E68: Linden Tibbets, CEO of IFTTT – Interview

October 25, 2016


This awesome interview is with Linden Tibbets. Linden is the co-founder and CEO of IFTTT. IFTTT is an online platform that empowers you to do more with the services you love, by helping them work together seamlessly.

From reminders (like getting updated when the UV index is high so you put on sunscreen) to notifications (let your spouse know you’ve left work and are headed home, automatically), to tapping into the internet of things (turn on your lights when you unlock your front door) — IFTTT makes it easy to control and customize your world.

It’s impressive what they’ve created. I invited Linden on the show to share what they’re working on and how it’ll affect all of us.

Before IFTTT, Linden was with IDEO, the renowned product design firm.

Here are some other things we talk about:

-What did you learn while at IDEO?
-What was one of the first recipes created?
-What are some IoT IFTTT examples?
-Where do you want to take IFTTT in the future?
-Why is IFTTT so important for the future of connectivity?


David Kruse: Hey everyone. Welcome to another episode of Flyover Labs. Today we are lucky enough to have Linden Tibbets with us. Linden is the Co-Founder and CEO of IFTTT and IFTTT which stands for If This, Then That is an online service that connects a huge variety of app services and smart devices like light bulbs, thermostats and it’s the glue where you can connect lots of different things. So for example if you want an email as a reminder to put on sunscreen when the UV index is high, you can set that up with IFTTT. So it’s pretty cool and they have lots of different applications like that you can connect. So I invited Linden on the show just to share what they are working on and how it will affect all of us and especially around the internet of things space. So Linden, thanks for joining us today.

Linden Tibbets: Dave, thank you. I am really looking forward to chatting with you.

David Kruse: Great and so yeah, could you first share your background with us a little bit before IFTTT?

Linden Tibbets: Sure, sure, I’ll give you a little bit of background. So I’m not a quite a flyover state, but I’m from Texas, so it’s in the Midwest. I was born and raised just south of Dallas. Right now I’m not here and IFTTT is based in San Francisco. So I’ve been out here in the bay area now for 16 years now and yeah, I knew from a pretty young age that this is where I wanted to be. I was a typically, I was a computer kid from probably 11 or 12 on, so video games, Pixar, Star Wars and parts and all that kind of stuff. So that brought me out here to the bay area. But I think really quickly, so I did computer engineering in school and then worked some in video games at Electronic Arts and I think really quickly figured out that no, there was a lot more to the world of computing than just games and movies. So still a big fan of both and I think very quickly got into thinking about how to build tools for creativity and I think a big part of that was this interest after that time that electronic arts were being designed. So I did lots of one off design projects that led the way into building Flash based visualizations. You know I got big into action script. I’m familiar with programming Flash and all, but I was huge into action script just in time for it to go away and kind of get thrown out of all the modern browsers. But anyway some of that stuff got my foot in the door at the design firm IDEO here down in Palo Alto here in the bay area and that I think from there really kind of launched a lot of the interest in what eventually became IFTTT. So yeah, that’s my background, kind of a mix of being from Texas, engineering and design.

David Kruse: Interesting, that’s great. And so when you are working on video games, what was it that kind of made you think, like oh, I want to do something else. Was it the actual work of was it, it feels like you should do more for the world or what was it?

Linden Tibbets: Well you know at the time, so this was back. I think it was right at in 2005, so it’s kind of just before the iPhone, just before you know the App store and a lot of the kind of in the arcade stuff that both Microsoft and eventually PlayStation were going to do. So it wasn’t a whole lot of outwit, so at least not for somebody that wasn’t kind of fully plugged in just out of school to pursue something where you could build a game as a small group, as a small team. Though it was kind of really big, big business and in fact I was on t he team. I think I was engineer 230, and we are kind of set to go and it was a big project.

David Kruse: On one game?

Linden Tibbets: On one game. The game I was working on was the Sims 2 Console Port. So we were reporting the Sims 2 from PC to Xbox and PlayStation, and I think it was the game cube at the time. So anyway it was an amazing experience. There was actually nothing wrong with the work itself, but you know frankly it wasn’t super creative and I think what I was noticing was that the game itself, you know the Sims I think is incredibility creative. It allows people to kind of tell their own stories; you know the ultimate kind of nerd dream of controlling reality. And I think what’s so funny is that’s kind of how I think about what IFTTT does. So in a way it’s all kind of tied it – tied it all together and that’s why they got really interested in this idea of creative tools beyond just video games.

David Kruse: Got you, it makes sense. Okay and so IDEO what, you know why did they hire you? What did you start working on when you were there?

Linden Tibbets: Sure. So I was lucky enough to kind of sneak in the back door. You know IDEO is a big design firm and I – a lot of my skills were still in the world on engineering. So I snuck in as an engineer and was kind of just design obsessed engineer. So ended up bothering enough people over a long enough time to do some design work and really start to get exposed to a lot of the ideas that eventually led to IFTTT. And so the team we worked on there for a long time was around helping both IDEO and then other clients of IDEO to think about their internal intranet systems. And I think of it is kind of like you know what would Facebook or now we have Flack and all these other great tools. What would some of these kind of more consumer oriented tools look like as they came into and walked right into a larger enterprise and then they kind of how do they foster collaboration and sharing and all kinds of stuff like that. So that’s why I originally started working on and spent the bulk of time here doing.

David Kruse: Interesting. So do you have any good lessons? I mean IDEOs are pretty famous design firm, like any good lessons or processes that you can relate with that you still think about now has helped you?

Linden Tibbets: Oh! I think there was something that I was just absolutely yammered with and I credit with having a lot of influence on what IFTTT has become and that was the same year, there was someone there, a partner there. Her name is Jane Fulton Suri. She was well known for being one of the first physiologists to work at a designing firm. And so somebody that was really concerned with – and this just now all sounds kind of still in retrospect, but were concerned with the people even more so within the product. And I think really being to build out a lot of that influence that IDEO now has around Human Center Design and really thinking about the needs of the people that use these products. And she actually had this book. It was really a small picture book called Thoughtless Acts. I remember looking at that the first time and kind of seen this like brand new world opened up that was kind of there all the time, but then tuning in to it and what was so unique about it was, Thoughtless Acts really dealt with the ways in which people used products in their environment to kind of better suite their needs. A silly example, things like people that tie there string on their tea to the handle on their cup, or people that put a pencil behind their ears to free their hands up so they don’t lose their pencil or even things as simplistic as like you are trying to carry a package indoors and you like use your hip to open the door as you kind of squeeze in. I mean so all these are used like, these really almost mundane examples, with the ways in which people adapt to and use whether that’s physical object in their environment or other tools, to actually live life and since we manipulate and improve the reality.
I mean, I think the big influence was that on IFTTT was that okay well everybody was capable of doing this in their physical world. We do this you know 100s of time per day. We make all kinds of decisions about you know what outfit should we wear based on the weather, or whether I got a big important meeting or how do I organize the living room based on the how the sun comes in the window at certain hours of the day. And so effectively in the physical world everybody is an expert programmer. Now no one goes around talking about it like that or like thinking about it like that but that’s really what it is. We are all kind of constantly manipulating our physical reality to improve our lives and what’s so funny is that as you cross over from the physical world to the digital world, a lot of that control and that flexibility really fades away. You essentially, to program your digital world you have to be a programmer and so I think that was kind of the big injustice and big problem that really kind of set us out to start IFTTT and figure out okay, well how do we help people make some of those same connections in this digital reality that we are building. And then what happens as that digital reality and that physical reality begin to merge and begin to become the same thing. And so all of those things really kind of crystallize during my time there and that’s what kind of launched IFTTT.

David Kruse: Interesting. And okay before I get too far, can you maybe just give a – I did a poor job in the intro, but just a brief overview on IFTTT and what it does?

Linden Tibbets: Sure, of course, of course. Yeah no, I think you did a fine job. You know, we are one of the things that unique about IFTTT is we are not an easy thing to explain, which is I think is a great challenge to have. What most people today aim for, to build them something kind of truly, truly new. So anyways IFTTT is about helping people make simple connections between the stuff they already use. So right now we basically surrounded ourselves with more services than we can really count. When you ask kind of what is the service? Well, Facebook is a service, Netflix is a service. If your car is connected to the internet, whether that’s an tour or we have a EW on it, the apps connected to the internet, it’s a service. So all of these things are connecting to the internet, essentially as software continues to influence every single aspect of our lives, more and more physical objects and more and more kind of abstract digital services now have information about who you are and capabilities, things that it can do on our behalf and the big problem there is, is that all of those services and the way in which we think about building services and software since the beginning the software time has been about silos. It’s about storing data in one place, having some application logic on top and then having an interface website, an app or something you talk to, so on and so forth and none of these silos work well together. And so as we surround ourselves with more and more of these silos IFTTT is about helping people be confident that those silos will work together. That one silo that your BMW can access you ADT alarm system and let you know if someone breaks into your house when you are away or you know a Netflix can better improve its movie recommendations by understanding what movies you actually go to in the physical world and all of this requires accessing information that right now is locked up within these silos. And IFTTT seems to be the way in which people break down those silos and make some of these connections for themselves.

David Kruse: Interesting and…

Linden Tibbets: Sorry, that was a long answer.

David Kruse: No, that was great. That was great.

Linden Tibbets: I can do a shorter one, but it may take some up.

David Kruse: No, that was perfect.

Linden Tibbets: Get into it.

David Kruse: And where did you start, and how much money have you raised and how many employees have you just, some just brief stats.

Linden Tibbets: Yeah, so we launched the service out of my living room at the end of 2010. So we have been around for quite some time as a start up and right now we have raised just around $40 million total for what we are lucky to have investors that really buy into and believe in just the size of this problem that we are trying tackle and right now we got a team of 32 people. We are all here in San Francisco. We work out of an office at 5th in market, that’s right down town and yeah, we are kind of a positive and passionate and incredibility driven bunch of individuals.

David Kruse: Interesting, yeah what you are doing can really open the digital world for people and just more and more as you connect more and make it easier and so how – can you, all right lets go back to the beginning of the IFTTT. What was the – do you remember what the first initial services you connected and one of the first recipes that IFTTT…

Linden Tibbets: Totally. So there was a handful of services that were really, really early on. So one of those I think Twitter was the second service. I actually think perhaps email was the first, everybody loves email. Weather was an early service, and then I think you know Tulio was just getting started. We used Tulio to do an SMS based service. I think the first actually recipe – now back in the day when we launched we called them tasks and then we called them statements and then eventually we called them recipes. So the first task which was essentially the first recipe I believe was a weather based one. I think it was – if it went over a certain temperature, then send me a SMS, so that was the first recipe I ever set up. I don’t think I have that one running, but I think I have recipe number nine still running and effectively what that one is, it tends to be a remember. Right now we operate as a first notification. So one sends SMS to push notifications and it sends me a remember every day at 9.45 am that kind of reminds me and the rest of my team, and the rest of myself, stay positive and passionate and build something that really matters. So it’s kind of a daily motivational message if you will.

David Kruse: That’s good, yeah. We’ll probably need that every hour.

Linden Tibbets: Yeah, yeah and I actually had a recipe early on that was every hour, but it was really more of a like, is IFTTT still alive, I think it’s to [cross talk] IFTTT is still alive. So if I didn’t get it, then I would immediately run back to my computer and figure out what was going on, so…

David Kruse: And can you describe how you put together these services and connect them. And then do you connect services that don’t always have an API or an application program interface or how do you…

Linden Tibbets: Sure. We’ve been incredibly lucky. We started to off and then back in 2010 there was still lots and lots excitement around this idea of kind of open and publically accessible APIs and the golden age for APIs. I think Flicker had kind of this moment and they had this open API and there was kind of these different you know kind of new original ideas build around that Flicker API and I think what was really interesting is that I think the API is not only alive and well. I think it’s more important than ever today. But I think this idea of having this like open API I think has largely gone away in favor of more specific kind of developer tools and even APIs now that are essentially Businesses. Tulio’s is a great example of that sim grade and sends email. So there is now a lot of the businesses that are essentially just APIs and we were very lucky in the kind of golden age of open APIs to be able to plug in to a lot of those APIs and we essentially built the first what we call channels, so you know flicker is a change and SMS is a channel and right now we have like location and BMW and Nest Thermostat, those are all channel. So we build the original 60 channels in house using those open APIs and then at that point we actually got enough moment going to actually just start the work with folks more closely, our partners and get access to APIs that weren’t necessarily just kind of open and available. And then eventually we convinced our partners to actually build on our API, just to build on our platform and now the vast majority of the – I believe we are now 360 publically launched services or challenges are now built on top of the IFTTT API and so we are having this kind of partner program that’s so largely underneath the surface. We have now over 600 companies actively working on that integration with IFTTT and we are kind of getting closer and closer to unveiling this platform. And so a lot of that is now kind of being reversed. We’ve built up enough momentum and a big enough brand and user base that folks are finding us and doing the work and maintaining and improving that integration over time.

David Kruse: Interesting. All right, so let’s talk a little bit about the internet of things and you’ve actually mentioned I think some of the recipes a little bit on the side. But when did you kind of start connecting the physical devices and where do see that or if you could say some things.

Linden Tibbets: Sure. Boy that has all happened I think both faster and slower than we expected. On one hand back in 2010 when we launched, in fact we had a lot of scenarios that we thought about, what would happen if some of this stuff, this physical stuff connected to the internet. Will that still work, will that still make sense when we are building something. In fact you know like I said the idea originated from observations on how people use objects in the physical world. And so we knew that was going to be a thing, but we really didn’t know how quickly that was going to be a thing and I think you know the first service and the first company that we’d say actually found us was Belkin’s and they had a product that they were going to market what was called the WeMo Switch and I think that was in 2011 or in 2012. So very quickly after we launched this service, we had our first connected device channel. It was a simple switch. You plug something else into it and turn it on and off and you know it’s a fantastic product which we sold and improved that over that years and I think that really kicked everything off and it just happened to way that we thought about the world and all these kind of physical products was still very singular. The device itself was really cool. That was what going to get a lot of the attention. In fact that was what was going to drive the business model for a lot of these companies. So many of these companies, whether they Nest of Reno or even Amazon Alexa to some regard, it’s really about the money that’s made off the purchase of the device. But just about everybody you talk to knows that long term the real opportunity is in the service that that device can actually bring about, because its connected to the internet. And the way that IFTTT works and the way that we always viewed the world has been very service centric. So we actually don’t communicate directly with any devices, but we communicate with the back end internet service that then communicates with that device. And so I think in that way we were set up in a way that would really make sense as all these connected devices continue to evolve, continue to improve and really just become more and more numerous. I’d like to say that there is not a noun that you can name that isn’t someday going to be viewed with software and connected to IFTTT. It’s just really a matter of time and also a matter of value; how valuable it is it to the person that’s going to adopt that product, easy is it to use, how expensive or inexpensive, it maybe a better way to think about it is it going to be and it’s all just inevitable and I think it’s going to be incredible. It’s not something that, are we going to look at how a lot of this connect the device stuff has cleared up so far, and really anticipate what another 10 years is going to look like, and I think we’ll get to this idea of essentially people being able to program the reality, being able to kind of control every single thing around them and feel confident that those things are connected to the internet, not apprehensive. Right now I think there is kind of a big deal of apprehension around the things connecting to the internet that we will actually be able to cut through and get a whole lot more confidence in.

David Kruse: And with that, I mean where do you see IFTTT in three or five or 10 or 50 years. Maybe not 50, but how seamlessly to do want to make it for the users or do you want to connect to more services or what’s your ideal vision if you could create in it the next 10 years.

Linden Tibbets: I see IFTTT as essentially the way in which information is exchanged on the internet, so – and that’s an exchange between services. If I think of really what we are building is, it’s kind of akin to PayPal, but instead of just a financial exchange, IFTTT is about information exchange. So just back to that example is like BMW knowing that someone has broken into your house because its connected to you home security system or Netflix being able to recommend better moves, because it knows more about you. As an end user, right now granting that permission and granting that access, there is no kind of standard way to do that. You know again back to this you know PayPal or Visa, those are kind of standardized ways for you as an end user to make an exchange essentially pay for something. And we think there also needs to be a standardized way for an end user to exchange information that’s locked away in one service with another service. And we think IFTTT is that kind of missing piece. I think what’s so excited about that is we are taking a very kind of radically different approach with some of the big companies that are out there, the Google’s and the Amazon, Microsoft and Apple of the world. They want to own the interface and we think that’s just fine. I think the interfaces are fantastic. We are going to from Apps to bots to virtual kind of AI based systems to virtual reality to augmented reality, IA was just like so many phenomenal new ways for us to interact with an interface with the internet and just the ways of technologies that have yet to land.

But IFTTT is about working with all of those inter phases, giving people the confidence that those services can share information and do that in way that they are in control of, that they actually become more confident in the fact that as they add a new service to their life. As they sign up for a new subscription, as they sign up to who or as they buy a connected refrigerator or a connected doorbell that they know if that product or that service works with IFTTT, IFTTTs going to be compatible and IFTTTs working with all the other things that they have already surrounded themselves with. So that’s what we want to be. We want to stand for compatibility, control and confidence in your digital information.

David Kruse: Interesting. Well that’s a – I like that vision a lot and that would be very helpful for everyone, that’s for sure. And yeah, like you said its very inclusive vision to theorize in allowing everyone to try to participate in the future of digital, which is nice. Yeah, I think that’s a good way to end the interview unfortunately. I think we are about out of time here, but that was great. Linden, I really appreciate your time and your thoughts and what you guys are doing.

Linden Tibbets: Awesome, well thanks so much Dave. I’m excited for you to have me on, and hello to everybody in the Midwest.

David Kruse: That’s right, the Midwest and beyond. But yeah, and thanks everyone for listening to another episode of Flyover Labs. As always I really appreciate and we’ll see you next time. Thanks everyone and thanks Linden.

Linden Tibbets: All right. Thank you, Dave. Bye.