Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart. Joining me today is a guest I’ve been wanting to have on Mixergy for . . . let me get the exact time. We’ve been working as a team to get to today’s guest on Mixergy for 1 year, 5 months, and 10 days, and here it is, the interview has happened. And the reason I want to have him on is because he’s running a company that, first of all, I think it’s going to be a billion plus dollar business. And second, it’s the business that so many of my friends are so fricking excited about and I’ve been interacting with that I’m a fan.
Eoghan McCabe is a guy I’ve just introduced. He is the co-founder and CEO of Intercom, which is a customer communications company. They sell software to Internet businesses to help them talk to their customers. I think that’s a little vague, but he typed it out with me before we started and I’m going to stick with his intro. But I’ll ask him for more clarity throughout this interview. The interview is sponsored by HostGator. Later on, I’ll tell you why you should be signing up to HostGator to host your website and by Toptal. If you need a developer, go and sign up at Toptal.com/Mixergy. But first, Eoghan, good to have you on here.
Eoghan: Good to be on here. Thanks so much.
Andrew: I ask you about why you’re so hard to reach and you told me something about being Irish. What does being Irish have to do with it?
Eoghan: I guess what I said is that Irish people can be humble, humble to a fault and I’ve always believed in doing things worth talking about before talking about them. And so if you add that to the fact that I’m Irish and humble and not a great self-promoter, maybe that’s the reason I haven’t been so excited to get on podcasts and talk about how wonderful I am.
Andrew: I kind of feel it’s so that you guys have been in heads-down mode and you don’t want to pick up and go do anything because you’ve been growing so fricking fast.
Eoghan: That’s one component to it. I mean, we believe in doing things in the right order. We believe in saying no to a lot more things than we say yes to. We believe in optimizing only when it’s something worth optimizing. To that end, we’ve just been building product we are very passionate about. We know who our customers are too and maybe now we’re at a point where we can start to optimize, maybe, get our heads up and start to promote ourselves.
Andrew: Speaking of saying no, I went back and looked at your old blog posts. This is one from years and years ago, July 2009, on your old site, contrast.ie, where you posted a link to Andy Rutledge’s thoughts on maintaining a brand by saying no. You were a fan of his back then?
Eoghan: Yes, I was.
Andrew: You were doing a lot of blogging back then. Why?
Eoghan: Right, right, right. I guess, there are a lot of things that we right brained, super emotional not very logical people do that we don’t know why we do them. So perhaps now I can tell you why I did it, but I didn’t know it at the time. I did it to help me think, to help me solve problems and realize things. I was always a fan drawing, writing in a great way to figure things out in my head, that was one thing.
Another was shameless self-promotion to some degree. I was comfortable promoting myself as a great web designer back in those heady days, 2008, 2009. I guess we kept that all the way through to the modern day intercom where we continued to use our content, our ideas as a way to demonstrate to the world that we stand for something. I think that that’s the thing.
Andrew: What do you stand for?
Eoghan: Yeah, for sure, sure, sure. That’s a 10-hour interview, but let’s pick a few things at random.
Andrew: What do you mean? When you say to tell the world what we stand for, do you have a list of things that you know explicitly you stand for?
Eoghan: Right. So we have a stated set of values. We have internal values. We constantly revise them. We rip some up. We edit them. We’ve recently gone through a process of rewriting our values. We use our values to help us hire at scale. I mean like, we’re 170 people now. We’ve added 10 to 15 in the last 30 days, 10 to 15 people before that. So we’re growing very, very fast. And so we’re at a point where we’ve got people who we are hiring who in the next six months will themselves be hiring. How can those individuals many layers deep know what a good inter-comrade is? That’s what we call ourselves, inter-comrade. How can they know? How can they know without that rule set?
Andrew: I see. So that’s one thing that’s on there that will help me understand what you guys are about.
Eoghan: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I guess one thing that we say, there are a couple of things. But one thing we say is that our bar is higher. When I was blogging back in the day, I was blogging with my co-founder, Des Traynor. He’s the more prolific of the co-founders. He’s the cornerstone of our thought leadership and content and whatnot. We developed a taste about software, about people. We developed a taste about products. We developed a taste about marketing and selling products and the process of buying products. Now that writing, that hacking, we built many different products. Me and Des are like eight or nine years in working together at this point.
One of the things we realized is that our standards, for all of those things I just mentioned, are just higher than other people. That doesn’t mean we’re better, but that’s another conversation and I’ll be willing to give you my thoughts on it. But it does our standards are higher.
Andrew: Do you believe you’re better?
Eoghan: I believe we’re very smart. I believe we’re very talented. I believe that . . .
Andrew: Don’t hold back. We can’t do a better interview than the rest unless you go really open about who you are.
Eoghan: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, it depends. We’re better at a lot of things than a lot of people, yeah. We’re very, very lucky. I’m lucky to work with truly incredible people, truly incredible people.
Andrew: I’m looking at the old posts. This is a post by Des back from 2009. Des is talking about this one website called [WePlay] and how it’s onboarding people all wrong. He’s got a screenshot explaining why. I feel like what you were doing was developing your taste in public by blogging. Am I right?
Eoghan: That’s right. You know what happens is you put out these ideas, you make some bold statements as a kid in the early 20s. This is right, this is wrong. And when you’re right or you’re wrong, you hear about it. When you’re right, people share it, they tweet about it. They give you wonderful pats on the back, a little ego boost. When you’re wrong, people will call you out too. If you’re the type of humble to a fault type person that’s probably looked into. Call yourself an idiot more often than not. When people call you wrong, I take it quite seriously. You don’t stand your ground and say, “Fuck you, you’re wrong.” You maybe second-guess yourself. You practice some introspection. You talk it out and you learn.
So, yes, you’re right. We discover these things and developed our taste very much in the open. We were wrong about a whole lot of the things that we wrote about. I mean, I hope you’re not going to quote the blogs because there are a lot of things . . .
Andrew: I want to move on, but what’s one that you’re especially pained by? Let’s release the pain.
Eoghan: Sure. That’s actually a really great question. We used to criticize, say, the idea of venture capital and raising money. I’m based in San Francisco now. If there’s one place in the world that’s awash with too much venture capital or too many venture capitalists it’s this place, as you know well. But we used to be, back in Dublin, Ireland, that’s where we wrote these posts. We were very much outsiders and we were very cynical and critical of this whole damn world. All the things you and I have heard dozens of times. But actually it turned out we were scared of it. We were scared of it. We were scared about things we didn’t understand.
We used to say when you raise money, you’re going to have to sell. That means that you want to just flip. That means that it’s all about the cash. When you raise money, you’re going to have a boss. You’re no longer your boss anymore. You’re going to be at the behest of your new masters and all these other things that we’ve both heard dozens of times. Yeah, we were just wrong.
Andrew: Today you guys have raised, according to CrunchBase, $65.7 million.
Eoghan: Right, right. Let’s call it $66.
Andrew: I was actually rounding down.
Eoghan: Oh yeah, right.
Andrew: Sixty-six million dollars, impressive. The other thing that I noticed going back in time is like you mentioned, you were also creating lots of different products. You were known for Qwitter. That’s the one that got you on TechCrunch and people still remember. But you created lots of . . . What was your thought process behind creating all of these different products?
Eoghan: Good question. Pretty straightforward. This is the same story for so many folks of this generation of software company, the product first company, the product first founders. We became consultants because it was our most immediate way to earn money without having a boss. People who would start companies, entrepreneurs, founders, you know, the popular stories that they’re mavericks, they’re brave, brave people who go out to start something new to change the world. Actually what really happened is they’re often unemployable, they cannot take orders, they’re scared of a lot of things in the world, but they’re just too damn difficult.
And so they go and start their own businesses because they don’t really have any other options. They’d be phenomenally unhappy in a range of different roles and jobs. And for folks who are product first founders like us, I studied computer science and then I started to design websites and then software, etc. We were very much in the Internet software world, the Internet product world, Internet design world. The easiest way for us to not have a boss was to consult. I know this. I can name five different companies that this has happened to. Anyway, surprise, surprise, you start to consult and not have a boss. It turns out you have 10 bosses. You have 10 clients. You have 10 people barking down your back. You have 10 people, none of them are going to be a culture fit, none of them are going to see the world you do.
I’m sure half of the time the reason you don’t agree with them is a fault of your own. It’s a weakness of your own, but that doesn’t matter. And so actually it turns out that people who can’t take and keep jobs, who want to work for themselves, who get into consulting to do that, find themselves in a very difficult situation. And so we built all these products and all these apps to get out of consulting.
Andrew: It doesn’t seem like every one of them had a revenue model. Qwitter was this thing that would email you when someone stopped following you on Twitter. It just blew up. There’s no revenue model behind there, was there?
Eoghan: No, that’s right. It wasn’t like we had any strategy there either. I mean, for a lot of the things we did, there were more projects and artistic endeavors. I mean, a lot of the people, again, that start these product first software companies, they make things for fun. The Internet is their medium, you know, some people paint on canvas. Some people dance on the stage. People like us make things online. And so we just made things for the craft. It was part of the fun. Over some period of time, we saw this potential avenue, like I said, get out of consulting. Qwitter was just a fun thing.
Andrew: I see.
Eoghan: A fun thing that blew up far bigger than it should have been.
Andrew: Were there some where you thought of a business model of a potential revenue? Exceptional is the one that really did well for you and you ended up selling it. Was that one started out with an idea that there would be a revenue model there?
Eoghan: Not necessarily. I mean, of course, we imagined that we would sell it. But to the degree that we thought that we had or understood anything about business strategy, we were wrong. You know, we just wanted to sell it. We want to put up a pricing plan page like we saw on BaseCamp. That was about all the strategy and plan we had at the time.
Andrew: I’m trying to describe what Exceptional is, but now I can’t find the URL.
Eoghan: Here, let me. So Exceptional was the first of a product category that came and became quite an interesting thing called error tracking or exception tracking. So we were the first to build a software that you would install in your web or your mobile app that would catch all of the exceptions as they occurred, catch when your software crashed and it would notify you about it. It would aggregate that information. It would help you figure out what the hell it is that you needed to fix. So that’s what it was. It was a developer’s tool.
Andrew: You told our producer that in order to do all of this, you had to do as little consulting work as possible and I’ve talked to members of my community who are in consulting, who are trying to create software, finding that time to do it is hard. What did you do that they haven’t been able to do, that some of them haven’t?
Eoghan: Good question. Well, if you’re committed to . . . You see, there’s a terrible, terrible problem. It’s a negative feedback cycle. If you’re committed to getting out of consulting, well, already you’re probably going to be a bad consultant. Now, if you’re committed to getting out of consulting and you’re a bad consultant and then you spend all your spare time not consulting then you’re going to be a really, really bad consultant.
That’s why it gets hard to make a lot of money on consulting in this mode, in this situation. You need to keep your costs low. You need to not be an agency. People who are big agencies with big payrolls, I don’t know. That’s when it gets difficult and scary. You have a machine, a monster, that needs to be fed. We were just four people in the end. You know, missing payroll from time to time. Taking very small salaries. We built this thing Exceptional. It was very, very successful but not incredibly profitable. What we were able to do in the end was just jump a little bit ahead of the money we were making from it by selling it such that we could then go all in, all over again and put that money that we got from selling Exceptional back into this new thing called Intercom.
So selling Exceptional was the thing that actually funded Intercom in the first place. I don’t know if that’s even useful advice, but I would say something that’s exciting about the world today is that there is actually a market now for smaller businesses. There’s Flippr and everything in between. There are things that are private that you don’t have to go and list on a website. There are people who will buy small businesses. And so I think it’s easier than ever before to start a small SaaS business. You can build an Intercom integration if you’ve only got 100 of Intercom’s 8,000 paying customers, paying a hundred bucks a month. That’s like a game changer for a couple folks. That can bootstrap you to the next thing.
And so if you build that teeny, tiny SaaS business, there’s now a market to sell it. It’s a risky maneuver, but it means if you sell that, you get a small amount of money that you can maybe take that year off to go and build your next thing. So ultimately that’s what we did. We never effectively built this machine that let us build a bunch of products on the side. We basically bet the farm on this one thing called Intercom by selling the last thing that we had called Exceptional. And it happened to work out.
Andrew: What did you learn about figuring out what products to invest your time on?
Eoghan: That’s a good question. There’s a really useless answer that sounds like when you know you know. It’s kind of like I imagine if you ask your mom or dad, “How do I know when I met the right girl.” They’ll say, “When you know, you know.” That’s useless, completely useless. But it’s also completely true, at least for software. When we built this product the way it resonated in the market, the way it resonated with us, you see, the thing is we built Intercom. It’s now four years old, but we build it after working together for four years, building a bunch of other crap that did not work. So if you do things enough times, at least you know how it feels when things fundamentally aren’t working.
Andrew: Eoghan, did you just discover some process where you said, “From now on, we’re only going to go after businesses because when we did Exceptional it went after businesses they had money. We’re only going to go after things that charge customers because that allows us to fund our growth. Did you have a set of rules, even if they weren’t clearly articulated?
Eoghan: To some certain degree. We knew that we didn’t know a lot about consumer businesses. We also knew that we didn’t know a lot about the whole venture capital world, the value way of building things. To build a successful consumer business, you need to raise a lot of money over successive rounds out front, way ahead of any kind of monetization. You know, it’s just straight up harder. People who get into consulting, when they’re good at their craft as a way to earn money in the short term, they end up building B2B business. Because it’s another way to earn money in the short term. So it’s kind of a natural extension.
The people who build these software companies where you charge every month who came from consulting, they’re not the people who are going to build the consumer businesses. The big, crazy, hair-brained idea, the big bet. Sometimes they end up in a fabulous place, things like Snapchat, very really is changing the world, whether you think it’s a fickle, silly thing or not. Millions of people are connecting on it and getting closer together because of it. It’s amazing. It’s magical. But people who consult, anywhere software type people, they don’t end up building these things. You need to be very, very crazy and different and probably not in business to go and build a consumer app.
Look at Zuckerberg. Look at the fan himself, Snapchat. Neither of those people were successful consultants on the straight and narrow who understood how business works. So it’s very different. So sure, we had that rule, but it was in our head. And it was part of our DNA, you know.
Andrew: All right. I want to get into how you came up with Intercom, but first I need to do a quick sponsorship message for my advertiser, who is HostGator. I always hold this up so the people will remember the gator. You’re always thinking of what hosting company should I go for, you do a Google Search. You end up with people who have these shady affiliate links, the stuff that’s not ever good. What you want is a company that allows you to host your site using whatever platform, whatever software you want to use.
If it’s WordPress, like me, HostGator will do it for you. But if it’s something else, HostGator will take care of you also. They make it so easy to install, WordPress and other major CMSs. You can do it basically in your sleep. It’s that easy. If you go to HostGator.com/Mixergy, you can get an additional 30% off and you’ll see that they offer 24-hour, seven days a week, 365 days a year tech support. So if your site goes down, they’re there for you. Let me ask you this, Eoghan, if you started out with nothing, you were just on an island with nothing but Internet and a HostGator hosting package to host whatever site you wanted, what would you create to start off with?
Eoghan: That’s great, like day one?
Eoghan: I mean, so the real reason a lot of people build products like Intercom is that, like I said, the Internet is their medium. You know, they are artists of a type and trying to express themselves. But fundamentally they’re trying to connect with people. And so I built some way to connect with people that it would look like a damn blog, that would look like a home page of old. If it had to be done in one day, if it had to be me dusting off my programming skills, which I haven’t even used in five, six, seven years, it would be a very, very basic blog, start to write my ideas. Those ideas would be the things that would help me figure out what I wanted to do next. I’d be writing about my struggles and strife and loneliness on this desert island. I’d be hopefully connecting with people and getting less lonely. I’d be blogging after the opportunities in the world and the problems that people have. I don’t know. I’d start from the basics . . .
Andrew: Great idea.
Eoghan: . . . and start connecting with people.
Andrew: HostGator makes it real easy for you to do that. Go to HostGator.com/Mixergy. You’ll get 30% off. If you’re not happy with them, you have a 45-day, money back guarantee. I know you’re going to be happy with them. If you’re not happy with your current hosting company, go there also. They will make it so easy for you to switch. They will migrate you, HostGator.com/Mixergy. Remember the gator. So the idea for Intercom came from where?
Eoghan: So we had Exceptional and at that time I got to know a guy called Colin Harmon in Dublin. We’re all in Dublin and Colin had a coffee store called 3fe. It stands for a Third Floor Espresso. And I don’t know how much you know about Ireland, but you can probably guess. Ireland does not or, at least traditionally did not have great coffee. Ireland had shit coffee and Colin was the first to bring nice hipster pour-over coffee we’re so accustomed to here in downtown San Francisco and the rest of San Francisco too.
And so we would go to Colin’s coffee store, us hipster nerds, to enjoy his overpriced products and I would watch Colin and the way he interacted with his customers. He’d build real relationships. He’d treat people no differently than any business or company has treated their customers for thousands of years. But those relationships create a real loyalty. That loyalty led to repeat purchases, me paying too much for coffee, referring friends, give him great feedback, forgiving mistakes, etc.
And when I contrasted how Colin was able to interact with his customers and the relationships he had with them, I realized we were very different with Exceptional. We never met our customers. We had no relationships with our customers. Of course, I’m speaking in absolute terms. We met a couple, but we had thousands of customers. We were never really connected with them. We came to strongly believe really quickly about the tools that we had available to us, that the industry had available to it, it’s still the tools that are the de facto status quo tools of this day, were not the kind of tools that you would choose if you wanted to connect with your customers.
Consumers have amazingly person things, like Snapchat and WhatsApp and Facebook and even iMessages where they can send stickers and smileys and single, unpunctuated, lower case sentences. Businesses have big, clunky, old school, gross help desks. They are the things responsible for the, “Dear valued customer, thanks for your inquiry. Please take a number, 6,053. It’ll be added to the queue. This ticket will automatically close in 10 days.” Could you imagine Colin saying that to his customers? Colin would never say that to his customers.
And so if you look at all the different areas where we connect with our customers and communicate with our customers and all the different tools we used, big, clunky, old school help desk tools and shitty live chat products and CRMs and email marketing products and marketing automation products, we came to believe strongly that all of these tools were fundamentally responsible for getting in the way of our customers. They did not permit us to build relationships with them.
So that was kind of like the deep insight. That’s like the heart of it. That’s the kind of right brain approach, the creative approach. From a technology standpoint, in Exceptional, we had this cool little thing. You could go as a developer or business owner in Exceptional. You could go and create a message that would pop up in the product. We could announce new features, promote blog posts, etc. We thought it was pretty damn cool and we decided to try and productize that. So it came from angles, productizing and technology we built in-house and then taking money, money, money, iterative steps to build the thing that became Intercom. And then this rich realization and idea where we came to realize that there could be a better way for Internet businesses to connect and communicate with their customers.
Andrew: What are some of the uses that you had when you would interact with your customers before Intercom was built, in the pre-Intercom version of Intercom?
Eoghan: Well, so there was help desk customer support. So we used the separate help desk product, separate support product. People would talk to us and we didn’t know who they were. It was disconnected from everything else. It would send them automated, gross ticketed emails. We had email marketing products that would really do little more than help us spam our customer base, whether or not they were still using.
Andrew: I mean, when you were doing those bubbles. What did those bubbles say?
Eoghan: The use cases?
Eoghan: Ah. We add a new feature, like hey, we have a new feature. You should try it. Do you like it? Do you hate it? Please let us know.
Andrew: I see. And that stuff people still use Intercom for.
Eoghan: It’s the simplest stuff, the most basic things, the things that people use Intercom for today. That was like a janky little thing that we kind off hacked together ourselves, but it worked. It was magical. It was amazing. So that’s where the original idea came from and we expanded upon it over the years. But, yeah, it always starts at one little thing.
Andrew: How did you know that anyone else would even want this?
Eoghan: I mean, of course, we didn’t. But a great product person has certain intuitions about how problems in the world could be better solved. A great product person sees problems. They’re walking around the world and says, “That’s shit. That could be better. Someone needs to build a better chair, pencil, whatever.” They see these fucking problems and they’re inherently motivated by some weird human thing. Who knows what it is? Maybe it’s some chip they have on their shoulder, some way that they want to prove themselves. Maybe they want to prove they’re better like the way I think we’re better. And they just want to go right these wrongs.
Andrew: You know, something came to my mind. I hope we have enough rapport now that I can just speak and not have you be hurt. I don’t think you will. But I’ve interviewed so many design-centered people whose products are beautiful, who when I look at them they’re just wearing t-shirts. Just kind of like the guy who I think about is the founder of Gumroad. He comes over here. I’ve known the guy for years. He’s got an eye for the details of the details of his design. He’s just like, walking in here in flip flops, t-shirt, like he doesn’t even care about any of his personal look. What about you? Has does that translate into personal whatever?
Eoghan: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Eoghan: People here make fun of me all the time. I wear the same gray t-shirts all the damn time, gray t-shirts, black pants. I’ve heard rumors they’re going to dress as that for this Halloween. So how does that translate to me? I think that there are multiple levels of design. There are multiple layers of, how do I say, understanding about yourself and the world. At some point, some designers equate sophistication and beauty with detail and expense. And they want to demonstrate to the world their high tastes with fine things. That may be a beautiful watch. That may be a wonderful shirt. That may be a pretty belt. Perfectly pressed slacks. You get the message.
But then there are people that go one layer deeper and they say, “Fuck the world. Fuck these ephemeral, shiny, bullshitty things. I’m not trying to prove anything. Actually, I’m going to dress, for example, for me. I’m going to actually design my life for me. What’s the most practical thing I could do? If I want to look neat, wear clean clothes? If I want to be able to get up quickly in the morning and not have to choose them? And if I want to communicate to people that I am a person that perhaps you don’t have to dig too deep to understand, I am myself. I don’t think that I’m trying to be anything that I’m not. Well, then maybe the most appropriate way to dress is simply be yourself.”
And so I know a lot of designers who are good designers, but they take a lot of stock in the idea that they are designers and they are incredibly sophisticated. And they want to prove that to the world. They’re the ones who will dress up a lot and then there are designers who are designers on a much greater set of layers. They’re deeper thinkers. They don’t care a lot about how the world thinks and they design and they dress for them.
Andrew: So you’ve been shocking to me. I would imagine Steve Jobs. We’ve heard so many stories about how he will not buy furniture and he would sit it in an empty apartment or house until he found the perfect furniture. That’s how much he cares about design and then he’d walk onstage in New Balance, like my grandfather. Anyway, that makes sense. You’re saying, “I don’t care about this stuff. It’s ephemeral. This isn’t where my passion is. My passion is creating these products that people are going to love. It’s going to be the legacy that going to change our lives.”
Eoghan: There’s a difference between style and design. And so style is a lot of the things on the outside. It’s perhaps the practice of certain aesthetics, and I don’t discount fashion at all, I actually admire a lot of great fashion. I just think it’s another art form. But the really great designers, the confident designers and the great people and the confident people, they realize that they have less to prove in the world. They are who they are. They don’t care what the world thinks about them. The result may be they were New Balance shoes because they’re comfortable.
Andrew: All right. What did the first version look like? Once you said, “This is our product. The world needs to see it,” what was in that first version?
Now, like I said, we have 8,000 paying customers. We have millions of people, like literally millions of people, who interact with our little in-app stuff. Every couple hours, millions of people . . . we still ship on average about 80 or 90 times a day. So 80 or 90 times a day our software’s just been updated. So you’re just seeing new versions all the time. So we kind of dropped versions a long time ago.
Andrew: Did that first version have the ability to . . . like I’m looking at an earlier version of the site. It says, “Turn users into loyal customers by building relationships.”
Eoghan: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Andrew: You get to browse your users, find people who are new sign-up or active users. Then you get to view their social profile. Then you get to reach out to them, based on what conditions. Did that first version with the bubble that you just described have all that, or is this . . .
Eoghan: Absolutely not, absolutely not.
Andrew: How do you figure out what features to add?
Eoghan: That’s good. Again, I can give you the answer that pretends that there actually is a formula here and that we actually knew what we were doing. But I think that that’s a lot of bullshit and anyone who would answer a question that way is full of crap. I think that there are some academic ways you can approach this. I think you can see what features people use. You can see what features people request, etc. Again, great product people are great people of strong intuition. We built what we thought would be cool and we cheated because we built for us.
And so, again, there were many, many, many, many problems in the world that could really benefit from great software, many problems. But there’s a subset of those that software people can benefit from too. So there’s a selfish way to go about building products, software products, and that’s to build for you. It’s not very noble. It means there are people in the world who are not software people that won’t get their problems fixed most immediately. But if you do like we did and build for yourself, you don’t need to take these academic approaches. If you’re a good product person, and you become a good product person by simply building products like we did for four or five years, you just build what you think is cool and that’s okay. That should never be called cheap or wrong. We simply built what we thought and knew would be cool for us. That’s it.
Andrew: The way that you stay in touch with what other people needed so that you’re not just building something just for yourself is what?
Eoghan: Well, you don’t really, really do that until later. As long as you have some good sense that you are a representative, a candidate, or a sample for a much larger set of people or companies out there in the world, then you just build for you. And that’ll take you very, very, very, very, very far. You can be a multi-billion dollar business and literally only build for you as long as you are pretty representative of a large enough market. At some later date, you’re starting to sell to a broader range of people and a diverse range of companies, companies that speak different languages, companies that have different businesses than you do.
That’s the time when you start to do some research. That’s the time when you need to talk to them. You know, part of the whole thing behind Intercom is that it’s there and designed to help you talk to customers. It’s for every single team in a business and we have different products for different teams. But fundamentally it’s all about talking to your customers. And so we used Intercom to talk to people every single day. Me and Des joke sometimes when we want to tell the early story to our team, to the rest of the company, just as a little instructive way to help them think about how they should go about solving product problems, for example. We show them all of the first hundreds of emails in our inbox. If you go back to the start of our Intercom accounts, into our Gmail accounts, all of our first hundreds of emails, hundreds of emails, were literally all about people using Intercom.
Andrew: And that’s how you understood what they needed and what they were frustrated about?
Eoghan: That’s how we validated it. We built for us, but a lot of these things really, most of what we learned in those 30 days was really how to describe Intercom to people and how to understand their problems and kind of translate that into the world. And so in the early days we were a great product-oriented team, we’ll also be great marketers with that product first. And then in the early days, it was just like product marketing. Simply just explaining what it is. It’s got nothing to do with advertising or PR or any of that crap, it’s just simply explaining this thing you built.
Andrew: How did you get your first customer outside of Contrast, your consulting company?
Eoghan: Right, right. So, again, those early, those initial emails are just all our friends. You know, we just begged our friends to use this thing.
Andrew: Who were your friends who used it?
Eoghan: Yeah, yeah. I mean, there was so many. There’s a guy in Ireland called Robin Blandford, Decision for Heroes. Garrett Dimon, who had a product called Sifter. I mean, smaller products back then that we were connected to. People whose blogs we met, people who we drank with on the weekends. You know, you call in favors. They’re half favors. And at some point in time, probably a certain magical thing that will happen and that’s when someone signs up and uses your product that you never heard of before. You do not know. They’re not your friend or your mom and that’s a special time.
Andrew: I want to go into how you grew way beyond that and I actually have an article or a comment that your co-founder put on Y-Combinator’s Hacker News about 1500 days ago. But first, my sponsor is Toptal. If you need a developer and you want the top developer, not just some freelancer who may or may not show up. But really the top developers, you go to Toptal.com, T-O-P-T-A-L.com.
Oh, and you actually said earlier, and this is still in the sponsorship message, but you said earlier that if someone was starting out, one of the first things they could do is build a little integration for Intercom. And that could build into something that produces revenue. Do you have an integration that you wish someone would build, or an example of what they could build to spark some thoughts? So if all we gave someone in our audience was a Toptal developer and they wanted to build an integration, what would it be?
Eoghan: Right, right. That’s a pretty cool idea. Maybe like a Gmail integration. Like super easy Gmail integration, Chrome plug-in, a way to help you connect with your customers through Intercom while you’re still in your inbox.
Andrew: And then what would you see in your Gmail account?
Eoghan: In your Gmail account, there are two ways that would work. While you’re in Gmail, you could pull in data that that user that you were talking to, so if they’re a customer you could pull in that data. That would be pretty cool. Then what you could do is if you respond to a customer in Gmail just through email, that conversation would get looped into your Intercom profiles also.
Andrew: I could totally see people buying it.
Eoghan: I think so too. Me too.
Andrew: So you build that app, you put it out online. You sell it for recurring revenue and you build up your business. If you need a developer and you don’t have one right now on your team or your team doesn’t have enough time, I want you to go to T-O-P-T-A-L.com/Mixergy. This is just one idea for integrations that you guys could build using Intercom. Frankly, just go look at their integrations, try out the software and see if you can come up with something else that should be built.
And if you already have a company where your staff is overextended and you need to hire new people, you’ve seen so many people who I’ve interviewed will write the name Toptal for a reason. Toptal is a team of experienced developers. They reject 97% of the people who apply to work with them, top 3% only. When you need a developer, you contact them, Toptal. They will reach out to their network. They’ll find the perfect person for you and in many cases that person can start working with you and your team within days. It’s an amazing experience. The company’s just blowing up. It’s doing so well. They keep sponsoring Mixergy because Mixergy is sending them such good customers.
If you’re looking for a developer or your friend is, I want you to recommend T-O-P-T-A-L.com and if they throw a slash Mixergy at the end, Toptal.com/Mixergy they’re going to send free development hours and a guarantee. I’ve never seen them do this stuff before. I mean, they might, but I Googled and I’m a pretty good researcher. I just haven’t seen them offer all this. And so it’s worth going to Toptal.com/Mixergy.
Boy, that was a good idea. I can’t believe you came up with it right there. But I guess you know your product so, of course, you would. So here’s what he wrote. Someone came on to Hacker News and said, “How do you find customers?” And Des said, “Here’s what’s worked really well for us.” In fact, I’ll read it directly. He said blogging. “Blogging has been the most effective weapon so far. We’ll give advertising a go soon, just to compare. But right now it looks like a good article that’s related to the product drives readers, which we can then try to funnel into our site.” What did you guys blog about that worked for getting new customers in the early days?
Eoghan: Early on, we weren’t very strategic about it. Now, we’re a little more strategic. But we wrote about the craft of building products and starting startups. These were topics that were relevant to the audience that we sold to. In particular, we have product feedback of our product. And so if you write all about product management, you’re going to bring in a lot of people that are going to be relevant to that. So think about your audience. The audience is a very important component there. I think you need to play the long game.
The best way that blogging has actually helped us is actually as a brand building exercise. The reason it’s so valuable to us is that we invest in content that will last the test of time. You don’t write link-based stuff. We don’t comment on anything current. We try to write timeless pieces that you could come back to in four years and it would be just as relevant today. Not build up this incredible long tail of traffic.
And so the result of that traffic then as people not only pick up this content over time but then come back to you for more quality content is that they start to recognize and know and trust the brand. So a lot of people in the early days, in all the early days, they only knew Intercom as a blog. The blog was where they experienced the brand first. And then later, as they started to get a little hint about what the hell this product was or who writes this blog, later when they had a problem that our product solved they would then have the Intercom name and idea on their mind.
So if you’re blogging to try and directly acquire customers, you’re doing it wrong. If you look at the conversion rates for a particular post directly translating into a sign-up into a paying customer, it’s going to look shitty. And it’s going to be hard for you to legitimize. I mean, you can write one big blowout post. We’ve had some phenomenal posts, posts that I think have the finest ideas around the industry, around certain design, principles and the way we think about the future of apps.
One of my team, Paul Adams, our VP of Products, write a lot of these bigger thought pieces. And if you look at the stats there, you might see two, three, four customers that directly come through that. The real value is in this brand building. It builds this brand and that indelibly marks and installs your brand in people’s mind associated with positive things.
Andrew: How did you get people to come to the site? It feels like you almost are giving yourself two marketing jobs. One is to get people to come to the blog and read the blog and give you feedback on how to improve and the other is to get people to come to the software. How do you balance that?
Eoghan: It’s hard, but I think that basically the harder you try to get blog traffic to convert to marketing site traffic, the less successful and popular your blog will be. And then the less successful your brand building exercise will be. So you need to be very respectful. You can’t fill the site with a bunch of advertisements for your product. You can’t try and force people to sign up for stuff. You’ve got to just be very respectful. Give this good content to the world and hope that it’ll be around over time and it will come back to you.
Andrew: Of course, I went back and looked at some of the old blog posts, and just like you said, they hold up and here’s what they are. Design and premature optimization is one headline for a blog post. Here’s another one, Interview with Bob Moesta. I don’t know how to pronounce his name, but this is a Jobs to be Done conversation which is still highly relevant for you guys today.
Eoghan: Right, right, right.
Andrew: What you should know about private betas, another one about funnels. Yeah, I see how that works.
Eoghan: And so what you don’t see there is everything we know about the iPhone 3.
Andrew: Ah, yeah, because you don’t . . .
Eoghan: Everything we know about the iPhone 5. That’s dated, you know what I mean? And so what a lot of people do when they try and create content is they try and talk about the topics du jour, such that they will be picked up today and that traffic is cheap, it’s fleeting and it has no resonance with your blog and your messages, etc. It’s a big bet. It’s a long lead activity. You’ve just got to believe that by putting out a meaningful, thoughtful pieces of content that will be relevant over a long period of time, you will build up that brand. And it will pay dividends in the future.
Andrew: You know what? I’ve heard you tell this story about how you got Biz Stone as an investor. I don’t know. Do I want you to tell it? Should you tell it again, even though you said it before? I guess there’s a lot that you said here that you’ve said before. Hopefully, not that much, but there’s stuff. You’ve got to tell the story. It’s such an interesting story. It shows how you far you’ve come. How did you meet Biz Stone for the first time?
Eoghan: Sure, sure, sure. Funny story, silly story. I came over here first. I moved to San Francisco in 2011. Came over here first in 2009 and I was with a small group of Irish folks. I was involved in . . . I’m embarrassed to say this, but I was involved in a meetup that was called a tweetup. There would be tweetups, of course. It was literally the 50 people on Twitter in Dublin would get together physically. It was kind of a big deal. Like, “Holy shit, I follow you on Twitter.” This was in the very, very, very early days.
Andrew: I remember that. We had those in LA also.
Eoghan: Right, right, right. Funny. It’s about dates. So anyway, we were over here. I emailed Biz Stone. Biz Stone was the kind of the main name behind Twitter. I thought at the time interestingly he was the main guy who would send the emails. All the emails came from Biz Stone and so I emailed him, set up with a bunch of Irish guys. We were part of the tweetup in Dublin. We’d love to buy you a drink, and if memory serves me correctly, he replied in an hour or two and me and two or three other Irish folks I was with . . . I was with all the Twitter co-founders [Inaudible 00:46:45] having beer by the Gordon Biersch, the old Gordon Biersch, like four hours later.
So it was kind of that easy, but that’s kind of a cute, fun little story. What’s more important is it’s indicative and demonstrative of a lot of the attitude that you find here in companies in the valley and in tech. You don’t expect that in some senses from the outside. You can’t always be very cynical and critical of this whole world. People are damn open and friendly here.
Andrew: I know. I can’t believe it too. I’m a New Yorker. I always think everyone is an asshole, but they’re not.
Eoghan: Yeah, yeah, no, people are friendly. People are open and people want to help. And so when you ask for help when they can afford the time, they will help.
Andrew: So how did you stay in touch with him after this meetup, tweetup?
Eoghan: So I guess I just emailed him again when I came back. I emailed him a little bit over the years. I emailed him again to say I’m doing this thing called Intercom, I’d love your advice. We went for a walk around The Mission. At the end of it I said, “We’re raising money. Would you be interested in investing?” He said yes. I emailed him the next day. He confirmed. It was kind of like that. I don’t want to say it was so easy. I want to say that I pitched Intercom incredibly well and I was very exciting and inspiring and motivating. And I want to say he was very smart and intuitive. He saw the future, but really just the stars aligned for both of us.
Andrew: What about Dan Martell? That guy has done so much and I still don’t know how. He’s the founder of Clarity.fm and a couple of other companies. I’ve interviewed him several times. Or maybe one time and it was so good I said let’s break it up into two different interviews. But how does he get a piece of Intercom? How does he even find out about Intercom?
Eoghan: I was friends. I was friends with him at the time.
Andrew: You’re just hanging . . . but he’s Canadian. You’re Irish. He’s barely in San Francisco. So it’s not like you guys are hanging out in The Mission having a taco.
Eoghan: I mean, we probably were at the time. He was here a little bit more. I mean, that’s the story of our seed round. That’s the story of anyone getting off the ground. It was so damn hard for me to raise any money. I was here on my own for four months. I could barely scrape together $500K, random bits and pieces. Dan was kind enough to be one of those bits. But it was hard. It was hard back in those days. I relied, again, on the friends and family, the favors of people in my network. And that’s what it looks like in the early days, much like you depend on those people to be there for users and customers of your product. I depended on them to be the first investors in our company.
Andrew: I want to see what else . . . Usually, I can look at my notes while I’m talking, but there’s so much that I was paying attention to that I missed my next question. You build it up, hiring was . . . No, actually here’s what I want to know. So far it feels like everything is working out. Yes, it’s a little bit hard to find funding, but, dude, you ended up with Biz Stone, one of the co-founders of Twitter; Dan Martell, incredibly connected; David Sacks came in later. Anyway, it seems like a lot of it was easy. What’s the tough part? What’s the part where you maybe questioned yourself?
Eoghan: You know, perhaps founders and CEOs that do find success, such that they do build increasingly bigger and more difficult to run companies, if they were honest, they’d tell you what I’m about to tell you, which is that most days you question yourself. And every second day it’s a pretty shit day. I mean, for someone who would be able to achieve many big things and chase their dreams, they’re hard on themselves. They have very high bars. I tell you that that’s one of our values. They have incredibly high bars. They’re so . . .
Andrew: What’s one way you question yourself when you’re really down?
Eoghan: I mean, I’m shit with my time. I should get more organized. Am I spending my time well? I’m dropping emails. I’m late. I should get up earlier. All of the normal stuff. All of the normal stuff.
Andrew: Anything bigger like, “I’m not as smart as all these people here in Silicon Valley”?
Eoghan: No, I’ve never thought that.
Andrew: You never thought that?
Eoghan: And the thing is I’m trying to be a bit cheeky about it now, but the thing is that the most inspiring thing about this place is that these great, great companies, that either have a big impact on the world or make lots of money or both, are built and made by very normal people. You know that better than me. The people you interview, wonderful people, inspiring people, exciting people, normal people.
Andrew: So it wasn’t that. When you get down on yourself or doubt yourself, what do you do to snap out of it?
Eoghan: I go to bed and say, “Tomorrow’s a new day.”
Andrew: That’s it?
Eoghan: That’s one part of it.
Andrew: Did you have one this past week that was a tough day?
Eoghan: For sure, for sure. Absolutely, like yesterday.
Andrew: What happened yesterday?
Eoghan: I mean, it’s a day like any other. You’re trying to hire the right people. You keep raising your bar. You keep becoming more successful. You’ve got more revenue, more investors, more customers. You’ve more to lose, more to gain. The opportunity has never been greater. You are a one in one million or, at least, a one in 100,000 individual or a one in 10,000 startup. Do not fuck this up. And you’re trying to bring in, for example, the best people. You’re maybe hustling them a little bit, you’re dealing with the competition that is the other great startups around here who are trying to hire them too. Hiring is just one example of a very grueling, emotionally taxing process, you know.
In this game, the highs are very, very high. In rare moments, you just get a glimpse of something wonderful you’ve achieved and it all becomes worthwhile. But most of the time, you’re doubting. You’re in the weeds and you’re in the trenches.
Andrew: The only process for getting through the doubt is sleep and just start again?
Eoghan: It’s like, “Well, that was a shit day. I feel like crap. I’m kind of depressed right now. I probably fucked up today. I probably misused my time. I should have said that thing to that one person a different way. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Everything’s screwed. I’m going to bed.” And then the next day is a brand new, beautiful day. I’m here in sunny San Francisco. The light pours in the window. You jump out of bed, get in the shower, get your coffee and it’s the same thing all over again.
But if you keep doing that, maybe 10,000 times, as I’ve done now since me starting to work for myself, eventually you’ll learn. You get better. When you fuck up, you fuck up in better ways, in smarter ways or you fuck up less. And all of these little things build up and bring you to a far greater place.
And so the real . . . the trick here, the trick here is to make a concerted effort to celebrate the things that you’ve achieved in the small ways and the big ways. All that that has to look like is maybe a drink with your co-workers at the end of the week. We have like a little happy hour here. We put on some music, hang out like people, get to know each other, celebrate the good work. We also like to demonstrate things we’ve shipped that week. We applaud. We clap. We make notes of these things. People have done that consistently. We give them little compensation increases. They eventually get promotions, like celebrating this hard work and then occasionally taking time to really think about everything you’ve achieved.
You’ve got to really force the appreciation for the really, really incredible achievements to make the pain and the struggle worthwhile. And I don’t anyone who’s achieved anything great that hasn’t done so through a really, really painful labor. It’s always the way. You can’t name a single company you and I look up to who don’t have founders who find their work and life incredibly difficult. Fact, and that’s okay.
Andrew: That’s worth it.
Eoghan: It’s worth it.
Andrew: Wow. I was going to ask you so many other questions, but this is such a good place to end it. I’ve seen the company from the outside. It’s so interesting to see what it’s like inside your head as you built it and as you conceived of it. Thanks so much for being on here and doing the interview.
Eoghan: Thank you. I really enjoyed it.
Andrew: That Dan Martell, he’s got a unicorn. He’s like forever. He’s going to say. It’s going to be on his resume. It’s going to be in his email, I bet, and his sig line. You know what? It’s couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. It’s worth it.
Eoghan: I agree.
Andrew: All right. Intercom.io is the company. If you like this interview, please subscribe to the podcast. Go to Mixergy.com/podcast, you’ll be automatically directed to iTunes or frankly, you know, whatever podcast app you use. You know you should be subscribing to Mixergy and if you like me enough give me a thumbs up by rating me on this . . . actually, forget the other ones. iTunes is the only one apparently where ratings matter. So please rate me there. Eoghan, thank you so much.
Eoghan: Thank you. This was fun.
Andrew: You bet. Thank you all for being a part of it. Bye, everyone.