Interview with Dan Gill - Huddler CEO

By The Sandman · May 5, 2011 ·
  1. The Sandman
    Dan Gill is the CEO of Huddler, which he co-founded with his brother Ted, the CTO.

    What is Huddler? According to thier website, Huddler is the next step in the evolution of online communities. Huddler works with existing online discussion forum sites to integrate product reviews, wiki articles, image galleries, and blogs to help increase community engagement and create a unified platform that's better for users and more attractive to advertisers.

    That sounds pretty impressive, so let's find out more....

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    Can you give us a brief bio?

    I was born in Belleville, ON in Canada and moved all around the US growing up, though I spent the majority of my time in Fairfax, VA. Now I’ve been in the Bay Area for the better part of the last decade and definitely think of it as home.


    What is your educational and professional background?

    I did my undergraduate degree at Stanford University and had every intention of becoming a doctor, so I studied Biology there. After graduation, I didn’t feel ready to head back for more education, so I got sucked in to Silicon Valley and never looked back.

    I was very early at a bootstrapped enterprise software company and got experience under several great mentors across roles in Sales, Marketing, Business Development, and general Operations. That company gave me access to FAR more responsibility than I deserved given my experience, and that’s how I fell in love with start-ups – if you’re willing to work hard, it’s a meritocracy, so you can get access to truly challenging work well ahead of a conventional schedule.


    Tell us about your gymnastics career.

    I got started in gymnastics somewhat predictably – I was an overwhelmingly hyperactive, dare-devil kid, so my family needed an outlet for my energy. I developed a real love for the sport over time, and hit my stride competitively while I was at Stanford. My best events were High Bar, Vault, Floor, and Pommel Horse, though I competed on all 6 events back then. I competed and was a 9 time All-American at Stanford, and also got to compete for the US team at the Pan American Games, World Cup events, and some other international opportunities, but unfortunately never achieved my dream of going to the Olympics or World Championships because of serious shoulder injuries after the Olympic Trials.

    Gymnastics instilled a strong work ethic in me that I think has been hugely helpful academically and professionally. Unfortunately, it’s not exactly like playing baseball or riding a bike...my ankle still pops every morning from the time I tried to do gymnastics a few years after retiring...it’s dangerous.


    What are some of your favorite things?

    I was an iPhone guy and have been on a DroidX for the last 8 months when I couldn’t handle AT&T’s abysmal service in San Francisco any longer. I’ll likely pick up an iPad2 shortly...I just love being able to learn and consume information at all times – on the train, on flights, in the waiting room at the dentist...I need to be plugged in. Aside from gadgets, I love watching NFL and College Football, and cheering for the NCAA Champion Stanford Gymnastics team!


    What is Huddler, and how did it come about?

    We say that Huddler is the next step in the evolution of online forums. As a lot of online platforms have moved to Software as a Service (SaaS) models, in the forum space, many phenomenal communities have gotten stuck on legacy platforms without a migration strategy to other options. We founded Huddler to give these great sites an option for growth.

    My brother/CTO Ted has always been a heavy forum user, and we set out to provide a more robust platform in response to his experiences. But rather than trying to start communities from scratch, we felt like it was a better model to bring that technology to the great communities that are already thriving. These sites have great content and engaged communities, but can really benefit in terms of a better user experience and new ways for users to interact, better architecture to drive traffic, integration with other platforms like Wordpress and Facebook, and a lot more. We partner with these sites to provide free migration and ongoing platform development (releasing every 2 weeks), hosting, monetization in many forms, marketing support, graphic design, and quite a bit more with the hope that our partners can then focus all of their efforts on community management and content.

    In terms of founding the company, I was living in NYC, Ted was living in DC, but we knew we wanted to start-up in Silicon Valley. We got in his car, drove cross-country, stayed with a friend while looking for a place to live AND start the company. We started in a relatively rough neighborhood and ran the company in our living room for the first 14 months. We used our savings to hire a small team and Ted and I worked for free. We then secured a small amount of angel investment, and eventually a Venture Capital investment from New Enterprise Associates (NEA was the first investor in Tivo, Salesforce, Groupon, and countless other companies) in 2009. We’ve been growing like a weed ever since.


    Which forums are good candidates for conversion to Huddler?

    Currently today we work with a diverse set of over 25 partners spanning a number of topics. While were increasing that number of partners and broadening the scope every day, we’re really looking for what we consider large or fast growing product/lifestyle focused communities. From a size perspective we tend to look at communities that have at least 150k UV per month and perhaps 200+ posts per day. More importantly, we’re looking for community owners who are looking to take their sites to the next level from community engagement, product, and revenue standpoint. We look for partners who are willing to work together with Huddler to grow their communities across the board for the long term.


    How does conversion work, and how many forums have been converted?

    The number of forums converted changes every month as we’re getting faster and faster, but right now we have converted over 20+ communities from phpBB and vBulletin to the Huddler Platform. We keep 100% of the content intact (and have often recovered content lost over the years), redirect every URL to protect SEO, usernames and PWs remain the same...we try to make the conversion as seamless as possible. The conversion is incredibly complex from a technical standpoint, but we’ve done it enough now that we can do very large sites very smoothly and quickly. As you all know, every community is different and may have varying degrees of customizations, so the total time to conversion is dependent on this.


    Can you link us to some examples?

    Proudly! We now work with communities supporting more than 13MM UV/Mo and growing. A few examples would be:

    EpicSki Pre-Huddler: http://replay.web.archive.org/20070323094111/http://forums.epicski.com/
    EpicSki today: www.epicski.com

    Head-Fi.org Pre-Huddler: http://replay.web.archive.org/20100104064904/http://www.head-fi.org/
    Head-Fi.org Today: http://www.head-fi.org

    A few other sites on Huddler:
    www.mothering.com
    www.thesandtrap.com
    www.cheftalk.com
    www.bestdestinationwedding.com

    They are all fairly diverse but represent a great cross section of the types of sites and customizations we can make for our partners.


    What are the benefits of conversion?

    Benefits of conversion are quite broad of course. Distilling the Huddler value proposition is that any partner can expect to see significant gains in monetization and site traffic post Huddler conversion. Bigger picture, our partners all have more resources at their disposal than ever before. From a product perspective our partners have access to much more tightly integrated functionality including Buy/Sell/Trade, Articles/Wikis, Photo Galleries, Clean homepages for easily featuring great content, Product Reviews, user wishlists, FB Connect support – everything you’d expect as a vBulletin/phpBB site owner plus a lot more. From a business perspective, our partners have a professional sales team working with small/medium businesses for site sponsorships in addition to growing representation to large international brands. Major advertisers and agencies are getting more and more comfortable with social media and user generated content, so we’re ensuring that we’re part of that conversation. Our team’s expertise in this area recently landed me a seat on an 8-person Digital Strategy Board for Unilever, the 2nd largest advertiser in the world.


    What is the basic architecture?

    Without getting too technical, Huddler is based in php and operates as a SaaS platform. The Huddler platform is completely custom built from the ground up. Huddler fully hosts all partner sites in order to roll out new features, load balance, manage servers, run the ad server, etc. on behalf of all of our partners. We believe strongly in the idea of economies of scale. Huddler is not an expert in fly fishing or denim jeans, but we are very good at developing software, rolling out upgrades, and working with marketers. We’ve architected our platform in order to take this on for all of our partners and introduce efficiency to the model so we can leave the content creation to the real experts.


    What are your specific responsibilities as CEO of Huddler?

    I often say I’m not a CEO, I’m a start-up CEO. That means that I try to contribute to anything I can ever help with, and stay out of the way of our talented team the rest of the time. I have been told that a CEO has 3 roles:

    1. Set and communicate the short, medium, and long term strategic vision
    2. Hire talented people capable of making that vision a reality
    3. Ensure there is enough capital for the talented team to execute on the vision

    In reality, it’s a bit more nuanced, but that’s a pretty good summary.


    What does your typical workday schedule look like?

    I tend to get to the office around 8:15 and head home between 7:30 and 9 at night. My DroidX keeps me on top of things when I’m not in the office. We have team meetings with each organization on Monday mornings, then all of our schedules are public to the whole company for scheduling additional time as needed throughout the week. I really, really enjoy meeting partners and potential partners face to face, so I do a decent amount of travelling, and hope to do more.


    What's the hardest part of your job? The most enjoyable?

    The pressure can get a bit intense – we now employ 34 people and have over 25 partners on the Huddler platform. I want nothing more than to provide a fun, productive working environment that sets our team and partners up for success here at/with Huddler and beyond, so I take the company very seriously. It ends up being on my mind 24 hours a day, so that can get exhausting for my wife. At the same time, providing a fun, productive working environment for 34 people and 25 platform partners, and watching the entire family grow as it has from scratch is incredibly rewarding.


    Tell us about the Huddler Team.

    Today we’re a team of 34 energized and eager professionals based in San Francisco. Over half of the company is on the engineering side of things, which reflects the great degree to which we’ve invested in making our platform the best piece of forum software out there. Internally we have decades of start up and software experience from companies like eBay, Salesforce, Yahoo, Google, Shopping.com, Trulia, and many others. What really binds us all together is the passion and shared vision we share for the opportunity to empower the best communities online and accelerate the growth of their communities through a better platform and additional sales resources.


    Which online communities do you enjoy as a member?

    I spend a lot of time as a lurker on all of our communities and have made lots of purchases based on my time on Head-Fi.org, Hometheaterforum.com, EpicSki.com, Cheftalk.com, and a few others. I’m constantly amazed by the caliber of content that folks share in online communities.


    How has success changed you?

    We’ve made great progress at Huddler and growing partner communities and revenues multiple times over, but our work is FAR FAR from over. The funny thing with success is that it is a moving target. So I guess the biggest change for the Huddler team is that we’ve become even more ambitious. Having had the success we have had, we want to grow even more for our current partners and find new partners that add value to our total family of partner sites.


    What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishments?

    I’m incredibly proud of the progress we’ve made with Huddler so far – I admire entrepreneurship of all shapes and sizes, because having the initiative and stick-to-itiveness to start something from nothing is hard. Period.


    How would you characterize the internet now compared to 10 years ago?

    I remember our first 2400 baud modem and playing games on the BBSs, then being ecstatic when we got a 14.4, and finally a 28.8...great times. The biggest changes in recent years come from the fact that now anyone can be a publisher at scale. We create video, photos, conversations, and other types of media and can immediately distribute to enormous numbers of people. Now the trend is helping us all to manage the signal to noise ratio. This is a lot of what social media/social sharing is all about – helping us find only content that’s important to us through our real friends as well as hand-picked online connections.

    With Huddler, we’re trying to make sure that forums are included in this movement by getting the extremely high quality (signal) content from forums exposed to a larger audience through better search engine optimization, social media integration, iterative development, an aggressive mobile strategy.


    How do you see the internet in general changing over the next 5 to 10
    years? What about online communities in particular?


    Unquestionably the biggest trends right now are around mobile penetration. I consume online content 24 hours a day now, and the generation coming up now is only more plugged in, so creating compelling mobile experiences is key.

    Mid-term, the idea that losing a device means losing my data is short-lived, and the movement to majority cloud-based storage is inevitable and supported by Google’s movement with Chrome-OS. As a result, if we move to hardware that is simply a portal to the cloud, it’s easy to envision a lot more shared hardware – e.g. terminals in airports, coffee shops, etc. which makes personal identification/security enormously important. Longer term, I love the sci-fi depictions of wearable computing – contact lenses with heads-up displays for consuming and creating data, but that’s still a ways out.

    As it relates to communities and particularly discussion forums, there will always be a need for people to connect around their passions. Social networks like Facebook are fantastic at helping us rekindle and strengthen existing relationships based on real world connectivity, but not as good at establishing connections based on shared interests, which is why forums have continued to thrive. I don’t see this need for interest based connection going away, we just need to be responsive and cooperative with the other trends of how this content is published and consumed (mobile and social.)


    Tell us something about yourself that we don't already know.

    I had stitches for various injuries 16 different times growing up – I fear having children with the knowledge that I could have one like me


    What does the future hold for Dan Gill?

    We have worked so hard on Huddler and are really so early in the potential of what we can do. 100% of my passion and focus is on realizing the potential here, and I know that I’ll have compelling options if we realize our vision here. One thing I can say confidently is that Huddler is not the last company I’ll found...I love the early stage and building something from nothing, so I will definitely try again several times in my career.


    Thanks for spending time with us and letting us get to know so much
    more about you. Is there anything you'd like to say in closing?


    Thanks so much for the opportunity – I’ll keep an eye on the thread and am happy to answer follow up questions and get to know that folks around TAZ. Thanks!

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