Tech start-up of the week: Pubble

29 Mar 2014

(Left to right) John Dineen, Shane O'Leary, Ioan Stanciu, Ian Huang, Mary Carty, Alan Sunley, and Ross Good

Our start-up of the week this week is Pubble, a web service that adds a social layer to businesses’ websites and helps firms develop strong community engagement online.

Pubble hit the headlines this week when it became the only Irish company out of 11 companies to beat off competition from 1,500 start-ups to be included in London Techstars’ 2014 cohort.

Founded in late 2012 by John Dineen, Shane O’Leary, Ian Huang and Alan Sunley, Pubble interacts with customers live online to build an active community on a company website.

Future Human

Pubble is a platform that enables website owners to offer live community experiences (such as live Q&As, live messaging, and Twitter Q&As) right on top of the pages of their website.

“We believe that everywhere you live online (social media, blogs, partner sites) should work together to build a strong community right on top of your site,” Dineen explains.

The market

Dineen says one of the biggest trends over the last few years has been the outsourcing of “engagement” to Facebook/Twitter.

“We see this as a huge mistake. Putting an algorithm between you and access to your community or audience is a never a good idea. Pubble is focused on helping anyone build the community layer right on top of their site.”

The target market consists of site owners that value the power of community.

“Each Pubble ‘app’ appeals more to different segments,” Dineen explains. “For example, Twitter Q&A is popular with brands who want to amplify their message through Twitter and grow followers. Threaded Q&A appeals to e-commerce sites and colleges, for example, where each product/course page needs its own Q&A thread. So Pubble has a very broad appeal but right now, we are focused specifically on live events, such as media, sports and global brands.

“The opportunity for Pubble is enormous. The type of web service that Pubble offers is broadly categorised as a ‘Social Depth Platform’ in that it adds a social layer to an existing site. This is already a US$1bn market that has been growing at 20pc year on year.”

The founders

This is the Pubble team’s second start-up, says Dineen. “We previously built an education-focused search engine called Learnpipe.

“We learned a lot building Learnpipe – the mistakes we made along with the things we did right, are helping us to execute better this time round. We have a good blend of skills – from engineering, to product, to hustle – all are essential to succeed.

“One of the things that Jon Bradford (MD, Techstars London) pointed out, is that they look for teams who have worked together for awhile. Statistically, these teams are far more likely to succeed.”

The technology

Dineen says the best way to describe the technology is to think of Pubble as a community layer that you add to your site.

“Our aim is to make it as easy as possible to add it to any site. Basically, if you can add a YouTube video to your site, you can add Pubble. The ultimate goal is to power the community layer of every website and mobile app.”

The key pieces of technology Pubble is built on are Java (backend), Node.js (realtime framework), Spring (authentication), Backbone (JavaScript framework), Hibernate (index) and a key value database. 

From priests to porn stars

Dineen says Pubble has already been deployed on thousands of sites and a few mobile apps.

“We have paying customers in Ireland, the UK and the US that range from universities, like the University of Limerick in Ireland to media companies, like Univision and America’s Test Kitchen in the States, to e-commerce sites in the UK. We semi-joke that everyone from ‘priests to porn stars’ have deployed Pubble code!

“We recently raised a seed round and will revisit our funding requirements before the end of Techstars.”

Tracking growth

As Dineen knows, there are always challenges in every business. “Anyone who says otherwise is just not telling the truth.

“The key areas that we focus on are things that constrain our growth. The easier we can make it for people to deploy Pubble, the faster we will grow. The faster we grow, the more people will convert to paid customers.

“The Irish start-up scene is buzzing. We are starting to see the emergence of a cohort of companies that can genuinely compete with the best that London, Berlin or Tel Aviv has to offer. Ireland is a great place to build a company. I do think we have a little way to go yet, in terms of getting the majority of Irish start-ups to really go big with the opportunities they are tackling.” 

Saints and squatters

“Personally, I would love to see more Irish start-ups squatting in Enterprise Ireland’s office in Silicon Valley, like we did last year,” says Dineen. “People focus too much on the obvious funding options that are available in the Valley.

“However, for me, Silicon Valley is all about the ‘scale’ that’s achievable, if you are working on the right opportunities. Anyone who has ever visited Facebook in Palo Alto or Google in Mountain View will understand what I mean. Both those companies were founded by guys just like you not very long ago.”

Right now Dineen is sharing a three-bedroom flat in Brixton in south-west London with the Pubble founding team while they participate in Techstars London.

“It’s cramped, we are away from our families and we are working our butts off. If you think that start-ups are glamorous, they’re not. They can be incredibly rewarding but don’t get conned by the hype: all those super exits that you read about are the result of incredible hard work.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years