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Interview with Garrett Camp, StumbleUpon Co-Founder
StumbleUpon might be one of the best tools available. While some may see it as a great way to waste time, I see it as a great way to find sites that I never would have found using traditional means. And as many have discussed, it is a great way to get traffic to your site. We see several new visitors daily from StumbleUpon. To find out more about StumbleUpon, I chatted with one of the founders, Garrett Camp.
Allen: Can you provide a brief background about yourself?
Garrett: I am one of the founders of SU as well as the chief architect. I earned my Masters degree in software engineering at the University of Calgary, where I researched evolutionary algorithms, knowledge retrieval and web usability.
Allen: Where did the idea for StumbleUpon come from?
Garrett: Well, the idea is that when you know what you’re looking for, a regular search engine is great. But there really wasn’t an effective tool for discovering new sites, ones you didn’t even know you wanted to find, and that’s where the idea for SU was born. We started SU working out of our bedrooms in November 2001, and continued to until late 2005 when we moved to San Francisco.
Allen: Can you share some information about your users?
Garrett: We have over 1.6 million registered users, the majority of which are between the ages of 18 and 45 in English-speaking countries. Half in the United States, half abroad, and the majority using Firefox.
Allen: How do you monetize StumbleUpon?
Garrett: Our advertising model is unique in that we don’t show ads-when you click “Stumble!” you are taken directly to the next website- so there are no banner ads or pop-ups which most people find invasive and annoying. Since we display your entire page, rather than an advertisement for that page, this means that you have the visitor’s full attention. This model offers high-quality, targeted advertising: visitors are selected based upon personal interest, the history of sites they like, and demographic information (location, age, gender). We know which sites people found interesting in the past, and can deliver paid content related to those interests in the future. This ensures your visitors match the targeting criteria you select and will be receptive to your message.
Allen: Who are your competitors?
Garrett: We are most often compared to digg and del.icio.us, but StumbleUpon is fundamentally different from both in that we proactively recommend content in personalized fashion. StumbleUpon helps you discover any type of website with a single click; whereas del.icio.us and digg are more focused on personal bookmarking and technology news.
Allen: What’s next for StumbleUpon?
Garrett: We have lots of interesting stuff happening right now…we’ve just added a web-based interface, so users can submit and review pages without installing the SU toolbar. We have also integrated our database of 7.4 million website reviews with popular search engines, so if you’re searching through Google or Yahoo you can see other Stumblers who like the sites you find. Plus, we’ll be releasing another new content-discovery product in a few weeks time.
Allen: So you technically started the site in 2001 but didn’t see success until 4 years later, what was that like during those years? How did you deal with the frustration of not seeing the instant success? What kept you going?
Garrett: Really, the last five years have prepared us for the success we’re seeing now. We only had 10,000 or so users for the first year, but those members were very active and passionate and gave us tons of feedback. They were almost community advisors- doing quality assurance for us when seeing new feature ideas. We had a couple of years where we could focus on the architecture and backend technology without having to worry about advertising or investors. So the outcome of those first four years is a product that is very stable because we had time to listen to user feedback and work out all the glitches.
Allen: What was the VC process like? Any tips or tricks to share with others who are just starting down that road?
Garrett: I think our experience with VCs was quite different from the usual process. We were self-funded from the beginning, up until just 8 months ago. It wasn’t until we moved to San Francisco that we started meeting investors, and then quickly closed an angel round in just a couple weeks. My main advice would be to stay self-funded as long as possible because it’s enormously helpful to be able to build your product without having to worry about making money right away.
Allen: What has been the biggest mistake you have made since starting StumbleUpon?
Garrett: We designed the service to handle lots of traffic, but its still been a challenge to keep up with the growth and increasing demand. So we’ve struggled a bit with getting ourselves ready for such popularity, and having reserve capacity in place. And we’re still working out how to describe StumbleUpon to the press and potential members. Those were definitely not considerations when we first started.
Allen: What are the top 1-2 things you have learned since starting StumbleUpon?
Garrett: First of all, that working with friends and people you trust is the best situation you can be in with a new business. And second, that it all starts with a great idea and teamwork.
Allen: What are the most important things that a startup must have to be successful?
Garrett: A great product is absolutely the most important thing–there’s just no getting around that. That may seem obvious, but I think there are a lot of startups out there that focus so much on business plans and IPOs and exit strategies that the idea itself takes second place. Plus you have to be ready for hard work and frugal spending to get the idea off the ground.