About this episode

My guess this week is Borya Shakhnovich, co-founder and CEO of airSlate. AirSlate is a no-code business automation platform. The term ‘no-code’ is incredibly popular right now, and to be honest, I think it is completely misunderstood. I mean there is an actual startup out there that has ads speaking about being able to build another Airbnb platform using no-code. It only takes some preliminary research to know that claim is a bit of an overstatement. Well in Borya’s episode, we discuss what no-code is; what are the limitations and even what economic shifts can no code platform like airSlate bring to the world.

In this episode, you'll hear:

  • He shares how his lifelong desire to work on something that had a real impact in the world led him to founding airSlate.
  • He shares how important marketing is for a company, as it isn’t true that ‘if you build it they will come’. With this he combined his first company’s marketing platform with pdfFiller’s product. With this they grew the business to 80 million users, with 30 million monthly users and bootstrapped it to 18 million and then got 40 million in Series A investment.
  • airSlate was launched in 2020 at the start of the pandemic under the same company as pdfFiller. Borya wanted to cut the costs of API and management for small businesses without making them write code.
  • airSlate creates hundreds of different bots that can do an array of possibilities to cut down on time and money without writing a single line of code.
  • He shares how he believes technology that creates an economy upon its platform always wins.

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Episode transcript

Borya Shakhnovich: Hi. I'm Borya Shakhnovich, CEO of airSlate, and this is MY startup story.

  • Every wildfire began with a spark. Every superhero has an origin story. And every single startup has a moment that they point to as their beginning. And every founder has a purpose that drove them in the midst of all obstacles. THAT is The Startup Story. *


James McKinney: Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of The Startup Story. It's been a little while since I've mentioned this but I want to remind you that you can advertise your business or brand on The Startup Story for absolutely free. Yes, you heard that correctly. You can promote your social media account, your URL, your brand to my audience of 85,000 entrepreneurs and wantrepreneurs for completely free. All you have to do is leave a written review on Apple Podcast and when you do, make sure to plug your brand and include a call to action for my audience.

In fact, here's a great example of one by Stephanie Scheller and it was posted just last week. She gave the show five stars and wrote: "Holy amaze-balls! This was just what I needed today. Sometimes it's so easy to feel alone as a founder of a company redefining the small business development event industry, and I'm constantly feeling up against events that are run more for profit than they are to support the business owners that attend. These events often have bigger funding in their pockets, and well it's tough sometimes. When I was reading Phil Knight's book Shoe Dog a few years ago I got a glimpse of how I'm not alone in these challenges. And I felt the same inspiration listening to this podcast. I absolutely love this podcast. I actually listen to a lot of podcasts but don't subscribe to many, but I am definitely subscribing to The Startup Story and you should too."

Wow, thank you so much Stephanie for this incredible review. The only thing I would have added to the review is your URL so people can learn more about what it is you're doing. Fortunately for you, I'm a LinkedIn ninja and found your URL. So for all those listening, show fellow entrepreneur some love and visit growdisrupt.com. So again, if you want this free plug then just visit Apple Podcast and leave a written review. And one last thing before we jump into this week's episode. Later this month we will be featuring The Startup Story of Clay Alexander, the founder of Ember. And to hype up the release of his episode this month, Ember is giving away three sets of their Ember Mug 2. For those that are not aware of Ember, Ember is the very first temperature regulating coffee mug, so your coffee hits the perfect temp and holds the perfect temp until the very last sip. You can enter to receive one at thestartupstory.co/ember. And of course, we will include a link in the show notes for easy access. You do need to enter before July 9th, so make sure to visit thestartupstory.co/ember as soon as possible. Now let's jump in to this week's episode.

My guest this week is Borya Shakhnovich, co founder and CEO of airSlate. AirSlate is a no-code business automation platform, and the term no-code is incredibly popular now, and to be quite honest I think it's completely misunderstand. There's an actual startup out there that has ads speaking about being able to build another Airbnb platform using no-code. It only takes some preliminary research to know that claim is a bit of an overstatement. Well, in Borya's episode we discuss what no-code is, what are its limitations, and even what economic shifts can no-code platforms like airSlate bring to the world. I'm excited to bring you this episode because of the topic, but also because of Borya's origin story. And if you've been around The Startup Story for any length of time then you might have picked up on a few themes that I get kind of geeked out about. The first in incredibly successful female founders like Christina Stembel. The second is talking to ridiculously smart individuals and I love a great immigrant story. Well, Borya checks two of those three boxes. In fact, Borya was not only born in Soviet Russia but because of his dad's profession they were forced to live in a villager community type setting where everyone of that profession was forced to live. Okay, I'm going to step aside and let Borya tell you his story. Like I said, there are certain themes that just get me pretty hyped up, but all stories are best told by those who live them.


Borya Shakhnovich: I was not surrounded by entrepreneurs and I grew up in my very early childhood years in Soviet Russia. My father is a scientist, very accomplished scientist, and he was a scientist in Russia. In Russia, there were these little they were called Akademgorodok, they were scientific little towns basically where they put all of their scientists together. I lived in a very small city like that. It was about 20,000 people just south of Moscow, but like two hours south of Moscow. My childhood was all about academics. It was all about me being the first in class and doing math, English, and a bunch of other things like that. Obviously being in Soviet Russia, it had nothing to do with entrepreneurship because there was no entrepreneurship in Soviet Russia, because everything was state controlled, and everything was given to you.

But I was always very entrepreneurial in a different way. So there's a famous story about me being four years old and we lived in a very big building. It was a very tall building, and at the bottom of the building - it was like a nine story building - at the bottom of the building there was a little store where they used to sell stuff. And so my mother, you have to understand four year olds in Russia were like adults, so my mother gave me a ruble and she said, "Go down and buy some bread." So I went downstairs and I went to the store and I asked for some bread. They said, "Well we ran out of bread." And so I remember that when we were walking around, on the other side of town there was another store. So I went to the other side of town, bought myself a piece of bread and chocolate for my trouble, and then went back.

Obviously, this took significantly more time than expected by my mother, and so my mother having sent out a four year old to go get bread, who has now disappeared for two hours, you know thought the worst that I was gone completely. And so I come back and I'm like, "Hey listen," she's like, "What happened? Where did you go?" And I'm like, "Well you told me to get bread so I went to go get bread." She said, "Okay." Well here's the bread, here's the change. I must have had chocolate all over myself and she's like, "Well what happened to the rest of the money?" And I'm like, "I don't know that's all the money that they gave me." I wasn't a very honest four year old. So she's like, "Really? I'm going to go talk to that sales woman because basically that's not a nice thing to do to four year olds, to give them less money than they're owed." I'm like, "No, no, no, wait, no, I actually bought myself a chocolate."

So that trick worked. So I was always sort of looking for other ways to solve problems I would say, right? Ever since I was very, very young. Then I moved to America. My dad got a job as a post doc at Harvard, and I moved to Boston with my family when I was 11 years old. I was very lost in a lot of ways because the Russian academic system and school system was much more rigorous in fourth grade than the American one, and I was the best in my class. So I was really bored in school in America. I was very sort of lost because the value system of academic excellence did not translate for me in America. So I basically had a lost like five years. I don't really remember what happened there, from the time when I was in fourth grade to the time when I was in ninth grade.

By the time that I was in ninth grade I forgot how to learn and how to study. Then I started doing a bunch of other stuff. I was doing debate club and I was doing science, and I was finding other things to do other than school. I think that was always part of who I was in the sense that I was always looking for things that had impact. If I didn't understand why people asked me to do things, and I didn't understand what the impact of that was, then my default is that I don't actually do it at all. I sort of refuse to do that, and then I find something else for myself to do. So I was always participating in things which I felt were really interesting. Like for example I was doing a science fair and I came up with an idea about how to commercialize rice development. The part that was really interesting to me was the commercialization part of it, not the rice development, not the rice growing. Then in high school I also organized my own book clubs, and then charged a little bit of money for it. Actually when I just came to this country, I wanted to get my own money. So I started delivering papers, and I started doing lawn work and a bunch of other things like that. That freedom part of it was always part of my story.

So that freedom made me really a bad student, because I focused on things that were impactful to me but not really impactful to my teachers, and my teachers thought that was not something that they would give me A's for. I was actually turned out to be not a very good student in high school, and I almost sort of failed out of high school. I had a 2.0 GPA. But I did get into University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.


James McKinney: Well before we get to your college years, there's a couple things I want to kind of peel back and understand a bit more. One, what grade where you when you did this presentation on the commercialization of rice development? Because I automatically thought we were talking college years when you went to that story, but then you said oh and in high school. How old were you during that time?


Borya Shakhnovich: I think I was maybe 15 or 16, something like that.


James McKinney: That is remarkable. Absolutely remarkable. But again, let's go back to your time in Russia. Again, you're surrounded by academics. You're in this centralized city that is full of academics, because that's how you said Russia populated these areas based on that type of discipline. So I would assume in that era your future was going to be academics, whether it be professor or science, whatever the case may be. So now you get to the US and we obviously do not structure our living environment accordingly. You're in public school and so you're seeing lots of different opportunities. Do you remember thinking wait a second, I don't have to be in academia? And if so do you remember thinking what was your future at that point? When you come to the end of high school, what did you think you wanted to do with your life?


Borya Shakhnovich: Well that was the problem was that the academia was the only path forward for me, ever since I was very, very young. I think academic excellence was the only path forward for me. But the problem was that I didn't have academic excellence by the time that I graduated high school. I was a very bad student. My teachers all said that he's smart but he doesn't work hard, essentially that was the adage that they told my parents at least. I didn't really know what I was going to do after high school. I still by inertia I think did academics. So I actually continued in college in physics and math, and computer science and biology. I still thought that some rigorous disciplines were something that I have to do, and I think that entrepreneurship never entered into my mind as an option because there was nobody in my immediate vicinity that had their own business, ran their own business, dealt with money, sold anything, any of that was very, very foreign to me. Because I was not a professional athlete clearly, it was either academics or I didn't know what happened.


James McKinney: So then again, following your trek you go into academia, you become an associate professor. Very much a career trajectory of academia. At what point, what happens in your life where that shifts to where now you are looking at the potential of launching your own business?


Borya Shakhnovich: Yeah. I mean one of the interesting things, I'll just take a little step back, maybe you'll use it later in your podcast. My road to academia was also a non standard one because I was not a very good student in college. And at the end of college I didn't even graduate at all, because basically in college what I did was I took all the classes that were interesting to me, and usually they were classes like quantum mechanics, and I didn't do any prerequisites to that. So my grades were very poor, but I did learn a lot about in general how things worked. I have a very translational mind in the sense that I always think about well if it works like this in physics, maybe it'll work like this in biology, and maybe what does that mean for computer science, that kind of stuff.

So I applied to a couple of graduate schools because my mother said that it was either that or the army. So I applied, without any notion of actually being able to get into graduate schools, but one of the first graduate schools in bioinformatics actually which was the application of computer science through biological systems, that was at the dawn of digitization of biology. Because prior to 2000 biology was very analog. They looked at like little pictures and tried to figure out how should it work. The beginning of 2000s they had robots that started doing biology. And so the human genome project was one example of that. That was the first time that robots were used at scale in order to digitize a piece of our biology, which was the DNA. Basically what used to be done by humans was now done by robots and digitized. And so now you have massive amounts of data, and the majority of that data is obviously not human readable, because you have 3 billion base pairs in the DNA and you have to figure out how to actually decode that, where the gene starts, where the gene ends, all kinds of stuff like that. So there's this budding science of bioinformatics which basically applies statistical methods that were before used in computer science, to biological data. So try to figure out what the genes do, how they work, all sorts of different stuff from this newfound data about biology.

What's interesting about that, looking back many, many years before is that this translation of computer science into biology is actually very similar to the translation of computer science and math into society, into human society. A lot of my insights into how search engines work and how internet works came from my work later about biological systems. Because it turns out that the algorithms that we use in order to decode what humans want to do are very similar to the algorithms that we use in order to decode what biology wants to do. It's just a different piece of data. So that's sort of an aside.


James McKinney: Real quick, I don't want to skip over that aside. Why do you think there's that similarity? In my mind when I thought you were speaking, I thought well yeah it makes sense because we are writing the code and so therefore we're going to write it in a way that makes sense to us because of how we operate. Is that the right correlation or am I jumping?


James McKinney: Okay, hold on. Before Borya answers that question I have a question for you: when I say the phrase content marketing what comes to mind? Maybe you hunch your shoulders forward a little bit out of frustration because it feels like a constant chore that never delivers results. Or maybe your internal temperature rises because you've created so much content, but it has never driven the business success that you thought it would. Either way, I am fairly confident that the thought of content marketing is viewed more with disdain than it is excitement. So with that in mind, wouldn't it be helpful to learn proven tactics directly from founders that have executed well in this area? Even more so, would having their tactics delivered to you every quarter be helpful to you as you build your business? That is the exact experience and knowledge sharing that is delivered to you each quarter when you become a Grindology member.

Grindology is an entrepreneurial subscription that ships every quarter full of resources to help fuel your grind and your hustle. Now you're probably asking what's included in your Grindology shipment. Well first and foremost, every single Grindology shipment will include a copy of the Grindology tactical manual. Every single issue of Grindology will be chock full of real tactics from real business builders, not journalists. Within the pages of the Grindology tactical manual we will be delivering to you tactics and strategies you can integrate into your business immediately. How great would it be to receive proven tactics on how to leverage existing content that you've created to drive new business and deliver new revenue? Or how about hearing operational tactics used by a founder that saw nearly 400% growth in one year that he directly attributes to his content marketing efforts? Or even better yet, how about hearing tactics from a founder that actually stopped creating curated content and started documenting everything, and that saved their business in 2020? Tell me those founder direct tactics wouldn't be helpful? Well those are the exact types of tactics that will be found in each issue of Grindology. Like I said, real tactics from real business builders.

Our Q2 issue is now available and you can access it at grindology.com. Everything about Grindology is about helping to fuel your grind and your entrepreneurial journey. So visit gridnology.com to learn more. And of course we'll include a link to grindology.com within our show notes for easy access. Now let's jump back into our episode with Borya, and in fact let me tee up that question one more time.


James McKinney: Why do you think there is that similarity? I mean in my mind, when I thought you were speaking I thought well yeah it makes sense because we are writing the code, and so therefore we're going to write it in a way that makes sense to us because of how we operate. Is that the right correlation or am I jumping?


Borya Shakhnovich: No, I think the reason why that is, is because basically we see the final result of something that has taken a very long time to grow. In the case, so we're seeing the result of evolution. We're seeing the result of evolution in both cases. Both of the cases of the internet and the societal interaction in internet, and in the case of humans. We don't know what happened beforehand, and so what we're really trying to do is we're trying to identify the rule set by which the system grows, and that's the similarity between the internet and biology. In that there's this complex system, and there's these rules that we don't know that allows it to grow into a state that we can observe, but what are these rules that allow it to grow into the state that it observes? It's exactly the same thing in biology. So like there's these hidden rules that create humans as we are now and we see the final result, but in order to understand the final result we need to understand the journey.

The same thing with search engines. It's basically like you see a lot of people that are publishing all of these different articles and you have to figure out which of these articles is relevant to your search. But you have to know how that article came into being. And so the early search algorithms were based around how many people noted that article, how many people put a back link into that article, how many articles are similar to that article. It implicitly looked at the evolution of that article. And as the internet evolves, there are new rules that define what's' more relevant. Twitter for example is an example of that. Now Twitter is in search engines. Why? Because Twitter is a new rule in order for people to exchange information, and the way that Twitter evolves is a little bit different. So a little bit different algorithms identify these new rules.


James McKinney: Fascinating. Absolutely fascinating. So how does, again you're in this space, you're in that is time, you're going to grad school now. As you start seeing how all of this is taking shape, does that become an entrepreneurial influence for you? Are you wanting to play in this new frontier? Because again that's not where airSlate is at now. It's different, we're not talking robotics. We are talking intelligence and no-code, and we'll get into that in a second. But what is that draw outside of academia for you?


Borya Shakhnovich: Yeah. I know I think that what I was, just like the foundation story, I was mostly really interested in trying to apply translation-ally the way that I think the world works to very, very large problems, what I thought were very large problems. In the beginning, bioinformatics was that for me. It was okay, so I learned something in computer science and now there's this very large problem that nobody has ever thought about before, which is digitization of biology. Now I want to be able to actually decode that. The exciting part of it for me was that there was nobody that was trying to do these kinds of things. It was the innovation part of it. And then as it evolved and there were more established ways of doing things, I sort of became bored with that. I'm like well what's the really big problem that I can solve that's outside of that, of what I'm doing now?

The other part of it, which I think is really important for my entrepreneurial journey, is the freedom. I want to be able to see the problem and then solve the problem. I don't like when somebody else sets the problem for me. Just like in fourth grade when my teachers were like, "This is the problem," yeah but why is this problem important? And they're like, "Well, that's because we told you to do it." And I'm like, "Yeah, that's probably not a good reason. That's probably why it's important for you. I'm not sure that's why it's important for me." So I think that I've always had that. I want to be able to understand the importance of the problem I'm trying to solve, and then if I do understand the importance then I have unbounded energy in order to actually go after it. If I don't, then I just waiver and I procrastinate, and I'm like I don't know. I'm not a very disciplined person in that way.

I think that also helps me as well. Richard Feynman who I really admire, he's a great physicist, he wrote a lot of physics books, but he wrote a lot of literature as well, so Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! If your audience hasn't read him, he was just a brilliant guy. He was a Nobel Prize Laureate for, I'm going to mess this up, for quantum field theory I think. I think he basically said that the reason why I'm successful is because I'm really lazy. Because I always look for the easy solutions and I never want to work hard enough in order to do the really difficult things. Of course the irony of it is that quantum field theory is probably one of the most difficult things that you can imagine for a human to understand, but nonetheless I think he had something there in that people who look for simple solutions and easy things are often the ones that find innovation. They're often ones that do not accept the status quo as what has to happen, but really look for alternatives and come up with things which are completely outside of the box.


James McKinney: I love that. What was your very first entrepreneurial venture?


Borya Shakhnovich: Outside of little small things like making kids away camps, one of my first ones that I remember is when I was in college I think, I always think what's the leverage, what's my competitive advantage. I'm like well my dad's a physicist and I know a lot of other professors, that will be my competitive advantage. I'm like well how do I leverage that? Well, let's see if I can get a lot of my dad's friends to go and teach a bunch of my friends about science. So I created this away camp where I invited a bunch of professors to come and teach a bunch of my friends that I took money from. But like business. I had to get the profs there, and teach a bunch about science. That was probably one of my first ones that I remember really.

But seriously, so after I was a professor of bioinformatics I did a stint at Harvard, and then I left Harvard. Again I'm like what's my competitive advantage? Well, I know a lot about this academia thing. One of the biggest problems that really annoyed me about academia was the economics inside of academia. So the way that academia works is that you raise money from the government, you propose a research plan. You go through with that research plan and then the results of that research plan you publish. Oftentimes, in order to get the next grant you have to show success in the previous grant. It's reasonable. The only problem with this is that this whole cycle takes 10 years, and essentially it takes a year and a half to propose a project, it takes half a year in order to approve it. Then it takes about eight years in order to do the actual research, and then it takes years and years to publish it. In an economy which works on a 10 year cycle is extremely inefficient. You essentially can't make a decision based on any amount of justifiable data that happened historically, because that history is way, way in the future essentially.

So when somebody applies for a grant they're like well, what basis do I have because that guy doesn't have any data from his previous grant. What basis do I have for making this decision? Unfortunately, a lot of what annoyed me about academia is the basis was based on who your faculty advisors were. So whenever you have very inefficient economic systems, what happens with these inefficient economic systems is corruption. And that's what happened in Soviet Russia, that's what happened in Communist China, a bunch of different things like that. And the reason why that corruption happens is because you don't have enough data in order to make a purchasing decision. Because everything costs the same, and everything is the same quality. Things stop making sense from a rational perspective when you're trying to buy stuff.

So then it has to do with well who made it, do I know the guy that made it, and is that guy a good guy or a bad guy? Who is the better teacher? I can't go and talk to a bunch of other people or pay them more money, pay the teacher more money. So I have to go talk to my friends and who does that guy know, and et cetera. Same thing with cars, like I can't pay more to buy a better car because no such thing exists. So I have to go and I have to talk to somebody to give me the car, a better car. The same thing in academia in the sense that a lot of these decisions were made based on who does that guy know and ho accomplished is his advisor, and what is his pedigree, and a bunch of other things like that. That really annoyed me.

So I'm like well what I'm going to do is I'm going to create a Twitter like thing and social interactions, for academia. And I made all of the rookie entrepreneur mistakes. Like great idea, change the world, awful business, no customers. The people who I'm trying to sell this to actually don't want it because they like the system that they live in. so I have to reeducate them about the bright future of the world. But you know, as you can see in the entrepreneurial society that America is, oftentimes ideas if nothing else can garner a lot of attention from investors. I raised about $1.5 million based on the idea of changing the world of academia. That's when I figured out how to pitch and how to raise money, although that was the prior time to when I actually figured out how to run a business unfortunately. So that business venture, from an economic perspective, didn't actually go anywhere. But that was my first foray into entrepreneurship.


James McKinney: What year was that?


Borya Shakhnovich: That was 2008 or 2009, something like that.


James McKinney: 2008 or 2009, we'll say Twitter for academia, Facebook was expanding its campus reach. Social media was super hot, mainly super hot because of Facebook. So it was definitely a prime time for you to be trying to grow something like this. That's where the venture capital was fairly simple to acquire. But that was not a precursor to airSlate though, correct?


Borya Shakhnovich: Well, in a very, very roundabout way it actually was. Because basically I think a lot of entrepreneurs that I come across now, and I mentor a lot of entrepreneurs myself and I invest in some startups as well, I think the most common mistake that I hear entrepreneurs make is that if you build it they will come.


James McKinney: Oh yeah.


Borya Shakhnovich: Basically whenever the entrepreneur comes and they're like, "Hey, I have this great idea." I'm like, "Okay, tell me this idea." They're like, "I have this product and it's going to be great because of this, this, and this." And I'm like, "Okay, so how are you going to get customers?" "Well, I just told you, I've been telling you for the last half an hour, I built this product and it's really, really great."


James McKinney: People just want it! They're just going to come to me!


Borya Shakhnovich: Exactly, people will just want it. I'm like okay, yeah. How much money do you need? He's like, "Well, I need this much money. $1 million." I'm like what are you going to spend it on? "I'm going to spend it on building the product." And then? "And then everything, you know? And then happiness, and then big business." Honestly, I think the reason why that is, is because… and this is don't take this as an offense, but I think journalists and the media focus a lot on product superiority and not business superiority. And I think that great businesses, underneath the product, there is business excellence. There's execution excellence. There's excellence in the way that people go out and acquire customers, in the way that they monetize these customers in the way that they make these customers happy in a lot of ways. I think that the story of the internet is actually the story of the democratization of the distribution of product, rather than the story of creation of new product.


James McKinney: I would actually interject real quick, no offense taken because I say it all the time, I'm not a journalist I'm an entrepreneur. There is no journalism background. I'm a serial entrepreneur with numerous failures. And so one of the reasons I even started The Startup Story was because too many people got caught up in the headlines of entrepreneurship, in that it is a "if you build it, they will come." Everything needs to happen within an 18 month cycle or you're not a success. Everything speaks to the outcome. They talk about, you know the headlines at the time three years ago when I was developing this, the headlines were all about the raise. We were creating these heroic banners over how much capital was raised, and yet the business was not profitable. Foursquare had raised, at the time, $175 million but kept losing money and didn't even have a roadmap to monetization. But no one was talking about that, they were just talking about Foursquare raises another $40 million.

It's like but that's not the objective. You don't build a business to raise money, so people just kept talking about the outcomes of it and not about the actual systems and processes to build a successful business or brand, to your point asking the question well how are you going to acquire your first 100, your first 1,000 customers. Most people have no idea because that's not what they see. They think I'll just go to Y Combinator and Y Combinator is going to distribute my solution out to their network of people.

There are so many, and again I'm going to get off my soap box here, there are so many bad narratives of entrepreneurship that come out of the media headlines, which is why we have The Startup Story to unpack the real journey and the real stories to how people develop the businesses and brands they have, like yourself. So when you're counseling these startups, I am right there with you. Too many people have misconceived ideas on what it takes to build a business, and really what the objective is because they're chasing the headlines. Well my objective is, again, going to raise $2 million. Well, Christina Stembel of Farmgirl Flowers has almost $100 million business and not a single investor, because investors told her she wasn't going to be able to do it. She said screw it, I'm doing it, and she bootstrapped the whole way to almost $100 million. It's amazing when the people who actually want to build a business actually build a business, not just build a fundraising platform.


Borya Shakhnovich: Yeah, I totally agree with that. I think that is spot on. I've been on that soap box myself for a very long time. I think in part that was actually inspired by my story, because that was the first business. And the first business was like I built this product, and then after I built the product, before I talked to any customers, I'm like oh I built a product but nobody comes. And so I'm sitting there with this product, and I'm like nobody told me I had to solve the problem of people coming. Why wasn't this in the handbook? So yeah, and that's the problem that I set out to solve in my previous startup which was called "I Am Scientist." So I'm like, I'm almost out of money, I built this product. I'm like how am I going to get people to actually do this? I'm like okay, there's this internet thing and I know a little bit about it, and from my work as an academic and from my research, I'm like I know how these search engines actually work. So I built a marketing platform that brought a lot of people to try this new product, like tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands. I did this through SEO, SEM, digital marketing, a bunch of other things like that.

So I had a bunch of people and it didn't make it a better business because I still couldn't monetize them, but I learned how to bring people to try product. In my next venture, that actually turned out to be the competitive advantage and the key to success.


James McKinney: What was the next venture?


Borya Shakhnovich: So one of my first investors into I Am Scientist was Vadim, and Vadim is a serial entrepreneur. He came to this country in 1980 and he built his first business in 1984 to 1990, sold it to SPSS. It was an early business, then retired for a while. So he was running this lifestyle business called PDF Filler which was PDF editing solution that was one of the first ones to work on the cloud, in the browser, before that was a thing. He had the opposite problem. He had the product but he didn't have the marketing in order to bring people in. Although the business was doing pretty well, but he was just one person in a basement, doing stuff kind of thing. I was shutting down my business I Am Scientist, and I came to Vadim who was by that time more than just an investor, he was a friend. We used to hang out, drink wine, and you know like hang basically. And I'm like, "Listen, I have this marketing platform. I can give it to you, and maybe you know what to do with it." He's like, "Well, I wouldn't know how to run it. Why don't you come and help me?" So we took this product, PDF Filler, and we took this marketing platform which I built for I Am Scientist, and we married the two together, and within six months the business grew by 2X, and within the first year we grew by 3X, and then it was exponential from there.


James McKinney: That's incredible. And so that was PDF Filler, and is that still in existence?


Borya Shakhnovich: Yep. The largest, most powerful PDF editing solution. It has close to 80 million users and we see 30 million unique visitors to the websites on a monthly basis. We have hundreds of thousands, approaching 1 million, paying customers.


James McKinney: So then why would you… if you already have this successful business going, why would you tackle a secondary startup?


Borya Shakhnovich: Yeah. In order to answer that question, you have to go back about how that actually happened. So we bootstrapped PDF Filler to about $16 million, and then people, venture capitalists came and they're like, "Take our money. We have a lot of it lying around, we don't know what to do with it." And I'm like I don't know, I'm not sure whether we really want to take money or not. So we decided that we were going to go really big, and that we were going to build a $1 billion revenue company. And without help and without extra capital, we probably wouldn't be able to do it as fast certainly. Without the expertise and all sorts of different stuff, and so we took $40 million Series A, which was a big Series A. but it was a big business by then. It was growing by 50% year over year, continued to grow and profitable.

Then I sort of made the same mistake that I made in my first business, and I'm like wow $40 million, that's more money than I've ever seen. Because we always built the business in order to grow, so we never actually had any profits. We reinvested that all in the business. I'm like wow, that's a lot of money. I can go for years and years and years on this, you know? And so long story about how that happened, but we bought this business called Sign Now, which was an e-signature solution. The idea behind that business was that we would take those customers and we would transfer them onto PDF Filler, because PDF Filler had its own signature capabilities.

But the thing is that we didn't realize what e-signature really was, and what e-signature really was, was workflow automation. It was basically rebranded workflow automation. It was basically the ability to, because what we thought it was, okay so you take a PDF document, you slap a couple of fields onto it, and then you sign it or you send it out to somebody to sign. But it actually wasn't that at all. It was basically had to do with taking the data out of somewhere, putting it onto that actual document, making the document interactive, sending it out for signature, having somebody sign it, and then automatically sending it out to somebody else for signature, having that person sign it, and then bringing it back somewhere. That's what e-signature really was, it was the automation of business processes, but it was rebranded very cleverly into e-signature.

So we're like whoa, that's really interesting, that's a really big thing to tackle. And we thought well, the e-signature businesses that were built legacy, including Sing Now and others, can't handle the full spectrum of what needs to be done because every business is separate. So if you look under the covers about how people use e-signature, especially in enterprises and businesses, the way they use it is through the API. What they do is they program this little PDF editor essentially to do what they need to do. Take the data from one place, put it onto the document, send it out, then expire it or authenticate users or whatever, that kind of stuff. We're like huh, that's a really interesting opportunity because you're spending $30,-50,000 on this API development. Then you're spending tens of thousands of dollars on maintenance as well, and that's completely inaccessible to SME, Teams, et cetera. Your ASP, your average sales price, is $100,000 for something like that and a small business just can't afford that. We're like we can figure out a different way in order for people to be able to do all of that stuff, but without writing any code. That was the genesis of airSlate.


James McKinney: Okay. Now we're getting to airSlate. Before we, because I have questions following that, but before we go any further can you unpack for my audience that is hearing of airSlate for the first time what airSlate is?


Borya Shakhnovich: Yeah. AirSlate is no-code business automation. AirSlate basically has two parts. One is the creation of what my user sees. So it could be a PDF document, it could be a html form. You could think about it as like web flow is a no-code creation of a webpage. It's basically the same thing. It's no-code creation of a user interface. Then the other part of it is the bot part of it. It's basically these Zapier like bots or these RPA like bots, and what they do is they create all of the logic. Basically they say take the data out of a particular system of record, or a Google spreadsheet, or it could be something else. Put it onto this presentation layout I just built and send it out to somebody. Then when it comes back, take this data and put it back onto the spreadsheet, or create a Salesforce record of it. So you have these hundreds of different bots that can manipulate and create these workflows in an infinite array of possibilities without writing a single line of code.


James McKinney: All right. So now we're talking no-code, and no-code is such a hot buzz word right now. I think no-code, much like entrepreneurship, is completely misunderstood especially because there's so many headline catching ads out there that you see on Instagram or Facebook, where "I built an Airbnb leveraging no-code." And so can you unpack, before we really get into the weeds of what makes airSlate so great, can you unpack really what is no-code and what are some of the misconceptions that people have of no-code?


Borya Shakhnovich: Yeah. No-code is the ability to create certain repeatable functions without actually writing anything in the terminal. So for example, you can have no-code html creation. Basically you say, "This is what I want my html page to look like," and then a machine writes the html code for you, but at the end you get what you asked for. Or it could be something like I want to be able, the computer to take this data from that is place and put it onto a different place. So you have an interface that says I want to take the data from a Google spreadsheet, I want to put it onto a Gmail account or something like that. So there's a little machine that says take the data from here, take the data from here. The important part of no-code is the configuration of that machine, whereas before you needed to type something. Now you can use the interface of the browser in order to tell the machine what to do. That's no- code.


James McKinney: Are there any limitations to no-code? Can someone truly, per these ads, create an Airbnb out of no-code?


Borya Shakhnovich: I think the short answer of that is no. The longer answer to that is you can probably do something that approximates something like an Airbnb using a combination of these no-code automation tools. The problem is that it is never going to actually work right because the tools that are available to you as a no-code developer are not really meant to solve that particular problem. They're not meant to create product. They're meant to create either interfaces or in some cases automations, and combine these automations together. Creating a product, especially a software product, has a completely different set logic layer inside of it which is inaccessible to no- code tools as I understand them now.


James McKinney: So can you unpack for us a great use case for the airSlate solution?


Borya Shakhnovich: Sure, absolutely. There are myriad and myriad of great use cases, but for example let's say that I want to be able to do customer onboarding. I have a CRM system which is basically a database. That database can be either in Salesforce or it could be in a Google spreadsheet. A lot of our customers actually use Google spreadsheets as their system of record because it's really easy. Then what I want to do is I want to finalize that customer onboarding. I want to be able to send them a document for example that they fill out, and then I want to capture that information, and then bring it back to my Google spreadsheet. That's really easy to do within airSlate. It basically takes maybe 30 seconds to set up. You set up your document, you attach a bot to that document that takes the data from a Google spreadsheet, puts the data onto that document, sends it out to the customer. That customer information is taken from the Google spreadsheet. Once your customer actually completes that document, another bot takes the data and then puts it back onto the system of record.

Or for example if you have a little bit more complicated flow, you can say okay I want to send out a work order. So you take the same idea. Take the data out of a system of record, create the document dynamically where all of that work order is created. Send it out to the customer. The customer fills it out, signs it, brings it back. You can countersign it and then take the data from that, and then push it out to a new record of a net suite, again using a bot that you just configured without writing a single line of code, and setting that up also takes maybe two minutes or five minutes, something like that.


James McKinney: Do you think no-code is going to change, back to your roots in academic, do you think no-code is going to change how computer science or how computer engineering is taught in academia?


Borya Shakhnovich: No.


James McKinney: Why so? Because everything you just described would usually be taught with dot net development or something to that degree. But now we're talking really drag and drop methodologies to things.


Borya Shakhnovich: Yeah.


James McKinney: And if that becomes the norm, then we go back to what's being taught in academia.


Borya Shakhnovich: I think that we have a lot of very smart computer scientists that are writing these bots. The back end systems that these bots connect to, they still require a lot of code to write, and a lot of systems in order for the bot to be fail safe, to be secure so that the data isn't lost anywhere. You have to write the automation. So all of that is much more powerful than what you can do using a no-code bot. Now I think that no-code is actually a continuous evolution of computer science over the last I would say 40 years. I'll explain why. When we began, when computer science began in the times of transistors, I still remember my dad actually used those punch cards. So you had to write the zeros and ones on a punch card, give it to a computer, and the computer would take hundreds and hundreds of them. It would take hours and hours and hours to put these punch cards together, and then you would essentially come out with some sort of an answer.

Then people stopped doing that and they started writing in Assembly, and Assembly was a very low level language that essentially told the CPUs what to do. Then assembly got couched in amore higher level set of languages like C, C++, Basic, other things like that. Then those languages actually got couched in even higher level scripting languages like Ruby and Python, and things like that, and PHP. So what happens is you're taking the work that's been done before you and you're making it simpler to use. That's what allows this exponential growth of speed of development, is you're not actually developing from scratch; you're developing from subroutines which were created back in the day in Assembly and then used in C, and then those C languages were then reinterpreted onto Python and scripting languages. I think that no-code is actually part of that story. It's basically taking these subroutines which were written by somebody else, in this case by us or by other developers, and you're telling them what to do. You're essentially creating these interactions between them.

But all of that being said, I think that imagining a world where the number of these no-code subroutines and this work that was done before you can be packaged in a way which is as powerful as the languages that we currently use in order to write the automations, like C and PHP and other things like that. I think that's probably not in the very near future. I think that's probably not in the next five to 10 years kind of thing. Can I imagine a world where you have that kind of diversity of these no-code libraries or no-code bots that allow you to actually build something from scratch, and the speed and fail safe mechanisms for that? Maybe, but it's just the beginning. It's the dawn of a new age.


James McKinney: We are definitely early on in the no-code space, and I'm fascinated by it because I mean really for most of us, no-code starts with the whole drag and drop I'm going to say web display but that's probably… it probably goes before that, really page layout if we were to go way back, like drag and drop page layout. To think what could be done if we were to have some type of open source solution for no-code, the WordPress of no-code if you will. WordPress powers I think Matt had mentioned on his episode 70% of the internet, and if we were to have an open source solution for no-code, I think there could be some remarkable things inside of that.

But one of the things that fascinates me about airSlate is the process automation side of it. It's not just a visual display. You have created, again for someone like myself who is non technical, you have created a technical solution that I can create complex processes, and do it in a no-code format where I don't need to hire developers and pay them thousands of dollars to create these things. I think it's super interesting the economies that can come from that. When I think of, obviously I know when it comes to enterprise level there's a lot of solutions that airSlate can deliver for enterprise, but when I think of it too I think of the freelance world, or people that just need quick code solutions, and might someone be able to create something in a no-code format with a nontechnical background, and I think yeah. I think the economies that could come from that would be remarkable.


Borya Shakhnovich: That's the thing. One of our customers it's the New School of Architecture. Remarkably, the registrar who is nontechnical basically moved the whole of the administration and registrar office onto airSlate. Basically the whole registrar office works off of airSlate. Adding classes, dropping classes, transferring credit, asking for personal time off, he created these 52 work flows and now half the school is running on airSlate. And all of our users and customers, the majority of them are very nontechnical. They are managers or they are administrators, or whatever, they're business line owners. They're CEOs, people who haven't written oftentimes a single line of code. One of our leaders in solution engineering, Collin, says that if you know how to use an Excel spreadsheet you will definitely be overqualified to use airSlate.


James McKinney: Wow, that is quite a claim. Oh my goodness. So real quick, we got to airSlate as we talking about I had asked the question if PDF Filler was so successful why airSlate, and you talked about the journey to that. But really that started with a $40 million Series A for PDF Filler. Now just for clarity, are PDF Filler and airSlate two separate entities?


Borya Shakhnovich: They are two separate products that are in our portfolio of products. So it's the same company, but it's another product.


James McKinney: So that Series A helped to fund airSlate. That makes sense now. So now when we think about airSlate, when did airSlate come to market?


Borya Shakhnovich: 2020 actually, like right after the pandemic started.


James McKinney: Wow. Of course, that was not ideal timing, but when you think of the challenges for airSlate, here you have PDF Filler and you have the millions of users for PDF Filler. We have a built in customer base if you will. Was it as simple as just market the airSlate solution to those people? Or was it completely different?


Borya Shakhnovich: I think as an entrepreneur is it ever that simple?


James McKinney: Exactly my point.


Borya Shakhnovich: No, no, of course not. Look, I think that we have definitely that is part of the strategy, right? People start with something, people start with interactive PDF documents or interactive Word documents and they want to automate them. That's a natural thing that they want to do afterwards, and that's how we came to airSlate as a product. So for sure that's something that we want to do. But it's not as simple as just taking PDF Filler customers and saying, "Hey, now use airSlate" because a lot of people are in a different part of that journey. They're not ready for the automation yet or they just want to do certain things and not explore other things. And there are other people that actually want to do the automation part of it, which are not part of the PDF Filler customer base, because they're starting from the automation, not starting from the interactive document creation part of it.

So no, airSlate does what we do best which is go out, find a lot of people that we think can benefit from our product. Have them try it and then have them love it. I think it's as simple as that. Of course it's much more complicated than that in practice, but we also raised a Series B round last year from Morgan Stanly expansion capital. Pete Chung, who is on my board, he said this one thing which I think is very prescient, which is, "In whole history of technology, if you look back the technology that creates economies always wins." If you look at sometimes not immediately, but if you're actually making stuff cheaper for people to use, or more powerful, cheaper is better than more powerful, then one way or another that stuff will grow if you're doing your marketing right.

And I think that's what we find which is hey look, I mean obviously branding is an important aspect of it and as we grow we continuously build on that brand. I want to come back to the freelance part of it in a second. But fundamentally we take our KPI was take $100,000 ASP product and turn it into a $6,000 to $10,000 ASP product. A factor of magnitude improvement from, to your point, decreasing that cost of configuration and deployment, which would be tens of thousands of dollars essentially.

And that's what we did. I think that's what we're seeing. We're seeing this massive growth in people who don't want to spend that $100,000 but still want the benefits out of the automation. It's not just benefits in money that you get out of it. There's compliance, there's security, there's data integrity, there's all sorts of different stuff that you get out of automating menial labor tasks and taking it out of the hands of humans who get tired and who are not built for that kind of stuff in general, and putting it into the hands of machines which are purpose built for doing many, many, many repetitive and not interesting tasks.

I think that one of the things which I'm super excited about in airSlate and the no-code movement in general is that it does what technology does best: it democratizes access to tools and makes people more powerful. It makes a lot more people more powerful. If we look at our technology and the evolution of technology over time, that's really the only thing it did. It basically makes you as a human much more powerful and each successive wave does it cheaper. I think that what no-code does is it allows many more people to be much more powerful. I think that we built airSlate in order to, for the freelancers and for the people that are stuck in positions which are maybe not their dream positions, but to become IT works. When they become IT workers, they create much more value to their employers, and therefore can command much higher salaries. Because what are software engineers except workflow automators? That's really what they are on the basic level. That I think we're giving that power to millions more people. There's 30 million knowledge workers in America. It's an enormous market. And a very small minority of them actually know how to automate, and therefore create that much value from the work that they do outside of engineers.

I think that's really what I'm super excited about, but it's also a platform for people to become entrepreneurs. That's the thing I'm really excited about. We're coming out with bot marketplaces and workflow marketplaces so that people can create bots that can be reused by other people, and so that people can create workflows that can be reused by other people, and make their own businesses on top of that as well as consulting businesses. They're like hey, you're too busy to do this automation, I'll do it for you. And when you put this power in the hands of people that can create their own lives out of platforms, I think magic happens.


James McKinney: So when we… I want to honor your time as I'm watching the clock. If we were to have a "where are they now" episode in five years we'll say, where do you want to see airSlate?


Borya Shakhnovich: I want airSlate to be the de facto standard for all kinds of business automation. So basically when you're thinking about how are we doing this, how can we do it better, the first thing that comes to mind is airSlate. It's sort of like what Google is to search, just what information do I want, I go to Google. How do I automate this part of the business, I go to airSlate.


James McKinney: I love it. I can't wait to have that episode in a few years. So again I want to honor your time, but there are three questions that my audience loves to hear founder feedback on, so I want to make sure that I honor their time and make sure we get to those three final questions. That first one is about entrepreneurship. There is this idea that anybody can be an entrepreneur. Do you believe that to be true or is there a genetic makeup to it?


Borya Shakhnovich: Certainly not genetic, but entrepreneurs have a set of criteria that I think unite all of them. They're risk takers, they are gritty, they think outside of the box, and they are not okay with the status quo. Ambition drives the majority of successful entrepreneurs that I know of. I think that without those set of criteria, it's going to be difficult to be an entrepreneur. I think it's wrong to think that entrepreneurship is about money. It's not about money, it's about freedom, and it's about fulfilling your ambitions, and fulfilling your dreams, and doing something that's bigger than other people think that you should be doing. I think that Jeff Bezos, who I admire very much, in his last note to his shareholders before stepping down as CEO, he says, "The world wants you to be normal. Don't accept it." I think that's really the right thing to say. The world sets the rules for you to be a certain way and to act a certain way. True entrepreneurs always buck that I think.


James McKinney: Oh, I love that. Absolutely love it. One of the other questions that I have, and I'm looking forward to your thoughts and perspective on it because you've already talked a lot about how the media headlines have created so many false narratives. But one of those narratives is this idea that entrepreneurship is a Lone Ranger journey, it is very much about just you living on your friend's couch, pounding away code or pounding away no-code, however you want to put it these days. But it's very much about just you, and your journey. But when we think back to how you got to where you are today, there are many people that have poured into you. So when you look back to your entrepreneurial journey, who are the people that you look back to with such immense gratitude for their contribution to where you are today?


Borya Shakhnovich: I think it ranges. I think from my father who instilled that ambition in me, who never thought that good was good enough. It was a different way of growing up than the majority of children. No matter how good it was, there's somebody else that was better. To my first investors who believed in me, just because of who I was not because I accomplished anything. And to my business partner Vadim who actually took me into his business and gave me that option to participate. To my investors who also participated in that journey and gave their expertise. To, honestly, the people who I am most grateful for is my team. I always talk about that. There's 900 people that work at airSlate right now, and the people who I started with 10 years ago are still there, almost every single one of them. There's 10 or 15 of us that are still there. And I don't care what happens. This product fails or that product fails, but with those guys I can build another $100 million business, and that's the thing that I think is the most important, and that's the thing that nobody ever talks about. Entrepreneurship is not a lone journey, it's a team sport. If your team knows how to deliver, you don't have to be right every time. You can be wrong a little bit and you'll get it right the next time. That I think is really, really important. My job as a CEO actually is to give my team, every single one of those 900 people, as many "at bats" as I possibly can.


James McKinney: Oh my gosh, you just took us to church, that was so good. So good. That is exactly what I tell people all the time and you just said it so perfectly. I'm not going to lie, I'm probably going to reuse that line many, many times and I hope to give you attribution every single time. But for our final question of The Startup Story of your startup story, I would love the opportunity to afford my audience a chance to sit with you and have coffee with you, and to ask their specific questions to you and learn from you. But it's an unreasonable ask at the size and scale of my audience. This is that mentoring minute. So if you were having coffee, and let's just actually with the wantrepreneur, the one who has got a 9 to 5 and a book full of dreams and ideas, and some of those maybe are technical dreams and ideas but they're not a technical person. So for that reason alone they are just not moving on those concepts and ideas that they have, that they'd probably change the world w. if you were having coffee with one of them, what would you say to that individual?


Borya Shakhnovich: I would say just I mean I think it's cliche but what are you doing it for? First, set a goal. That's what I tell all of the entrepreneurs that I talk with is do you want to build a million dollar lifestyle business, do you want to build a $10 million business, do you want to build a $100 million business, do you want to build a $1 billion business? Do you want to be rich, famous, or really important? I think that understanding yourself is the first step on that entrepreneurship journey. Because I think that a lot of people, they misunderstand both who they are and what they're doing it for, and that is the first part of that failure. Without understanding why you're doing it, it's very unlikely that you'll be actually successful.


James McKinney: Once you've had a few moments to process all the value that Borya Shakhnovich brought us in this week's episode, please hit me up on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Instagram and share with me your thoughts on this episode. If you've been around The Startup Story for any length of time, then you know how much emphasis I put on the idea that entrepreneurs support other entrepreneurs. For that reason, I hope every one of you will visit airSlate.com and give it a test drive. In fact, you can visit airslate.com and sign up for a free 30-day account. If you're thinking to yourself yeah, I don't really have a need for any business process automation tools, well if you have any type of paper workflow or CRM, or lack of CRM, then you have a need for business process automation. So visit airslate.com for a free 30-day trial. And now for my personal ask.

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June 08 2021
Borya Shakhnovich, co-founder and CEO of airSlate

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