TYLER NORWOOD, HOST:
Hey everybody, I'm Tyler, and this is The Early Days Podcast. I created this show as part of my work as an investor at Antler. I wanted to talk to the world's best founders and pick their brains on how they went from zero to one, building some of the most important companies in the world.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
TYLER: Have you ever had an idea for a really awesome product, but you get stuck because you don't know how to write code? Well, today's guest is solving that problem, and has been solving that problem for quite a while. Today, we have the founder and CEO of Bubble.io, Emmanuel Straschnov. Emmanuel and his co-founder, Josh, wanted to put the ability to write software at the fingertips of the entire world. In 2012, they started Bubble, and set out to build a no-code platform that allows anybody to write beautiful software. Emmanuel has had a very interesting approach to building Bubble. They followed a pretty untraditional pathway to becoming a billion dollar company. They actually bootstrapped Bubble, and didn't raise any external capital for almost seven years. I really enjoyed this conversation. I think it's great for people to listen to a kind of non-traditional pathway of building a VC start-up. Emmanuel is absolutely brilliant. I really enjoyed talking with him and hearing how he thinks about things, and what the future holds for Bubble.
This is Emmanuel Straschnov—the founder of Bubble—on The Early Days.
Alright, Emmanuel, great to see you. Thanks a lot for coming on today.
EMMANUEL STRASCHNOV: Thank you for having me, it's great to be here.
TYLER: Of course. So Emmanuel, you are one of the founders and the co-CEO of Bubble. Can you give us an elevator pitch for people who are listening? I know a lot of people know Bubble because they use it, but for people who are listening and don't know, can you give us a quick rundown?
EMMANUEL: Yeah, of course. Bubble is a no-code platform. It's now a 10-year-old company, so it's been around for quite some time. And what we've created is an editor that lets people build web applications—meaning websites that are actually complicated. Think about something like Airbnb.com, Twitter.com—these kind of websites—and you can create them, without code, using Bubble.
TYLER: It's amazing. I'm a big user. I've built a lot of things in Bubble.
EMMANUEL: Oh, great to hear. I was about to say, a lot of people are entrepreneurs. A lot of people would use Bubble instead of hiring engineers to build their product.
TYLER: I have to say, you've made a lot of people's lives much better. You've also hurt some people. For the people whose lives you've made better, there's finally a tool where they can build an MVP and take it to market really fast. For the people who always used engineering as an excuse for why they didn't take their product out to market and test it with real customers, you've massively removed that excuse. So I think—
EMMANUEL:—I sleep very well at night because of this.
TYLER: Yeah, I think it's cool to see how it's helping improve [the ability] of people who actually want to build stuff, and actually want to take it out and validate it to the market. It's become so much easier to do so.
So Emmanuel, I'd love to start at the beginning and really just talk about how you and Josh met.
EMMANUEL: It's actually an interesting story. A little bit random, but unusual in a sense that Josh had started working on what became Bubble—but not called Bubble—I think, early 2012.
At that time, he started realizing he needed a co-founder to work with him. So he put the word out to his friends. And at that time, I was graduating business school. Some of his friends from college—I mean, one friend in particular—went to grad school while I was in grad school, and she went to college with him. So she made the connection there.
So far, nothing unusual. Where it gets a little bit unusual is that, because of timing and traveling—and it was before remote—I had to go to New York to meet him. I was in Boston at that point. We had only met once, and I already had a job offer that was expiring the following day, after my coffee with him. So we literally decided to partner on Bubble on our first coffee date.
Before that, we had exchanged a bunch of emails. But that was it because we kind of had to. So I actually remember sitting down at the coffee shop where I was meeting him saying, Great to meet you. But I have this job. I think it's a good opportunity. I'm going to take it. But we talked for a long time—like, more than two hours—and that made us feel like there was potentially something interesting. And at the end, he was like, Look, are you really going to take that job? Do you want to give it a try? And I guess I said yes, you know? And ten years later, here we are!
TYLER: There you go.
EMMANUEL: I’m not saying that everyone should do this. I think, ideally, you want to know your co-founder a little bit better before you work with them. But in our case, it worked out great.
TYLER: Sure. It's made for movies: The proverbial coffee meeting in New York that turns into a billion dollar company. What did you guys talk about? I mean, obviously, sitting down and talking with someone for two hours, you kind of feel that flow and that connection. But what did you guys discuss?
EMMANUEL: Well, first of all, there was a little bit of background and stuff like that. I can't guarantee everything is accurate because it was more than ten years ago. But I remember we actually talked quite a bit around a decision Josh had made, because it was a decision made before I joined: Going up for the Web instead of native. In 2012, that was not [an obvious decision], actually.
Today, I think it's obvious that the Web is a great place to start. But 2012 was the beginning of all the applications, as well as the iPhone ecosystem and the App Store. So some people would challenge that decision often, even after I joined. So we talked about that for quite a bit. I wasn't trying to convince him or anything. I was just trying to understand how he made that decision. And it was a good way to see [what we would be like] while debating about something.
And then we actually talked a lot about [philosophy]— which I do not feel like was out of left field—because he was a philosophy major in college. I was not. I did more mathematics in college, but I also wrote on the side as an extracurricular—a little stuff in philosophy. And I guess we connected about that, and we talked about that.
I mean, the conversation was just flowing. It went on for a very long time. It went on so long that at some point he was like, Okay, I need to do laundry. Because, you know, he was living in a small studio in New York and had to go to the laundry place. Otherwise, your whole day is messed up. And so he was like, You want to join me? And I actually joined him. I [walked] with him to the laundry place.
So it was a very organic and fluid conversation. And now, 10 years later, we still work together… in a much bigger company than what it was at that point.
TYLER: Yeah. So you have this coffee meeting, which ends up being a big fork in the road for both of your lives. You connect, you decide. It sounds like Josh came out and said like, Hey, do you want to do this, and build this with me? How did you guys go through the process of actually formalizing that? So like, you know, as the honeymoon of that first connection wears off, how did you guys actually integrate into working together as co-founders?
EMMANUEL: So, I actually did not say yes on that very first day. I wanted to sleep on it. And so I took the night to think about it. I did a little bit of due diligence, if you will, on the guy. I went on Facebook and looked for mutual friends—not just the friend that introduced us, but some others. To the friend that introduced us, I tried to ask, Okay, who is this guy? I had just met him for two hours and was trying to understand who he was a little bit better.
We met the following morning. And then I actually brought up in conversation, you know, What do you think about equity? When you start a company, I think equity is the biggest thing that people need to figure out. So it was a very easy, simple conversation.
Then, I called a lawyer to make sure I wasn’t doing something crazy for my immigration status. I guess people can probably hear this, but I'm not from here. And I was not a citizen, or green card holder, at that point. But the lawyer told me that I could find ways to do it.
And then I said yes. It was pretty lightweight—not like we’d signed a contract or anything. I think they sent me an email, and I acknowledged the email—which in many ways, you know, is a contract. We structured things a little bit in the case that, if something were to not work out for the first three months, I would leave with nothing. Today, people in the start-up world would know that as the best thing. But yeah, it was a very simple flow I would say.
EMMANUEL: So that’s a good sign. For the last 10 years, I've seen a lot of people starting companies around me. When you see complicated conversations early on—about equity in particular—it's usually a bad time.
TYLER: Yeah, I agree. I think that there's a diminishing return. It actually becomes a red flag if that conversation doesn't flow smoothly, because I think it means that the two parties aren't really on the same page. They're trying to use a contract to bridge that gap.
EMMANUEL: I think it also means that people are seeing the world as a zero-sum game, or the company as a zero-sum game. They’re like, Okay, I’ll [take] this from you, so that you don't have it, which is not the right approach. I think the point is that it's worth nothing anyway. Like, the company's worth zero, right?
TYLER: That’s an interesting point.
EMMANUEL: So yeah, it's just this big thing. And usually, I mean, coming from an equal place is the right place to start.
TYLER: Yeah, I agree. I'm going to ask this question because I think it's really interesting for a lot of founders. I work with a lot of immigrant founders, so can you talk briefly about how you set up your immigration status as a founder of a company here in the US? I mean, we don't have to get into the personal details, but I think it's really great for founders to hear from other immigrant founders on how they navigated that. Because I'm an American citizen interacting with the U.S. government, and it’s still scary for me.
EMMANUEL: I'm totally fine talking about this. So actually, it [speaks] to the equity question, first. [The conversation] did not happen because of that, but it turned out to be very helpful for the visa. When we discussed—
TYLER: Was it an O-1 visa?
EMMANUEL: No, it wasn't. It was H11.
EMMANUEL: When we discussed equity on the following day, as I was saying, Josh suggested we should be 50/50, because it was very early on. I found that really fair, because a lot of people who would have started a company maybe three or four months earlier would have probably said 60/40 or 70/30, or something like that.
EMMANUEL: And my response to that was, Okay, that sounds extremely fair. That being said, one of the things I had learned in business school is that it's important
not to do 50/50, but to have one person with a tiny bit more in case there is a blocking situation.
So I said, Obviously, it can be me. So it should be you. Let's do 50.1. I forget exactly what the number was, but he had a tiny bit more than me. And so he said yes. I think, by the way, it was a very good start for our relationship. I found him very fair, and he could see that I was putting the interest of the company above mine. You could argue that, for me, 50 was better than 49.9, right?
And then the weighting [helped] the visa. I didn't know it at that point, but it was a good thing to structure it that way. I discovered that after the fact, and I managed to just be an employee of the company. Being a founder does not prevent you from being an employee. You can apply for an employee visa, as I had an H-1 visa. It was important that Josh had a tiny bit more because, legally speaking, you can't control your own job if you have an H-1. So Josh has a legal right to fire me, basically, which is not a happy [right] for me.
(TYLER AND EMMANUEL LAUGH)
TYLER: So that established an equity basis of him technically being your boss, which allowed you to apply for [the visa]?
EMMANUEL: He was practically controlling the board.
TYLER: Gotcha. Gotcha.
EMMANUEL: So he could fire me. And because of that, I was able to get an H-1. And then, it's painful when you start a company because it does involve legal fees. And you wonder, Why am I paying for that? But as it turns out, there are good lawyers in the world that can help you package it in a way that works well. We actually never had any issue with my immigration. It always worked pretty smoothly. I think not being too cheap on lawyers is important.
EMMANUEL: The one thing I would say—that might sound harsh—is that of all the troubles and problems you're going to have when starting a company, immigration feels like something that you shouldn't have to do. You're creating jobs and value. But, of all the problems you're going to have, it's going to be one of the easiest.
TYLER: Yeah. It’s like, you work in tech and you kind of like spend your mental time in this idealistic future [thinking] how the world should work and be more efficient. Then, you're faced with the realities of bureaucracy.
So aside from, Okay, so we got through like the logistics piece, how did you and Josh establish a working relationship? How did you decide how you were going to communicate with each other? What meetings do you have? How are decisions made? How do you disagree? Was that a natural process, or do you guys intentionally face that? How did that working relationship develop? It's obviously been successful—it's 10 years down the road—but I'm curious as to how you did that in the beginning.
EMMANUEL: I would say it mostly happened organically. When you just have two people, you don't necessarily need to set up rules and stuff like that. But you learn over time.
For instance, when I started, I was not supposed to be technical. We actually call that Josh's “double mistake,” referring to the two mistakes he made when he hired me. The first was to think he needed a business co-founder, because really, there was no business to be made at that point. The second was to think I was a business person. Because even though I was in business school, I'm actually a product person at heart, and I can code. I mean, I forgot I could code at that point, but I did a lot of coding in high school and I basically picked it up again.
It took a little bit of time to figure out exactly what I would be doing. I mean, we knew what he would be doing—he would be doing a lot of the technical work. It took me like a few weeks to realize that I should also be on the technical side. And then, on the working relationship: The first few years were actually very organic. It was just two people talking. You see what works but doesn't work. It's not until later on—when you have a bigger team—that I think it may be useful to start thinking about systems and stuff, which can be both at the organizational level, and more individually with coaching. For instance, we've done joint coaching. Josh and I had coached together for some time, and that can be pretty valuable. I'm not necessarily sure there is a point in trying to systematize these things too much.
TYLER: Gotcha. So when you say coaching—like executive coaching—you had somebody come in and work with you guys on developing your leadership skills?
EMMANUEL: Yep, exactly.
TYLER: And so, Josh was working on this idea. You got on board. It was just the two of you at that point, correct?
TYLER: And so can you talk to me about the idea formation? I think in 10 years' retrospect, it's fairly obvious that the problem Bubble is solving [concerns] opening up the ability for people to build things without deep technical expertise. At the time, can you talk through the ideation process? How developed do you think Josh's thinking was when you first met him to what Bubble is today? How much more work did you guys go through to really refine out the idea?
EMMANUEL: Honestly, it hasn't changed too much. I don't know if that says we’re visionaries, or if that means we were just stubborn and stupid. Probably both. But what we do today is exactly what we had in mind in 2012.
The product is pretty much what we had in mind in 2012. Obviously it does more things [now], but had you shown us in 2012 a screenshot of what we have today, we would have been like, Yeah, that's kind of what we're aiming for.
Maybe that's where I have a weird perception of reality. I guess usually that's what people say about founders, so I guess that's true. But when you say, now, it's obvious we need to find ways for people to build things without technology, wasn't that obvious 10 years ago? For me, it's always been obvious.
In 2012, the Facebook story came out. You had the twins that were struggling to find someone, right? [The idea] was already everywhere: If you want to start a company, you're going to need to find a CTO, and that’s going to be a huge pain. That’s what we're trying to solve. So I was puzzled, because when I was explaining what I was doing to, some friends, business school classmates and investors actually—because we didn't raise money for the longest time—were like, Why do we need this? I've always been puzzled when people would tell me, We don't need what your product is. How could that be? To me, it’s one of the most obvious needs that we sow in the tech world. There are a lot of other problems in the world, but the shortage of engineers has been a problem for [almost] 25 years.
TYLER: Yeah, for sure. The amount of ideas that haven't been brought to fruition because of technical barriers is massive. It's probably larger than the amount of ideas that have happened.
EMMANUEL: It's a very sad thing. It's a very sad thing that needs to be solved.
TYLER: Was that part of the vision that you guys had? Like you said, I think it probably was obvious back then that the sort of slow progression of making technical things more accessible, and available to more people, has been marching on for years.
You think about 2012, and Bubble was built on top of a lot of innovation that had happened in much deeper sublayers of the technical stack, right? Solving the complication of servers via cloud, solving the complication of pushing code live—Bubble came in and said, Okay, now that all that stuff is pretty much off the shelf, there's kind of this final piece of building a database and a front end that actually works. You can take a product and put it in the customer's hands and say, Use this so that we can watch if it's something that you really value.
Was it always a part of your guys' vision? [This idea of], If we can actually pull this off, we could massively increase the amount of innovation that's happening?
EMMANUEL: Yeah, 100%. There was a social, moral impetus behind the company. We've always felt that what was happening in 2012—and in some ways, it's still happening because no-code and Bubble, in particular, are not big enough yet—was that most companies being started were addressing big
markets. You can make a lot of money, and that was mostly solving the problems of the young mass of affluent, urban people.
That's why you had all these food delivery companies. That's why you had these car sharing services like Uber and Lyft—all those things that, later on, expanded the market that you truly started for. It benefitted fairly well-off, 20- or 30-year-old people trying to get a meal faster.
It was very expensive to create technology, and we felt it was wrong. We felt that people in the middle of America, and people in developing market countries deserve to have software to solve their problems. Because, as it turns out, software is actually useful to make people's lives better.
To do that, we needed to reduce the cost of creating technology. Since the beginning, we've always aimed for a pretty low price point. Some people have often told me that we should be charging 10 or 50 times where we're charging, but it's very against the vision. We want to be a very accessible tool, because if we start making it too expensive, it defeats the purpose of democratizing access to technology regardless of where you're from and where you are. That has been at the heart of the company from the beginning.
TYLER: I love that.
It makes me think about how there are few other vectors in which the accessibility to create things is happening.
The biggest one I can think of—in the creative space— is Canva. Unreal Engine is a huge one, as well as what Epic Games is doing. Every version of Unreal Engine makes it easier and more accessible for people to get into the world of digital creation, whether it be artistic or functional.
I share the view with you that economic growth and the distribution of opportunity that happens when you make things more accessible is huge. I love that that's part of the vision.
Like you said, it as though we've seen all of this innovation happen to solve problems for people on the coasts, and some of those companies have been able to catapult into mass market—Uber, and Airbnb. But there's probably 99 companies for every 1 that ended up just dying because people in the middle of the United States are not concerned with having their dog walked by a stranger.
TYLER: They aren’t concerned with getting groceries delivered in eight minutes, as opposed to nine minutes.
TYLER: I think it's cool to see how unchanged the vision was. I would argue that a lot of the conversations I have had with founders, [reveal] they were clear on the vision from the beginning. It just took a long time to bring it to life. But the vision didn't really change that much, and the mission didn't change that much.
Can you talk about what the first version of Bubble looked like? Because Josh is telling you like, Hey, I'm building this tool. It's going to make it easy for people to build web applications without needing to know how to code. Were you able to put it in people's hands and say, Hey, use this so that we can see if it's actually solving that problem?
EMMANUEL: Josh and I started working together in June of 2012. I think by November we started having users.
EMMANUEL: So we would go to tech co-founder meet-ups, where people would try to find tech co-founders. We'd be like, Look, we're not going to be your tech co-founder, but we have this new thing that you should use and it will help you use it. So at that point, the product was pretty close to what it is today.
Again, it hasn't changed too much. We had the design tab, where you would design your application—tracking and drawing things. Obviously, there weren’t all of the elements we have today—no plug-in or anything—and usually the benchmark was Etsy. Etsy was pretty hot in New York at that point.
We had the workflow tab, where you could define the different workflows. Again, not all the actions we have today, but I think we already had a way to create accounts, do searches in the database, modify and displaying things, send emails, and charge credit cards. So in some ways, we had the bare minimum.
What we didn't have—which we have today—is the granularity of control that allows you to enable set conditions. For instance, saying, You can only do that if the user is logged in, or Only show that element if we're three days from the deadline or whatever thing.
That's one thing that most of the tools on the market have failed: Exposing in an elegant way; letting people have granular control. So we didn't have that, [initially]. But in terms of the basic behavior of—crude application—we already had a lot like that.
What we've been doing over the last 10 years is adding things because people were asking for more. More importantly, we needed to make sure that it scaled. Then, it becomes an endless race with our users.
Our users use us. When you start having more users, it puts pressure on our system. It highlights and reveals some design mistakes. That’s what we're doing today—because whenever you fix one thing, for one certain scale, then they hit the next thing.
We keep iterating, which is fine. That's exactly the point of this company. But in terms of product, [even though] we added some things, it's pretty much in the continuity of what we started in the summer of 2012.
TYLER: Did you and Josh just code all of the first version of that platform yourself?
TYLER: There you go.
EMMANUEL: For five years, it was just the two of us. Except, maybe, three months when we tried to bring someone on board and it didn't work out. It was just the two of us for five years, doing everything.
TYLER: It's an incredible story. I know that you guys actually held off on raising external capital for a long time, as well. How often did you run into someone who asked, What are you guys doing? Like, You're not doing this correctly.
EMMANUEL: All the time.
TYLER: Like, You should be growing your headcount. You should be raising money as fast as possible…
EMMANUEL: All the time. Tyler, out of curiosity, where are you based?
TYLER: I'm in Austin, Texas.
EMMANUEL: You're in Austin. Back in 2012, [the scene] was really in San Francisco, right? It was the beginning of the Silicon Valley dream, right? In some ways, being in New York was a godsend for us. We didn't get exposed to too much of that culture.
TYLER: You weren't sucked into it.
EMMANUEL: Yes. I think if we had been in San Francisco, it might have been challenging. Every single day, someone would have told us, You're doing it wrong. At some point, we would have said, Okay, fine, maybe we’re doing it wrong. And maybe, in some ways, we did do it wrong.
Retrospectively, we probably should have raised money sooner. But definitely not at the beginning—that would not have worked for what we do. Maybe we should have waited only four years to raise money—not six, or seven.
But the [advantage] of being in New York was the diversity that New York had. There were a couple of people I knew that were doing VC-backed start-ups, but there were some people I knew that were doing bootstrap business before it was cool. There were some freelancers, some people in the art world. It was much easier—even though we were hearing every day what we were doing wrong—because there were a lot of people around us not trying to create this unicorn dream. It turned out to be a healthy balance for us.
TYLER: I always think of San Francisco as this cultural monolith.
EMMANUEL: Yeah, it's just one school of thought. It's very wide-eyed.
TYLER: Exactly. Ostensibly, the only social hierarchy that exists in the Bay Area is tech. Whereas in New York, there are all of these different social hierarchies that don't overlap with each other.
I remember when I was living in New York, I thought, I’m in VC. I’m this or that. Then you meet someone, and they're like a professional ballerina, and they don't give a shit what you do. They don’t care at all.
EMMANUEL: Exactly. I mean, you know, my wife is an actor—
TYLER: I think that's what is so energizing about New York. You're meeting people across lots of different pursuits. You're meeting people who want to be the best in the world, but they're not all pursuing the same thing. It's just the best position: The best comedian, the best ballerina, the best tech entrepreneur—maybe VC-backed or bootstrapped, right? You're meeting all these different people.
No one would pay to live in New York just to live in New York. You're there, paying the tax of the cost of living, because you want to be the best. You want to be surrounded by other people who are pursuing the same.
TYLER: I'd love to understand your first go-to-market strategy. You were showing up to these “find your tech co-founder events,” and you're like, Hey, what if I told you that you don't need a tech co-founder? You should just build this yourself. How did you guys get the flywheel spinning on customer acquisition?
EMMANUEL: Customer acquisition was not a focus of ours till 2019 when we raised seed.
Is that because it was just so easy? Was it easy to bring people on board, or was it easy because it just wasn't a focus?
EMMANUEL: It was not a focus.We had a pretty good word of mouth thing. Our community of users has been extremely engaged. I would say they’re fanatics about the product, and there's a very strong engagement. Multiple times, people have emailed us to complain, jokingly. They’re complaining, saying, My girlfriend can't take it anymore. I talk about Bubble all the time.
So people talk a lot to their friends, and that keeps bringing us people. The one thing we did that turned out to be very successful—which you would put in the go-to-market or partnership bucket—is starting to go to schools early on. I had graduated from Harvard Business School, so we went there. That was kind of our first major push: Trying to go to one category of people, and get them to use us. We started getting some recognition there.
Then from that, we started touring schools when I would get invited to meet users or students. So that could be Berkeley, UChicago, CUNY, Baruch College in New York, and Columbia.
EMMANUEL: So we started doing a lot of that. That created an early movement. And then, in 2015, when we launched on Productant, we started having a lot of traction there, organically. Then we basically stopped thinking about go-to-market and user acquisition until 2019 and 2020.
TYLER: So your organic growth was more than enough work for you guys to keep the product?
Yeah. I mean, that's why I'm saying it was probably a mistake not to raise money a little bit sooner. We probably should have scaled the team sooner to think about user acquisition.
TYLER: Sure. But I mean, I still love the story. Just the two of you building this company for so long, with no outside capital.
EMMANUEL: It's very romantic.
TYLER: I mean, I'm sure there were a lot of days where you were like, What the fuck are we doing?
EMMANUEL: Yeah. I mean, there were advantages.
The big advantage for us was that [we built] a very complicated product. You change one little thing here, it's going to break something in a very different place. So having only two engineers who know the basic code, by heart, enables you to fix things quickly.
When you build such a complicated product, having only two engineers is valuable. But we’re also feeling the pain. I mean, not so much now. I think this is behind us, but when we started hiring people, it was extremely painful. Basically all the knowledge was ahead, and we had to transmit that to engineers. It was complicated. So it's an unusual way to do things. I don't recommend that. I think there were some advantages, but five years was too long, honestly.
TYLER: Yeah. I mean, extreme case, right? I mean, I don't think any other company did that.
TYLER: I know with Airtable, Andrew and his two co-founders took about two years before they went out, raised capital, and started to grow the team.
I'd like to talk about the two sides of that coin. Can you talk, briefly, about the efficiency of engineering a very complicated product with only two engineers? I'm curious about how you solidified the product, your understanding of the users, and the culture of what you were building—all of those things with only two people. You must have been able to deeply understand all the different aspects of what made the business successful. Did you feel that?
EMMANUEL: Yeah. But it's almost counterproductive at some point, because then that makes [hiring] people difficult because you know so much about everything. It makes the idea that you're going to rely on other people to do things difficult.
Now, I'm very much at peace with it. Now, I'm actually happy to have people. There are so many things I don't know about at the company, and that's great. There are people who are actually better than me to do that, and to take care of those things.
But at first, like I was doing all of the customer support myself, for instance.
EMMANUEL: There isn't a single email from customers that I haven't read. I processed more than 20,000 tickets, individually. It gives you a sense of understanding everything that is enjoyable. It makes you feel very secure, but it's just not the right way to scale.
EMMANUEL: So that's where it gets counterproductive. The first people we hired were in 2017. I think, by the end of 2018 or 2019, we had [about] 15 people. So growing the team, at that point, made it challenging because there was much knowledge, and the gap with new people is so big that it becomes difficult for them to contribute. It took us three or four years to solve that.
TYLER: How hard was it when you did start hiring people? I imagine the institutional knowledge from a technical perspective was huge. But what was it like having other bodies? Figuring out how to start having meetings, and how decisions are made, and how information flows—like how challenging was that?
EMMANUEL: Extremely challenging. I think for the first six months, we didn’t even think about that. We were so used to being just the two of us. I think we had four people at the end of 2017. So, in addition to us, like six people total.
We didn't think about culture. We would sporadically have a happy hour, but very rarely. Because, of course, when you have two co-founders, you're not going to organize a happy hour right?
But as soon as you have founders and employees—as soon as you have six people–you actually need to put something in the calendar. Otherwise, it just doesn't happen. People have their own lives, and we didn't think about it.
At first, we didn't really see the cost of that, and I started realizing the problem in late 2018—about a year and a half in. We had a team of great people, but we didn't feel like it was a group that was sticking together. People would come and leave without saying hello or goodbye to each other. That was kind of weird, and I started reflecting. I realized it was because we hadn't done the initial work that you should do when you get a team. In some ways, Josh and I were still in this comfortable mode of just being the two of us. We weren’t super deliberate about how we made things, but we started turning things around early 2019.
Now, actually, I'm very happy with how things went. By the way, I often hear that if you've got things wrong, team-wise, at the beginning, you can never fix. It's not true. You can actually fix it if you put in the effort.
TYLER: Listening to you answer that question, it sounds like the self-awareness that you have, and the humility to step in as you see things, is great. I have to say, just in this conversation, it's very obvious to me why Bubble is so successful. Jhearing the self-awareness you have, and the way you approach things—
EMMANUEL: I appreciate it. The one caveat— I'm not sure I had exactly the same self-awareness on the way. It's certainly easier to have it at the end.
TYLER: Okay, well you got there eventually.
EMMANUEL: Exactly. We got it early enough to not fail. Which is, at some point, the only thing that matters.
TYLER: I think it's really valuable for like a small team of dedicated, focused people to figure out What is our product?, Why do people love it?, How do we acquire users?, How do we continue to make the product better?, and How do we keep these people on board?
That process I see so often is that people bring in too many stakeholders, and it actually becomes really difficult to figure those things out because there are no objective answers. You have to get everybody on the same page, and you just have to qualitatively continue to move forward to figure those things out.
I think one thing I see wrong a lot is scaling a product like figuring out a product. I think a lot of people think about scaling as this external function. What you were just talking about with Bubble, is that scaling is actually internal. It’s like, We have a product that people love, and we need to go find more people that fit into our target persona. We need to make the product better so that it can support more users. That's really a function of just scaling ability, internally, to handle more people on the platform. It's like, We've already figured out something people love, and exactly who needs it. Like you said, what was holding Bubble back was the fact that you were answering every single customer service email.
There’s an internal process you need to scale if you’re going to bring on more users, and continue to make the product better.
TYLER: And so it's fascinating to hear you talk about the fact that, fundamentally, nothing that significant changed about the external product, or who you were making it for. What you were really scaling was just the internal processes of being able to handle much more volume.
Looking back, we talked about some of the big mistakes you feel like you made; the mistakes that, if you could go back, you would say, I would have done this differently or I think we'd be better off for it, aside from waiting five years to—
EMMANUEL: That's the biggest one. I think we should have tried building a team sooner. Retrospectively, I'm not sure how we would have done that, because we didn't have a lot of money. We probably could have hired someone six to nine months earlier, and that would have helped with the knowledge transfer which was very painful at first. The sooner you start documenting your code—documenting how things work—the better.
What we do is fairly complicated on the technical side. I wish we had started thinking sooner about marketing and communication: How do we communicate product marketing? How do we communicate about our product?
I still think we're doing well today because our users talk about us to their friends. We've outsourced all the marketing work to our users. Basically, they decide what value they get out of the product, and they talk to their friends. But I don't think if you go to our home page, it's amazing. I think we could do better to explain what we do, and I wish we had started thinking a little bit sooner about bringing some non-technical person in the mix to start thinking about how we name features in a way that non-technical people would [understand].
Right now, we have a lot of engineers, product managers, and designers. We don't have a ton of marketing people getting in the development process to make sure that we're creating something for non-technical people, which is our key persona. It's actually challenging for engineers, because engineers are technical people building for non-technical people. I wish we had started thinking about that sooner.
Obviously, we made a ton of mistakes on the technical side. We had to refactor, and rebuild, but I wouldn't even say it's a mistake. It's just the process of building a product.
EMMANUEL: I wish we had known in 2012 that we should use post-grad students to build a database. We had to iterate three times on the database, but that’s not a mistake. It is what it is. That’s the learning process.
TYLER: It's part of the process. I think that's interesting, because I always think about this with Bubble. I think about it with Airtable a lot when I talk to Andrew. There’s this really interesting, meta-type problem in that you guys are building very technical code, and have a very technical product marketing problem to solve. In order to make it not technical, you have to make it so simple that people can just go in, and it's intuitive. Like, if you click here, a new entry is going to be made in this database. Then, you can interact with that data in certain ways. But to make it that simple is actually really, really technical.
EMMANUEL: It's really technical. If you look at Notion, or Airtable, or Webflow—it took a long time before seeing some traction, and actually did not raise money for a long time. We went a bit further, in that we pushed harder.
I mean, Webflow raised some money earlier. But then, they almost went out of business a few times before starting to raise money again, and getting where they are today.
At some point, creating tools like these just takes a very long time. You have to think about what the tool is going to look like. You have to put that in the hands of users. You have to figure out what's not working. You have to fix it, and go back to your users. It’s not something that you're going to do in three months. It’s going to take you one or two years to get somewhere okay, and it's usually not compatible with the pressure that you get from investors who usually expect to be done faster.
TYLER: For sure. You mentioned there's a technical aspect to it, and then there's a communication aspect to. There's an additional gap that you have to bridge, which is explaining to somebody how to actually use that function, and what it's actually doing for them, in a way where they're like, Oh, okay that makes sense.
TYLER: It's cool to see that you're 10 years in, and you're still really into the weeds. Listening to you answer these questions, you're still very much focused and excited about what you guys are doing at Bubble. What do you see in the future?
EMMANUEL: I mean, I still think we're very small compared to how big we could get. I think Bubble is one of these things that, if done right, could just be everywhere; it could be a creative technology.
What we're trying to do is very fundamental. There is a need, absolutely everywhere, in any kind of organization—from the founder, to the high schooler, to the largest organizations in the world—and we want to make sure that Bubble can serve all those people.
The next for us is to take what we have—which might sound a little bit arrogant, but I would say it's kind of a rough diamond—and make it work better, so it’s more reliable, and easier to use; easier to learn.
Once we have that, [we want to] start making sure that everyone in the world who's in need of a software solution can learn the product. In particular, spending a lot of time trying to find ways to make it easier to learn and teach and use. I don't think we're good enough there. We're fine in a sense that most of our users are non-technical, so we've definitely proven that a non-technical person that has never written code in their life can still learn how to use a product. But we're not at the point where anyone could, in a few hours, get it. There's still a little bit of work there, and so that's where we're spending a lot of time right now.
What that means, is we're in the more traditional phase of scaling. We're still very small compared to the size of our user base. I feel like all my good ideas for the company might actually be behind me, in terms of product, I feel like, now it's important to bring on newer people who have a fresh perspective on things, and can actually look at things in different ways. Josh and I have been looking at the same product for 10 years, and I feel like most of our ideas are behind us. That’s fine. My job is not to have ideas now. My job is really to align people, and make sure that we have the resources to do good work and get the team aligned to do good work.
So, hiring people, educating a lot, and going to market in a way that we haven't done. Because we still are very much relying on word of mouth, especially in the entrepreneurial community. But we can get much bigger now, and so we're going to start investing there.
TYLER: There you go. Emmanuel, this is great. I really appreciate your time. Again, it's awesome to hear about the passion and energy you bring to what you're doing.
I think that, alone, is an underlying theme of this interview. It’s a really great example, and something for founders to take away: Really care about what you're doing. I think that’s a massive strategic advantage, and I definitely see you embodying that.
I wish you the best of luck. I look forward to watching Bubble grow, and thrive, and bring on new users, and continue to enable technology for people around the world.
Thank you for the time again, and I look forward to staying in touch.
EMMANUEL: Thank you, that was a great chat.
TYLER: All right, thanks.
Hey everybody, it's Tyler again. Thanks so much for listening. If you're interested in building a venture-backed company like the one you just heard about, we would love to help. Learn more about the founder studios that we run around the world. Please find more information at antler.co.