SV Angel Founder Profile Series: Ravi Parikh and Joshua Ma — Airplane

Airplane is an exciting new developer platform for quickly building internal tools. For our September 2021 SV Angel Founder Profile Series, our team is featuring co-founders Ravi Parikh and Joshua Ma. Seasoned builders, prior to starting Airplane, Ravi and Joshua were executives at Heap and Benchling, both SV Angel portfolio companies. Ravi was co-founder of Heap and Joshua was the CTO of Benchling. We hope you enjoy learning more about why Ravi and Joshua started Airplane, important fundraising lessons, and how to scale a world-class team.

Airplane Co-Founders Ravi Parikh and Joshua Ma

Names: Ravi Parikh and Joshua Ma

Hometown: Ravi — Indianapolis, IN; Josh — Marlboro, NJ

Company Name & Brief Description Blurb: Airplane is a developer platform for quickly building internal tools. Airplane lets you turn Python/JS scripts, SQL queries, REST endpoints and more into lightweight internal apps that your support, operations, and other teams can use. We provide UIs, notifications, permissions, approvals, audit logs, and more out of the box so that engineers only need to implement the backend logic of an operation. Check out the 3-minute demo video on our website to see how it works: airplane.dev

Year Founded: 2020

Founding

Q: What was the impetus for starting Airplane? Tell us about the moment both of you decided to start Airplane together.

Josh and I both left Benchling and Heap respectively in summer of 2020. We spent a lot of time brainstorming ideas but we kept coming back to internal tools since both our previous companies had really struggled with them. In both cases, we noticed the common pattern of people on customer-facing teams constantly escalating things to engineers. At Heap, common operations like “delete unwanted PII from a user’s account” required someone to run a one-off script.

We wanted to build a way to take these sensitive, technical operations and make them self-service throughout the whole organization with minimal effort, and came up with an early version of Airplane. We then spent most of October, November, and December talking to engineering and operations teams at over 100 companies and getting a sense of whether our approach would solve a problem for them. After iterating on the idea several times and getting lots of positive responses, we decided to start building out the MVP in December 2020.

Q: Given this is your second company, what are some lessons learned or things you’re planning on doing differently?

There are tons of big and small lessons we picked up over the years, but by far the most important is to focus on people. Hire great people and invest in their growth. It’s not that I would have disagreed with these things early on at Heap, but I didn’t fully appreciate early on just how much people were the determinant of success rather than things like “strategy.”

Q: What’s a really difficult part about being a founder that no one talks about? Were there any lessons you learned when you started your first company?

Finding product-market fit is always difficult. I think everyone recognizes that it’s not easy, but even after taking that into account, it’s still harder than you imagine. It’s also one of the few things where it’s hard to take lessons from doing it before–there’s no guarantee that just because we were able to do so at Heap and Benchling, that we’ll be able to do it again with Airplane.

Fundraising

Q: The fundraising environment is changing rapidly with much more capital and many more investors. How should founders think about choosing which investors to work with?

In the early stages, I’m a fan of having one lead investor from a strong institutional firm and having participation from lots of great angel investors as well. The lead investor should be someone you plan to spend a lot of time with and feel can meaningfully influence the trajectory of the company. There’s no perfect way to assess this, I’ve found that reference calls with other portfolio founders is the best way to assess the value that an investor can bring. For any lead investor, do a lot of these if possible and see how other founders talk about their relationship with that investor.

Having a great roster of angels is also important. At Airplane, we’ve gotten multiple intros to customers and hires through our investors. There’s no perfect recipe here, but if other founders you know say that a certain angel has been impactful on their company, it’s someone you should also consider raising from. Your lead is also someone you can rely on to point you in the right direction in terms of filling out your round.

Q: Why did you choose to partner with SV Angel again? What is it like to work with SV Angel for the second time?

SV Angel was a great partner for us at Heap. They were one of the first seed investors to believe in what we were doing and then were really helpful with filling out the rest of our Seed fundraise. In every future round, SV Angel was massively supportive as well. SV Angel has backed some of the greatest companies in tech history and the level of commitment they have is second-to-none. It was a no-brainer for us to work with SV Angel again for Airplane.

Team & Culture

Q: Can you share any valuable lessons about recruiting and scaling a world-class team?

Recruiting is very hard and never really gets any easier. At every stage of a company’s lifecycle, no matter how fast you’re growing or how successful you are, the people you are trying to hire are brilliant, talented, and have tons of other really attractive options. In tech, at least, there’s no such thing as a company that has more great applicants than they have roles to fill.

As a result, I think recruiting effectively takes time and openness. Time is obvious–you have to be willing to talk to lots of people and spend lots of time with them to hit your hiring goals. Openness is also important. Having too-rigid job requirements or constraining yourself to a narrow set of sources for candidates means closing yourself off to a talented and diverse pool of people who could make a big impact. We’ve intentionally written our job specs to be very open-ended in the type of experience we’re looking for–we don’t have a laundry list of technologies or skills that we require candidates to have before they can apply.

Q: With your cumulative experience building previous companies (Heap, Benchling) in mind, what are some of the most common mistakes you see startup founders make these days that you believe can be avoided?

Scaling prematurely is one of the biggest mistakes that seems to happen more and more in the current environment with large seed rounds. Companies are often 15 or even 20 full-time employees while not still really having nailed their product-market fit. For most SaaS startups, you can get really far with a 3 to 10 person tight-knit team executing well. Any larger than that means it will be harder to effectively respond to feedback and iterate towards product-market fit.

SaaS startups over the last 10 years have also shown that really narrow but useful value propositions can gain lots of traction quickly, so the solution to lack of product-market fit isn’t usually to build more and more features–it’s to really hone in on a specific problem to solve. Scaling quickly makes that harder, not easier to do.

Q: How do you plan on supporting company culture and employee engagement through the pandemic/remote working?

At Heap, we were a hybrid organization from very early on. We had a headquarters in San Francisco, but several employees, mostly on the engineering team, working remotely as well. As a result I have some experience putting in place best practices for a hybrid team, like having a great AV setup for all-hands, making sure to do frequent co-located meetups, making sure remote employees are treated on a level playing field with those in the office, and more.

At Airplane, we have been remote-first so far. In cities where we have more than one full-time employee, we’re getting small, optional co-working spaces if people want to get together.

We don’t have a precisely laid out remote-first plan, but it’s something both of us are committed to making work well. As co-founders, both of us are in different cities from each other–Josh is in San Francisco, and I’m in New York–so for the two of us to collaborate effectively, by necessity, we’ll have to make the company highly friendly for remote work.

SV Angel is a San Francisco-based seed fund.

SV Angel is a San Francisco-based seed fund.