The Past, Present and Mobile Future of StumbleUpon with CEO Garrett Camp

October 1, 2010

2:27 pm

StumbleUpon was an innovator in the Web 2.0 explosion by offering a fun and easy way for anyone to discover new things on the Web. The premise is simple – click a button and discover a new web page you’ve likely never seen before, personalized just for you. If you don’t like what you see, give it a thumbs down and you’ll never see it again. There are preferences and such to help you fine tune the results, get more accurate over time and social features for more discovery.

StumbleUpon was founded by entrepreneurs Garrett Camp and Geoff Smith in 2001, acquired by eBay in May 2007, and operated as an independent subsidiary for 2 years. In April 2009, StumbleUpon was bought back from eBay by Garrett Camp, Geoff Smith, Ram Shriram, Accel Partners and August Capital. Since spinning off as a startup again, StumbleUpon has been focused on growth. They launched the URL shortener in June 2009, rebuilt their advertising platform and then earlier this year released dynamic StumbleUpon badges, rolled out an iPad application and most recently released its first iPhone and Android applications. The discovery engine has nearly 12 million registered users.

Download the StumbleUpon iPhone appStumbleUpon!

Download the StumbleUpon iPad appStumbleUpon

We got to know Garrett a few years ago prior to re-acquiring StumbleUpon from eBay and recently spoke with him about the past, present and future of StumbleUpon including the new mobile app which he is really “jazzed” about (did we mention Garrett is a great guitarist and pianist too?).

Garrett Camp StumbleUpon CEO

StumbleUpon CEO and Founder, Garrett Camp

TechCocktail (TC): Can you tell us a little bit about why you decided to buy StumbleUpon back from eBay and how it’s been going since you made that change?

Garrett Camp (GC): I think that the biggest reason was flexibility. Being part of a big company makes everything happen a little bit slower. It takes longer to make decisions, things like that.

We got acquired in May 2007 and it went pretty well, eBay didn’t force us to integrate. They let us maintain our own office and they gave us a ton of flexibility. In one way it was quite good. It was a while before we realized any limitations. But now people had stock in a large company and they didn’t have as much upside not to mention there were a lot of rules and regulations they had to follow. So it was a little bit big company in one way and a small startup in another. There were definitely times when we felt like we could be going a little faster and have some more flexibility if we had our independence.

I think it was just after a year  or a little bit more, I actually proposed other solutions to address some of the issues we were having and wanted to see if we could make some change, but it’s kind of hard to make changes when you’re one tiny little part of a big company. Amongst  15,000 people we were only 15 so it’s kind of hard to get policy changes for such a small number of people. And a lot of those policy changes were things that I thought would make us grow a lot faster – if we could make offers more quickly, or offer non-standard equity packages  – all that kind of stuff.

I think after a while we realized that it was going to be more work to try and get special permissions. So we proposed the separation and after about 7 or 8 months we finally pulled it off.

It’s not like it happened overnight. Because we were still in our own office and had our own product roadmap – we felt we could still do stuff. It was more a hiring issue. When you are trying to hire someone, the type of person that joins a big company with no equity is different than someone that joins a small startup. We wanted people that were highly motivated, young go-getters and a lot of those people would apply to different startups instead of us, because they did not consider us a startup anymore even though we were operating as a startup inside of eBay. Because we didn’t have the financial upside it changed the profile of who was applying. We noticed this the most in hiring and how decision making was happening. We realized that we would be able to grow a lot faster if we were not in such a big company.

TC: What was the biggest thing you would want to share with other entrepreneurs that you learned from the eBay experience? Any words of wisdom for other entrepreneurs as they look at building their business.

GC: If you do get acquired you will have less flexibility. But there are some plusses as you get some operational concerns taken off your plate. If you are really into growth and building mode, then selling is not the best choice because you are going to spend a fair amount of time integrating. And once you get all settled you will figure out what you should do, then once you figure out what you want to do it will take a little longer to do it. But if you have a big technical issue that might  be solved by an acquisition then it might make sense. Or if there is a deal where you have a product that could be easily integrated into a bigger product then it also could make a lot of sense.  Or if you are entrepreneur and you are interested in doing something new then it might make sense. Think about what your goal is. If your goal is to be leading a small company and doing cool stuff and trying to change things, you should probably stay independent. But if you want financial stability or to do something else then maybe an acquisition makes sense. In my case, I was really looking for that financial stability and had taken six years of risk. Sometimes when a really good offer comes along, you have to consider it. So if you can find the right partner then it could be the best of both worlds. So my advice would be to have integration plans from day one going into negotiations. If you don’t plan that out before hand, you cannot guarantee it will happen.

TC: Since you left eBay, you launched the short URLs, web bar and more. How has the traction been with the web bar?

GC: Web content creators like the web bar because it enables anyone who clicks on a shortened link to stumble. In other words, users who click on links see the web bar pop down from the top of their screen. They can then rate that web page and share it, giving web publishers more opportunities for their content to be discovered, rated, and shared, and for them to see a boost in traffic.  People really like the traffic that they get. When I use it I see traffic from Twitter right away, then some Facebook traffic. StumbleUpon traffic doesn’t happen right away but if an item is well received in Stumble it can send a lot more traffic to a site over time.  Some don’t like the frame we used to wrap the URL so we are trying to figure out how to resolve that. I am pretty happy with it. I think we could make it more successful. We view it more as a syndication system rather than a short URL system. We allow users to share items to Facebook, Twitter and Stumble Upon all in one click then offer metrics on those items. The stats show that we (StumbleUpon) send more traffic then Twitter and Facebook over time.

TC: Tell us about the dynamic badges you recently rolled out.

GC: Dynamic badges were released right around the time Facebook rolled out their Like buttons. We never had a badge that showed the stumble count. So we decided to wrap the functionality of “Like, Stumble and Share” in one badge. We launched it April 20th and at the time we had something like 7 million views of the icon for new Stumble links and now we are doing 65 million views. So we’ve done almost a 10x since April just in badge views. Plus, daily discoveries have increased 40% since we launched these badges, as publishers have deployed them on pages not already indexed by StumbleUpon. In terms of publishing tools it’s got to be the fastest adoption we’ve seen. People like to show off their stumbles and it’s kind of like a badge of honor.

TC: You also just launched some new mobile apps. Can you talk about your vision there?

GC: It’s all about bringing Stumble away from the desktop. We’ve been slowly moving to more and more platforms. We did the iPad back in April and it was a quick implementation but it was pretty well received. Overall we got some really good feedback on it. So we decided after the iPad, that the iPhone has way more users. We thought about doing an iPhone app for awhile but the combination of the screen resolution and chip speed and app usage – in general we decided to wait. With the new iPhone 4 with its great screen we thought it was the right time and interface, even though the screen is smaller. Now that people have five minutes free they can go see a dozen cool photos on Stumble on their phone. We launched on August 18th. We went from zero to over 300,000 stumbles in 3 days — mostly from first-time users of StumbleUpon — which we think speaks to both the compelling use case for “Stumbling on the go”, and the user growth potential from mobile stumbling. In terms of growth we’ve never seen a platform take off so fast. I initially under estimated the power of the phone because of the screen size but it is a great way to casually consume content.

TC: What’s next on the StumbleUpon roadmap?

GC: We’re still on our first version of mobile apps and there are still features that the iPhone does not yet have. So we need to bring the functionality we have in the StumbleUpon Firefox toolbar to all the other platforms. Once all the apps are solid we will work on the next wave of recommendations. We want to get into geo-location data. We think there are ways we could incorporate this stuff into Stumble. A lot of these ideas we want to put our own Stumble spin on – we look forward to bringing personalized discovery to music, products, and video and to expanding internationally. We want to figure out how to bring the next level of intelligent recommendations to geo-location and mobile.

TC: Tell us a little bit about the StumbleUpon advertising system. How has adoption been?

GC: We have nearly 50,000 advertisers and over 8,000 more advertisers have tried it for the first time since we released enhancements in March. Advertisers provide their credit card or PayPal information and we guarantee them traffic. We recently added a new ad PM. We re-launched the whole ad system in March and since then we’ve doubled revenues. We are now profitable and have been hiring a lot of amazing talent to execute on all of our ideas. Right now our number one focus is bringing the StumbleUpon experience to more users and making that experience as personal, fun, and useful as possible. Our business model ensures that if users are happy, our advertisers are happy, so we figure that advertiser growth will follow user growth quickly. The biggest opportunity is going from nearly 12 million now to 100 million users and really blow the doors off it.

TC: So you sold StumbleUpon you bought it back again – what’s the long term vision for StumbleUpon? Are you looking to build it up? Are you looking to sell it again?

GC: I think I am open to a number of different things. I have definitely been down the path of selling and finding funding. I definitely think StumbleUpon will be independent for awhile. Right now would be way too early to sell because the whole reason we did this is because we wanted to have our flexibility back. I don’t think StumbleUpon will be selling anytime soon. I think the plan is to really focus the next year or two on making Stumble as good a possible. Making the mobile apps awesome. We have data that we can leverage in the mobile apps in ways that other people aren’t doing yet. So I want to have a really solid local geo recommendation engine built and I want StumbleUpon on every single platform. I really want take the user base and revenue to 10x what they are now… at that point then we’ll have a ton of options.

Thank you Garrett – always a pleasure catching up with you and best of luck on your march to 100 million users!

Photo of Garrett Camp by Joi Ito

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Frank Gruber is the cofounder, CEO and Executive Editor of Tech.Co (formerly Tech Cocktail). He is the author of the book, Startup Mixology, Tech Cocktail’s Guide to Building, Growing, and Celebrating Startup Success. He is also a startup advisor and investor to startups. Find Frank Gruber online and follow him on Twitter at @FrankGruber.

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