Long before they built Firebase, a database that operates as a scalable real-time Backend as a Service (BaaS), James Tamplin and Andrew Lee became buddies in high school in Minnesota. Their lives have separated at times, but one episode in 2010 might well have tied them together inextricably for the foreseeable future.
They were in Haiti to help out — painting a school building, repairing its electrical systems and the like. After a day off for sightseeing in Port-au-Prince, Lee was eating pizza on the patio at his hotel when Tamplin came by and suggested they go on the roof of the hotel’s other building and watch the sunset. So they went. “The building starts shaking,” Lee recalled. “This can’t be an earthquake — Haiti doesn’t have earthquakes.” Tamplin ran to the other side of the roof, bounded down the stairs, leapt over the railing and bounced over the hotel awning into a palm tree. “And then he’s there, like, clinging to this tall tree like a koala bear,” Lee said.
The building where Lee had been eating pizza collapsed. Many people in that building died; Tamplin lived, along with his friend. “I couldn’t get a hold of anyone,” Tamplin said. “Everyone thought we were dead, because all the cell networks were down for, like 12 to 16 hours or something.” Eventually he was able to send text messages again, but that wasn’t for a while. And it was an ordeal for Tamplin and Lee to find each other after the quake, too.
At the time, the two were on their third startup idea — Envolve — which had created a chat component for developers to add to their websites. (The duo’s previous companies — SendMeHome.com, a site for tracking down stuff you lose with the help of custom labels and a comment feature, and Keep Security, which came up with a fingerprinting sensor for the iPhone — are now defunct. But Envolve lives on and still takes up time each week.) After scoring several customers, they were admitted to Y Combinator’s summer 2011 class.
That’s one heck of a pivot
During the summer, they hired their first employee, Vikrum Nijjar. Nijjar totally grasped the problem Envolve was addressing. He had sought to build a mobile application with chatting capability for his own startup, Flourishworks, but he didn’t want to bother with the hard work of building the chat part, he said.
In the midst of their time at Y Combinator, the bunch discovered that some of their customers had bigger needs. Gaming customers wanted to do more than just serve up a chat function with Envolve; they wanted to send game data, too.
“We thought, ‘What happens if we take the interface off of the chat and put it over here somewhere and then expose the architecture that we built as an API, so that anyone can use it, and it’s much more flexible?’” Tamplin said. “The way we built it means not only can you build a real-time chat application, but you can build any real-time application.”
What’s more, developers don’t need to worry about assembling server-side code with Firebase. They can focus on the front-end code, while Firebase takes care of the back end on its hosted servers. “It’s great because it lets them focus on solving the customers’ problem, (so they don’t need to) focus on anything other than product-market fit. They should do that above all else,” Tamplin said.
This change of direction was revealing on a couple of levels for one investor, Pavan Nigam, founding partner of Inspovation Ventures. First, it showed that Tamplin was not a stubborn founder who refused to change in the face of different market needs; rather, he listened and responded. Second, it was a great business decision, because the market opportunity for real-time anything is much bigger than for real-time chat. It was clear to Nigam that Tamplin was a “fantastic product visionary,” partnered with a “top-notch technologist” in Lee.
Demand-response is a dinosaur, embrace the now.
While Nijjar didn’t sign up to work at a company with a more general answer to the real-time problem, he gladly went along with the change. He sees the Firebase backend as fitting tightly with the future of the web. “We’re definitely on the cusp of a shift between the request-response model and real-time data,” he said.
For Tamplin, 28-years-old and the company’s CEO, giving hordes of developers the ability to sync data rapidly across all clients isn’t just a neat toy. “It makes the web more social, more productive,” he said. “(Real-time) allows communication to happen in ways that previously weren’t possible.” He and Lee should know, given the delay they experienced in communicating with family members after the Haiti earthquake.
Combine the duo’s track record building products — PC World named SendMeHome.com one of the top 100 products of 2009 before the company was acquired by TrackItBack.com for an undisclosed sum in 2010 — with Tamplin’s humility and business savvy, and it becomes clear why he is a Cloud Trailblazer. But he is quick to note that Firebase is something he and Lee dreamed up together.