Paul Kemp: Welcome to another episode of The App Guy Podcast. I am your host, it's Paul Kemp. This is the show where we get founders, entrepreneurs, CEOs, we deconstruct their app journey to help us in our own app journey. It's an inspirational show, we've had many people listening who have gone on to do great things and start their own companies, leave a corporate environment and just maybe go traveling.
It's a wonderful show, very relevant if you're into app entrepreneurship. Now, before I introduce my guest today, I do want to thank the sponsors of the show.
Paul Kemp: Let me introduce today's guest... His name is Alex Austin and he's here to talk about Branch.io, which is extremely relevant for us, for indie app developers. Let's find out about Branch.io - Alex, welcome to The App Guy Podcast!
Alex Austin: Thanks for having me, I'm excited to share my story.
Paul Kemp: Yeah, we'd love to hear your story. Let's start from the start - how did you found the company? Let's go back to the beginning... Just before you set up Branch.io you had the idea - take us back to that part of the journey, as you were setting it up.
Alex Austin: Looking back now, Branch is over a hundred employees. We've grown so dramatically, we're in tens of thousands of apps, and I'll explain a little bit more about what we do later. It's honestly the most successful thing that I've ever been a part of, but the road has been paved with a lot of failures, and I don't think we'd be who we are or working on what we are today if we hadn't gone through a lot of those pains.
Just a quick background and I can share a little bit more of the story... I'm an engineer by trade. I started actually a very different path than software engineering, not involved in mobile at all. I was actually a device physicist, focused on semiconductors, designing the type of material that would go into the chips that would power a phone was more my expertise.
I spent most of the early part of my working career doing material science, rather than programming. But programming was always a hobby of mine. I was always enthralled with this concept that I could identify a problem that people have in their daily life through just repetitive tasks that they have to regularly do, or sort of boring things that just require a lot of manual labor, that I could automate completely with software. And the idea of being able to just turn human functions into software programs was always a really captivating concept and I was really proud of the things that I would create.
When I saw the iPhone and Android phones start to take off - something about it just drew me towards it. I think it was more the fact that you could write a piece of code, write some software, build an app and deploy it overnight to a platform that accesses billions of people was something that I couldn't stop thinking about. I had to be involved in it.
The last company I was in - a startup - failed, and I had the opportunity to really make a career change, so I decided I'm just gonna dive head first into app development. I'd never written an app, I had no idea about Android Studio or Xcode, I had no idea what I was doing, but I convinced my parents to let me live rent-free in my old room until I would just figure all this stuff out. So it was just a crash course in self-taught app development, to start getting familiar with the whole ecosystem - how to build products, what do customers want, all that kind of stuff over I think about three years.
Ultimately, what happened with Branch is I built this tool to help us market our app that we were working on before, and the tool actually started growing faster than the app. So we decided to actually sell off the app that we were working on at the time and focus on the tool. That was about almost three years ago now, and Branch has just been exploding.
Paul Kemp: Alex, this is so inspirational. The reason is that there's a lot of app developers, startup founders, entrepreneurs that listen to this show, and are getting quite disappointed, in a way, with maybe the success, and it's just lovely to hear that you came into the whole game, and this tool - three years, a hundred employees... It's incredible.
Talk about the pivot, because pivoting is a very big theme on this show, and you've obviously pivoted from the app to the tool. How can we learn from you in terms of the success of that pivot and the decisions you had to make during the pivot?
Alex Austin: Probably most everybody who goes down this path has some technical background, probably an engineer... I want to write a blog post about this because I think this is a really interesting subject that people haven't covered. I'm convinced that the mobile app ecosystem and mobile development have the largest percentage of non-classically trained software developers of any other platform, just because it's so accessible to, you know, have an idea and start building something right away, with all the documentation and the tooling and everything to help you get started.
The evolution that I think is incredibly important for you, who might approach building a product the same way that I did, from my perspective I was "What's an interesting problem that hasn't yet been solved, that I think I can solve?" Looking for a combination of uniqueness plus something like a technical issue or user issue, or something like that, that I thought would then, just based on those two facts alone, become a really successful product.
Over time, over the three years of me just building app after app, product after product, I started to realize that there's actually so much more to it, and it's very nuanced, and you don't really understand it if you are just classically trained as like an engineer. If you think about as like "Problem - I have a solution. It should be a big product" - that doesn't work. It's more nuanced about how does that person who has that problem, how do they want to solve it? What are they doing today to try to solve it, and what can you build to fit into their daily workflow to actually solve it, while not being too much of an inconvenience compared to what they're doing already.
There's a lot more nuance actually about how you adapt the product idea that you have to the particular customer. I'll give some examples.
The first product that I built I think is the perfect definition of an engineer approaching building a product. I hated CityNet lights; you're driving to work or whatever, and - I'm a super impatient person, and there were a couple lights on my path where if you hit them right when they turned red, you ended up sitting for like eight minutes. And I was so angry sitting at a light for eight minutes... I was like, "I've gotta figure out when I can leave my house so that I always hit the greens." I had this idea that if I could build an app that would be running on everybody's phone, I could basically crowdsource all this data about when the lights were green and red, and then map exactly the timings of when you should leave your home to get to your destination hitting as many greens as possible, so like an optimization problem.
I'm like, "This is gonna be a massive, a huge product. Everybody's gonna do it. It solves a huge pain point that everybody has, I have the solution...", so I built this thing - I called it OpenRoad - and launched the app, and of course, nobody used it, therefore I didn't have any data. It was basically just me driving arbitrary routes, trying to crowdsource my own platforms data with nobody else. Basically, the product didn't work.
It sounds really silly the way I describe it, of course, but I think it's a tendency for more engineering-minded folks to approach problems in the same way, of like "I have a solution, let's just build this thing and address that problem that I'm trying to solve, and then it will just work." But I made a mistake - I didn't accurately take into account what does it require for somebody to join the platform? How am I gonna actually get them to open it up every single time they get in their car and start driving, so that they crowdsource the data? How do fix this - like the car before the horse? I don't have the data, so there's no value in the product.
All these little details are essential to actually building a successful business, but coming from like a zero product background and a purely engineering background, I didn't think about it.
Paul Kemp: This is fascinating, Alex, because in a way you're touching a lot of the pain points that I think many of us in the appster tribe feel. What I'm learning from you is that problem-solving is incredibly important - it's another huge theme from all the founders I've had (500+ founders on this show), but you've got to almost interject some level of demand or marketing or traction... I guess you didn't get the traction on that particular idea. Maybe it would have been quicker to just quickly test that, figure out whether people were using it and do an MVP before throwing everything into that particular problem.
Alex Austin: Yeah, it's really the customer aspect of it. That original idea was premised on the fact that I could get a bunch of random people to open up the app every day and crowdsource this data. I had an idea to solve the original problem of lights, but to make it a business, then the problem shifts to "How do you get customers to adopt it?"
I didn't adequately take that into account while building out that early version of the product. I'd say the three years of building - I think I built probably over ten different apps - I just slowly and brutally, through continued failure, just realized the error of my ways by not properly recognizing what does it require a customer to do to actually start using this product? I like to put myself in their shoes and really understand their pain points.
In that particular case it's somebody that woke up late, they've slept through their alarm, they got an angry e-mail from their boss, they're sweating, they didn't get to eat any food, they're running out to their car as fast as they possibly can, and now they're supposed to open up the app - that's never gonna happen.
Paul Kemp: [laughs] Well, it does for Waze, they figured it out... But let's deconstruct your journey, because this is an absolutely fascinating discussion. I'm loving hearing the things that you've learned along the way. Obviously, you've migrated from building apps to having tools to help developers, and it's almost like the Gold Rush - the people that made all the money were the ones that made the shovel and spades, instead of the actual gold hunters.
Alex Austin: Well, we didn't make any money, but yeah...
Paul Kemp: But you basically switched to helping those who are developing apps.
Alex Austin: Yeah.
Paul Kemp: Deconstruct that part of it. How did that switch happen, and what's the tool? What happened after that?
Alex Austin: Yeah, so again, I worked on ten different apps. The most successful thing that we built was actually a Photobook making app. You could use photos on your phone, design a Photobook, order it and then we would handle all the logistics of printing and shipping, to deliver it to your house.
That was the core product, and we had a bigger team working on it. We raised a little bit of money, and then we were actually making some money... Not enough to make us wealthy, but enough to pay rent. What happened with that - and this lead to the transition to what Branch is. We were doing so much to try to grow it, we were working our butts off, doing the most ridiculous things, trying to get more people to download and engage with our product.
At one point, one of us was actually standing on the street, just poking people, asking them to install. We were just so desperate for growth, and one of the tools that we felt like we were always lacking - and we built kind of like a hack - was really just like a linking tool. It was a tool where if we were doing a social campaign, if we built a viral feature or a referral program, or send an e-mail out - everything about all those promotions had one thing in common: they all had links. The links were meant to, when clicked, open up the app if it was installed, or if it wasn't installed, go back to the App Store or the Play Store.
There was all these different, technical implementations of how-to do that redirection properly, depending if it was clicked from Facebook, or Twitter, or e-mail or whatever, and we ended up spending a ton of time just building all these link situations to give users a good experience.
Then we also focused very heavily on the user experience. For example, one of the things that I was just obsessed with creating was a Dropbox-style referral program for our Photobook app. In Dropbox, if you guys are familiar, you get a referral link and you send it to a friend, and that friend clicks on it, then goes to Dropbox, and you guys both get free space. I wanted that same thing for Photobooks; you'd get a discount... The referrer would get a discount, and the referee would get a discount. But I didn't want referral codes; I hated the concept that you had to memorize a referral code that was like a random string of characters, and then type it in once you install the app. I wanted the user to get that link, click on it, install the app, and have the referral codes automatically applied.
We had to figure out how to pass that referring information from that link, through the App Store and Play Store, to properly do that automatic attribution and all that kind of stuff. So we built this really complex linking system, and we were the users of it. We had all these different APIs, easy ways to create links, classes to handle all that personalization when the user showed up for the first time - all this stuff to just support our own use cases. From our perspective, we were the best customer.
Then what happened is we entered in this incubator after we had graduated - long story, but we did some grad school stuff; I'll skip over that.
Paul Kemp: What was the incubator?
Alex Austin: It's an incubator called StartX. It's in Palo Alto, California. There were a bunch of other apps in our batch - the Periscope app was in our batch, and there were a number of other ones.
They saw us using this tool, and they wanted to use it, too. From our perspective... We had already built this thing for ourselves, so hearkening back to the light timing app, where I was building for a customer that I had never interacted with, I was trying to build it for myself, but it wasn't me alone that could make it successful. We had built a product for ourselves where it was like very valuable to us.
As other developers started to onboard, we knew exactly the problems they were facing, we knew exactly how they were gonna create links, what types of user experiences they wanted to create, so it was very easy to design the product for that person. I think it was a huge difference from where I was three years prior, where I had no idea what this customer needed to start using this product, versus "I am the customer of this product, therefore I know exactly what's required."
Honestly, that's the only reason that I attribute to the success - that small difference. We were the best customers, and we were able to build it for ourselves, and use it and get a lot of value, so we knew everybody else would. So it's that customer understanding...
Paul Kemp: What a wonderful story. What I've learned from that, and I guess what the appster tribe are picking up is just keep showing up and building stuff, and follow the success. It sounds like the difference between success and failure there was quite small, but because you kept on and on, trying to save the problems, ultimately it succeeded.
Alex Austin: I think that's the biggest, most important point - just keep building, is what I always say.
Paul Kemp: Keep building.
Alex Austin: Yeah, just don't give up. You will find something. It's gonna take time. It took me ten different products, ten failures in a row, but... And I can't say that Branch is massively successful, but it's so far the most successful thing I've been a part of, and hopefully it continues to be so.
Paul Kemp: Well, just the fact that you've got so many people employed... It has been extremely successful. Now, we're going to deconstruct that part as well, some of the challenges you have to face when you are just exploding and having to grow.
Paul Kemp: Alex, in the last 5-10 minutes that we have together, I would love to know -- you hit this successful streak, and then I'm assuming it was a fairly smallish startup at the time, but then you had to start hiring people... What were the biggest pain points you felt as you then started to grow to ultimately the size you are now?
Alex Austin: Oh, man... [laughter] Personally, I think there's been a number. The top two for me first was hiring; the first one was hiring. Hiring people is a really hard process. Probably most folks out there that are thinking of building products or building apps... I'm an introvert and don't particularly like spending a lot of time talking to people, and hiring can be a very painful process for people like us. At one point I had about 20 different recruiting agencies scheduling time automatically on my calendar to have 30-minute phone screens with candidates, and there were times where I had back-to-back 14 to 15 phone screens with new, different people for different roles that we were hiring for. If you've never tried to just do back-to-back, tell the exact same story of the company for 15 times in a row to 15 different people all day, every day, for five months straight, [laughter] and you don't actually particularly like socializing too much, it's a very, very emotionally draining experience.
We're very fortunate that those days are over and now we get a lot of inbound and it's not as hard as it was when you're five people, trying to convince some high-quality candidates that you're worth taking a bet on, but... That was definitely an extremely challenging experience.
Paul Kemp: What was the other one? You mentioned two...
Alex Austin: The second one was around scaling. The way that our service works, it requires a very in-depth integration with apps. Every time the app opens up, we get pinged for a request, and then every time it closes we get pinged, and every time links get clicked we get pinged. We now deal with about four billion requests per day across our APIs, and when we first built it, it was... You know, the first SDKs were a couple classes that I had written for our app that had no documentation. The API and the link service were baked into our existing product, they weren't separate things. Scaling from that to four billion requests a day has been a monumental task. A lot of very late nights, no weekends, just a lot of 3 AM pages when traffic ticks up and suddenly one of the services crashes and you've gotta get up and restart it, and do all the things that are required to scale from your small MVP product to a really high-volume enterprise service.
Fortunately, we're now at another point... We onboarded Tinder a couple months ago, which is surprisingly a very, very popular app still. We didn't even bat an eye, it was a very easy thing, whereas before we'd add even a smallish app and we would be scrambling like crazy, there was fire alarm for the first couple weeks, trying to just keep the systems up. I can talk at length about the details of that, but that was a hard one.
Paul Kemp: It's interesting hearing the sort of challenges you have, and I guess it's the challenges that actually a lot of the founders and the app entrepreneurs listening would love. You know, also the one thing I was surprised you didn't mention is funding, because you had obviously funding to recruit and expand and scale. Was that a fairly easy path for you, or was that pretty challenging?
Alex Austin: This is another thing I like to say... I am so happy that we have these problems; it sounds like I'm complaining about them, but contrast that with our Photobook app before. I think I realized right before we saw Branch start to take off that it wasn't gonna be the big business that we had hoped. I had actually pitched about 50 different investors on the Photobook app and got no's from every single one. At that point, we had been working on the app for close to about a year, and, honestly, I did all the customer support, I knew a lot of our customers by name... It was a very emotional experience for me to come to terms that this product wouldn't be all that I thought it would, and I would eventually have to let down all these people that depended on us.
There was a point where I had trouble getting out of bed. I was so depressed that it wasn't gonna work, and just through what feels like sheer luck more than anything, we got these really positive signs from the market that Branch was a real thing that people wanted to use. Contrast that failed fundraising where I pitched 50 different investors... I went out to fundraise for the series seed - basically right when we were about people; we only had a couple apps onboarded, but there was a lot of excitement around the company, a lot of promises to integrate soon, all that kind of stuff. There seemed to be a good trajectory, and I went from start a fundraise to term sheet in three days. There was so much excitement about the product...
For me, knowing what hard fundraising is like, to go through that continued no's and start to doubt whether you're doing the right thing because other people aren't seeing it... I can't claim to say that we've ever had a hard time, because I know what it really is like when it's hard.
We've been very fortunate that they story, the product, the adoption numbers, everything that we have supports an easy fundraising process. But I am going out for the series C relatively soon, and the market is definitely a lot more conservative than it was a couple years ago, so maybe ask me that same question in about three months and then I might have a completely different answer for you.
Paul Kemp: It's so inspiring listening to you, Alex, and sadly we're gonna wrap it up... I just wondered, for those listening, who are the best people then to be visiting Branch? What sort/type of customers are you looking for?
Alex Austin: The way we've thought about Branch is really a developer tool. We have a whole set of enterprise products that we sell into large companies like an Amazon or a Target or Wal-Mart, or those types of companies, and they pay a lot of money for it. But fundamentally, in our roots, we're the developer who just launched, working from the bedroom, maybe it's a side project... We're trying to build a successful business, that's where we started. So we give away all of our basic products for free.
You can use the SDKs, create links, get full attribution - everything for free. Once you start making a lot of money, you use the product successfully in growing your app, then you can start paying us the money, paying back your debt. But in the meantime, access it for free.
The way I describe it is it's kind of like AWS for links. If there are links pointing back to your app, if you're doing viral sharing or referrals, if you're doing app install ads, or you're trying to build a community via Facebook or Twitter, you're putting links in all those messages, those should be Branch links and they should be deep links that point back to pages in your app. I think the more technical product manager or engineer who's thinking about building out cool user experiences on top of deep linking - definitely a candidate.
If you're a marketer who wants to measure and attribute your campaigns to see how effective they are at driving growth, you can do that as well. Honestly, Airbnb uses us and there are 47 people at that company that uses us on a regular basis, from marketing to engineering to product.
Really, there's value for everybody. It's had to describe one particular use case, but if it's links, it should be Branch - that's my general summary.
Paul Kemp: Alex, I love the way you said that it's AWS for links, and I feel like a lot of us need to have these kind of straplines, taglines to explain what we do. You get it instantly.
Alex, it's been so inspiring... How best can people reach out and connect with you? What is the best way of getting in touch?
Alex Austin: Yeah, sure... Just shoot me a note at email@example.com. I'm happy to help if you're thinking about fundraising, if you're working on a product and you want some feedback... I'm stupidly busy, but I really have a soft spot in my heart for entrepreneurs wanting to build big businesses, and I do want to make as much time as I can to help. Feel free to send me an e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org
Paul Kemp: Alex, thank you so much for sharing your awesome journey. All the best with Branch in the next level of growth, and we'll definitely get you back on to talk about your fundraising and how it's gone. Thanks for coming on!
Alex Austin: Yeah, thank you.