We have been following the progress of San Francisco-based Assistly, syncing up every few months with founder and CEO Alex Bard since their creation and participation as a San Diego startup showcase in early 2010. Bard has shared insights for other entrepreneurs on how to determine your first pricing model and subsequent updates. So we were happy to hear the news yesterday that Assistly has already integrated into Salesforce as Desk.com, as it oftentimes is quite a process to work as a separate unit within a larger corporation and launch new products.
It’s interesting how, as an entrepreneur, your goal may be to create an amazing brand and product, sell it to a larger company, work through the integration and then watch your original brand disappear. Alex Bard and his team have done this a few times now with Goowy Media, which was acquired by Aol, and now Assistly.
I had a chance to talk to Alex again while we were on our West Coast Tour last year. Alex has a wealth of knowledge and is a true thought-leader in the startup space. In this interview, Bard shared some entrepreneurial advice and insights for others looking to launch a startup.
Tech Cocktail: You have now started and sold a couple of successful companies, and you’re an advisor to a number of others. What’s the single most important thing you have learned along the way to becoming a serial entrepreneur?
Alex Bard: The most important trait you can cultivate as an entrepreneur is the habit of taking action. The hardest thing about becoming an entrepreneur is the act of starting. Just assume you are going to be wrong and start down the path of getting it right by talking to customers and launching MVPs (minimum viable products). You have to be willing to take the leap and risk time, money, and your mental health to move ahead. Once you pull that ripcord, it can be quite exciting. Every time you have an idea and take action, you have the potential to change the world for the better.
Tech Cocktail: As you were starting to build up Assistly was there any time that you hit a critical juncture when you were not sure the concept was going to work? If so, what did you do to move past it?
Bard: We never had a critical go/no-go moment. You have to remember that this is our third customer support startup, so we had a pretty good idea of the market opportunity and the tool that would address it. But there are always bumps in the road. For us, we moved past these bumps by falling back on belief in the power of service and support and our intimate knowledge of the customer and their pain points.
For other entrepreneurs, I say this: Don’t worry about your competitors. Worry about your customers. With Assistly, we were able to prove pretty early on with our beta product that we would help companies be a lot more efficient and deliver the kind of service that customers expect–which makes them successful.
Because we are invested in an intimate understanding of our customers, there isn’t ever a time that I lose confidence. Knowing I am solving a real customer problem always buoys me during the occasional bad day.
Tech Cocktail: Assistly was focused on customer service and satisfaction. What drew you to this space?
Bard: Peter Drucker once said that “a company’s primary responsibility is to serve its customers,” and I couldn’t agree more. But today there is a revolution in service, particularly for emerging digital businesses, as customers become more social, mobile and global.
The new social/mobile/global consumer is putting unprecedented pressure on support teams of companies of all sizes, but it’s most profound for SMBs. For the first time in history, a company of 12 employees in Finland can have a global customer base numbered in the millions. Customers expect everywhere, all the time, instant support in every channel. Until recently, there were no tools that could help a company address this challenge.
The cloud changes everything. Now even the smallest companies have access to affordable tools like Assistly (now desk.com) that can be set up with no IT resources and can be accessed from a $200 laptop, tablet or smartphone from anywhere in the world. To me, this is the most exciting business to be in.
Tech Cocktail: How would you advise really early-stage companies to think about customer service, when they are just starting to gain customers?
Bard: When startups lose their way, it’s usually because they are not properly obsessed with the task of helping the customer solve real problems. Service should be about connecting every person in your company to the customer — a concept we call “whole company support” and which we’ve enabled with our “flex” part-time users, which costs only $1 per hour.
You can’t survive with silos between service and other departments. Business has turned a corner and those old ideas will hold your business back. Startup companies should make whole company support part of their culture. Customer service should be part of everybody’s job, from the c-suite to engineering, from marketing to finance. There is no better way to orient your business for success than connecting to the customer more effectively.
Tech Cocktail: Based on your experiences, what do most companies do wrong when it comes to customer service?
Bard: I’d say that it’s important to really think about customer service as a key part of your corporate culture. That is, bake it into everything. That way, the “do not reply” email and other practices that push the customer away are less likely to infect your culture. Progressive startups and scrappy small businesses really get that — and they are building their corporate cultures around it. Assistly customer 37 Signals is a great example. Their development team rotates into support; every engineer spends one week a month working with customer issues and bugs. That’s a clear demonstration of their commitment to customers.
Tech Cocktail: If you were stirring the perfect metaphoric “startup cocktail” what would the parts of your perfect recipe include?
Bard: The perfect “startup cocktail” would be equal parts:
2. Understanding the lean startup model (read Eric Ries and Steve Blank)
3. A bias for progress over perfection
4. Probably most important – a patient and understanding family!
Stirred, not shaken. Strained into a chilled glass. To be enjoyed with friends.