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The internet has come a long way from where it began to its current level of preeminence in today’s society. This progress has come from the hard work and dedication of many innovators striving to push the boundaries of what web development can accomplish. One of these innovators is Matt Biilmann, co-founder of Netlify. Here he shares how his vision of the future of the web inspired the company’s creation.
Biilmann had worked for a few companies, including managing his startup, before Netlify was ever a thought. Throughout these experiences, he gradually came to see what the future might hold for web development. Rather than monolithic applications dominating the space, developers would look to decoupled apps to power tomorrow’s web experiences.
This idea led to the founding of Netlify, where Biilmann is the CEO, serving companies like Unilever and Verizon, as well as Peloton and Twilio, with their goals to transform web experiences.
The Journey to Netlify: Seeing the Future of the Web
“I started getting the sense that the fundamental architecture of the web was going to change from a world where every website, every store, every web application was one monolithic application, into a world where you would completely decouple the web UI layer, the whole user experience and…from all the different parts of the backend business logic.” This was the thought that led Biilmann to consider what a platform built to handle that web experience layer would look like.
He gave himself three weeks to build a proof-of-concept and see if this idea would be helpful to the audience he had in mind. Fortunately, this first iteration seemed to resonate with the right people in the front-end space, and Biilmann knew that this was proof that the architecture of the web was about to experience a drastic change.
While he was already becoming convinced of the strength of this idea, it was an experience with one of his best friends that would further set him on the course to founding Netlify. Around this time, Biilmann was due to head home when his old friend, Chris Bach, informed him that he was battling cancer. After learning this, Biilmann spent a lot more time with his friend that holiday and their time together spawned discussions regarding their work. Chris built award-winning high-quality digital executions for some of the biggest brands in the world, and Biilmann wanted to empower the next generation of web architecture. They soon found their ideas beginning to form a cohesive plan.
Soon enough, Chris made it through cancer, and he was left facing the idea of what he wanted out of his life. He decided that more than just a job, he wanted to build something of his own, and he agreed to join Biilmann and his vision for what would become Netlify.
How to Build Ideas Into Products
Having a grand idea is one thing but turning it into a viable product is another. Biilmann understands this reality all too well, and he shared his and Chris’s approach to building their idea into a functioning product.
“We sat down and built the big roadmap for the big platform we wanted to build.” For them, this meant starting with the smallest thing they could build and then moving in that direction. This led to them building an initial product that would allow a front-end developer to configure their backend, while the software would guess within reason their front-end framework and configure everything. Ideally, this would allow a client to have a site up and running within 30 seconds.
This was the first iteration, and they would go on to launch that product with the start of Netlify. By the end of 2015, with the help of word-of-mouth from first adopters, the two-person team of Matt and Chris were serving around a quarter of a billion web requests a month, including customers like WeWork, Sequoia Capital and the Malala Fund.
They understood this setup could not last forever, as their humble design and lack of funding meant that they would need to seek help to truly expand their vision. They raced to fundraise to ensure their survival, and by the end of their first round of fundraising in 2016, they had received money from investors who had been aware of their product and were eager to see their ideas explored. This allowed them to hire their first full-time employees. Biilmann recalls the relief he felt at this milestone, “That just massively changed the quality of life, because until then I had to be on call all the time, no matter what, 24/7.”
From those humble beginnings, Netlify has seen rapid growth, now serving clients ranging from those right out of school writing their first web projects to core application teams building transformative experiences like those at Twilio.
How Netlify Has Enabled Their Continual Growth and Success
The lasting success Netlify is enjoying now has been maintained by the passion and enthusiasm of Biilmann and the other staff at Netlify. This success is even more impressive when you learn that he didn’t even start his career in this industry. “I studied Musicology and Comparative literature.” He first worked as a music journalist, but when he moved to Spain from Denmark, he realized there was not much of a market for “writing about music in Danish in Madrid.” So, his career focus changed to the hobby he had loved since he was 10, programming.
Starting with a commodore 64, Biilmann would go to the library and pore over manuals and borrow shareware, learning all he could about his blooming passion. So, when he couldn’t pursue his music writing interest, he turned back to the passion he had cared for since his childhood. Funnily enough, through this early experience, without the easy guidance of sites like YouTube or formal teachers, he learned to familiarize himself with all of the different levels and areas of development. That experience directly contributes to his outlook today.
The experience with the different points in the process of web development is what makes his work at Netlify so effective. He has been in the shoes of all the teams who rely on the software, and he understands how to address these needs and learn what will pain them next.
Advice for Founders Starting Out
One point that Biilmann stresses for founders starting their own companies is, “You should always challenge yourself, that even as you go…you keep embracing more types of customers.” Biilmann and Netlify had their initial adopters but always sought to include new developers and accommodate their needs as they grew.
For businesses handling new modes of work, he commented on Netlify’s distributed team system and how they manage to keep their employees focused and connected, even when working remotely. “Building a culture in a company is really important, no matter whether you do it in an office or remotely.” Their current approach is to start every week with a meeting of around 15 minutes, where they talk about successes from last week and what goals to look ahead for this week. Something to insert energy into the team and orient everyone toward common goals for the work ahead.
Before our discussion ended, Biilmann also brought up how important marketing is to every business and how when he and Chris were a two-person team; they would make at least a few blog posts a week. Presence on social media was a plus too. This marketing mindset has not seemed to wane either, as Biilmann invited any developers interested in building the future of the web to come and work with Netlify.