Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Reflections on the early days at Zendesk (part 1)

Yesterday I posted a brief review of Mikkel’s excellent book “Startupland”. For me, the book is also a good opportunity for some reflections and to share some thoughts in relation to Zendesk’s journey.

The first date

When I stumbled on Zendesk in 2008 I knew absolutely nothing about enterprise software, B2B or SaaS. I had always been a consumer Internet guy, having founded comparison shopping engine back in 1997 and personalized homepage Pageflakes in 2005. If Zendesk’s website hadn’t been so beautiful and if the product hadn’t been so easy to try and use, Zendesk would never have caught my attention (and I wouldn’t be writing this post now). The nice little buddha, the logo/brand and the tone of voice of the site also helped, massively.

Interestingly, if I had been an enterprise software investor, Zendesk probably wouldn’t have caught my attention either, since the website didn’t look like a typical enterprise software website at all. Today the “consumerization of the enterprise” has become mainstream, but in 2008 it wasn’t. Apparently you had to be a consumer Internet entrepreneur looking for the next big thing on the Web in order to stumble on and be attracted by Zendesk. This characteristic – not being a consumer Internet startup but not being a classical enterprise software company either – has probably contributed to our difficulty raising a Series A later on, but more on that later.

So when Mikkel and I met for the first time, I knew nothing about SaaS and probably asked a lot of dumb questions. At that I also knew nothing about inbound marketing and customer success – topics which are now near and dear to my heart for some years – and I was somewhat puzzled when Mikkel explained to me how they’ve been getting customers. I was worried that the inbound marketing plus customer success (at that time, called “customer advocacy”) approach wouldn’t scale and thought that they’d have to do outbound sales soon to keep growing. That turned out to be epically wrong: Zendesk grew to 10,000 paying customers before starting to build a real sales team, and up until this day, the vast majority of customers come from organic sources.

Having been an entrepreneur since the age of 17 I did know a few things about starting and building companies though, and since both and Pageflakes were VC-funded I also had some experience with venture capital. So Mikkel and I were very complementary, or, as Mikkel puts it in the book:
There was a good vibe between us, even though we were extremely different. […] Ultimately, I think we recognized that we were a good balance for one another.
I remember that a couple of years later, at the first PNC SaaS Founder Meetup in San Francisco in 2012, Mikkel ended his speech saying something along the lines of: “Kudos to Christoph for investing in us back in 2008 – I would never have invested in these three guys”, referring to his co-founders Morten, Alexander and himself. My response was: “Kudos to you for taking money from me – I never would have taken money from me”. I think there’s no better way to sum it up. :-)

After the financing is before the financing

Following our first meeting, we very quickly concluded that it would make sense to work together, agreed on the terms, and voilà, a six-figure dollar amount changed hands. I was excited, but it was also a little bit scary because it was my first angel investment (aside from a few small investments that I had made many years earlier). I didn’t have a diversified portfolio, and I didn’t know if I’d ever have one because I had no idea when I’d make my second investment. I didn’t have deal-flow, and I’m not even sure if I knew the term deal-flow.

I didn’t worry too much about it though, and the mood was good. Quoting Mikkel from the book:
We now had a new direction. The investment from this seed round inspired a new mindset and created a big change in pace. Christoph helped us with a business plan and helped us build out what would be the first attempt at describing the financial model of our business. [...] He helped us think about scale—and about the possibilities.
The seed round, including the friends & family investments and my own investment, was only $500,000 though. It was enough for the founders to take a modest paycheck and to hire a few people, but it was clear that we’d need a much larger round soon. That’s when things started to become worrisome for me, since it quickly became clear that raising a Series A round would be very difficult.

This was the first part. Part two coming soon.
[Update: Here is part two.]


Piotr Kulesza said...

Christoph, I think one day you need to write your book ;) ps. I can't wait for part two!

chrija said...


Ramin said...

Thanks for sharing the story, looking forward to part 2. Since you mention that inbound marketing is now near and dear to you, what are some great books/people in that area (according to you)? :)

Ramin said...

... come to think of it, let me rephrase the question: what are great examples of startups currently using inbound marketing successfully? :)