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New Client Profile: StepZen

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About

StepZen is a relatively young company, co-founded by Anant Jhingran (CEO), Sridhar Rajagopalan (CTO) and Helen Whelan (CBO) in January 2020, but is rooted in a deep and long heritage of API and database technology.

Jhingran and Rajagopalan worked together at IBM Research’s Silicon Valley innovation lab in Almaden. Jhingran went on to become CTO of IBM’s Information Management Group, presiding over the introduction of IBM Watson, the system that crushed Jeopardy. Jhingran published multiple papers with Michael Stonebraker, arguably the most important database architect of all time, certainly the most prodigious (see Ingres Corporation, Postgres, Illustra, Paradigm4, StreamBase Systems, Tamr, Vertica and VoltDB). Whelan worked in information management at BEA and content strategy at Adobe before becoming a marketing director.

The three co-founders met at Apigee, the API management company acquired by Google in 2016. They stayed with Google Cloud for several years after the acquisition, and based on their experiences of seeing API use at scale decided to form a company designed to make databases more accessible to application developers.

With headquarters in San Jose, CA and team members in the US and UK, the StepZen team is currently led by the three co-founders and Bill Maggs as Head of Product.

The premise of StepZen is that application development is increasingly driven by microservices, which are in turn driven by APIs. Data is an increasingly important part of these applications, and developers want to incorporate it into their apps with general purpose programming languages and tools. Databases, on the other hand, have been stable and unchanging forces in the technology world, often requiring specialist skills.

The StepZen elevator pitch (from the company itself):

Databases, APIs, and micro services store the world’s data. Yet, the data — the building blocks of APIs that drive the ever-accelerating app economy — is complex, unintuitive, and not easily accessible or programmable. StepZen simplifies and speeds app development by helping developers connect and query all the data they need in a unified data graph.

Size

The company has 14 employees. They raised an $8 million seed investment announced in December 2020 from Neotribe Ventures and Wing Venture Capital.

Product and GTM

StepZen’s platform is available as a fully-managed service (touted as “GraphQL-as-a-Service”). Developers leverage the platform to build GraphQL APIs from disparate sources including SQL and NoSQL databases, REST, and GraphQL. While the managed service aspect alleviates the need for developers to maintain a GraphQL server, StepZen also aims to streamline the setup process by providing built-in connectors for databases such as MySQL and Postgres. It is also expanding its list of pre-built schemas for third-parties such as Algolia, FedEx, Shopify, and Twilio.

StepZen has focused primarily on developer-led adoption buoyed by a free tier (with limits on number of API calls/month and number of backends) that lets technical practitioners kick the tires. However, paid plans–with increases in call/backend limits and support options–create pathways for SMB and enterprise adoption, and an enterprise offering includes deployment to a customer’s private cloud.

The company’s developer focus has also led them to invest early in developer resources and documentation, resulting in useful getting-started guides and demos. A technical partnership with Netlify has also produced some great guides and demos on building Jamstack sites–another trend we have been tracking closely–with StepZen.

Competitive Landscape and Industry Context

The industry’s appetite for higher levels of abstraction has increased recently. We have probably talked more about Heroku in the last year than the decade prior. The need to build things quickly and focus on the parts that are high value without reinventing the wheel is ever more pressing. This need for scaffolding is especially vital in a world of API-driven composite services and developers moving up the stack. We need new middleware for this play, and GraphQL is emerging as a key element of it; it is often used in a return to two-tier architectures, with GraphQL API endpoints being accessed by rich front ends, most often React and other JavaScript frameworks. RedMonk is also seeing TypeScript grow significantly here, with a good fit between GraphQL and the return of more strong typing in application development.

We use the term middleware above intentionally. High level abstractions and managed services are coming together, changing or sometimes even eliminating the role of the DBA when it comes to data-driven services and apps. Managed access to back end services is a key role for the platform team, the team that would be choosing a platform like StepZen. Managed data layers based on GraphQL allow for data access and introspection, with API management functionality for access management and throttling.

GraphQL-based services then become the basis of a modern developer-friendly replacement for the API management platforms of the REST API wave. The market for these GraphQL servers and services is reaching a boiling point as developer-led technology adoption becomes ever more important in the age of Ask Your Developer. So from hyperscalers we have, for example, AWS’s embrace of GraphQL with its AppSync platform for API creation and management.

Then there are GraphQL specialists such as StepZen, Apollo GraphQL and Hasura, which have cross platform stories. StepZen differentiates by focusing on enterprise needs–compliance, stability, performance, control, security etc–while enabling crisp developer experiences. This is where the founders’ history in deep database technology should pay dividends. On developer experience they’ll be competing with the likes of Prisma.

It’s a crowded competitive landscape, with competing approaches and technologies for API handling including classic API management, new API gateway style platforms (AWS AppSync, Kong), API developer tooling (Postman) and Kubernetes stack players looking to simplify the developer experience on cloud native platforms, and of course classic integration plays like Mulesoft. These technologies are overlapping and converging–or as RedMonk calls it smooshing–and we’ll see winners emerge that create compelling developer experiences across data and API fabrics, underpinned by GraphQL, enabling controlled integration, publishing, management, and refactoring of APIs. That’s the space StepZen is attacking.

Disclosure:

StepZen is a RedMonk client, but this is an uncommissioned piece of research. Algolia, AWS, Google Cloud, Hasura, IBM, Prisma, and Salesforce (Heroku, Mulesoft) are also RedMonk clients.

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