The Genesis Of Lullabot

by Jeff Robbins

On January 1st, 2006, Matt Westgate and I announced our new company by launching a website at Lullabot.com. That was 10 years ago.

Matt and I got to know each other very slowly over the course of 2005. I was building my first Drupal site and we met through Drupal.org. Actually, my very first post on Drupal.org was an interaction with Matt. On February 14th of that year, I'd found a bug in Matt's, then-popular eCommerce module and I'd posted an issue trying to track down the error I was getting. Matt's response, our first interaction, posted one week later, was "This has been fixed. Thanks."

My first Drupal project used many of Matt's Drupal modules. It was an overwhelming and awful project. My wife (a designer) and I had vastly underestimated and underbid the complex web site which would be my first experience with Drupal. At the time, the Drupal community had big dreams, but the project was still in its early years. I found that much of the functionality that I needed for my project wasn't really mature yet. Most of Drupal's documentation existed only as comments in the code itself. There were no books about Drupal. There were no podcasts. There were no conferences or workshops. There were no companies that I could go to for practical help or advice. I thought my first Drupal project would take me 2 or 3 months. It ended up taking almost a year.

I posted desperately in the Drupal IRC channels and on the Drupal.org forums. Many of my questions were very basic. These questions posted in the #drupal IRC were simply met with links to PHP.net or MySQL.org. I was being told to go "read the fucking manual." It was painful. I felt ashamed. I felt unqualified, lost, and hopeless.

I decided to reach out to the friendly guy whose modules were being used all throughout my project. He had committed a bunch of my code to his modules and he always seemed upbeat and grateful about it. Even in that first interaction, he was upbeat: "This has been fixed." as well as thankful: "Thanks." He'd also amicably answered a few of my forum questions and he obviously knew his stuff. I sent Matt an IRC message and offered to pay him to get on the phone with me and answer my Drupal questions. He was a bit taken aback. In 2005, few of its core developers were getting paid for their Drupal work. I think we settled on $40/hr and sometime early in the summer, I spoke to Matt on the phone for the first time. He lived in Ames, Iowa. I lived near Providence, RI. We became internet buddies, having long conversations over AOL Instant Messenger about Drupal and life. He was friendly and knowledgeable. He was also curious and inquisitive with a positive attitude. There weren't many things that seemed to daunt him. My state of hopelessness moved to one of hope and gratitude.

Prior to 2005, my career success was in the music industry. It was amazing to see so many talented developers working together and contributing such amazing software… for free! In the same way that I was inspired by other musicians' music, I was inspired by Drupal's developers' code. Although I was overwhelmed, I was also inspired. I couldn't understand why there weren't crowds of people cheering when they released a new module. I was so thankful to Matt for his help and generosity. I told him, "You've got an amazing talent. I'm going to make this up to you one day. We're going to do something amazing together. I promise you." I imagined Matt rolling his eyes, but I was intent to follow through on my promise.

In an effort to finish this difficult project, I'd completely immersed myself in Drupal and the Drupal community with a tremendous amount of gratitude and hope. I contributed many Drupal modules over the next few years. My overwhelming first Drupal project began to wind down around October and I started telling Matt that we should start a company together. Drupal was so powerful, but no one was out there acting as an advocate, providing practical information or consulting services to help companies harness its power.

Around the same time, friends at Adaptive Path in San Francisco offered me a project for an up and coming film production company called Participant Productions (now Participant Media). They were about to release a new film called "An Inconvenient Truth" and they wanted to create a community action website where they could inspire visitors to take action on various social causes. Adaptive Path thought Drupal might be a good match and they thought of me. I said I'd do it, but only if we could get Matt to help.

I first met Matt Westgate in-person at the San Francisco airport. It was awkward. We'd been talking over the web and on the phone for almost 6 months and it was really weird to be together, in person. Also, he had flown to San Francisco in November with no clothing heavier than a t-shirt. We stopped at Old Navy on Market Street and bought Matt a sweatshirt. We sat in the Adaptive Path offices and coded up most of the site in about a week. We had flow. Adaptive Path was one of the most prestigious web consulting firms at the time and several of their founders, upon seeing our accomplishment, said we really should start a company doing Drupal. That was all the encouragement we needed.

Matt finally decided to leave the security of his university job some time in December. We spent a lot of time going back and forth trying to name our new company. With Matt's background as a Zen meditator and my background as a musician, we liked the combination of the calm music of "lullaby" with "robot", because we were doing technical work and also, robots are just cool. It also combined the organic and inorganic in a nice way, reminding us that it's important to remember the squishy stuff even while we're working with ones and zeroes.

In our first post on Lullabot.com, I wrote: "It is often said that open source software is 'made by developers for developers'. We hope to break down some of those walls and provide an entry for less technical users. We hope to break through the cacophony, and provide clear and understandable information and guidance."

We created Lullabot because we didn't want others to have the frustrating first experience that I had with Drupal. We wanted to make Drupal more accessible to a wider group of web developers. Over our first year as a company, we started the first Drupal podcast, we taught the first Drupal workshops, and Matt co-wrote the first Drupal book, Pro Drupal Development, which became required reading for aspiring Drupal developers. We also built some of the first household-name Drupal sites and helped to move Drupal toward the tipping point of acceptance and adoption.

While we started Lullabot with a lot of energy, hope, and competitive spirit, it's pretty safe to say that the company has been more successful than either of us had hoped in our wildest dreams. We've been blessed to work on some truly amazing projects with some amazing clients. We've hired and worked with the best talent in the business. We've tried to infuse Lullabot with the sense of gratitude, hope, and excitement that we had back in 2006. We've built a stellar reputation for doing superlative work and we're constantly astounded by our opportunities and success.

In part 2, I'll talk about some of those successes and growing the company over the past 10 years.

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