Betaworks Makes the Internet a Better Place – The Ringer (blog)
In the Internet Age, monoculture is unachievable. But there remain a few things that we can all agree on. The Ringer is looking at this rarefied group all week. These are our Undeniables.
There are a lot of very bad things on the internet. Not just bad things like trolls and Men’s Rights forums, but lousy apps, poorly built extensions, and pointless websites. As building a digital property becomes increasingly easier, the bigger and worse the internet can be — and the more of bad things there will be. In an ecosystem where app overload is real and Drake-lyric generators warrant days of tech coverage, it’s easy to forget that at least one company is hellbent on building good internet.
In 2007, John Borthwick, Andy Weissman, and Billy Chasen founded Betaworks — a sort of investment firm meets product-creation engine. What it was exactly was sort of in flux and undefinable, but what it made was clear: beloved internet products. Betaworks is the home of some of the best games, services, and apps in the world. Giphy, Bitly, Instapaper, Chartbeat, Digg (the new Digg), and Dots. These things solved pain points (do you remember what searching for and making GIFs used to be like?), addressed technical issues platforms wouldn’t (Bitly fixed tweet links before Twitter would), and just made us happy (I know I’m not the only one who can lose a cool 30 minutes to Dots when I’m in the zone). And these are just a few of the illustrious, easy-to-use projects developed or fostered by the firm.
Some of the company’s success, though certainly not all, can be attributed to perfect timing. In the mid-aughts, making something for the internet became much easier thanks, in part, to Amazon Web Services. Launched in 2006, AWS instantly enabled anyone to run a platform or build sophisticated tools. It also did something even more crucial: it demystified the internet.
“The internet for a long time felt like it was a secret,” Weissman said. “It was a secret and then it took over the world.”
Within a matter of years, smartphones went from jaw-dropping novelty to functional tool — from a luxury item in a few lucky hands to an accessory carelessly shoved into the pockets of teenagers. Apps began as a commodity earned through invite codes and secret launches — those who knew about these things were considered insiders. But now, the internet is no longer a foreign place. Even novice users can fly through apps, browser tabs, and streams with two taps and a click. What used to feel as futuristic as a NASA launch is now as second nature as walking to the grocery store. (And even that you can just Postmates.) It seems like every day since the iPhone launched, the internet has gotten just a tiny bit smaller, a little more navigable, and so much more understandable.
Betaworks saw this sea change coming, and laid the groundwork to become a force. Weissman, Borthwick, and Chasen knew that the internet wasn’t going to only be part of a revolutionary, world-changing technology. It was the revolution. It was also going to be where most of us existed, both a physical place where we worked (and played) and a production tool to document and weigh all of the work. And so the trio created a group that would make that all infinitely more fun, easier, better. Betaworks took in-house ideas and turned them into businesses, while also investing in other projects from outside startups. Don’t think of it as a tech accelerator — think of it like a movie studio for startups.
Betaworks’s defiance of definition was particularly notable in ’07 because it coincided with the rise of a similar, yet quite different, tech company: Y Combinator, the powerful, Cambridge, Massachusetts–based startup incubator founded in 2005. While Betaworks focused on creating a more connective, creative internet, Y Combinator wanted to solve big problems — projects YC invited into its programs addressed cellular biology, climate change, and behind-the-scenes internet infrastructure, among other areas. Compared with Betaworks’s less rigid approach, Y Combinator had a defined set of processes: applications and deadlines, demo days, and investment terms. To stick with the analogy, it was the massive, corporate movie studio to Betaworks’s smaller, more nimble indie film house.
Betaworks’s studio label has stuck because it’s hard to define what exactly Betaworks is. Today, we might call the company an “incubator” or an “accelerator” or even a hybrid venture capital firm. But at the time, the group simply thought of the nascent business as a place where you could turn good ideas into companies. Some of the projects it spun out worked, some didn’t. And sometimes Betaworks put money into outside ventures.
An accelerator is now a more common, established concept. And while Betaworks could fall under that label, the company has stayed more flexible than its industry peers.
“I think the way we do it is different in that we employ individuals,” said James Cooper, Betaworks’ head of creative. “We try to find really talented individuals — we look for coders who have good visual design instincts, who would also make good CEOs. We hire people who then come up with ideas and prototypes, and then when those ideas go out into the world, we’re like, Oh, OK, there’s something interesting here.”
Your average accelerator wants to see your minimum viable product, your roadmap; you apply, you get so many months, you demo. It’s often a determinist process. Sometimes amazing things come of it. But Betaworks wants to build and reimagine.
One of the things it has built is Chartbeat. (Listen for the collective cheers and groans from obsessed internet publishers everywhere.) Created by Betaworks’s Chasen — also the creator of Turntable.fm — Chartbeat didn’t start as the web-analytics service we know and love and are governed by today.
“I’m always trying to get people to communicate with each other and I built this weird thing online where if you’re on the same website as somebody else, you’d see each other’s movements,” Chasen said. “You’d see their mouse move around the screen and if there were a dozen people using it, you’d see all the mice moving around the screen and then you could throw up a little chat bubble to talk to each other. It was super weird and most of the time people were just talking about how weird the product was — but the one thing we got from that is we had all this real-time data on who was actually on the website and there’s no way to actually get that data in any of the analytics packages [that were available].”
As Chasen and Borthwick developed this element of the product, they decided to flip it: Instead of using it as a way to chat with people moving around a website, they decided to create a real-time analytics engine. Hence, Chartbeat was born in typical Betaworks fashion.
“The philosophy at Betaworks is to put the beta out there and see what it’s gonna do,” Chasen said. “At a normal incubator, [a startup would] have been working on that idea for a year on their own and then start looking for investment.”
Chasen said that from the beginning, Betaworks’s approach to creation and investing has been different. “It’s always had this duality. People have said, ‘Are you an investor or an incubator?’ and we were neither. We were both. And we’d focus on one [side] or the other depending on what was going on.”
Products enter Betaworks at every stage of development — whether just an inkling of an idea or already established and ready for further development. What Betaworks cares about is the idea and the talent, and what those things can do — either on their own or for one of the various products in the works inside the company. For instance, when the social app Yo — which initially had users communicate using only the word “yo” — first surfaced in 2014, Betaworks invested.
“Everyone was kind of like, ‘It’s so dumb,’ and while the product itself is not a roaring success, it preexisted all the notifications stuff that’s going on right now. And a lot of the messaging and chat UI — Yo is helping us with that,” Cooper said. Yo on paper? A flash-in-the-pan app. Yo — or rather, Yo’s ideas, functionality, and team — in the long term? That’s where Betaworks sees potential. “Having access to people like that helps with all the others things we’re doing.”
One of Betaworks’s greatest successes has been the 2012 relaunch of Digg. Before its revival, the beloved content-discovery engine was on life support. It had crashed and burned shortly after a particularly iconic BusinessWeek profile in and become an internet joke — the MySpace of aggregators. Digg was an important part of Web 2.0 and offered value to the internet … until it didn’t. So Betaworks decided to reinvent it.
“I joined the team right after the relaunch but I felt like the rebuilding never really ended,” Veronica de Souza, who was associate social media and video editor for Digg in its early revival days, wrote via email. “The Digg brand was a curse, but also a blessing. People recognized it … but as a dead giant. It took a lot of self-deprecating humor and one-on-one conversations online to get people on the ‘Digg is cool again’ train.”
At the time, the News.me team had been working on a new type of news-delivery app, but it wasn’t exactly breaking through to users. So Betaworks reassigned that crew to the Digg project. With a smart team and great design, it was able to send a new, beautiful Digg into the wild within six weeks. Lo and behold, the internet was happy with the reincarnation.
True to Betaworks’s hybrid nature, employees float to different products within the firm that makes use of their skills. “The Betaworks data team helped Digg, but they were also working with other teams under the Betaworks umbrella,” according to de Souza. “Having access to all the other Betaworks companies was super valuable.”
What truly sets Betaworks apart from the startup machines is its long-term vision. There are a lot of “What’s this gonna look like in five years?” conversations at the company, and that near disregard for whether a product will sell immediately allows it to take risks. Consider Poncho, a weather chatbot that has proven itself adorable and useful amid the recent flood of disappointments. Though Poncho launched way back in 2013, it existed rather quietly until this year’s Facebook F8 Developer Conference, when the company introduced a slew of chatbots for Messenger. Most of the bots drew criticism for … well, not being very good. But Poncho managed to set itself apart — after all, this was something its team had been working on for more than three years.
“Poncho had really slow growth until recently,” Cooper said. “Someone without a vision would have just shut that down awhile ago — but we knew that people would like this and so we kept going with it.”
Keep going with it is a kind of mantra at the company. Betaworks has never set it sights on fixing the world, or even the internet. It just wants to make it that much better.