Patrick Murphy
August 23, 2023

The Autonomous Company

Our thoughts on the rise of the autonomous company, inspired by Fredrik Bjork, of edge-first data platform Grafbase.

The Rise of The Autonomous Company

Software has sped up almost every facet of our lives, not least how we work. As a new generation of software tools springs up to further accelerate society’s progress, we asked ourselves: is it possible to have an autonomous company? Can modern software tools bring maximum efficiency with minimal headcount out of the ether and into reality?

Someone paving the way in this space is Fredrik Bjork. Previously, Fredrik scaled online retailer The RealReal from 30 people through 3,000 and an IPO as CTO. Today, he is the founder of Grafbase, an edge-first data platform that enables developers to deploy unified, serverless GraphQL backends in seconds.

While Fredrik is building a company that automates a large part of backend development, he’s also using that mindset to streamline his own business and automate as much of it as possible.

We spoke to Fredrik about the tools he uses, and were inspired to put together our combined thoughts on the rise of the autonomous company – complete with the toolkit being used by the other repeat founders in our portfolio to streamline their businesses for the autonomous age.

Prototyping Power Plays: Accelerating the Path to your MVP

From our experience, repeat founders rarely dive head-first into starting a new company. They know that if the company works, they will end up spending 10 years building it, and so they are often more cold-blooded and analytical than first-time founders about validating their initial hypotheses. 

Fortunately, it has never been easier to build and validate an idea thanks to the proliferation of prototyping tools and the ease of hiring affordable, high-quality freelancers to work on projects for fixed periods. For example, Fredrik had been thinking about the idea for Grafbase for some time but when he made up his mind to build it, he moved fast: 

“I worked with two contractors: a front end developer on Vercel and a designer on Figma, and built the backend myself. The three of us built the first version of Grafbase. I paid them in the region of $2k each out of pocket and we worked on the project for 3 months before it was ready and I showed it to a bunch of people. After that, I decided to move forward.”

Depending on what you’re building, specific tools will suit specific MVP requirements. If the primary goal is to validate a user interface concept, a tool like Figma might be ideal. If the MVP needs to be a functional app with limited features, a no-code solution like Builder AI leveraging real developers for a fixed fee might be more appropriate.

To build a prototype for something as complex as Grafbase in three months with two team members is something technical startups could only have dreamed of just a few years ago – and while it’s partly a testament to Fredrik’s clarity of vision, it also shows what’s possible. 

Operations on Autopilot: Streamlining Startup Operations

Fortunately for founders like Fredrik, a whole range of companies have sprung up in the last few years that have completely transformed the landscape when it comes to operational support, making the process of optimizing operations smoother and faster than ever before. 

Fredrik told us that tools like payroll platform Deel, neobank Mercury and pricing platform Orb have played crucial roles in Grafbase's operations and resolved a number of issues and headaches he previously would have had to fix himself or hire people to deal with.

Deel has enabled Grafbase to tap into the global talent pool, while remaining compliant with international labor laws, and have made it incredibly easy to expand and contract a team at a moment’s notice. Fredrik continues to be shocked that he has not yet had to hire a full-time operations person, for a company with almost two dozen employees now and growing. 

When it comes to finances, there are also a plethora of options to make the process of managing a company’s funds easier than ever. Mercury, Fredrik’s bank of choice for Grafbase, and Relay are great examples of this, featuring sleek user interfaces and great apps, along with features like API access and treasury/savings products that means businesses can earn interest on balances to support operations and service costs.

For companies that rely on usage based pricing, new tools like Orb can takes care of the billing infrastructure that might have taken months to create before. Fredrik said his team now spend more time talking about their pricing model than integrating it – a breath of fresh air for a process that has traditionally been the very opposite! 

For building blocks like data pipelines and dashboards, new tools like Mozart Sonata and TinyBird have changed the game. Mozart Sonata offers a turn-key modern data stack without needing dedicated data engineers. Tinybird is a serverless data warehouse that helps engineering teams build real-time dashboards for their customers. Fredrik was blown away by some of the tools he came across:

“When you think about that process of building real time dashboards for customers that show analytics and performance metrics for APIs, it takes a while to collect the metrics, put them in the time series database, write in the APIs, consume them, display them. It’s at least a month or two of work normally. But we discovered Tinybird, which solved two problems in one and we essentially did that in two weeks. I was blown away by how quickly it was done. When you look at a dashboard in a SaaS tool, you usually say, "OK, this is where they spent their time." So doing this almost felt like cheating.”

The Limits of Automation: Hacking Recruiting

Despite the huge strides in automation, it’s clear that not everything can be automated.

With recruiting, there is no panacea that can find you the best talent to 10x your startup. But there are more tools and data at your disposal than ever before, and using these intelligently can expand your recruiting funnel and cut time-to-hire dramatically.

After Fredrik raised his pre-seed round, he started recruiting immediately. He did the ‘usual’ things, posting on Hacker News and using Wellfound (formerly AngelList Talent). But he also scraped Twitter/X and LinkedIn for people he followed that might be relevant, something we recommend to all of our founders. He looked for keywords in profiles that were important to him, and was able to personally outreach to a couple hundred highly relevant people:

“It was really just a process of blocking out a few hours and hammering through it. All the posts on Hacker News and the tweets were very specific. We use Rust. We’re a serverless company. We're using GraphQL So already that's a pretty big filter right there. From the beginning I also said, "I want to have A-players," people who expect to have a higher paycheck but I also expect them to be really good.”

The specificity that comes with experience was clearly an advantage for Fredrik here, but these tactics yielded his first six hires in minimal time, showing just how much more efficient recruitment can be in the age of automation.

Autonomy is Enabling Your Best Resource: People

There’s also more than just recruiting that can’t be automated away. Software development, fundraising, relationship building, and finding product-market fit still require a human touch. When we asked Fredrik what he thought couldn’t be automated, he said:

“You definitely need to build relationships face-to-face. We are fully remote but we do meet once or twice a year as there's no replacement for that. We combine it with some fun activities and dinners and then we also work together. I really don’t see any reason to have an office and go there every day. For building stuff, the tools, the systems, the processes are so good that it's something that can take care of itself as long as you have the right team.”

Building an autonomous company is not about the autonomy, but about the freedom this autonomy creates to spend time on what’s most important – enabling your people to work together better as a team. 

But one thing is clear. The autonomous company is no longer a sci-fi fantasy. It’s being built in front of our eyes and its implications for the future of modern business are limitless.