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9 minute read

App Economy

From Startup Bigshot To Big Tech Hotshot: David Lieb's Bumpy Ride To Google

For a while, the Bump app was a tech world darling. But things didn't work out—& that was okay: That’s when Google came into the picture.

[Photo: Flickr user Derek Σωκράτης Finch]

The Rise And Fall Of Bump

Once upon a time in Silicon Valley, Bump Technologies was a tech world darling, thanks to its signature product, Bump, an app that let people trade contact information by literally bumping their phones together. Bump was one of the Apple App Store's early hits, and was described by Time in 2012 as "one of the apps that helped to define the iPhone."

The company had millions of dollars in funding from A-list investors like Andreessen Horowitz and Sequoia Capital. Bump's CEO, David Lieb, a former Texas Instruments engineer, had happily traded in the corporate world for a fast-paced, high-energy life leading a hot startup.

David Lieb

Yet despite all of Bump’s successes—tens of millions of downloads, fawning headlines, and early membership in the alumni network of the Valley’s premiere incubator, Y Combinator—the revenue never followed. Bump, after all, was free to use.

Although originally built just to let people exchange contact information, Bump’s feature set expanded to allow users to swap photos too. Internally, the company’s engineers discovered that they had such great data on how people were using the app that their algorithms could predict which pictures users would share, and who they’d share them with, even before they Bumped, Lieb recalled.

That insight led Bump to create a second app, Flock, a social photo-sharing tool aimed at automatically sharing images between friends and family, especially those with whom they’d gone to events.

Flock was designed to create shared photo albums that would "magically" fill up with pictures taken by multiple people at an event—even photos taken before any of those folks ever downloaded the app. It was an impressive feat of machine learning that sought to solve a tricky problem faced by just about everyone at a time when smartphone adoption was skyrocketing and the public was losing control of their ability to manage the flood of photos they snapped.

Like Bump, Flock was free, and it never experienced the massive adoption of its sister app. That was a big problem for a tool that required a significant number of users in order to be truly effective. So while Bump Technologies had two fantastic apps, it had little revenue. It also had VCs eager to see substantial returns on their investment.

In Silicon Valley, everyone knows where that story leads: an acquisition, and not the kind that ends up with stories in the tech press lauding their success.

That’s just what happened. In September 2013, Google announced it had bought Bump Technologies. Though Lieb said at the time that "we couldn’t be more thrilled to join Google" and that the Bump and Flock apps would "continue to work as they always have for now," no Valley veteran should have been surprised when just three months later, Google shuttered the two apps.

Typical of such transactions, neither side disclosed the terms of the sale. But TechCrunch reported that the deal, pegged by sources at about $35 million, "was definitely not a home run for Bump….That would be a modest premium on Bump’s $19.9 million in funding but not a glowing multiple [the company’s investors] would want to brag" about.

Google would not comment on the terms of the acquisition.

For his part, Lieb told me that "the plan was always that [the apps] were eventually going to be sunset. The question was timing and mechanics. We went into it with a clear understanding that those things were going to go and we were going to focus on Google Photos and other things photo-related."

From The Very Top To...Pretty High Up

On May 28, 2015, after a year-and-a-half out of the spotlight, Lieb strode onto the stage at Google I/O, the tech giant’s annual developers conference in San Francisco, to help his boss, Google general manager Anil Sabharwal, announce and demonstrate the all-new Google Photos.

This was the largest audience Lieb had ever spoken in front of. Counting those in the room and those online, there were more than 2 million people watching his every action.

Lieb was now the product lead for Google Photos, which offers iOS and Android users free unlimited photo storage in the cloud, natural language search for images, the ability to recognize faces (even in an adult's childhood photos), and automatic organization of pictures by category (people, places, things). He was playing a public role that may have been unfamiliar to him. Rather than being the man at the top of the pyramid, he was one of those tech company people who come out on stage to demo a product before handing the microphone back to the higher-ups.

As Fast Company’s Harry McCracken put it on the site’s live-blog of the event, "One difference between [Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference] and I/O: You know most of the people who will demo at WWDC. With IO, there are fresh faces, especially this year." It wasn't just Google’s biggest executives—Larry Page, Sergey Brin, or Sundar Pichai—on stage at I/O. While Lieb is well known throughout Silicon Valley, this was something of a reintroduction for him.

While Bump and Flock were nowhere to be seen on stage that day, the work Lieb and his team had done was very much in evidence.

"We took the seed of the idea we thought we had figured out," Lieb told me recently, and let it grow and nurtured it [to] bring it to everybody in the world. That was the reason we chose Google. It was why we decided to sell the company."

There’s no doubt that it was painful when Bump and Flock got shut down—"yeah, it always hurts," Lieb said—but Bump’s entire team was able to join Google and help build what amounts to a Gmail for photos, an app that helps solve some of the biggest problems people face when it comes to their digital pictures: organization and storage.

"The nice thing was that our vision for what that photo problem was, and how to solve it, was very aligned with Google," Lieb said. "Google, being Google, has successful products, and Android, and had a unique viewpoint on what people faced with photos….They foresaw the same disaster looming, a photo Armageddon, where you can’t share [or store] all your photos."

Lieb said that Bump talked to a number of big Silicon Valley companies about a possible acquisition. But not only did Google see that problem the same way that the Bump team did, it also seemed committed to solving it, something the startup’s other potential suitors weren’t, he said.

A Big Adjustment—But Not The Wrong One

Being the CEO of a startup is very different than being the product lead at a large public company.

"The hardest thing for me was that at the startup, [investors like Marc] Andreessen would say, ‘Dave, we trust you, you figure out what’s best for the company,’" Lieb said. "All the decisions are your decisions. At Google, you have bosses. You can’t just say, ‘I’m doing this, trust me.’ You have to convince them why. That was the part that was new for me, and a lot of entrepreneurs have to learn that skill."

Added Lieb, "Some of them can’t learn [it] and there’s organ rejection. But at Google, it’s worked very well."

In part, that’s because the Google Photos team operates a lot like a startup. There’s minimal bureaucracy and not too many meetings, as well as an open office layout that facilitates the kind of quick product development Lieb and his Bump team had been used to.

"If I just transported you here, and plopped you down," he said, "people would say it looks like a startup office."

That’s no coincidence. Lieb pointed out that for years, Google has tried to operate that way, with flat organizational structures and a lot of decisions made by people at the product level.

It may be working since, Lieb noted, not a single person from the Bump team has left since joining Google. "That’s pretty rare in terms of acquisitions," he claimed. Perhaps the promise of having access to Google’s immense resources, and what that means for product development, has as much to do with it as anything. And Google, of course, was hardly new to tackling photos when it bought Bump. For example, it had acquired Picasa, a photo-sharing and organization app, in 2004 (it will shut Picasa down this spring). The tech giant had cared about the problem of photo organization for a long time, Lieb said; when the Bump team arrived, Google was at a crucial decision-making point about which direction to go with the technology.

"We came in at an interesting time," Lieb said. "We were able to contribute thoughts on...the debate. We thought it [needed] to be a photo-management tool akin to Gmail. It was time for that to exist for photos: It needed to be all cloud-based, accessible on all devices, and intelligently organized."

With Flock, Lieb’s team had had some great ideas and great technology. But they hadn’t had the resources to realize the app’s full potential. In large part, it was about the technology limits of what a 20-person startup could build versus the technology components that a behemoth like Google already had built.

Introducing Google Photos

"When we arrived" at Google, Lieb recalled, "it was like, ‘Holy cow there’s powerful technology we didn’t have access to as a startup….We saw incredible computer vision technology, and powerful machine learning capabilities….At Bump, it was like, we wished we could do that, but we couldn’t. Here, they already did that."

The numbers speak for themselves. While the Bump app had tens of millions of downloads, it took the company five years to reach 10 million monthly active users, Lieb said. By comparison, it took Google Photos just five months to cross 100 million.

"When I look back and I look at how hard we worked to get those 10 million" users, Lieb said, "and then coming to Google and operating at the Google scale, [it’s amazing] how relatively low stress it’s been to expand to 100 million monthly active users in less than five months. We just have systems in place that make it really easy to build products at massive scale."

To be sure, Lieb is proud of what he and his team built at Bump. After all, the company’s original app broke important new ground in the iPhone ecosystem, and made something as integral to our daily lives as exchanging contact information as easy as, yes, bumping phones together.

"But comparing that to what we’re doing here, it’s just night and day," Lieb said. "Here, every little thing that we build touches millions or tens of millions or hundreds of millions of people."

That, of course, explains why so many people were watching when Lieb and Sabharwal demoed Google Photos at I/O last year.

It all went smoothly, but in rehearsals, Lieb kept making a small mistake—he kept tapping the Google Photos search box before Sabharwal was ready for him to do so.

"So I wrote this note to myself: ‘Dave, wait for the tap on the search box,’" he said, smiling. "I showed up the next day for the keynote, and the team had made a professional label with the same [message and] printed it out for me. That was the moment where I’m like, ‘Ooh, we’re in the varsity leagues now. This isn’t JV anymore.’"