Matthew: Since you’ve been in operation, what have you learned about your business or users that you didn’t realize?
Alex: That’s a great question. We had hypothesis, but they were proven truer than we had thought. We had underestimated our customers in a few ways. One was we didn’t know how actively involved, especially our early customers, would want to be in helping us define the product, and actually build the product. When I said in January, 2010 we launched alpha, it was truly and alpha. It was a skeleton of what the product is today, and where the product will go in the next year, two years or five years. Our customers, very early on, got passionately involved and helped us define the product. We underestimated how passionate they would be about that.
The second thing that we learned is that no matter what’s happening, the most valuable asset that you have as a company, that we have as a company is our customers and the relationship with our customers. Complete transparency. When things are going great and you’re transparent, you customers will help lift you up. A lot of our early growth was through word of mouth, because we built those tight intimate relationships with our customers, and they became our advocates. When things aren’t going so well and you have challenges, transparency helps your customers understand and have visibility to that. It’s amazing how many times those customers will come to your aid or defense, and rally and help you take the next step. Those two things are really important things for anybody to think about when they’re getting into starting a company.
Matthew: Lots of people admire entrepreneurs because they appear to make building companies easy. We know it can be very challenging. What talents or skills come intuitively or easily for you? What has been difficult and how do you manage that?
Alex: Fred Wilson wrote this amazing article, where he talked about the three primary jobs of the CEO. The first job is setting the overall corporate vision. That to me includes products. I’ve been always been deeply passionate about product, and I have an artistic side, so that comes naturally to me and then sharing that vision with employees and the marketplace. That’s number one, and that comes naturally to me.
The second is hiring the best people. The biggest word of advice I can give anybody who’s starting a company, is make sure you surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. An amazing team is what will ultimately help you become successful, not a great idea, but an amazing team to execute on that idea. I think I’m pretty good at identifying really talented people and bringing them in to help grow the company.
And finally finance. As I mentioned, I’m a numbers geek. I love finance. That means that I make sure that the company doesn’t run out of money. Those are the three things that come most naturally to me. Everything else, I surround myself with the best possible people to execute in marketing, sales, operations, customer support, and all the other really important facets of the business.
Matthew: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned building Assistly?
Alex: This is an interesting one. I have a lot of advisers. Besides surrounding yourself with really people, surround yourself with amazing advisers who have an excellent perspective on what you’re doing in the company. When were building the company, one of my advisers said to me, “What’s your competitive advantage?” I spoke about product. I spoke of this spirit of “Wow” that we have in the company where we deeply invest in our customer’s success.
Then he asked me a question, “Well what about business mode?” And I said, “What do you mean what about business model? It’s just the way we capture value for the service that we deliver.” He took through this story about Sales Force and how one of Sales Force’s early competitive advantages against [Siebel] and PeopleSoft and everyone else, besides the product and the delivery of the product was the business model. It was a monthly subscription service. That was what was really disruptive to the industry. I never really thought about business model as a competitive advantage or as a way that you can create value for yourself and for your customers and to block out the competition.
Once he said that to me, we went through a five month exercise of really thinking about business model and how we could deliver more value and again create a competitive advantage with it. We launched a completely new, and what I would consider, a revolutionary business model three months ago. That has completely changed the trajectory of the company. I wish I had known that sooner.
Matthew: What mentor has influenced your development?
Alex: As I’ve said earlier, I’ve had a lot. It’s all about surrounding yourself with as many smart people as you can. First of all, I’ll go all the way back and say that my dad has probably been the single biggest professional and personal influence in my life. We immigrated here from Russia. We had nothing. He taught me perseverance and hard work and passion and dedication and commitment and all the other things that go into making what I think is a good entrepreneur. So, first and foremost my father.
More recently, specifically around Assistly, I would say our early investors, Howard Lindzon and Phil Black, which is Social Leverage and True Ventures, were absolutely incredible in supporting the business and helping us think through how we scale the business. Then we brought on additional advisers and investors. A guy by the name of Kenny Van Zant, who is chief strategy and product officer at SolarWinds, and now is at Asana. He is brilliant when it comes to scientifically thinking about the process of acquiring customers.
He is an absolute genius. He came into our office, and we spent hours and hours and hours white boarding the funnel and the golden motion and what all that meant. How you tune numbers to really start to build a business and think about customer acquisition in a completely different way. That’s just one subset of a lot of people that have helped me and helped the company become successful.
Matthew: What advice would you like to share with the audience about launching or building a startup? If you have to distill it, what are the key elements?
Alex: Wow, there’s a lot in that. First and foremost, be passionate about what you do. You have to really believe in it and be passionate. Most likely if you play the odds, you’re going to fail. You might as well fail enjoying what your doing, versus being miserable and failing. So, passion is really important. By the way, passion is what will ultimately drive you to success, because no start up generally looks like this. It looks like this. So, in the downs, what helps you get back up is passion and commitment and dedication for what you’re doing. So, be passionate about what you’re doing, first and foremost.
The second thing, I’ll use the Nike phrase, is just do it. I talked about this earlier. I think the biggest challenge that people have, the thing that separates an entrepreneur from somebody that’s not an entrepreneur is doing it, taking that first step. Again, I’ll go back to something that Fred Wilson wrote a long time ago, and this is in the past, seven out of ten of his most recent exits at the time he wrote the article, exited doing something different than when he originally invested. That talks to the fact that it’s all about the team and taking a risk, iterating and perceiving things as they happen to you. You’ll never have a perfect idea from start. You might catch lightening in a bottle, but in most cases you won’t. It will be about starting, testing, iterating, and figuring it out. Passion and taking that first step are the things that will get you there.
Matthew: Before we close, we’d love for you to give our audience your vision for Assistly and how you hope it will continue to change the world.
Alex: Today we help companies deliver awesome and responsive customer support, no matter how the customers choose to communicate with them. That’s really important. I want to talk about Tony Hsieh for a minute, and then I’ll talk about the bigger vision for Assistly. The tag line for Zappos used to be, “the world’s largest shoe store”. The tag line today is, “powered by service”. Service has become a core part of their DNA. It’s their marketing. It’s there retention. It’s their growth engine. I believe that to be the case for all businesses that are starting today. More and more companies are starting to recognize that and are going in that direction.
The vision of Assistly is to help companies get there. More broadly speaking, because we’re focused on SMB’s, companies that don’t have as much money, time or resources, mid-sized companies or enterprises. We want to be able to help them handle other parts of their businesses more efficiently at greater scale to help them grow. That goes from service to sales to potentially marketing and other key aspects. More broadly, the vision for Assistly is to help small and medium businesses in any way possible to grow their business and improve their relationship with their customers.
Matthew: It’s been a pleasure having you as a guest on FounderLY. We’re rooting for your continued success. For those in our audience who would like to learn more, you can visit the website at www.assistly.com. This is Matthew Wise with FounderLY. Thanks so much, Alex.
Alex: Great. Thanks, Matt.