Can founders end up doing too much customer service?

Being customer-centric is a great cultural trait and a common aspiration in many startups. But can a founder be guilty of doing too much customer service? I couldn’t help but think of this recently as I watched Amod’s recent interview with Clearfeed.

It made me reflect again on the long journey at Qubole. As with any journey that doesn’t go quite as planned – it has become natural to keep mulling it over. What could I have done differently? What could we have done differently? One thing that often crosses my mind: was I too customer focused for our own good? And of the many theses going through my head – this one stuck a bit more than others.

The answer, I felt, was Yes. Some ruminations in this post. Useful, I hope, to a fellow founder crawling the web someday.

Tactical, Strategic and Futuristic

Founders typically wear a lot of different hats, no matter the formal title. The smaller the startup – the more common it is to multitask. One thing I learned early was to be conscious of which hat I was wearing at any given time. Depending on the need – an engineer, an architect, a technologist, a product manager, a customer support person, a sales person, a marketing person, a manager, a mentor .. – you name it – at different times I wore all these different hats. These numerous hats can be reduced to a much smaller set of categories in terms of the timescale they operate at:

  • Tactical: Thinking about tomorrow. Usually very reactive with less agency involved. Customer’s gotta P1 problem – gotta fix it tomorrow. Production has a serious outage – gotta fix it now! Board meeting tomorrow – gotta get that presentation done.
  • Strategic: Medium-term thinking. What’s the product roadmap for the next quarter or two? What’s the hiring plan? What initiatives can we take to increase the NPS score? And so on.
  • Futuristic: Long-term thinking. What’s our mission as a company? What does the world look like in 10 years and how would we be placed in that world? What technologies that are upcoming today will have a marked impact 5 years down the line? And so on.

(I linked to the Gallup Strengths Finder description for the last two categories because it captures, awesomely, the import of these words. Strongly recommend taking a Strengths Finder course btw).

Time and energy are a zero-sum game. If a Founder is being tactical and reactive all the time, they are simply not thinking ahead enough. If they are busy executing (like most are), they are not taking time off to think of the future.

Gravity of Tactical roles

For founders, tactical roles make a very strong demand on their time. There are many reasons for this:

  • Pressure to Execute

    To start with the most obvious one, most startups are under enormous pressure to hit their metrics. They are unprofitable, depend on funding to survive and can only raise funds with stellar metrics. It becomes natural, even essential, to focus on the short term that gets that next customer, next big project – that helps one make the cut for the next funding round.
  • High Achiever bias

    One of the biggest things tactical efforts have going for them is the instant gratification – the dopamine rush that short-term accomplishments bring. Many (perhaps all!) founders are high achievers (StrengthsFinder again!). Note the description below. So it’s no surprise that many founders naturally gravitate towards tactical efforts, or at the best Strategic ones. Futuristic endeavors, otoh, produce zero returns for a very long time.

Achiever describes a constant need for attainment. You feel as if each day starts at zero. By the day’s end, you must achieve something tangible to feel good about yourself. And by “every day,” you mean every single day — workdays, weekends, and vacations.

  • Curse of Experience

    To make things worse – founders, being the first employees in a company, also know the most about it.
    The curse of knowledge and experience makes founders (and other early employees) goto people for solving all kinds of gnarly tactical problems:

    • Who do you go to discuss and fix a day-1 bug in the code? The founder who handles Engineering of course. He wrote it most likely or used to work closely with the engineers, now long gone, who did.
    • Who does HR go to when there’s an irreconcilable conflict between two senior employees? Why – the founder who knows them both for the longest time and has the best insight on how to disentangle the knot, of course.
    • Who can rescue the large account whose champion is irate at the poor product uptime? Of course, one of the founders who knows them the longest and bought in as a user in the first place!
  • Pressure of Company values

    Finally – I feel founders are subtly under the pressure to live up to the company values they expound. And inevitably, these values are biased to action, impact etc. – things that are often tactical in nature (and certainly not a great fit for long-term efforts). This tension is not limited to founders. I remember that the guy who started HPHP at Facebook (Haiping) literally just disappeared for a few months while working on the project and that absence was a very poor fit, during that duration, for the culture (then) at Facebook. (of course, it was a great hit once it showed signs of success). (Performance review discussions on Facebook alumni groups today seem to suggest that, if anything, this pressure to conform to projects with relatively short impact – has only increased).

Importance of long-term thinking

The gravity of Tactical roles is complemented by the seeming unimportance of long-range strategy and vision. Company value statements often have something to the effect of “Walk the Talk“. Well – it’s really hard to walk, in a quarterly performance review, a 10-year talk. Part of why this happens is also, I would argue, akin to the phenomenon of “Familiarity breeds Contempt“. Companies usually start with a vision and mission. Their funding pitch decks are full of large TAM numbers and world-altering goals. They are pitching this to hires all the time. Guess what happens when you are dishing out Kool-Aid, externally, by the gallon?

But the world around us keeps changing inexorably, at an ever-increasing pace. People, not busy executing, in larger companies and universities with ample time on their hands are thinking up the next big thing. Doing that next cool experiment. Immature technology and nascent social phenomenon can quickly catch fire in a highly connected world and disrupt business models and older technologies.

Another reason why long-term strategic thinking is important is to simply figure out how to expand the scope of a company’s business at a practical level. This requires effort in systematically understanding the surrounding ecosystem and making well-deliberated choices in terms of company expansion. It may also require convincing many stakeholders of changes in directions. Efforts with little short-term reward.

Back to me

Looking back, I suffered from this skew to tactical efforts in spades. Even when conscious of the problem in the later stages of the venture – I found it impossible to change the status quo. I was reminded of this on a LI post when one of my ex-colleagues said this:

To be truthful, I picked on Customer Service simply because it was the topic du jour. I was equally guilty of fighting production fires in Engineering. Or getting involved in the nitty-gritty of that next little Product feature that I was so passionate about. Unfortunately, even when spending enormous amounts of time on customer issues – I was actually not talking to customers enough beyond their immediate issues. That was the real bummer – for that’s one of the best ways to understand where the market is going, or what next to build.

What could I/We have done differently

Problems are easy to solve when they are understood. Even better, one can easily find solutions to this all around us. Some examples/ideas:

  • Hiring great people and thinking deeply about org design and reporting structure. While this one’s obvious, its still remarkably hard to get right.
    • In particular – most people who have worked in large companies are unfamiliar with org. design. Because it’s already pre-defined for them.
    • Reporting hierarchies are enormously consequential. Problems always bounce up all the way to the highest point in the reporting hierarchy. So if an operational role reports to a strategy role, strategy is inevitably going to suffer.
  • Consider separating long-term roles from tactical ones. In younger startups, there’s much derision of the concept of Strategy or pure R&D. But these departments make complete sense when the fundamental tension between tactical and visionary roles is considered.

    Of the companies I worked for – Netapp’s strategy office, headed by a low-key founder (James Lau) – seemed like an extremely effective construct. We would rarely hear from James – but many key directional changes emanated therein. Leaving James to focus on strategy with no operational burdens whatsoever, worked well for them.
  • Figure out a configuration in the founding/early-employee team, where some folks (like James above) can simply focus on strategy and not have operational deliverables.
  • In a similar vein – when hiring and delegating, delegate operational roles first.
  • Set aside time on the calendar for long-term thinking and research. Make those deliverables in the exec team and the organization. A good personal goal may have been to talk to at least X customers (or lost prospects) per quarter.
  • Many famous entrepreneurs take complete downtime/go offline for a few weeks a year (Bill Gates famously).
  • Consider doing retreats of key leaders/execs that is focused exclusively on the long-term future and scenario planning.

Can better tools help?

One of my personal motivations behind building ClearFeed was to build tools that find important things to pay attention to, without having to go around checking dozens of dashboards, reading my Inbox, scanning dozens of Slack channels, and so on. It would have been great if I had an intelligent agent tell me what things needed my attention – and if nothing – then I could stop worrying about tactical things and work on longer-term things.

This is a hard problem to solve in a very general. But I feel like we have at least made progress for specific personas and setups. The current product warns CSM/Support/Pre/Post-Sales staff if they are missing important questions in customer service channels. I hope that over time, we are able to do a lot more than this and cover many other sources of information and build easy mechanisms for managing the task list that we are able to discover automatically.

In general – while we are inundated with communication at work (both from within the company and from customers) – there’s little tooling out there to condense it into concise knowledge and action items. That seems like a problem worth solving.