Over the past decade, advances in technology have converged to reshape deployment as we know it. First, the notion of continuous deployment became possible — and then it became the norm, leading to unprecedented challenges when it comes to controlling one’s code base and releases to customers. But LaunchDarkly has set out to give companies of all sizes the best of both worlds: The ability to move fast without breaking things. Redpoint invested in LaunchDarkly in 2017, and in the past two years, the company has dominated the feature management category, serving businesses as diverse as Intuit and QVC.
Redpoint’s Scott Raney sat down with Edith Harbaugh, co-founder and CEO at LaunchDarkly, to discuss the unique challenges and opportunities of developer-centric platforms, creating strong culture, and how the life of an entrepreneur changes as startups grow.
Scott: Edith, thank you very much for joining us for the Redpoint Founder series. We’ve been lucky enough to work with you for a couple of years now. It’s been fun for a couple of reasons.
One is because LaunchDarkly has done so well. You’re now serving 500 billion feature flags a day and just signed your thousandth customer, which is just an incredible accomplishment
But it’s also been really rewarding to get a chance to work with you. You’ve been an incredible evangelist for the category you’re trying to create in feature management. There isn’t a customer or a developer or product manager or marketer whom you’re not willing to meet with. I think that it’s kind of sheer force of will that is making all this happen.
“There isn’t a customer or a developer or product manager or marketer whom you’re not willing to meet with. I think that it’s kind of sheer force of will that is making all this happen.”
It’s also really gratifying to be on the board of a company with a culture that LaunchDarkly has. The employee engagement is off the charts.
Finally, you’re a first time CEO and I think your intellectual curiosity has led to a lot of success so far. There are different stages of being a CEO, and I think it’s this curiosity that has allowed you to excel across all the stages.
So let’s jump into some questions. First, let’s talk about how you went from engineering to product to now founding LaunchDarkly. What, in your mind, constitutes a good product person? What constitutes a good product? How have you approached that as you’ve built LaunchDarkly?
Edith: So first, thanks, Scott, for saying many nice things. I really appreciate it, and it’s been great to work with Redpoint.
So I started off as an engineer, and as an engineer, you get very good at building things. We were talking before about your daughter building circuit boards. We both got excited about building.
“So I started off as an engineer, and as an engineer, you get very good at building things.”
I then made this transition to thinking about whether I was building the right thing. As in, I built this thing, but is it something that actually somebody wants? I know a lot of engineers who build their hobby and then they’re like “Well, why doesn’t everybody love what I built?” It’s like, “Well, you built it for yourself. You are not the customer.”
I think a good product person understands that you’re not building for yourself, but for your customers. And I think you really become the voice of the customer. So when I think about the company, I think about how we serve the needs of our customers.
Scott: Can you talk a little bit about LaunchDarkly itself, and how have you approached the problem of understanding what end users actually want?
Edith: At LaunchDarkly, we believe that software powers the world. Software is everywhere. What we do is we empower all teams to deliver and control that software.
Let me break down what that means. So we have a customer like Intuit. Intuit has a lot of software and it is crucial that the software is always working. So they use us to control the release of features. If something is going poorly, they could turn it off. And if something is going well they can ramp it up to more people. So that’s the delivery. We also have customers like BMW that use us for long-term control. BMW is in over 100 markets worldwide and they could have one unified code base and then use us to segment which region gets which features.
I think what has helped us initially is that we really understood the problem. I had been an engineering manager, I had been a product manager. I’d seen this problem myself over and over and over. John, my co-founder, had been an engineering manager at Atlassian and he’d seen it, too.
Scott: So I guess the importance of this is that organizations are trying to become more agile in terms of how quickly they can move in releasing software that comes with risk. And what LaunchDarkly can do is help them address that. Right?
Edith: Yeah. It’s a duality of being able to move faster and with less risk.
If each step can be broken down and controlled, it’s much less risky and then you can do more steps.
So we did inherently understand it, but we knew that wasn’t enough. At the beginning of the life of the company, it was just a ton of just talking to people.
We realized a lot of people had built their own solution in-house. So when somebody said, “I have a system, I don’t want to buy your system,” I’d say, “Great, can we come look at yours?” We realized that we have to really get this right to replace the homegrown solution.
Scott: One of the challenges would be is that you’re looking at how people are doing it, and then maybe you start building for the way they thought about the problem as opposed to the way you think they should be thinking about the problem. Did you ever run into that as an issue? If so, how did you overcome that as a challenge?
Edith: I think that’s what a good product person does — you take a lot of data and you try to say, “OK, here are the edge cases, that is just this one person’s hack versus this is something universal.” And I think that’s the key of a good product manager.
Scott: Great. Great. So, LaunchDarkly is building products that developers use. You’re part of this next generation of companies that are developer-focused — part of this emerging trend where products cater to developers and then sell through developers rather than to developers. They help bring the product along and, ultimately, acquire budget from wherever it might come from the organization. LaunchDarkly is one of the first companies to actually kind of evangelize this as an approach to the business. What are the things you’ve learned about that? How does it work well and what are some of the challenges associated with that model?
Edith: I think there’s a myth that developers won’t buy developer tools. I think there are some developers that will not buy developer tools. I think there are other smarter developers who say, absolutely. You know, if you can abstract away some lower-level stuff, if you can make my life easier, if you can make it easier for me to do this stuff I actually like doing, I will buy your product.
I’m old enough to remember when you had to think more about garbage collection, where you had to maybe think more about your application server now. Now people don’t really worry about that so much. Smart developers are absolutely willing to buy tools. And if you can show them that this is a tool that they can trust and rely on and make their life better, why wouldn’t they pay money for that?
Scott: It’s hard to earn their trust, though. So how have you gone about earning their trust?
Edith: Oh, it’s so hard, Scott. In the beginning days, we got a customer a month. Like one, not like 10. One. And the first 10 customers are absolutely the hardest because every single one of them is taking this crazy risk on you. It was a lot of in-person visits between John and me.
“Oh, it’s so hard, Scott. In the beginning days, we got a customer a month. Like one, not like 10. One. And the first 10 customers are absolutely the hardest because every single one of them is taking this crazy risk on you. It was a lot of in-person visits between John and me.”
And if they did try us, we were really, really responsive to all their feedback. I remember John — he had just had a baby, which was good because he would answer support tickets at 3 a.m.. And people would be really impressed. And John’s like, “Well, I was up anyway.”
Every customer who tried us, we said, “We will make you successful.” And I remember, when I went on the early sales calls, I would end them all with “If you try our product, you won’t regret it.”
Every customer who tried us, we said, “We will make you successful.”
Scott: Yeah, there’s a level of authenticity that’s required. I mean, obviously, you’ve got to speak their language, but in the end, what matters is you’re building a product that they love and that really solves a meaningful problem for them. Right?
Edith: And not just a product, but a company they can rely on. If it’s a product they love, but it’s often down, that’s not the product, that’s the company. If they’re not getting good documentation support, if they’re not getting support questions answered promptly, it doesn’t matter how great your product is.
Scott: So maybe talk a little bit about what life is like for you today as things have evolved. The kinds of challenges you face as a CEO are probably quite a bit different now than they were in those early days. Maybe you could share a little bit about how your job and your responsibilities and your challenges that you face have evolved.
So we’re about five years in. The early days was the classic product market fit challenge. You know, build the product. Is there a market for that product? Is there a market for getting the early customers? I really appreciate Redpoint’s support in the early days when it perhaps was not so clear that we were going to be a huge success.
Now, we can kind of lift our head up and say, “We still want to be a nimble startup, but we can think about where do we want to be next year and then let’s work backward to get there.” So it becomes much more about an overall org and where they’re heading instead of a team.
Scott: What’s the hardest thing about your job today?
Edith: I think a lot about scaling the team. We traditionally were all in Oakland. We now have people in New York, we’re going to open an office in London, and we’re going to open an office in Sydney. We’re hiring field salespeople to service our customers in Chicago, Nashville. I think about how do I make sure that all these people still are going in the right direction?
Scott: How have you built that culture and how do you think about the challenges of actually continuing to maintain that culture as you grow and as you have the kind of geographic distribution of employees that you have today.
Edith: I think of the company as a product. I am the product manager of the company. I am shaping it and guiding it and trying to make it go the right way. Even from the beginning, I was thinking a lot about making sure that we’re hiring the right sort of people. For example, our salespeople are respectful and consultative. We like to think of our salespeople as trusted advisors. So that goes all the way up into recruiting
Scott: How do you ensure that that culture is a guiding light in terms of the decisions that are made by the team? As you get bigger, decisions are made in different parts of the organization, but you obviously want that to reflect who you are as a company, the way that you want to approach your customers, but also the values you have in this organization. How do you ensure that happens?
Edith: Tell people and hope they listen. You know, one of our core values is learn and grow. Also, our culture isn’t frozen. It’s changing. But really hope that people will keep each other honest on it.
Scott: What is your talent philosophy? How do you think about identifying talent and developing talent within LaunchDarkly?
Edith: This is a huge area that I think a lot about. I think if you have somebody who’s a good person, they should have every chance to grow with the company. One of the things that’s been most rewarding, because now we’ve been around for five years, is to see somebody who came in as a kind of junior account executive now be a manager or somebody who joined as a support engineer, now be an engineer. We now have people who’ve joined us early and we’ve mentored them and they’re now moving up in their careers and that feels great.
Scott: How do you ensure that that happens? What are the things you’ve done internally to ensure that people have that ability to grow? Is it a core value of yours to ensure that the team is investing in the development of the team all the way from the bottom to the top?
Edith: Yeah, one of the things that we ask our managers to do explicitly is to make sure that the people they manage know their career path.
Scott: That’s a really simple statement. But it’s so interesting how many companies don’t do that.
Edith: Yeah. And it’s kind of silly because it’s literally as simple as saying, “Do you know what your career path is at this company, and am I helping you with that?” And just asking in your 1:1. Like, “Hey, do you know where you want to be in six months?” And if somebody says, “I’m happy with my role,” that’s great, but at least check-in.
Scott: So life as an entrepreneur is incredibly rewarding, but it’s also very, very stressful. How do you think about managing the stress associated with your job?
Edith: It helps a lot that I run. I’ve been running since I was a teen. I did my first marathon when I was 19 so I find running relaxing.
Scott: How many races a year do you do?
Edith: It’s gone way down, Scott, as the company got busier. There’s a lot more travel.
Scott: Right. But it’s obviously great to have something like that that allows you to have a chance to stop thinking about work for a while.
Edith: Yes. You know, I have my best thoughts sometimes running.
Scott: And where did the idea of LaunchDarkly come from?
Edith: It was an outgrowth of a lot of things that John and I had seen. I had been a product manager at TripIt where we had an internal framework like this. John had been at Atlassian where they had an internal framework. And we were wondering why this wasn’t part of the product. Why does every company struggle to build this and glue it together from spare parts instead of this being a dedicated product?
Scott: You and John have such a great relationship and a pretty amazing partnership. How did you guys meet then? How did you end up deciding that you wanted to start a company together?
Edith: We were college classmates at Harvey Mudd. He got a PhD at Berkeley and I was living out here working.
Scott: One last question before we jump into some rapid-fire questions. LaunchDarkly is made in Oakland. Can you talk about your decision to base the company in Oakland and how that came about?
Edith: Yeah, so my co-founder had gotten his PhD in Berkeley. He lived in the East Bay. I lived in the East Bay. When we were talking about where to put the company it was like why not Oakland?
Oakland just feels right. The weather is better. There’s a lot of people who don’t want to come over to San Francisco. And also I feel like we’re giving back to the community. We’re part of Code Nation, which is an organization that helps youth who don’t have access to CS at their schools, and we have them come in and we teach a class on Wednesdays.
We’re part of Code Nation, which is an organization that helps youth who don’t have access to CS at their schools, and we have them come in and we teach a class on Wednesdays.
Scott: That’s great. I think little things like this to contribute to the culture where everybody feels like they’re a part of something that’s bigger than building feature management. And that’s reflected in a lot of the conversations I’ve had with the team over there. They feel like this is really about trying to change the way that people think about software development.
Scott: OK. I’m going to fire some rapid-fire questions at you. What’s your favorite running trail?
Edith: Oh gosh. SCA’s trail in Marin. It goes right above the Golden Gate Bridge and is beautiful.
Scott: What’s the best book you’ve read?
Edith: I really liked Growth Mindset.
Scott: If you could have dinner with any famous person, dead or alive, who would it be?
Edith: Dan Green.
Scott: What’s one piece of advice that you have for other founders?
Edith: Don’t give up too soon.
Scott: That’s a good one.
Edith: Well, don’t give up comma too soon. I mentor a lot of other startups and sometimes it is time.
Scott: And the idea of don’t give up sometimes that means it’s even before you start it, right? I mean, you have an idea, you’re trying to think about how you even get this off the ground. And you know, I think the best advice I’ve ever heard anyone give is you can do it. Just believe in yourself.
What’s one thing that you believe that most others would disagree with you on?
Edith: The moon is made of cheese.
Scott: I do disagree with you on that.
Edith: I’m sorry.
Scott: What is your spirit animal?
Edith: A puma.
Scott: Edith, thank you very much for joining us today. We really appreciate it and it’s been such an honor getting a chance to work with you the last couple of years.