GitHub CEO Tom Preston-Werner: Product development is like chasing dragons
GitHub CEO Tom Preston-Werner likes to make things -- so much so that he compared coding and developing software to chasing dragons during tonight's PandoMonthly event.
"You have a breakthrough. You make something on the Internet work," he said. "This thing used to not exist, and now it exists! You get that every 20 minutes or hour in programming, and that to me is the magic of programming." Forget your sword. Forget your shield. Here there be dragons, and the only thing you need to survive is the willingness to huddle over a keyboard for hours on end and work some technological wizardry.
Preston-Werner has experience with such chases. He developed Gravatar, an online service that keeps your profile photo in sync across multiple platforms, largely because it was a tool he wanted to use. He slayed that dragon -- now the only problem was that the service, which he described as "very popular," made no money. So he sold the company, which he says was really just a product he developed, to WordPress.com maker Automattic. The bounty was collected.
The next dragon manifested itself as GitHub, the online repository that makes it easy for developers and the people they work with to share, comment on, and edit software. Preston-Werner developed the product, because he wanted to use it himself and figured that other developers would find the utility useful. His only requirement: "If I was going to start another side project or start a new thing, whatever it was, if it was going to be successful, it had to make money. It needed to have a business model from the beginning."
Selling Gravatar had allowed him to dig himself out of debt, but that was largely because Automattic was willing to acquire the product and build it into WordPress.com, not because anyone was willing to pay for the service. Preston-Werner was fortunate enough to be able to approach the company -- which had made a bid for Gravatar, and which Preston-Werner turned down, almost a year earlier -- and make a deal. He might not have been able to do the same with a future side-project or product.
So, when he set out in chase of the GitHub dragon, Preston-Werner built the product so that it could eventually become a successful business. And the strategy seems to have worked -- the company, which currently serves over 3.6 million people, raised a $100 million bounty... er, funding round from Andreessen Horowitz* in July 2012. Preston-Werner chased his dragon, worked his magic, and, unlike with Gravatar, has a bit of gold to show for it.
[Andreessen Horowitz partners Marc Andreessen, Jeff Jordan, and Chris Dixon are personal investors in PandoDaily.]