the ceo magazine, pivoting,
Sachin Kamdar, Co-founder & CEO, Parse.ly

Building a startup can sometimes feel a bit like waiting for the subway for too long. After you spend more than 20 minutes waiting, you begin to feel more invested -- you’ve waited for so long that the next train must be arriving soon. It is difficult to admit that you may need to start walking or call a cab, or that the subway might not be coming after all.

This type of sunk cost mentality is often hard to ignore, even though most founders know it’s the wrong way of thinking. For many, it is difficult to switch gears from an idea that is not quite working -- but that you’ve become invested in -- to something that, forward-looking, just makes more sense. However, that is just what we did at Parse.ly in 2012 when we realized we had spent too long working on a startup focused on a news reader and needed to change our focus.

Andrew and I were college roommates at New York University. We co-founded Parse.ly in 2009 after quitting our corporate jobs. Andrew worked on Wall Street, while I was a data analyst for the Department of Education; we were disillusioned with the failures of these large organizations. Together, we wanted to build something of value, even though we weren’t quite sure what that would be.

Working out of cafes, brainstorming ideas, and building prototypes, we finally settled on an idea that we both loved -- aggregating and analyzing content on the web. It was a broad idea, but our concept was that if we could assign scores and values to news coverage, we might be able to predict future events. Our original idea had a lot in common with the idea another startup, Recorded Future, is now pursuing.

Andrew and I were fortunate to be accepted into DreamIt Ventures in Philadelphia, P.A., where we started hacking on what would eventually become Parse.ly. Working through our initial concept with the DreamIt partners, we dramatically reduced the scope of our project and developed a consumer-facing personalized news reader. Customers told us what they were interested in, and we delivered content based on those interests. The product allowed us to get familiar with advanced web development techniques and solidify a software stack.

After launch, we switched gears from targeting consumers with a free product to targeting large online content properties with a paid product. We saw an opportunity to take the machine learning component out of the product — and to market it as a recommender service for readers on a content site.

Working closely with media companies, we began to learn more about their specific challenges and found opportunities to solve key problems. One emerging, but dominant issue was analytics. Analytics had the power to change the way media companies operated from the bottom up, yet the tools on the market were not built for content and were cumbersome to use.

As a result, we dedicated all of our resources to building a content analytics platform from the ground-up. This iteration of Parse.ly launched in 2012 and, outside of the first year (which demonstrated >2000 percent growth) has sustained 150 to 200 percent year-over-year growth. Today, the Parse.ly team includes around 50 people, and Parse.ly is used by more than 400 top brands across the world, including The Telegraph, Conde Nast Digital, Mashable, The Atlantic, Business Insider, IDG, FoxNews.com, and more.

We built a good business by being obsessed with understanding market demands and solutions. When we saw opportunities to shift our company towards the most meaningful areas, we did it. One of our key insights was understanding that the SaaS (software-as-a-service) business model that an analytics product afforded is key to long-term growth. More importantly though, we realized that the digital analytics market was ripe for disruption even though the space had already been dominated by legacy players. By focusing on the needs of content creators, we understood that they had been largely underserved and that getting to product/market fit was a stone’s throw away.

We’re proud of how far Parse.ly has come by rejecting complacency and striving for innovation in a challenging market. We discovered that everyone involved with content wants to know their audience as intimately as possible, and that’s one of the biggest opportunities that moving to digital created. Once we recognized this, we used elbow grease, hustle, and dedicated hacking to make the rest happen.

We stopped waiting at the subway stop and started walking in a totally different direction. And we never looked back.


About the Author

Sachin Kamdar is the co-founder and CEO of Parse.ly, an analytics platform that provides audience insight for digital publishers. He has been in the content and digital media business since 2009, when Parse.ly launched as part of DreamIt Ventures’ incubator program. He graduated with a B.S. in Economics from New York University (NYU) and a Master's degree in Education from Pace University.

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