get you connected.
We’ve been investing in our Glue theme and Protocol theme for a long time – well before we started Foundry Group. Many of our Glue investments and our Protocol investments are growing quickly and becoming integral parts of the Internet and web software infrastructure.
It made me smile to see a recent post from Promoboxx titled We’re Powered by TechStars Companies. It’s a great post about focusing on what matters for your product while leveraging great technology infrastructure from other companies. Several of the companies we are investors in are mentioned, including SendGrid and FullContact, each which are TechStars companies that we invested in after they finished the program.
For as long as I’ve been involved in writing and creating software there has always been a deep philosophy of creating building blocks that you can leverage. Something magical happened around this with the web and in the past five or so years there have been a number of amazing companies created that are easy to quickly integrate, either through a little bit of code or an API. It’s part of thing that has changed the dynamics of creating and launching a web software company, dramatically lowering the price of just getting something out there so you can start getting real feedback from users and customers.
When I reflect on this year’s Glue Conference, it feels like we’ve finally reached a tipping point where this concept is ubiquitous. I expect we’ll talk about it at Defrag and Eric Norlin’s post from yesterday titled The 20 Year Cycle hints to some of the deeper ideas about how this affects enterprise software and corporate IT, in addition to all the obvious consumer implications.
It’s a great time to be building software – the innovation curve is speeding up, not slowing down, and I expect when we look back 20 years from now we won’t recognize what we were doing in 2012.