Famo.us, an unusual programming startup that allows users to make nifty mobile apps using JavaScript, has raised $25 million in additional funding and added high-profile investor Jerry Murdock to its board.

The new round comes after two others — one for $1.1 million and another for $4 million. About $20 million of the new round is in exchange for equity, while $5 million is debt. Along with Murdock — whose investments via Insight Venture Partners have included Nest, Flipboard and Twitter — Samsung Ventures and Javelin Venture Partners are also participating, the company said.

The San Francisco-based company is aimed at using JavaScript, the sometimes disrespected programming language, to create a product that is easy to use by a range of developers, even non-techies. To help promulgate that, Famo.us also offers a free online “university” where anyone can learn to program using its tools.

As Famo.us wonkishly describes it: “Famo.us is the only JavaScript framework that includes an open source 3-D layout engine fully integrated with a 3-D physics animation engine that can render to DOM, Canvas, or WebGL.”

Translation: Building a platform offering easy-to-use tools to make prettier and faster mobile apps that work across all devices.

While a lot of this offering is free, CEO Steve Newcomb said — much like development startup GitHub does — Famo.us will eventually expand into other more lucrative arenas aimed at enterprise, such as analytics, testing and payment services.

In an interview — after the company he co-founded, semantic search company Powerset, was bought by Microsoft for $100 million — Newcomb said he was attracted to JavaScript because it was an underappreciated programming language that works across a lot of devices.

“After Powerset, I took some time off and HTML5 was all the rage,” said Newcomb, who can make very geeky things seem easy to grok. “As I looked at it, I became kind of a skeptic and thought this was not going to work.”

Indeed not, he said, because Web browsers were designed to render documents and not apps, which is how most people now experience and consume the Internet.

“You can use Famo.us to code on any device, with an aim of creating a low-code and even no-code environment,” said Newcomb. “Our goal is to take all the fundamental building blocks of the Web and rebuild them in Famo.us.”

He added: “Microsoft and Apple can have the operating system, Oracle owns the database, but nobody owns the front end. Maybe that time has come.”

“Famo.us is solving one of the most difficult problems in Web development: Making it easy to create truly cross-platform apps. Software developers have thousands of languages and frameworks to choose from, and they’re looking to deploy across more and more screens,” said Murdock in a statement. “Famo.us is removing that complexity so developers and designers can focus on creating beautiful UIs rather than developing differently for each platform.”

Here’s a blog post on the deal from Newcomb, which is a little wonky, as well as two interesting videos showing off Famo.us in action:

Famo.us raises $25M to drive rapid adoption of its JavaScript framework

I am very proud to announce that Famo.us has raised $25M, with Insight Ventures and Javelin Venture Partners taking the lead. Joining our board of directors will be Jerry Murdock, founding General Partner of Insight Ventures. We’ve come a long way and now we can truly build out Famo.us into the first-class development platform we envisioned from the start.

I still remember three years ago, when it was just me and Mark working in an old chapel above the YWCA at UC Berkeley. Our startup wasn’t called Famo.us back then, it was called Benchrank. We were attempting to build a Pinterest-meets-About.me app using HTML5. Like many developers at the time, we were struggling with HTML5, its poor performance, its lack of basic features, the esoteric inconsistencies between browsers, and performance “solutions” that turned out to be hacks that didn’t scale.

At first, we thought it was just us. But every time we went to an HTML5 meetup, we found that everyone else was experiencing the same gut-wrenching pains we were. Then, in a moment that took the wind out of the entire HTML5 industry, Facebook announced it was pulling out of HTML5. For everyone that had bet on HTML5, it was our “oh shit” moment.

As a result, we discussed all our options, from giving our seed money back to moving our development to native. But none of these options felt right.

Mark and I both enjoyed the freedom of being founders and the joy of working on something really hard, really complex, and really valuable. We realized if we could solve these problems and build a first-class JavaScript development platform, we’d be doing something that was important not only to us, but to everyone we knew as well. And we knew it was a more than a pivot. It was a new beginning.

When we told our investors what we wanted to do, they knew it was going to be a tough road. But one VC stood up: Jed Katz at Javelin Venture Partners. He not only had our backs, but gave us $3M more and helped us get an additional $1M from Samsung to make sure we could do it right. I think the reason he backed us was that he knew we had the most important thing that any startup could have: a match between our life experiences, our passion, and our mission. He also saw that we were solving a major pain point that almost every mobile and web developer was experiencing. With Jed’s support, we started the long walk of our new mission. That’s when we truly became Famo.us.

With our experience guiding our thinking, we broke down the core problem into two areas:

The layout engine in a browser is a black box designed to render a text document with links. It’s not accessible and it’s not designed to render apps or games. If you’re not creating a document, it’s the wrong tool for the job.

The CSS3 animation engine is both a black box and woefully underpowered. Compared to modern console games, which use a 3D physics engine, CSS3 was not sufficient to produce natural or complex animations. In CSS3, Transitions can only have single Bezier curve segments, animations cannot be intercepted, and most importantly, there was no way to extend these features. Again, it was the wrong tool for the job.

Then, we asked ourselves two questions: Can JavaScript be used to build a 3D layout and physics engine? And, can we run this in a browser, circumventing the browser’s layout and animation engine, and do this all without requiring an install, plugin, or any dependency on the browsers? We knew that if we could answer yes to those two questions, we’d be solving the root problem that was holding back an entire industry.

At first, it seemed like the answer should have been “no way, JavaScript can’t possibly be fast enough.” But JavaScript, which used to be hundreds of times slower than compiled C, is actually now comparable to native code when running inside modern engines, such as V8. So we got to work.

After much trial and error, we had our first legit experimental version of Famo.us. I’ll never forget Mark running the numbers to see how we compared to the performance of WebKitCSSMatrix in Chrome. We were 14x faster! After more than a year of failing, we had succeeded, and not just for us — for everyone. We felt like the weight of the world had been lifted, that JavaScript was back, and that we could get to work on building the first-class JavaScript platform we had always wanted for ourselves.

Within three weeks, we had our periodic table demo => periodic.famo.us. It became our main website for the next year and a half. It was just a signup form and not much other information. As word got out and people experienced the periodic table’s performance on desktop and mobile, the buzz began to take effect. 83,000 developers signed up at pace that shocked all of us. We knew we had struck a chord with the JavaScript community and we knew that we were now stewards of an effort that would affect many people.

During this time, Mark and I had many long discussions about what was the right thing to do with Famo.us. We decided that to make Famo.us accessible to as many people as possible, we wanted it to be free and open source — and we wanted to build a free online university not only to teach Famo.us, but to teach JavaScript itself. We knew that a mission like this would take perhaps as long as a decade and we knew we needed a lot of funding and we new we needed a solid business plan that would allow us to generate money while enabling us to provide Famo.us and Famo.us University for free.

Rather than convince investors of our vision, we decided that we needed to find a really big VC with same vision we had. One that could help us build a business model to support our mission and company goals.

In our very first meeting with Jerry Murdock and Jeff Horing, the founding General Partners of Insight Venture Partners, I knew they were the right investors for us. We only talked vision and how to create a legacy for all JavaScript developers. It was the immediate and powerful connection that all founders look for — we could speak each others’ language and we knew this was important to do right. So we shook hands and began the process of raising our Series B round and began crafting the long term vision for the company.

We’ve come a long way from our humble beginnings. The HTML5 industry is coming back to life and the wind is once again at our backs and blowing strong. With the funding and support of Javelin Venture Partners and our new partner Insight Ventures, we now begin a long journey of pure passion for all of us. We will focus on maintaining the power of Famo.us while constantly making it easier to use. You’ll see us put lots of effort into making the APIs to the core platform easier, building lots of tools, widgets, and templates, as well as building out Famo.us University so anyone can learn both JavaScript and Famo.us. We will continue driving toward our vision: a world where apps deliver fast performance and beautiful animations, with one version of code, across all platforms.

I truly want us all to experience this success together. Look for future posts on what we are doing with the money and how we plan to make money to support our mission.

If anyone has questions, comments, or wants to help us be the good stewards we need to be for this project, please feel free to contact me. My email is steve@famo.us.



2 comments
BrandonLive
BrandonLive

So... They're doing UI thread dependent animations of DOM elements with no hardware acceleration and expecting this to work well? That means you're limited to dependent input too. Yuck. Color me skeptical. The horrid lag on their tiny but non-zoomable sign-up page only reinforces that skepticism.

I think there's definitely a market here, but I'm not sure these guys understand what they're doing. They're also competing with both free OSS libraries and big players like Adobe and Microsoft (whose early Visual Studio + Cordova + WinJS stuff for targeting every platform looks really promising).

shift8
shift8

@BrandonLive Don't forget AppGyver - they're rocking it and have a really solid business model from the looks of it.

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