Matthew: We know founders face unique challenges when they decide to build a company. What was the hardest part about building Zendesk, and how did you overcome this obstacle?
Mikkel: That’s the thing, isn’t it? Everything is hard. There are obstacles every freaking day, from when you have bootstrap operations to when you start hiring people like crazy. We hire like, 15 new people a month right now. That’s hard, figuring it out, getting the right kind of employees into your organization, making sure you build a great culture, and a hard working culture that’s still capable of having fun and love what they’re doing. It’s hard figuring out how to grow in your space so it scaled with that. It’s hard. I think that’s why you do it, because that’s what you want with your life. You want challenges, and you want to take yourself to the next level. With a startup, it’s like one mountain after the other, and it’s fun.
Matthew: Since you’ve been in operation, what have you learned about your business and your users that you didn’t realize?
Mikkel: Everything. What did I know about building a startup at this scale? Nothing. What did I know about having suddenly more than 10,000 businesses relying on myself? Nothing. We’ve had to learn it all. I think that one of the things that’s great about moving a company here to San Francisco is that, in San Francisco, you can hire the talent and you can hire the experience that tried all of these things before.
I think that’s been one of the most decisive things, one of the best things for our company, to move the company to San Francisco, where we can find the right talent, where you have access to people who know how to do that stuff and have tried everything before. That is one of the things that makes San Francisco and Silicon Valley unique. I would never have been able to build this company where I come from. Never.
Matthew: What talent or skills come intuitively or easily for you? What has been difficult, and how have you managed that?
Mikkel: I think, in many ways, I’m a product guy. I like building great products. I have a lot of pride in the product, and I like to spend as much time as possible with the product team on the product. I think I’m personally a good cross-over, because I’ve done a lot of stuff in my life. I have a lot of respect for, and I can understand sales, and how hard sales is, and how important it is for a business. I have a lot of respect for customer support, for our advocates, and how central they are for a company’s success. I’ve done a little coding in my life, so I also know what a difficult task it is to lead an organization of engineers, while they build a product while customers are using it. It’s just a very complicated task. I’ve always had a passion for marketing.
So, I think I’m good at understanding and respecting all of the different tasks that are necessary to build a great company. Then, I try to butt out. [laughs] Of course, I’ve had my things that I’m very passionate about, like our brand and how we try to stay on message and all that stuff, but I try to make sure that I have good people around me that I can trust with their decisions, and then butt out a lot of this stuff.
And then, for me I need a regular work schedule. I’m not the kind of guy who sits and works late into the night and so on. I can do it if it’s required, but that’s not my style. I need to come in at 9:00 in the morning and have done my thing, dropped my kids off at school and spend a little quality time, and all of that stuff. Then, I need to leave around 6:00 so I can be home with my wife and my kids and have dinner.
I need a regular schedule to be able to function well, and do a little exercise in the morning and all of that stuff. I think that, somehow, reflects on the organization, too, that everybody gets into a good schedule. It’s not these crazy projects that people are sitting on all night, but people try to be structured and be organized in how they work.
Matthew: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned building Zendesk?
Mikkel: [laughs] The most important? I simply don’t know. There are so many lessons to be learned when you build a company and scale it at the pace that we’ve scaled the company. Of course, one of the most gratifying things about working with Zendesk is that we have so many customers, and we have a very tight relationship with these customers, and we’re close to their destinies. That’s very inspiring. It’s also a little humbling, because you realize how difficult it is to run a business, and to run great customer service, so working with customers is a big learning experience.
Also, of course, building up a team at this pace. I really respect people who know how to scale stuff and scale an organization, and who can communicate well. [laughs] With my broken English and everything, it can be hard for my team to understand what direction I want them to go. There are a lot of differences in the good old Scandinavian approach to things, and the U.S. way of approaching things.
For example, I met with a very successful Danish CEO the other day. We talked about this thing that, in Scandinavia, there’s two things. For example, if you say something in Scandinavia, you can put an idea out there, and people are discussing it and debating it. If I do that over here, people start doing it. [laughs] So, I have be very careful about the stuff I’m saying. Another thing is, in Scandinavia, you’re constantly being challenged as the CEO. People are like, “Yeah, you’re the CEO now, but it could just as well be me.” [laughs] That’s a little different over here. All of that stuff I had to learn, too.
Matthew: What advice would you like to share with our audience about building a startup? If you have to distill it, what are the key elements?
Mikkel: I think you have to do something with your heart. If you build a product that you just want to flip, or if you build… For example, the concept of a serial entrepreneur. I’m sure that’s a good concept, just wanting to build something and then get rid of it or sell it to get to the next project and so on. For me, at least, that must be very hard on you. I would rather say, “Find something that you really, really want to do, and put your heart in it. Feel like you have a good motivation for doing what you’re doing.” I think it’s like life itself. You also have to figure out when to say quit, when to figure out you’re not in a good place anymore. If you wake up in the morning and you realize you’re not in a good place, you have to figure out how to get out of it. I think I’ve been very, very blessed that I wake up every morning and feel that I’m in a fantastic place, but that’s not always how it is.
Matthew: Before we close, we’d love for you to give our audience your vision for Zendesk, and how you hope it will continue to change the world.
Mikkel: Yeah. That’s, of course, the super interesting thing. That’s why we do this every day. That’s why I’m sitting here, talking to you. We really want to use the market’s highest capabilities to provide professional grade, super customer service. Not only seen from like, you’ve got to be out there and be all crazy about your customer service and so on, but seen from the perspective of, we have so many customers that didn’t know that it was so easy to provide a great customer service experience.
Normally, you think about customer service as something that is complicated, convoluted, and nobody likes to call a call cente, or contact the help desk. People prefer to go to the dentist rather than calling the call center.
Being able to say, of course, to companies, “It doesn’t have to be so complicated. We can actually make it very, very easy for you, and, most importantly, we can help your customers completely change how they think about you: As somebody who is super responsive, openly transparent and very, very authentic.” I think that’s one of the things we really want to get out there and help companies all over the world do.
Secondly, I think, our mission is broader than that. We want to go out and really help companies engage with their audience in a very different way. To be much better at understanding their customers in today’s Internet speed.
Every startup knows that if you’re building a company today, you’re doing that with a global audience in sight. That’s right, a global audience. You have this mass audience that you feel you need to find a way of servicing and helping and supporting that mass audience. If you need to do that in a great way, so everybody gets a good experience about it, you need great tools that can give you the temperature of your audience. That can give you valuable data about how your audience is thinking of you, right now, and how is your customers reacting to your announcements, to the news and to the product features, and so on, that you push out. Ultimately, that is our destination; that is where we want to go. We want to be a provider of ultimate customer intelligence.
Matthew: It’s been a great pleasure having you as a guest on FounderLY. We’re rooting for your continued success at Zendesk. For those in our audience who’d like to learn more and become a user of Zendesk, you can visit them at www.zendesk.com.
This is Matthew Wise of FounderLY. Thanks so much, Mikkel.
Mikkel: Thank you.