product innovation, we're exploring how cutting edge Internet products are created. Yesterday we wrote about the design philosophy of John Borthwick, the CEO and co-founder of Betaworks. His company operates some of the leading real-time web products: Bit.ly (link shortener), TweetDeck (desktop Twitter client), SocialFlow (a social messaging service) and Chartbeat (real-time analytics service).In our new series about
In part 2 of the Borthwick interview, we look closely at the evolution of one of Betaworks' products: Chartbeat. And you don't necessarily need to be an entrepreneur to read this. Anyone who is interested in understanding - and utilizing - social media trends will glean a lot from John Borthwick's insights below.
Chartbeat grew out of a Betaworks product called firef.ly, created by Billy Chasen, which allowed publishers to embed real-time messaging on their websites. firef.ly didn't quite work out as a business, mostly because too few people were on most web pages at any given time for publishers to feel comfortable using it. "Our product was in essence making our customers [publishers] depressed," laughed Borthwick.
So firef.ly was shuttered by Betaworks. Out of it grew Chartbeat, also created by Billy Chasen. Chartbeat pivoted the firef.ly product and turned it into "more of a monitoring tool." (note: Billy Chasen is no longer with Betaworks. He went on to co-found and lead Stickybits, the Internet of Things app based on barcodes.)
Version 1 of Chartbeat was released just 30-45 days after the closing of firef.ly.
"Most of the code was the same," said Borthwick. "It was a very similar product, we just turned [firef.ly] upside down."
From the beginning, Chartbeat was used by some large web sites like The Onion, Gawker and Jason Calacanis.
The rapid evolution and deployment of Chartbeat from a product (firef.ly) that didn't work out, illustrates the Betaworks philosophy of product development. A young developer, Billy Chasen, was the central figure in the creation of both firef.ly and its successor Chartbeat.
"During the initial inception phase of the development of a product," Borthwick advised, "get one person to take the thing from top to tail, because that reduces a lot of the inherent friction of communication that exists at the early part of the founding of a company."
Echoing what Buster Benson told me earlier this week, Borthwick went on to say that "the web is at a point, developers are at a point, where they can take an idea from concept to beta on their own."
"The friction that reduces in the creative process is meaningful. Our strong preference is for one person to take [a product] from drawing board or napkin to beta."
Hence name of the company, Betaworks.
Borthwick and co also don't like to do powerpoints or user testing in advance of a product.
"I have a firm belief that the way you do things, in life in general but specifically on the social web, is through the practice of actually doing it. Inside of Betaworks we don't accept any powerpoints and we don't take business plans. I want to see betas, I want to see products."
Borthwick also pointed out that "the amount of distance that an entrepreneur goes, from an idea on paper to actually executing on the web, is usually significant."
Chartbeat is a great example of how a Betaworks company is started and rapidly iterates. Chartbeat is now powering the real-time analytics of some very large web properties and "business is on a tear" according to Borthwick.
Chartbeat currently has 8 staff and it recently raised $3M from Index Venture. So it's in the scaling up phase of the company. "The scale phase is equally important," Borthwick said, noting that the key point is "how to do that fast and cheap."
I asked whether Betaworks products are spun out as independent entities (outside of the Betaworks umbrella) at a certain scale? Borthwick replied that "the real inflexion point is, do you take outside investors? We did that with Chartbeat and bit.ly." He said that "it's likely to be the path we take with many companies." However, he said that it will never be a production line approach.
"There's a platform here where you can build and grow a company fast. We do 3-4 companies a year, probably 2 of them will see the light of day. It's not a production line, it's never going to be 15 companies a year."