December 21, 2011
Userplane, an LA based company founded by Mike Jones, was acquired by AOL in 2006. But as you walk into their office in Santa Monica and look at the way they’ve re-invented themselves over the past couple of years, you wouldn’t think they’re part of a big company. Matt Turner, Tech Director for Userplane, is determined to keep the team focused and fresh by adding value to AOL, but also staying focused on their customers and end users.
Userplane recently sponsored Tech Cocktail’s LA mixer event, showcasing the new Userplane products while also supporting the local startup eco-system. We took some time to catch up with Turner and learn more about how the team scrapped what they were doing and re-focused Userplane on providing a new kind of SaaS product, enabling their customers to stay ahead of the game.
Tech Cocktail [TC]: How long have you been working on the new Userplane? How big is the team that developed it?
Matt Turner [MT]: We first began imagining what the next generation of Userplane would look like around 2008. This is when we took a big step back and re-thought Userplane’s traditional model of being a suite of chat products. Our thought process in breaking down that traditional premise was to consider what is really at the core of chat: establishing a real-time connection between a user and the online community.
With that core identity in mind, we began reinventing ourselves. It has been a long and winding road, and both the people involved and size of the team have changed fairly radically since then. Today, the team that actively works the product and technology is comprised of a very tight-knit group of ten people. Most of the engineers have a history with Userplane dating back at least 4 years.
TC: Where did you draw the most inspiration for the new product?
MT: As odd as it might sound, I drew a great deal of inspiration from Userplane itself—in the historical sense. While our legacy product line was full-featured and robust, it also had limitations as a result of a technical and conceptual divide between the products themselves. This divide left Userplane itself as a suite of products, but only inasmuch as their functionality—chat—was similar.
The technology landscape since Userplane’s inception in 2001 has changed dramatically, of course. But as it relates to Userplane, businesses have become increasingly comfortable with online services. So in building Userplane back up, we sought to close our own technical/conceptual divide with a platform that can stand as its own end-to-end service.
We borrowed a little bit of the mentality Apple has towards it consumers: make it simple to work with and seamless between experiences. And rather than thinking of Userplane as a suite of products, as we had in the past—Webmessenger, Webchat, etc —we now think of it in terms of a singular product, Userplane, that offers multiple features depending on the experiences our partners want to create for their users.
It’s really exciting for us, because we feel like we’ve built a foundation for Userplane to spawn a new kind of SaaS: Social-as-a-Service. Just as online services can augment a company’s core competencies to meet business goals, we believe Userplane can do the same for websites looking to deliver new, innovative social features and products to their users. And they can do it all without having to think about the challenges of managing an enterprise real-time infrastructure.
TC: What would your ideal use-case be for the Userplane product suite?
MT: While the new Userplane is still in its early stages of growth, we’ve seen some really innovative experiences grow in verticals with which Userplane has had very little traction, such as fantasy sports and online gaming.
As we continue to push forward, we are beginning to open up virtually all aspects of our interface—logic, widgets and real-time connectivity—to provide an easy way for developers to build and innovate new social experiences on top of the Userplane platform. Given this, I still contend that the “ideal use case” is still ahead of us, waiting to be uncovered by future partners. In the not-too-distant future, I see a developer building an entirely custom experience that engages users with just a few hundred lines of code.
TC: It seems Userplane has been able to maintain a startup-like feel while being a 10 year old company within AOL. How has this affected the way you develop products?
MT: Our partners cover a broad spectrum from the standpoint of organizational size. From the blogger who just wants simple chat on their site, to rigid enterprise environments that want highly-customized solutions and features. This spectrum is a lot like us. In many ways we are both ends of the spectrum: a startup and an enterprise. And I think that helps put us in our customers’ shoes.
In terms of the development of our products, I also feel like the team works very much like a start-up. Not only have I re-familiarized myself with the 100-hour work week, I find it strangely rewarding. But the nature of our new Social-as-a-Service model and Userplane’s extensive flexibility is such that we’re constantly thinking of new ideas and use cases for the platform. And that energizes our development team through long, startup-like hours.
TC: Do you have any advice on how to innovate to launch a new product within a big organization like AOL?
MT: I think there are two big factors in Userplane’s culture that affect our approach to development and launching new features on our platform: (1) the fearlessness to change, and (2) passion and energy. And I think these attributes run very counter to what people think of when they think of large organizations. But our willingness to evolve—and, really, our embrace of change—and the energy with which we’ve evolved, has allowed our team to really push past the trap Userplane might have fallen into.
Back in 2008, when this platform evolution began, we were using a Flash platform that remains a standard in the hosted, white-label chat space. We broke from that tradition, despite the comfort that a Flash run-time provides. But doing so has led us to a platform that now extends beyond chat and really allows our partners to imagine any engagement solution that leverages the real-time connection our platform provides. And as a result, a lot of new doors have opened.
TC: Did you learn anything interesting while building the new Userplane that surprised you?
MT: For one, I’ve learned that we really have great partners who understand where we are going. Even though it’s early, I think we’ve proven our Social-as-a-Service value by enabling them to be first-to-market in their verticals with the real-time messaging features they’ve built on the new Userplane platform. And as a result, they continue to have patience with us as we strive to push ourselves, and our platform, forward.
Secondly, I learned that fear is not an option. Our team has had to find its vision and push behind it with everything we’ve got…and maybe then some. But pushing through that fear has yielded some immense satisfaction that makes it all so worth it.
TC: Is there anything else you would like to share for anyone looking to take on building a social platform in today’s very social web and mobile landscape?
MT: Bring it on! We’re so passionate about what we build, and we’re experts when it comes to building engaging, immersive social experiences for online communities. And we hope others see that about us and want to leverage our passion and expertise for their users.
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