Scaphold is a new startup that is building a backend-as-a-service platform, powered by GraphQL. The platform gives a developer access to the most powerful API technologies available, so that they can focus on building great apps. They’re in the current Y Combinator Fellowship batch, along with fellow UVA alum startup, Contraline. In the program, they receive funding, world class mentorship from the most proven entrepreneurs, and access to the most elite network of tech leaders and venture capitalists. Companies that have risen out of Y Combinator include Airbnb, Dropbox, Twitch, Coinbase, and the list goes on.
Vince Ning (UVA 2015 Computer Science & Economics) and Michael Paris (UVA 2015 Computer Science with an Engineering Business Minor), the two co-founders behind Scaphold, are passionate about helping others build cool things. For them, that mainly revolves around improving the developer experience both from a product and an educational perspective. “The goal of Scaphold is to give people the best tools they need to build awesome products without having to worry about their backend systems.”
Being extremely curious about new technologies, their original idea wasn’t necessarily a business but more of a fascination with a technology that made their lives easier. Ning and Paris had hit upon the idea for Scaphold after seeing the benefits of a new technology called GraphQL. GraphQL was developed at Facebook to power their web and mobile apps and is a significant improvement the REST architecture that many apps are built on today; both co-founders are experienced with REST APIs and have found that they “get really verbose and messy as an app scales.”
“We like to refer to it as the future of APIs,” they say about GraphQL. “Many of its strengths can be attributed to a type system, which helps to make APIs safer, cleaner, and easier to manage at scale. Another thing GraphQL does exceptionally well is to combine multiple data sources behind one standardized API endpoint. We are really focused on enhancing the frontend development experience while giving you the flexibility to use your existing data and services. For example, you can use our Stripe integration to hook into your personal Stripe account and add payments to your API in a few clicks. In our opinion, GraphQL is simply a better way to build apps. We foresee it challenging REST as the standard for building APIs and would not be surprised to see it start being taught in the classroom and adopted by more businesses.”
The team is also spending a lot of time promoting the technology. “As with any new technology, it’s largely an education challenge. Although the numbers of adopters are quickly rising, not too many people outside of Facebook are using GraphQL yet. We are trying to help change that. Having experience with GraphQL is going to continue to be an important skill in the industry and students would really benefit from learning it. Our service is one way to quickly start doing that.”
Their Journey So Far
Before applying to Y Combinator, Paris and Ning were not strangers to the entrepreneurship scene. Back at the University, Paris had worked on a book-trading platform called TJ’s Library and a music-related app called Rapback. In their fourth year of UVA, Ning, Paris, and three other close friends had entered and won second place in the 2014 UVA Entrepreneurship Cup competition with their idea for a music-meets-fantasy-sports platform, Nostrajamus. “It taught us so much about operating a business as well as how to create a product that users love,” Ning says. After building it out for an entire year, the five team members graduated with jobs at impressive firms.
Paris and Ning stayed together, living together and working at Microsoft in Seattle. “We love picking at new technology, so while working at Microsoft, in the evenings we would come home from work and hack away for a few hours every night to build out the early code for Scaphold. It’s been quite an interesting ride since we would often times get carried away writing code for the platform and end up staying up all night.” Being hamstringed by full-time jobs, they were not able to move as quickly as they wanted to with Scaphold.
They’re also avid educators. Paris led a student-taught class on web development with Angular and Node.js, and Ning taught courses in web development at Seattle University. Their teaching perspective gave them insight on how to improve the overall development experience by seeing where their students had struggled.
They hacked away to build the core platform over a few months, and their persistence in working on the platform constantly and building it up piece by piece finally panned out. Having eventually built a functional prototype, they applied to Y Combinator in March 2016. Up until this point, they were just two guys who spent a few hours a night working on their project, struggling to build something great while keeping their dayjobs as their top priority. They scored an interview, the evening after which Y Combinator extended them an offer to be in their summer fellowship batch. “A few weeks later, we both quit our jobs at Microsoft, and the rest is history.”
Since then, they’ve been focused on getting users to build apps on their platform in order to get user feedback to help them improve the service. They’ve also been working long hours, attending hackathons, and speaking at developer meetups to spread the word about GraphQL in the developer community.
Perspectives on Student Entrepreneurship at UVA
Over their four years at the University of Virginia from 2011 to 2015, they saw the support for student entrepreneurship evolve rapidly. “When I was a first year, I wasn’t aware of anyone that came out of UVA that built any sort of meaningful business from the ground up aside from Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman who built Reddit,” Ning says. “Most people ended up going to work at jobs at big banks, consulting, and large tech firms. Now, we’re seeing more and more people working on their own ideas even at school, and it’s making a huge impact in the student community.” He believes that there are more UVA alumni pursuing entrepreneurship than students are aware of; in their batch of Y Combinator fellowship alone, there are five UVA alumni, “which I believe is more than any other school in our batch.”
The Scaphold guys think that the most valuable resources at the university are the people. “If you can get one group of students to work on something they dreamt up and believe in, the rest will be inspired to do the same.” Besides the people, there are many opportunities outside the classroom. Paris and Ning saw success by attempting to get funding from various entrepreneurship competitions available for students. “Through the process, you’ll not only think about how to pitch the business itself to get funding, but also build it and market it.”
Ning also credits the Alpha Kappa Psi business fraternity with helping orient him in the business aspect, “since it’s hard to get that sort of broad array of business experience elsewhere as an engineer unless you’re also in the McIntire School of Commerce.”
Connecting Back to Younger Entrepreneurs and the Path Forward
In terms of advice given to younger entrepreneurs, they want it to be known that you should “not let the fear of not having a job at a Fortune 500 company prevent you from pursuing entrepreneurship. As a student, you have so much time to find your niche and if you have an entrepreneurial spirit you should follow it. You’ll regret it if you don’t!”
Their next steps are to get more users, to get feedback, and to continue building an awesome platform. If you’re interested in helping out the Scaphold team, the most valuable thing readers of this article could do is to play around on the platform, start building an app on Scaphold, and provide them feedback. “We have an extensive free tier so it won’t cost them any money and we will build any features they might need that we don’t already provide. We also have a couple tutorials on our blog that can help them get started and will be rolling out more soon! We really think that GraphQL is the future of APIs and our platform makes it easier than ever to leverage this cutting edge technology in a matter of minutes. We have a lot of features in the pipeline so if you have one that you would like to use please don’t hesitate to let us know.”