The Story of BuiltWith
In response to a StartupDaily article on BuiltWith a HackerNews thread has evolved with some revenue numbers that are larger than life. There’s a more important story here though about building a startup in your own way. This is it.
Whilst running Anchor I realised that we could accurately predict which hosting companies we were gaining customers from and to which competitors we were losing them to. It was public information in the DNS. It just needed to be collected. We’d never found time to build it though.
I stepped back from the business in 2011 and whilst searching for what to do next I thought about building it as a standalone product. Hosting Analytics. I built a proof of concept, and started doing market validation. I found BuiltWith, it was doing the same but for web facing technologies (frameworks, CMS, shopping carts) but not hosting. The founder was a 2nd degree connection on LinkedIn so I arranged an intro and had coffee. I wanted to know if people were actually paying for his product. If they were it helped my validation.
I met a very softly spoken Gary Brewer. He was a solo founder that still had a full time job, BuiltWith was a side project that he’d worked on all evening, every evening for the last 4 years. Not long into the conversation he opened his laptop and asked me to use his site to get a list of Magento customers and watched where I put the mouse and what I did. He was testing his user interface.
I only really needed one simple question answered, were people paying, so I spent most of the conversation trying to help him with ideas and suggestions for building the business. Turns out he had revenue, $40k/month. I had to check this a few times, not $4k, $40k. I suggested he quit his day job and go full time but he was nervous about how stable the revenue would prove to be and he had a good boss that relied on him who he felt a sense of obligation to.
I openly told him my idea knowing full well he could copy it but for me, understanding whether there was a market was as important as openly talking to people about what I was doing. I now had one strong data point.
I went back to market testing my hosting analytics. I called and emailed every hosting company and design agency owner I knew, the response was luke warm. Nice to have but might not pay for it. I let the idea go. Some of my suggestions had worked for Gary, he’d also implemented most of them (not small tasks) in a matter of weeks. He reached out and we met again, shared some more ideas. Months later he asked If I’d pursued hosting analytics and if not could he implement it as a feature. Great. I get the data that will help Anchor without doing the work!
I subsequently begged my way into working for him for equity only (he was too conservative to spend money on wages). I needed a title and we settled on the very generous “Co-Founder”. I wasn’t an employee and I was more than an advisor. It helped both of us, we were more credible with 2 than 1. But BuiltWith remains Gary’s baby not mine. He kindly reminds me one of my most valuable contributions was making him quit his job and go full time. We had customers, most of them were in the US, there had been minimal contact beyond product support and for the most part we didn’t really know what they were doing with the data.
I spent most of my time arranging meetings to get face to face conversations with customers. I went to the US and crammed in as many as I could in 3 days. In person they loosened up and I found out where the value was. Many were coy because the tool was a competitive advantage. What they did with the data once they had it was even more so. Whilst the free version tells you what a website is built with the paid product provides big data sets on what most of the websites on the Internet are powered by. Running joins across these data sets is where the magic is. Figuring out what to join is our customers secret sauce.
I came back and we re-built the site to match the common user requirements. It took time but revenue grew.
I’d bootstrapped Anchor and having never had advisors or board members I finally saw their value. I could stop Gary making mistakes I’d already made. There was no accounting system and he was building his own ticketing system when I met him.
I also made plenty of my own mistakes, I did a lot that didn’t work. Mostly trying to implement systems for a 50 person company on a single person business. I setup a CRM to track leads. We didn’t need it and Gary didn’t renew it when the first years subscription ran out. We only needed email address, company name and payment details from a customer. We didn’t do sales per se. We didn’t chase leads, there was no time with 1–2 people. Gary noticed an inverse correlation between the number of emails from a prospect and propensity to convert. Good customers didn’t email they just bought, they got it. After 3–4 emails with a prospect probability of purchase dropped to a point that it didn’t make sense to continue replying…
I tried to setup metrics and employ people. Both of which were strongly resisted in different ways. The hurdle for hiring a programmer was set at $100k per month revenue. Gary’s take on metrics was that if it didn’t change his behaviour it was only a distraction. We track trial and customer signups per day, number of reports created per account as well as concurrent and total customer numbers. That’s it. I’ve never seen a number or graph on monthly growth rates.
Pretty quickly we were constrained by development resources, one developer. Whilst we could afford to employ someone I started seeing the merits of the approach and his resistance to growing the team. The business wasn’t just about creating money it was about creating something that matched the founder.
BuiltWith came about when Gary was working in a corporate, he attended an event by Mick Liubinskas in the infantile days of the tech ecosystem in Sydney. He saw the startups and wondered what they were built with. He’d done the corporate thing with lots of people and recognised it wasn’t him. Having his own employees would only be a return to this.
I couldn’t ignore this and agreed. There was no longer a full time role for me. I went back to Anchor and other things whilst remaining involved as an advisor. We agreed to meet once a month for an hour. Gary pushes these out to every 2nd or 3rd month though to save time. We meet at a midpoint to minimise travel time and meetings are scheduled around ferry timetables to avoid waiting time.
A year or so on we were getting a regular stream of calls from US VC’s. Gary was ignoring them because he considered it a waste of his time. I took on the job of speaking to them as one day I still think the business will get sold (Gary disagrees…). It peaked at more than a call every week over the course of a year. I was excited. Then it stopped. In hindsight I’m quite certain we had our first competitor raising a funding round. My very open answers to their questions either turned off investors seeing the intense competition from one guy in Australia or validated the market and helped them close. I’m pretty sure even this unintended consequence helped us though. They now had money and a sales team that educated the market for us. Revenue grew faster.
Fast followers continue to spring up but we keep evolving the product on the back of an entrenched organic traffic with a super efficient team of one. We do our own bit of fast following when we see features that align with customer requests.
After 8 years of dogmatic focus BuiltWith is an overnight success. I gave a talk to this years Muru-d cohort that Mick Liubinskas’s now runs about my journey as a tech company founder. With a healthy dose of encouragement Gary game along, I felt he owed Mick his patronage. It was the first startup networking event he’d been to in the last 7 years.
Finally I need to correct the valuations and revenue numbers being noted in Hacker News. Gary gave cumulative customer numbers vs concurrent subscribers with some (not so uncommon) ambiguity in the difference. He’s one of the most humble people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and I’m a better person and more effective entrepreneur for the experience of working with him. He’s very private and I get why he said what he said. The numbers don’t matter here. The real story is doing it your own way, with focus.