Founded in 2008, Bitly is the world’s first and most widely used Link Management Platform. Since Spectrum’s investment in Bitly in 2017, the team has experienced significant and rapid growth. Bitly now supports over 20 billion clicks per month from around the world and the company was recently named one of The Fastest Growing Apps of 2019 by Zapier.
In 2018, the company brought on Amy Gershkoff Bolles, Ph.D., because of its accelerated growth, strong user engagement trends, and robust data generation capabilities. As Bitly’s Chief Data Officer & GM of BitlyIQ, Amy works to expand the company’s machine learning-based products and solve data-focused problems. The Spectrum team knows Amy well from her time at Ancestry as Chief Data Officer and advisor to several Spectrum portfolio companies. Her extensive experience scaling fast-growing companies with complex, disparate sets of data makes her uniquely suited for her role at Bitly.
In this edition of Growth Perspectives, Spectrum’s Parag Khandelwal speaks with Amy about how she promotes a culture of fast-paced innovation.
You've had a range of experiences with fast-growing companies. What's unique about Bitly?
In terms of volume, complexity, and type of data, Bitly is on par with companies like Google, Facebook, and Adobe. But Bitly is much smaller, making the opportunity for innovation and impact tremendous. We aren’t encumbered by unnecessary bureaucracy, and we don’t have a lengthy approval process for new initiatives, so we’re able to make big moves quickly.
I also joined Bitly at a unique moment in the company’s history. I’ve previously joined companies during a turnaround or a time of competitive pressure, or at a crisis point. By contrast, Bitly is an established company, the dominant player in link management, and we’re growing and profitable.
What opportunity are you most excited about? How does it align with the company’s broader strategic goals?
I’m excited about the opportunity that Bitly’s data represents. More than half the world’s internet-connected population interacts with our platform. And because of the nature of Bitly data, we see across all walled gardens, with an understanding of behavior across social and digital platforms, giving Bitly a unique window into digital trends. The opportunity to draw insights for brands and companies from these aggregated trends is limitless. In BitlyIQ, we’ve launched a few insights products that provide companies with an understanding of the digital conversation and brand trends, but we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible. As we expand and deepen insights, we’re creating deep value for clients and enterprise value for Bitly as well.
How do you foster the culture of innovation you did at Ancestry and now at Bitly?
With strong teams, two plus two equals seven – that’s what we created with the BitlyIQ team, and that’s one reason we’ve been able to innovate quickly. The key is first, hiring the right team, and second, giving them the right set of conditions. For BitlyIQ, I prioritized hiring people with strong technical skills, but more importantly, who were creative problem-solvers excited about solving big, audacious, and seemingly impossible technical challenges.
The other key to BitlyIQ’s success is creating an environment conducive to innovation. Take our engineering roadmap. We gave the engineering team the business challenge and the budget in terms of time and resources. And then we let the team design creative solutions without presupposing the solution or approach. Each and every time, the team delivered great solutions to complex technical problems on very short timelines with limited resources. Hire smart people, set the direction, provide some parameters, and then get out of their way.
How quickly can your team incorporate feedback from the marketplace, and why is this important?
Many companies mistakenly do some research and then assume they know exactly what products and features will resonate in the market. They often embark on lengthy product development cycles, requiring significant investment over the long term, only to create products or features that are a miss.
In BitlyIQ, we take a very different approach. Rather than assuming we know what will best resonate in the marketplace – even after significant research – we instead work in a nimble, agile fashion to prototype products quickly and then test them rapidly with actual customers. We then take the learnings we see from live, in-market tests to rapidly iterate, adding features and functionality that will best resonate. Once we have evidence that our product resonates in the market with a set of features and functionality, we then look at the best way to scale.
We’ve often seen that features we thought would drive the most value, were actually not so important, whereas other features we thought were “nice to have” turned out to generate much greater value. The only way to know what works in the market is live tests with real clients, projects, data, and outcomes.
For our clients, being part of our Beta phase testing is highly beneficial.
First, our data services give them a competitive advantage, especially because BitlyIQ products are still in the early stages of adoption in the marketplace.
Second, clients’ feedback facilitates customization that resonates well with their specific data and technology infrastructure.
We’ve found clients eager to participate in our Beta product tests and believe our customer-led innovation approach is a win-win for all.
What role does data play when building and prototyping products rapidly in the short run while planning for the right long-run scale and infrastructure?
At BitlyIQ, one of our core product and engineering principles is to prioritize “no regrets” work. As we’re learning what resonates in the marketplace, there’s certain infrastructure and scaling engineering work we know will be necessary, regardless of what tweaks we might make or whether we end up scaling feature A or feature B moving forward. Thus, we prioritize those “no regrets” engineering projects above other work that might later be moot if certain features don’t end up resonating in the marketplace. This allows us to build for long-term scale, even while enabling short-term prototyping that doesn’t prioritize scalability initially.
As we’ve looked at our product and engineering roadmap, we’ve also built in as much flexibility as possible at every stage to enable us to easily pivot as we test and learn in-market. For example, our data science production pipeline enables us to easily swap out new models or improve existing models with minimal changes to infrastructure or product code.
Thanks to Amy for sharing her recipe for success when building a culture of fast-paced innovation. She acutely understands the importance of quickly addressing customer needs. We are excited to continue to support Amy and the BitlyIQ team’s product innovation, an area with long-term growth prospects and strategic value.
1) To create a culture of innovation, hire smart collaborative people whose hard and soft skills complement one another so they function well as a team; set the direction, provide some parameters, and then get out of their way.
2) Instead of focusing on building out a scalable product from the get-go, prototype products quickly and then test them rapidly in the market with actual customers.
3) Prioritize “no regrets” work in engineering, infrastructure and scaling engineering work you know will be necessary, regardless of what tweaks you might make to the product or whether you end up scaling feature A or feature B moving forward.