Choose Digital found a way. CTO and co-founder Mario Cruz saw an opportunity to use his marketing tech and loyalty incentives background to seize a niche in digital marketplaces. But he would do it differently: on a self-funded budget, powered by continuous development methodologies on the CloudBees cloud platform.Digital media is a tough environment for a startup, but
Down the road, Choose Digital picked up funding and now has 15 live customers - all from their home base in Miami, a growing startup hotbed. Recently I got the inside deal from Mario on how they made it happen.
Jon: You all quit your day jobs to found Choose Digital. Were you nervous about jumping off that cliff?
Mario: Because of the cloud, it was the time to take a risk - the tools are so inexpensive. If you had said five years ago, 'Let's build a company going into the space of Amazon and iTunes,' people would have said that you were crazy. When we started, I said I would give it a year - if it does not get traction in a year, I can always go back to a big company. At the time we started Choose Digital, I had a lot of job opportunities, but not in Miami, and I wanted to stay in Miami. That was another giant factor. If you are unemployable, you employ yourself.
Jon: But you pulled it off.
Mario: Yeah - we were successful pretty early on. I built a quick Minimum Viable Product (MVP) on Heroku, and that's how we started this company.
Jon: What inspired you to build out your product on a cloud platform?
Mario: There was an influential article about Netflix, Etsy and continuous development. A good friend of mine said, 'You guys need to read this article.' The article said the CEO of a company should be able to hit the 'push' button to push their solution into production. A week later, there was a famous video on the Internet with Etsy - where the CEO is literally pushing the button for a production push. That got me thinking, 'Let's try some continuous development.'
Jon: Why did you start with an MVP?
Mario: We built our first MVP just to talk to some of our early clients and say, 'Is this interesting to you, before we do any development?' The MVP was a working prototype. It had some key Choose Digital features, such as reviewing a song for points and search by song. It had purchases enabled with an alternative currency. We hit the road to show it to clients in August of 2011.
Jon: Why did you move to CloudBees?
Mario: I learned that Jenkins was part of the family of products built into CloudBees, and you didn't have to configure it yourself. I wanted the continuous environment for Jenkins, and it was a lot easier to do it on CloudBees, because it was all built in (CloudBees owns Jenkins Enterprise). Our product was also built on the Play Framework, and Cloud Bees had Play Framework support.
When we took a closer look, we saw that a pretty amazing enterprise suite of tools was built into CloudBees - so we moved everything from Heroku over to CloudBees right away. Using the free version, we built our first real product on CloudBees in November and December of 2011 - which is our core offering. We became a paid customer in January of 2012.
Once we were on the paid version, we started turning on the CloudBees enterprise features like logging with Papertrail, and database functions. Choose Digital was still entirely self-funded at that point, but we soon picked up a couple of paid clients, and in March, we completed our first funding round. Meantime, on CloudBees, I was doing everything you would need a huge infrastructure team to do, even though for a while it was just me and my co-founder. Over time, it became easier, and we never looked back. Now, we are running about forty applications, and I would say about eighty percent of all of our apps are on CloudBees.
Jon: What does your cloud environment look like today?
Mario: There are some things we have on the Amazon cloud that we manage ourselves - such as storing the mp3 files, video files, and books The rest of it all runs out of CloudBees. To date, we've never had any issues. Our company is still pretty small - fourteen employees total - but we are a seven person IT team, including myself. One of the things about continuous development in that everyone become responsible for the code and the projects they were building. If your code sucks, it is your job to fix it, and fix it fast.
With CloudBees, the development process is continuous. Forget about the 'deliver an update every six months' approach. We fit this into our culture and how we develop. Continuous access allows developers to be more involved in the product and more responsible, because they are involved in the whole process.
Jon: Taking on iTunes and Amazon is no joke. What opportunity did you see that they missed?
Mario: Apple and Amazon want to own their customers. We were seeing that the only way to power big brands was to allow them to own their own customers. We were going to empower them to offer their customers the same experience they can get with Apple and Amazon, but on their own web sites, in their own stores. Most of our clients have actually been actually giving away their customers to iTunes and Amazon, rather than serving the customer themselves and keeping that relationship and the data behind it.
Jon: So you're giving your customers the ability to provide a media shopping experience, but then a whole lot more.
Mario: Right. The real power is in the data. For example, with our airline partners, we tell them, 'When your customers travel, we are going to suggest better songs, better music, better books that are geared towards your travelers.' For our retail partners we are about to launch, it is the same thing, where we are now augmenting all of their marketing with better data.
Using music graph technology, we can take all that data and build a profile around it, and the data behind that profile belongs to our customers. We have that data in the aggregate for all of our customers that we do some things with, but for United's marketing department, they own that data. That helps them market better to the customer, that helps them get better access to the customer.
Jon: I'm surprised you were able to pull off these media storefronts given how difficult it can be to obtain media rights.
Mario: Our stores are similar to what all you would see on iTunes and Amazon. We have direct deals with all of the major labels on the music side, about half of the studios on the TV side, and about three quarters of the publisher side.
Jon: It's interesting because so much of the early cloud talk was about eradicating servers and driving costs down. You've been able to run lean, but this is more about using cloud to build creative solutions faster.
Mario: Building on a cloud platform, I can outpace my competitor and add features they will not have the time to, at costs that are very inexpensive. If I take risks and it sucks, I can ditch it because I only spent six hours on it, or a day on it. You may fail quickly, but sometimes fail quickly does not mean you fail - it just means that your good idea did not translate into what you wanted. Sometimes the code is fine, it just had no attraction with the user, they wanted something else. So you make quickly make the change.
Jon: What is your best case scenario, two years from now?
Mario: My best case scenario is that we keep growing at a double digit rate every quarter. We're adding tons of new features and bringing on new partners as well. My goal is not to put iTunes and Amazon out of business - it is to allow brands to compete with them without giving their customers away.
Jon: And...to put Miami startups on the map.
Mario (laughs): Yeah. When we started four years ago, there was very little startup activity in Miami. Now there are probably about ninety startups from out here.
Jon: I have a feeling after this winter, you are probably going to get a few more too.
Mario: We have about three big startups about to turn the corner here - success is the best way to prove it.
Image credit: Businessman wants to fly © alphaspirit - Fotolia.com
Disclosure: CloudBees PR helped to arrange this interview. CloudBees does not have a financial relationship with diginomica, nor does Choose Digital. Due to my interest in cloud platforms and past interviews with CloudBees, I reached out to them to pursue a customer story.