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In this interview with James Gill, CEO of GoSquared, we discuss how GoSquared went from its early days as a small advertising platform to what it is today, a design-centric, real-time web analytics platform. The following is the transcript of our conversation. Enjoy!
Q. Growing up, what pulled you into the design field?
When I was young I always loved drawing, whether it was cars, houses or technology. My dad ran an advertising agency in London and at around 12 or 13 years old I somehow lucked into getting a Power Mac the agency no longer needed. I bought a few magazines, including Computer Arts, which exposed me to learning Illustrator, Photoshop and Flash.
In school I focused on Art and Design until A-level, alongside my academic subjects. While everyone else was using watercolors and pastels I was designing on my Mac and making large prints. At the time, no one really knew how to mark my work other than to say, 'that looks pretty cool.'
In order to make pocket money, I got into making loads of print work while designing freelance. My first jump into web design was when I began using Dreamweaver's design view to place tables—you can imagine, it was atrocious. As things progressed I realized it's pretty hard to get good at interface design unless you've got a project to work on and obsess over.
Q. Can you tell me a bit about the origins of GoSquared.
It was around 2006 when I was with two friends of mine from school, Geoff Wagstaff and JT (James Taylor), who would later become my cofounders at GoSquared. We were just 14 years old, and we visited this site, the Million Dollar Homepage. While it was an incredibly successful site, it looked abysmal. We thought, 'this guy’s made a million dollars selling this really simple idea. If he can do it, we should give it go.'
With that, we started work on GoSquared. The name goes back to the first site we built, where we were selling advertisements in a 5x5 grid of squares on our homepage. It was just like the Million Dollar Homepage, but more beautiful and affordable.
To make a long story short, we didn't quite make a million dollars on that tool, but it allowed us to find out our competencies as a team. I was always obsessing about the user interface, but I didn't have the background in how to code up forms for uploads or our payment system. My cofounders Geoff and JT were at a similar stage in development to where I was in design, so it was a good balance. We used the project as a vehicle to get better at design and development.
There was a good bit of naïveté in thinking that the guy behind the Million Dollar Homepage just put the site up and it was somehow discovered and spread. There was much more to the story that I hadn't known at the time. He did have a great idea in the domain name, but it was paired with incredible PR. He got into every newspaper in London, he got the word out on news sites, it was all about that attention.
Our first experiments in advertisements taught us that there is so much more to building a great business than building a great product. Yes, you're screwed without a great product. But it's just as much how you pitch it, how you price it and everything else.
While on the subject of naïveté, it's probably true that if we were less naïve we would have thought we could never achieve the same results without the same PR, and we never would have come together as a team to work together and evolve our product. I learned that when starting as a young founder and entering a field, being naïve is a great thing. If you have an awareness of everything that's out there you'll just be paralyzed.
In the past I would read TechCrunch and feel, 'competitor X is doing something, we're screwed.' But you realize you have to tune that out. Some of the biggest mistakes we made as a company were getting too competitor-obsessed. It's been very refreshing to get back to a place where we're focused on building what we believe will jibe well with our customers. No one gives a damn about the competitive landscape outside of TechCrunch and a few investors in the Valley. Customers want a product that they enjoy.
Q. How do you think your background in design has affected GoSquared over the long-term?
Design has been so integral to what we do. In fact, at GoSquared, design probably holds a higher priority than many other parts of the business. Maybe that’s just part of being a product-focused company. But in B2B software especially, it's very easy to let sales lead everything. When you get into the process of having an organizational structure where you have equal part sales people to product people, naturally things start shifting towards thinking, 'how do we beat last quarter's numbers…customer X, Y, or Z is asking for this feature…we can win more deals with it…let's build it.'
Perhaps we’ve been slower to grow to Google Analytics' size because of that. But as a product team we feel the best long-term strategy is for us to obsess over building a great product. The more customers we can win without having half the company focused on sales, the better. Design and engineering have both always been a part of that. It goes from the interface down to the database tech we use. We choose the right fundamental technologies to make the interactions powerful.
Q. You have a wide variety of users and customers. How, in the same product, are you able to accommodate everyone from niche podcasters to large businesses?
This has been a difficult challenge. Take Google Analytics. It's this incredibly versatile tool with thousands of menus, and so many people use it, but few seem to enjoy the experience. There's a reason people are frustrated by it. It's got every feature under the sun.
Our intention is not to be an analytics service that is used solely by the analytics person in the company, but a tool that is used by everyone in the team–whether you’re a designer, a marketer or the CEO. We feel everyone can benefit from the data that we expose, but most tools make it so boring and complicated to get at the information people need that users just don't bother.
We want to provide a service that is accessible, whether you're a huge company, you're building your first web app or starting your first blog. We want to be there at the beginning and grow with you. Our focus is on customers who come to GoSquared and sign up for a free trial. Six months or a year later they then end up working at one of these big companies and bring us in.
That’s how sales is starting to happen in many larger companies these days. It's no longer these massive annual contracts that are invoiced by a sales team to some senior manager who is never going to use the tool. It looks more like Slack, which is adopted by a small department and gradually expands. That’s how we see it at GoSquared–if we can make a product that is loved by those who use it, that's the best strategy for growth.
Q. How do you balance your internal product strategy with requests from customers?
It goes back to building the right product and making sure we listen to our customers whether they’re large or small.
We weigh out carefully which features we will implement. We’re skeptical about building specific features simply because we got multiple requests. Often people come from Google Analytics and they want feature X or feature Y. We just tell them, 'you should probably use Google Analytics.' Our mission is really to spend the most energy improving existing features. We're very thoughtful in deciding when to add new features.
Q. The dashboard is central to the GoSquared site UI. Was the tiled interface a deliberate move following the responsive design movement or was it just a lucky coincidence that you settled on it?
Before our current responsive interface, we had a fixed three-column layout. It wasn’t editable or responsive. But the benefit of the old design was it was easy to learn. You always had the right thing in the right place.
We've gone back and forth on this. GoSquared is now on phones, desktops and on large television screens in offices. We wanted to make sure we had an interface that would work in all these scenarios.
Keep in mind, our team has eight people, so we're pretty small, especially compared to the number of customers we serve. We get asked every day, 'have you built a native iPhone app yet?' The reality is that if we built a separate UI for each platform, we would spread all our development efforts and each would pick up bugs and fall behind in its own way. It would be unsustainable.
The responsive tile and widget dashboard interface came about when responsive design was becoming increasingly important. It ticked a bunch of these boxes and made sense to us. We saw ourselves needing to have flexibility, customizability and introducing new features down the line. But I must admit, that’s not necessarily the way it’s always going to be. We're still experimenting.
Q. GoSquared has attracted a very design-focused following. Was there anything you did early on to get your company noticed in the community?
In the early days of building GoSquared, when it was built in the style of The Million Dollar Homepage, in a sense we had this island and we wanted people to come to it. One of our biggest challenges was, how do we get people to learn about us? We were learning a lot while trying to build GoSquared and I felt, why not share what we learn as we go along? This was all around when Digg was becoming big. We started a blog called Liquidicity, though at some point we came to our senses and just renamed it the GoSquared Blog.
I was improving in Illustrator so I put together a bunch of icons as a pack to give away and waited to see what happened. It was on the second pack of icons that I released that the icons snowballed and got to the front page of Digg. Back in 2007, that was like winning the internet. Still to this day, some of those icon sets that we gave away are the top trafficked pages on the GoSquared site.
Something similar happened when Smashing Magazine published our posts. When they tweeted about LiveStats, the early name for GoSquared's analytics feature, it almost brought down the site. The number of people simultaneously signing up forced Geoff and JT to learn how to scale our product. It was a great problem to have, although Geoff and JT might disagree! This was all because of our blogging and educational design pieces. Giving away icons and resources, these things were like magnets to bring people in and get an early design following. It was fantastic.
We have always wanted to have a clear focus for the GoSquared Blog so people know what they're getting when they visit. But recently I've felt there is a lot more I could be sharing that touches on topics broader than the GoSquared product itself: what it's like being a founder, my thoughts on design, etc. So I've started my personal blog. It's been incredibly rewarding. The biggest regret is that I didn't start it sooner.