This episode’s special guest is Christine Spang, co-founder and CTO of Nylas. Nylas provides a set of communications APIs that help developers connect to email, calendar, and contacts providers. During the conversation, Christine relates the experience of founding an API product company and provides tips and lessons learned on product strategy, developer experience, and balancing product vision with user feedback.
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It is a mark of maturity for the API economy that entire companies have been founded with APIs as their primary products. Twilio and Stripe are the biggest examples of this — both in valuation and longevity — and have paved the way for a new crop of API companies. Christine shares five lessons with us that have been key to Nylas’ success.
Lesson #1: Start by solving a user problem
The origins of Nylas were in Christine’s co-founder’s undergraduate thesis, which sought to create a personalized web experience partly by scraping email information. This project uncovered how difficult it was to access data stored in emails, a technical challenge with a wide range of applicability. By starting out from the user perspective, the Nylas founders pinpointed their value proposition, and made judgments based on this user empathy. As Christine points out, some of Nylas’s early marketing efforts focused on articulation of the problem space (machine access to email data) rather than on product features. Christine explains, “People find us by reading a thing that we wrote about email, about calendaring, from our engineering blog, about anything we’re experts on that we’re putting out into the world.” This marketing approach, as well as the general approach of user empathy, yielded positive results.
Lesson #2: Usability matters
User empathy extended to the design of the product itself. The general problem Nylas solved initially was accessing email data — but since the targeted customers were developers, the type of access offered also mattered. Providing a strong developer experience requires a highly consumable interface that hides unnecessary complexity. To achieve this, Christine and team designed their API with the user’s needs in mind, protecting the interface from contamination by old email protocols or formats. This API-first approach has held strong, even as Nylas extended into other communications products, such as calendars and contacts. Christine states: “It’s about making common workflows easier, and step one of that was automating the drudgery of getting the information in the same place at the same time… We want these tools to make every user more powerful, more effective.”
Lesson #3: Earn trust before you earn money
As a small and new player, Nylas needed to earn the industry’s trust in order to be seen as a viable product company. To help with this, it open-sourced the initial product offering to demonstrate its credentials and mitigate risks for customers. This open-source approach was well-received and even led to effective inbound marketing for future leads. As sales opportunities arose, Nylan also needed to earn the trust of individual customer prospects. “Some of our larger deals have gone straight up to the CTO because people look at it as a strategic long term partnership,” Christine says. “They’re powering major features of their products based on us, and that’s a big commitment.” Recognizing the strategic significance of where their product fits in their customers’ value networks has helped them shape their SLA’s and packaging.
Lesson #4: Balance intuition with user feedback
Starting in the customer’s shoes helped Nylas establish principles early on that guided the product’s direction. Having a highly usable, simplified interface is one example. But much of the direction the company’s products have taken has been user driven. After building a strong base of prospects through content marketing and open source, Christine and team used a “listen-first” approach to their customers to test product ideas and identify net new ones. “I really think this is one of the magical parts of building platforms,” says Christine. “We get surprised all the time by the kinds of things people show up and want to build.” This user feedback helped Nylas reframe the problem space from email connectivity to broader communications, and has helped the company see its value proposition — and its potential future arc — through the eyes of its customers.
Lesson #5: You can swim with the sharks
At one point, the company was called “Inbox.” Shortly afterward, Google coincidentally released an app called Inbox. This triggered the company’s name change, but also served as a reckoning on whether Nylas could compete with such a gigantic company. Sticking to its guns, the company maintained market viability by focusing on a fundamental value proposition — a platform for connecting all possible communication sources — and leveraging the agility of a startup sized company. “You learn you have to stay one step ahead,” according to Christine. “You have to keep evolving with the ecosystem.” The early recognition of the power of trust helped too, as Google’s reputation for deprecating products may have undermined its potential customers’ confidence to a degree.
There are many other insights to be gained from the episode. Give it a listen! Follow the podcast on SoundCloud or subscribe to our newsletter above to get summaries of the episodes.