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Summary:

Patrick Leahy, co-founder of startup Firefly, turned down a prestigious Wall Street investment banking internship to build software that takes the messy plug-ins and downloads out of web-based customer support services.

Firefly co-founders (l. to r.) Dan Shipper, Patrick Leahy, Justin Meltzer.
photo: Firefly

It’s sometimes easy to get jaded about the tech startup scene, which can seem more a grab for fame and fortune than true believers doing what they love.

That’s why it’s fun to come across a startup like Firefly, the creation of four University of Pennsylvania undergraduates who want to make it drop-dead easy for companies to guide customers through their websites by co-browsing or sharing screens without plugins or downloads.

So if you’re perusing your a healthcare provider’s web site and get stuck on a form, the customer service agent can with a button click,  get in and share that screen — without seeing any of the user’s other tabs or screens — to walk the user through the process. To facilitate this, the company just adds a few lines of JavaScript code to the URL header.

The product has gotten some ink  and it is cool. But what impressed me was the co-founders. I met two of the three — Wharton undergrads Patrick Leahy and Justin Meltzer  — at Boston AngelHack last spring, when Leahy was in in the midst of a hackathon road trip.

Just coming off the 48-hour Penn Apps hackathon, Leahy Bolt-bused up to Cambridge for the 30-hour Boston AngelHack, before jumping aboard StartupBus, a 70-hour hackathon-on-wheels to South By Southwest, where he was going to participate in — wait for it — another hackathon. Code means a lot to this guy…

Firefly co-founder Patrick Leahy

Foresaking Wall Street for code

So much, in fact, that Leahy turned down an investment banking internship with a New York financial services giant to focus on programming. “I did one internship on derivatives trading last year and liked it and was going to go back for investment banking, but I want to build the company,” Leahy told me by phone last week.

Leahy and another Firefly co-founder Dan Shipper are startup veterans, having already launched Airtime for Email, which gives companies a way to brand their marketing messages in email and track how those emails are treated. Were they read? Nuked? Forwarded? Never opened?

Leahy speaks about code as someone who is knowledgeable but still eager to learn. “We wrote the first version of Firefly at Penn Apps using Ruby on Rails but we couldn’t get to the level of complexity we needed so we rewrote it at AngelHack in Node.js. We learned that language at AngelHack and it’s perfect for what we needed,” Leahy said.

Picking the right tools

“Programming languages are like different sized kitchen knives — they suit different jobs,” he said. Ruby on Rails is a great framework for building “CRUD”  or Create, Read, Update, Delete — applications, he said. “If you have a big table you want to edit — a customer information page, your sales rep page, Ruby on Rails if fine,” he said.

But for Firefly, which needs to handle fast browser-to-browser communication, Node.js was better. “We have to pass messages back and forth so our server sits in the middle and we wrote code to connect all those browsers. This is an evented pattern where you’re having a conversation, listening for things to be said and holding till you hear them. Ruby on Rails is not good for that but a functional programming language like JavaScript makes it easy to call a function to handle an event,” he added.

The Firefly foursome used to work out of dorms and apartments but is moving into the offices of First Round Capital, although there are no plans to take venture funding yet.

To be sure, Firefly isn’t entering an empty stage. LogMeIn offers a popular screen charing application and Salesforce.com bought GoInstant a screen-sharing company in July for $70 million. But Salesforce is attacking big companies with a full array of analytics and other perks while Firefly focuses on customer service and might be more attractive to smaller companies. Whatever the competitive landscape,  I wouldn’t sell this team short. They show a remarkable maturity that complements their youthful exuberance. Asked if Firefly was seeking venture capital, Leahy was cautious.

“We want to get to free cash flow and get stable before thinking about raising money from outside. We want to make sure we can manage our own money first,” Leahy said.

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  1. Didn’t Joel spolsky have a similar product?

    1. The different between Firefly and Joel’s product is Firefly doesn’t require any downloads or installs on either the customer’s side or the representative’s side, whereas theirs does. Hope that helps!

  2. Nice article. Turns out we were looking for a support tool to help new customers navigate our app. I had a question about one of the features (stealth mode for use with Olark) and used their online chat. Dan Shipper, co-founder, answered me back in seconds and helped me understand. I signed up immediately and completed the entire integration in about 30 seconds including deploying to production and updating our customer support wiki.

    Thanks for helping me find these guys! Jim. (KimbraClickPLUS.com)

    1. Thanks for the warm note Jim!!

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