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How to Build a Product Loved by Millions and Get Acquired by Google: The Firebase Story

February 21st 2017

Firebase is an astounding tool. Hundreds of millions of people use Firebase -powered apps. The company started as backend-as-a-service for app developers that made real-time functionality simple for Shazam, NPR, SeatGeek, and hundreds of thousands of other apps. Since being acquired by Google in 2014, Firebase has expanded to become Google’s app development platform and an indispensable developer tool. The company that does so much to simplify developer’s lives began its life as something completely different.

Firebase co-founders James Tamplin and Andrew Lee were building a company called Envolve that offered real-time chat tools as widgets that could be embedded in a website. It was a technically impressive project, but the commercial uptake was slow. As such, Tamplin and Lee listened to their mentors at Y Combinator and got closer to their customers where they learned just how far hackers would go to solve a problem.

“Our biggest, most interesting customers were doing strange things,” says Tamplin. “Their use cases were beyond our scope, but they did weird ju-jitsu to make it work.”

For instance, a game company was using Envolve’s widgets to track a player’s positional data and game commands, then scraping the screen to use that info in their app. That solution was clever but had all the elegance of a Rube Goldberg contraption.

Tamplin and Lee saw an opportunity. They sensed the market craved a general purpose abstraction to handle the arcane art of XHR requests, timeout management, and other tricky technical feats that make real-time a really hard problem. So they scrapped Envolve’s front-end, salvaged the back-end code, and got started on what would ultimately become Firebase.

Real-time in No Time (Four Months to be Exact)

One of the more impressive pieces of Firebase history is that the product shipped in approximately seven months. Here are the key dates:

September 2011: Work begins on Firebase

January 2012: Initial customers begin building on Firebase

April 2012: Public launch

This quick time-to-market was possible because of smart prioritization and previous battle scars. Tamplin and Lee had wrestled with some of the thorniest technical challenges during the development of Envolve, but how they sequenced their work was particularly impressive.

The team focused on things that would appeal to developers, before building features that would benefit themselves. “We launched the thing without building an account system, there were no email or passwords, we just added people to a whitelist,” says Tamplin. A hobbled account feature made life harder, but it allowed the Firebase team to get unbelievably helpful user feedback much faster.

Firebase didn’t try to do everything at once. Instead, they focused on a few core problems and executed brilliantly. “We built a nice syntax with sugar on top,” says Tamplin. “We made real-time possible and delightful.” It is a reminder that entrepreneurs can rapidly add value to the ecosystem if they really focus.

How to Build an Industry Defining Tool in 4 Easy Steps

Step 1: Kiss up to Key Opinion Leaders

“The first thing we did was create a group with the 20–30 best hackers we knew in San Francisco,” says Tamplin. This wasn’t any group; it was a collection of carefully curated luminaries who possessed keen insights and large followings.

With a group like this, it’s not enough to pay lip service or play to people’s egos. If you want the best engineers to adopt your tools, you must be responsive to their needs. Tamplin invited these engineers to come to his office where they built widgets using Firebase’s latest tools. Tamplin videotaped these sessions, and most importantly, used the insights gleaned from them to iterate on the product.

Tamplin and Lee took feedback on functionality, usability, even naming — The project was originally codenamed “Plankton,” not the most desirable branding! This process went on for months with the founders recruiting more users along the way so that the test groups could be staggered and prevent burnout among the volunteers.

“We designed the product alongside them, they loved the product, and felt ownership in it since they had contributed to it,” says Tamplin. “As a result, when it came time to launch they were willing to help spread the word far and wide.”

Step 2: Google Groups + Free Food = Winning Combination

It’s not enough to recruit great beta testers; they absolutely have to be regularly engaged.

Digitally this took the form of a selective Google Group and regular status updates to keep everyone abreast of the latest developments.

“You have to devote resources into tending it,” says Tamplin. “Knock spam out, ban users who are overtly self-promotional, make the forum a true tool for users, not a customer acquisition channel for the product.”

With regard to the newsletter, Tamplin advises startup founders to choose their words, and sales copy carefully. “Developers are significantly different than normal consumers, after all, they spend their days looking for missing semicolons in code,” and Tamplin goes on to describe them as almost allergic to marketing fluff. “If you say a product is ‘Amazing,’ they’ll want to know how you define and quantify amazing.”

No Fluff: Deliver value in every piece of communications. Ask yourself how your audience will be able to do more after reading it.

Be Honest: Even the best software has warts, don’t paper over them. If you highlight both what works well and what doesn’t, users will trust you more.

Tamplin supplemented the virtual community with very real life parties to keep participants engaged. The goal of get-togethers should be to make other people feel like they have an ownership stake in your product. Tamplin went so far as to throw an office warming party and then hand guests paint brushes to add their designs to the walls. The message this gesture sent was clear: It’s takes an engaged community to make this work.

Step 3: The Obligatory Hacker News Story

By January, the team had worked out enough kinks to release an alpha version of the software (complete with celebration). The question was how to get the word out?

As with Ionic and Font Awesome, Tamplin credits HackerNews with setting up a landing page to collect interest. “We quickly started to release prototypes built with Firebase on HackerNews”. They targeted newsy opportunities, for instance, that year’s April fools joke was a multiplayer version of the classic game Asteroids. The fool was the other players were really just bots. The Firebase team quickly rebuilt it to have an actual multi-player mode, which became a hit among the HN audience and drove people, en masse, to their sign-up page. Like rolling thunder, every two weeks the team released something new.

Step 4: Promotion via Hackathon

During the launch campaign, Tamplin secured a pseudo-sponsorship at a large hackathon (something that costs other startups thousands of dollars), by offering to buy beer for the attendees.

Firebase’s four-person team attended the event and stayed up all night helping the various teams. It was a wise investment. When it came time for the pitches at the end of the event, 10 of the 20 finalists had built their product on Firebase. “Everyone of them was effusive, essentially pitching Firebase to these VCs, folks like Naval Ravikant and David Weekly,” says Tamplin “We had started to build a brand.”

Some Advice on Hackathons

Hackathons became a staple in the Firebase marketing mix, and Tamplin made it a goal to attend at least one hackathon a month. Tamplin offers three tips:

Bring the whole team: Make it a show of force. Word of mouth is a real thing in the developer community and impressing people face to face offers real ROI.

Help Everyone: One counterintuitive tactic used by Tamplin was to offer help to anyone at the hackathon, even if that person wasn’t using Firebase. Tamplin knew that if he could build a reputation as being additive to the community, that when the time came to choose a Real-time framework, Firebase would be top of mind.

Dress ostentatiously: Firebase became famous for its garish yellow shirts: “In the beginning, it made it easy to find a Firebase person. As we grew, the shirts made us seem as if we were everywhere.”

Once it was time to launch, Tamplin reserved a space at his co-working space, invited 300 people, including press, VCs, and lots of potential users. Within a week word had spread, and nearly 3,000 people were using Firebase, within two weeks, 6,000 were signed up. Wired wrote a story and VCs (thankfully including us), invested.

Marketing Your Way to a Million Users

Firebase attracted 3,000 users at launch. Two years later, when Google acquired Firebase, there were 110,000 active accounts. Today, Firebase is the backend for over a million apps. Not bad for a Plan B!

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