Shane Hegde met the man who would co-found Air while they were both students at Stanford. The two shared a background in computer science, and Hegde also dabbled in finance. As Hegde puts it, “We both fell in love with this intersection between media and technology.”
Yet, they would individually follow slightly different routes. Hegde would ultimately lean more heavily into investing after graduation, working in angel investing and private equity. At the same time, his partner would focus more on the entrepreneurial side when he began his own live streaming business. “We always wanted to build something together,” said Hegde, and their divergent yet interconnected focuses eventually led them to that unique “something.”
As a media or a marketing company, you deal with a lot of files, and organizing these files can be an absolute nightmare. This is especially true for fitting them into the flow of completing a given project. When discussing the inspiration for Air, CEO and co-founder Shane Hegde said, “The thesis for the business came together based on the fact that every company was becoming a media company and the reality that it’s difficult to work with images, videos and PDFs in the cloud at scale. When you have thousands of these things, organizing them and getting feedback and distributing them becomes challenging.”
When faced with this particular pain point, many companies may turn to a DAM service or a Digital Asset Management system. Still, Hegde and his service Air are trying to present a better alternative. In reference to the main software, Air sells against, Hegde says, “We don’t think anybody should buy a DAM. They are super expensive pieces of software, and they’re sold top down. They’re tens of thousands of dollars and sold in archaic ways. People don’t like to buy software with a sales team and six-month-long processes and twelve week-long integrations.”
In many ways, Hegde has hit the nail on the head. Today’s truly successful users and business owners seek the simplest, most streamlined methods to run their day-to-day operations. Compared to most DAM services’ complexity, such as Bynder and Brandfolder, Air comes across as remarkably simple to drop into and get fully integrated. The service offers an excellent alternative to all that fuss and headache: Users can try the service for free and ultimately spend as little as $30 a month instead of dumping both money and time into a different product that might not ultimately suit their needs.
But what exactly is Air, and what does it bring to the table?
This SaaS business bills itself as the first Creative Operations system built with marketers in mind. Not only does it provide its users with a cloud storage service to keep and share their files throughout their company, but it also has built-in tools that make organization much more manageable. An intelligent search and tagging system can make finding exactly the file you need as simple as searching one or two keywords. When your files can number in the thousands, this service aspect can quickly become indispensable. Air can sync files from other services that it presents itself as an alternative to, such as Google Drive and Dropbox, as well as from externally connected hard drives, and it can share to these services just as easily. In the words of the co-founder himself, “The traditional enterprise software category here is digital asset management, and that’s a part of our business. So, it’s digital asset management; it’s collaboration and creative reviews. You can go through the feedback and approval processes with your content, and we’ll integrate all of your different systems around your organization. We’ll also allow content to flow through the different systems and processes, and then it’s project management so that you can go from ideation through to delivery in your tool.”
Target Customers and What Brings Them to Air
At its outset, Air’s founders were focused heavily on the technical aspects of getting their brainchild up and running. They would spend the first handful of years developing the underlying framework that the service would be built on, hiring a team of people to focus heavily on the product side of the business. All of this would be in service of being able to actively demonstrate their product to potential customers, giving them the ability to show and not tell. But of course, inevitably, it came time to determine who precisely those customers would be. “We had our baseline business understandings to say okay, who might the buyer be in an organization? We wanted to experiment with everything from prosumer to large enterprise on who our customer was. And that was tough. It was a lot of trial and error and experimentation.”
Air’s core ideal customer profile is marketers, and that’s who they focus on first in terms of getting their foot in an organization’s door. Typically, the use of Air then spreads from the marketing team to the design team, then to the product team. “Over 90 days, we usually get to anywhere from 50 to 60% of headcount starts using our tool at a target organization,” says Hegde. Industry-wise, Hegde describes Air as “agnostic,” but they do focus primarily on direct-to-consumer and e-commerce businesses. “They are a rapidly growing segment for us, and they’ve just been great because they’re super brand-oriented. The content needs to stretch across the organization, and we become the first piece of real media infrastructure they have.”
Air’s Process of Scaling and Hegde’s Advice for Others
Hegde and his co-founder have been working on Air for roughly four and half years. Two years ago, they launched their first pilot program, with the waitlist being established approximately six months after that. The free tier for the Air service would launch just half a year later. Air is currently composed of a team of 40 people, and Hegde has great ambitions for the future of their company. “The first four years of this business were building the foundational building blocks for the product, and the next four years will be about owning and serving the creative process end to end. And being the ubiquitous tool for how the creative process has operated at companies and for individuals across the globe,” he says.
In terms of advice for other SaaS founders, Hegde stresses that they shouldn’t be hasty when monetizing their products. He puts heavy emphasis on being “really thoughtful about how you are serving your customers and making sure that you’re serving your customers in the right way and then slowly get into charging again.”
Furthermore, he advises that founders make an effort to ensure their go-to-market strategy is matched to the ACV, or Annual Contract Value, of the customers they’re targeting. “If you’re going to charge people, hundreds of thousands of dollars for your SaaS product, then yeah, you can go to their office and…you can have a six-month-long sales process like that,” he says, “[but] if you’re selling $10 and $30 tooling, then you’ve got to have people who can convert and buy that all on their own.
There’s a spectrum, obviously, between those two things, but you have to make sure that how you’re selling your product matches who you’re selling it to and how much you’re charging.”