After selling his last startup to IBM, this entrepreneur is building his next company in Chicago

by Andreas Rekdal
May 22, 2017

The internet makes the world a much smaller place, but for tech companies looking to provide a reliable user experience, physical location still matters.

For instance, if you’re watching Netflix in Chicago, there’s most likely a local server streaming your video, minimizing delays and data loss in the process. To make that happen, Netflix maintains a content delivery network of servers in more than 1,000 locations all over the world.

That kind of infrastructure is out of reach for most startups. But it won’t be for long if Chicago entrepreneur Kurt Mackey (pictured right) has a say in the matter. With his startup, Fly, he wants to build a network of servers around the world that lets a smaller company run the code underpinning its web and mobile applications closer to its user base.

“This is a lot of stuff that the big tech companies do for themselves but that’s not really accessible for developers,” said Mackey.

Formerly the director of technology at Ars Technica, Mackey said his experience running a site drawing massive audiences from around the world sparked his interest in solving this particular problem.

“When we posted reviews of things like a new Apple operating system, we would have something like 30 million people reading that review in one day,” he said. “For logged in users, we wanted a different menu on the side to recommend specific articles to them — but that was very difficult to do.”

After selling his last startup, which made database operations software, to IBM in 2015, Mackey said he swore off infrastructure startups forever. But no one had yet solved the decade-old problem he’d experienced — which made the temptation too much to resist.

“This is one of the few areas of tech left that isn’t going to just be dominated by Amazon or Google,” he said. “It’s not something they can do easily, and they don’t have a built-in advantage.”

Concerns about web application speeds are a relatively recent phenomenon, said Mackey, but they will only become more prevalent as more companies transition to browser-based software. Fortunately, some speed improvements are easy to make, like keeping SSL encryption certificates closer to the user.

“That’s actually a surprisingly big speed win, on the order of 100 milliseconds from Sydney to Virginia, which is noticeable to users,” said Mackey. “But if you wanted to get more sophisticated, they can cache bits and pieces of the application, like menus … and load different pieces of the page from different servers.”

Aside from performance enhancements, Fly’s service can also be used to roll out new features to users in a specific location and see how they work before rolling them out to other markets.

Fly currently has servers in six locations, which Mackey says gives the company pretty good coverage of the English-speaking world. By the end of the year, he expects that number to reach 37.

Having started his last company in Silicon Valley, Mackey is excited to build Fly in Chicago.

“Chicago is actually a good place for this, because it’s one of the big data center network hubs in the United States,” he said. “The irony of all of this is that when I started my last company in California, there was a Chicago Tribune article about me and a few other people having left Chicago to build our startups. But we came back.”


Images via Shutterstock and Fly.

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