Heavybit: Grad School for Startups Building a Software Supply Chain

9/23/13Follow @wroush

James Lindenbaum, the Heroku co-founder who has spent the last year building a new startup training program called Heavybit Industries, thinks the software industry is still just as primitive as the automobile business was back in the Great Depression.

As late as 1930, Ford and other automakers remained vertically integrated, even building the ore processing plants and foundries needed to make the steel for auto bodies, Lindenbaum points out. Eventually, of course, they discovered that it was more economical to buy materials like steel, glass, and rubber from specialized suppliers. Today, car companies are essentially design and assembly shops, outsourcing much of their actual manufacturing to an enormous, global network of parts makers.

Only recently has the software industry started to evolve beyond its own era of vertical integration, Lindenbaum argues. Until players like Amazon began to offer public cloud-computing services, purveyors of Web-based consumer or business software had to manage (and sometimes even build) most of the supporting infrastructure, from the raw-metal processors and switches to data centers, networks, Web servers, and databases.

Already, the emergence of a “stack” of physical and software components that companies can buy or rent à la carte has made building an Internet startup vastly easier and cheaper. But here’s the key thing, in Lindenbaum’s mind: this change is still just beginning. A lot more of the work that goes into building and running a mobile app or Web service could be outsourced, allowing the innovators at the top of the stack to focus on creating things that customers want.

As billions more people around the world come online, “a tremendous amount of consumer and enterprise software is going to be written, creating demand for all of the stuff one step below,” such as Heroku itself, Lindenbaum says. (Heroku, in case you don’t know, is a platform for Web applications—read on for more details, as it’s integral to the Heavybit story.) And someone will need to meet that demand. “I think the collective consciousness is just at the point of becoming aware that this stuff one layer down powers everything else—it provides the raw materials and tooling and allows everything else to be built.”

The Heavybit Industries building at 325 9th Street in San Francisco.

The Heavybit Industries building at 325 9th Street in San Francisco.

That’s the backstory for Heavybit, which Lindenbaum started with managing director Tom Drummond and “vibes manager” Jason Harper. They and the advisors assembling for the operation—including the other two members of Heroku’s founding team, Orion Henry and Adam Wiggins—envision it as a training ground for seed-stage startups building new products that make life easier for application developers.

In a few respects, Heavybit resembles a classic startup accelerator like 500 Startups, Techstars, or Y Combinator. It’s got a competitive admissions process, a set term of residence (nine months), a large network of mentors, a training curriculum, and a workspace for members—a meticulously renovated furniture warehouse on 9th Street in San Francisco’s SoMa district. And it asks admitted startups for a small percentage of equity, meaning, at bottom, it’s an investing operation.

But in other ways, Heavybit is a new animal on the tech savannah. It only admits companies that already have seed funding. It doesn’t provide monetary stipends or investments to startups. And the curriculum skips over “startup 101” topics like fundraising or customer development, going straight to advanced topics like the intricacies of marketing to developers. “We aren’t trying to be an incubator,” Lindenbaum says. “We aren’t trying to help [startups] figure out what they want to be when they grow up. We think of it as grad school to Y Combinator’s undergrad.”

When it comes to the accelerator experience, Lindenbaum knows whereof he speaks. Heroku went through a major pivot as part of Y Combinator back in 2008. A couple of years later, it provided one of YC’s best exits to date, when it was acquired by Salesforce.com for around a quarter of a billion dollars.

Knowing a bit about Heroku is the first step to understanding what Lindenbaum is really trying to do at Heavybit. Often described as a “cloud application platform” or a “Platform-as-a-Service,” Heroku is a place where developers can upload Web-based applications written in languages like Ruby, Java, Node.js, or Python, and count on the company’s systems to run the code and make the apps available to end users, so that its customers don’t’ have to maintain the needed servers and support software. (Technically, the Platform-as-a-Service label is inaccurate, since in practice, since Heroku outsources the hosting part of its job to Amazon Web Services; also, it doesn’t provide all the tools developers need. “It’s really a ‘Runtime-as-a-Service,’” Lindenbaum says.)

Lindenbaum left Salesforce.com early this year, and Wiggins departed in May. (Henry is still there.) But it was being inside Salesforce.com, and watching as their platform grew to support thousands of Web companies running millions of applications, that got the Heroku founders thinking in a larger way about the state of the developer-tools business.

“Because of the sheer size of the platform and the visibility we had into what developers were doing with it, it was super obvious what application architectures were becoming popular,” Lindenbaum says. It was clear, for example, that … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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