Earlier this year we made a seed investment in a new company called Gnip. Yesterday, Gnip launched their first service – a free centralized callback server that notifies data consumers (such as Plaxo) in real-time when there is new data about their users on various data producing sites (such as Flickr and Digg). I’ve written my version of the overview on the Foundry Group blog in my post titled Gnip is Ping Spelled Backwards, there are a couple of posts up already on the Gnip blog, and a number of people have already written about Gnip including TechCrunch, TechCrunchIT, ReadWriteWeb, VentureBeat, Dave Winer, and Joe Smarr (Plaxo’s Chief Platform Architect). Rather than repeat what Gnip is here, I’m going to tell you how this investment came about.
It started in 2004. I got an IM out of the blue from someone named bpm140 (my IM addresses are easy to find – AIM/Y!: bfeld; Skype: bradfeld; MSN: firstname.lastname@example.org.) bpm140 asked me if I’d be willing to take a quick look at a business plan he had. I IM’ed back that he should email it to me – I got it 30 seconds later.
I took a look and scheduled a call. It was a plan for an educational game thing that I didn’t really get but I was intrigued by some of the stuff in it. I talked to bpm140 (Eric Marcoullier) and gave him some feedback. After talking for a little while I told him it wasn’t my thing, but he should feel free to holler if he thought I could be helpful.
Over the next few months I gave him plenty of feedback on this new thing he was calling MyBlogLog. The UI of the stats service was hideous, but the popup link data on my blog was awesome and the stats were killer. By this point I had invested in FeedBurner, so I introduced Eric to Dick Costolo – FeedBurner’s CEO. More feedback ensued.
Up to this point, Eric and his partner Todd hadn’t raised any money. I remember the first "are you interested in investing call" happening in May 2006. Amy and I had rented and apartment in Paris for the month and I can remember the conference call with Eric and this new guy Scott Rafer who Eric and Todd had brought in to be CEO. They were considering putting together an angel round with the idea of going for a venture round in three or four months. I committed $25k on the spot, although I remember Scott saying he really didn’t want investments of less than $50k.
MyBlogLog continued its torrid growth over the summer, appearing on virtually every blog I read. Fred Wilson – one of my co-investors in FeedBurner and another fan of MyBlogLog – and I started talking about doing a VC round. We came close to do a deal (the documents were a few days away from being signed) when Yahoo! acquired MyBlogLog shortly after getting excited about them after seeing them at the Web 2.0 conference in 2006. I had one awkward conversation with Eric where I quickly told him that while I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be investing in MyBlogLog, I was psyched for him, Todd, and Scott and wished him luck. I also told him that I’d love to stay in touch and have another chance to work with him in the future.
I didn’t expect Eric to stay at Yahoo! very long (he lasted about six months, although Todd is still there trying hard to keep the MyBlogLog flame alive.) True to my invitation, Eric and I stayed in touch, he and Todd were a big help at TechStars in 2007, and Eric started making occasional trips out to Boulder to see me.
I spent most of 2007 raising our first Foundry Group fund. By the fall we had finished raising our fund and had turned our focus towards making investments. It was in this context that Eric and I sat down on one of his trips in the fall of 2007. Over a couple of hours, Eric ran me through a half dozen ideas he had for a new business. He was hedging a little – struggling with whether to go deep on one business or try to start a few. I strongly encouraged him to focus on one. I told him that four of the six ideas were stupid, one wasn’t for me, but one was awesome. It was the seed of what turned into Gnip.
During that trip, I dragged my partners Ryan and Seth into a conference room to sit with Eric and sketch out Gnip more. Eric was originally calling the idea Pingery but somewhere along the way Gnip popped out and it stuck ("meta-ping server" was a little awkward). Gnip fit perfectly in a new theme that Ryan, Seth, and my other Foundry partners were calling Glue and we told Eric that if he wanted to do Gnip as the exclusive thing he worked on, we’d be game to go after it with him.
I got a call from Eric a few weeks later that he’d decided to go all in with Gnip. We’d recently made an investment in Zynga and Eric had spent some time with Mark Pincus, the founder/CEO of Zynga. I think Mark’s single-minded obsession with the business he was creating made a deep impression on Eric, especially since Mark is a multi-time successful entrepreneur who also has plenty of angel investments and can basically spend his time wherever he wants.
Part of Eric’s success in MyBlogLog was his partnership with his technical co-founder Todd. I told Eric he needed either Todd, or a technical co-founder like Todd, as part of Gnip. Todd wasn’t available as he was committed to staying at Yahoo! so we introduced Eric to a few people, including Jud Valeski. We’d known Jud for several years as he was a Netscape/AOL refugee that had settled in Boulder. Jud had recently left Me.dium and was working out of our offices as he contemplated his next gig. Jud and Eric hit it off immediately and started working together remotely (
Eric in the bay area; Jud in Boulder) to both flesh out the idea behind Gnip as well as see if they could work together.
A few weeks later Eric and Jud gave their formal pitch to us for Gnip. It was a 10 page PowerPoint presentation that outlined the idea, opportunity, and how they would go about it. We committed to leading a seed investment of $1m on the spot – either by ourselves or with another VC firm. A few weeks later we closed a $1.1m round with SoftTechVC (Jeff Clavier) and First Round Capital (Josh Kopelman) and were off to the races (BTW – Josh has written a really clever post about Gnip titled The Story of Francis Bates.)
Eric, Jud, and Gnip have surpassed all of our expectations from our seed investment at the beginning of the year. They’ve totally nailed the concept we were kicking around when we first started talking about Gnip, have built a superb initial service in a remarkably short period of time with the help of Pivotal Labs, and have added a handful of awesome technical people to their team. They’ve managed to do this while still being split between the bay area (Eric, Tiffany, and Pivotal) and Boulder (Jud and the rest of the team).
It took a three year courtship, but Eric and I are now working together as partners. As my grandmother used to say, "My Gnip Runneth Over."