A short history of Brandwatch

Brandwatch is turning 15 this year.

Indeed, the very origins of Brandwatch can be traced back to April 2000. And with this anniversary in mind, I thought it would be worth sharing how Brandwatch became what it is now, picking up a few lessons we learnt along the way.

So, once upon a time...

Chapter 1: Runtime Collective, ‘00 to ‘03

Fresh out of completing a PhD at Sussex University, I was lucky to hear about a brand new startup called Runtime Collective. And foolish enough to join it as one of its very first employees.

So it is that on April 3, 2000, I had the first day of my first (permanent) job, meeting up with a few other people in one of the university computer lab rooms. We were to work -code, mostly- there for a couple of weeks before moving on to our own premises, two windowless rooms in a basement office in central Brighton.

And coding we did. Over a couple of years we built a dozen websites, all powered by content management systems (CMS) - initially a much-expanded version of the ArsDigita Community System, and later our very own Josephine CMS.

But coding we didn’t do very well at first. We learnt quickly though. Meaning that after the chaos of our first project we adopted the luxuries of:

  • a project plan
  • CVS (no more writing on a board what files we were editing!)
  • (some) unit tests

All pretty old fashioned but remember those were the days of 15’ screens, megabytes of memory and floppy disks.

So coding-as-a-job was all new to us, and quite fun. The one person I remember most from these very early days is Joe Holmberg. He was an absolutely terrific person to work with and to have as a friend. He very sadly passed away in 2007. Our CEO, joodoo9, wrote a beautiful blog about him. We miss you, Joe.

Chapter 2: Aplaws, ‘03 to ‘05

Rather than create our own CMS, we ultimately decided to ‘grow up’ commercially by adopting the Aplaws CMS and started building Aplaws-powered websites for UK local government agencies.

While this put us in direct competition with other vendors such as RedHat, we proved to ourselves how great even a tiny company from Brighton (UK) could be - and duly kicked a**, built a large portfolio of clients and became the Aplaws specialists.

On the technical side, it probably wasn’t so rosy. Aplaws, the evil grand-child of the ArsDigita Community System, fully re-written in Java, had been over-engineered to death. With the joys of SVN and Eclipse came the pains of XML/XSLT and endless stack trace analysis.

(On a personal note, I took the liberty to go and spend a couple of years in Vancouver. Go there. It is amazing.)

Chapter 3: Magpie, ‘05 to ‘06

Things got really interesting around 2005. Seeing limited room to grow our company as a service organisation, Giles pivoted it to focus on building a search product, and renamed it to Magpie. (Incidentally, this is when I became CTO)

Within a couple of years we launched two products (first Searchbox, then Search & Alert), funding the dev team with ongoing revenues from the Aplaws websites as well as some Angels money.

The key learning from that period for me: pivoting is great, but pivoting quickly is even better. Twice we pushed hard to get Search & Alert to work. We thought we had a great idea (tell people when something happens!), and twice we saw some technical issues as being the blockers. Twice we fixed them: first by getting alerts to reduce false-positives (inaccurate alerts) 10-fold overnight, second by adding an integration with a key data partner. Both times, it made no difference to our lack of sales. If the idea isn’t good, change the idea.

But we learnt a lot about crawling the web, and analysing online data. And we built some really good tech. All we needed was a better idea...

Chapter 4: Brandwatch - the early years, ‘06 to ‘09

A few things happened in 2006. Facebook hit 10 million users. The very first tweet was written. Sony launched their second ground-breaking Bravia advert, and wanted to know what people thought about it online (and they asked us).

We put 1 and 1 together, renamed our company to Brandwatch and embarked on telling brands and agencies what the Web thinks about them. It took us 3 months to repurpose our crawlers and backend, then another 3 months to build a simple charting interface, before launching Brandwatch v1.

I remember having a bit of a Eureka moment at the midpoint of these 6 long months. We had scaled our crawlers to go through maybe a million sites (still a small drop in the ocean) and didn’t want to wait another 3 months to see results. Cue 2 hours of HTML coding to show a bunch of bar charts and voila: very clear spikes of volumes for certain brands on certain days, which we could quickly explain by looking at Google or BBC News. We had put our finger on the internet’s pulse.

Nevertheless, things were not easy. It took a lot of client ‘education’ to convey what we were trying to do, and why it was useful. And client education is hard.

Also, we found ourselves probably the best yardstick there is: Google. “Why don’t you have as many results as Google?” Sooner or later we ran out of excuses and just worked harder. Until we got more results than Google!

(BTW, we’re still working harder)

Chapter 5: Brandwatch - the growth years, ‘09 to now

From 2009 onwards, things seem to just fall into place.

We relied more and more on numbers, and numbers don’t lie. We set up a KPI email to be sent to the whole company, every day. And the numbers show amazing growth throughout the last 6 years.

A lot of this growth is down to a few key moves though:

  • we built up the management team with key appointments (I’m looking at Bryan, Alex, Will and many others here)
  • we sent Seb to set up shop in the US, and what a success story that has been
  • we assembled great teams of amazing people, throughout the whole company, outgrowing multiple offices along the way - it takes a lot of very smart people to build great things
  • more recently, we started acquiring when great opportunities come up, such as with PeerIndex

In terms of Engineering, we faced many challenges while the team grew from a dozen to more than 100 people. We adopted Agile practices with a switch to autonomous teams, the adoption of Scrum and Kanban, the rollout of product management. And we take pride in our purpose and culture.

Also, while we continued scaling our data platform and making it smarter, we saw an increased focus on the user interface, with Javascript development becoming an equal to Java development. (Note we have been running JS on the server for more than 2 years)

Finally, the launch of our second product, Vizia, in 2013 was a really huge milestone. And we have a lot more in the pipeline…

So this has been quite a long and eventful story, and one where each new Chapter has felt like a new ‘job’ to me. The next few years only promise to be even more exciting.

Happy 15, Brandwatch!