When GGV Capital reached out and said that it had built an index of API-first companies, I was curious. Venture-built indexes of startups and other firms have proved useful tools in recent years, led by Bessemer’s cloud index, which is now also a tradable ETF on Nasdaq.
But what GGV had in mind was startup-focused, meaning that it was even more up TechCrunch’s alley than what Bessemer had cooked up, so I got on the phone with the investing group, Chelcie Taylor, Tiffany Luck and Jeff Richards, to talk it through. To start, though, let’s talk definitions.
What’s an API-first startup?
You will have your own definition of what an API-first, or API-led startup is. For our work today, it’s any startup that either delivers its main value proposition via an API — Twilio, say — or is built to use APIs to facilitate a particular data transference — AgentSync, etc. That’s about as simple as we can manage.
Before we parse what GGV has built to sit atop the API-led startup boom, such as it is, remember that the software market is slowly evolving past SaaS. Software as a service was itself a business-model shakeup for software, leading to nearly every startup selling code as a managed service instead of a single-sale product. But while SaaS has become the de facto model for startups today, there’s a growing push to offer software-delivered services via on-demand pricing. Or, what we might call “just what you need” pricing.
Twilio has shown that the model can prove popular, and is for API-first startups akin to what Salesforce has proven for SaaS. Regardless, if the software market continues to pivot — slowly, mind — more toward on-demand pricing over traditional SaaS pricing, API-first startups could be on the right side of business-model history.
What’s GGV built?
There’s not a great number of public API-first companies, which means that useful data on the cohort is somewhat scarce. One nice thing about SaaS, frankly, is that thanks to its maturity, there are a host of companies using the business model that have already crossed the public-private divide. Not that every API-first startup is not priced along SaaS lines, but there’s a loose pricing divide that means we can’t use SaaS metrics as a general comp for API-led startups.
And we wouldn’t want to, even if we could. According to Taylor and Luck, API-first startups have a different “type of DNA” than SaaS startups, as they are often built with a community focus, and sell to developers instead of companies.
The difference in customer-acquisition methods between SaaS and API-first startups is more than a stylistic divergence. By getting developers aboard, API-first startups can have a lower sales footprint internally, changing their operating profile from a cost perspective. The GGV trio noted that API-first startups tend to grow with their customers, which can lead to efficient upsells thanks to organically rising usage rates.
But without that many public firms, we have to lean on private-market data. So GGV compiled a public list of private companies that are API-led, tracking their venture capital results that it intends to update quarterly. More names will be added over time, with the venture firm starting with around 30. The venture group then “ranked the companies based upon their total funding raised which we gathered from publicly available sources,” Taylor said.
Today the API-first list reads like a rough draft, a ledger that will contain more entries in time. TechCrunch hopes that GGV uses its status as a venture player to politely extract data from startups on its list, allowing to expand its data footprint with more metrics.
Why GGV and not, say, TechCrunch? Zero startups are going to share their most recent quarter’s net dollar retention with us. But perhaps with GGV? If it was anonymized? I would sacrifice a small animal for that data, frankly, so here’s hoping GGV can collect a broad dataset to share with the general public.
Today the list notes that the few dozen API-first companies that GGV is tracking have raised $12 billion as a group, with some $5 billion of that coming in 2021; sure, the entire venture market accelerated, but that’s still a pretty big chunk of the aggregate in the last year. GGV also notes that 40% of the companies in its list are fintech-focused. After parsing our above digest of API startups, that number feels low, if anything.
A note on the sheer number of startups that we’re discussing. To prep for this particular post, I asked Twitter to chime in with API-led companies. And boy did it deliver.
Folks brought up Kong, Cohere, Contentful, Solo.io, BlueSnap, Speechly, and Alpaca. Next up was Butler Labs, Alloy, Mux, Shippo, Besedo, and AirspaceLink. Folks also raised Ascend, Anvil, Sydecar, Noyo, AgentSync, Synctera, Terra, and Pinwheel. Then there was Blended Edge, Herald, Merge, Inigo.io, Bannerbear, Abound, Remote, Integry, and Intrinio. [Update: And Skyflow, whose CEO we recently had on the podcast.]
The list continues: Dapi, RailsBank, Finch, Plug Pagamentos, Mono, Socure, and Boost Insurance. Taking a breath, there’s also Unit, Pave, Lendflow, Sequoir, TravelTime, Fintoc, Palenca, Belvo, and Cohesity. Some folks helpfully mentioned Plaid, which I have heard of, but also FireHydrant, Fabric, APIToolkit, Bankable, RapidAPI, Spinwheel, and Bureau.
Some API-first startups have pretty good names, including Metronome and Sardine. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore Speechly, Seam, Daily, Liveblocks, Ayoconnect, Capsule, DeliverFaster, Privy, and Lob. Also in the market today are PhloConnect, EditFrame, Conduit, Drivly, AtomicInvest, LogicLoop, and Project44.
Even more names were put forward: ZenPatient, Codat, Finoptimal, Bkper, Nylas, Standard Metrics, IdentityPass, Ribbon Health, Redox, Zus Health, Onna, ShotStack, and Postman. Friends also surfaced Simplifeye, healthR, Argyle, REWORTH, Workwhile, INVYO, and Receptiviti. But we’d be remiss to not also mention Workload, Barikoi, Modern Treasury, Zenudo, Leap, WunderGraph, Check, Enode, Pandascrow, Deepgram, Clair, Güeno, Routefusion, Roboflow, Zeal, Climatiq, Blue Sky Analytics, Duffel, Warrant, Violet, Patch, Duplo, Okra, and Salt Security.
I am out of segues, so here’s the rest of the list: Infura, Point One Navigation, Checkr, Medusa, Tray, Strapi, Rutter, Convictional, Bannerbear, Heron Data, Temporal, Aiculus, Stytch, Realize, Smartcar, Cloverly, Courier, Inscribe, Akita Software, Optic, Bump, KrakenD, Mistho, Trebelle, dLocal, EmployeeCycle, Lula, Celitech, Instant Commerce, and Xoba.
That’s a few companies. I share the full list of responses because it underscores how many startups we’re talking about. (Note: Some API startups had names so generic that we failed to find their homepage; something to think about. Also if we miscapitalized your startup name, tweet us.)
Why should you care about API-led startups? Aside from the fact that more and more early-stage companies that reach out to TechCrunch are pursuing the model so its constituent players matter if you care about early-stage tech. But more than that there’s a neat future out there if we can build it.
The growth in no- and low-code services has me thinking. What happens when we can fuse a boom in global API creation to no-code services? How long until I can build my own apps using no-code tooling and bring in tons of neat information and capability via APIs without having to fire up an IDE?
When that future comes, your humble scribe will be too busy creating awful mashups, perhaps mixing death metal tour dates to food delivery order volume to track what heavy metal fans like to eat after shows, once the whiskey has fully taken hold. You can think up your own combinations.
Regardless, we have a bit more data on API-led startups today. Here’s to more in time.