There comes an “aha” moment when startup founders realize they have to change tactics to be successful. That happened to the founders of Novu last year. They were pitching the idea to product managers for a single technology to handle product communications across all channels, one tool to handle content, user preferences, time zones and languages — and be totally open source.
But they were talking to the wrong people. Usually, it was too early in the pipeline when product teams weren’t concerned about product communication needs, and they’d hand the Novu team off to engineers.
“The ones that are creating this and making sure nothing breaks are the engineering teams, and they are having a lot of difficulties of managing this, when a product person says, ‘Hey, guys, we need to build this notification center just like Facebook have or Twitter have.’ And they don’t really have the team to do that, or good specifications of how to do it in terms of best practices and, and those sorts of stuff,” said Tomer Barnea, cofounder and CEO of the Tel Aviv-based startup.
There are a host of communication tools out there — Sendgrid for email, Twilio for SMS, Slack for direct messaging, etc. They can be customized to fit the company’s and users’ specific needs and goals. But this forces developers to manage all of those APIs across the codebase.
“Because it tends to be so complicated to create and do right, engineers own it. We’ve talked to a company, a couple of them, actually, [who told us] they have more than 700 modifications hard-coded within their codebase. So that’s obviously an engineers’ issue,” Barnea said.
“In the long run, we decided to start to think how can we really put out our product and wrap it in a way that engineers can understand it.”
Yet the engineers of prospective clients told them they could build that technology themselves. Therein lies the problem: Companies like Facebook and Lyft have been building this in-house — and for many companies, they build it over and over. Barnea and his cofounder Dima Grossman, who are on their third startup, had built it three times.
“We invested almost four years in building the solution in-house with a team dedicated just for this,” Eyal Sheinholtz, director of product management at Israeli investment firm eToro told them.
Focused on Infrastructure
The idea is for a drop-in module along the lines of the way Stripe handles billing or OAuth deals with authentication. Novu started gaining traction last October when Grossman published a blog post on the technology. It has since grown to 4,500 stars on GitHub.
The difference between Novu and the notification tools out there, Barnea said, is that Novu is building notification infrastructure as opposed to notification delivery. It integrates with Twilio, SendGrid, MailChip and other delivery providers responsible for actually delivering the notifications on a specified channel, according to the users’ preferences.
“But at the end of the day developers still build a lot of internal systems in order to build a proper notification system with both users’ concerns in mind as well as the engineering department’s needs. This is where a notification infrastructure solution is relevant, and this is where Novu is solving a pain, on a small scale using our stateless library and more of a complete solution with our [self-hosted] Docker and [SaaS] serverless offerings,” Barnea said.
Novu uses simple components and APIs to manage email, SMS, direct, push and web push notifications in one place.
- Connect your providers
- Create a notification template
- Send a trigger
- Integrate the Notification Center within your app.
Each provider is stateless and adheres to a specific interface, while Novu manages state and mediates all provider-specific configurations.
Templates include code rules and filters, priorities and other metadata that affect the delivery of a specific message.
The trigger passes along variables and data required to render the notification messages. If a value is missing, the message won’t be sent.
The notification center can be embedded as a React component or an iFrame. The standalone library is in Node.js, but can be used from multiple languages. It includes community-built SDKs for multiple languages.
The communication API is responsible for reading the configurations of the templates, finding the relevant channels, locating the providers, and doing the heavy lifting of sending the notifications. All logical rules such as priority, timing, channel selection and others are managed by the engine, according to the documentation.
When asked whether the technology is in beta, Barnea laughed and said, “I’d probably have to say still alpha.”
Added Grossman: “We just launched basically a month and a half back, really the entire kind of stack. We created a small POC and released it out, created a blog post speaking about the future of what we’re trying to solve here. We saw a lot of people coming up, sharing their experience and [had] a lot of interviews with them.”
Previously called Notifire, the company recently announced a $6.6 million seed round of funding led by Crane Ventures.
It released a self-hosted Docker-based solution and a cloud version, which Grossman explained as “basically is a similar service, but you just register, get an API key, and you can start working on it. So since then, we have quite nice growth …, but it’s definitely early days, in terms of the really full system we’re providing.”
And they face a wealth of competition, at least from rivals tackling parts of the same problem. There are proprietary alternatives such as Courier and MagicBell; Twilio, integrating WhatsApp messaging, voice, video, as well as SMS and email; multiple open source push notification projects; and other open source projects including Notifo and Notif.me.
Grossman said they’re looking at an open core model, where the basics that a developer needs remain open source, such as the unified API and debugging tools, but more organizational needs, such as single sign-on and role-based access, might come with an enterprise version.
It’s working on what it calls a “digest engine,” providing apps the ability to aggregate multiple events into a single notification, and “time zone awareness,” providing scheduling according to geographical location and optimal time for customers to receive the message.
“Right now, one of the biggest issues we’re facing and assumably, we’re going to face for some time now, is engineers are kind of not sure where we sit in between Twilio, SendGrid and their code, because there’s no actual product language [for that space] right now,” Barnea said. “So that’s going to be market education … but that’s still an ongoing process.”
The New Stack is a wholly owned subsidiary of Insight Partners, an investor in the following companies mentioned in this article: Docker.
Feature image via Unsplash.