Interview With FeedBurner CEO Dick Costolo

Ever since Michael told me about FeedBurner I have been thoroughly addicted (if you are not using this service, I highly recommend you start – there is a free version, though I use the paid service myself). I love the service and thought, hey, why not grab an interview with them.

So, I fired off some questions to their CEO, Dick Costolo and he graciously answered and even included some unexpected information about some of their upcoming additions. So snuggle up with your favorite blog feed and see what FeedBurner can do for you both. ;-)

Q&A with FeedBurner CEO Dick Costolo

Dick Costolo is CEO at FeedBurner, which he co-founded in 2003. He’s worked with the same group of cofounders for the past 13 years and the group have started and built several successful companies, including Spyonit, which was sold to 724 Solutions in 2000.

Google searches may also reveal Dick’s theater experience which includes, among others, numerous roles and performances with Chicago’s Annoyance Theater, television appearances in the UK, and several years of improv shows at international comedy festivals in Edinburgh, Montreal, and Australia.

RAE: Why is it so important for a site to know how many feed subscribers that they have? What does a blogger miss out on without this information and what do they stand to gain if they know it?

DC: Publishers of all sizes are interested in their traffic and subscription metrics for different reasons. Commercial publishers need to understand subscription trends and growth/popularity metrics so that they can manage their businesses and provider the data to advertisers. Many bloggers like to understand how many people are following their writing, what sorts of posts cause gains in popularity, how their audience is growing, etc. Publishers want to know how many people are paying attention either for personal gratification or economics.

RAE: How accurate are your stats? Are there any known weaknesses that occur (such as auto-discovery issues) and what will you be doing over the next few months to address them?

DC: We think our statistics are by far the most accurate in the business. As with any statistics tracking, there are always areas in which there is room to innovate (for example, companies continue to find new kinds of metrics and analytics to provide for web stats). We have lots of plans to enhance the kinds of statistics we report , in order to give publishers a more 360 degree view of usage patterns. For instance, many publishers have asked for the ability to label our charts, so that they can “tag” spikes or valleys in usage patterns – maybe a big day for subscriber growth corresponds with an article being linked to someplace, etc.

RAE: In early February you took some heat for what some called aggressive marketing tactics which you promptly accepted responsibility and apologized for (kudos). What did you learn from that experience as a company and has it impacted your internal training?

DC: As a small company with an entrepreneurial culture, these things are going to happen… the issue, as you hint, is what you learn from them and how you deal with them. We can be a company that is a cult of personality in which decisions are made by a few for the many, or we can try to be as productive as possible by hiring the most enthusiastic and intelligent people we can find, try to quickly help them internalize the company’s “be open, honest, and human” approach to business, and turn them loose. As we grow, we need to be sure that all of the directors and managers in the company help their teams understand our values and what that implies in terms of do’s and don’ts as early in their employment as possible.

RAE: Your “Uncommon Uses” feature looks pretty interesting. Can you explain briefly how it works? And more importantly, what should bloggers do when they find uncommon feed uses – especially if it is confirmed the use is indeed for spam?

DC: We think of uncommon uses as an interesting look into all the irregular places your content might go. As many people discover, most of these uncommon uses are not only valid but enterprising and often ingenious means of consuming a publisher’s feed. What I usually suggest people do is just check out the locations that are referenced in uncommon uses and see what they think. In the case of blog spam, it almost never behooves you to try to contact the spammer, since they likely don’t care. Rather, contact the advertising network that the spammer is using on the page where they’re republishing your content and let the network know that the content is yours and that there may be a violation of the ad network’s Terms of Service.

RAE: You’ve recently added a lot of features that allow a user to “pimp their feed” such as adding a logo, social bookmarking and email this post. According to the blogosphere (and my own difficulties), some of these new options have some bugs to be worked out. What are you aware of as far as problems with these new features and what is your basic hope as far as a timeline in fixing them?

DC: The only issue we’re aware of on FeedFlare is that “Email this” doesn’t work in some versions of Internet Explorer, or perhaps it’s more correct to say that you get inconsistent behavior in IE. We’re just using a simple ‘mailto:’ link from within javascript, and we just haven’t found a standard universal way of making this work for IE users. It seems to work universally for Safari and Firefox users. Obviously, one solution is to go to a Web-based mail system so that the FeedFlare unit could just point to a Web page and that would work for IE users, so we’ve wanted to leverage a partner for that but haven’t found anything we love. We’ll probably build it ourselves at some point. If you have any other issue, you should email us or post in our support forums, as we have literally tens of thousands of publishers now using FeedFlare and aren’t seeing or hearing about any issues outside the email link.

RAE: What is the coolest feature you offer and how did you come up with the idea to add it to your suite of services?

DC: We love everything in the FeedBurner toolbox, but I’ll say a few things about some of the special tools. There are capabilities we’ve rolled out for which we haven’t yet fully exposed the ultimate variety of uses. BuzzBoost lets you to style your feed content for promotion on a web page, and FeedFlare is something of a universal activity/community plug-in for your content in that it allows you to integrate what the world is saying or doing with your posts. Both of these tools are cool in and of themselves and they’re wildly popular. However, this fall we will roll out a major enhancement to the FeedBurner suite that we are just crazy about, and both of these tools will play a major role in this new capability. In many ways, we feel like all the pieces of FeedBurner will be brought together this fall, and it’s absolutely the simple tools that will play the biggest role in this next phase of the company. On a much lighter note, an all-time favorite is our FeedCount chicklet that highlights the live number of subscribers to your feed as a widget that can be incorporated on any web page. It is one of those things we just immediately recognize and love when we visit a site and see it. That’s a simple simple widget, but we love the way it looks and how it’s been so widely adopted.

RAE: Your headline animator is an awesome feature, but the “look” can be a bit much. Do you foresee offering a way to either customize the look of this or offer one that is a little more vanilla?

DC: Yes. We have wanted to come back to this for months, maybe over a year now. The brushed metal is a bit heavy for a lot of people. We have had a Premium version of headline animator mocked up for well over a year, but we keep on discovering pieces of the broad platform where we want to make life easier for publishers (FeedFlare, ping, etc.) and we want to get stakes in the ground in these areas. Having said that, we have a major push on a few different fronts that we are trying to bring to market this summer, and then we hope to cycle back through the existing feature set and rev a few capabilities like Headline Animator and general Feed Splicing.

RAE: After your success and sale with spyonit.com, how did the idea for FeedBurner come about? What were the challenges you faced early on and who was the biggest cheerleader in terms of keeping everyone motivated and focused on the end result in the early days? And where do you see FeedBurner twelve months from now?

DC: I think FeedBurner was really Eric’s (Eric Lunt, CTO) idea. His initial notion was that there were all these sites promoting this version of a feed or that version or this other version, and if this really became popular, how would publishers start to be able to track their subscribers, know who was getting what feed, etc. The more we talked about it, the more obvious it seemed that there would be a variety of reasons publishers up and down the tail would want such a service, and of course, as we started to work on FeedBurner, it became one of those things where we were building this cool hammer and everything started to look like a nail. About four months into the development, before we launched, it became obvious that there were going to be far more uses for FeedBurner than we would ever be able to get to build out, and that was very exciting for us. Twelve months from now, I hope FeedBurner will still feel like the same kind of company to publishers. It will undoubtedly feel like a different company to the broader market. The publisher services that we launch this fall will create a much more broad and ambitious position for us in the media landscape. But we really want to make sure that we still feel like the same kind of people to our publishers as we grow.

RAE: You guys obviously spend a lot of time at work and with the success of the company has surely come a fast growth in staff. Who would the staff say has the coolest desk in the office and why?

DC: We all have the exact same desks! But here’s a picture of the entire office. There are no personal offices, only two conference rooms, so you are really seeing the entire operation here.

The FeedBurner office (Thanks to Traci and Rachelle for the picture)

RAE: Thanks again for taking the time to do this interview. I really enjoy your service and admit it’s a bit addicting, so it was nice getting to hear a bit more about the “behind the scenes”.

DC: Thanks for the interest and stop by anytime. We always love hearing from our vibrant user community and we’re excited to roll out more addictive services for feeds.

About Rae Hoffman

Rae Hoffman aka "Sugarrae" is an affiliate marketing veteran and the CEO of PushFire, a search marketing agency specializing in SEO audits and link building strategies. She is also the author of the often controversial Sugarrae blog. You can connect with Rae via Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

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