In the early years of my blog, I relied on StumbleUpon to spread the news about my latest blog post. Many blog referrals came from StumbleUpon who then continued to stumble upon more of my posts. I enjoyed showcasing that StumbleUpon icon at the bottom of each blog post next to the other social media sharing icons.
But then one day it disappeared.
Of course, I didn’t notice this until fairly recently (hence this blog post). Turns out StumbleUpon hasn’t been a thing since 2018.
When we’re bored, we tend to go online to pass the time. We pull out our phones, tap on our tablets or open our laptops to find some way to pass the time. And there’s no better way to pass the time than with random content, like the kind StumbleUpon discovered for me.
Then again, it took me years to realize that it disappeared.
What happened to StumbleUpon? Did it crash and burn? Dissolve into thin air? Or transform into something else?
StumbleUpon: A History (Summary)
It all started with a question between two graduate students and friends studying at the University of Calgary, Geoff Smith and Garrett Camp (yes, the same Garrett Camp that would later go on to be a co-founder of Uber). Smith asked Camp—and I’m paraphrasing here—“Do you want to start a company?”
We can guess how he answered.
So, these two friends teamed up with another University of Calgary peer, Justin LaFrance, to brainstorm company idea for different products and services. They settled on roughly five ideas to test out, trying one idea for a month, then another.
It wasn’t long before the trio agreed that StumbleUpon was the clear winner.
StumbleUpon officially launched in November 2001. During the early years, all the focus was on development. Smith and Camp led the efforts on training their recommendation engine to better learn based on user behavior. Bugs and issues around automation had to be fixed before targeting users to explore their platform.
Once it passed all inspection, StumbleUpon was open for business. The company generated profit through a targeted advertising model designed to cover the cost of servers and apartment rent. And it didn’t take long for the platform to attract half a million users—that’s 500,000 people!
This caught the attention of Silicon Valley. StumbleUpon had previously garnered venture capitalist attention in Calgary because of its quick growth, never for its initial product and social media service. By 2005, StumbleUpon received millions from angel investors and in seed funding.
Camp and Smith packed their bags a year later for San Francisco while LaFrance continued to oversee business in Calgary. Here they expanded their company with StumbleVideo (for stumbling upon videos) and StumbleThru (a toolbar designed for users to stumble through popular sites, such as YouTube, Wikipedia and BBC.com).
In May 2007, eBay purchased StumbleUpon for $75 million. What looked like a promising business move ended up severely damaging the company by 2008 with an annual traffic loss of 70%.
Camp and Smith acted quickly. Raising Series A funding with other investors for StumbleUpon, they were able to buy back their business from eBay—rumors say for $29 million.
To keep up with the everchanging online landscape, StumbleUpon gets a needed makeover in 2009 with a new approach. No longer do users have to sign in or sign up to stumble. Simply visit the site and press the button. By 2011, users across all smartphone devices could tap on the StumbleUpon app for the same desktop experience.
How StumbleUpon Worked
StumbleUpon wanted to fill a void that search engines didn’t touch. While Yahoo and Google mastered the art of locating specific content that a user wanted to find, StumbleUpon was a content discovery service that supplied enjoyable content a user didn’t know s/he wanted to find.
While there were many ways to stumble in StumbleUpon’s history, the user experience across digital delivery always stayed relatively the same.
With StumbleUpon.com, the user would click the Stumble button to see the next suggested webpage. If a user thought the content was cool, s/he would click the thumbs up button. If the user thought the content was lame or uninteresting, s/he would click the thumbs down button.
For much of the company’s existence, the user had the opportunity to sign in where his/her profile of selected interests helped the technology better recognize which digital content should be stumbled up on next.
With the StumbleBar toolbar, the user would click (or tap) on the Stumble button to see the next webpage. The algorithm recognized what kinds of pages a user wanted to see based on the thumbs up and thumbs down buttons.
Why StumbleUpon Ended
Things started to go downhill in 2012 when Camp left the company to pursue other ventures. By 2013, more than 30 employees lost their jobs, a trend that then-CEO Mark Bartels said wouldn’t continue—but did.
Camp reacquired the company in 2015, but it was too late to save it. On June 30, 2018, StumbleUpon shut down its services.
What happened to StumbleUpon that made the once-popular social media platform non-existent?
Many users left StumbleUpon because the search algorithm wasn’t up to its previous high standards, choosing platforms like Pinterest and Digg.
StumbleUpon also relied heavily on investment money to keep afloat. As the years went on, investors were less interested in the platform’s popularity and more concerned with content discovery service’s lack on income generation. Pinterest’s ability to incorporate paid advertisements and sponsored content could be why it’s still in the game.
Most importantly, Camp was ready to shift his vision of content discovery on a new platform. And one door must close in order for another to open.
Mix.com is a lot like StumbleUpon, just updated for how we use the internet today. Keep in mind that when StumbleUpon launched, people only surfed the web on a desktop computer. The company had to catch up to the rapidly changing ways users used the internet across smartphones and social media.
Mix is a fresh slate that incorporates the Internet of now with sharable content of today. Content is curated just for you and you can discover content selected by your friends and those you share common interests.
One could say StumbleUpon didn’t die, just evolved under another name and platform. But I would need better visibility on business documentation to be 100% certain on that claim.