How engineers fought the CAP theorem in the global war on latency

CockroachDB was intended to be a global database from the beginning. The founders of Cockroach Labs wanted to ensure that data written in one location would be viewable immediately in another location 10,000 miles away. The use case was simple, but the work needed to make it happen was herculean.

The company is betting the farm that it can solve one of the largest challenges for web-scale applications. The approach it’s taking is clever, but it’s a bit complicated, particularly for the non-technical reader. Given its history and engineering talent, the company is in the process of pulling it off and making a big impact on the database market, making it a technology well worth understanding. In short, there’s value in digging into the details.

Using CockroachDB’s multiregion feature to segment data according to geographic proximity fulfills Cockroach Labs’ primary directive: To get data as close to the user as possible.

In part 1 of this EC-1, I provided a general overview and a look at the origins of Cockroach Labs. In this installment, I’m going to cover the technical details of the technology with an eye to the non-technical reader. I’m going to describe the CockroachDB technology through three questions:

  1. What makes reading and writing data over a global geography so hard?
  2. How does CockroachDB address the problem?
  3. What does it all mean for those using CockroachDB?

What makes reading and writing data over a global geography so hard?

Spencer Kimball, CEO and co-founder of Cockroach Labs, describes the situation this way:

There’s lots of other stuff you need to consider when building global applications, particularly around data management. Take, for example, the question and answer website Quora. Let’s say you live in Australia. You have an account and you store the particulars of your Quora user identity on a database partition in Australia.

But when you post a question, you actually don’t want that data to just be posted in Australia. You want that data to be posted everywhere so that all the answers to all the questions are the same for everybody, anywhere. You don’t want to have a situation where you answer a question in Sydney and then you can see it in Hong Kong, but you can’t see it in the EU. When that’s the case, you end up getting different answers depending where you are. That’s a huge problem.

Reading and writing data over a global geography is challenging for pretty much the same reason that it’s faster to get a pizza delivered from across the street than from across the city. The essential constraints of time and space apply. Whether it’s digital data or a pepperoni pizza, the further away you are from the source, the longer stuff takes to get to you.


By Danny Crichton

“Developers, as you know, do not like to pay for things”

In the previous part of this EC-1, we looked at the technical details of CockroachDB and how it provides accurate data instantaneously anywhere on the planet. In this installment, we’re going to take a look at the product side of Cockroach, with a particular focus on developer relations.

As a business, Cockroach Labs has many things going for it. The company’s approach to distributed database technology is novel. And, as more companies operate on a global level, CockroachDB has the potential to gain some significant market share internationally. The company is seven years into a typical 10-year maturity model for databases, has raised $355 million, and holds a $2 billion market value. It’s considered a double unicorn. Few database companies can say this.

The company is now aggressively expanding into the database-as-a-service space, offering its own technology in a fully managed package, expanding the spectrum of clients who can take immediate advantage of its products.

But its growth depends upon securing the love of developers while also making its product easier to use for new customers. To that end, I’m going to analyze the company’s pivot to the cloud as well as its extensive outreach to developers as it works to set itself up for long-term, sustainable success.

Cockroach Labs looks to the cloud

These days, just about any company of consequence provides services via the internet, and a growing number of these services are powered by products and services from native cloud providers. Gartner forecasted in 2019 that cloud services are growing at an annual rate of 17.5%, and there’s no sign that the growth has abated at all.

Its founders’ history with Google back in the mid-2000s has meant that Cockroach Labs has always been aware of the impact of cloud services on the commercial web. Unsurprisingly, CockroachDB could run cloud native right from its first release, given that its architecture presupposes the cloud in its operation — as we saw in part 2 of this EC-1.


By Danny Crichton

The CockroachDB EC-1

Every application is a palimpsest of technologies, each layer forming a base that enables the next layer to function. Web front ends rely on JavaScript and browser DOM, which rely on back-end APIs, which themselves rely on databases.

As one goes deeper down the stack, engineering decisions become ever more conservative — changing the location of a button in a web app is an inconvenience; changing a database engine can radically upend an entire project.

It’s little surprise then that database technologies are among the longest-lasting engineering projects in the modern software developer toolkit. MySQL, which remains one of the most popular database engines in the world, was first released in the mid-1990s, and Oracle Database, launched more than four decades ago, is still widely used in high-performance corporate environments.

Database technology can change the world, but the world in these parts changes very, very slowly. That’s made building a startup in the sector a tough equation: Sales cycles can be painfully slow, even when new features can dramatically expand a developer’s capabilities. Competition is stiff and comes from some of the largest and most entrenched tech companies in the world. Exits have also been few and far between.

That challenge — and opportunity — is what makes studying Cockroach Labs so interesting. The company behind CockroachDB attempts to solve a long-standing problem in large-scale, distributed database architecture: How to make it so that data created in one place on the planet is always available for consumption by applications that are thousands of miles away, immediately and accurately. Making global data always available immediately and accurately might sound like a simple use case, but in reality it’s quite the herculean task. Cockroach Labs’ story is one of an uphill struggle, but one that saw it turn into a next-generation, $2-billion-valued database contender.

The lead writer of this EC-1 is Bob Reselman. Reselman has been writing about the enterprise software market for more than two decades, with a particular emphasis on teaching and educating engineers on technology. The lead editor for this package was Danny Crichton, the assistant editor was Ram Iyer, the copy editor was Richard Dal Porto, figures were designed by Bob Reselman and stylized by Bryce Durbin, and illustrations were drawn by Nigel Sussman.

CockroachDB had no say in the content of this analysis and did not get advance access to it. Reselman has no financial ties to CockroachDB or other conflicts of interest to disclose.

The CockroachDB EC-1 comprises four main articles numbering 9,100 words and a reading time of 37 minutes. Here’s what we’ll be crawling over:

We’re always iterating on the EC-1 format. If you have questions, comments or ideas, please send an email to TechCrunch Managing Editor Danny Crichton at [email protected].


By Danny Crichton

CockroachDB, the database that just won’t die

There is an art to engineering, and sometimes engineering can transform art. For Spencer Kimball and Peter Mattis, those two worlds collided when they created the widely successful open-source graphics program, GIMP, as college students at Berkeley.

That project was so successful that when the two joined Google in 2002, Sergey Brin and Larry Page personally stopped by to tell the new hires how much they liked it and explained how they used the program to create the first Google logo.

Cockroach Labs was started by developers and stays true to its roots to this day.

In terms of good fortune in the corporate hierarchy, when you get this type of recognition in a company such as Google, there’s only one way you can go — up. They went from rising stars to stars at Google, becoming the go-to guys on the Infrastructure Team. They could easily have looked forward to a lifetime of lucrative employment.

But Kimball, Mattis and another Google employee, Ben Darnell, wanted more — a company of their own. To realize their ambitions, they created Cockroach Labs, the business entity behind their ambitious open-source database CockroachDB. Can some of the smartest former engineers in Google’s arsenal upend the world of databases in a market spotted with the gravesites of storage dreams past? That’s what we are here to find out.

Berkeley software distribution

Mattis and Kimball were roommates at Berkeley majoring in computer science in the early-to-mid-1990s. In addition to their usual studies, they also became involved with the eXperimental Computing Facility (XCF), an organization of undergraduates who have a keen, almost obsessive interest in CS.


By Danny Crichton

How Expensify hacked its way to a robust, scalable tech stack

Take a close look at any ambitious startup and you’ll find pugnacity nestled in its core. Stubbornness and a bullheaded belief in the worth of what a company wants to bring to fruition is often the biggest driver of its success, and the people at such companies also tend to share this quality.

So it wouldn’t be too far off the mark to say the people at Expensify are a stubborn lot — to the company’s ultimate benefit. This group of P2P pirates/hackers that set out to build an expense management app stuck to their gut, made their own rules. They asked questions few thought of, like: Why have lots of employees when you can find a way to get work done and reach impressive profitability with a few? Why work from an office in San Francisco when the internet lets you work from anywhere, even a sailboat in the Caribbean?

It makes sense in a way: If you’re a pirate, to hell with the rules, right? And even more so when nobody can explain the rules in the first place.

With that in mind, one could assume Expensify decided to ask itself: Why not build our own totally custom tech stack? Indeed, Expensify has made several tech decisions that were met with disbelief — from having an open-source frontend and cross-platform mobile development to hiring contractors to train its AI and recruiting open-source contributors — but its belief in its own choices has paid off over the years, and the company is ready to IPO any day now.

How much of a tech advantage Expensify enjoys owing to such choices is an open question, but one thing is clear: These choices are key to understanding Expensify and its roadmap. Let’s take a look.

Built on Bedrock

I think another question Expensify also decided to ask in its early days was something like: Why not have our database on top of a technology that’s built for small-scale application software?

It may sound incredible, but Expensify actually runs on a custom database built on top of SQLite. This is surprising, because despite being one of the most widely deployed database engines, SQLite is known for running on small, embedded systems like smartphones and web browsers, not powering enterprise-scale databases.

It may sound incredible, but Expensify actually runs on a custom database built on top of SQLite.

This custom database is called Bedrock, and its architecture is as unique as they come. Expensify explains it as an “RDBMS optimized for self-healing replication across relatively slow, relatively unreliable WAN (internet) connections, enabling extremely high availability/high performance multi-datacenter deployments without any single point of failure.” RDBMS means relational database management system, describing SQLite and other row-based databases where entries are interconnected with each other.

But why would Expensify build this instead of going for any number of widely available enterprise database solutions?

To answer that question, we need to go back to the early days of the company, which was originally a side project for its founder and CEO, David Barrett. His initial idea was to develop a prepaid card for the homeless, but this required putting a server on the Visa network, which brought several strict requirements and challenges. “I would say one of the most difficult [parts] was that I needed the ability to automatically replicate and failover,” Barrett told TechCrunch when we interviewed him a couple of months ago.

This was no easy feat in 2007, but Barrett was up for the challenge. “I just hit a moment where the technology available off the shelf just wasn’t that good. And I happened to be a peer-to-peer software developer who had tons of spare time and really wanted to build this thing to put on the Visa backend,” he said. The P2P aspect was important, as Barrett had the skills to make it work. His first hires for Expensify, P2P engineers he had worked with at Red Swoosh and Akamai, were also unusually suited for the job.


By Anna Heim

How Expensify shed Silicon Valley arrogance to realize its global ambitions

Expensify may be the most ambitious software company ever to mostly abandon the Bay Area as the center of its operations.

Expensify may be the most ambitious software company ever to mostly abandon the Bay Area as the center of its operations.

The startup’s history is tied to places representative of San Francisco: The founding team worked out of Peet’s Coffee on Mission Street for a few months, then crashed at a penthouse lounge near the 4th and King Caltrain station, followed by a tiny office and then a slightly bigger one in the Flatiron building near Market Street.

Thirteen years later, Expensify still has an office a few blocks away on Kearny Street, but it’s no longer a San Francisco company or even a Silicon Valley firm. The company is truly global with employees across the world — and it did that before COVID-19 made remote working cool.

“Things got so much better when we stopped viewing ourselves as a Silicon Valley company. We basically said, no, we’re just a global company,” CEO David Barrett told TechCrunch. That globalism led to it opening a major office in — of all places —a small town in rural Michigan. That Ironwood expansion would eventually lead to a cultural makeover that would see the company broadly abandon its focus on the Bay Area, expanding from a headquarters in Portland to offices around the globe.

It makes sense that a company founded by internet pirates would let its workforce live anywhere they please and however they want to. Yet, how does it manage to make it all work well enough to reach $100 million in annual revenue with just a tad more than 100 employees?

As I described in Part 2 of this EC-1, that staffing efficiency is partly due to its culture and who it hires. It’s also because it has attracted top talent from across the world by giving them benefits like the option to work remotely all year as well as paying SF-level salaries even to those not based in the tech hub. It’s also got annual fully paid month-long “workcations” for every employee, their partner and kids.

Yet the real story is how a company can become untethered from its original geography, willing to adapt to new places and new cultures, and ultimately, give up the past while building the future.


By Anna Heim

How Expensify got to $100M in revenue by hiring “stem cells” and not “cogs in a wheel”

The influence of a founder on their company’s culture cannot be overstated. Everything from their views on the product and business to how they think about people affects how their company’s employees will behave, and since behavior in turn informs culture, the consequences of a founder’s early decisions can be far-reaching.

So it’s not very surprising that Expensify has its own take on almost everything it does when you consider what its founder and CEO David Barrett learned early in his life: “Basically everyone is wrong about basically everything.” As we saw in part 1 of this EC-1, this led him to the revelation that it’s easier to figure things out for yourself than finding advice that applies to you. Eventually, these insights — and the adventurous P2P hacker attitude he nurtured alongside his colleagues and Travis Kalanick at Red Swoosh — would inform how he would go about shaping Expensify.

Expensify’s culture can’t be separated from its hiring and growth processes — by joining the company, employees self-select into a group that isn’t likely to get hung up about trade-offs.

It’s striking how Expensify has managed to maintain this character 13 years later, even on the threshold of an IPO. How did this happen? During a series of interviews in February and early March, we found the answer is tied to the level of thought and effort this expense management business puts into its culture.

You see, the people at Expensify are prepared to invent their own playbook, develop it and, if needed, rewrite it completely. Its HR policies and strategy are tailored to find people who would have fun building an expense management product. It has a unique growth and recognition scheme to offset the drawbacks of a flat organizational structure. It’s even got a “Senate” that vets all major decisions. No kidding.

All this, and more, has ultimately helped Expensify reach more than 10 million users and achieve $100 million in annual revenue with just 130 employees. Let’s take a closer look at how Expensify makes it happen.

“We want the fewest people necessary to get the job done”

It’s clear Expensify’s unusually high employee-to-revenue ratio is intentional: “We want the fewest people necessary to get the job done,” Barrett says. But how do you actually achieve it? How do you hire and keep people who can deliver such results? Barrett had to learn how the hard way.

Expensify’s first team was based in San Francisco and comprised Barrett’s old Red Swoosh and Akamai colleagues, who joined a few months after Akamai fired him. A small team was enough to get started, but it was much more difficult to hire additional people. Barrett is eager to clarify the Valley is not really the best place to recruit talent: “Sure, Silicon Valley has a ton of really awesome people, but all of them have jobs!,” he says.


By Anna Heim

How a band of P2P hackers planted the seeds of a unique expense management giant

Individuality often has no place in the enterprise software space. In a market where a single contract can easily run into the millions, homogeneity is the herald of reliability and serves to reassure buyers of the worth of their potential purchase.

So it’s natural to think a company in the expense report management business would keep it simple and play it by the book. But one look at Expensify is enough to tell you that this is a company that never even looked for the book.

Expensify’s origin story is one of a scrappy group of developers who turned travel into a catalyst for ideas and stuck together through highs and lows, ending up building one of the most unexpectedly original companies in enterprise software today.

Right from its famous “workcations,” to its management structure and its decision-making policies, Expensify has it in its DNA to eschew so-called best practices for its own ideas — a philosophy rooted in its founder and early team’s P2P hacker background and do-it-yourself attitude. As a result, Expensify is atypical of startups in many ways, inside and out.

Founder and CEO David Barrett made it clear his company was different in our first call itself: “We hire in a super different way. We have a very unusual internal management structure. Our business model itself is very unusual. We don’t have any salespeople, for example. We’re an incredibly small company. We focus on the employees over the bosses. Our technology stack is completely different. Our approach toward product design is very different.”

That description would make some people call Expensify weird even by startup standards, but this essential difference has set it apart in a space dominated by giants such as SAP Concur and Coupa. And that’s ultimately been to its benefit: Expensify reached $100 million in annual recurring revenue in 2020, with hefty 25% EBITDA margins to boot. There were also rumors of the company planning to go public during our interviews for this EC-1, but they stopped speaking to us in March, and now we know why: Expensify confidentially filed to go public on May 3.

Expensify’s origin story is one of a scrappy group of developers who turned travel into a catalyst for ideas and stuck together through highs and lows, ending up building one of the most unexpectedly original companies in enterprise software today.

When David met Travis …

To truly understand Expensify, you first need to take a close look at a unique, short-lived, P2P file-sharing company called Red Swoosh, which was Travis Kalanick’s startup before he founded Uber. Framed by Kalanick as his “revenge business” after his previous P2P startup Scour was sued into oblivion for copyright infringement, Red Swoosh would be the precursor for Expensify’s future culture and ethos. In fact, many of Expensify’s initial team actually met at Red Swoosh, which was eventually acquired by Akamai Technologies in 2007 for $18.7 million.

Barrett, a self-proclaimed alpha geek and lifelong software engineer, was actually Red Swoosh’s last engineering manager, hired after the failure of his first project, iGlance.com, a P2P push-to-talk program that couldn’t compete against Skype. “While I was licking my wounds from that experience, I was approached by Travis Kalanick who was running a startup called Red Swoosh,” he recalled in an interview.


By Anna Heim

The Expensify EC-1

Let’s make it clear from the outset that this story is about an expense management SaaS business called Expensify. As you’d expect, yes, this is about the expense management market and how Expensify has grown, its technology and all of that. Normally, that would make us change the channel. But this is also a story about pirates; peer-to-peer hackers who asked, “Why not work from Thailand and dozens of countries across the globe?” and actually did it using P2P hacker culture as a model for consensus-driven decision-making — all with pre-Uber Travis Kalanick in a guest-starring role.

Most interestingly, this is a story about just not giving a damn about what anyone goddamn thinks, an approach to life and business that led to more than $100 million in annual revenue, and an IPO incoming on what looks to be a very quick timetable. Prodigious revenues, 10 million users and only 130 employees running the whole shebang — that’s a hell of an achievement in only 13 years.

If you’re going a bit “WTF,” well, we’d concur. Expensify is as contradictory as they come in the enterprise world. It’s managed to take what might well be the most boring part of the corporate business stack and turn it into something special. It doesn’t borrow its culture from other startups, it built its own tech stack from the ground up, and even hires in a completely radical way. Oh, and no one really has job titles either, because why the hell bother with hierarchy anyway? They’re pirates after all.

If expense management is about avoiding corporate plunder, then letting the pirates and hackers run the ship is probably the best approach. And now, Expensify is plundering the corporate spend world one travel ticket and business meal at a time just as the world is rebuilding in the wake of COVID-19.

TechCrunch’s writer and analyst for this EC-1 is Anna Heim. Heim is a tech journalist and former startup founder who has written for different tech publications since 2011. She recently joined Extra Crunch as a daily reporter, where she will be sharing insights on startups, particularly in SaaS. The lead editor of this package was Ram Iyer, the series editor was Danny Crichton, the copy editor was Richard Dal Porto, and original illustrations were created by Nigel Sussman with art direction from Bryce Durbin.

Expensify had no say in the content of this analysis and did not get advance access to it. Heim has no financial ties to Expensify or other conflicts of interest to disclose.

The Expensify EC-1 will be a serialized sequence of five articles published over the course of the coming weeks. We interviewed the company in February and March, well before the company announced a confidential filing of its S-1 to the SEC. Let’s take a look:

  • Part 1: Origin storyHow a band of P2P hackers planted the seeds of a unique expense management giant” (2,400 words/10 minutes) — Explores the colorful history of the Expensify founders’ days with Travis Kalanick’s venture before Uber, a P2P content distribution startup called Red Swoosh, and how that experience would eventually influence what would one day become an expense management giant.
  • Parts 2-5: Upcoming shortly.

We’re always iterating on the EC-1 format. If you have questions, comments or ideas, please send an email to TechCrunch Managing Editor Danny Crichton at [email protected].


By Anna Heim

Drama and quirk aren’t necessary for startup success

Many of the stories in our EC-1 series tell tales of startups in the wilderness hacking out green field opportunities. Klaviyo is a different breed of company: One that went into an established market and challenged powerful incumbents, ultimately finding success with a new, more data-oriented generation of email marketers.

As such, the lessons that it offers are, perhaps, more subtle; its insights bordering on common sense.

But as the saying goes, common sense to an uncommon degree becomes wisdom. Here are four pieces of wisdom I’ve gleaned from Klaviyo’s story:

Drama and sizzle help companies stand out, undoubtedly. But are they necessary for success? Klaviyo’s story suggests otherwise.

Lesson 1: Drama and quirk aren’t necessary for startup success

Silicon Valley has become a showcase for oddity. Ironically, we all enjoy “Silicon Valley” (the show) or “The Social Network.” Unironically, we toss around phrases like “the hustle” and “sweat equity.” Hot companies often stand out with stories of intense struggle and failure, a larger-than-life founder or a chaotic (and often toxic) management structure.

Drama and sizzle help companies stand out, undoubtedly. But are they necessary for success? Klaviyo’s story suggests otherwise.


By Danny Crichton

Marketing in 2021 is emotional and not just transactional

Brands are emotions made physical. The clothes we wear, the media we consume, the devices we use — all signal not only to others what we value and see in ourselves, they also are a way to construct our very identities. Experimenting to deepen that bond has been at the core of the marketing profession for a century; its origins rooted in Freudian psychoanalysis.

There had always been one critical limitation, though: Marketers had to appeal to the masses. Radio, television and print media allowed brands to deliver only one message to everyone, no matter if their product conferred luxury or smart cost-consciousness.

On the internet, the masses have been shattered into ever smaller shards, shifting that marketing calculus toward targeted audiences and social network interest groups. Today, niche brands, large corporations and every business in between are reaching ever-narrower audiences.

Marketers who become expert at personalization, especially for existing customers through owned marketing platforms like email, will hold an edge over their competitors.

Yet, advertising and social networks are competitive marketplaces. Over time, prices to reach niche audiences rise, and strategies that once worked become unviable. In 2021, these perpetual challenges are joined by two new factors: a fresh influx of new e-commerce brands and changing privacy policies on third-party platforms.

Klaviyo benefits from these secular trends. While the cost or difficulty of acquiring new customers may increase, as we looked at in the second part of this EC-1, the cost of emailing an existing one remains much the same. Marketers who become expert at personalization, especially for existing customers through owned marketing platforms like email, will hold an edge over their competitors. It’s no longer about marketing to narrow slices of audiences — it’s about building an emotional bond with an audience of one.

To a booming economy, now ad inflation

While 2020 was a banner year for e-commerce in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the early months of 2021 have brought about a new problem: Customer acquisition costs are rising, sometimes to a worrying degree. For instance, one company interviewed by TechCrunch that did not wish to be named said it has seen its return on investment for Facebook ads fall by nearly half in the first months of 2021. Such inflation has also been predicted by firms like ECI Media Management.

There are two possible reasons for this increase. First, an unprecedented number of companies are moving online, spurred by COVID-19 and worldwide lockdowns.


By Danny Crichton

How Klaviyo used data and no-code to transform owned marketing

Email is the communication medium that refuses to die.

“Eventually, every technology is trumped by something new and better. And I feel that email is ready to be trumped. But by what?” wrote the venture capitalist Fred Wilson in 2007. Three years later, he updated readers that other forms of messaging had outgrown email. “It looks like email’s reign as the king of communication is ending and social networking is now supreme,” he said. (To be fair to Wilson, his view was nuanced enough to continue investing in email tech.)

Despite the competition, Klaviyo didn’t just break into the market — it has also achieved an unusual level of excitement and loyalty among marketers despite its youthful history.

Investors weren’t alone — marketers have also spent years anticipating the next big thing.

“It was SMS, it was YouTube, it was Instagram. Before that it was Facebook, then it was Snapchat and TikTok. I kinda feel like individually all those things are fleeting. I think people found: You know what? Everyone still opens their emails every day,” says Darin Hager, a former sneaker entrepreneur who is now an email marketing manager at Adjust Media.

Email has an estimated four billion users today and continues to grow steadily even as mature social networks plateau. Estimates of the number of nonspam messages sent each day range from 25 billion to over 300 billion.

Unsurprisingly for a marketing channel with so much volume, there’s voluminous competition to send and program those emails. Yet, despite the competition, Klaviyo didn’t just break into the market — it has also achieved an unusual level of excitement and loyalty among marketers despite its youthful history.

“If you’re not using Klaviyo and you’re in e-commerce, then it’s not very professional. If you see ‘Sent by Constant Contact or Mailchimp’ at the bottom of an email by a brand, it makes it look like they’re not really there yet,” Hager said.

How did Klaviyo become the standard solution among email marketers?

In Klaviyo’s origin story, we delved into part of the answer: The company began life as an e-commerce analytics service. Once it matured to compete as an email service provider, Klaviyo benefited from the edge given by its deeper, more comprehensive focus on data.

However, that leaves several questions unanswered. Why is email so important to e-commerce? What are the substantive differences between Klaviyo’s feature set and those of its competitors? And why did several large, well-funded incumbents fail to capitalize on building an advantage in data first?

In this section, we’ll answer those questions — as well as laying out the significance of COVID-19 on the e-commerce market, and how newsletters and AI figure into the company’s future.

A positive Outlook on email’s longevity

Email is one of the oldest tech verticals: Constant Contact, one of the most venerable email service providers (ESPs), was founded in 1995, went public in 2007 and was taken private in 2015 for $1 billion. By the time Klaviyo started in 2012, the space was well served by numerous incumbents.


By Danny Crichton

The Klaviyo EC-1

E-commerce is booming as retailers race to transform their brick-and-mortar footprints into online storefronts. By some counts, the market grew an astonishing 42% in 2020 in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and estimates show that online spending in the U.S. will surpass $1 trillion by 2022. It’s a bonanza, and everyone is figuring out this new terrain.

Consumers are likely familiar with the front-end brands for these storefronts — with companies like Amazon, Shopify, Square, and Stripe owning attention — but it’s the tooling behind the curtain that is increasingly determining the competitiveness of individual stores.

Klaviyo may not be a household name to consumers (at least, not yet), but in many ways, this startup has become the standard by which email marketers are judged today, triangulating against veterans Mailchimp and Constant Contact and riding the e-commerce wave to new heights.

Founded in 2012, this Boston-based company helps marketers personalize and automate their email messaging to customers. By now, most people are intimately familiar with these kinds of emails; if you’ve ever given your email address to an online store, the entreaties to come back to your abandoned cart or browse the latest sale are Klaviyo’s bread and butter.

It may seem obvious in retrospect that email would grow to become a premier platform for marketing, but this wasn’t the case even a few years ago when social ads and search engine marketing were the dominant paradigm. Today, owned marketing and customer experience management are white-hot trends, and Klaviyo has surged from a lifestyle business to a multi-billion dollar behemoth in just a few short years. Its story is at the heart of the internet economy today, and the future.

TechCrunch’s writer and analyst for this EC-1 is Chris Morrison. Morrison, who previously wrote our EC-1 on Roblox, has been a writer and independent game developer covering the video game industry and the marketing challenges that come with publishing. As an analyst and a potential user, he’s in a unique position to explain the Klaviyo story. The lead editor for this package was Danny Crichton, the assistant editor was Ram Iyer, the copy editor was Richard Dal Porto and illustrations were created by Nigel Sussman.

Klaviyo had no say in the content of this analysis and did not get advance access to it. Morrison has no financial ties to Klaviyo or other conflicts of interest to disclose.

The Klaviyo EC-1 comprises four main articles numbering 9,700 words and a reading time of 43 minutes. Let’s take a look:

  • Part 1: Origin storyHow Klaviyo transformed from a lifestyle business into a $4.15B email titan” (2,600 words/10 minutes) — Explores the rise of Klaviyo from a database for e-commerce data into a modern email powerhouse as it successively learned from customers and bootstrapped in the absence of funding from accelerators and early VCs.
  • Part 2: Business and growthHow Klaviyo used data and no-code to transform owned marketing” (3,000 words/12 minutes) — Analyzes Klaviyo’s recent growth and how marketers increasingly focus on owned marketing channels and customer experience management.
  • Part 3: Dynamics of e-commerce marketingMarketing in 2021 is emotional and not just transactional” (2,200 words/9 minutes) — To fully understand Klaviyo and this new world of martech, this article contextualizes how and why marketers are increasingly trying to personalize and build deeper emotional bonds with their customers outside of social media channels.
  • Part 4: Lessons on startup growthDrama and quirk aren’t necessary for startup success” (1,900 words/8 minutes) — Founders shouldn’t have to keep learning the same lessons over and over again. Klaviyo offers a number of tried-and-true tutorials to understand how to build a competitive startup and not get bogged down in finding product-market fit and scaling.

We’re always iterating on the EC-1 format. If you have questions, comments or ideas, please send an email to TechCrunch Managing Editor Danny Crichton at [email protected].


By Danny Crichton