How GoDaddy Acquired & Dismantled Virb

March 16 2015 · Steve Benjamins

For the last few years, Virb was a website builder I whole-heartedly recommended. It was sleek, sophisticated and easy to use. I felt great recommending it to friends.

But about a year ago I noticed things changing on Virb’s website.

Blog posts stopped being published. The careers page was mysteriously removed. A light-hearted team section with pictures of the team as kids was taken down. The Roadmap, which listed upcoming features, became frozen in time. The Virb Twitter account dried up into periodic updates about downtime.

What happened? Well, it was also about a year ago that GoDaddy acquired Virb.

The Acquisition

Virb launched in early 2007 as a Myspace competitor— but by the end of 2007 it was clear that Facebook would be the successor to Myspace.

Despite the early failure, Media Temple acquired Virb in 2008. The Virb team was comfortable with the acquisition. Stephen Hallgren, Virb’s Lead Engineer at the time, says “the team saw [the acquisition] as a really good move. It meant we had someone paying our bills and the infrastructure to grow.”

The acquisition gave Virb time to pivot, and after a few months Virb was relaunched as a website builder.

For the next four years things went smoothly for Virb. They had a product-centered culture and grew to over 20,000 customers.

Then in 2014 something controversial happened: GoDaddy acquired Media Temple.

The acquisition was surprising and frustrating to Media Temple customers. Marco Arment summarized the frustration on his blog:

“GoDaddy is a horrible company run by horrible people selling horrible products. Media Temple made a big name for themselves with modern design, strong branding with lots of parentheses, and heavy marketing in the Rails and design communities.”

Because Media Temple also owned Virb, Virb was included in the deal and acquired by GoDaddy.

When Virb’s founders realized this they attempted to buy Virb back from GoDaddy. Unfortunately negotiations ultimately fell through and Virb remained a GoDaddy company.

Dismantling the Team

The culture at Virb began to shift after the GoDaddy acquisition. There were now new bosses and new goals— but not ones that aligned with Virb’s original vision. The 4 original Virb team members decided it was time to leave.

“It was clear to me that our new leadership wanted to extract as much money from our customers as possible.” Ryan Clark, Virb’s Product Manager and Creative Director at the time says. “Our new directive was simple: revenue.”

To make matters worse, the Virb team was denied any resources. After losing the 4 original Virb team members Clark notes, “All of my requests to fill the positions disappeared in the ether of the acquisition. It seemed clear to me that GoDaddy had no intention of backing up their new goals for us with the resources to actually achieve them.”

And so after three months with GoDaddy, Clark left, along with Lead Engineer Brett Buddin.

Eventually all but 3 of the once 14 Virb team members moved on from GoDaddy. As Hallgren described, this left “a skeleton crew to keep [Virb] running.”

By this time it was clear that Virb was never an important part of the Media Temple acquisition for GoDaddy. According to Hallgren, Virb’s 20,000 customers were “negligible compared to GoDaddy’s own website builder.”

But GoDaddy is not the type of company to turn away revenue. And so although Virb did not have enough customers to get GoDaddy’s attention, GoDaddy wouldn’t shut down the product— instead opting to maintain Virb with a “skeleton crew” until revenue ran out.

Can a website builder just be “maintained”?

Virb is a website builder. And website builders need to be actively developed to keep up with changing web technologies.

For example, website builders that once relied on Flash (such as Moonfruit and Wix) never recovered when Flash became outdated.

In both cases the website builders were just too far behind the technical curve to recover.

Today Virb is coasting on cruise control. It’s simply being maintained. In a couple years it too will be too far behind the technical curve to recover.

This past January, Virb’s CDN went down and Virb websites stopped serving images and CSS. The issue was fixed but for some customers it was a warning sign.

Hallgren speculates that GoDaddy will let Virb “die a slow death and collect the money being made on it in the meantime.”

Unfortunately this most effects the 20,000 customers who still rely on Virb to provide a stable, contemporary website— unfortunately, it’s not clear how stable that future is.

Get the best business long reads in your inbox every Saturday morning.

Subscribe Now »