Modern Software is Built on APIs: Interview with Postman CEO, Abhinav Asthana
Postman CEO and Co-founder, Abhinav Asthana recently sat down with Jerod Santo and Adam Stacoviak of Changelog.com to discuss Postman. The interview addresses how Postman has grown so successfully, how APIs are impacting core business factors, what it means to be an API Development Environment (ADE), and how Postman created one of the most popular API platforms and community.
You can listen to the full hour or so interview here:
But if you’re short on time, here are some of the key highlights and takeaways:
How did Postman evolve over time?
“It started out as an API client, but it’s evolved to what we call an API Development Environment. [It] gives you all the tools that you need to build and test and document APIs. It has a special flavor to it; it’s a collaborative development environment, so while you can always use it as an individual, you can also work collaboratively with your team.”
How does it feel to raise $50M in Postman’s Series B funding round, considering the product’s humble beginnings?
“[It’s] pretty crazy. The circumstance in which I started Postman was [to get] out of what I was doing before, with a rapidly-shrinking bank balance, with six months of rent left… banks start charging fees when your balance goes below a certain amount, and I was like ‘Postman is doing well, it’s a good side project’, but I wouldn’t have imagined the journey at all, from that point onwards. It’s been a pretty crazy ride.”
Did Postman start as the typical “scratch your own itch” project, or was it always intended to serve other people?
“It was primarily for myself; I was inspired by others’ “scratch your own itch” projects. It’s not the first time I tried… I have a lot of itches, certainly. I actually listed down ten itches, and I’m like ‘Let me actually build something which solves my own unique itch.’ There were other clients back then, and I was like, ‘It’s not really fitting the bill’, and, ‘I like this thing versus that thing.’ … I was picky…and then I was like, ‘ I will build this thing,’ which became Postman. I put it up on the Chrome Web Store and it turned out that this was shared; the pain was shared, the itch was shared by a lot of other developers.”
What was the core problem set for API developers then and what is it now?
“I saw a very basic problem… When you’re compiling and running code, that whole loop can be done on your machine… but with APIs, things become a little interesting, because things are running on somebody else’s machine. I saw that basically to debug APIs and to work with either your own APIs or somebody else’s APIs, you had to kind of send a lot of API calls, you had to tweak parameters, you had to work in places when you didn’t have complete documentation… [There were] all these disparate ways in which people were working, and I really wanted to just debug and work with APIs in a little bit more pleasant way.”
What was the first pain point pre-Postman that sparked the idea to create something bigger?
“You’d scan through the response, and your eyes would start watering… I would take the response, put it into an HTML file, load the JSONView extension in Chrome and it would pretty print the whole thing, and [I thought] Oh, that’s pretty cool. But that was like four steps. So I [decided] … I want all of this in a nice little package.”
What other problems were you trying to solve with Postman?
“When I was with Ankit, my co-founder and CTO, at Yahoo!, we were building this application together and we were consuming an API, and there was no documentation. We’d run over to our manager’s desk, [and ask,] ‘where is the API? What is the latest version of it?’ And I was like, I don’t want to run to somebody’s desk to find out what things are. So that communication problem, and working with APIs a little bit more pleasantly was the base problem that I was looking to solve back then.”
At what point did Postman go from a pet-project to developing into a profitable company?
“I really enjoyed [the] feedback loop that I had while working on Postman. I loved building something that I had as a problem, and I would give it to somebody and they would say ‘Hey, you solved this problem for me,’ and that was the best feeling. Of course, you can’t live on feelings alone, and I tried a lot of different ways to sustain the project. Postman had a donate button, and I think that less than 0.0001% of people ever donated.
I quit my job. I was like, ‘okay, I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I know I like working on Postman and I don’t want to work for a big company or any company for a while.’ So I picked up a consulting gig, in which, interestingly, I had to design a smartphone app. I always played both hats in the previous company I was at – I was a UX designer, a UI designer, as well as a programmer… so for making money on the side, I was like, okay, I can pay rent and I can sustain myself, so I’m going to do this for two days a week, and for five days a week I’m going to work on Postman, and let’s see where it goes.”
How did Ankit Sobti, CTO and Co-founder of Postman, join the team?
“Ankit at that time was working in Mumbai, India, and I was in Bangalore, so I booked a bus ticket; I was like,I can’t afford a plane ride… so I’m just going to go to Bombay and I’m going to get my head straight, and stay with Ankit and see where it goes. So there were no plans of building a company; it was just, I wanna work with somebody I like. That was my hope, that Ankit would eventually join.”
What about Postman’s other Co-founder, Abhijit Kane?
“I was an intern at Yahoo!, working with Ankit, and Abhijit was an intern working with me at my first company. Ankit and I started working together. During this time when I quit my previous startup, I got a call from Google saying they want to feature Postman on the Chrome Web Store as one of the featured apps on the new platform. That was a very encouraging sign, and I think that’s when Ankit and I decided to look at things a little bit more seriously, much more than a side project, and we started looking at people who might be excited about working on it, maybe on the side.
We had a bunch of things, like we had this interceptor plugin, which the two of us just couldn’t maintain on our own. We found out that Abhijit was in Bangalore, and Abhijit and I had worked [together] so [Ankit and I] picked him out. [Abhijit] was at Walmart Labs and I sent him a note saying, ‘Hey, we’re doing this thing. Do you want to work with us?’ and he’s like, ‘Yes.’ And that’s it.”
The very first iteration of Postman was an open-source Chrome app that wasn’t making any money. When Google called, how did things start to change?
“[We were] just looking for ways to sustain ourselves, and the donation bit didn’t work out, or the sponsorship, so we introduced this in-app purchase called Jetpacks at that time. The idea was that you buy this $10 in-app purchase and it’ll give you access to automation capabilities that Postman has.
The funny thing in adverts was that you have a postman going on a bicycle from door to door, delivering mail, and then you get this cool, new version of Postman, with jetpacks, and he’s flying around your town, delivering mail. That made a bit of money… And our grand plan was that we were going to be maximum five people working on this thing, and let’s figure out the most important problems we can solve. It was enough if you translated dollars to rupees in India; you can pay rent and eat. Like being ramen profitable, that’s the term now, which I learned a little later.
So we were ramen profitable then, and that’s when we had investors reach out saying, ‘Hey, you guys have a lot of traction. We heard about you from other folks… Have you thought of starting a company?’ At this time we were not really incorporated. It was just the three of us working together.”
What was the first thing you did after raising the initial seed round?
“The first thing I did when we eventually raised our seed round was I bought a ticket to the Bay Area, I visited people who were using the product, people I had corresponded with, and they were like, ‘We are using the product this way and that way.’ So I literally saw Postman running on their screens, and then I heard their stories about how they were using Postman, and it just blew me away.
Then I started getting more into being open to talking, and listening. It totally changed my perspective on what Postman was. Of course, I liked it as a side project, and it was fun to work on it, and I knew it had value… But once you see how passionate people are about the thing that you’ve built, you actually feel more responsible for it.
When people have invested a part of their life in learning a product that you’ve built, they’ve built workflows around it, there are mission-critical things that are happening.”
Was there a tipping point that took Postman to 10 million users in 7 years?
“Everybody was building APIs internally, for their partners, for public platforms. And we saw that building APIs required groups of people to come together, [so] how do they share what they’re working on, and how do they make their workflow a little bit better?
So we invented this concept of a Postman Collection, where you could basically put together API calls. Collections became a very lightweight way for people to share what they were doing, and that established a workflow between groups of people. This started getting traction, not just with internal developer workflows, but also companies like Box, and Microsoft; even back then, totally unprompted, they started sharing collections publicly, and started talking about it.
I think good developer tools have always had word of mouth traction. We saw that grow pretty fast, and then we just kept iterating on the product to enable more and more collaborative activities.
In 2016, we launched this concept of a team library, where you could share collections that you’re working with, all in one page. It kind of becomes a shared API repository for your team. Then it eventually evolved into this concept of a workspace, where you can invite people and work with them in real time, like the way you work on Google Docs, or Slack, for all the things that you’re doing together. We feel that was one very strong thread that ran through to help Postman grow.
And along with that, just adding more tools to enrich everybody’s workflow. So we always kept the tool extensible. It was collaborative, so people could share things, and that has helped us grow. At this point, actually, we have to discover use cases now from people.”
Why is Postman’s command-line tool called Newman?
“Newman had this line, [he would tell] Jerry Seinfeld, ‘Jerry… this mail it always keeps on coming. It just never stops.’ So we had this whole notion that Newman is running in the background, running these automations non-stop, coupled with your CI/CD bit… And it was this reference to the postman always having to work in the background.”
What is your vision for how Postman will be used?
“So we looked at all of these different activities, and said, Postman is going to define the notion of an API, and it’s going to help people go through this workflow. And along this workflow, you will connect all of these different tools and techniques that you use in building that API.
So it brings together a lot of these other disparate workflows that existed outside of Postman, into Postman. It streamlines a lot of those build steps people are already doing, and people just feel more comfortable, that, ‘all of these things are in one place.”
What advice would you give to open source developers?
“You know, a lot of software development is basically working around the constraints of an organization that builds software before you.
I think if there was one [piece of] advice I had to give to open source developers, It would be, ‘talk to your real users.’”
What does the future for Postman look like?
“Postman aims to be the collaborative platform for all APIs which an organization builds. So within the enterprise or within a company that’s building APIs or consuming APIs, that’s the place that you go to… we want Postman to be synonymous with anything API-related.”
Where is API development going and how is tooling enabling the growth of the API industry?
“I think APIs as a general trend will continue to be those building blocks for modern software. Another related trend that we see is everything is kind of API-fied, in a way. Businesses are APIs, governments have APIs – that is a lot of data that is exposed through APIs, that is useful in social contexts, or other things that we can’t even hypothesize.
I think consumers will have more power due to APIs. We go back to that hacker mindset, that you could go into an application, tweak it to your own needs.
In terms of using APIs, I think we see a lot happening that we didn’t anticipate. Out of the millions of developers that use Postman, a lot of them are first-time developers or first-time users of APIs. These are people in marketing, sales, success, etc.
Over time we want to build – we are actually in the process of building more social tools for the community to be able to rate APIs, fork them, submit use cases back to the publisher, and really come together to say this is a good API versus this is a bad API.
I have to pinch myself. I always say, we never really went for a funding milestone as a marker for success, and I think we have a long way to go. There’s so much to do and we’re excited about the journey. It’s been amazing, going from that first version, to seeing people use it and share their stories with us. It feels great. And the credit goes to the team. We are about 150-people strong across San Francisco and Bangalore. We have people across the globe now.”
If you want to listen to the full interview, it’s embedded at the top of this page, or you can listen on Changelog.