Interview with Dan Gill - Huddler CEO

Discussion in 'Interviews' started by The Sandman, May 5, 2011.

  1. The Sandman

    The Sandman Administrator

    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....


    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 ankle still pops every morning from the time I tried to do gymnastics a few years after’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:
    EpicSki today: Pre-Huddler: Today:

    A few other sites on Huddler:

    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,, 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,,,, 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!
  2. TheChiro

    TheChiro Devotee

    These guys are a great group of guys. I've gotten to speak with Ted and one of their reps on the phone. They are definitely a very enthusiastic bunch. They all seem very down to earth people. I've considered moving to their platform after speaking with them but am waiting for everything mature a bit. We'll see what the future really holds for them.

    I'm glad you got to interview them. I told them to contact you when I spoke with them on the phone. :)
  3. AF

    AF Enthusiast

    Nice interview ...

    Any numbers on how much money some of these forums are making with Huddler ? :)
  4. TheChiro

    TheChiro Devotee

    I think they ski site is making over 100k, which it wasn't making anything close to that prior to huddler.
  5. AF

    AF Enthusiast

    Profit or gross revenues ? :)
  6. TheChiro

    TheChiro Devotee

    I really don't know. I think it was ad revenue that shot up like that but really not sure as there is a store on the site now and I believe they use affiliate links for it.

    HUDDLER Neophyte

    Hey everyone - it's Dan Gill. Thanks for the opportunity to hang out here for a bit.

    TheChiro - glad to hear you had a good chat with our team...happy to pick up at a time that makes sense.

    As you can likely guess, I can't go into the details of specific site's revenues, but I'm happy to keep the thread going with any clarification or additional questions. Thanks all!
  8. 2kau

    2kau Participant

    Dan, kudos on the great speech you gave at Forum Con. Motivating to see others branching out from the forum core.
  9. OrangeCrush

    OrangeCrush Aspirant

    Wow never knew Dan was a gymnast, pretty cool! Good job on the interview was a good read.
  10. vanhireunitedk

    vanhireunitedk Neophyte

    Nice interview. There is lot to be learnt from it. Huddler has done many contributions in online communities & all marketers have to be learnt a lot from this. thanks for this post.
  11. Jeep37

    Jeep37 Aspirant

    Do you retain ownership of your forum with the migration?

    What happens if they would go bankrupt or ?

    Can you roll-out your own revenue sources?

    HUDDLER Neophyte

    Just wanted to give you a quick response here, but it would be great to chat further as I'm sure you've got a few more questions. I'll send you a PM.

    Do you retain ownership of your forum with the migration?
    Yes, you retain full ownership of the forum and all related data with the migration.

    What happens if they would go bankrupt or ?
    We're a sustainable business. The risk at Huddler is no different than any other 3rd party SaaS solution. Huddler is a fast growing company with solid financials. That being said, in every decision one makes and 3rd party solution you use, there is always some risk and Huddler can not eliminate that.

    Can you roll-out your own revenue sources?
    You can't roll out the revenue sources yourself, but our partners work closely with the direct sales team to roll out custom campaigns tailored around each advertiser. We've been especially successful at retaining and building on existing relationships with brands.
  13. TheChiro

    TheChiro Devotee

    What happens when you want to sell your site and you are on the Huddler system?

    If you do happen to go bankrupt, do the owners get their data back and migrate to their own server?

    Is there a way to convert off of Huddler to another platform if it doesn't work out?
  14. dellaharty

    dellaharty Neophyte

    Finally you got selected?? Its too long interview with nice questions and answers.
  15. friscogal

    friscogal Participant

    Hi TAZ,

    I am a partner on the huddler platform and have been with Huddler for over a year. For the most part the transition has been a success and my traffic and revenue has grown quite substantially.

    There are of course bumps along the way but nothing major.

    The transition was actually pretty smooth with ALOT of hand holding by the Huddler Team (thank you cristina!).

    The sales team has been stellar and has closed some big ad campaigns. campaigns that they worked on for months. They are diligent and hard working.

    Dan has been quite pleasant to work with and always has time to listen to my ideas no matter how annoying i get ;)
  16. rngrdanny22

    rngrdanny22 Adherent

    Congrats on your recent conversion!

    Huddler, do you guys look for sites in different niches, or do you only choose one site from a certain niche? For instance, you stated that you now have under your umbrella. Would you possibly add another ski-type site?

    Just wondering as I have a few sites that are in the same niches as some of the sites in your network. Wondering if there was any future hope...

  17. TheChiro

    TheChiro Devotee

    Why is your IE8 and lower performance SUBPAR? I believe you are working on this but...why is your platform the only one that has this problem when it comes to handling those that still use a crappy browser? We can't just leave them be and tell them "Well you chose to use an older browser, tough luck!"...
    Last edited: Oct 28, 2011

    HUDDLER Neophyte

    I wish there was a universal answer here, but it's dependent on lots of different factors. Have you spoken with Alejandro or Nick from our team? They're alejandro AT and nick AT - definitely start a conversation with them and we'll see what we can do. Thanks!

    HUDDLER Neophyte

    We try to push the Huddler Platform to handle the most modern, cutting edge functionality that is enabled online. We have enormous amounts happening in the background of our sites that are additions to traditional forum software - image rich related content, quite a lot of complex javascript, sophisticated caching, etc. From an architecture perspective, we're much more modern which is why our sites presently play best with the most modern browsers. That said, we are not blind to the fact that LOTS of our users aren't (or can't) regularly updating their browsers, so we put tremendous amounts of resources behind making the sites as fast as they can be without compromising our vision of pushing communities forward.

    I've reposted some content from our engineering organization about browser speed and benchmarking. The other (shorter) answer is that page performance is an extremely high priority for our team, and a lot of resources are being poured into continued improvement. Since this interview, the team has grown to 50 people now, and our product/engineering organization alone is 28 - improvements to the Platform are only accelerating.

    Here are some thoughts from my team on speed benchmarking:

    It's challenging to analyze how fast the site is for real users because, in the real world, there are many variables

    • What is the user's computer configuration and speed (OS, RAM, CPU etc.)?
    • Where is the user located and what is their connection speed?
    • Is the user logged in or viewing anonymously?
    • Is the user an admin or mod with access to additional tools and UI?
    • What web browser version is being used?
    • What browser plug-ins, add-ons, toolbars, etc. are installed?
    • Does the user have security software that may impact performance (anti-virus, firewall, etc.)?
    • Many, many more...

    The web offers a variety of tools and services for site speed measurement, but there is no single authoritative, all-encompassing method or tool that makes all of these factors completely transparent.

    Of course, we can benchmark where we are and use analytics to improve. It's just very important to understand the factors involved and be consistent in our approach. A few spot checks using a variety of tools will not produce reliable data. A concerted testing effort using one set of tools and methods will be much more helpful for all of us in measuring site speed and improving it.

    To discuss how fast a site is performing, we need to understand the milestones that define a page load:

    Initial request: your browser sends a request to the server
    Page generation: the server interprets the request, and builds the desired page.
    Response: that page is transferred over the internet to the browser.
    DOMContentLoaded / DOMReady: at this point the entire framework of the "page" is ready in the browser, but some assets (like images and javascript) may still be downloading. However the browser is now able to render and the user will begin to see a usable page.
    Onload: the entire asset payload, including images and scripts, has now loaded and the page can finish rendering completely.
    "Page complete" / Total page load time: Any independent, asynchronous requests (iframes, ads, additional scripts, etc.) that were triggered by the page have now also completed loading and the page is "finished" (although user actions within the page may trigger more async requests).

    In order to discuss, share and analyze browser performance, there are quite a few free, easy to use tools available for many different browsers.


    Chrome is an excellent option since it's free, available on all major platforms, and the tools are built right in. Many of your users already have Chrome, which makes it hugely attractive as a measuring tool because we'll be able to collect data from real users without asking them to install any new software or register for any new services.

    All the great data in Chrome is available in the Developer Tools (CTRL+SHIFT+I on Windows / Cmd+Alt+I on Mac). Once that's open, click on the 'Network' tab:

    Simply load up any page and you'll start to see the stats being collected:

    Scroll to the bottom of the tool to see the bottom-line numbers we're most concerned with:


    Number of requests, total amount transferred, and the three milestones noted above: 1. DOMContentLoaded 2. onload 3. total time.

    This data is a great place to start a conversation about a particular page's load time. All of the information on each of the individual requests can be extremely helpful when trying to determine where a problem is occurring. Click on any individual row to see the Headers, Content, Timing, etc.

    Firefox doesn't have a great measurement tool built-in, but it's easy to add Firebug. Simply install the add-on (follow the instructions on their site or search for it on the official add-on site).

    Once it's installed, simply hit F12 to open up the Firebug console (Command+F12 or Fn+F12 on a Mac, depending on how you have things setup) or simply click on the icon in the toolbar. Similar to Chrome, there is a 'Net' tab. Click on it and you may have to also click on an 'Enable' link to turn on the functionality. Once that's done, reload the page you're interested in and you'll get the performance results you're looking for. Make sure you scroll down to the bottom:

    This tool only shows the onload and total times, but is still useful.

    Similar to Chrome, IE9 has a solid tool built-in to the browser called Developer Tools. To open up the console or window, hit F12. Again, there is a 'Network" tab. The odd thing here is that you have to click on the 'Start capturing' button, load your page...wait for it to complete, then click on 'Stop capturing.' Then, in order to get the numbers we're looking for, you'll need to click on 'Go to detailed view' and then from that section, click on the 'Timings' tab:

    There you'll see two of the numbers we're concerned with: DOMContentLoaded and Load. In order to get the 'total' time, you have to scroll down the list in Summary View to the final file and open up the Timings and look at the last entry, 'Gap.' That shows how much time elapsed from the initial request until that file was fully loaded.

    You will get very different results if you're visiting a site for the first time (or cleared your browser cache) or if it's a subsequent page load. Many assets can be cached locally by the browser, causing the page to make fewer requests and perform much faster.

    Also, please keep in mind that running these tools adds additional overhead to the browser so times recorded are slower than normal page loads.
  20. Jay76

    Jay76 Participant

    Dan , can you answer this one?