You merely adopted dark mode

The best product too few people have ever used

March 21, 2021
Jonathan Libov

The Bloomberg keyboard

If I told you there was a decacorn, customer-obsessed, do-things-that-don’t-scale company, thriving with a Javascript heavy, keyboard-shortcut driven app, used primarily in dark mode, serving 300-something-thousand customers paying monthly, you might ask me which YC batch they were in.

If I asked you for the original social network, and you weren’t so sassy as to answer “telephony”, you’d probably say MySpace or Facebook.

But if you had to identify the company at the intersection of those two qualifiers, there would be only one answer: Bloomberg.

I spent the last few years at Bloomberg, having spent most of my career in and around startups, and boy does it now seem a shame that Bloomberg isn’t listed with the greatest software companies of all time, which by all measures it is.

Unless you work at a FAANG company, it's not all that common to see your app being used in the wild. One time I saw my NFL Win Probability app on ESPN's Around the Horn. Another time, after waiting on a long line at the supermarket while the cashier putzed with her phone, I was delighted to see that the cashier was using the app I managed. But all that pales in comparison to walking a trading floor and seeing the product you work on splayed across six screens on hundreds of desks. As Byrne Hobart put it, Bloomberg "probably has more pixel share than any product besides maybe Excel".

I also loved showing the Terminal to friends, as too few people have ever tried this product.

Surely some of that has to do with the fact that the company isn’t public; if that ever changes, the Substacks will be glorious.

Surely some of that has to do with the fact that almost everyone has plenty of exposure to Bloomberg’s media arm and little exposure or need to access the depth of the order book for treasuries. It is the Terminal business which drives most of the 11-figures of revenue.

Surely some of that has to do with the misconception that the Terminal still refers to a bespoke machine. It became a regular SaaS product for years before the term SaaS was popularized. The exceptions to typical SaaS are that it only runs in a downloadable client, and like an AVID editor, you can use it with any old keyboard, but you wouldn’t want to.

Surely some of that has to do with the fact that every other enterprise “social” network followed Facebook. Bond pricing is how Bloomberg got its start, but IB (Instant Bloomberg, Bloomberg’s chat product) makes up the majority of Bloomberg’s defensibility. Quite simply, IB is the place where you can communicate with all the people you deal with, figuratively and literally. Even though Bloomberg’s social network is largely inaccessible to non-financial professionals, the principle is familiar: Ultimately everybody wants to socialize and get work done via chat.

Surely some of that has to do with the perception that the user interface is antiquated at best, and, at worst, bad. The first few weeks are indeed a rough go, as the main way to navigate the Terminal is by memorizing four-letter acronyms, often combined with hitting a “yellow key” akin to the fn keys that have been bumped from modern keyboards. You get to your email by punching in <MSG>, world equity indices by punching in <WEI>, and company news about Microsoft by punching in <MSFT>, then hitting the <EQUITY> yellow key, then <CN>, then ENTER. Whereas an Intercom setup at a SaaS company will typically have you wait at least a few minutes to chat with a customer service representative, if you’re inquiring during their office hours, with Bloomberg you get a live, regular-employee-who-devotes-part-of-his-day-to-live-customer-support on chat, instantly, at any hour of any day of the week, by hitting <HELP> on the keyboard.

If you like that, you’ll love this: People talk about the org in terms of those yellow keys. If you have a question, someone might answer, “Well that would fall with the folks at the <EQUITY> yellow key.” The org is literally baked into the hardware. Similarly, every one of those acronyms I described above is assigned to the people who own the product. At your state-of-the-art 1,000+ person SaaS company, can you look up who to talk to about something based only on the method in the code? Wouldn’t that be awesome?

The perception amongst people who have not used the Terminal that the Terminal’s user interface is bad is…bad. I mean, sure, it would probably be better if the text on screen (Warning: the latter half this sentence may induce nausea among UI designers) didn’t stretch horizontally and vertically with the window size. But by and large thinking it’s bad is a young Padawan mistake, akin to calling Amazon’s UI bad even though it’s more highly evolved than many humans I know, or calling LinkedIn’s UI bad even though literally everybody keeps their LinkedIn pretty up-to-date. If any of those UI’s were bad, they would have faded into obsolescence like Charleston Chews (which are objectively bad).

This is raw horsepower This is raw horsepower

One analogy: The Bloomberg Terminal is like the Batsuit: I wouldn’t wear it to a party, but there’s nothing else I’d rather wear if I wanted to wake up feeling like I could save Gotham City.

Here’s another: I worked on the crew of a tiny independent film in high school with three friends and we bought work gloves; one day, while building a set in the woods, my not-otherwise-industrious friend looked at his gloved hands, turned to me and said, “I would work harder at EVERYTHING with these gloves on.” That’s what having a Terminal on your desk is like. Imagine that.

For more on how Bloomberg has built a world-class, network-effect-defensible, still-growing business for 30+ years, here’s some recommended reading:

The biggest cloud company you've never heard of... by Jonathan Tseng

You Can’t Kill the Bloomberg Terminal. But If You Were Going to Try, Here’s How. by Byrne Hobart.

Disrupting Bloomberg by Marc Rubinstein

Bloomberg on First 1000 by Ali Abouelatta