Category Visionaries is a podcast where founders and CEOs share their stories from the front line of business. It specializes in discussions with leaders who are disrupting and reimagining the business model of their industry.
Our CEO Matthew O’Riordan recently sat down with the podcast’s host, Brett Stapper, to discuss his journey since founding Ably, the reasons he did so, and the decisions he’s made along the way.
Here’s the full discussion. But if you want the tl;dr version, we’ve pulled together some highlights for you below.
1. The inspiration behind Ably
Brett starts each episode by asking his guests what businesses, other founders, or books have most influenced them in their business journey. For Matthew, the biggest inspiration came to mind immediately: the international payment platform, Stripe.
When it first launched in 2010, Stripe quickly gained popularity among developers for its simple technology, flexibility, and ease of use. In Matthew’s view, much of that early success comes down to one clear mission statement:
“They believed that if you give developers a good experience, they will use your product. That’s all they focused on. It showed the industry that even though developers don’t hold budget – they do have buying power.”
That mindset has been hugely inspirational to the development of Ably.
As well as Stripe, Matthew also mentioned how much he learned from “No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention” - the book about Netflix’s journey of disruption. “The Netflix story really changed how I think about ownership. So much of it is about removing controls and increasing people’s belief that they own things. We try to keep that thinking as much as possible.”
Ably is built on this entrepreneurial mindset and we find that makes a huge difference to the success of the company and its people.
2. Matthew’s vision: A future built on realtime
Matthew also discussed the journey to creating Ably and why he chose this specific business venture. He’d had plenty of other ideas, from dating apps to backlog management tools. But it was the rise of Google Docs that really sealed the deal.
“When Google Workspace first came out, it was really simple compared to Microsoft Office. But the collaboration is the one thing that made it stand out from an amazingly established competitor – Microsoft Office. That made me realize how important realtime collaboration was.”
Google Workspace really did change the game for the realtime collaboration world. Before that, Microsoft Office was the only player in town when it came to office productivity. Today, Google Workspace’s market share exceeds Microsoft’s at a staggering 50.34%.
In 2013, Matthew could already see how important realtime technology would become. But at the same time, it was also clear how few providers were reliably delivering it.
“There were realtime technologies around but you just couldn’t get the right guarantees. You weren’t sure whether messages or notifications arrived in order - or even at all. I thought ‘if I’m constantly hitting these issues myself, there must be an opportunity to solve this problem’.”
After that, Matthew met his Co-Founder Paddy Byers and the rest was history.
3. Reliable realtime isn’t simple
When Matthew founded Ably, he had big plans to build a company that sat right at the center of the upcoming realtime revolution. And with so few businesses delivering a quality, reliable service in this space, the opportunity seemed ripe.
This was certainly true. But to seize that potential, they had to first build the product – which took over three years.
“No business book would recommend that,” Matthew said. But as he explained, the time taken to build Ably underscores just how difficult it is to create realtime infrastructure and why there were so few other providers doing this well. “This was the barrier to entry. Providing low latency services to developers that they can depend on is a really hard problem to solve.”
But they got there eventually - and in 2016 Matt and Paddy (finally) took Ably to market. Since then, the hard work has more than paid off. Today, Ably has raised a total $82 million in funding - and the platform delivers between six and seven hundred billion messages a month across some 350 million active users.
4. Defining Ably is easier said than done
As the name suggests, Category Visionaries is particularly interested in businesses that either shaped their industry or created an entirely new business category. All of this raised an interesting conversation around Ably’s place in the market: What business category does Ably sit in – if at all?
Well the answer isn’t an entirely straightforward one, as Matthew went on to explain:
“We’re often seen as part of the Pub/Sub messaging space. But the truth is we happen to be Pub/Sub under the hood – but what we’re doing is helping developers build realtime experiences and applications. In that regard, Ably is its own category.”
Ably is a unique service reflected in the variety of different business and use cases that use it. While most of our customers develop things like live chat and collaborative experiences, the technology can be used for a whole range of different possibilities. Matthew highlighted racing car telemetry and an air traffic drone control system as some particularly unique use cases.
5. The secret to Ably’s success
Another key takeaway was just how crucial developers have been to Ably’s success, particularly in the earliest stages. Matthew describes how the original product-led growth strategy largely relied on “getting developers to try the product and building the opportunities from there.”
As he went on to explain, the traditional corporate strategy of targeting executives and commercial decision-makers has never really worked for Ably. “We’re a developer product and our biggest advocates are developers. We’re more authentic because that’s what developers want.”
Ably is the scalable and five nines reliable middleware, used by developers at over 500 companies worldwide to quickly build realtime applications - from collaborative experiences and live chat to data broadcast and notifications. Supported by its globally distributed infrastructure, Ably offers 25 SDKs and partner integrations with technologies including Datadog, Kafka, and Vercel to accelerate the delivery of realtime experiences.
Ably was recently recognized in the G2 2023 Summer Report with awards for Best Support, High Performer, and Highest User Adoption as well as being featured in the Sifted B2B SaaS Rising 100.