Understand the Problem First

Every successful technology startup needs a great product, a market for the product, and a team that can make the most of the opportunity. The key thing to a great product is understanding the problem you’re solving. When you get this right, things fall into place quickly. The Aptimize story is a good example of this.

RocketCar

The year is 2007 and Web 2.0 was reinventing the internet – interactive web applications, rich with graphics and community collaboration. The web was becoming as usable as traditional desktop applications, and with greater reach.

Everyone was building something to change the world. I had designed a game-changing Web 2.0 collaboration app, and was working with a team in New Zealand on the initial version. Being the CEO of an early stage startup means “you get the team donuts” – you do everything to help the engineers ship the product, and by the end of 2007 we were ready for beta testing. I emailed Beta invites to people I knew around the world, hoping we would magically “go viral”. Then the worst thing happened. People came back with the same comment: “the app looks great, but its too slow to use”.

AT-Homepage

When you hear this feedback more than once, you can’t blame it on the end user’s internet connection. Our hosting company in New Zealand shrugged their shoulders “the internet is slow from New Zealand. Everyone has this issue”. Maybe, but something didn’t add up. How come Google’s homepage was fast in New Zealand? What were they doing different? At the time, performance for Web 2.0 apps wasn’t widely understood, and our entire team became obsessed with speeding up the website. It turns out our homepage was sluggish because it was “heavy” – 2MB of payload, 120 images, a ton of JavaScript and CSS files. We had to solve this problem. We couldn’t hand-optimize the site, because the files were generated dynamically by a content management system, so we wrote a utility that optimized our website on-the-fly: resampling images, combining them into image mosaics, concatenating javascript and stylesheets into fewer files, and dynamically turning on browser caching via “far future expires”. It worked like magic, reducing our website load time from 30 seconds to 4 seconds. Now the site was fast, we had a tough decision: do we try to commercialize both our Web 2.0 collaboration app and the speed-up-the-web utility, or pick one?  I believe “its better to solve one problem well”, and we restructured the company and launched as Aptimize in early 2009 to commercialize website acceleration.

Who would want a tool that doubled their website speed? If you thought everyone would, you’d be wrong. Other Web 2.0 Startups weren’t interested “I don’t write slow code” or “we’ll fix that ourselves later”. Enterprises seemed a good option, but first we needed an angle, a mechanism to repeatedly generate leads and close sales. At the time Microsoft SharePoint was growing quickly, both for enterprise intranets and websites. SharePoint sites were heavy and slow, and our Aptimize product typically yielded a 50% reduction in SharePoint page load times. From Wellington, New Zealand I did a screen capture of how slow Microsoft’s own SharePoint website was, comparing it against the speed of Google.com, then flew to Redmond WA, and showed the SharePoint team. A week later they were using our Aptimize website accelerator on sharepoint.microsoft.com, and blogged about our product on Microsoft’s corporate blog. This was all we needed to sell to enterprises “Microsoft trusts us to solve their SharePoint performance problems, shouldn’t you?”. We starting closing sales to customers like Fluor, US Army, Dell, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, HP, Fidelity. Anyone using SharePoint.


By 2011, the web acceleration market was hot. Aptimize spawned competitors like Strangeloops, Acceloweb and Blaze.io. Gartner named us first as a Cool Vendor, then included Aptimize in their Magic Quadrant for Application Delivery Controllers. Then everything changed again. Back in 2009, Google was an early Aptimize customer. Two years later they announced their own acceleration product “mod_pagespeed”. When Google entered the market, an interesting thing happened: we started getting acquisition offers. Basically networking and infrastructure companies were concerned Google was moving into their market, and needed a solution to compete. As a co-founder and CEO, selling your company is a tough decision. You go through a lot of emotions – “Is now the right time to sell?” “If we don’t sell, how big is our window of opportunity?”. We sold Aptimize to Riverbed Technology in July 2011, two years after starting the company.

A year after we were acquired, everything changed again. Almost in unison, Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer all improved their asynchronous resource loading, and Microsoft optimized SharePoint to make it faster out-of-the-box. Where once we were getting 50% reduction in load times, we were now only getting a 15% reduction – not enough to visibly see the improvement. The window of opportunity had closed. In two years, we created a new category, found our path to market and maximized the opportunity. It seems fitting in the world of web performance it all happened so quickly.

We succeeded with Aptimize because we focused on a single problem “SharePoint is slow”, and built our product, marketing collateral and sales processes around solving this problem.  When customer prospects spoke to us, because we understood their problem they trusted we would also have the solution.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s