Supabase’s Paul Copplestone on Working to Create the World’s Most Productive Developer Platform
The CEO and Cofounder on taking an idea and building it better, trying new things to achieve success, and never underestimating the power of a little luck.
Paul Copplestone is a full-stack developer and entrepreneur that has been building his company, Supabase, since early 2020. Supabase is an open-source Firebase alternative that aims to provide developers with all the tools needed to “build in a weekend and then scale to billions.” With a stroke of genius Paul couldn’t have predicted would make such a difference, one positioning tweak took the user base from eighty to 800 virtually overnight. Now, the company has a team of over 50 employees and continues to see steady growth.
I sat down with Paul to learn how he got his start in a “hacker house” with seven different entrepreneurs as roommates, how he plans to reach Supabase’s ultimate goal, and how trying new things—whether massive or minuscule—can make all the difference.
When and why did you start Supabase? Tell me about that journey.
I’ve been a techie for nearly 20 years now and around eight years ago, I got into startups. I actually moved to Southeast Asia to build my first startup. I was the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for that one and, after a couple of years, I left there and began looking where to go next. I landed on Singapore and did the Entrepreneur First program. They gave me a visa to live in Singapore for a year and build a company.
I didn't end up building a company within the program, however, I met a ton of really interesting people. I ended up living with five of them and we all started building companies. I think there were, in the end, seven people in the flat, building five different companies. I started building my second business as the CTO and this one was very operationally intensive. It was a B2B office management platform.
We built this product and made it look like WhatsApp, and the underlying tech was Firebase, which is very good at building chat applications. We ran into some scaling problems and I migrated the tech from Firebase to the Postgres database. Postgres, however, has this one missing feature that's quite a killer feature of Firebase: It doesn't have any real-time systems.
With Firebase, you can insert data and you can have many devices listening to the database and they'll receive those messages. Postgres doesn't have that built in. So I ended up building a real-time engine, open-sourcing it, and I put it on Hacker News. It started getting a lot of traction.
From there, I'd been brewing this idea to build a company like Supabase and I thought, "Well, this is a good time." I knew that I wanted to do it. I told my Cofounder of my second startup that I planned to do it, and so we found another CTO to replace me. Then, I actually reached out to one of the people that I lived with in that first house. We had done a few things together over the years, so I knew he was a great techie and that we were very aligned in the way we think.
I pitched him the idea and he decided he would join me. That was around January 2020, and we kicked off Supabase from there.
Take me to when you decided to open-source this. Were you thinking of doing this as a company yet? Or did you see the traction coming and then get inspired to think about it in terms of a company?
I'd kind of been building this idea of starting a developer tools business, and really the traction of the open-source product was just the impetus. Funnily enough, I think it got maybe 100 stars on GitHub, and at the time I was stoked about that. I thought, "Wow, 100 stars. It's really popular." That was a big deal for me. Now, 100 stars probably isn’t something to call a lot of traction, but it was enough to nudge me over the line.
Now you have over 42,000 stars on GitHub… So you've had a wild run over the past two years. We'd love to hear a little bit about your CEO-ing journey, from getting into YC to today.
So in January 2020, we kicked it off and met a bunch of people. At that time, it was positioned as a real-time Postgres. We chatted with a lot of developers and it wasn't really resonating, to be honest. We raised about $100,000 of angel funds, then we got into YC. That's when COVID was kicking off, so it was the first fully-remote YC badge.
Before we even got in or started the program, we actually changed the tagline on the website from “Realtime Postgres” to “The Open-Source Firebase Alternative.” We were planning on launching after YC, but that day, it was shared on Hacker News and went on top.
It stayed there for two days and became the second most upvoted dev tools launch ever (after Stripe!). We went from about eighty databases to 800. We quickly ran out of DigitalOcean credits, so we migrated all the databases. From that, we really knew the positioning was very good.
Who were those first 80 users? What kinds of developers were they and what types of companies?
If you want to start a database company, you have one of two problems. Either you try to go top-down and you say, "Hey, we've got this super scalable database. Do you want to use it?" And they say no because they're already running on a database and it's incredibly hard to migrate all of your operational data to another database. Or you say to indie developers, "Hey, do you want to use this database?" And they might say, "Yes, but only if you offer it for free." Then you have to pay a lot of money. Databases are expensive to run, so we were trying to figure out how we can do this.
In the end, we were just sort of dabbling. We put out a self-serve, we were reaching out to a lot of developers in the region, and we were building the platform. We knew that there was something there. It's just that we didn't have anyone who was at the very start of their journey.
So every month we would just start shipping. I would do a video. I'd put it on GitHub or on YouTube. We'd do GitHub releases, we'd do Dev Dude posts, and we'd do Hashnode. I'd put it on any channel I could think of. Then, we would have one person sign up and they would spin up the database.
It wasn't super smooth at the start, but it was enough to receive some feedback.
That didn't last for that long, though, because you started getting some real traction at some point.
Yeah, it would have been April, I think.
Talk about what happened there.
Well, it was literally that. There were no changes other than the fact that we changed the tagline on the website.
Why do you think that was so significant? What was it about that shift?
The candid response is that I don't know. I really don't know. I consume Hacker News a lot and people give their opinions on Hacker News all of the time. I'm always reading the comments and seeing what people want.
So I don't actually know why we changed it to “The Open-Source Firebase Alternative,” but I suspect it's just because I'd been reading Hacker News and thought, "Oh, we should try out this positioning. I know that people are frustrated with Firebase, and most of the tooling that we're building is to replace Firebase." So I just sort of threw that on the website.
What is monetization like for Supabase?
There are three tiers for Supabase right now. A free tier, which has some quotas. You can max out at half a gigabyte in the database, and if you don't use it for a week, we'll pause it and then you can restart it again if you want to use it. Then we have a pro tier, which starts at $25 plus usage. Then, if you use more and more of it, you just pay for more. We also have an enterprise tier for larger customers, with a few extra bells and whistles that only they really need.
What’s the vision for Supabase? Where do you want to go from here?
We want to be the world's most productive developer platform. We want to offer all the things that a developer needs to get started with a project. We want to make sure that when you start with us, you never see any limitations. The idea is that whatever you think is the best tech, that's what we have provided. So we've given you the best tools, no matter what stage of your journey. The ultimate goal is to make sure that the developer can, essentially, build in a weekend and then scale to billions.
How do you stay close to the customer right now?
We've got a huge community, so it really depends. There are so many channels to stay close. You can talk to them directly, which we do. Or there is reading support tickets, reading Hacker News, reading Reddit, reading our Discord, reading our GitHub, and staying on Twitter. Basically, you just turn it into a fire hose of content coming in, and then we turn that into what we should build.
What's stressing you out these days?
I'm not as stressed out because we've been incredibly fortunate to have all these ex-founders and very competent people on our team. So they help me out a lot. We also were incredibly lucky to raise a big round of money before the markets tanked. It's more self-enforced stress right now. We know the stages of the business that we need to go through and we need to move fast to achieve these things.
What's motivating you?
I'm a product guy, so I really focus on that. I think everyone in the company is motivated by different things. That's our overarching goal. Everyone really loves the tech, but if you spoke to my Cofounder, Ant Wilson, he also is very interested in building the ultimate company and the team of people that he really wants to work with. That's another thing that motivates me. This is an instance where we work better together because he's much more focused on those things and he's done an excellent job there.
Supabase is well known for their Launch Weeks, a week long of product announcements. Launch Week 6 is happening from Dec 12 – 16 and will be their biggest one yet