💡 Founder Spotlight: Paul Copplestone
This week is Cloudflare's Founder Spotlight on Cloudflare TV, featuring dozens entrepreneurs from across the tech industry and beyond!
This session features Paul Copplestone, cofounder and CEO of Supabase, Supabase, an open source Firebase alternative. Paul is a founder of three venture-backed startups, and a techie with over 15 years experience.
Visit the Founder Spotlight hub to find the rest of these featured conversations — and tune in all week for more!
Hi everyone, and I'm Alina Ha. I'm from Customer Success team based in London and welcome to our third day for Founder Spotlight week.
We're featuring stories behind diverse startup founders, their life to success and adventures they have along the building the amazing startups, the origin of their story and the path they took to get where they are.
And today I have Paul Copplestone from Superbase today telling us how he started his startup.
What was the journey about? And he will tell us a little bit about himself.
Hi Paul. Hey Alina, thanks for having me on.
No, thank you for joining. And so before we go, I was talking to Paul about his startup and I said like, well, that was a bit too technical for me to understand.
So tell us very briefly about your startup and what it does. Sure. So I don't know if I can do it in a non -technical way because as a developer doing startup, but the company name is Superbase.
We are an open source Firebase alternative and we're building the features of Firebase using open source tools.
We try to use existing open source tools if we can, and if they don't exist, then we'll build them ourselves.
So for people who don't know what Firebase is, then it's basically a suite of tools.
So if you're starting a business or you're an indie developer and you're about to get started, you probably need a database, maybe an auth system, some storage, an API, all these things.
And Firebase is a suite of tools that provide all of these things so you can focus on building your product.
And then we provide these, but we do it in a slightly different way. It's open source and we use Postgres and a few other open source tools.
Yeah. You know, when I hear open source, it's like a magic to me, like, because it's kind of basically comes from everywhere and creates something really cool.
That's how I see it in my head at least.
So it would be great to hear how far along in your startup adventure, how big you are, how many people you have, and there's just time to brag about your team, how far along you came at this moment.
Sorry, I think I cut out for about 30 seconds, but the last thing I heard was about my team and how far we've come along.
Is that correct? Yeah. So like, can you tell us how far along you came in your startup adventure?
Like how big you are and what's your team is now about?
Yeah. So Superbay started in January 2020. So we're not, we're just less than two years old.
Currently at 30 people, 30 fully remote people.
So we're spread out across 12, I think now actually 13 different countries, mostly engineers actually.
And yeah, because it's a dev tool, we have a lot of building to do.
And then yeah, a few sort of on the growth and marketing team, a lot of sort of ex-founders as well within the team.
We really like hiring ex-founders that work very well in a remote setting.
So yeah, it's been growing quite a bit in terms of team for the past two years.
The other thing, yeah, we've had a couple of fundraisers.
So we raised a seed round after doing YC in summer 2020. So that first round was in August 2020.
And then we did another Series A a few months ago. Yeah.
I think in September we raised a Series A. This is incredible because, you know, you think about it like last two years was just a pandemic, right?
Like I never went just like mentally exhausted.
Thinking about starting a company must be really, I mean, it's very brave and it's super scary, I suppose.
Yeah. Well, we started it right before the pandemic, so I guess we didn't know what was to come.
But actually it was kind of a benefit because when we started it, you know, at that point, sort of January 2020, I think it was a couple of months later that things started locking down.
I'm actually in Singapore right now. And things started locking down around March 2020.
So the company was just myself and my co-founder at that time.
And so essentially we were sort of born remote. And instead of having this transition period where it was, you know, everyone in an HQ or everyone in one place, we just started hiring or the company grew in a remote way, which I think made it a lot easier.
Same with when we went to YC, we were the first, we were in the first fully remote batch.
And so, you know, we did it all. Everything's been remote and it's just part of our culture now.
So probably it was a good thing. Yeah.
Well, looking back, I feel like it's been a huge benefit for us. You were like, yeah, we were ready for this stuff.
Yeah. And as well, I mean, it's a DevTools business.
So, you know, naturally introverted developers don't mind working remote and hiring people, hiring developers who just want to work asynchronously and remotely has been, yeah, not too hard.
I have one at home like this, so I know what you mean.
And I think like, this is nice that, you know, like it was just along your plans, but I still think, you know, obviously working from home remotely when you still can go out and enjoy, you know, like life outside and working from home remotely when you're always at home is very different things.
So I wanted to ask you, how did you like manage, like, you know, personally and did it affect your, like, I know that originally you wanted to work remotely, but still did you need to change something like professionally as well for your company?
And was there any personal changes as well? No, not too much. I would say I fit probably more on the spectrum of a workaholic, don't mind working long hours.
So this is my third startup and, you know, they just naturally take a lot of work.
So I think I'm quite used to working a lot. And to be honest, we, one of our questions when we hire is just how much do you like remote?
And if people don't say 10 out of 10, that they love asynchronous work and they love remote work, then we just don't hire them.
They're just not going to fit in at super base, which is completely fine.
It's just how we like to work. So I think, yeah, we didn't really change anything.
We just made sure it was this way from the start. The pandemic actually was a huge benefit for, and to myself, because right when everything went on lockdown here in Singapore, there was no going out, there were, you know, no restaurants.
And it was during the time of our Y Combinator badge. So all we could do was work and work very hard, which is kind of what you want during YC.
So we managed to do a lot of development that was required. So it's just, yeah, to be honest, it felt a bit lucky, the timing for us, and it just worked out really in our favor.
That's great. This is actually very refreshing because, you know, obviously for lots of other businesses, it was just a really bad time, really challenging, both mentally, you know, just how to manage your work in general.
Yeah, my previous startup was more operational. In fact, we sort of do this operating system for offices.
And of course, every office in Singapore shut down.
And so it was very hard, very hard for the workers, very hard for the startup to sustain.
Well, a startup in general usually doesn't have a huge amount of cash to sustain all the staff.
So yeah, I think it was just lucky that we're in the space that we're in.
We had a small team at the time. We grew it very gradually until we got our funding.
So yeah, I think, you know, it's just luck. That's great. So speaking of team, can you tell us how did you meet your co-founders and how this whole thing started?
Yeah, actually, we both came to Singapore at the same time about three years ago for this program called Entrepreneur First.
And it's this accelerator where you get thrown into a room with about 100 other entrepreneurs, and you kind of speed date them.
And you have to find an idea and build it from scratch in three months.
Completely unfeasible, by the way, to do this. But it does work in some cases, apparently.
So we didn't end up building a company together, but we met and we lived together for a year.
And he was running his own startup when I wanted to do Superbase.
So I just reached out to him and said, actually, I pitched him on the idea.
I pitched him on this. He's been applying for Y Combinator, I think he applied six times or got rejected six times.
So I actually pitched him the idea of building a YC friendly team and finally getting into YC and building this DevTools business.
So he was in from the pitch. And yeah, we're going to put together a couple of more people.
But actually, we ended up doing it just ourselves.
And yeah, scaling up with a few of the other techies who I'd worked with early in my other startups.
So yeah, I just knew him. He's a good guy and lived with him.
So we went back several years. There is always this stigma that you can't be friends with the people you start a business with.
But I personally had a business with my best friend and it worked perfectly.
I think it depends on people and how they take things.
Yeah, well, co -founder relationships are always tricky. I mean, there's no...
Yeah, to be honest, I don't think there's any right or wrong. We get along very well.
We've got actually quite complementary skill sets, but also a lot of shared...
He's a techie, a very competent techie and I'm a techie as well. So we both know what we want to build.
There's not too much misunderstanding. We don't need to explain things to each other.
So it's very different from my other startups where actually, I was the CTO and I had a CEO founder and they just had to...
We essentially looked after two different parts of the business and just had to trust each other.
So yeah, both work, but in very different ways. That's true.
And I think it would be good to from here to go into your company culture. Can you tell us...
I know it's remote. I know you already said lots of people are quite introverted and they like to work by themselves, but still, I think managing culture remotely is another skill set that you need to have because things can be lost in miscommunication, right?
And when you're texting each other, you can interpret things very differently.
How do you manage... What's your startup culture and how do you manage to keep the team together?
Yeah, it's hard to put a few words together to describe a culture, but yeah, there are a few things that make Superbase quite unique, I think amongst most startups.
So we have, I think a third of the team are founders themselves.
So a lot of the people who are convinced to come work, we convinced them from their own startup.
Even one company that we acquired, even though we're very early ourselves, we acquired one two weeks ago to join us.
We just love the founder mentality, people who are quite autonomous and we can give them whole sections of the business to look after.
The other thing that actually stemmed from that early period where we were at YC, we actually had a bit of a lucky break and funnily, Cloudflare was quite instrumental in this.
We had, on one of the days we changed our tagline from something like super easy Postgres or something like that to the open source Firebase alternative.
And then one of the Cloudflare engineers saw our website and put it on Hacker News and it just went sort of straight to the top.
And it stayed on the top of Hacker News for a couple of days.
And we had a lot of traction, but also a lot of requests from people saying, oh, can you build this?
Or can you build that? Because it was just so early.
But the number one thing was that they, almost everyone wanted auth. And so when we went into YC, we didn't have to go out and do some customer discovery to find out what people wanted.
We just spent the whole three months building the auth system.
And then right before demo day, we launched the auth system and put it on Launch Hacker News and we announced it and everyone was happy.
But then afterwards, after we left YC, we decided, well, we can recreate this experience of working towards an arbitrary deadline.
We just knew that we worked towards launch week like it was a deadline, but a completely made up one.
So we just set a deadline for our next launch to be December of last year.
And that's where we decided we'll move to beta.
And actually, it didn't matter what we shipped. We just set the date.
On that date, we'll move to beta and we built everything that we could. And then we just announced that we moved to beta.
Some things were in, some things were out, didn't matter.
And we literally just got together it was very successful yet again, this sort of launch.
And so we got together as a group a couple of days later, still full of adrenaline and thought, well, that was very good.
How can we do it even better?
And from Cloudflare, we knew that you do launch weeks. And we thought at the time, we were only, I think, 12 people, but we thought, well, we'll ship five things every day for a week as well, which was mad because, yeah, there were only 12 of us.
But yeah, sure enough, four months later, we set the date again and we managed to ship five.
In fact, I think we shipped seven things. And we just set the date and we plan what it's going to be, but some things go out, some things come in.
We never know what it's going to be. But yeah, this culture of shipping is quite fundamental to us.
So we've done, for example, three launch weeks this year.
We just wrapped one up. We're already planning our next launch week for a few months from now.
That sounds so... I mean, I know it's fun because I'm inside Cloudflare.
I know how it happens, right? Fortunately, unfortunately, as a customer success manager, we are more of a...
We see the result of the work because the team is like, hey, by the way, here's the week, go promote, tell your customers.
But it's definitely what you're saying. It sounds really fun.
And I'm really glad this Cloudflare people are posting things, but I'm really glad that we had some impact, positive impact in Superbase.
But I think because you...
Based on this release weeks, if you look at where you started and where you are, what is the contrast?
I understand it's only been two years, but by the sound of it, during these two years, because you had all the time in the world to do lots of things, how is it different?
Well, yeah. The funny thing about a startup is basically day to day, a thousand things change.
So it's hard to pin down the major things.
Of course, team size, culture is still different. Yeah. I mean, of course, the product offering, the amount of cash we've got.
So the way that we're operating.
Yeah. Yeah. There's just so many things I think that make it different.
I think the main thing that's different, at the start, you very much are trying to find product market fit.
So it can be a bit nerve wracking or a little bit tedious.
You never know what's going to work. And then sometimes you get lucky. Really, we just got lucky that we got to the top of Hacker News.
And from that point on, I think there was a bit of a change where we became a bit more known.
And if I would put some blog posts out or ask some questions, we'd get a lot of feedback around it.
So I think in the very early days, you're kind of grinding, grinding all the time.
And now it's more like, well, the ball is rolling and it's just up to us to keep up with the rolling ball.
Yeah. I agree. And you said you had three startups before, right?
So with all the knowledge you have, and we discussed this before you asked me, who is probably watching Cloudflare TV, right?
And pretty much everyone, right?
Like start from techie people who wants to join Cloudflare, like our internal team watches.
And it's always the question, because we're all fascinated by founders.
We read the autobiographies, we want to know how it was.
And with all this, and with all your knowledge throughout the years, if you put yourself in front of your younger version, like early version of yourself with all the knowledge you have, what would be the advices to yourself for the journey you're going to step into?
Yeah. Well, if you're just starting your startup journey, then I would say join a startup, or at least if you're going to found a company, found it with some experienced founders.
I think that's critical.
You're just going to learn so much from the first experience. Other than that, I mean, there's a lot of tactics to learn, a lot of, there's nothing phenomenal.
I really don't think it's some, you need to be a genius or anything.
It's just a lot of grinding, a lot of hard work, and you've got to sort of be ready for it.
But yeah, if you're just starting out, the number one thing you can do is just go work at a startup for even six months a year, and your sort of growth curve will be exponential at the start, and then it'll flatten off.
And at that point, you can decide whether you want to start a startup.
The other thing is, it really depends on your role.
So, I mean, if you're a CEO, of course, you need to learn how to raise money.
If you're a CTO, then it's sort of maybe growing a team of techies, managing them or building it yourself.
So, yeah, it's hard to pin down the exact advice, but usually, working under people or with people who have already done it is the way to get yourself accelerated along the path.
This is really good advice.
Thank you. So, and what we always do, we want to also shine a light to you as a person.
And if you could tell us just a brief summary, story, where did you grow up?
What was your path? How you arrived here today? Yeah. So, I'm actually from New Zealand, small place in the Pacific.
So, there wasn't a lot of startups or tech, that's for sure.
I grew up there for, well, until I was 25 or 26. I started in tech probably around 18.
As soon as I left school, I kind of started contracting.
And even throughout university, I was doing some tech contracting.
I was just doing basically everything I could, but I really sort of fell in love with tech.
And I did contracting for a while for various different industries.
I ended up doing my first sort of full-time role with a hedge fund, building some hedge fund platforms before eventually going to Australia.
And in Australia, I worked for Accenture to do project management and tech project management, but it definitely was not the type of thing that I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
So, yeah, after doing some travels for a bit, I ended up in Malaysia for my first startup.
And that was with actually a friend of a friend, just complete chance.
Actually, the story was I had signed up to work for the Australian government on a contract.
And I went in to do the work and they said, well, you're a Kiwi.
We actually need to, you're from New Zealand. We need to put a case study together to say that an Australian can't do it.
So go away for a week.
And in that one week, I was on a phone call with, or my friend was on a phone call with his friend who was in Malaysia about to start the startup.
And he said, well, why don't you just come help me with my startup?
And it sounded far much cooler than working for the Australian government.
So yeah, my path kind of split there.
I think if I had not been privy to the phone call, I wouldn't have been doing startups.
So yeah, a lot of luck just getting to that point. And then from there, yeah, I had my first startup, which is still going and quite successful.
So it's in a few countries here in Southeast Asia, venture backed. And then eventually I moved to Singapore for that program where I met my co -founder, but actually I dropped out and I started another startup with someone who had worked in my previous startup.
And that's still going as well. But I had told my co-founder at that point that he's got probably a couple of years before I split off and do something tech related.
So he knew it was coming, that I always wanted to do this tech dev tools business.
So yeah, that's when I started Superbase. Wow.
You know, it's just so interesting, right? Like how one decision to pick up a phone, right?
Like just completely changed the whole plan in your career. Yeah. I mean, you can never know.
I kind of wanted to do startups and I was working on some side projects, but nothing good.
And to be honest, I'd been thinking about trying to find some startups, but because I, as I said, in New Zealand, there aren't really startups.
So I didn't even know how to get into it. And when I first started, I didn't know any of the acronyms, you know, marketing acronyms, if you talk about any of these things.
So I just knew how to build a product. So that's why I say I joined at that time, someone who had been through a YC, company, and he knew he was a very good fundraiser.
For example, I learned a lot of him and just being surrounded by people who had done startups before I leveled up very quickly.
And do you think that, you know, like you traveled quite a lot, right? Like from New Zealand to Australia, from Australia to Malaysia and then Singapore.
Do you feel this like also affects you as a, you know, like as a businessman, like you adapt quickly to different situations because, you know, like you moved a lot?
Yeah, I mean, yeah, I think in general, it's a useful thing to do, right?
I mean, you get exposed to different cultures, you have a broader appreciation of cultures, which are not your own.
That's quite useful. I don't know if it necessarily, well, yeah.
I mean, for example, I imagine someone who is trying to sell something in Asia, if they haven't been here, it'd be incredibly difficult.
So, you know, you get a lot of localized knowledge.
I don't know if it's sort of generally useful in my field now, like DevTools, usually techies talk tech basically.
So we don't need to do too much localization.
I'm sure it will in the future as we get deeper and deeper into certain markets.
But yeah, the other thing that maybe, as you point out, you know, you change, the more you change, the less risk, things seem risky.
So it doesn't seem too risky to have a startup.
It's just yet another change that needs to happen.
So I think moving around, changing your life quite often is just quite a healthy activity.
Yeah, because I haven't moved much, but I'm originally from Kazakhstan, moved to the UK, and it definitely shaped the way I take different challenges in life, because it's like, oh, you know, this is okay, because you always start from scratch, right?
And you have to adapt to new things and to new people, new culture.
But, you know, I was also kind of, at one point I was looking at Japan because they also had this program for skilled professionals.
And I was like, oh, that's interesting to go to.
Where did you say you're from originally? Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan, okay.
And was it scary to go to the UK? It's quite a different culture. I studied here, but it was scary to come as an adult, you know, like definitely, because it's very different to being a student, right?
Like then come when you're already 30, because you already have a comfortable life, you know, you have everything set up.
So, and for me, I think the scariest was because, I think I mentioned to you when we were talking, I had my own businesses as well.
I think the scariest thing was to go to corporate, you know, like to be managed.
I think that was the thing I was like a bit afraid of, because you kind of, if you have some kind of self-awareness, you're like, oh, can I listen to someone else, you know, apart from you?
So that was definitely a thing for me. Yeah, yeah, yeah, definitely. And, you know, from the other side, it's also incredibly difficult.
I know people who have just worked in corporate all their life and to have no guidance is, you know, especially if you're joining a startup, maybe you're left to your own devices, and you don't have much direction, and you don't know whether you're doing well, or you don't, or you're not doing well.
These are also, I think, scary things for a lot of people.
So I think you just have to have some confidence in yourself often in these cases.
And, you know, in a startup, there's very little that you can do that's wrong.
It's just everything needs to be done, right? Yeah. Paul, look, we have one minute, 30 seconds to go.
And I think what you started to talk about, you know, like, you just need to let yourself do this.
Do you have anything, you know, to the audience that you wanted to share?
Just like maybe word of guidance or anything? I don't know if I'm a guru, but I don't know, like, maybe if you are interested in building a company yourself, if you're going to be looking at doing a side project or anything, then I'd encourage you to look at Superbase, maybe use it as a backend.
We really do believe in it.
It will help you to no end get started. And especially if you're a developer or you use Firebase or one of the other database systems, then yeah, please do check us out.
Thank you so much. And it was such a pleasure speaking to you.
And I will definitely read more because as I said, like, when I started to read, I was like, I don't understand half of the things that's written here.
But hey, thank you so much for being part of Foundry Spotlight.
It's very, very cool to have you here.
And for everyone watching, we still have two and a half days to go with lots of cool founders.
And if you're interested in any of the founders, like startups, please reach out.
If you're interested in Cloudflare, please look at our career page and our website.
But yeah, thank you for joining. Thank you, Paul. Thanks, Elena.