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How Focus on Core Features Grew Bootstrapped Feedly to 15 Million Users

Danny Schreiber
Danny Schreiber / April 10, 2014

One of the most remarkable startup stories in recent years is that of feedly. The tiny startup that launched in 2008, with a quest to improve how we consume online content, had an unforgettable 2013. Following Google's announcement to shut down Google Reader—the mainstream app that helped make RSS subscriptions commonplace—many in the media pointed to feedly as the go-to app.

Readers listened. Since Google's announcement, 80 percent of Google Reader users have transferred to feedly, rocketing the now California-based startup's user count 15 times to 15 million users, the company's CEO Edwin Khodabakchian last month told Alyson Shontell of Business Insider.

Edwin Khodabakchian

Feedly, now a bootstrapped startup of 12 people, supports an incredible stream of content. Shontell reported that 40 million websites connect to the app, together piping in 2,000 new articles per second.

"Feedly customers use the product voraciously," she wrote. "Mobile Feedly users spend an average of 20 minutes per session with the product. Desktop users spend even more time per session—55 minutes. The majority of Feedly users access the app five out of seven days per week."

Like productivity apps Pocket, Unroll.Me and Momentum—apps we've profiled on the Zapier blog—the growth of feedly can in part be attributed to following through on what it promised users at the start. For feedly, that's a simple and fast service to consume content.

To learn how feedly delivers on its promise, the processes it follows to review user feedback—their surveys return between 30,000-50,000 responses—and what it optimizes to keep users coming back, we conducted an email interview with Khodabakchian.

The Story Behind Feedly

Zapier: How do you describe feedly?

Edwin Khodabakchian: We believe that reading opens doors, whether that’s performing better at work, mastering a craft, learning something new or following current events. Reading is an important tool for those with curious minds, and feedly is an app that enables readers to connect with the websites and sources about the things they are most passionate.

What's the short story of feedly's start in 2008?

I’ve always read a lot of blogs and around 2008 I wanted to get back into coding. Feedly started as an experiment to build a better MyYahoo—a tool that would allow me to dive deeper into the topics I care about. It has been a great journey that has allowed me to work on a few very interesting and constantly evolving challenges: personalization, mobile and the cloud.

It's hard to separate feedly's rise to the No. 1 RSS reader spot from Google Reader's 2013 demise, but doing just that, what is it about your product that attracts millions of users? As opposed to being labeled the "Google Reader replacement."

We think that feedly has moved beyond the “Google reader replacement” phase and stands on its own as an app that millions of people use each week to connect with the things they care about. Feedly offers a wonderful reading experience, built on top of a reliable, world class infrastructure and a growing number of useful integrations with other apps (such as our new integration with Zapier). But what really sets feedly apart is our commitment to our users. We are constantly iterating and making feedly better.

Specifically, what is your commitment to your users? Pocket founder Nate Weiner, for example, told us staying true to their "read it later" function versus discovery of new articles fulfilled a commitment to their users.

We try to honor two promises:

Deliver a simple and fast service that connects our users to the knowledge and creativity they need to continuously learn and transform themselves.

Design with our ears. That is, some companies put competitors or industry trends at the center of their design process, we focus on listening with our users. We use Twitter, email, UserVoice, and Google+ communities to constantly engage with users, and everyone on the team spends 30 minutes per day in contact with users. Our design methodology is centered around user research and user testing.

How does the feedly team measure the 30 minutes per day?

We don't formally track or measure this time, but spending time talking to our users—whether that is by Twitter, on Skype/phone, via email or through one of our support or community channels—is ingrained in our company culture. Everyone on staff is expected to do so daily; many times that adds up to more than 30 minutes in a given day.

Growing feedly

Feedly co-founder Cyril Moutran told VentureBeat it's taken "13-14 major iterations" to build a product like feedly. As of March 2014, how many feedly iterations have there been?

Feedly is now in version 19 on the web.

What's your team's process around tackling the next iteration? Specifically, how do you decide the focus, what's included or excluded?

We have some internal metrics for deciding which features to build, as well as our own internal product roadmap. User need also plays a role in determining what we tackle.

What are those internal metrics and how are they reviewed? For example, do you review weekly, monthly or quarterly?

We continuously monitor user input from Twitter, UserVoice, our Google+ community and our Pro support email. When we see a pattern emerge, Arthur Bodolec (design cofounder) starts the design process by further talking to users, creating mockups of new features or changes and testing with users. If the user research is inline with what we initially heard, we’ll build a prototype, push it into the beta channel and collect live feedback. We usually iterate a few times and decide to either push it to the main channel or kill it.

We use the aggregated Google Analytics dashboard to understand the engagement generated with each feature.

Is there a set cycle, say three months, for each new iteration?

We run sprints based around features.

How long are the sprints and what do they look like? Is the full team involved?

Sprints can span between 2-24 weeks depending on the depth of the feature. It often starts with user research. The ideal team is 3-4 people: design, product/marketing, back end engineer, front end engineer.

Moutran also indicated user feedback has played a role in those iterations, and on your blog in 2013 you published a summary of over 7,000 responses to a user survey. What's the process around putting together a survey, reviewing submissions and acting on them?

We often use simple Google forms for our surveys. We are lucky to have a vocal/engaged community of users so when we push out a survey, we are able to get 30-50K responses within a few days. Some surveys are part of larger user research projects, in which we start with forms but then try to connect one-on-one with individual users over Skype and Google Hangouts to better understand people’s motivation for a feature and their reactions to prototypes.

You also told Business Insider that the majority of feedly users access the app five out of seven days per week. What feature or features do you optimize to make sure these users stay engaged?

Speed. The speed of loading the app. The speed of browsing through your reading list. The speed of sharing content with other people and apps.

As you continue to build the product, how frequently does this focus play into decisions made on features or additions to feedly?

All the time. Everyone on the dev and ops team is obsessed with performance. Every feature goes through a thorough performance review.

How did you learn the importance of speed?

Mobile has changed user behavior. Users now select the best app for a specific activity, and the key in that context is to do one thing very, very well and keep the experience as simple as possible. Feedly is about collecting and reading what matters to you. We have been focusing on making the reading experience as fast, simple and efficient as we can.

We’re constantly talking to our users to learn about their pain points and how they use feedly, and we pay close attention to how our design decisions affect usage within feedly.

Process at feedly

What's been the most important process or productivity practice the feedly team has adopted?

Design with your ears. We do a lot of user research to understand the motivations and needs of our users. We invest a lot of time understanding problems before trying to find a solution. (Our design cofounder, Arthur Bodolec, gave a great presentation on this concept earlier this year, which you can view here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dSkuKDyQOh8)

What's the most important process or productivity practice you follow in your personal work routine?

Developing a growth mindset. Your abilities can be developed through practice, learning and hard work. This is central to our approach at feedly; we believe that reading can make you better at what you do.

Do you have an example of how you live this out?

Our iterative design and development process is driven by this. We are not worried about shipping things early and receiving negative feedback: we see feedback as the opportunity to better understand the motivation of users.

How do you personally use feedly?

I maintain great collections around entrepreneurship, design and tech. It is magical to be able to continuously learn new skills and have a window into the minds of experts on the topics I care about. My feedly is also an important source of inspiration.

How many feeds do you subscribe to in your feedly account? Do you have a routine around consumption?

I follow about 300 different feeds across nine main collections. I read my must reads on my phone in the morning. I read my tech, marketing and hacker collections at works through the day. I browse my more inspirational design collections on my iPad in the evening.

Credits: Edwin Khodabakchian photo from Twitter.

You might also enjoy this article on Pocket: "How a Two-Day Side Project Turned Into a Productivity App with 11 Million Users"

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