Scenes From A Tsunami

How do you stay sane when your startup catches a wave beyond your wildest dreams? Lessons from Feedly, heir apparent to Google Reader.

Cyril Moutran was at South by Southwest when he got a text message from his boss. The news probably at first seemed, as it did to so many, like a practical joke. The message read, simply, “google is killing reader.” While most users met the news of Google Reader’s demise with great disappointment, Moutran had reason to be excited, if daunted. Moutran worked for Feedly, itself a newsreading app that was in many ways Google Reader’s competitor. Soon, the technorati were deeming Feedly the heir apparent to Google’s service.


By March, when the Google Reader news dropped, Feedly had already been building a loyal user base independent of Google’s service; Feedly’s roughly four million users especially loved the Feedly experience on mobile. “Since last November, with our big mobile release, we were growing at about 4% per week, a nice pace for a startup,” recalls Moutran. With the Google announcement, though, Feedly was experiencing a massive wave of traffic. As word trickled out that Feedly could seamlessly migrate Google Reader feeds, that wave became a tsunami. Four million users soon grew to seven million, and beyond. “It’s basically, roughly, about 2.5 million users every month at this point,” Moutran says of the startup’s growth.


Many of these users are Google Reader refugees, though hardly all of them. Google had cited declining usage as a reason for retiring its Reader, and truthfully, the site had appealed more to certain specialists–journalists loved it–than to the general public. Its demise, though, had provoked an outcry from those same journalists, propelling talk around Google Reader into the mainstream, likely interesting a new, more general audience in newsreaders.

In short, Moutran and his colleagues had their work cut out for them. And the next few months running up to Google Reader’s final sunset date–July 1, 2013–would prove an immensely trying time for a team numbering roughly a dozen members. The team knew that this was the opportunity they’d been waiting for. But how would they stay sane in a period where waking hours would be more or less synonymous with work?

Each has found ways to cope. Olivier Devaux signed up for a fitness “bootcamp” over at Stanford; he stops in early, before coming into Feedly’s Palo Alto office. Arthur Bodolec takes 15-minute speed naps at the foot of Feedly’s yellow couch. Bodolec also joined Feedly colleague Remi Trang on a “bike to work” day. Typically intended for people with brief enough commutes–a 30-minute ride through bike-laned streets, maybe–Bodolec and Trang made the trip from their San Francisco homes all the way to Palo Alto. It was a journey of almost two hours, taking them along little roads beside the highway, but it was refreshing and worth it.

Staying sane has also meant acknowledging the sacrifices that need to be made–yet dampening them, whenever possible. A recent Friday was the birthday of one of Moutran’s colleagues, Michal Chmielewski. Chmielewski made his peace with the fact that there would be no celebrating for him, and was ready to burrow into his work. But Chmielewski’s wife planned a surprise. In the evening, she arrived, along with their kids and the families of a few other Feedly members. The Feedly staff had a home-cooked meal and a brief birthday celebration. The workers chatted and unwound, the kids played together. “Then everybody went back to work,” says Moutran. “We were probably ten times more productive.”

As for Moutran himself, boot camp doesn’t sound like his idea of relaxation, and unless he’s going to sleep for at least five hours, he’d rather not bother with a catnap. Instead, Moutran carves out sanity in small ways woven throughout his day–all measured with the help of a Fitbit pedometer. Moutran aims to take about 12,000 steps every day, if he can. In the morning, though he arrives at downtown Palo Alto early, he deliberately parks a few blocks away; at lunch, he’ll forgo the crepe place right downstairs and walk the ten minutes to the Whole Foods. For any tasks that don’t require him to be at his computer, he’ll stand with his iPhone and walk a few laps around the block. He even knows by now just where to walk to avoid the noise of traffic, if he’s going to be on a call. Others who work in the area see him walking in circles. “Some probably say, ‘What is going on with him?’” he says. They might think he was a derelict, were it not for his iPhone.


These are demanding months for the Feedly staff, mentally and physically, professionally and personally. It’s a lot of work–more work than most of them have ever faced–but they’re bearing it dutifully and as best they can, and with a knowledge of the opportunity it represents. “It’s a big wave, no doubt. It’s a huge wave,” says Moutran. That’s why it’s all the more important to ride it safely, and smartly. “To be able to take a wave, you have to be in the water. You also have to have a wetsuit, and have a board, you have to be there when the wave is coming and you have to want to take it.”

So the Feedly staff are doing what they can to keep balance, says Moutran. Then he thinks again, realizing that true balance is impossible in times like these. “The appearance of balance,” he revises.

[Image: Flickr user Dennis Jarvis | Courtesy of Feedly]

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.