Nodejitsu’s Co-Founders on the Power of Node.js and the Beauty of Javascript

Charlie Robbins and Marak Squires

Charlie Robbins and Marak Squires are high school friends, now all grown up and united by their passion for Javascript. Their company, Nodejitsu (also Paolo Fragomeni, who joined as a later co-founder) just raised $750,000 after about a year of basically bootstrapping. They’ve been writing hours of open source code and building a platform to help developers who want to use a relatively new technology, Node.js, to build faster, stronger apps.

Betabeat interviewed these guys back in January, when they were still scrapping hard at General Assembly. Since then, Mr. Squires moved to San Francisco because they decided they needed a presence there, and has set up shop at the West Coast Hack Haus in the Lower Haight. He is in the process of developing a series of raps that teach people about Node.js.

Q: What’s the layperson’s pitch for Nodejitsu?

Marak: JavaScript goes in, money comes out. We provide a service by packaging up a utility into a nice neat consumable package. We buy a utility for a nickel, apply some JavaScript magic, and resell it for a dime.

Charlie: We help expedite the time-to-market for web applications and services by handling all the stuff that developers don’t really want to do. There are other companies that do this for other server-side technologies (Google App Engine is for Java and Python, Microsoft Azure is for .NET, Heroku is for Ruby), but Nodejitsu does it for node.js. We believe that node.js is the future of the web and web development.

Q: Do you remember the moment you had the idea for Nodejitsu? What was the spark?

Marak: Charlie and I had been working on a cloud platform as a service and application marketplace idea a few years back. Our original business plan encompassed all major languages, platforms, and open-source libraries. It was an ambitious task and we never quite got it off the ground. It was our first time dealing with any sort of real fundraising and after having a negative experience with Owen Davis, our team was demoralized and we all kind of went back to the monotony of our regular jobs.

Fast forward to April of 2010 when I just got back from JsConf and was going on and on about how awesome it was to Charlie. Charlie sort of said something like, “Hey why don’t we do a cloud hosting company only for node.js,” and I think it took me all of two seconds to respond, “Yes.” We started hacking on a rudimentary proof of concept pretty much immediately.

Charlie: Marak and I have both been developers for a long time, both had our fair share of failed half baked consumer products. When we came up with our first idea we wanted to build something that appeal to developers. They were the people that really mattered to us.

I think Nodejitsu really blossomed out of my love affair with Javascript and node.js. I’d been working with .NET since I was 19 when I was recruited by Microsoft out of a career fair at McGill University and in those 5-plus years I got more and more disenchanted with the offering and community. I think this article sums up the .NET community best in that “the .NET community operates in a non-collaborative vacuum.” So basically, it was like night and day switching from .NET to node.js and I wanted to make something that helped secure the success of the then nascent technology.

Q: What excites you about node.js? What makes you think it has enough staying power to build a company on?

Marak: I get asked this question a lot. Right now, I usually state three facts:

1. JavaScript. It’s everywhere. The computer or mobile device you are reading this article on right now already supports JavaScript. Since the language has been around for over 15 years, there is a large pool of developers and software already available.

2. Community. The node.js community is amazing. Almost everyone I have interacted with has been friendly, helpful, and really smart. I’ve been involved with a lot of open-source projects and I can tell you this is a rarity.

3. Power. Node.js is fast. Really fast. The core technology that node.js is built on is called “v8”. v8 is the same virtual machine that powers the Google Chrome browser. Google has literally invested millions and millions and of dollars into v8 research and development. Node itself it built by Ryan Dahl, whose is somewhat obsessed with performance. His hand written http parser ( which node uses ) is widely considered the fastest C http parser available.

Charlie: I think that there is fundamental shift going on right now in two ways. First, we are seeing technologies that were once seen as “bleeding edge” become accepted in the enterprise (such as Ruby). Likewise, cloud computing is shifting from early adopters to enterprises at an exponential rate. This shift is leaving a vacuum for new technologies that question paradigms and truly innovate that node.js is filling exceptionally well.

Second, the traditional set of enterprise technologies is going through what I view as a mid-life crisis. You are probably aware of the controversy in the Java community over the way Oracle has run things since they took over Sun. This leaves a lot of uncertainty over the future of Java and may have some companies looking for new alternatives. Node.js could be one of those possibilities in a few years since it outperforms Ruby and several other up-and-coming enterprise level technologies.

Q: What’s your previous start-up experience?

Marak: Numerous start-ups as both a founder and employee for about six years. I’d say all of my homebrew start-up were not very well thought out and more for fun. One of my start-ups which I don’t care to name started getting over 30k unique hits a day. I had to shut it down since our back-end code was MediaWiki (a php solution that couldn’t handle the high-load ) and we had no real budget for hosting. The most notable start-up success I had would be working for “I Stand For” under the tutelage of Andrew Weinreich. We built a cool product, I got introduced into the start-up scene and we eventually got acquired by a large company.

Charlie: Been deeply involved in start-ups and the start-up community since I moved back to NYC in 2007. They were all side-projects really though, looking back on it. None of them really gathered the critical mass where I could justify leaving my full-time position. That is, except for Nodejitsu.

Q: How do you two know each other?

Marak: Charlie and I met each other over ten years ago in highschool at a party. We didn’t go to the same school, but I had dated some girls from Charlie’s school and we had a few mutual friends.

Charlie: Yeah, that’s pretty much the deal. I grew up in Sag Harbor and Marak grew up in East Hampton. Pretty small towns, you get to know people. And people with similar interests always seem to flock together irregardless of geography anyway.

Q: Who were your first investors?

Marak: We pitched to a few our of peers and some close family friends. Our first investor was a long time friend of mine. I had been keeping him informally informed about the project as it progressed over the first few months. When I had mentioned to him that we had started to look for funding, he actually volunteered.

He wasn’t entirely convinced at first, but ultimately he told me his decision to invest was based off of a few factors:

1. Since we were long time friends, he knew I was technically qualified for the task.
2. How excited I was about the idea and the company.
3. The fact that I had partnered with a “serious dude” like Charlie.

Q: Marak moved out to San Francisco because you felt it was necessary for Nodejitsu to have a presence out there, and Charlie and Paolo are in General Assembly. What’s the work day-to-day like?

Marak: For me, pretty much every single hour of the day is related to Nodejitsu or node.js in some way. There’s always another ticket to be done, a decision to be made, or a library to apply a patch to. Community building is a non-stop job which you have to stay on top of. Lots of research, lots of testing, lots of talking. My snack of choice is cigars and sugar-free Redbull, I’m pretty terrible.

Charlie: A good day is when I can code for 12-16 hours. As we’ve grown the business out of the townhouse where Nodejitsu was born, I’ve had to take on a lot of CEO-type responsibilities which has changed the number of hours I’m coding, but I’m adjusting to that accordingly. I try to stay as healthy as someone can when they’re working 18+ hours a day, so I cook a lot. It gives me a little down-time to organize my thoughts and I love doing it. I used to cook dinner for the Nodejitsu team pretty regularly when we were working out of my apartment.

Q: What kind of failure experience does the team bring? How do you define success for Nodejitsu?

Marak: I could write entire essays about my failures. I think one of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt over the years is settling for employees and co-founders. Since day one everyone associated with the Nodejitsu project has been an expert software developer. We’ve maintained a very high level of scrutiny for our employees and founders and this refusal to settle for anything but the best has yielded us some amazing results.

For me, Nodejitsu will be a success if we can become profitable while delivering a useful service to happy customers.

Charlie: I’ve had two pretty spectacular start-up failures before this that gave me a lot of insight into how to manage expectations of founders and create roles that work effectively in such a rapidly changing environment.

For me, success for Nodejitsu is building something that lasts (both for us and the node.js community) and withstands the onslaught of new technologies and competitors.

Q: You’re all about open source now, but you’ve both worked in finance. What was that transition like?

Marak: It was an amazing transition for me. It started off slowly, but eventually I started getting a steady stream of support requests and feedback for my libraries. It feels really rewarding being able to help someone with some code you wrote. I’ll never forget helping the first person who emailed me about a jQuery library I released. It was in very broken English from Taiwan and the person was using Internet Explorer 6. I was so excited I had the patch ready and sent out within an hour.

Charlie: Night and day. I honestly can’t go into it too much and that should be a leading indicator about why working in a thriving open source community is so much better.

Where were you working immediately before Nodejitsu? What made you quit and how did that conversation go?

Marak: I was working at a start-up building out some rich user interface stuff in JavaScript. I was during Nodejitsu nights and weekends and it was gaining a lot of momentum. I had just helped deliver a major milestone for the company’s product and we split on pretty amicable terms. I think the management did not like seeing my name pop up on their Hacker News feed.

Charlie: I’m not really at liberty to talk about that, but lets just say that I had some disagreements with my previous employer about my post-employment work restrictions and decided to leave abruptly.

Q: While we’re at it, how did you get kicked out of prep school?

Marak: I was having some family issues at the time and really just wasn’t adjusting well. I was spending too much time hacking the schools network and learning how to cheat in LAN games for money then go do my homework. I’ll also have you know I was “asked to leave”, way classier then getting kicked out.

Charlie: It’s kind of a long story. Basically, I had a lot of freedom at home with respect to managing my time and schedule. Freedom that I resented giving up at boarding school which manifested into a serious chip on my shoulder. Ironically it was my choice to go there in the first place, but that’s another story. So I talked back to one too many people and got expelled. Looking back on it now, it was honestly the best thing that ever happened to me.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge facing Nodejitsu right now? What would you isolate that will make or break the company — developer engagement, the quality of your code, the success of node.js?

Marak: My biggest fear is just being out-done by another company. Nodejitsu is in the top position for a node.js cloud hosting start-up and we need to hyper-focus on maintaining that position and delivering a kick-ass product. The biggest challenge is just executing as a team to deliver that product.

Charlie: My thoughts exactly.

Q: What are your favorite web or mobile apps right now?

Marak: I’m a bit of a luddite when it comes to web or mobile apps. I’ve been training a bunch of Pandora channels for a few years and I’m constantly using the Netflix browser based app. I also spend most of my day on

Charlie: I’ve never been an Apple or iPhone fan-boy, and waited a long time for a good Android device to come out that I liked. I was recently introduced to Instinctiv, a New York startup, that offers a better music experience on the desktop and Android. I’m on Nirvana, a great task management solution made by a team in Montreal, all the time. Oh yeah, and Github, lots of Github. Nodejitsu’s Co-Founders on the Power of Node.js and the Beauty of Javascript