Q&A with David Rowley, Message Systems SVP and General Manager of SparkPost

For the past six months or so, the most important topic of conversation at Message Systems has been the SparkPost project – the internal development effort to create a cloud-based version of our Momentum platform. Or more accurately, I should say the “Fuzzy Dragon” project, because that was the code name that the effort proceeded with through much of its existence. I recently sat down with David Rowley, the executive tapped to lead the new venture, to discuss how SparkPost came into being, why it’s big news and what it means for the email industry and the developer community. – JP

Q. Message Systems has always been a loud and proud enterprise software company selling on-premises solutions. Why SparkPost, and why now?

A. First, Message Systems still is a loud and proud enterprise software company, and our on-premises business remains core to everything we do. The simple answer to why SparkPost and why now is that the nature of the tech world has changed. Five or ten years ago, brands that needed to send significant amounts of email had two choices: 1) work with an ESP, or 2) implement an on-prem solution. And the choices with on-prem were limited. There were the big three open-source MTAs – Postfix, Sendmail and Exim – and then a handful of commercial offerings, of which Momentum became known as the platform of choice for ultra high-volume senders. In recent years, developer culture has fundamentally changed the way new technology products and companies get launched. The demand for cloud infrastructure as a service is strong and is just going to keep getting stronger – Gartner reports IaaS will be the fastest growing area of public cloud computing over the next few years. Our core email infrastructure platform has measurable advantages over all other MTA products on the market. With SparkPost, that core technology is is now available in the cloud as an IaaS offering, which opens up vast new possibilities for developers.

Q. So SparkPost is designed as a developer-focused offering?

A. Exactly. SparkPost gives developers easy API access to the very same high performance email sending and delivery optimization platform as our installed base, but now in a public cloud, pay-per-use offering. Message Systems is all about infrastructure. Engineering is our core strength and we have no interest in becoming a full-on ESP with agency services and a creative department. Some of the longest tenured Message Systems customers are ESPs; we value those relationships very much and expect them to continue for a long time and in fact SparkPost is drawing a lot of interest from ESP startups who would like to use us as their delivery platform.

Q. How long has SparkPost been in planning and development?

A. Having a cloud offering is something we’ve been considering for as long as I’ve been with Message Systems. Our product people and engineers work with developers constantly – heck, they’re developers themselves – and we’ve kept a close eye on how the market for cloud transactional email has developed. More and more over the past couple of years we’d find ourselves talking with prospective customers, usually startups or mid-size tech companies, interested in leveraging the same technology as the peers they looked up to. But gradually it would turn to “oh, it’s only available as on-prem? Gee, if it was cloud-based this would be a no brainer.” More and more, the preference is for infrastructure in the cloud. The really high volume senders, and regulated industries like telecom and financial services, still have a strong preference for on-premises. But for everyone else in 2014, cloud is strongly preferred.

Q. It was a market-driven decision to launch SparkPost.

A. Absolutely, yes. As I said, George (Schlossnagle, president, co-founder and head of the company’s product management) and the team have been looking at cloud as a logical next step for some time. As the category continued to grow and evolve, consensus built within the organization that, hey, we really believe we can do this better than it’s being done currently. When our new CEO Phillip Merrick joined us back in April, one of the first decisions he made was to pull the trigger on a cloud offering. Development began in earnest shortly thereafter, and it’s been full speed ahead ever since. Today it all comes together.

Q. It’s a pretty crowded market out there. SparkPost is going to be competing directly with established cloud email offerings like SendGrid, Mandrill, Dyn and a few others. Where does SparkPost fit, and what makes you different?

A. No doubt there are a lot of choices out there and the SendGrids and the Mandrills have done a nice job of showing that email via API is an important category. What’s different is this: SparkPost is built on Momentum, the platform that powers 25 percent of the world’s legitimate email. It’s the choice of the industry’s biggest senders, like Twitter, Groupon, LinkedIn, Comcast, Facebook and Salesforce. Momentum is also in place as receiving infrastructure at some of the biggest ISPs in the world, including Rackspace, Cablevision and many, many others. With the volumes that Momentum carries, both outbound and inbound, we have better intelligence into what’s happening with email at any given point in time than all but a few. With our Adaptive Email Network we collect ISP bounce and disposition data all over the world. We’ve reached approximately 98% ISP domain coverage in North America, South America, Europe, China and Australia. That intelligence informs our Adaptive Delivery technology, which automatically shapes traffic to keep deliverability optimized at all times. These capabilities are not available anywhere else, neither from cloud IaaS providers or on-premises MTA offerings.

Q. So the sheer volumes that you handle and the data you can collect are differentiators?

A. Sure. Our head of field operations, Barry Abel, likes to say that we’re the rails over which the email train travels. We know what’s coming and going better than anyone else out there. But it’s important to keep in mind that at the end of the day, it comes down to the quality of the I in IaaS – how good is your infrastructure? That’s where we believe we’re head and shoulders above the field. Momentum was built from the ground up as a superior alternative to the open source message transfer agent (MTA) products – Postfix, Exim, Sendmail – that dominated the email landscape through the early years of the commercial Internet. And over the past ten years or so, Momentum has been conclusively proven to be superior to anything else out there. What kind of infrastructure are the incumbent players in the IaaS email space running on? They’re built on open source, or commodity commercial MTA technology that can’t measure up to what’s capable with Momentum. So their customers get poor inbox delivery, limited actionable visibility into email delivery statistics and sub-par service.

Q. Today’s announcement was a beta launch, and apparently SparkPost has some users already. What are the early reviews?

A. Yeah, Justin Newton from NetKi had some nice things to say about the excellent deliverability they’re seeing already from SparkPost, as well as the real-time data access and analytics, and we’ve already had customers using Momentum in the cloud since earlier this summer, sending millions of messages a day. We’re also thrilled to be integrating into the Heroku platform, enabling the excellent developers in that community to leverage SparkPost.

Q. It’s pretty remarkable that you were able to get what’s essentially a start-up company from conception to launch in about a six-month period.

A. I’ve had the privilege of working with some great teams throughout my career, but the team we’ve assembled here is absolutely the most talented, enthusiastic and committed group I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. There is huge excitement in the team to be able to provide the technology that we’ve been so proud of for so many years and deliver it in the cloud into the hands of our developer peers in the industry – and we’re just getting started! We look forward to seeing all the innovations that our developer community will build on top of SparkPost!