Wednesday, June 19, 2013
A Conversation with Ben Satterfield, Burstly
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
Ben Satterfield is the co-founder of TestFlight, an immensely popular piece of software for iOS (and now Android) which lets developers distribute beta copies of their apps to their users. TestFlight recently joined forces with Burstly (www.burstly.com) to create a suite of apps for mobile developers and publishers. We spoke with Ben about how Burstly is now creating a company to help mobile developers create, develop, distribute, and monetize their apps. Burstly is headed by Evan Rifkin, and backed by GRP Partners, Rincon Venture Partners, SoftBank Capital, and Founder Collective. Burstly is located in Santa Monica.
What is Burstly?
Ben Satterfield: Burstly is the blanket company for three products. The first, which was formerly known as Burstly, is SkyRocket, which is available to all developers and publishers today. Before that, it was more of an exclusive, top tier publisher tool under the Burstly name. The second, is TestFlight, which is three years old this week. It's for beta testing of apps.
SkyRocket is for monetization and increasing engagement in apps. It's not just about banner ads, it's a tool that allows you to integrate with an ad network, giving you the flexibility to pick what ads and offers you want, where in your app. It also includes things like rewards and currency in games. Most of our clients are top publishers, such as EA, Disney Mobile, Rovio, and Backflip.
TestFlight is for beta testing. I don't know if you've ever had the experience of someone trying to give you an app to try prior to release, but it's a serious pain in the butt. You literally have to connect your phone to a computer and drag stuff to iTunes to make it work. Testflight got rid of all of that, and made beta tests much easier--without breaking the rules--for iOS. We're now both Android and iOS. You can load software over the air, just like the app store. You get an email, tap on a link, a notification pops up, and the app installs on your phone. That's the biggest reason people want to use TestFlight, and has driven our explosive growth since day one. We also let you know who is using your app, how often, if they've gotten the invitation, if they've opened that invitation, and if any crashes occurred when they ran your app, and even the line of code where they had an issue.
Our latest product is FlightPath, which is a mobile analytics solution. The way we go about that is different than the competition. It's currently in closed beta, and will be a free service, and provides a unique insight into what your app is doing right now, collecting information in real time. You can pivot on the information it is collecting, and it transforms and pivots around how you click on data. You can see if there are any crashes, which devices and operating systems are running, and where. For example, if you're just a major crash on an iPad in Japan. We don't want to just stop with analytics, we want it so that you can do something with that data. In that example, we can let you know you're seeing iPad mini crashes in Japan, and start tracking those. You'll see the crash reports, so you know there is a problem, and you can even send a notification to all of your users to make them aware of that bug, and maybe give them 200 gold coins in a game to make up for that bug. No one else has really thought of that, and has those services.
How did you guys end up combining forces?
Ben Satterfield: It's unique to where we are, geographically. TestFlight is three years old this week. I've known Evan and Ryan when they were running AppAds, which they changed to Burstly, even before creating TestFlight. TestFlight was spun out of my company when I was doing consulting work. Prior to that, I had an app in the App Store, when iOS first came out, which was basically like a Fandango for live music. We were tracking music across the country, and reporting on what was going on in a city and providing recommendation and lists of events. It was a fun project, but we ended up taking it down to focus on TestFlight. It did give us a foot in the door, when we were given the best award for a mobile app at SXSW. That got us a lot of attention, and we had people form CAA reach out to us, and brought us clients to do their apps. That meant we didn't have to raise money, and keep doing consulting and put the money we earned back into our R&D and projects. Along the way, Evan got wind of what we were doing, so we met up for lunch. He asked us how we were going to monetize our app, and I mentioned of how we were thinking of creating targeted ads for mobile, and had already started to build our own rudimentary ad server. I told him how we were looking to track people who were looking at Hiphop events in a city, and do direct sales to them and present them to brands to highlight that matched their interests. As we explained this to Evan, he told us we were crazy and nuts if we wanted to do all of that for one app. He told us, we ought to be doing something for all apps.
I knew Evan had lots of experience in the area, and we were very new to mobile, so we started hanging out together and brainstorming together. I helped them do their first SDK. That was a lot of fun. No one knew what was going on then, this was before iOS 3, and he contracted me to make the site and help create the brand. So, I've been deeply involved from the beginning at Burstly, even thought I wasn't an executive and shareholder. We had lots of mutual friends in town, because it's a very small world here.
So, we were at WWDC a few years ago, and we created a way for our clients to get a beta of their apps over the air. We showed that at WWDC, after literally creating a basic working product in one day. People at the Apple conference were completely in awe. They thought it was not possible. We showed Evan what we had created, and he told us he though we had lightning in a bottle. We were doing other projects at the time, but we saw that if TestFlight didn't get shut down by Apple, we'd pursue it with full force, and raise money. Evan wanted to invest, and we were talking with Mark Suster about joining our advisory board. He's also a board member at Burstly, and one of the more outspoken and prominent advisors in town. As it became clear that people were loving the app and using it, we though we ought to make it free, and we starting thinking it would make sense to raise money for this. We began talking with Mark and Evan, and after a series of meetings, they asked us if it would just make sense to combine forces and take on this field together. We realized that we were likely to end up with both the same investors and board, and that they'd be involved in any case. I'm not one to combine forces with people and one for partnerships, but I thought it was interesting. We realized that if we did combine forces, then we didn't have to raise money, and didn't have to worry about monetizing the product immediately. They had revenues, the experience in the industry, and the other half of the world. That really resonated with me, and we really clicked. It just made sense.
Are people surprised that such a technology intensive, software firm is here in Los Angeles, and not Silicon Valley?
Ben Satterfield: I have a flag that says TestFlight out on our porch here on 2nd Street, and Broadway and Colorado. I keep getting people on Twitter who tell us they had no idea we were in town. Or, I'll show up at an event, and people will tell me it's pretty cool that we came down for the event--and I have to explain to them that we started the company here. My development team started with Trystan , who is in Canada. He would actually fly down to California once a month, and then go back to work with the team. We also have a designer in Chicago. It was actually under five people who started the service, but the headquarters has always been here in Los Angeles. I even will be up north, talking with people, and they'll ask me to come over to lunch sometime, and I have to explain to them that we're up North often, but not that often, because we're in Santa Monica. I love and hate that, actually. I've been living out here for ten years now, and though I'm not a native Angeleno I have a lot of pride in our tech scene. I do love that we're very technology based, and not in Silicon Valley--and I think that's a trend we ought to keep going.
For folks who don't realize how widely used TestFlight is, can you talk about the huge number of apps who are using your software?
Ben Satterfield: Officially, we've released that we're in over 300,000 apps for TestFlight alone. But, to be honest, those numbers are much higher right now, we just haven't publicly released the latest numbers. We're basically being used for about half the apps in the App Store. I don't know of any company that can talk about that type of distribution and acceptance from the development community. It's funny--I've always been a subscriber that being early or being first is just as good as being wrong, because the pioneer gets all of the arrows. But, with TestFlight, it was actually an exception--we got a great, first mover advantage by being in the right place, at the right time, with the right solution, and the right team. It was wonderful magic that happened.
You're at a place where you can see what's happening with Android and iOS--what's your perspective on where the future is in mobile platforms?
Ben Satterfield: That's a good question. We are seeing this constant growth, as more and more developers start going after the gold rush of applications. But, the needs they have are still very basic. The big one is crash reporting. Developers need a way to figure out how to make their apps more stable, and get information and know how to fix issues. That's one area we are focusing on. That actually combines with FlightPath in production, as part of the analytics. We have all of this information so you can get details and fix problems. Also, as I mentioned, we can let you take an action like send alerts, send currency, send a sorry message. The idea is to take a crash instance and any issues with stability, and combine it with something else to focus on engagement and re-engagement. So i'm seeing the need for a lot of fundamental tools, such as figuring out what is happening with my app business, with analytics, with stability, but also engagement. There's been a flood of apps in stores, in Android and iTunes, and developers are trying to figure out how you bring people back to their apps. How do you get them interested in your next app? Engagement and re-engagement is really important. It's a distribution issue. If you're not in the top 100 or 200 titles in the iTunes store, what do you do? We think we have the right tools and ingredients to create and add value to developers. That's why we did the announcement of putting all of this with Burstly under one roof, because it makes lots of sense to put the pieces together. We now have a comprehensive suite of tools addressing all of the problems in an app's lifecycle, starting from the beginning.