Drifty Adds $2.6M To Build Ionic’s Popularity With App Developers
Drifty executives weren’t sure what they had on their hands in late 2013 when they released the first version of Ionic—an open-source software development kit intended to make it easier for Web developers to build mobile applications that work across iOS, Android, and Windows devices.
Drifty co-founder and CEO Max Lynch built some initial buzz for Ionic in January 2014 with a speech at an annual software conference, ng-conf, in Salt Lake City, UT.
Since then, Ionic has gone viral, in a sense.
Developers in more than 200 countries have built about 500,000 apps with Ionic—all without Drifty spending a dime on advertising, Lynch says. The toolkit recently cracked the top-40 most popular open-source projects on GitHub, as measured by the more than 15,000 users that have marked Ionic with a star. (Starring something on GitHub bookmarks the project so users can easily find it again later, and is also a way for them to signal appreciation of the product.)
Ionic’s early success led Drifty executives to push the company’s two other software development products, Codiqa and Jetstrap, to the backburner and hitch Drifty’s wagon to Ionic, as Lynch told Xconomy a year ago. Since then, Drifty has quietly become one of the more promising software startups in Madison, WI.
Today, Drifty is turning up the volume with the announcement of a $2.6 million funding round led by Chicago-based Lightbank. Also participating are Founder Collective, which has offices in New York and Cambridge, MA, and previous investor Arthur Ventures, with offices in Fargo, ND, and Minneapolis. Drifty—a 2013 alum of the Techstars Cloud accelerator in San Antonio, TX—has now raised $3.7 million total from investors, Lynch says.
Drifty intends to plow the new money into hiring more staff, primarily software engineers, and further developing Ionic. The company could grow from 15 employees to 25 or 30 by the end of the year, Lynch says.
“What we are going to be doing is basically just taking the money and trying to dramatically improve the quality of Ionic and get a lot more developers using it,” he tells Xconomy, while sitting in the conference room of Drifty’s downtown Madison office on a recent morning.
Lynch and childhood friend Ben Sperry founded Drifty in 2012 and built a profitable business with Codiqa and Jetstrap, Lynch says. The two Web-based products can be used to build the visual front end of websites and mobile apps with drag-and-drop tools that don’t require manual software coding.
Those products allow users to build software on top of other systems: Codiqa integrates with jQuery Mobile apps, and Jetstrap with Twitter Bootstrap. Soon, Drifty executives decided they wanted to be more than a tools company that makes it easier to use third-party technology running underneath Drifty’s products, Lynch says. “We didn’t think the technology underneath was good enough.”
The product is geared toward Web developers, many of whom have never built a mobile app before—which is sort of like trying to learn two different languages, Lynch says. The idea is if Ionic can help these developers quickly and easily build mobile apps, it will save companies time and money they would’ve spent to hire or contract with more mobile-savvy developers. “We are basically building a layer on top that lets Web developers, all those Web developers that these big companies already have on staff,” he says, “build high-quality app store apps using a technology they already know, that runs on all the phones, without changing the code.”
But Lynch is confident in his company’s technology and thinks it can be a major player in the industry, despite relatively fewer resources. He is proud that Drifty has already built a large Ionic user base “purely through word of mouth.”
“When you actually give people something that’s authentic and works well and solves a problem, they become like your sales people to some extent,” he says. “They’re extending Ionic with code; they’re helping us fix things. We’ve been able to do a lot with very little, and that’s something we’re going to keep doing for the next year or so.”
The bigger question is whether Drifty can convert enough Ionic users into paying customers. The Ionic toolkit will remain free and open source, Lynch says, but this summer Drifty will start charging developers for add-on services, such as integrating push notifications into apps. “They don’t have to use” those services, he says, “but we hope they will. I think that’s going to be a really nice combination.”
That will be imperative for Drifty’s long-term viability since it plans to phase out the revenue-generating Codiqa and Jetstrap.
Mark Kasdorf, CEO of Cambridge, MA-based mobile app developer Intrepid Pursuits, thinks Drifty has positioned itself well. He considers Ionic the best tool for its target user, and thinks it is especially well-suited for things like enterprise apps.
If Drifty “can continue to sustain the traction they currently have, and become a de facto platform for cross-platform Web development (which are some big ifs), the business model of up-selling modules, paid support, and custom development services are all incredibly viable,” Kasdorf says in an e-mail message.
The biggest challenge, Kasdorf says, for Drifty and other companies helping make apps that work across platforms is the “duopoly” that Apple and Google have with iOS and Android, respectively. “The entire cross-platform movement competes with native development, and both Apple and Google have a huge vested interest in keeping native well ahead,” he says.
It’s also crucial for Drifty to ensure it maintains a top-notch software engineering team, Lynch says. Some might argue that would require the company to relocate to Silicon Valley, but Lynch disagrees, noting that Drifty has found talented employees in Madison. “I think we’ve been able to show that you can build those kinds of companies in other places and they actually can compete on the world stage,” he says.
Drifty has three employees working remotely from Colorado and Rhode Island, but the rest of its staff is located in Madison, Lynch says. Drifty intends to stay there, and in fact is taking over the office next door to expand its space, he adds.
“We’re excited to be here,” Lynch says. “We are going to grow the team here. We do have some remote employees, but we want our home base to be here.”