Geekdom may be a land of big personalities, but some peoples’ stories are better known than others. One story you might not know yet is the tale of Scott Kveton’s young, unusual, accelerated and admirable career. Not yet 40 years old, Scott Kveton built the organization that houses the Linux kernel and he saved the day when Firefox launched but all the download mirrors were overwhelmed. He was key to bringing the biggest web companies to the table to develop OpenID and other federated identity systems. Then he spent a year selling bacon on the internet, until flipping bacn.com to an acquirer and signing a deal to write a book about lightweight, agile startups.
Kveton is a dynamic, intelligent, skilled and flawed human being who is creating a very interesting life story for himself. Last night he announced his next big move. As you can expect, it could make a substantial impact on the future of the web.
Last night the innovative “mobile push as a service” company called Urban Airship that Kveton and a handful of savvy, unemployed friends launched just over six months ago announced it has raised $1.1 million in financing to grow into a bigger service provider. Push notifications and in-app purchases are a very big deal for the mobile developer ecosystem. Can Kveton build this behind-the-scenes group of engineers into a viable company? Early momentum makes odds look good and Kveton’s personal history says that one way or the other it’s going to be a wild ride.
Scott Kveton’s Heavy-Lifting Early Days
When Kveton was 31 years old he founded the Open Source Lab at Oregon State University in Corvallis. After working at various big tech companies for a few years, he had joined the University and cut its hardware budget by 75% the previous year – just by buying open source Linux servers. The school decided to put the budget surplus back into the paradigm that made the difference. Then Google, IBM and other big companies started giving the new Lab money to host open source projects they were working on. Soon Kveton had a staff of 25 students and contacts all over the Open Source world. That was 6 years ago and those contacts have been invaluable throughout the rest of his career.
Shortly after the Open Source Lab’s birth, the Linux kernel was in need of a new home. The parties responsible had built the server from the bare metal up, thus they were assured that no security compromise could be introduced from the outside at that core level and infect countless computers around the world. Arrangements were made to host the kernel at the Open Source Lab, the machine was flown from San Francisco in a Cessna and Kveton rolled out a red carpet. That essential piece of hardware remains at the Lab today.
Within that same first year of the Lab’s lifetime, Firefox was born and officially launched to the public. Kveton suspected that the public reception would be enthusiastic enough to melt the network of mirror download providers for the browser around the world. So he helped write a piece of software that would manage that network automatically when under a heavy load. Kveton says Mozilla didn’t want to use his program, but by 9:30 AM PST the mirror network was toast. With a workable network management system quickly put into place, Firefox went on to see 1 million downloads on its official launch date.
After continued success hosting other open source projects (like Drupal) at the Lab, Kveton decided he wanted to try something entrepreneurial.
He became the CEO of online identity provider JanRain and co-founded the OpenID Foundation. The Foundation brought together many of the biggest companies in the world and many innovative engineers, to talk about how companies would be better served by allowing users to travel freely from site to site with interoperable identities than by locking users in to a single, non-portable identity. Kveton was the Chair of the foundation for 2 years, then co-Chair for one year. He explained his interest and belief in the idea like this three years ago:
OpenID really is a grassroots, bottom-up approach. For something like this to be compelling there can be no hook back to the “mother ship”. It’s truly got to be open and decentralized and that’s one of the main reasons people are finding it compelling. Has federated identity failed? In the past, yes. I believe in 5 years, there will be a federated identity that people use all over the Internet; you’ll have one login and it won’t be controlled by anyone but you. OpenID is hopefully going to be the driver of that; the HTTP of identity. Nobody but you should own your identity.
Kveton gave OpenID all he had for several years. He says that in time his family suffered and that he needed to leave his post as CEO of JanRain. He says he’s still active with the company. He says this is an issue he struggles with: balancing work and family. “I’m a workaholic. That’s how it is, that’s one of my big priorities,” he told me with a little sadness. “It’s tough to balance out with family life and two kids. You do what you can and that’s the best you can.”
Kveton’s next stop was a brief one with a company called Strands. That company was aimed at providing recommendation services for music venues, banks and other organizations. Its top executives were from Spain, the company raised more than $50 million and one of its two main offices was inside an old mausoleum in Corvallis, Oregon. Here at ReadWriteWeb, we were very excited about Strands. Kveton only stayed at the company for 8 months.
His next stop was at identity provider Vidoop. That company imploded, telling some of its employees they wouldn’t be paid back wages but could take computers home from the office as compensation. According to OpenID community leader and now Google employee Chris Messina, though, the company fired Kveton months earlier, for going to South by Southwest on its dime but actually speaking at the event about…selling bacon on the internet.
That was Kveton’s next project, a website called Bacn. “I’d ran my own blog about bacon,” he told me,”and people would send me links on Twitter about bacon. I thought, ‘I wonder if there’s a business here.’ I talked to people who sell bacon on the internet and found out that they knew bacon but not the technology.”
Kveton talked to local web designer and information architect Jason Glaspey, just back from a months-long trip to Argentina, and to a young coding wizard named Michael Richardson, who was unemployed since Vidoop’s collapse. “The day after Christmas I said let’s launch a company at the Masterbacon conference on January 17th,” Kveton recalls. “No one said we couldn’t do it, so that’s how we did it. Loads of logistics, fulfillment, postage, etc. all got done in 21 days. We had to think fast. That was one of the funnest things I’ve ever done. We put a modest investment of $10k into it, bought the bacn domain, Jason’s wife did branding. We made shirts and paid some models with PBR and pizza. After it launched, the business grew fast. Once we did 680 pounds of bacon in one single day. It came in, we boxed it up and shipped it out in one day.”
At roughly the same time, Kveton took on a short-term role as the Interim President of the Software Association of Oregon. That was never intended to be a long-term gig and another opportunity quickly presented itself.
Colleague Steven Osborn was consulting for Subattomic Studios, the gaming company behind Field Runners. That company wanted push notifications and in-app purchases to be added to its iPhone app and Osborn saw just how non-trivial it was to set up that infrastructure. He reached out to Kveton and Richardson about it. Kveton: “Steven said, ‘I don’t know if there’s a business here.’ I looked at it at said there’s a huge business! Michael asked if we could name it something with the word Airship in it. So we put it into the web 2.0 name generator and got Urban Airship!”
And that’s how Osborn, Richardson and Kveton started a company. That was in May. Come June, Kveton bought a car-load of Danishes and drove to the Apple World Wide Developer’s Conference where push notification was formally announced. He worked the line at the door, handing out pastries and telling developers about the company he was launching.
One person he talked to was his old friend from Mozilla, Bart Decrem. Decrem is a Belgian who left Mozilla to lead the social web browser company Flock, then left there and became CEO of Tapulous, the wildly successful maker of iPhone games like Tap Tap Revenge.
Decrem told Kveton that his company was big enough they preferred to build their own push notification infrastructure. Then Apple told Decrem that Tapulous had 8 days to implement push in order to launch as part of a big announcement. Decrem quickly got on the phone with Urban Airship. Kveton and team put the pedal to the metal and built push notifications for Tapulous ahead of a very tight deadline. (See our full coverage of that story: How Urban Airship Saved Tapulous’s Bacon on iPhone 3.0 Day)
From there the company grew fast. As it says on its website:
Within one month, Urban Airship launched, landed its first customer, and powered the first App Store app that used push notifications. In the subsequent –short — months, the team has signed more than 1,500 customers, sent more than 110 million messages and connected to more than 10 million mobile devices.
Why are push notifications and in-app purchases so important? As we’ve written before:
Push notifications, like when Tapulous now tells users who don’t have the app running that they’ve been challenged to a music-playing match by a friend, are something developers believe will increase ongoing engagement long after the initial download of an app. In-app sales will help monetize that engagement, something developers have found challenging after an initial flurry of sales, once they are lost in a sea of options in the app store and no longer making money sitting beside countless other apps on peoples’ phones.
Next Steps for the Airship
And so we catch up to today. Last night Urban Airship announced that it has transitioned from bootstrapped project to funded corporate venture. The round of funding was provided by San Francisco’s True Ventures and Seattle-based Founders Co-op.
What will the company do with the funding? So far its assets are a few laptops and some code. “More of the same on a larger scale,” Kveton says. “We’ll be adding engineering. We’re very excited about iPad, we’ll have full iPad support. All these other devices are going to enable push notification – the future of the mobile market makes the PC look tiny.”
As Urban Airship ramped up, Kveton and crew sold the Bacn to BaconFreak.com. It was proving a distraction and the team was happy to sell it just a year after it was founded. Another conference presentation about the rapid launch of Bacn.com lead to a book deal with the title “Makin’ Bacon: From Idea to Startup.” That’s due out in April.
Kveton has also helped launch a web technology incubator called P.I.E. with a select group of innovators and global advertising company Wieden+Kennedy. Kveton says WK likes to have Urban Airship in the building because the phone geeks help inform the advertisers about the cutting edge of what’s possible. WK and its clients in turn help inform Urban Airship’s perspective on a number of different markets relevant to the startup.
Even critics who call him things like a charismatic opportunist admit that Scott Kveton is a very likable guy – and he clearly knows how to leverage the relationships he’s built throughout his travels.
A book and a related incubator shouldn’t be too much for Kveton to balance with running a now-funded tech startup company. But all these circumstances beg the question: is Urban Airship where this high-energy innovator is going to land for a good long while?
“I am excited about taking a company through its life cycle,” Kveton told me last week. “This is one that I know I’m going to be able to drive to fruition, I intend to be here for the long haul.”
No matter how this latest venture goes, Scott Kveton has already changed the web and the world for the better, more than all but a handful of people online ever do.
Disclosure: The author was an early participant in the PIE incubator and has had a past consulting relationship with W+K.