In 2010, Adam Smith stepped aside as CEO of Xobni – a then-hot e-mail management startup he had cofounded in 2006 out of his MIT dorm room.
Today, almost six years later, Smith introduces his next venture, Kite: A new tool that makes everybody a better programmer, no matter your skill level, at a time when the market for software continues to explode.
“I think programming is one of the most exciting things in the world right now,” says Smith. “The world is starting to code.”
The Kite software for Mac OS X sits next to your development tools and automatically makes suggestions and autocompletes your code. For beginners, it provides lots of examples and a social network-like community to ask questions. For the advanced programmer, it’s a way to step up your game with suggestions drawn from the wisdom of the community.
It’s meant to provide an Internet-powered improvement to the experience of Pair Programming, a popular technique where two programmers team up to spot-check each other to deliver better code.
And Smith has already gotten his friends in Silicon Valley to believe. Alongside the launch, Kite is also announcing a $4 million seed round that includes investors like PayPal founder Max Levchin, Dropbox CEO Drew Houston, Palantir co-founder Joe Lonsdale, and Twitch co-founder Emmett Shear.
But for Smith, it was a long, weird six-year journey from there to here.
The Ferris Bueller Institute
Smith stayed involved with Xobni as an advisor and on its board after stepping aside, but he was done with the day-to-day startup grind. Instead, he decided his new full-time gig was to think very long and very hard about what he wanted to do next.
On his LinkedIn, Smith describes this time as holding the title of “Free Radical” at “The Ferris Bueller Institute.” He tells Business Insider that it was a strange time in his life: People at parties would ask what he does, and he would have to truthfully explain that he does nothing but think.
“It gets awkward for friends,” Smith says.
He wanted something that would be commercially viable, but also a technical challenge and something he was passionate about. Finally, in late 2013 – not too long after Xobni got purchased by Yahoo for $40 million – he finally hit upon his big idea.
The thing that really appealed to Smith and his 12-person team about the Kite idea was that it’s the kind of tool that makes them better programmers, too, without having to change the way they work.
Here’s the launch video, demonstrating the concept. Note that it’s kind of like an assistant that checks your code and makes suggestions as you go:
Right now, Kite only works with Mac OS X, and with the Python programming language, though you can use it alongside any text editor you want – Smith showed it off for me with the popular Sublime Text. He promises that support Linux, Windows, and more programming languages is coming sooner rather than later.
The plan for making money is to keep Kite free for individual usage forever but to sell customized versions to businesses.
Smith anticipates that Kite will be a hit with businesses, given its power to make programmers more productive. For those customers, Kite will sell a customized, business-ready version that can be further tweaked to fit in with a company’s custom programming environments.
Eventually, he says, Kite will have to go to raise venture capital funding to keep growing. But he’s not too worried – he’s done this before, and thanks to the rise of the software economy, it’s easier to get that cash than ever.
“I love being an entrepreneur in 2016 more than 2006,” jokes Smith.