LaunchDarkly CEO Edith Harbaugh explains why her company raised another $54M

'This is the very, very beginning of something much bigger'

This week, LaunchDarkly announced that it has raised another $54 million. Led by Bessemer Venture Partners and backed by the company’s existing investors, it brings the company’s total funding up to $130 million.

For the unfamiliar, LaunchDarkly builds a platform that allows companies to easily roll out new features to only certain customers, providing a dashboard for things like “canary launches” (pushing new stuff to a small group of users to make sure nothing breaks) or launching a feature only in select countries or territories. By productizing an increasingly popular development concept (“feature flagging”) and making it easier to toggle new stuff across different platforms and languages, the company is quickly finding customers in companies that would rather not spend time rolling their own solutions.

I spoke with CEO and co-founder Edith Harbaugh, who filled me in on where the idea for LaunchDarkly came from, how their product is being embraced by product managers and marketing teams and the company’s plans to expand with offices around the world. Here’s our chat, edited lightly for brevity and clarity.

TechCrunch: What is LaunchDarkly? How do you pitch it today?

Edith Harbaugh: LaunchDarkly is a feature management platform. We believe that software powers the world and we empower those teams to deliver and control their software.

Okay — what does that actually look like?

So a typical use case that people start off using us for is if they have new features and they want to roll them out to only certain customers. For example, if you want to only put [those features] out in Germany, but not in Canada. Or, for example, if you’re in Australia and you want to only put them in a certain territory. You’d use us to control that.

Then, longer term, people use it for permanent control of those features. So, for example, you could say that somebody in Germany never sees this feature because of regulatory reasons, while someone in the U.S. does see it.

Can you tell me a bit about the name?

“LaunchDarkly?” Yeah! It came from this idea, this concept called a dark launch, which was really popularized by Facebook. It was this idea that you could have features that you launched [turned] “off” in your code base, then gradually turn it on for different people.

What sparked the idea of LaunchDarkly? What was the genesis of all this?

I worked at TripIt as a product director. I was actually in TechCrunch for a feature I did around OAuth and email. We had an internal framework at Tripit that we used where, for example, going up into the launch of a new feature we could turn it on just for press, so TechCrunch could write an article. We could turn it on for early beta users and make sure the feature worked correctly.

But that was an in-house platform and I thought it would be much more powerful as a standalone product that was more extensive. My co-founder, John Kodumal, was at Atlassian, and he saw the same trend — so we decided it was something we could build together.

Is this the first company you’ve founded?

That’s correct; both my co-founder and I are first-time founders. I had been very early at other startups. I liked being at startups and I decided I wanted to be the earliest with John.

What made you take the leap? What made you say, “Okay, this is the one, this is the one to run with”?

It’s funny. John and I actually worked on about five ideas before this. This was the one where we were like… “this is the one.”

I had been an engineering manager, a product manager and worked in marketing. John had been an architect and a developer manager. We had both seen the same problem over and over and over again — so we really felt this was a big need.

Of those ideas you had up front, how did you know this was the one? Was it a matter of traction, or was it a gut feeling?

This was the one where we felt it was really big. The more we thought about it, the more excited we got.

LaunchDarkly is [headquartered] in Oakland, right? I’m also in Oakland! We’ve got Pandora, and Blue Bottle and a few others — but most companies tend to opt to lay their roots on the other side of the bay. What led you to start here?

We started in Oakland — we actually started at Oakstop, I don’t know if you know it; it’s at 17th and Broadway, it’s a co-working space. My co-founder got his PhD from Berkeley and he always lived in Oakland and I had lived in Oakland… it just made a lot of sense for us to have an Oakland company.

It’s been really good for recruiting for us. A lot of people have really strong Oakland roots and want to be in Oakland.

How many employees are you at now?

One hundred and sixty. We have people in the Oakland headquarters, we have a New York hub and then we have sales/customer success [people] all over the U.S.

With the $54 million you just raised — this would be the fourth or fifth time you raised with LaunchDarkly, right?

This was more of an extension of an earlier round because it was with the same investors.

Has much changed about fundraising since the first time? Has it gotten easier? Harder?

The first time we fundraised was in 2014. It was definitely harder for us back then. We were two first-time founders with just an idea.

What changed, at least for us, is that we have a lot of traction. We have a thousand customers worldwide, we have very high net retention, our net promoter score is very high. You know? Happy customers is really a great proof point, and it makes it much easier to fundraise.

Are there any lessons you’ve learned during the fundraising process? If you did it all over again, if you started another company, anything you’d do different with early fundraising?

[laughs] Well, one of my sayings is that you can’t A/B test life. I think it’d be much different now — I’d be a second-time founder and have a different pedigree in the fundraising market.

Why raise? What’s the money going toward?

We didn’t need to do it. Our current investors, led by Ethan Kurzweil of Bessemer, came with a very attractive offer that allowed us to focus on the business. We want to continue to invest in product development, and we want to continue to expand our sales team, and we want to open an office in London and Sydney, because we have a lot of customers in those areas.

LaunchDarkly is a tool for developers; a lot of developers I know like to build their own stuff, where they can. Is it tough to sell them on something like this?

Well, first… developers do use it first, but how we’re really used by companies is that developers use it but also product managers, marketers and sales. So we allow people who are non-developers to have control over functionality.

I see. So developers can roll in the code but not necessarily launch the feature, then the product manager, or anyone on the marketing side, can launch it at their will or roll it back if need be.

Yeah! Or a sales person could give access to a customer. Developers love it because it means that they aren’t having to deal with kind of mundane requests.

That leads back to: Do developers want to build this in-house? Some of them do. But then they usually figure out that it’s easier to use an off-the-shelf solution. Some of our best customers are actually people who built it in-house and say “We’re just tired of maintaining this.”

For the developer part of your customer base, I figure they’re working with dozens of [programming] languages on a hundred different platforms. I imagine that leads to a good number of platform requests and feature requests. 

Yeah! We support 20+ languages now. We started off with your basics — Python, Java, Ruby. As we started getting more customers, we had some really interesting requests. Just this year we added Roku for set-top boxes and C++ for desktop applications.

Anything on the horizon in terms of support?

We’re continuing to add languages. At this point we’re at the long tail. We really do believe that software powers the world and we want to empower all teams, so we keep adding languages.

I imagine that the more popular you get with this concept, it’s something that platforms might look into adding for themselves. Is the idea that you’re on so many platforms, that becomes the defensibility?

We think our defensibility is, number one, rich language support — and number two, a lot of features on top of that to plug into a company’s workflow. So we have integrations with Slack, with GitHub, with New Relic, that really meet people where they are so they can be productive.

You mentioned you’re opening offices [in Sydney and London]. As a first-time founder, how do you go about expanding globally like that? How do you ensure new hires feel like part of the culture?

My prior job, when I was at Concur, was actually international expansion, so I’d go around to all the international offices.

It’s something we pay a lot of attention to — next week, I’m going to visit the New York office, to make sure they feel included. We also fly everybody back to the Oakland headquarters to make sure they get to know the rest of the team. We’re having a whole company take-off in March, when everybody is coming to Oakland.

Five years into this, where do you see LaunchDarkly being in its story?

Oh, just at the very beginning. We have 1,000 customers; I think there are 100,000 companies that could use this. This is the very, very beginning of something much bigger.