How Stack Overflow kick-started an entire business: Talking with Ben Dowling from IPinfoReading time: 12 minutes
When you have a programming question, Stack Overflow is one of the, if not the, best place to go. Developers of all types have been turning to Stack Overflow's community for assistance since 2008.
But what if we tell you that one person has managed to build an entire business based on a question he found on Stack Overflow?
Ben Dowling, founder of IPinfo, has been an avid user of Stack Overflow. What started as answering fellow developers' questions, became an entire company when he shared a link to the software that he built as a hobby. Now, IPinfo is a household name for hundreds of thousands of developers, handling over 700 million API requests daily.
Currently living in Seattle and running a successful company with a fully remote team, Ben has come a long way from his home in the UK. See what Ben had to say about his experience working as an engineer for Facebook and other Bay Area startups, how you can use Stack Overflow and similar platforms for growing a company and much more.
SecurityTrails: Could you walk us through your journey from London to San Francisco, and now settling in Seattle?
Ben Dowling: I'm originally from the UK. After graduating from university in Southampton, I moved to London and worked for a bunch of startups there. While I was working for Lightbox, an Android photo-sharing app, Facebook acquired the team, and we moved to the Bay Area back in 2012. It was a big move. My wife was eight months pregnant at the time, and we already had one young kid, It was all very exciting and a bit of an adventure, but I've always wanted to move to the Bay Area and immerse myself in the startup and tech scene there.
After a couple of years at Facebook, I left to work for Calm.com. From there, to IPinfo and that's when I decided to move to Seattle.
How does the startup scene in the Bay Area compare to London?
Ben: When I lived in London, there was a small, but fairly close-knit, startup scene. You'd go to different meetups and see all of the same people. It had a great community feel to it. In the Bay Area there are so many more people in tech, so many more meetups, and everything is much more dispersed.
Seattle vs. Silicon Valley
|Available tech jobs||165,264||225,300|
|Companies||Microsoft, Amazon, Boeing||Apple, Google, Facebook|
|Conferences||SecureCISO, AI NEXTCON||RSA, BSidesSF|
You worked for Facebook as an anti-abuse engineer. Tell us about your experience there. How does working for such a giant enterprise compare to working at startups?
Ben: It was really fun! I was part of Ads Integrity team, where we worked on abuse through the ads ecosystem — payment fraud, spammy ads, and helping with the ad review systems. I did a lot of work to try and detect and prevent cloaking, and learned a lot about diet pills, weight-loss scams, and other shady online money-making schemes!
The experience of working for such a large organization and for a startup is vastly different, but it's interesting to see that even at a company such as Facebook, you still have the same worries, just on a different scale. Google, Apple, Facebook — they all have the same worries you would see with a startup, but they are just bigger. Whether you have five engineers or 5,000 engineers, you will never have enough people to work on all of the things you want to work on. It was interesting to see that there is never a moment of, "Oh, we made it and now we don't have to think about these things." It was also great to see how a big organization runs and how the leadership team operates, communicates, and thinks about things.
Calm.com is a meditation app where you were the CTO. How does the experience of working for a wellness/meditation startup differ from some other ones that are purely tech oriented?
Ben: There were definitely a lot of tech challenges to overcome at Calm. At the time I joined Calm, the app was fairly buggy and would sometimes crash, yet it had very passionate customers that loved it despite the problems. I'd been friends with Alex, the founder, for quite a few years. We'd worked on some small projects together, and he'd been keeping me updated with how things were progressing at Calm. I loved his vision for the company and what he was doing, and I thought there was a great opportunity for me to help put a solid technical foundation in place, which would really help take things to the next level.
You started IPinfo as a small side project. How did you feel when it started picking up and growing to the size it is today?
Ben: I've lost count of how many different side projects I've worked on and launched, and one thing I've learned it that it's really hard to tell how successful it's going to be ahead of time. I've had huge hopes for projects that I've launched that got no traction, and others that I didn't have any expectations around ended up having some more success. With IPinfo, I was mostly thinking that it's something I would love to use and would be a lot of fun to build. But it really took on a life of its own and struck a chord with people.
Seeing people start using it in different places, talking about it, and sharing great feedback was hugely encouraging, and that really motivated me to keep working on it, improving it, and growing it.
You regularly travel back to London while working full time on IPinfo. What advice would you give for maintaining a healthy work-life balance?
Ben: Having a remote team and having everything set up, from the start, for the team to work from wherever, really helps. We've got everything online, whether that's in GitHub, Notion, or Slack, so we're all able to access everything and be productive wherever we happen to be, rather than needing to be at a specific location.
Enjoying what you do is obviously important. I love working on IPinfo, so getting some work done while I'm on vacation or traveling doesn't feel like a chore or something that's a distraction. The flip side to that, you should keep in mind not to spend your entire vacation working and know when to stop — you should just make sure you have everything in the right balance.
What are some of your secrets for growing a business from a side project to this popular solution that handles 700 million requests a day?
Ben: I think a lot of users come to our service because it's really simple to use, and you can get set up very quickly, and I think users stick around because we're fast and reliable — they trust that our API is going to work and won't cause them any problems.
Stackoverflow has been a very successful growth channel for IPinfo. Did that happen accidentally?
Ben: I'd been asking and answering questions on StackOverflow for years, long before I launched IPinfo. I hadn't even thought about using it as a place to find new users for IPinfo, I'd just stumbled across some questions that were relevant to IPinfo and replied as a way to help the person asking the question. When I noticed that these answers were getting a lot of upvotes and referring a lot of new users to IPinfo, I started being much more strategic about it, and I would spend a lot of time trying to find relevant questions to answer on StackOverflow.
Since IPinfo started as a free and helpful service for many, how do you now keep that mentality while being profitable?
Ben: All of our initial users joined us as a free service, and they helped spread the word. They were the ones tweeting about it, sharing it, and helping us grow. In some ways, we feel a responsibility towards those early users and want to continue to support them. It's not completely altruistic though — many users start out on our free tier and eventually upgrade to one of our paid plans, and we get lots of great feedback and product suggestions from users on the free tier, which helps us to make a better product.
What advice would you give to someone that wants to monetize their product?
Ben: I do think starting with a free product and growing demand for that first and then finding out ways to charge the highest volume users, or whoever is getting the most value out the product, worked really well for us, and that's probably a good way to go about it. By getting people to start using it for free first, you've also got users you can get feedback from and have conversations with about how much they'd be willing to pay and what pricing model would make sense.
I might be able to find the best engineer locally, but is he really excited to work with IP data? When you have the whole world to choose from, finding someone who loves what we do becomes much easier.
IPinfo is best known for its free IP geolocation API, but you also have some other data sets and APIs. What are they?
Ben: To create and improve our IP geolocation data, we've had to get really good at processing a lot of different IP address-related data, and we've started looking at different ways in which we can use that data in interesting ways and also open up access to some of the raw data, such as IP WHOIS records.
One thing we've done is build an IP type classifier that looks at a bunch of different features for each internet provider and infers if they're primarily an ISP, hosting provider, business, or educational institution. We've added this data to our API, and we have customers that are using it to block suspicious traffic and prevent fraud.
We've done a lot of work to infer the company that operates an IP range. We include that information in our API as part of our Pro plan, but we've also recently launched an IP ranges API that'll return all of the ranges that are operated by an organization.
With IPinfo, your entire team is remote. How would you describe your experience with running a fully remote team? What were the biggest challenges you needed to overcome?
Ben: There are huge benefits to having a fully remote team! It gives everyone on the team a lot more freedom with where they work from and what hours they want to work.
That also means that you get to hire people from anywhere in the world. There is no need for the best IP data engineer to have to live in the same town as me. When you are a small startup, you're looking for not only good engineers, but also someone who is really into what you're doing. I might be able to find the best engineer locally, but is he really excited to work with IP data? When you have the whole world to choose from, finding someone who loves what we do becomes much easier.
I’m pretty anti-process, and I think, “We’ll just hire a bunch of smart people and things will fall into place.”
There are also challenges to remote teams. When everyone is in the same room, stuff happens organically. You don't have to necessarily be great at figuring out what the exact processes are when everyone is in the same place, because you just chat about it and it happens. With remote teams, you need to be more conscious about communication and processes. I'm pretty anti-process, and I think, "We'll just hire a bunch of smart people and things will fall into place." That's possible with a small startup team in an office, and it works for remote work, but you do need to put in more effort making sure things are getting done and everyone is on the same page. In an office, this comes freely, but when you are remote, you need to spend some extra effort around consciously communicating.
What channels do you mostly use to find new people to work at IPinfo?
Ben: I've had a lot of success with HackerNews, where there's a monthly Who's Hiring thread. The first time I posted in that thread, I was looking to hire an engineer, and I posted about the background of IPinfo, how it was a side project that has grown, and how I was looking to bring on a new engineer. The response was overwhelming, and I was blown away by the quantity and quality of the responses. I was also surprised that a lot of people contacted me about non-engineering roles.
From that first post, I hired a couple of engineers and our Head of Customer Solutions, who's been an incredible hire. Since then, I figured I shouldn't only be looking for engineers, so I try to consistently post on that thread and look for everyone who is passionate about this product, regardless of their occupation, since they would probably have an impact on IPinfo. I think now we've hired probably more than half of the team through HackerNews.
What can we expect from IPinfo in the near future?
Ben: We've been working on better reporting around API usage, and we recently launched a weekly email that shows a breakdown of where your requests are coming from, which ISPs and user agents are most popular, etc. That's been really well received, and we've got plans to do more around that. Our main focus is going to continue to be around our data quality and the reliability of our API, though.
Join the ever-growing user base of IPinfo and see why so many developers love their reliable IP data. Check out their blog to catch more tips Ben selflessly shares with us.
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