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Interview with Dick Costolo, Feedburner/Google

By - June 08, 2007

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When news of Google’s acquisition of Feedburner broke last week, those of us who have known Dick Costolo for a while were all smiles – Dick is a great guy, and we all love his service, which has a very publisher friendly approach and provides real benefit to us all. I shot a congratulatory email to Dick and asked him a few questions over the course of the week. Here’s the exchange:

Why did you sell to Google?

We help publishers manage distributed media by providing a suite of services for analytics, distribution/promotion, and monetization. On the media call yesterday, I said that we thought there was tremendous overlap between our competencies and the depth and breadth of Google’s offerings. Susan Wojcicki commented on this point during the call and used the term complementary instead of overlap, and I think that’s a much better word choice for a few reasons. We both offer detailed publisher analytics, but Google is extremely strong on site and marketing analytics while we are light on site analytics but very deep on feed and distribution analytics. Further, while our customer base is a critical mass of publishers (over 400k) that grows at an amazing rate, we have select advertiser relationships. It goes without saying that Google’s depth and breadth of advertiser relationships well complement the critical mass of publishers we serve. I could go on with a number of other examples like this. So, I like the term complementary as a defining theme for the reasoning behind this relationship.

Why now?

Timing about anything like this is always a hard question to answer, mostly because it’s not necessarily up to one party to decide on timing. Both parties have to agree it makes sense. That’s obvious I suppose, but it can make a unilateral answer to a timing question sound a bit (or a lot) disingenuous. Acknowledging that, I’d say there are two components to the timing question and both harken back to my answer above. I say ‘harken back’ as if I wrote the paragraph above in 1972. Anyway, I mentioned speed of innovation. We now have well over 400k publishers leveraging one or more of our services (do you like how I’ve pointed out that number twice? This is what we call ‘on message’). The type and variety of publisher working with FeedBurner has grown in interesting ways in the last couple years, and it has become more and more evident that in order to provide timely services to as many of our publishers as quickly as possible, FeedBurner must scale in multiple directions simultaneously. Google’s track record for scaling services and innovating on them quickly for a global customer base adds to the logic behind our decision. To elaborate on one element of this point, I have talked before about our desire to provide publishers with a 360 degree view of audience and reach analytics. This is an immensely difficult challenge – one need only note the continued inability of competent third party organizations to agree on classic page view or visitor metrics for many sites – and it has simply become more obvious to us that this is an important challenge and that fully meeting this challenge requires further innovation in a number of areas. Could it be pursued by a private company continuing to operate independently? Of course, but you always want to focus on making sure your customers are successful and part of that is understanding when there is a shorter path from here to there! The folks that we’ve talked to at Google and the work that we’ve all recently seen come out of Google Analytics convincingly point toward a shared vision. Apologies for switching between first person, third person, and second person all in one paragraph; I think that’s the grammar police at the door now.

What changes might we expect in the FB service?

Our immediate focus is integration along several service lines. Certainly, the FeedBurner services that people love will be integrated and enhanced with complementary Google services. While there is tremendous excitement about the kinds of next generation feed services we can deliver, we want to make sure we pay initial attention to speedy integration.

What will you do now that you could not do before?

The short answer is “more, faster”. We need to innovate along multiple axes simultaneously in order to meet the needs of such a diverse publisher base (analytics, distribution promotion, rich media syndication, etc), so we are now in a position where we can tackle more of these challenges more quickly instead of having to pick a linear innovation path that values some publishers over others. So, I don’t think we had anything we couldn’t do before, but now we can do more of the things we need to do more quickly.

Is everyone staying in Chicago? Will you join Google’s offices there?

Everyone is staying where they are based, yes (we have a few people based outside of Chicago), and we will indeed join Google’s offices in Chicago, although it is still unclear whether my request for a luxuriously appointed desk in the Queen Anne style is being taken as seriously as it should be.

What does this mean for Feedburner’s ad sales? Will it be taken over by Adsense, or will you continue to sell it independently?

We’re definitely looking forward to leveraging Google’s existing sales efforts. Selling it independently wouldn’t provide the scale we’d like to offer to publishers as quickly as we’d like to provide it.

Everyone wonders, no one asks, so I will: What’s it like to know you’ve made this kind of money?

As you well know, starting a company is hugely stressful, regardless of what you’re trying to build, and my cofounders and I have been doing this since 1995 or so. Especially as you get married and have kids, there’s just an always-on anxiousness in your mind about financial health, maybe sometimes more at the forefront of your thoughts and other times in the back of your mind, but always there, in much the same way you feel a constant anxiety about coursework when you’re in college (at least I felt that way!). So, to continue that analogy, it feels like the sense of relief you have after finishing a final exam; you have this stress that was present on some level for an extended period of time that falls away. That’s the best way I can describe it – you can see why I’m not a motivational speaker.

What do you want to be doing in five years?

I’m sure this will reflect poorly on my approach to personal growth, but I’ve never given thought to what I want to or should be doing a year or two down the road. I don’t know why, I’ve just never approached things that way. I generally think in very immediate terms like “is this fun” or “it’s time to stop doing this and try doing that”, but i’ve never thought to myself “by the end of next year, I should be doing X”, so I can’t for the life of me take an honest crack at what I’d want to be doing in five years. Right now I want to keep doing what I’m doing, but five years from now? It’s a mystery.

Thanks Dick, and congrats to you and the whole team!

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3 thoughts on “Interview with Dick Costolo, Feedburner/Google

  1. Tom says:

    Interesting interview. I would be interested to know how did the initial contact happen? Was Google acquistion team there at the very beginning of the talks that led to the acquistion or was there another channel? Millisecond Publishing Company, Inc. with its deep ancestral history content is a digital resource that Google should have investigated and gone after 2 years ago. Since they ignored several emailed overtures or invitations to open a dialogue with Millisecond, it makes me wonder, while Google certainly has a team in place with the title, whether there may be a different, more big picture oriented individual or group who is their deal maker. Anybody from Google’s acquisitions group care to comment? (Don’t worry, Google, I have learned not to hold my breath while waiting for your response.)

  2. Trogdor says:

    We need to innovate along multiple axes simultaneously in order to meet the needs of such a diverse publisher base (analytics, distribution promotion, rich media syndication, etc), so we are now in a position where we can tackle more of these challenges more quickly instead of having to pick a linear innovation path that values some publishers over others.

    Man, mere days at Google and he’s already talking like one of their PR spokes-sheep. Hpmh.

  3. Soren G says:

    Great interview. Really enjoyed the simple, honest answers he gave.