This isn’t the post you’re expecting--I’m not a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who went from an idea to a $10M startup overnight. I don’t have VC investments, and I don’t wake up at 5 a.m. every morning to swim laps and down Soylent (I did try, though).
This is a story about a small but lasting software business that went through something all small businesses eventually experience--and if you’ve just started a business, you might want to read this. (And if you’ve gone through something like this already, we’d love to hear your story.)
Ten years ago I had a clear vision for my company, SupportBee: I wanted to create a simple, clean, and easy-to-use help desk software. I wanted to be an SMB that catered to other SMBs; I didn’t want to grow into a Salesforce competitor. I wanted to offer something that was increasingly rare, which was a solid and affordable collaboration software for customer support. Something that I’d like to use myself. And I wanted to build a company I enjoyed working with, every day.
But, like most young businesses, I would eventually lose my grip on that idea--and it taught me a life lesson that kind of felt, well, like puberty.
When I started SupportBee with a handful of people, our team agreed on a set of values and ideas about what we wanted to be to our customers, who we were as a company, and where our niche was amongst the competition.
The problem began when my business really started to take off. Once I started picking up customers, all I wanted to do was keep them (read: do whatever I could to make them happy). And so, as their requests for additional features and tweaks trickled in, I gave in. You want more fonts and colors to choose from? OK, let me sacrifice the simple replying experience by adding more buttons to it. The requests kept coming, and I kept building. I told myself I was maturing my offering for the market. I was crossing the chasm.
When opportunities to land bigger customers and sweeter contracts came around, I went into full appeasement mode. While I never had a moment where I was willing to compromise the core values that I started the company with, I wanted to win enough business to keep things going. Also, the conventional wisdom for SaaS entrepreneurs is to try and move up-market.
Then one client sent me a checklist of 20 items. They wanted me to create a comprehensive mail distribution system, essentially replicating MailChimp as a part of SupportBee’s ticketing software. Another client wanted me to add read receipts to the emails sent through SupportBee - something we considered an invasion of recipients’ privacy.
I began to wake up to the fact that some clients wanted me to adapt the software so they could enforce their own workflows, not because it made my product better.
I found myself in this funk--one that lasted almost four years--where I was no longer inspired or motivated by my company. I felt miserable for not doing more, and a voice in my head kept shaming me for not doing my best. I wasn’t sure how to climb out of the hole, but I couldn’t, anyway; at the time I was transitioning to my true gender as a woman. And as any entrepreneur who experiences life-altering personal events can tell you, it’s impossible to focus on the business at the same time.
Once my transition was complete and I settled into my new life, I realized something pretty damning: my business had lost its vision. I saw it, and my team saw it, and morale was low. I had put so much energy into changing my product to please everyone that I no longer recognized it. When we started SupportBee, we were full of the inspiration that one gets from reading about bootstrapping and productivity and having a mission-based, contrarian mindset. Where had that mission gone? I hadn’t guarded my company’s original values, and a result, my product had become like any other product. It was increasingly not unique, and looked more like a teenager who was trying to be someone they weren’t. SupportBee was in a full-blown pubescent crisis.
Along the way, I had accumulated too much self doubt. Perhaps it came with being a woman. I wanted to reconnect with my spirit of building great products. I reignited that fire by building a new product. But my heart was still in SupportBee, and then the pandemic happened. It forced me to pick one thing to focus on.
I chose SupportBee.
I knew a lot of our customers were very loyal to SupportBee and I wanted to understand what they saw in the software. I wanted to hear it from them. After extensive customer interviews, our company realized that people loved SupportBee for the very reasons we started it--ease of use and simplicity. They wanted more functionality but didn’t want to compromise SupportBee’s original promise: one of simplicity, ease of setup and use--at the right price point. Also, our most loyal customers realized there were other complementary services out there, like Basecamp, with which they could integrate to power up their workflows. It actually gave them more choice.
Our dilemma? Figuring out how to move forward as a company that stays true to our core values while also adding power under the hood of our product. Customer support can be trickier than other verticals because you really need all-team buy-in if everyone is going to use the software effectively. The best way to guarantee that--and lower customer churn--is to make the experience of switching over as un-intimidating as we can. This means we will have to resist the temptation to go up-market. A software that works for a 20 people team and for a 2000 people team is fiction.
Would we lose potential customers over this? Absolutely.
But we have also eliminated the losing battle of casting the widest net possible, and focus on polishing the functionalities we do offer, for the audience we do want to please. By choosing this route, we keep and find the customers that are perfect for us. It has taken me ten years to accept that being a polarizing business is the key to survival.
My advice to my prepubescent peers is not to confuse building a product for your market with building a market for your product. Acknowledge where your customer pool begins and ends, because the only way to stand out in a crowd is to have a product that is amazingly tailored for a specific portion of the crowd. In short, don’t be afraid of being polarizing.
Look at your non-negotiables. For SupportBee, that’s our simplicity. People want power on top of the simplicity, not in the face of it. You can build a small but healthy business catering to an audience that believes in a certain way of getting things done.
The media loves to cover the founders of the world’s biggest tech companies, in part because we are in awe at what they have managed to build and the relationships they have been able to navigate. But make no mistake, founding a small or medium business can have equally difficult challenges. If you want to stay small but mighty, at times that will mean you can’t have your cake and eat it too.
Embrace the cycle of idealism to aimless ambition to idealism; as a leader and as a company you will be better off for it. I am happy to finally be in a place where I understand that there is no substitute for believing in something strongly, even if it's polarizing. It's the only way to be. If you aren’t polarizing, you are not a strong choice for anyone.
It’s been reinvigorating to find my passion for SupportBee again. In the coming months, I’ll share some valuable resources with our readers: the interview scripts that helped me understand our customers better; the user persona and journey framework that helped us understand what to build and improve; and the process we followed to reinvent our brand to become more appealing to our target audience. If you are interested, please follow me on Twitter for alerts on these posts.