I enjoy hearing stories about how a company started and what the founders went through. For that reason, I interviewed a founding member of ConfigCat, Zoltan, to give us a glimpse into what went on behind the scenes.
ConfigCat now is a remote configuration service that offers feature flag management. It will allow you as a developer or product manager to control your features by having switches to turn them on/off, targeting individual users, canary release, and much more.
So, it was interesting to listen to Zoltan talk about how ConfigCat started, developed, and grew into a well-rounded company, so make sure to grab some popcorn for this.
The Foundation of ConfigCat
As ideas come from inspiration and open minds, Zoltan, in his previous job as a product manager, repeatedly observed a problem in his line of work. And each time this occurred, it took a long time to resolve. From there, a light bulb went off over his head on creating a remote error logging and configuration service.
When he looked into it, he found that three companies already offer remote error logging services, so he gave up, thinking that he had no chance of competing. A few years later, it turned out that these three companies are now part of more than 150 firms that offer the same type of service, such as sentry, bugfender, airbrake, only to name a few.
He paused for a moment to reflect on how he missed his shot. But the shining part was that he noticed that others hadn't considered the remote configuration service he had envisaged.
So again, he looked into it to find out that few companies offer the same service, but this time he wasn't going to give up.
Q: So Zoltan, tell me how many people were working on ConfigCat at the beginning?
“It was me and two ex-colleagues, Lajos and Sige, who knew about my plan, so they came telling me that they would like to do something all together, saying that they are good developers, but they were missing business people. So we left our jobs gradually and began working on ConfigCat, but now we have a community with over 30 people.”
Q: When did you officially start the service?
“In 2018, but we didn’t receive any paying customers for a whole year.”
Q: What was the feeling of launching a service and not having a paying customer for almost a year?
“That has two components, financially and emotionally. In terms of finances, we had spent nearly all of our spare money, living off it most of the time.
Emotionally, I was attached to the idea. In the end, it became like a drug. I used to spend all day on my laptop. I tried to sell the service to companies in my country, but they always sent me away. I was unsuccessful in this, but I enjoyed it. And also, my girlfriend left me, which was terrible. I almost fell into a depression, but what has helped me is doing ConfigCat.”
Q: How did you handle the risk?
“We were actually just very positive thinkers about it. We thought this was much better than having a 9-to-5 job even though we had no customers. It's funny because there was a time when we didn’t know how we would live. We said we may have a user in the next day, week, or month.”
Q: How did you handle the infrastructure of ConfigCat?
“I started developing in 2003, so I had an idea of how to handle the infrastructure. I started with basic providers and expanded more with the growth of ConfigCat. So, whatever ConfigCat needed, I had a picture of what to do.”
The Gradual Growth of ConfigCat
In conclusion, it was clear from here that they were passionate about the idea and the IT side of the project, putting success above commercial concerns.
But as patience always pays off, people began registering for ConfigCat on their own. It started with one paying customer in 2019, and now they have nearly 200 paying customers.
Q: Tell me about the first customer. Do you remember the story?
“Yeah, I can’t forget it. On a random day, someone purchased our highest plan, which was $200. We just simply couldn’t believe that some money had arrived. I was very happy about it, so I contacted this person saying I would like to offer a discount, or something like that. He said no, honestly I don’t think you guys have any paying customers, and I want to keep the service running, so just keep the money.”
“And then we started to have a customer every month, but then the next couple of customers also bought the highest plan. We thought ConfigCat was cheap or something at that point.”
“And as you know, ConfigCat is a monthly subscription, so we were looking at how much time these customers would last with ConfigCat. We thought they might leave us and go to other providers, but that turned out not to be true. They were so happy with our service that they're still our customers today.”
Q: How did customers find out about ConfigCat?
“When I asked them where they found us, they all pointed us to one place called Alternativeto. They found us as a LaunchDarkly alternative, the industry-leading feature flag provider today.
It’s funny because I remember the day when someone I know put us on Alternativeto. I didn't understand why he put us on there. I thought he was just trying to be nice to me, but a couple of months later, a customer mentioned that he found us through it, so we put ConfigCat on all review sites.”
Q: Do you remember the first popular company that purchased your service?
“Of course, It was H&M. It was fascinating because I used to go and pay H&M for clothes, but at some point, I saw them paying me through ConfigCat.”
Q: What were your feelings when you saw organizations starting to use ConfigCat?
“That gave us much more confidence and belief in what we were doing, and every new client was a motivation for us to keep working on what we were doing.”
Q: When did you realize ConfigCat was growing?
”In the beginning, I used to remember every customer's name until I realized that I couldn't remember all of their names anymore, so I had to use an excel sheet, and that's when I realized that we were growing.”
Q: How many requests does ConfigCat receive now?
”ConfigCat has grown 5x in 2020 and 3x in 2021, and it keeps growing, with almost 6-8 billion requests per month from different kinds of organizations around the world that use ConfigCat.”
Q: Is there a secret to your growth?
”I think because the users are extremely happy with us, we have a really low churn rate. Also, most customers told us that they found ConfigCat to be a better option when they compared it to other feature flag providers, fundamentally and without fishy prices.”
A Peek Into ConfigCat’s Future
Lastly, looking at the future and the vision of ConfigCat, we discussed how the company plans to proceed in the next few years. Zoltan emphasized the need to stay simple and user-friendly: “People should not work to make machines happy, machines should be there to make people happy”. Having said that, he is dedicated to making his customers as happy as he can by constantly enriching ConfigCat with new features and partnerships. For example, such efforts recently paid off with, ConfigCat officially becoming ISO certified.
However, ConfigCat's main goal to be a 10 minutes trainable feature flag management service will remain as consistent as ever, no matter of what new features may come in the future for the platform.