18 September 2018: Decisions
It is 1 am. I anxiously open the E app—one of the premier fintech apps in India, backed by one of the most premier digital product and venture companies in India. I go straight to the “Support” section of the app and heave a sigh of relief when I see “Powered by Freshchat” at the bottom of the screen.
The fintech app had been one of the key apps that was a happy customer of our previous product, Hotline.io, and even one year into the launch of our new product, with aggressive pricing and many new features, it had been hard to migrate some of our bigger, happy customers. We announced the end of life of the product, and I wanted to confirm all the customers—more so, the ones with a large install base—had made the move to the new product.
It has been great learning on the decision-making front—team decisions, product decisions, engineering decisions, marketing decisions.
There’s one decision to be made today, though. I had announced to the Freshchat team that we will all go to Thailand when we hit our third BIG revenue milestone. I guess I never thought we’d hit those numbers within one year. Nor had I done the math on how big a team we would be by this time! Now, it’s logistically too hard to pull off a Thailand trip.
Sorry team, we had to settle with Vagamon, not Thailand. We’ll have to just picture it to be Thailand! Also, Vagamon was a great trip. ?
— Freshchat (@freshchatapp) September 18, 2017
July 2018: That elusive momentum
Will I even be able to keep up with all the activity around me? We’ve doubled our team—I don’t know every person on the team well enough anymore, and can’t figure how to make up the time to catch up with each of them.
The momentum I was writing about last year (Market trumps all else) is now something our team is really experiencing. It’s a “Virtuous Cycle”.
The third chat product I’ve worked on is off to a fantastic start, and this also happens to be the kind of visible product where success begets more success. The team is loving it, new challenges each week. The product managers are having to deal with making the product work really well for customers of all sizes. The marketing team is chasing new heights to keep the pedal pressed on the accelerator. The pre-sales and support team is reeling under high volumes and learning how to cope with it.
20 February 2017: Losing my temper—The walk
There are probably four-five people who have seen me express anger openly at my workplace. I very vividly remember the three times this has happened over the span of the last 11 years of my work life.
I did not put my anger on display today, but this might have been one of my worst moments—I was mighty pissed. In my mind, I was still the ex-CEO, running a product that had seen reasonable success (Hotline.io), and was delivering industry-leading experiences for in-app customer support. But I had just been in a meeting where I felt my CEO and SVP Engineering were pushing me towards a decision to shut my product, asking me to create a new one that would solve the same customer engagement problem for web and mobile.
“Why not just add the web component on top? It’s not easy to go to our customers and tell them we need to make a breaking change and that there isn’t an easy migration path for them. It isn’t easy for them to get their customers to move to a new app with our new SDK either!” I had argued.
“You aren’t wearing the Freshworks hat, and you aren’t thinking long term on this. Don’t let the decisions you made for a non-bot mobile-only world hold you back” is what I was hearing from two people I respected and had more experience than me.
My intelligence was hijacked. “That’s just in theory, I am closer to the ground and should just get to do this the way I want”, I thought in my mind. Other thoughts on my mind went like this: “How will I explain this to my huge European customer who is looking for us to launch the EU datacenter for Hotline in August? How will I tell my large category leading app customers who just came on board our platform that they need to do the integration again and migrate their users? Are we going to see some of our key logos churn in all this confusion?”. I was caught between what is right for the customer and the business and what is easy.
Today, I did not take a quick cab ride back home like I usually do. I was upset enough that I decided I’ll just walk it home to cool off a bit. Despite the heat and humidity, a two and a half mile walk should calm me down and also help me put my thoughts together.
I called Vignesh, my fellow co-founder from our start-up, and asked him what he thought. While I had assumed he would reassure me in my thought process, he instead said “Deepak (the third co-founder and CTO) and I agree that starting on a clean slate will help us architect this better keeping in mind the scale we need as we move to web and mobile. A fresh start also means we can take this as an opportunity to leave behind baggage we don’t want to carry on from our first version of Konotor in 2013.”.
What? You too Vignesh? Of course, I’m the one who would have to deal with customers and their migration plans.
“I hope this doesn’t erode the trust our customers have placed on us. I really hope we can make this smooth for them.” I thought to myself. “I’ll take the plunge and make this happen. I have to ‘disagree and commit’ here.”
October 2017: “Play” as one team
It’s a little over two weeks since we launched Freshchat. And guess what? We started day one with some awesome revenue numbers.
Two weeks after the launch here we are, an intra-team cricket match! Vigneswaran’s XI vs Sudhir’s XI was fun. It was great fun. Probably the first time in a long while that I’m taking a break, and so is the team. We have our whole engineering, marketing, and support team on a team trip to Bandipur wildlife reserve. The trip hasn’t been just about the cricket match. We spotted tigers, panthers, peacocks, deer, elephants, and we are having a lot of fun playing games, and sharing stories from our journeys thus far.
The trip has been transformational for us—I can see a visible difference in the rapport built between the two teams we had put together to build Freshchat. It is no longer the freshchat.io folks and the hotline.io folks—it is all ONE TEAM now. The insecurities and hurt caused by the “merging” of teams had been successfully negotiated. I can see that this team trip is a significant milestone in bringing us all together, especially after the crazy hustle to launch.
November 2017: “I told you so!”
“We have the APIs ready!” I announced to the product team at one of our big customers, let’s call them S.
“Sorry, but we’ve already started building these features at our end,” came their unexpected reply.
Their product team had asked me about APIs for Hotline.io in August, and I had to tell them that they’d need to wait for November for us to launch the APIs in the new product Freshchat. I, in fact, had told them we had these built already, shared the specs too, and had let them know that they would have to wait only because we won’t be launching the feature with Hotline and it would take a month. They said if we didn’t give them an environment where they could start playing with it, they would need to look elsewhere.
I did not believe this could happen too quickly and knew we’d be ready pretty soon. But looks like our gamble to launch as a new product and the two months of delay has cost us dearly. I had worked really hard to win this account and now my worst fear of losing a key customer had come true.
Another growing customer, G, an emerging on-demand startup, were pretty upset too. “It’s been just nine months since we invested so much time and effort to integrate Hotline into our app, and now you want us to switch again? You need to make this seamless for us! What’s the migration plan? I can’t force our users to download a new app”, reproached K, their head of Customer Support. “Trust me K, some pain today is going to help us move faster tomorrow” was my response. And I hoped he would trust me.
I knew this would upset our top customers and that’s exactly what was happening. If only we had done this my way…
December 2017: Grow, grow, grow
We have started picking up steam. Our support team is reeling under the pressure of an increased number of customers (a great problem to have), many of whom need help customizing the widget, understanding what they are doing wrong setting up our chat on their website, needing help with setting up push notifications for their mobile app chat, etc. Clearly, we are growing faster than anticipated.When the biggest fish in the pond makes pointed references to you in their marketing content, you are doing something right. Click To Tweet
In a quick month of adding more customers and MRR than we had ever added before by a large margin, the mental baggage and the hurt of losing a couple of customers in the transition is now gone. We are leaping forward big time on logo addition and revenue, I just need to focus on keeping the team focused on making every month better than the last.
Apparently, the competition took note as well. When the biggest fish in the pond makes pointed references to you in their marketing content, you are doing something right. I really don’t mind us getting any publicity at this time. If they want to show an image of our product in their marketing content, I am HAPPY! Guess what? Customers like what we are doing and that’s what matters. ?
February 2018: “We seem to know what we need to do”
Month of love. John (I’m faking the name), a customer, had messaged us: “Why can’t I delete the five sample users you’ve created in my account by default?”
“Don’t we need more developers and shouldn’t we build these simple features?” asked Abhi from our support team.
“No. Ruthless prioritization is what we need today. I know customers ask for these simple features, but if we explain to them we are building important features for them, and that we understand there are minor frustrations, they will understand it”, Vignesh responded.
Ruthless prioritization is the most understated skill in product teams. It can have an impact on morale for sales and support teams if you don’t help them see your rationale, but it’s the best thing to happen to your product. If you can explain it right, your team and your customers will understand. And understand they did. The focus is helping us deliver high impact capabilities in the fastest time, without diluting the focus towards customer asks that already had workarounds. In some cases, these were just lack of a few things that irked customers briefly, such as not being able to delete our sample users/conversations. Our customers understand and support us in this.
We had built a reasonably well-known product in Hotline.io. Think of any reasonably large mobile-first company in Asia, either they were our customers, or were talking to us, or were inspired by us!Ruthless prioritization is the most understated skill in product teams. It can have an impact on morale for sales and support teams if you don’t help them see your rationale, but it’s the best thing to happen to your product. Click To Tweet
What really helped is a core team with over 50 years of combined experience building chat products meant we could decide what was key, what could come later in the new product with ease. Personally for me, it was my third chat product. Ruthless prioritization at its best for the first six months helped us win in key areas and move really fast.
August 2017: Unity
Nothing brings people together like a common, hard mission. Even though the individuals comprising this team (codenamed “Unity” internally in the hope that people come together) worked on very different versions of chat products before, and of course had their own opinions on the path forward, we are just one month away from launch and we can see everyone has put their own needs in the back burner and are slogging it toward a successful launch.
I hope we can continue to keep the “unity” intact post-launch. Maybe customer priorities and feedback will drive things forward anyway from there.
October 2018: “They’re back! And they’re bigger this time”
Whaat?!! Did I hear that right? Customer S were coming back to us? And their team is HUUGE now! That will be the best win for me and the team. This one is sweet since we all felt bad when the customer left along with our transition from Hotline to Freshchat. When a customer who is growing and doing really well wants to work with you, it’s really a great feeling.
Winning in a crowded market is hard, but if you know what a segment of customers is really looking for, it’s much easier. We had a team comprising people with combined experience of over 50 years of building four chat products before Freshchat. We had heard enough from customers over the years to know what they cared about most, what’s changed over the last few years, and where the market was headed, to come up with the right product at launch. It wasn’t about checking the key boxes—it was about innovating on the right things, prioritizing hard, and delivering a new product in time that our customers from other chat products could shift to and find value from.
In hindsight, here’s what worked well for us in the first six months of the product:
- Customers can live with minor frustrations if we acknowledge these and show them what stuff we’re working on that could be more exciting for them.
- Smaller teams prevent you from yielding to the temptation of taking on low-impact changes.
- When you’ve worked long enough in a domain, you just start knowing what’s key to help you win deals, where you can differentiate, and what the MVP really is.
- Meaningful innovation that competition cannot copy quickly helps you win deals and even helps you alter your customers’ RFPs if they like your features so much!
- If your sales team says “This feature is essential for us to sell the product”, showing them a competitor who got to a very large revenue (say 50M+) who doesn’t have the feature is a good way to help them see it isn’t as important as their customer is making it out to be.