A Narrative of Gratitude

This time last year, my partner, David Von Lehman, and I were almost a year into starting Aerobatic, and truthfully, we were still trying to figure out if we had something that the market wanted.

Absent any better ideas, we spent most of our Christmas holiday building a financial wellness tool for a friend on my soccer team that he intended to sell into insurance agents. The front-end was in Angular, hosted on Aerobatic, the backend was all Parse, and it was a really cool app that we hoped would serve as a good reference case study for Aerobatic, and perhaps make us some money. Of course, perhaps inevitably, it went nowhere…

I can laugh now at how far we’ve come, and some day, when Aerobatic is the raging success story we’re scrapping so hard to become each day, we’ll look back and laugh about that first year in business when we almost got into the financial guru business.

Fast forward 12 months though, and the difference in our maturity is massive. Make no mistake, we’re still out there fighting for our lives to be relevant by continually building a kick-ass product and backing it up with awesome customer service that developers will gladly pay us for.

However, as you build a company, its narrative tends to be one of swash-buckling founders competing against the odds, and scratching and clawing their way to success. What’s often lost in that narrative are the people that helped you get there. And so, as we get ready to celebrate the holidays and the narrative of Aerobatic continues to evolve, it’s important to remember some of the people that helped us in the past 12 months.

Partners

I’ve been building, selling, or consulting on software my entire career, and 99.9% of the time, the partnerships I’ve been involved in have had misaligned objectives, never amounted to much more than a press release, and have been a total waste of time. With that as a back-drop, in April, David and me had been at it a year, we’d seen some modest growth of Aerobatic through our CLI-based tool, we’d tried selling our service in to large enterprises, but hadn’t seen nearly enough traction to make ourselves think we had something viable for the long-term. Then, one day, Eric Wittman, the GM of Dev Tools at Atlassian, replied to an email I’d sent him a while back and said they might have something we’d be interested in. This was the beginning of an insane push to build and launch our Bitbucket add-on in just 4 short weeks. With the help of Ivan Storck, who agreed to join David and me on Aerobatic, we worked day and night to get it shipped just in time for Atlassian’s Bitbucket Connect launch announcement.

I’ll never forget our initial call with Atlassian when we couldn’t get the Join.me session to work and so instead we were on my iPhone speaker, and I could sense the Atlassian team chuckling at realizing that Aerobatic was just two guys in Seattle. If I had been in their shoes, I’d have left the call thinking no way could this little company deliver in time.

That said, the collaboration with Atlassian was a great experience, and has continued to be through the remainder of this year. In fact, it was so positive that we dropped support for our CLI, stopped wasting our time trying to prematurely sell Aerobatic in to big companies like t-mobile, and went all-in on our Bitbucket integration.

The result? We’ve seen more users on board in the past 3 months than we onboarded in all of 2014. We have a small, but growing set of paying customers, a steady flow of product feedback from those customers, and a clear roadmap as we head in to 2016.

A lot of that is down to our hustle and passion for building a long-term company that we can be proud of, but in our narrative, some of that credit has to go to Atlassian, who’ve been straight-shooters from the outset, and without bluster, they get shit done.

Customers

The act of someone going into their wallet and entering their credit card into your payment screen to pay for your service is the ultimate expression of love for your service. Lucas Carlson, the founder of AppFog, was an early advisor to Aerobatic, and he constantly hit us with the same refrain of, “How many people do you have paying you?” I used to fob him off with, “…yeah, we’ll get to payment later, we’re still figuring out the product.” Every call with him was the same thing over and over. I wanted to talk about user acquisition, and he wanted to talk about paying customers. I wanted to talk about our enterprise strategy, and he wanted to talk about paying customers. It bugged me. I wanted more from him. You know what though?He was totally right. It took us far too long to get off our ass and ask people for money. Maybe we were afraid that no-one would — that our hopes would be exposed as a sham. Whatever the reason, we should have done this as early as possible.

A few weeks ago, I woke up and our Slack channel had a new customer notification for a customer from Turkey and another from Austria. How crazy is that? While we were asleep in Seattle, two people on the other side of the world had decided that in the vast expanse of SAAS-based hosting services, we were the best choice for them, enough so that they were willing to pay us for the service. Sure, Über has a multi-billion dollar valuation with tens of millions of customers, and I’m talking about just two developers, but building a company is a marathon, and pouring everything you have into creating a product, and having people love you back, is all the fuel you need to keep going.

So yeah, I’m amazed and full of gratitude for every single one of our customers for giving us all the reason we need to wake up every day and obsess over how we can make them happy.

I’m also thankful for the 101 support cases (yes, really!) we’ve handled since June where many of those tickets were feature enhancement requests. Paying customers telling you how to make your product better? Hell yes!!!

Colleagues

If customers are the fuel for wanting to build something awesome, having people around you that share that enthusiasm, that you trust entirely, and share your values, are the key to making it all happen. David, Ivan, and me all have families with young kids, mortgages to pay, soccer games to coach, Costco trips to make, etc. We’re not the prototypical college kids with nothing else to do but code. And yet, it all works. So much so, that besides our customers, I so desperately want Aerobatic to succeed out of a sense of responsibility to David, and now Ivan, because I know how much they’ve put into this. I’ve been in other startup situations where I didn’t trust my co-founders, and there was a sense of imbalance among the contributors. With Aerobatic, the balance is there, and the desire to see each other succeed is an enormous motivator.

Family

At breakfast the other day, my 7 year old daughter told me she wanted a job on Aerobatic. Humoring her, I told her she could be in charge of marketing. By 6pm that night, she’d put together a candidate set of companies I needed to contact that she had culled on LinkedIn. My 5 year old chimed in by telling me we needed to reduce our prices so we could get more customers. And the two of them debated the merits of such a pricing move. Funny to witness, but it’s emblematic of how, when you start a company, the responsibility you feel towards your co-founders and colleagues extends to your family — they want you to succeed, perhaps as much as you do…


I could go on naming many other people that helped us in the past year, but the point is that as 2015 draws to a close, by no means did we make this progress by ourselves. In 10 years, the narrative of Aerobatic will include an acknowledgement of the kindness and love of others that pushed us on to build something meaningful that we can all be proud of.

Happy Holidays!