Our minds are always busy. We’re reading emails, collaborating in meetings, writing code, sketching ideas, talking to our customers or planning our work.
To get these things done quickly we rely on habits – we repeat behavior that has worked in the past. We run on autopilot.
Let’s pause and take a breath.
We learn by doing, but when you don’t dedicate time and space for reflecting on how you’re “doing” you’re losing out on an opportunity to understand what’s working, what’s not and transform the way you work to become more effective.
At Intercom we do this on multiple levels and I believe that reflection and self-awareness are key ingredients that have allowed us to scale so fast while maintaining productivity and avoiding chaos.Individual
Everyone has a weekly 1:1 with their manager where they discuss the highs and lows of the week and what can be learned from them. We discuss difficult situations like conflicts with colleagues, meetings that didn’t go too smoothly or unexpected changes that came out of nowhere. We also discuss success.
To reflect on your week try answering these questions:
An internship represents your first steps from the world of college to the world of work, but we often don’t appreciate just how important finding the right internship can be.
Pick the right one, and you can set yourself on a quick path to a rewarding career. Pick the wrong one, and you might be searching around for a while before you find your best path. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of advice out there for how to search for jobs and prepare for interviews, but almost every single one focuses on how you can show the company that you are right for them. Very few tell you how to figure out if the company is right for you.
It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking you’ll take whatever you can get, especially as an intern. But remember, these are your first steps into the workforce, so take the chance to picture where you want to get to in your career, or the effect you want to have (be ridiculously ambitious with this!) and then ask yourself if this internship is a step towards it. Feel confident in yourself to really push for those opportunities that take you closer to your goal.Applying for the job
You should apply to many places, but mostly for practice. There’s no point in spamming 150 companies with the same generic CV and no cover letter. You’ll get far more value and practice if you only apply to...
How do you find the space to take on high-risk, high-reward projects, especially when it involves a system the whole company relies on?
Every company has one of those business-critical systems that were built when the company was a certain size and, with a proven track record of stability over the years, there are few reasons to touch it. But as the company grows, a few problems start to surface, though nothing that can’t be solved by spinning up more instances, and spending more money on Amazon Web Services (AWS).
Optimizing systems that already work adequately is difficult to make a priority.
However, as the cycle keeps repeating, the problems become bigger and bigger. Soon you’re in a vicious circle, left with a suboptimal and expensive juggernaut of a system. Deployments are messy if done during peak hours. Writing new tests is tedious and iterations are slowing down. It doesn’t make new engineers eager to jump in and do the work of their life. Oh, and there are the costs. Running 280 larger AWS instances comes with a price tag that would make your head spin!
At Intercom, that system was Nexus, our real-time messaging system, built in-house and which routes hundreds of millions of messages every week. It worked fine, but was demanding more and more resources to keep it running efficiently, updating dependencies was risky and running tests was slow.
Several people tried to optimize and simplify Nexus but there was always more pressing work to be done. After...
When you analyze your company it’s easy to look at everything in its current state.
What’s our biggest problem today? What’s our best asset today? That perspective is not so useful, however, when planning for where you want to be tomorrow. It’s not about where you are, it’s about where you’re headed, and how fast you’re getting there.
Long term thinking is hard for a very simple reason: every company is in a race against the clock. Whether you’re bootstrapped or bankrolled, that clock is always ticking. Creating a product company requires an upfront investment of time and money and gives you a limited window to either break even or show enough evidence of growth to secure funding. It’s hard to worry about future problems when you have a hardwired focus on hitting a short term target.
But think of it this way: which deserves more attention, a big wound that’s healing, or a tiny tumor that’s growing? It’s not about where it is, it’s about where it’s going.
Here’s a few ways this affects a business.
When you’re looking at candidates, it’s imperative to evaluate not just where they are, but where they’re going and how fast they’re getting there. Who would you rather hire?
Make no mistake getting marketing right is one of the biggest challenges facing startups today. As our own VP of Product, Paul Adams, likes to say, “If you build a great product but no one has ever heard of it, have you really built a great product?”
This week we released Intercom on Marketing, a book which compiles the most important lessons we’ve learned, both marketing Intercom and building products for marketers. To mark the occasion this week’s podcast is a special compilation of some of the many guests we’ve had on the show talking about different aspects of marketing.
You’ll hear from:
Matt Hodges: I was our first marketing hire. Who owned the job of marketing before then?
Des Traynor: At the time the narrative was we don’t have marketing. People like to boast about not having marketing, but actually that’s not a great thing to...
There was a stage a few years ago when our Intercom product featured roughly 50 shades of blue. Some of them were intentionally contrasting, of course, but many were just the product of different designers choosing subtly different shades at different times.
Now, 50 distinct shades of any color is rarely advisable, and if they are spread across every corner of a product, it is particularly ill-judged.
Those shades of blue were just one instance of inconsistency that can inevitably develop when a product, and the size of the team building the product, scales fast.
We had a seemingly simple vision of a solution to address issues such as this – a comprehensive pattern library to act as a central repository for all our knowledge, processes, principles and resources. The aim was a single source of truth for designers and engineers across the company for reference and inspiration in the course of their work. It would allow us to harmonise not just the colors we used but also common user interface elements such as buttons, cards, tables and so on.
Like any software project, the work of building a library like this is never done.
One of our co-founders, David Barrett, had been maintaining a library of common elements since 2013, and his work served as the foundational inspiration for the pattern library, though we developed it more from a design perspective. The aim was to make it easier to build things, faster to...
We’ve just released our latest book, Intercom on Marketing.
With the volume of marketing playbooks already out there, you might wonder why we decided to share our own take. Well, getting marketing right is one of the hardest challenges facing startups today. Trust us, we’ve been (and still are) there. So, why do so many get it wrong?
Firstly, most founders typically don’t have a background in marketing, and even though they’re told to “start marketing the day you start coding”, they just don’t know where to begin. Sure, they probably know enough to build a landing page for capturing email addresses, but do they know what to say, and how to say it, to give themselves the best chance of success? Do they know how to best promote their product and where? Or how to amplify everything the product team builds by bringing in marketing early in the development cycle?
Secondly, as software becomes more and more commoditized, and products have more and more overlapping features, what can truly set your startup apart is the strength of your brand and your go-to-market strategy.
In short, marketing is pretty damn important.
I was Intercom’s first marketer. We’re now a team of more than 40 , and over the past few years we’ve learned many tough lessons, from developing our early messaging, to getting word of mouth, to keeping product and marketing aligned. This book is a collection of almost everything we know and...
What product themes and technology are most likely to define the year ahead?
Before kicking off our own goals and resolutions in earnest, I sat down with VP of Product Paul Adams and Director of Product Design Emmet Connolly to chat about where our industry is headed in 2018. We cover everything from trends like voice UI, augmented reality and AI, as well as the new roles software companies will need to hire for and whether product building has truly become commoditized.
If you enjoy the conversation, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe to it on iTunes or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.
Des Traynor: First off, it’s January 2018. Do either of you plan your years? Did you have your set of goals or New Year’s resolutions? Do you share them with people? How do you do it?
Paul Adams: What I’m about to say is super corny, so you’ll have to forgive me. I’m a huge believer in goals, and yeah, I write goals before the year starts. In mid-December 2017, I started thinking about 2018 and wrote down some draft goals. In my heavy experience, when I write things down, they tend to happen, and when I don’t, they tend...
Prioritization is a perennial challenge when building a product roadmap. How do you decide what to work on first?
If you’ve put the effort into brainstorming new ideas, finding opportunities for improvement, and collecting feedback, you’ll have a solid product roadmap full of good ideas. But the order in which you tackle those ideas deserves just as much thought. You need to take the time to prioritize well.Prioritization is a difficult problem
So why is prioritizing a product roadmap so difficult? Let me count the ways:
Even if you make it through this mental minefield intact, you’re left with the tough task of consistently combining and comparing these factors across all project ideas. Thankfully, you don’t have to do this in your head.A simple tool for prioritization
This is where a scoring system comes in. A good prioritization framework can help you consider each factor about a project idea with clear-eyed discipline and combine those factors in a rigorous, consistent way.
Using a scoring system for prioritization in product management certainly isn’t new. Systems designed to balance costs and benefits abound. But you can have a hard time finding one that allows...
In “Moby Dick”, Ishmael is taken by Captain Ahab’s quest to seek revenge on the whale that took so much from him. Most sales reps, myself included, possess a degree of Ahab’s thinking.
We obsess over closing the deal no one says we can, the white whales, and too often neglect the long tail of school fish that are abundant and easier to catch.
Let’s say two new deals come into your pipeline: one for an early-stage startup, which we’ll call Tiny App, and the other for Apple. Most salespeople, myself included, would drop everything and start talking to Apple. After all, how many Tiny Apps would you have to close to reap the same amount of revenue Apple would bring? Deciding where to prioritize your time seems obvious, but we’ve found that the opposite is the way to go. If you knew Apple was worth $100k ARR and took a year to close and Tiny App will be max $10k ARR but could close in two weeks, would you re-prioritize your deals? Add in the fact that there are many Tiny Apps you could close in the year versus one Apple, plus the higher likelihood of closing, and I hope my point is getting clearer.
We’ve developed a sales process which involves closing small deals fast and first so we can spend time on the larger and more complex ones.Blue whales cost more to catch
In sales we usually optimize for one metric – revenue. How can we drive the most...
Process is important for any startup. But process is a means to an end. It’s never the end product.
I see lots of talented people get bogged down “running a process” and struggling to prioritize and drive what’s really important for their teams. They often lose sight of what really matters, which is Delivering Great Things, As Fast As Is Humanly Possible™.
As managers we put processes and mechanisms in place to enable our teams to do well. But processes alone won’t guarantee success. And too much of it, or too much tweaking of it, can make it hard to remain focused on what really matters.
Great people, with great attitudes, working hard, with urgency and pride in their hearts, guided by “just enough” process will deliver great results.Time is precious – spend it where it matters
Life is short and opportunities are fleeting. Companies go bust, great teams break up, economic forces change, your own personal circumstances change. Seriously, time is short, don’t waste it on unnecessary process. So if you love what you do, make it your life’s work. Ask yourself, if this is my life’s work, am I proud to say that the work I’m doing now will be my legacy?
If it all ended today, would you be proud of the last few weeks?
If you look back over the last week or two week sprint, think about how you worked, how you hustled, how you learned, how you taught and helped, how you cared and reflect on what...
Hana Abaza is not only an expert in using marketing as a growth tool for business, but has helped build product to actually complete the Job-to-be-Done.
Hana is Head of Marketing for Shopify Plus, the ecommerce platform’s upmarket offering for high-volume, fast growing businesses, which include household names like Red Bull, Nestle and Unilever, as well as companies who simply started small and grew alongside Shopify over the years. Prior to that, she spent several years in leadership roles at Uberflip, a platform that helps manage and personalize content experiences at every stage of the buyer journey.
A huge part of Hana’s success at Shopify has been improving the coordination and collaboration between sales and marketing, and I recently hosted her on our podcast to learn more about it. Our chat covers the tools and workflows she’s put in place, why you can’t view the marketing funnel as a linear process, the value of marketing operations, and much more.
If you enjoy the conversation, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe to it on iTunes or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our chat.
Hana: Before I got into the tech marketing world, I ran a chain of martial arts studios. I did the collective...
If you’re an avid reader of our blog or caught us on our World Tour, you know we’re strong advocates for sharing our lessons learned.
So before we turn the page into 2018, I sat down with the leaders of our product team, VP of Product Paul Adams and Director of Product Design Emmet Connolly, for a debrief on the past year. We discuss what shipping nearly 150 customer-facing product changes in a single year meant for the way we work, how our views on bots evolved after releasing our own, why we built our own design system, why product teams should get to know their sales colleagues, and much more.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation. Short on time? Here are five key takeaways:
After publishing 230 articles and 3 books, releasing almost 50 podcasts, creating 4 starter kits and supporting a world tour, 2017 is drawing to a close on Inside Intercom, which means it’s time for our traditional look back at the year.
We published lots of new stuff this year – hardcover books, starter kits, and audio essays to highlight just a few – but our bread and butter is still great blog posts. We’re now publishing up to 6 posts a week, and here’s a selection of some of the more popular ones we added during the year:
The Inside Intercom podcast
Following the success of our relaunched podcast in 2016, we made a commitment to bring listeners a podcast each week this year. Fast forward 52 weeks, and we’ve published 46 original conversations with thought leaders and practitioners in product management, design, marketing, engineering and the business of startups. Among them, we experimented with new formats, like audio essays and compilations of highlights, as well as partnering with our...
They say if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward. At Intercom, we’re moving forward faster than ever before.
In 2017, we set out to make it faster and easier to acquire, engage and support your customers with Intercom. We shipped faster (over 100 times a day, regularly) and grew the total number of businesses that use our products across their sales, marketing and support teams (25,000 paying customers and counting). We now power more than 500,000,000 conversations for our customers every month.
Before we speed into 2018, let’s look back at the highlights of what we shipped in the past year.Helping sales and marketing teams grow their businesses
In September we shipped 15 new features – our biggest update ever – to help sales and marketing teams get more leads and convert more of them into paying customers. Here’s what happened next:
Among those new features you’ll find the ability to…Capture more leads with more targeted messages
The old world of forms and craftily placed buttons to capture leads resulted in single digit conversion rates at best. Instead of...
When a new technology emerges, there’s an initial trigger.
The masses react and become disillusioned, and then the trend slowly builds through a state of enlightenment and finally productivity. This is known as the Gartner Hype Cycle.
If we view bots – the biggest trend in software today – through that lens, they would fit squarely in the trough of disillusionment.
Early attempts at chatbots have fallen flat in their execution, mostly because they rely too much on natural language processing or A.I. capabilities that simply don’t yet exist. Despite this, we’re bullish on bots, but only those that are built to solve a very specific problem.
No matter what we’re building, we always start from first principles. That means we do deep exploration into the roots of the problem, to try to understand what the problem is and why we are going to solve it. When debating whether or not a bot was for us, we discovered there are some simple tasks that don’t make sense for humans to do – and bots could be helpful in these cases.
Let’s say you’re going to chat to a business, but it’s the middle of the night. No one is there to actually reply to you. In a situation like this, most messengers would display their own version of a closed sign. Something like, “Sorry, we’re not here yet. Get back to us in the morning and someone will reply to you”. What if...
One of the most expensive parts of running a startup isn’t the new feature you shipped that nobody used or the marketing experiment you ran that failed. It’s indecision.
You might have have heard the story of Buridan’s Ass (no laughing down the back), the story of a donkey stuck between two identical stacks of hay. Because the donkey lacks any reason to choose one over the other, it cannot decide which one to eat, and so starves to death.
Our setting isn’t the farmyard but the meeting room. Picture the following scene: eight people in a room endlessly debating over a whiteboard, weighing up one decision over the next, but with little sign of progress being made. Tough decisions take time. But if every single decision at your company is agonized over, with no progress to show for it, alarm bells should be ringing.
At best, it’s an opportunity cost. Using basic meeting math, for every eight hours of indecision, you’re trading eight hours of productivity – hours you could spend actually executing one of the options you’re agonising over. Add in salaries, hourly rates and attention diverted and the costs are greater still.
At worst, indecision can lead to analysis paralysis, a slow poison that will slow you down and kill your morale. People can end up frozen by indecision, which creates a willingness to abdicate responsibility. There are hundreds of ways to say “Let’s wait until…”, in the hope that new information will make your decision easier. But...
When your startup is growing quickly, you’re often forced to figure things out on the fly. Those who succeed come away with a wealth of hard lessons learned and valuable insights.
It’s lessons like these that put Melody Koh on our radar. Melody recently became a venture partner at NextView Ventures, but spent the 3.5 years prior leading product at Blue Apron, the ingredient and recipe delivery service that went public earlier this year. Blue Apron grew its customer base and revenue 25x in her time there, and while those key lessons were still fresh, she shared them in a post on Next View’s blog.
The piece is packed with insights, and after reading it I asked Melody to join me on our podcast. Our conversation covers the nuances of managing a product that’s digital and physical in nature, why a startup needs to inject process and hierarchy as it grows, proactively investing in collaboration across teams, and much more.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation. Short on time? Here are five key takeaways:
What unique opinions does your product have about the world? What do you believe about your problem space that no one else does? These answers form the basis of what your company and product will stand for, and who is likely want to work there, or use it.
This was one of the topics I discussed with Craig Cannon for the Y Combinator podcast We covered other tricky topics like how the Intercom co-founders met, my career pre-Intercom, how we got the idea for Intercom, what I’ve learned about marketing in the last two years, and much, much more. Head over to the Y Combinator blog if you’d like to read a transcript or you can watch the full interview below.
As salespeople, we are the closest line to a company’s potential market. We know the missing features and services that prevent people from becoming customers.
And while it’s tempting to ask your product team for all these missing features, it’s important to be intentional about what you ask for. After all, sales teams need to understand that, in order to maintain the integrity of your product, one should rarely say yes to feature requests.
As a salesperson, I listen to feature requests from prospects and customers all day long; at Intercom those channels span live chat, email, social media and phone. As a result, my teammates and I are often filled with ideas and feature requests that could help us secure more deals. But as anyone doing sales at a product-driven company will tell you, getting these ideas heard, understood and acted upon isn’t easy, especially since sales is one of just many inputs in a product roadmap. The onus is on us to do the due diligence needed to help our product team understand the context behind these requests.
To understand which features will have the greatest impact, this means clarifying two questions whenever you hear a feature request:
Managing expectations is one of the most important skills you need in sales. Set the wrong product expectations during the sales cycle, and prospects won’t buy, or they’ll become high churn...