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Sometimes You’re Just One Hop From Something Huge

Firebase is a company beloved by developers, but their initial plan was to build something altogether different. Here’s how they found a problem (really) worth solving.

Sometimes You’re Just One Hop From Something Huge
[Image: Flickr user Zach Dischner]

Today, Firebase is a popular backend-as-a-service company, letting developers sync their apps and websites to Firebase’s cloud without having to worry about database management and scalability.

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But the service didn’t appear overnight–Firebase actually evolved from two prior startups launched by company founders James Tamplin and Andrew Lee. Tamplin, the company’s CEO, says that evolution wouldn’t have happened without their working hard to find out what their customers actually wanted.

Tamplin and Lee first started SendMeHome.com in 2008. The service started by generating printable tracking tags for users’ valuables and evolved into a social networking site geared around real-world objects.

“To begin a story, a user must register an object at SendMeHome.com,” that company explained in 2009. “The object is then passed from person to person; each person who receives the item can use its unique SendMeHome ID as a key to add a chapter to the online story.”

SendMeHome wanted to let its users chat in real time but struggled to find a reliable chat tool to drop into the website, Tamplin says.

“There were absolutely no good ones out there, so we ended up building our own,” he says. Then, Tamplin and Lee realized their problem probably wasn’t unique, so they decided to focus on making embeddable, real-time chat widgets for other sites.

The two founded Envolve, which launched its chat-as-a-service platform in 2011, with backing from Y Combinator.

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“Their main advice is go and talk to your customers and figure out what their needs are,” Tamplin says of the incubator. “This is actually one of [Y Combinator founder] Paul Graham’s famous theories, or maxims: You’re always one or two hops away from something huge, and you just need to invest in good teams who can execute and make those leaps.”

And, after releasing its chat API, Envolve discovered a lot of the messages passing through its system weren’t actual chats at all–developers had started using Envolve’s chat API to as a way to sync data across their users’ computers.

“Our gaming customers were trying to send game data through the chat system,” says Tamplin. “Instead of just letting the users talk to each other, they were sending character hit points through the chat system in these private rooms.”

It turned out many of Envolve’s customers had skilled front-end developers but just didn’t have the resources to set up real-time backend syncing for their apps.

“There were very, very few developers who could build these scalable real-time systems, real-time backends,” Tamplin says.

So the founders decided to pivot again, and separate the real-time synched database backend, which became Firebase, from Envolve.

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“We ended up divorcing the interface of chat from this real-time architecture,” says Tamplin.

And Firebase is still taking customer feedback into account, he says. The company even holds a weekly in-person and online office hours in its San Francisco headquarters and goes out of its way to be helpful to developers, whether they’re existing customers or just potential ones.

“We go to hackathons and we’ll help people build their projects, whether they’re using Firebase or not,” says Tamplin. “We’ll stay up all night and always have someone at our sponsor booth when all the other sponsors have gone home.”

Firebase also just added hosting for web assets, like HTML, JavaScript, and image files, so developers don’t have to set up separate accounts for webpages that are simply going to communicate with Firebase’s backend. That, too, was in response to user requests, says Tamplin.

“We built the database, but we just didn’t have the method to deliver the HTML, CSS, JavaScript, images, et cetera,” he says. “And that’s where people were getting hung up.”