From Vision to Venture Ep. 01: Josh Twist, Co-Founder and CEO at Zuplo.
Moesif’s Podcast Network: Providing actionable insights for API product managers and other API professionals
Joining us is Josh Twist, Co-Founder and CEO at Zuplo, one of the most cutting-edge gateways that are out there today. In today’s episode, we’re going to chat with Josh about some of the challenges that he’s faced as well as some of the big wins they’ve had over at Zuplo in the last few years.
Matt Tanner, Head of Developer Relations at Moesif, is your host today.
Listen to the episode on SoundCloud above, watch it on our YouTube Channel or download it on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Table of Contents
- 00:00 Introduction
- 05:03Significant Challenges as a Founder
- 08:46Trailblazing vs Chasing the Competition
- 11:03Lessons From Working With a Co-Founder
- 13:35Stress Management and Self-Care
- 19:02Tips for Founders
Matthew: Hello everyone and welcome back to the Vision to Venture podcast. Today I have with me Josh Twist from Zuplo, which is an API management platform that we’re going to hear lots about today. Then we’re also going to chat about some stuff that Josh has experienced as a founder of an early stage company. With that being said, Josh, we’re going to hand it over to you to do a nice little intro for yourself and then give us a bit of background on Zuplo and some of the stuff you’re tackling there.
Josh: Awesome. Hey Matt. Yeah, so Josh Twist, co-founder and CEO of Zuplo. Some background, I’m British if you can still hear the remnants in my accent, but live in the West Coast of the US. Used to be an engineer with Microsoft. I moved over with them in 2010 and live in Redmond just outside Seattle. I was there for five years, founded several services in Microsoft Azure, Azure Logic Apps, Power Automate Pro, mobile services, and most notably Azure API Management, which is a competitor to the product I’m shipping today. Then I was at Facebook for five years. Led product for Facebook Analytics and for an org called New Experiences, which was really fun. I was one of the first teams to try and take on TikTok. Lots of good stories there, but not super relative to DevTools and so on. And then I was at Stripe for a little while where I was head of product for payment methods, so I led the payment methods org, including all the APIs. So I’ve been a customer and a vendor and I’ve been around APIs my whole career and very passionate about developer tools and developer experiences, which you asked for some background on Zuplo.
I’ll sort of start with the notion to me that API management as a category is kind of broken today. And I saw this as a vendor at Microsoft when we launched a product, Azure API Management, through an acquisition, we acquired a company. It was around the time Apigee was coming to fame long before they were acquired by Google. And instantly it struck me just how almost hostile these tools are to developers in terms of how alien they feel. You know, your configuration is stored in databases, they don’t work naturally with Git. You have to write weird scripts to deploy them. They’re heinously unprogrammable. Yes, most of them have some kind of extensibility model with plugins, but it’s really hard and it should be so easy for a developer to deploy their superpowers and just extend the gateway and it should feel like writing code anywhere else. And so we’ve designed Zuplo to solve all of those problems. It’s extremely collaborative and one of the most important things we think about is shortening the feedback cycle. So you can deploy a new environment in Zuplo in under 20 seconds, you can have as many environments as you like, speed is everything to us. And then another thing that’s unique about us, you know, when we started this journey, I thought, well, what does the future of a gateway look like? If you’re starting from scratch, how would you design the future gateway? And instantly we knew we had to build something from the ground up because we knew that edge compute is the ideal place to run and host and operate a gateway. And so we built Zuplo from the ground up. We run at the edge, we deploy you to 300 data centers around the world, so we’re the best solution for multi-cloud. We’re the only solution really if you’re doing any edge compute and you want to have a gateway in front of it. So that’s a little intro to Zuplo.
Grow Your APIs With MoesifLearn More
Significant Challenges as a Founder
Matthew: Awesome. Thank you so much. I’m sure many of the listeners will go and check that out, especially if they’re looking for a new API solution or if you’re looking to replace the one that you already have with something just a little more performant and edge-based. Now let’s move on to some founder-specific questions. So you and I have chatted lots over the last few years and there’s been some really, really good insights that you’ve given me.
One thing that I really want to touch on is, and every founder is going to have tons of stories, but maybe you can pick one where you’ve come across a significant challenge as a founder and then you’ve had to solve that challenge for the better, hopefully, or maybe it’s something that you’re still dealing with. But yeah, I would love to hear just a little bit about some of the challenges that you’ve faced as a founder and how you solved those?
Josh: Yeah, I think this is a good one to talk about because I don’t think it’s talked about enough and that is just how hard it is to get started, to get traction going. You only hear really when you look at TechCrunch and YC or wherever you source your information, you only hear about all these rocket ships where it looks like overnight success or lightning in a bottle. And let’s be brutally honest, most businesses are not like that. I had the benefit of working at these large companies before where I started lots of new services and just had access to such incredible distribution that I’m used to getting like 100 customers on day one or if it’s in the consumer space, millions when I was at Facebook. That’s really hard when you don’t have that distribution when you’re not at BigCo. And at first it’s disheartening. I just chatted with a fellow founder, friends with a guy called Vijay Raju who said he went through the same thing where we kind of built the product, we had a hypothesis and we knew we’d build this extremely differentiated experience so people just had to taste it and they would know it was better and they’d come and use it. But actually getting people to just come and try it out and motivating them and understanding how to pitch the value of the product was so hard. It took us nearly a year really before we started to see an uptick and things are going very well now but just having the tenacity to stick with it. And it’s interesting.
I wonder if you think about YC companies, they don’t get a lot of time to prove they’re going to have growth and I don’t want to say you shouldn’t pivot but I would say just be aware there’s lots of startups out there where it is not an overnight success. I think another example that’s not from the dev tool space is Figma which is an enormously successful design tool. I believe their first few years they weren’t doing much at all, they were like in the wilderness for a long time. So having the stomach to sit that out, the tenacity to believe in your vision and keep pushing but I mean maybe this is something we’ll talk about, it’s like finding ways to learn as fast as possible, learn discrete things that are going to improve your game and how you go to customers and shorten that feedback cycle and have a lot of discipline around it. That was how we solved the problem, constantly launching, constantly trying new things. I think the lesson learned for us was we thought we could build a slither of a product, an API management product that would say focus on things like rate limiting but the reality is anyone deploying a gateway is aware that these things can do lots of things and doesn’t want to take the effort of deploying something that only does one thing even if it does it really well.
And so it just took us a while to hit table stakes until we had enough and now I think we’re really quite competitive, enough features, enough policies, enough of a thing to earn a seat at the table when people are sending out RFPs against our competitors like the usual names in the Magic Quadrant. So that was I think the biggest challenge I think of when I look back over the just under two years we’ve been doing this.
Easily Gain API Product InsightsLearn More
Trailblazing vs Chasing the Competition
Matthew: So with that being said, one thing I’d like to hear more on is, okay, so you’ve built a product, you know you have competitors, do you chase what they are doing or do you try and blaze a new trail, not necessarily on their coattails? What’s kind of your thoughts there because obviously if one product, maybe a competitor is getting traction because they have a certain feature, do you think it’s better to kind of replicate that or something similar or do you think it’s better to go, okay, we’re going to completely forget about that, let’s actually do something different and better?
Josh: One of the things, the best product engineering culture I ever worked in was Facebook. It’s just a mind-blowing place and one of the mantras is don’t worry about the competition. And so you would build your product and try and not spend too much time worrying about the competition. You’re focused on delivering user value and that opens your mind to a different approach. For us that was very much the take. You know we sort of started with a fresh sheet of paper, what does API management really mean?
And you know we actually have some different answers to that, you know some stuff in the pipeline we’re working on that is not what the competitors are doing. But our technical approach was vastly different. Having said that, so to me clearly like think out of the box, think different, don’t just build a better mousetrap I think. You know try and come at it with a very fresh set of eyes and not just incremental improvements on the approach. But it’s very important to have an eye on your competitors, understand what they’re doing and honestly there’s lots that can be learned as a startup in terms of how are they selling? How are they positioning in the market? How are they convinced, you know if you’re selling tools that can be sold to enterprise like we are, how do they think about the buyer versus the practitioner and prioritize across that? I’m not saying you would copy them, but you should learn about them and have that and learn about all of those approaches and all of those as inputs to your model for deciding your approach. I mean that’s my take.
Matthew: Okay, awesome. Yeah, no I think that’s a really good way to look at it.
Manage Your APIs With MoesifLearn More
Lessons From Working With a Co-Founder
Matthew: One thing that we chatted about with another guest was about, I know you have a co-founder, one thing that we chatted about was he was a solo founder who said, hey, I really kind of, if I had to do it again, I would try and bring on a co-founder who complimented kind of the gaps that I have. Would love to hear just maybe a little bit about, maybe not necessarily the challenge of finding a co-founder, but how did that kind of come to be and what are some of the lessons you’ve learned running a business as two founders or more as opposed to a solo founder?
Josh: Yeah, so we’re two founders. We’ve been very close friends, like best friends for 10 years and had always talked about doing a business together. So it sort of was easy. We were just chatting to some investors the other day and they remarked like what a strong partnership we had and as we sort of tag teamed the conversation. So I was very lucky in the finding a co-founder. I do think it would be very hard to do this alone. Doing a startup is very much a rollercoaster. If it’s a good day today, brace yourself, it’s going to be a day tomorrow and vice versa. I now know I’m very level as a person. I know if some bad news comes in, I’m like, well, I know something awesome will happen tomorrow. It doesn’t go that way.
So it’s a real rollercoaster. So having someone else to talk to and open your heart to is important. In terms of founder dynamics, I think one thing we’ve found, especially if it’s a close friend like my co-founder Nate is, is quickly breaking the taboo of giving each other feedback and being very direct and honest and doing it quickly and in real time. That’s not an easy thing to do with your, we’d never worked together before, he’s my buddy. And then suddenly we’re on a call, I’m like, look, I don’t think this was the right way to do this. Or I think there’s some learnings here. Run into the spike though. I mean, in my experience, it’s always been easier than I thought it would be. And I think it’s critically important to be transparent. Actually maybe, I don’t know if you’re going to share links with this, but one of our investors posted an article about this topic recently that I think is a good read about how to manage that relationship. So that’s my tip, is be honest, be transparent, give feedback frequently and transparently.
Matthew: Awesome. Yeah, no, that’s good. That kind of supplements some of the stuff that we’ve heard before.
Debug Your APIs With High CardinalityLearn More
Stress Management and Self-Care
Matthew: Now, you did mention that startups are kind of this up and down kind of roller coaster that anyone who’s worked for a startup or worked with a startup sees. It’s even more amplified as a founder, I’m sure. So what kind of stuff can you do from a personal perspective? What kind of stuff can you do to kind of ease that?
You said you’re pretty level-headed, and knowing you for the last few years, I absolutely agree. What are some, like, I mean, for me, I know meditation is one of those things that’s helped me kind of grow and deal with the ups and downs of not just regular life, but being part of a relatively high velocity startup. Do you have some tips there for folks? Maybe some stuff that you’ve tried and tested and liked?
Josh: Well, I wouldn’t say I’ve always been so level. I think that’s definitely something that’s newer. I think that I’ve always improved since doing a startup because it’s been tested. Right. Look, I don’t have any magic pill here, but I think meditation is one. I personally struggle with meditation. I’m sure I can do it. I’ve tried many times, but my head is like a box of frogs. So probably would be a good thing for me to do. What is critical to me, and actually I broke my rib recently, and I’d say five weeks out, is exercise. So, you know, I live in two places right now. I live in this little room here, and then I live in the gym.
That’s my only two places I exist mostly. But the gym is so important to me, working out, getting a variety of exercises. I play tennis and so on. And this isn’t novel. If you look at really smart, big companies, they very much encourage, they push their leadership and talk about how important exercise is for like stress reduction, getting outside of the workspace, doing something different. But overall, I sense my anxiety is higher. So exercise, like do it, find the time for it, really prioritize it. I have blocks in my calendar where I’m going to go and exercise, and they’re pretty much non-negotiable.
Josh: There’s exceptions, but they’re rare, honestly. They’re rare.
Matthew: Do you see exercise as kind, that major kind, of foundation to making sure that you’re successful within the business and personally?
Josh: Yeah. It’s the most important thing for me. It really helps. And I know one thing that we could, we won’t discuss in detail, but you know, you and I are big proponents of plant-based eating as well, which is, so are you still on the? I still am plant-based, I’m still vegan. Yeah, I don’t, I mean, so is Nate actually. So it’s working for us. It’s certainly, I mean, the other, I mean, the other thing that I would say is sleep and focusing on sleep. Actually, this is a good point. I’m glad you made me think of this. I used to work with folks like execs at Microsoft and so on, and they would be sending emails at 2 a.m. and then again at 5 a.m. and I’m like, are you getting three hours sleep? I used to think, cool, some people are wired like that. I think about the world very differently now. I think that’s not healthy and I don’t think it’s productive. I don’t think you’re getting the best out of yourself if you’re only giving yourself three hours sleep on a regular basis. I avoid that. I try and get seven. I usually don’t, I just struggle past the six hour mark, but that is something I’m willing to prioritize.
I’ve also learned, because my next day is just so much less productive and less impactful, I’m less good at decision making, I’m more anxious, all of these things. I even have learned, because I track everything, I have a whoop and an eight-sleep bed and so I very much prioritize it. I’ve learned that if I work too late and I’m very actively working very late at night, it then messes my sleep up. So whenever possible, I try and stop working by like 8.30, which I know a lot of startup founders might think that’s crazy. But I’ve just found the balance for me is that overall I’m going to get more productivity if I find that balance, particularly around sleep and exercise. My overall productivity is going to be way higher. I think even Elon says less than six hours sleep is counterproductive and he’s pretty intense.
Matthew: Yeah. I mean, there’s a book, I forget, his name is Matthew, I can’t remember, but it’s a book called Why We Sleep. It goes into all of this stuff too and there’s another book called Rest. I forget exactly who the author is, but they speak about the exact same thing where productivity is about health and part of that cornerstone of that is making sure that you’re resting and sleeping correctly. When you talk about exercise, it sounds like you talked about playing tennis and stuff like that.
It’s exercise, but it’s also restful in a sense that you’re doing something you enjoy. A lot of people think rest means sitting on the couch, watching Netflix, and that’s what you should be doing with your nights as a founder. But maybe it’s about spending time with your family. It’s about going out and playing tennis or doing stuff with friends. You need a second place, right?
Josh: It’s a place where I’m not thinking. You do. I can’t think about work whilst I’m playing tennis. I just can’t do it.
Matthew: Exactly. That’s a good thing to have occasionally is to be forced to think about something else. The last piece here, we’ve got a couple of minutes left.
Faster API Integration With MoesifLearn More
Tips for Founders
Matthew: You’ve given us a ton of insight and we’ve kind of already covered some of this, but what are the one to two tips that you would give to other founders or aspiring founders, whether it’s block out time on your calendar for exercise or anything like that, what would you say if someone came to you, you’re in an elevator going down, you’ve got a few minutes to chat with them, what kind of advice would you give them?
Josh: Tricky. Look after your health. That’s going to be a superpower for you. I think another one is around how you work a problem and give yourself time. This is, you know, I’ll do a corollary. First of all, decide what your organization really cares about. We are an organization that cares desperately about developer experience. It is the very core of our DNA is like, how good is the developer experience? And so when it comes to designing solutions for that core number one priority, it’s sometimes tempting to say, hey, we want to ship X and we’re going to just move really fast and get something out and we’re just going to work the problem. I don’t always think that’s the right call now. I have found if I give things a little bit of time to marinate, and so when I’m driving around in my car, driving to the gym, that I’m still thinking about work all the time when I’m doing that. If I give myself, even if it’s just a day or two to like sleep on a problem I’m working on versus like rush it out, if it’s an important problem, it’s worth giving yourself that time. It is worth giving you that time. I’m all about pace and execution speed. That is, you know, my ultimate manager is like, we’ve got to go fast. Learned a lot about Facebook, but I have seen this countenance to just forcing a design through a hole. Like this is, I’m going to get this important thing out through a hole.
So give yourself time and honestly the solutions and the realizations that I and Nate and the team come to when we do give ourselves a little bit of soak time on a problem, it really allows us to come up with an optimum design. I keep quoting this, but you know, love Elon or hate him, whatever you think about him, he’s a pretty smart guy. And he said recently about how engineers, if you present them with something, they will like optimize that thing and not question its existence. You know, it’s just the way we’re designed to think is we don’t challenge the process enough.
The best design for these things, often you’re questioning, why do we even need this thing and can we remove it? And it takes time to really swim in the waters of what a solution looks like and what we end up coming up with when we do that is so much more elegant. The best thing about it is when someone doesn’t notice the design work that’s gone into it, like, you know, they’re like, oh, well, that’s obvious. That’s obvious how this should work. And you’re like, you have no idea how not obvious that particular solution is, but we marinated on it. We thought on it and we swam on it and yeah, we came out with what we think is a great design.
Matthew: Awesome. Yeah, that’s, that is honestly some really great feedback, I think, especially for folks that are kind of in the weeds and want to push stuff out quick. It’s good to be able to sit back, make, like you said, let things marinate and get a little closer to perfection versus, you know, decide what you’re going to do that on.
Josh: Don’t do it on everything. Don’t do it on your, which insurance company you’re going to use or, you know, like garbage things really like what is your core thing? That’s the one that’s, that’s the core sort of brand value or whatever it is you want to say. That’s probably the thing where it’s worth giving yourself some marination, right? So if it’s important enough to think about in a really deep level, give yourself the time to make sure that you’ve, you know, seen it more completely.
Matthew: Awesome. I think that’s some great advice. And with that, we’re going to sign off for today. Josh, thanks so much for joining. If folks want to get a hold of you, see what you’re up to, where’s the best place for them to find you?
Matthew: Awesome. Thanks so much for joining and we’ll chat again soon.
Josh: Thanks, man.