WWDC: Tell me What YOUR Brilliant Idea is! Joe Pezzillo

| TMO Interview

Each year at WWDC, TMO interviews a few Apple developers who want to tell their story. The result is usually a number of serious insights into the state of mind of the developer community. In our second interview, Dave Hamilton chats with Joe Pezzillo, co-founder of Push.io.

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Dave Hamilton: Joe, you’ve had varied career, including a stint as a Bohemian poet, working at Apple for a few years in Boulder, Colorado in the 1990s, and then starting an Internet music search service. But what was the most important thing you learned along the way that’s helped you be successful at Push.io?

Joe Pezzillo: The lesson I ultimately learned after a half dozen startups is that the most important thing you can do is have customers. Because, first, they’re willing to pay and second, they’ll tell you right away what’s wrong with your product. What needs to be fixed. It’s not about problems with the product so much as where does it hurt for them?

And so all the startups I had done up to that point had been about the strength of my brilliant idea. I had an idea for an Internet radio service. I had an idea for Web mining tool, and so on.

And what I learned is: forget all that stuff about your brilliant idea -- in one model, because a lot of people have better ideas than I do, so I don’t want them to stop with their ideas. But ultimately, what matters is, where does it hurt? How can I help? What can I do that makes your life better, easier? What can I do that solves your problems?

And then I met Dan Burcaw [previously interviewed] through the iPhone Dev Camp -- we did the first satellite event in Denver -- I guess that would have been roughly 2008. So all of us who had Mac development skills got vacuumed up when the iPhone SDK came out. I went to work for a very large American bank, writing mobile apps for a few years. But, as I said, then I met Dan.

Dan himself was the co-founder of the company that developed Yellow Dog Linux for PowerPC Macs [along with Kai Staats].

We thought, look at all this gold rush that’s going on. At WWDC, the rooms were full. People are still flowing into this community. And we saw that he and I had skills on the back end. We’d done a lot more work on the server side. And here were all these people who were making beautiful, incredible user experiences on the iPhone -- and probably didn’t want to run servers.

And we thought, we should do something here. We can actually solve a problem for them. We had the skill set, the experience, though we didn’t really know where to start. It’s a huge opportunity, so we spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the right entry point would be.

And then, Apple introduced push notifications, Game Center and in-app purchase...

TMO: So, you knew there were pain points on the back end, but you were looking for something to do before push notifications were a thing.

JP: That’s right. We didn’t start by saying we wanted to do push. We wanted to start with something that was a back end play. It was all based on a Mark Twain quote, which is “When there’s a gold rush going on, it’s a good time to be in the picks and shovels business.”

I worked for a large American bank that had a model like that, and it involved stage coaches.

So, Apple introduced push notifications in iOS 3.0, and Dan and I were chatting on iChat, and we both instantly had this good idea. Apple enabled push notification, but you gotta show up with your server! Basically, we thought, whenever Apple puts up a slide [for developers] that mentions “your server,” that’s an opportunity for us.

We’ve worked on some servers that populate every bit of data that’s in the app. Also, we acquired Brent Simmons’ Taplinks. [A Brent Simmons interview has also been published.] But where we’ve done really well is with push notifications. So what we finally did about a year ago, and that’s why we developed our SaaS [Software as a Service] products. Also, we wanted to steer clear of venture capital, so we set a goal of having our first customer in 90 days. It actually took us 93.

TMO: That’s not very far off.

L: Joe Pezzillo, R: Dan Burcaw

JP: And then we were off to the races. We did a very high profile sports app. It was very successful... this is where we have ultimately become successful. Where we’re different is that we tend to become deeply integrated into the app that we support. We’re not a bolt-on afterthought.

So all of my previous history gets a little more relevant. How do we take a bunch of data, figure out the needle in the haystack, and then who wants to know about this needle versus that needle.

And the success of that project got us some more work in sports. So for the first three years we were in stealth mode primarly servicing these very large sports and broadcast customers. And they have some very particular requirements. That goes back to that issue of 24x7 server support. There are a lot of isses with broadcast that are unique to that space -- where there’s no opportunity to redo.

That’s what you’re always worried about. The Super Bowl is on and you’re the guy who let the lights go off. You don’t get a second chance. Lots of money is on the line.

And then, the other aspect of it is that is because the sports are on TV, it has to be fresh, up to date. People are watching the game, but if the data is off by 5 minutes, what’s the point?

We’ve had to architect our system from the getgo around these kinds of demands.

TMO: I guess that makes things easier, with sports as your first customer, because you knew at what times it would be all hands on deck from the start.

JP: I wouldn’t say it was trial by fire or anything, but we definitely had to build our system around these kinds of needs. And this goes back to listening to the customer. This goes back to my Internet radio brilliant idea days. The fact that we have actual people now with actual requirements has really driven our success.

And then after a time in stealth mode, in September of 2012, we introduced our SaaS product. We decided that what we wanted to do was introduce a platform so that allowed more developers to use our product. Because, as small company, eight people, we’re logistically constrained. And so we needed a way to make it more self-servicing -- in order to bring more customers on.

But being in stealth mode and having these higher end customers didn’t give us the opportunity to serve the indie developer community, and I love those guys. It wasn’t for lack of interest, it was simply that we had this very intense focus. So what we discovered is that there are so many more oportunities for push notifications than we had ever thought of.

TMO: I am sure if whoever is reading this has an iPhone, they have been the recipient of a push that you’ve sent them.

JP: There’s a very strong chance of that. Also, having a more diverse customer base is driving new requirements for us. And that’s been very exciting as well, because it allows us to continue to innovate on our product.

One example is that we actually see if the user does what you want them to do. You send them a push about watching a video. Did they watch the video? So we can identify that group of users that watched the video and those that didn’t.

So where we think this is all headed is stuff like the contextual relevance of the push, how closely related is the content of the push to the user? And that’s what really matters.

TMO: So, going back to the early days when you weren’t writing much code, how much do you write an Push.io?

JP: I spend way more time in QuickBooks than I spend in Xcode. And furthermore, my most recent code didn’t work. [Laughter.] Well, it worked a little bit. In the early days, I wrote a lttle code, but I hope that’s all gone now! We’re in our third generation of the code.

It’s a great dilemma. You start doing something you love to do, only to find that you don’t get to spend as much time as you want doing it. But I’ve taken others’ advice and always hire programmers who are much better than me! I love to program, and I’ve done some great things in coding, but, ah, ultimately to keep the focus on customer, we have to sell. That’s the reality of business. There’s building and there’s selling. My time is more valuable focused on customers.

TMO: Then that’s the right thing to do. It sounds like you enjoy that too.

JP: I do. I like to talk. [Laughter.] So what’s funny about all this is that, having done a lot of radio, what’s challenging is doing interviews. Ultimately, it’s a dialog. One of my favorites is the [book] The Cluetrain Manifesto . Markets are conversations. But even if it’s one-on-one, that conversation is about how things get done because that’s how you find out what the customer needs.

TMO: If you do all the talking during a sales pitch, you probably aren’t going to get the business.

JP: Exactly. The idea is not to talk about our brilliant idea. Tell me what your brilliant idea is and how I can help.

In the [WWDC] lunch room today, I got to sit with Bill Atkinson, and it was beyond words, how wonderful it was. But it wasn’t the first time. I actually met him at 360iDev awhile back when he attended one of my sessions. I was stunned. He’s in my session! He’s asking me how to do something? What’s going on here?!

TMO: Bill came to one of my sessions at Macworld a few years ago, and then we had lunch afterwards. I know exactly what you mean.

JP: He was talking about his Postcards app. He put so much care and love into that. His job there is that he’s delivering other people’s love. It was touching. But that’s really what it comes down to -- inspiring -- because here’s somebody who’s also a brillliant coder, but he sees that he has to work for the customer. He’s gotta make sure they’re taken care of.

TMO: It almost seems sad, but actually it’s awesome.

JP: Precisely. And he talked about how it was about the change in his idea. He thought originally it might be more about his photography, but as it turned out people want to send their own birthday pictures, pictures from their travels and such. The level of detail, the care and attention that he puts into that is inspiring.

And that’s where Dan and I are. It’s all about cutomer service. We’re answerring customer emails day and night. We have some proprietary code, but in principle, others could do what we do. But it’s that customer service. That’s a crucial part of what’s made us successful.

Dave Hamilton: Cool. That seems like as good a place to finish up. Thanks for your time, Joe.

Joe Pezzillo: I understand. And you gotta promise me, John [now Joe’s talking to me, doing the transription!], that you’ll get to the real meat of this interview. No need to go into the Bohemian poet stuff in the first half!

Dave Hamilton: John’s going to freak out when he sees the size of this audio file.

John Martellaro: I think it all worked out guys! The interview was poetry.

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