Tuesday, May 21, 2013
How YP Is Growing A Giant Tech Team In Glendale
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
One of the largest concentrations of technical talent in Los Angeles is in Glendale, at YP -- staffed with a surprising number of Los Angeles startup vets. How did what was a staid publisher of phone books become a hotbed of online talent? We caught up with Darren Clark, the CTO of YP--and a veteran of Spotrunner, Overture, and Yahoo--to hear the story of how the company spun out of AT&T last year, and has now become one of the biggest, online advertising companies out there, and how it's been growing its tech team by tapping into the rich base of Internet talent here in the region.
What's your background and how did you end up at YP?
Darren Clark: I've been at YP for four and a half years. Before that, I was running product at Spotrunner. I had also spent five years at Overture and Yahoo, going back to the Goto.com days. I was recruited for the role when we were still at AT&T Interactive in October of 2008, by some of my former coworkers at Yahoo, who had already landed here. I was pretty skeptical about the firm at first, but then I started talking with folks and getting to know the team, and saw how much revenue they were driving, and decided to make the leap. I've grown from driving part of the technology within the company, to driving all of the product development side, and also picking up product management and business development, around traffic acquisition and third party products.
We were quite surprised to learn about the extent of your operations here. How big is YP?
Darren Clark: We're kind of this secret for some reason. Here in Glendale, the population is around 600 people total. My team based in Glendale is probably 300, and we have another office in Sunnyvale, another in San Francisco, and other people in St. Louis and Atlanta. Our whole product and technology team is about 500 people.
What's the focus on YP now as an independent firm?
Darren Clark: Our missions is to help small businesses and communities grow. A big part of YP is our owned and operated experience, which has 60 million unique visitors in the U.S.
Talk about the technology behind your operations here?
Darren Clark: We're a big Ruby shop on the front end, and we're also pretty much open source across the board. The whole system was built by us, and is our own proprietary system to run local search. The consumer piece is a big part of our business, and the next big piece is the advertiser platform, plus everything we wrap around the advertiser experience, helping them to manage their content, and provide great reporting, and helping them to understand the ROI of doing business with us. Underneath that, we also own our own call tracking technology. If you think about Twilio and their robust feature set, we do the same kind of core technology around call provision tracking. We also have two other teams, a lower level ad serving team, and ad delivery team. We have our own ad network, where we work with partners like AOL, and Local.com to augment our traffic, through structured deals with third parties. Our ad delivery team built the Overture ad server, and they're building that here. The last group, on the technical side, is platform data services. We've got a grid of 500 nodes, handling a billion and a half clicks and call impressions, which we drive for our customers.
When did the split with AT&T happen?
Darren Clark: It was officially May 9 of 2012, when David and I and others within YP and AT&T decided that given where we were with AT&T, their core focus on wireless, we should figure out how to take the business out of AT&T, so that we would not be constrained on our investments, and we could go after markets in a more strategic way. We worked through the process, partnering with Cerberus to make it happen. We're still working with AT&T, and they're on the board, and hold a minority stake of 47 percent. The first year was a lot of work getting us out of AT&T. We had a fair amount of corporate services which had all been supplied by AT&T, so we had to create our own infrastructure team. We had to drive the carve-out and stand with our own infrastructure. The process was nearly flawless.
Where does YP fit in a world dominated by Google and Yelp?
Darren Clark: That's a good question. If you look at Yelp's U.S. traffic, they're doing great and growing. But, if you look at what we're doing, we're within spitting distance of Yelp in a lot of respects. Our owned and operated product has 60 million monthly unique visitors in the U.S. I think their number is a bit higher than that, but it also skews towards the lifestyle category--restaurants and retail. We're strong in services, when you need to get work done around the house, or trying to find someone in your local community, like a lawyer, dentist, doctor, or accountant. We index towards those categories, and we do really well. With Google, they are obviously the big dog, no matter who you are talking about. Outside of Facebook, Google is the internet. But, I think where we have a long term advantage is, the 600,000 advertise relationships and a strong presence with consumers. We're connecting those two parties. Google has to go through channels like us just to get to an advertiser. Yelp has great consumer research, but it's been a challenge for them to reach advertisers. I know we're a utility where people can go to get things done, but our approach to product development is to reduce friction between the local merchant and consumer and make that connection much richer.
How is it you managed to build such a large technical team here--and attract many Internet and startup veterans?
Darren Clark: There are a lot of dimensions to it. Much of it is the relationship effect, and because of a lot of people deep in the organization. Part of it is also, if you talk to engineers, because we're pretty aggressive in technology here. The engineers have lots of freedom, and if they can prove the technology they want to use is production ready and will perform well, we give them lots of freedom to pick and choose the technology we're giving to them. We were very early adopters of Ruby, and have been pretty active in that community. We also have a lot of people with open source perspective, which helps with our technology cred. We've also been running our own data processing using Hadoop and other technology. Maybe we're not at the super massive Google scale, but with our ad networks here we still have a billion and a half events every day, which is a lot to get your hands around. We've been very aggressive on the technology front.
We also know we're not a startup, and don't have equity to offer. But, we go out of our way to create a tech-friendly culture and environment. We run hackathons, have free food, and run fun events. Though that sounds like the cost of admission of working as a tech company, even when we were part of AT&T, we worked hard to carve out that identity inside AT&T. The corporate sponsors back at AT&T saw the kind of talent we were able to draw with that approach when we were running YP -- AT&T Interactive at the time-- and they were very supportive, and that helped us to continue to grow.
What's the big things you're working on now, and challenges you are looking at?
Darren Clark: Prior to leaving AT&T, our product strategy was pretty generic. We didn't take an overall look at the product until the second half of last year. I think we kept telling people, that in the world of Google, you have to find some high ground. Yelp and Agie's List has been fantastic in the reviews path. But, going down that review path was not where we wanted to take it, or at least, not where we wanted to start. On the other side, we had incredible high ranking search results when we were baked off against the competition. We have great data accuracy and comprehensiveness. But, that's like going into a knife fight with Google with that alone. So, we've been looking at creating a great advertiser relationships with consumers, and enabling commerce. Instead of just finding you a name, address, and phone number, we want to help people find availability, find slots that work with their schedule. That's a much richer path to go down. Today, it's about finding a name, address, and phone number. But, what we want to do is help them find rich data about those businesses, help consumers make better decisions, and do things faster. An example of that, is we have a product in alpha in a couple of our markets, where, in real time, a user can fill out a form and it goes out to the top five service providers who we already have vetted and screened. Those consumers stay anonymous, but that allows the customer to ask those providers if they can be here tomorrow, or if they've done a job like this before. It's interesting to look into the user behavior when you allow them to go out anonymously via mobile. It really gives them a way to go out and learn more about these guys, and much more than reviews. By connecting those conversations, it allows consumers to make better purchase decisions. On the advertiser side, we also have an iPhone app in alpha which provides one place where advertisers can manage their content with us, track calls, get a feel of how they're being presented to consumers. We're now figuring out to take that to market and driving it through our sales channel.