Remember back in 2012, when Facebook stunned the world by spending $US1 billion to buy the 13-person startup Instagram?
The purchase seems almost quaint now, when the Valley is overrun with billion-dollar startups, but it blew the minds of Silicon Valley at the time.
It was also the turning point in the career for one early Facebook employee, Pete Hunt.
Today Hunt is the cofounding CEO of a security startup called Smyte.
But he is better known as one of the fathers of a Facebook-born technology for programmers called React. React is one of the most popular open source projects Facebook has ever released and it turned Hunt into a star in the web development world.
All thanks to Instagram. And while his startup isn’t based on React, its early success is a direct result of how he turned React’s initial haters into fans.
The Facebook drone
Back in the summer of 2012, Hunt became known inside of Facebook for working on its photo and video features. He and his team had spent the previous year thinking of Instagram as the enemy.
Then Instagram was suddenly a massive and controversial part of Facebook and Hunt was assigned to bring Instagram into the Facebook fold.
“I was the first engineer to go over from Facebook to Instagram. I was the corporate drone,” Smyte tells Business Insider. “They were super nice. But it definitely was like I was the first external person dropped into their tight-knit team.”
Hunt was tasked with building Instagram’s first website.
The first step was bringing it into Facebook’s “trust and safety” systems — the tools that protect users from bullies, and fraud, as well as watching for evidence of hate speech or crimes.
He started exploring the best ways to do that and came across another Facebook employee, Jordan Walke, who had been working on a “cool” side project to do this, Hunt describes.
It wasn’t a polished tool but he bet Instagram’s website on it anyway. This became React. Hunt was hooked on React and kept adding features and improvements. Word about React grew at Facebook.
“More and more products inside Facebook had this same set of problems and wanted to use this technology. This includes mobile search and ad placement,” he says.
“By this time, this technology had been through the ringer. We knew it was awesome and everyone was super excited about announcing it,” he said.
But when they showed it off, people hated it.
Chasing down the haters
While the team was on stage demonstrating React, the reaction was merciless, Hunt recalls.
“Everyone was being super mean on Twitter and Hacker News,” he says.
That’s because React involved a new way to organise a web project that involved mixing and matching code written in different formats, something that was always considered to be a major, sloppy no-no. And the team was skewered for it.
It was demoralising.
Hunt, who knew how React was helping Facebook, wasn’t having it.
He also took on the haters directly on Twitter and Hacker News.
“I read every comment and replied to every one,” he said.
After a while, other people started replying as well, and posting the YouTube link to his talks.
React took off. And he became a very popular speaker.
“I was flying around the world to different countries every month giving talks. I was flying business class, the conferences were paying for me to come. I felt like a rockstar,” he said.
Until one night, when he was at a conference party in Barcelona at 4 a.m. and he looked around at his adoring fans and realised “It was me and a bunch of nerds. And I was like, ‘well, I sort of made it.'”
He knew he wanted to do something bigger. The startup bug had bit.
Meeting a cofounder at a toga party
He decided his startup would not be based on React but on trust and safety, the first thing Instagram had had to figure out.
“There’s a trail of dead companies because they couldn’t do trust and safety. Yik Yak, Secret, and Twitter is struggling with this too, the abuse problem,” he said.
His success with React and Instagram “was enough for me to have courage to leave Facebook. But I didn’t think I was the guy to build it. I needed a cofounder to help me. But even as a so-called celebrity rockstar, I couldn’t get anyone to quit their job and join me,” he said.
He knew the cofounder he wanted, too: Julian Tempelsman. He had met him on the stairs of his apartment wearing a Toga when they all attended a party in his apartment building. It turned out Tempelsman was working on similar security systems at Google and they spent that evening talking about a potential startup.
But Tempelsman didn’t want to leave Google. After almost a year of pestering, Hunt told him, “I’ll quit my job and we’ll do the fund raise and if it doesn’t happen, you don’t need to quit your job. If it does, you can still come in as an equal partner” he said.
He met his other cofounder, Josh Yudaken, at Instagram. Yudaken was itching to go out on his own, got curious and when Hunt quit Facebook, he jumped in.
It didn’t take long for Tempelsman to join, too. And it didn’t take long to find some seed money.
“The seed founder was a friend of a friend of a Google cofounder. I had lunch with him and he wrote a check,” he said.
Smyte got accepted into the startup factory known as YCombinator and quickly raised another $2.25 million from a number of backers including Instagram VC Steve Anderson at Baseline. It just raised another $US4 million A round last month.
He still contributes to React. And it turns out that his fame in that world, and the way he chased down the haters is helping Smyte win business.
“My classic move to get into companies [for a sales meeting] is I see question on Stack Overflow,” he says, referring to the website where developers ask each other questions. “I tell them, ‘I’m happy to go in and give your guys a tech talk on React, and since I’m doing you a favour, can I meet with your team for 20 minutes? It gets me in the door.”
While the startup isn’t profitable yet the tactic is working. “We have over tripled our revenue in the past 6 months. We have dozens of customers, and around 100 million monthly active users and monitor tens of thousands of events per second,” Hunt said.
Smyte formally launched its product in 2015 and has landed such customers as Indiegogo, GoFundMe, Quora, Medium, Meetup, Task Rabbit and others.
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