Nate Bolt Leaves Facebook To Focus On His User Research Company Ethnio

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Even by the evolving standards of Silicon Valley “talent acquisitions”, Nate Bolt joined Facebook in an unusual way.

The social networking giant acquired part of Bolt’s design research firm Bolt Peters back in 2012, with Bolt becoming a design research manager. As part of the deal, he was able to spin out a separate company focused on Bolt Peters’ product Ethnio, and Facebook gave him permission to work on it for three hours each week.

Bolt told me that Facebook was an Ethnio customer then, and remains one today, but there was no reason for the company to acquire the product. And yet Ethnio (which allows businesses to recruit users for design research) had 4,000 customers, so he didn’t just want it to die. Bolt admitted that the idea of working on it for three hours a week was a bit arbitrary — what mattered was the fact that he was allowed to work on it at all.

In Bolt’s view, the deal showed that while many large companies pay lip service to the idea maintaining an entrepreneurial culture when they acquire startups, Facebook actually lives up to that ideal.

In the two years since he joined Facebook, Ethnio has continued to grow, but Bolt admitted that the product has “stagnated” a bit. He’s not the only one working on it, but everyone has been, to use his word, “part-time-ish.” There was no specific breaking point, but Bolt recalled looking at the “giant spreadsheet” of features that he wanted to add, and he thought, “Some of this stuff, we’re just kind of phoning it in.”

So he’s back on Ethnio full-time, and he’s looking to recruit a team. Bolt said he doesn’t know where he wants to establish the company yet, but it definitely won’t be San Francisco, which he said is “not a great climate,” especially in terms of commercial rents. (Post-Facebook, Bolt has been doing a lot of traveling — though he still technically lives in SF, he was in New York when he and I spoke last week, and now he’s in Berlin.)

He added that unlike Bolt Peters, the rebooted Ethnio will be a product-focused company, not a research consultancy.

“Research needs to be nimble and cool and inspiring,” he said. “I think that’s why I want to this — to bring a more creative approach to research tools.”

[photo by Steph Goralnick]