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What was the inspiration behind starting Airplane?

Ravi Parikh

Co-founder & CEO at Airplane

I co-founded Heap in 2013. I'm an engineer by background, so I spent the first couple years of Heap building out the product. Heap is an analytics product—web analytics and mobile analytics. As we scaled up the company, I actually mostly focused on go-to-market. I built our sales team, customer success, marketing, solutions, and engineering teams for most of my time at Heap.

There are lots of things I found that happen in the course of serving a customer that are very complicated to resolve. 

For example, a customer might implement the Heap API wrong, and then there's a bunch of messed up data in their account. Someone on our end would have to go in and delete all that data or run some script that fixes things. These kinds of one-off manual operations to serve our customers would come up a lot. 

Usually, in such cases, what would end up happening is that they would reach out to our support or success team. Then, someone from there would have to escalate to engineering. 

Someone from engineering would have to get involved, run some script, and then supervise that script for the next two hours—because it's very data-intensive—and then wait for that to complete. 

This interrupt-heavy pattern of serving customers was increasingly common as we grew. 

We had various attempts to try and build better internal tooling. We built this Slack bot that you could use to run some basic commands, but these kinds of systems were always breaking and never were a complete solution. There was also a long tail of one-off scripts that was being used to solve problems. That was the status quo at Heap.

We actually bought Retool at one point, but Retool was mostly not used to solve those problems. We weren’t able to use it for solving these more script-heavy, workflow-heavy, problems because it was just a UI builder.

I left Heap in 2020 when the company was about 200 people, and I spent some time thinking about what I wanted to do next. I was brainstorming ideas with a friend of mine, Josh, who's now my co-founder at Airplane. 

Josh’s journey was similar to mine. He was CTO of a company called Benchling, which is a life sciences SaaS company. We realized we had the same set of problems, and Benchling also had found itself dealing with all of these kinds of internal one-off operations that would hit the engineering team.

The initial insight was, “There's a lot of engineering time that goes into being interrupted by other teams to solve one-off issues or building platforms to help teams solve their own issues, i.e. internal tools. The patterns that come up over and over again across all these companies look similar.”

We thought we could build a platform or framework to allow you to build a lot of this stuff a lot more quickly.

The initial version of Airplane was really, really simple. Basically, we’d let you take a script—like a Python script that does some internal operation—and deploy it to our platform. We’d handle putting a UI in front of it, role-based permissions, auditing, and notifications.

These were really basic considerations that were part of why it was hard to take engineering-only operations and share them with non-engineers within Heap and Benchling. That was the initial idea—just script to app. That's what we launched with in mid-2021, and really mostly what the product was for nearly a year after that. Now, we've built out a lot more additional features to help build internal tools, though it took us a while to get there.

Find this answer in Ravi Parikh, CEO of Airplane, on building an end-to-end internal tools platform
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