Kinvey, Out to Kick Butt and Build Mobile Backends, Lands $5M in VC

Let’s just get the backend jokes out of the way, shall we?

Kinvey is building big, beautiful backends for mobile developers. Kinvey puts the “BaaS” (backend as a service) in “Badass.” Kinvey will be doing a Sir Mix-a-Lot cover called “Baby Got BaaS.” (Can you believe that song is 20 years old? OK, I can.)

What these jokes don’t necessarily convey—pun intended—is that Cambridge, MA-based Kinvey is solving a real problem, and a difficult one at that. If you casually follow Boston-area tech news, you might have gathered that Kinvey works on mobile software for app developers, and it involves data and infrastructure, but it sounds pretty technical.

Well, today Kinvey has just closed $5 million in Series A funding from Avalon Ventures and Atlas Venture. The TechStars Boston alum, which has 14 employees, is also making its software generally available to the public, and it is talking a bit more about its plans in a very fast-moving sector.

First, some background. “Backend” refers to the software on the server side of applications. It handles everything from analytics and user authentication to databases and libraries that an app needs to access. All of that can be tedious and messy to code. But Kinvey and a growing list of companies (see ecosystem chart below, which you can click on to blow it up) believe that such code can be standardized so that developers can spend more time on the unique, customer-facing features of their apps and less time on the infrastructure.

Kinvey goes further than most, in that it tries to let app developers connect to any third-party cloud service—things like Facebook, Foursquare, Google Places, or Urban Airship (push notifications for news or marketing). This unified approach to accessing features and data means more work for Kinvey, but the company is confident it will pay off—and get easier. “We just need mindshare,” says Sravish Sridhar, Kinvey’s co-founder and CEO.

In case this is all still too abstract, think of it this way. Whether you’re an indie developer or a big company, you’re looking at spending at least $50,000 (or the equivalent time) on backend development for the first version of your app, says Sridhar. And you can sign away your credit card to Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Rackspace, Terremark, or any number of cloud providers. Alternatively, you can use Kinvey’s backend as a service and start paying $30 or $150 per month once your app is live (after the first 200 users, which are free); Kinvey manages its platform across different cloud providers, so if one goes down, your app stays up.

Sounds like a pretty good deal, assuming Kinvey’s technology is completely reliable. What’s more, Sridhar shot down a notion I’ve heard that it’s hard to build a business around developers, because they don’t have that much money to spend. “That’s not true,” he says. “It’s not an issue.” As Sridhar puts it, there’s “no free alternative” to what Kinvey provides.

What’s clear to me is there’s a new set of software development techniques taking hold in the industry. For now it’s being lumped together as “mobile” development, but that word will soon be redundant, if it’s not already. Boston-area mobile software companies like Kinvey, Crashlytics, Apperian, Raizlabs, Mobiquity, and Jana—not to mention the new crop of mobile advertising startups—will come to define a new generation of software on all kinds of devices. (And, not surprisingly, Kinvey’s technology works for Web and tablet apps as well as iPhone and Android phones.)

“Backend as a service is going to change the way software development is done,” Sridhar says, and it’s going to happen “this decade.” The more fundamental idea is that all software platforms—mobile devices, tablets, wearable devices, Internet of things, whatever—will need to exchange information with the cloud, he says. And that the “entire backend for apps will get standardized,” he adds.

Skeptics say backend development is too customized to be provided effectively as a service. But, according to Sridhar, this is just an old way of thinking—along the lines of saying a few years ago, before cloud computing really took hold, that all companies need their own servers and data centers to run their software. (It’s probably still the case that some companies need custom backends, though.)

In the meantime, backend as a service lives in a very cluttered ecosystem in which all the various players are jockeying for position. For example, Sridhar says, some competing providers of “platform as a service” are trying to position themselves as more important and more encompassing—that backend as a service is just a feature. “We’re solving the problems of 10, 20, 30 people” (backend developers) in a company, Sridhar counters. “How can you call it a feature?”

I want no part of that messy, technical dispute. But as we’re finishing up, Sridhar reminds me that he’s also thinking globally about his company’s future. Consider the market opportunity in India, he says, where there are some 300 million mobile phone users, many of them transitioning to smartphones as we speak. Sridhar is a native of India, and despite the popular misconception that he’s from Texas, he left there in 2003 after college and lived most recently in Europe before coming to Boston in 2009.

“The IT services being pushed [globally] need a frontend and a backend,” he says. “I want to build a big, international company.”

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