How StumbleUpon is winning on the web

StumbleUpon CEO Garrett Camp

At nearly ten years old, StumbleUpon is certainly well past the point of attracting users by being a new and hot trend. But the San Francisco-based web discovery engine has proven that slow and steady growth can still lead to success: Earlier this month, StumbleUpon surpassed Facebook to become the biggest traffic driver among social media startups in the US.

Given Facebook’s status as a media darling, its being unseated by the decidedly lower profile StumbleUpon has taken some people by surprise. I sat down last week with StumbleUpon co-founder and CEO Garrett Camp to find out exactly how the company has ascended to this point — and where it plans to go in the weeks and months ahead.

Here are a few main factors that have led to StumbleUpon’s recent strength:

  • It’s a labor of love — Camp co-founded StumbleUpon in 2001 while doing post-graduate work in his native Canada. Since then, the company has been through its fair share of ups and downs — and Camp has been there through it all. StumbleUpon was essentially run out of its co-founders’ bedrooms up until late 2005, when it took on $1.5 million in seed funding and moved to San Francisco. Shortly thereafter in 2007, StumbleUpon was sold to eBay for $75 million. But like so many big M&A deals, the integration did not ultimately work out, and in 2009 Camp and one of his original co-founders Geoff Smith bought StumbleUpon back along with a group of investors.

    Camp’s dedication to StumbleUpon through thick and thin seems unique in an industry where the label “serial entrepreneur” is often worn as a badge of honor. The CEO told me he has stuck with StumbleUpon for one basic reason: It’s still the best place for him to turn his dreams into realities. “At the end of the day, I just really like the service,” he said. “To this day, when I have an idea, it always seems like StumbleUpon is still the best place to implement it. Now that we’re independent again, you can have an idea here and make it happen very quickly.”

  • Technology comes first — More than two-thirds of StumbleUpon’s 80 person staff is technical, said Camp, who himself is trained as a software engineer. “There’s so much technology under the hood. We’ve spent so much time making the system, and by now it’s pretty complex and advanced.”

    Today, Camp said, StumbleUpon is just starting to reach the stage where enough people are online to really take advantage of the system. “For the first several years we never made a proactive effort to talk to people. I was in Canada in grad school, and then in eBay there wasn’t a lot of press either,” he said. “In the last couple years people have really paid more attention to us; but it’s taken us years to get to this point.”

  • It’s no one-trick pony — StumbleUpon’s roots are firmly in the web — but Camp says that’s really only the beginning. According to him, the company’s core technology can be fairly easily translated to many other mediums such as television, gaming, social networking, and beyond. It branched out in November with an app discovery service for Android. “The idea of providing recommendations without knowing exactly what you want can be useful in so many places,” he said. “We’ve built this backend, and now we can focus on one or two platforms at a time. But the only limitation [for growth] is the number of engineers we have.”
Garrett Camp photo courtesy of StumbleUpon investor First Round Capital