The BusinessMakers Radio Show

Episode #464: Whurley

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Russ: Welcome back to The BusinessMakers Show, brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business. And this is the Digital Leaders Series; a monthly event with a special guest and interview held in front of a live, digital specialty audience. Very live, all right. And for this premier edition of the Digital Leader Series please join me in welcoming the Co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Austin-based Chaotic Moon Studios,William Hurley, also known as Whurley (pause for applause); welcome back to The BusinessMakers Show.

Whurley: I think this is what, our - how many times fourth, okay.

Russ: All right, so let's start here at the very beginning, give us an overview of business as usual at Chaotic Moon Studios in 2014.

Whurley: So that's a tough question because we've grown so much in the last few years. When we started in 2010, um, you know, we had our primary focus; right now we're doing everything from re-launching a major automotive satellite network to creating a, uh, entire new farming system to all of the apps and other things you've known and new hardware and new hardware and new innovation. And we have probably set a record for how many things can be produced by a company, uh, in a single year

Russ: Sounds real impressive. I know you sort of brought an overview, a little short video that will give us a picture, let's see that.

Whurley: Sure.

Video plays

Russ: Wow (applause and cheers). Ga, looks like a normal day at the office, eh?

Whurley: And that today that is a normal day at the office.

Russ: That's so impressive. It blows me away to have been there in 2010 and see this today. In 2010, you know, the company that you described then had this Avant guard structure, no CEO, no Board of Directors, no fund raising. Three guys, you, Mike Erwin, Ben Lamm; you're going to decide everything with a 3 person vote and perhaps what was most interesting is that it was so Developer-centric. You guys were going to show up and you were going to attract all of these Developers that had dot com options that turned into nothing and it just seemed like you were going to lead the world at that time. Take us back; tell us how that rolled out.

Whurley: So, you know, when we started out it really started out from a point of wanting to build an engineering company built and for Engineers, and so, you know, we took things on differently. I mean things have changed Ben Lamm is now our CEO and Mike's our CFO and we eventually got into such large deals financially that companies wouldn't hire us without meeting the CEO or whatever and so, uh, the first time that happened, you know, Mike and I - the customer said, uh, you know, this deal's millions of dollars, I- I - I'm the CEO and I want to meet and negotiate with the CEO and so Mike and I made Ben the CEO and he said well he's right here so go ahead.

So a little bit of - a little bit of more traditional structure has come out, but still, a complete avoidance of - of funding and investment. It's really the - the same company except instead of 3 of us there's over 130 of us. And instead of working on one or two really cool projects it's a company where there's no longer any small mistakes, uh, every single person in that organization is critical; uh, Engineer makes us - a mistake then, you know, a satellite doesn't connect to your car or you know, your favorite coffee shop doesn't process a credit card or so on an so forth. So, uh, that's kind of - kind of what happened but the thing that makes it great is that we haven't got away from the attitude that we started with in the beginning which is we'll do whatever we want, whenever we want in whatever industry we want and we'll do it better than everybody else.

And we've moved into so many more industries; originally it was just mobile and now we're doing software and hardware, we're doing, you know, infrastructure plays for, you know, these massive international conglomerates. We're still doing the apps that we started with but we're kind of expanding into an area where we get to innovate at every level and so we can just come in and say this is what you - this is - this is how it should be.

Russ: Okay, now and everybody is in Austin, right?

Whurley: Most of them. At this point - you know, we reached a point where hiring Engineers became more and more difficult. Um, we have such a rigorous process and we demand so much from Engineers that we had to find a way to, uh, get them and to be quite blunt starting about 2 years ago we started a lot of acquisitions because what happened is the guys that look like us, that fit with us, they were doing the same thing we were so - the only difference is we were making a hell of a lot more money. So we were able to go out and - and - and acquire these 5 man shops, 7 man shops and some of them we moved to Austin and some of them we didn't.

So we have Developers in Canada and Colorado and California and New York that are these smaller groups that we've just let operate as these pods outside, but, you know, you're probably looking at less than a - a third of the engineering team so pretty much everybody's in our new offices in Austin, you saw a little bit of that in the video. It's kind of funny because when we me the first time we didn't have an office, and now we have a new 10,000 sq ft section being built out on the 20,000 sq ft we already.

Russ: Okay, okay. Well, when I look back from when I first, you know, interviewed you and before the next year you guys already got on the radar of Rupert Murdoch, News Corp, and won and did and built The Daily, talk about that.

Whurley: Yeah, absolutely. We were about 5 moths old when that happened and so there was Mike, Ben and myself and then there was Jason Jobe, our first employee and - and good friend of mine and our first Engineer and, um, we got this call that, uh, Ben didn't believe was, you know, from Rupert and company and we went through this little period where there was like - we thought it was a prank and it wasn't a prank. And, um, then I flew from Salt Lake City to Austin, packed up literally boxes of stuff for FedEx to pick up, and I moved to New York and we spent, uh, quite a few months working with Steve Jobs and Rupert Murdoch and the team at Apple and the team at News Corp to build The Daily which was an ambitious app, but it was more than an app. When we started there were 3 employees at The Daily and when we left there was over 150 I think almost 200. And the way they, you know, got feeds and they way they wrote news and they way they published it. And what was really great about The Daily is it was really trial by fire and I think that's where the company was forged.

Russ: Well it was pressure packed wasn't it?

Whurley: It was super pressure packed. You know, one - one example of that is you have to remember when we did that Apple had no subscription system, they had no public - publishing system. There - there, you know, there were barely apps on the IOS devices, let alone, you know, these - this idea of oh, how do you do a subscription and do refunds if you don't want the subscription and all of the complexities that go in there and, um, and we got to build all of that.

Russ: Well I understand some of the pressure had to do with, uh, you - you hadn't launched yet and - and there was a Super Bowl ad?

Whurley: Yeah. Well I mean, so, you know, so take - take the pressure and put it into perspective; so Steve Jobs wants to look at every design decision you make and every interface decision you make so that, you know, no pressure there and then you've got Rupert Murdoch who also wants to look at every single decision you make on everything, and they didn't always agree. And so, you know, here we are as this small company sitting between these two titans listening to them do that and we had several bake offs with Apple and everything and - and the thing you just mentioned, the Super Bowl commercial, was really interesting, uh, because we didn't know there was a Super Bowl commercial.

Super Bowl Sunday I guess it'd be 2011 we're sitting in the News Corp building writing code as fast as we can, trying to figure out, uh, you know, all these big giant chunks that need to be done literally in - in hours and days and, uh, we get called into this open room and there's a TV there and we're watching TV and we're we have a lot of code to write? And, uh, a commercial comes on, you know, and they're doing the halftime show.

Russ: So I guess you went back to work real fast after that?

Whurley: Yeah, so, yeah, that was - that was interesting because, That was a lot of pressure because they didn't have the code and so they made all those graphics and they set expectations very high in that video for what should be met and so there were things that we had to go back and literally retool in hours and days to try to live up to those expectations that were set basically by the guys who do the, you know, uh, Fox NFL football videos.

Russ: Cool. Well let's move forward chronologically beyond The Daily, I visited you - I think it was in March of 2012 and, um, it's best explained by, uh, well, this video.

Video plays

Russ: All right (pause for applause). To me that was a huge differentiator. That's where you kind of really sort of, in my mind, my God, took another leap. I mean, obviously it was a gimmick, you're not in the, um, you're not in the business of selling skateboards, but it was huge to be on the...

Whurley: So the gimmick was it's kind of the anti-gimmick gimmick which is it works and it's really hard to do and it was a huge differentiation point and that was kind of where we kind of came up with the concept of having a labs, right?

So Google had a labs and Apple has a labs and that was kind of where I grew up at, you know, at IBM and Apple and we wanted to bring that in and say well let's just do things that really capture people's imagination. And what happens when you do something that's successful? Everybody wants to know well what's next? And so we threw that together relatively fast probably about a week and a half to two weeks of - of development and testing so it was a - it was a huge, uh, huge change.

Russ: Did you ever try it after a Margarita or anything, could you still drive it after you?

Whurley: I only tried it after a Margarita.

Russ: All right, but let's take this a step further, tell us about, you know, where you also integrated with hardware and kind of started stepping up into the enterprise world and really doing applications that were beyond just the mobile device.

Whurley: Yeah, I mean I kind of call it stepping back into the enterprise world because I mean I came from there. I mean, I worked at Tivoli and I worked at IBM and I worked at I've always done very large enterprise work and - and - and systems management work and so, you know, and so what we really wanted to do was have the freedom to really push the boundaries; to really do innovative stuff that had an ROI that delivered on, you know, the promises that were made.

And, you know, we started with the hardware and then we started stepping into the enterprise and bringing kind of that attitude in and saying, uh, you know, we understand that a, you know - I - I'll give you a classic enterprise story, this is what I hear all the time: You don't understand, we're an enterprise. We have 300,000 employees around the world who depend on this. And I'm like, well you don't understand because that's a great world 10 years ago but when American Idol comes on there's going to be like 3 million people and a lot of money flying back and forth across the wire and that's super critical. Like I've got your 300,000 people covered.

Russ: And so you guys do that, the American Idol thing? Yeah

Whurley: Yeah. So if you look at American Idol or you look at, you know, the reason we got X Factor is the consumer side of the business. There was so much money and so many people in it, it's actually surpassed what would be enterprise quality of service, right? So you look at something like, you know, X Factor and American Idol, if you can't vote, quarters don't fly across and there's a lot of quarters; and you're talking about millions and millions of dollars and so that, you know, is - is unbelievably critical. Um, you know, all of the awards shows we do, you know, the - the BET Awards, we do that, uh, that's a live thing, you know, it's live television so the - you don't even get a chance to say oh, there's an error, let's go check it out. It's like well, that just tanked on, you know, national or international TV.

So we've taken kind of what we did on the consumer side, brought it into the enterprise that made it cool and then advance the quality of service to where it's, you know, kind of like live TV, right? So there's no like oh, we're going to do a 6 month roll out or a 12 month roll out or in 16 months we'll have this new system deployed. It's things that are done in, you know, hours and days and weeks and days and weeks and months and - and on a long cycle for us, probably about 90 days. So you look at The Daily, that was about 90 days, you look at the new stuff that we're doing with some of the other companies, 90 days seems to be a pretty good sweet spot; some things go longer, some things are a lot shorter but it's bringing everything everyone wants to do in the enterprise to the enterprise.

And we do it because we can take risk that they can't. They can come in and position us in their company as oh, it's those crazy guys with the mind control skate board and the taser copter and all that and - and then if something, you know, we can mitigate the risk, right? They can blame us. But, you know, it always works out and then we make them, uh, rock stars and that leads to more and more and more business and as they leave companies they - they take us with them.

Russ: Whurley, I really appreciate you sharing your - the Chaotic Moon story with us today and being on The BusinessMakers Show one more time. Let's hear it for Whurley (applause and cheers).

Whurley: Thank you for having me.

Russ: All right, that wraps up my discussion with Whurley, Co-founder and the Chief Innovation Officer at Chaotic Moon Studios. And that wraps up this episode of The BusinessMakers Show, heard on the radio, seen right here at and brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business. Thanks (applause and cheers).