When it comes to working for a start-up, it would appear that there are those who love it and those who simply haven’t given it a go yet. The enthusiasm and passion emanating out of London’s thriving ‘Tech City’ or ‘Silicon Roundabout’ scene, an ever-expanding collection of tech companies based in the heart of the nation’s capital, becomes abundantly clear to anyone who experiences it firsthand. Geoff Wagstaff, the 20-year old chief technology officer (CTO) of GoSquared, is a prime example of that.
The company was the brainchild of Wagstaff and two of his secondary school classmates. It was founded six years ago when the core team were just 14. After initially experimenting with creating a third party advertising network, GoSquared now specialises in delivering “real-time web analytics to help people understand how their audience is using their websites and applications,” Wagstaff explains.
“We wanted to price the adverts more effectively depending on the traffic the sites were getting,” Wagstaff says. “For our own uses we wanted a real-time visualisation of web traffic so that we could see how our users were interacting with the ads.
“At the time there was nothing that let you do this and we felt blind without it so we just went ahead and made LiveStats. We found it really useful so thought ‘let’s release it’. That’s when the business started to get some attention and it has become our core business from then on.”
And so GoSquared, in its current recognisable form at least, was born. The company has had a helping hand on the way, too, in the form of investment firm Passion Capital. Based in central London, GoSquared is now surrounded by other like-minded, innovative, tech start ups also operating out of Passion’s own offices.
Since moving into its current home GoSquared has witnessed significant growth and now delivers real-time insight on the traffic and activity of 17,000 websites – Tesco’s, MoneySupermarket’s and Volkswagen’s among them. All of these websites produce “terabytes and terabytes” of data between them, all of which has to be stored and managed.
LiveStats, now in its third rendition, was launched in January 2010 and is the company’s flagship product which delivers the real-time web analytics. It was the realisation of Wagstaff and the team’s desire to make data beautiful. “I love that we’re turning horrible looking raw data into really nice, approachable, intuitive reports,” he says.
Delivering on the data
|"I love that we’re turning horrible looking raw data into really nice, approachable, intuitive reports.”|
A potential user need only visit the GoSquared website, pay a fee and enter their domain details. Then, having implemented a tracking code, you use the company’s application programming interface (API) to get real-time visualisations of everything that is happening on your website. By monitoring numerous metrics customers can use the LiveStats product to see how customers are travelling around their site, what the most popular pages are and what’s driving traffic.
“One of the key metrics we monitor is also one of the simplest and that is seeing just how many people are on your site right now,” Wagstaff states. “We can track that over time and plot it as a time series graph and correlate events to show what influenced certain trends. That helps you answer questions like ‘what was it that impacted traffic here, what was the result of that and what do I need to change, if anything?’”
Gathering, storing and sifting through masses of data before then delivering the relevant information in an effective and coherent manner in real-time is no mean feat. More importantly, such fast data analytics has the potential to empower the user.
“This kind of analytics,” Wagstaff points out, “can tell how long people are spending on particular pages, how many pages they’ve viewed, how long they linger there for, how many actions they undertake and really interesting metrics like visitor velocity through your site. You need to be able observe these things to understand your customers’ behaviours and know how effective your site is.”
One example the GoSquared CTO offers to illustrate this is being able to amend a faltering advertising campaign: “You’re expected to get a return on it," he explains, "if you’re able to monitor that in real-time then you can keep an eye on the performance of the campaign and react quickly if it’s not effective enough – whether that’s a problem with a link or the landing page is not attracting customer – and rectify the issues.”
Another more specific example he cites is that of the Survival International. After a wave of press coverage the human rights organisation noticed a surge in demand for the content of their site. They suddenly realised they needed to translate said content into different languages to make it globally accessible. By using GoSquared they were able to see what the common tongue was in the areas of particularly high traffic and prioritise the translations accordingly.
Wagstaff is in no doubt of the vital role that cloud computing has played in GoSquared’s journey. “I think it’s been absolutely integral part of our business history,” he says. “We moved to Amazon Web Services (AWS) in 2009. It allowed us to do so much that previously just wouldn’t have been possible, there would have been such a high barrier to entry to acquire the technology you need to do a lot of high volumes of concurrent processing and requests and data processing.
“The unique ‘pay-for-what-you-use’ billing model with infinite architecture that cloud offers is genius because it brings so much power into the hands of ordinary users. Then you can start deploying apps which you wouldn’t have had the infrastructure or finances to do. For us, being able to reserve a small part of this very comprehensive infrastructure meant we could do what we wanted on a small scale and then scale up as and when we needed.”
Like with the large majority of tech start-ups, the cloud is more than an enabler for GoSquared; it is their lifeblood. The access to such vast computing resource but without the need for huge upfront capital is what allows them to exist, let alone thrive. And yet Wagstaff is keen to stress that getting the most of the cloud “is quite complex”. It is not merely a case of flipping a switch, elastically scaling and distributing your capacity over multiple horizontal servers. He says: “‘Harnessing the power of the cloud’ is all well-and-good on paper but when you’re actually implementing a system like that there are a lot of complicated issues to overcome. You have to orchestrate the flow of data across all these servers and then figure out how you break that down into concurrent jobs while also ensuring against failure points. People don’t necessarily understand all that when they moved into the cloud.”
More to do
Wagstaff, who turned his back on university during his first week when Passion Capital made its investment offer, clearly has an appreciation of both technology and business that is beyond his years. He is also acutely aware that the company has a lot more to do if the team is to realise its ambition and make GoSquared a major player in the analytics world.
Such developments, although largely kept under wraps, include making more effective means of visualising the impact of social media, exploiting the rise of the mobile cloud, and making better use out of archived data. When it comes to the latter, Wagstaff states: “Data warehousing costs are very low and storage is one of the cheapest computing assets you can. A lot of analytics is just gauging what would be useful in a report, and then you have to figure out how you build the algorithmic tools to discern that from your data warehouse. By making better use of old data, not just focussing on real-time analytics, we could add extra value to our users.”
In achieving this growth and development, the team are confident that they are in the right place. Located in one of Tech City’s hotspots, Wagstaff and his fellow team of relative youngsters get exposure to a network of people and companies with valuable experience to help them on their way.
|"There is also a great buzz around the place because this is one of the epicentres of the Silicon Roundabout."|
“It’s a great collaborative environment in that there are so many different companies here who are doing different things but facing similar issues,” he says. “We have to solve the same problems like hiring, managing teams, product development, accountancy, lawyers and insurance. We didn’t have much experience with that stuff so it’s great to bounce ideas off other people and get advice from them.
“There is also a great buzz around the place because this is one of the epicentres of the Silicon Roundabout. Interest in the area is certainly ramping up and now it’s got the attention of the government. We’ve had David Cameron, UKTI, ministers and even Prince Andrew come in to see what’s going on. It’s definitely becoming more and more evolved.”
However, one area which is a matter of concern for GoSquared, like many of the start-ups operating out of Tech City, is the shortage in personnel to hire. As the company looks to expand it will need to recruit, finding people with the skills is a challenge, finding people with the right mindset is substantially more difficult.
“It’s very difficult to find the right people; skills are only part of the problem. You have to ask: will they get the start-up scene, will they function properly, will they thrive on that work ethic? It’s not about going to work, doing the job and going home. It’s about living it, it’s about getting involved in all of the meet ups, talks, events and the general community and buzz around it.”
The problem, as he sees it, is that academia conditions people to jump through hoops; it restricts them by implementing a regimented, linear thought process which revolves around getting your qualifications and then going away to get a job in a large conglomerate. Wagstaff says: “There is a distinct aversion to failure; people don’t understand how it can be a good thing and instead they look for the safest path with the fewest risks.”
A fear of failure is not something Wagstaff himself possess. Like many tech start-ups it’s all about being willing to take a chance and if it does go wrong, learning from it and trying again. As he says: “Often we just wing it. We have always been experimenting and learning ourselves, none of us are really officially trained in computer science or business; all of the skills and experience we’ve acquired has come through solving practical problems. If we’ve failed then we’ve learnt even better lessons from it.”
Learning lessons and learning them quickly is ultimately what Wagstaff and GoSquared are all about. ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ is how the old adage goes. Luckily for this up-and-coming company, they have youth on their side and they appear to have the mentality and support structure to continue their successful growth for some time yet.
Watch GoSquared in action: