airSlate Goes On The Record

January 12, 2021
min read

Today, we announced our investment in airSlate, a company founded just over 10 years ago by a team we’ve known for even longer. What follows is an accounting of how one person’s frustration with a popular digital document format and another’s informatic’s genius combining to build one of the most substantial businesses you’ve never heard of.

There’s no shortage of hubris in the venture business. We write blog posts like this one to talk about the outsized potential of the companies we’ve just backed. Those posts are invariably filled with the boundless opportunities that are being enabled by the super potential of some new technology. This isn’t exactly one of those stories.

Modernizing PDF
Vadim Yasinovsky and Boris Shakhnovich met in Boston after emigrating from the former Soviet Union. Vadim, an experienced software developer and a serial entrepreneur, came in 1978 as one of the first Jewish refugees out of the USSR, while Borya (as everyone calls Boris) came as a child in 1990 with his parents when his father secured a position teaching at Harvard.

Borya Shakhnovich, CEO, airSlate (l) and Vadim Yasinovsky, CPO, airSlate (r)

In 2004 Vadim became intrigued with PDF technology — a universal, open document format popularized by Adobe in the 80s and 90s designed as a printer driver technology and useful for reading online documents. The format intended to be “read-only,” but in the age of cloud, PDFs were increasingly used to collect data and e-signatures. Vadim thought, “What’s the point of a universal format that can’t be updated?” So he built a cloud-native software system that would allow a user to edit the document without altering the format or its integrity. He called the app “pdfFiller” and launched it to friends and family.

Meanwhile, Borya was pursuing a career in academia. He’d studied computational biophysics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign before earning a Ph.D. in bioinformatics from Boston University and becoming one of the youngest faculty in the subject at Boston University, later teaching at Harvard. Bored with the academic life, Borya jumped into entrepreneurship, first founding a sort of LinkedIn for scientists and then becoming Vadim’s partner to grow pdfFiller.

Elbowing Into the Market
Borya and Vadim knew the product they had with pdfFiller significantly improved the document workflow experience. The next challenge was getting in front of potential customers. At his previous company, Borya had built out a performance marketing engine that could efficiently get a product in front of millions of people. He migrated that capability to pdfFiller and within its first year of commercial availability in 2012, they gained more than 10,000 customers. Then, relying only on direct online sales, they grew to 150,000 customers and from $1M to greater than $15M in revenue.

At this point, Borya and Vadim knew they were really on to something.

The success of pdfFiller as a prosumer/SMB product gave Borya and Vadim insight into a large, underserved part of the cloud software market. To create a platform that would be robust enough to serve SMB, they’d need to expand the scope of their product dramatically. To do that, they (finally) needed to raise capital.

We met Borya and Vadim in 2017. We loved that they had bootstrapped and how product-focused and future-oriented they were. It was easy to share a much bigger vision for the company. We invested $40M in the company, and GC executive-in-residence (XIR) Paul Sagan and I joined Borya and Vadim to form the company’s board.

We debated how to announce the company and both our investment and the products. As investors, we were, of course, excited about the existing pdfFiller product and wanted to gain more visibility for the company. On the other hand, Borya and Vadim felt that the company was at a critical juncture, and it would be better to hold off until their vision of future products was in place. So we stayed stealthy, letting the performance marketing continue to attract more and more enthusiastic customers as the company grew.

Setting Higher Sights
Customers who edited forms and documents often also needed to sign them electronically. DocuSign was the market leader for this capability, but a strong, mobile-first product called signNow had that same functionality. The team’s first big move after GC’s investment was to acquire signNow from Barracuda Networks and incorporate its e-signature functionality with pdfFiller. Adding signNow’s capabilities and focusing on product improvements, the team could now approach the SMB market in earnest.

Creating a new automated workflow with airSlate.

Capturing Workflow
As cloud applications took off, nearly every function of a company’s workflow was digitized. Existing products for PDF editing, forms, and e-signatures were all just features in the broader context of business automation. Limited in scope, the existing products in the market required complex programming and integrations. They were hard to use and expensive to maintain. Missing, especially for SMB customers, was a workflow engine that could easily tie those newly digitized functions together.

Starting with pdfFiller and signNow, Borya and the team began to build a comprehensive business automation platform that would have the capabilities to streamline and automate any customer or employee interaction or business process. From scratch, they created a no-code platform that lets companies create bespoke automated flows for contracts, documents, business processes, and e-signature. True to its mission, this new platform was made available and affordable to even the smallest customers, but powerful enough to be used by the Fortune 500. After two years and the work of 80 engineers, the new platform, coined airSlate, launched.

airSlate "no code" automation UI

At Last, It’s Launched
With the airSlate platform, the company has unified its products. They’ve created channel programs and have attracted a developer community intending to create an entire ecosystem of solutions to address the myriad business needs of the SMB market. By now, despite its stealthy nature, the company was getting attention from major new customers and investors alike. And Morgan Stanley and HighSage Ventures joined GC as investors by leading the company’s $40M Series B.

Today’s news is the first public announcement for airSlate, its investment history, and its product platform. The company is now over 800 employees strong, has more than 700,000 paying customers ranging from small dental offices to large government agencies, and is on track to north of $100M in annual recurring revenue.

We believe there’s real potential for airSlate to become the de facto standard for SMBs using no-code solutions for their applications and processes. Our friends Borya and Vadim may have been right about the stealthy start, but with this launch, we can expect a bigger, louder story ahead.

Larry Bohn & Team GC