The Path from Minimum Viable Product to $50M a Year with Des Traynor of Intercom

Episode #064

As Intercom's Chief Strategy Officer, Des Traynor (@DesTraynor) knows a thing or two about building a successful company. Over the past 7 years, he's worn almost every hat there is to wear. In this interview, Des explains how Intercom got to where it is today and what he's learned along the way, from marketing, to product development and feature prioritization, to hiring, sales, and developing an effective vision that people can believe in.

  1. 8

    dude, nice! Awesome guests + interviews lately. Keep it up Courtland 😉

  2. 5

    Listening to Des has always been quite an immersive activity. His learnings and message has been consistent and clear and thanks to you Courtland, you really had very good topics covered in the interview.

    Building a B2B SaaS startup from India has been a long arduous journey, I must say. This interview has been a great help.

    1. 1

      Thanks Sushaeel!

  3. 3

    This was one of my favorite podcast—he was great. Thanks @csallen You ask such good questions. Great interview!

  4. 3

    reference to the original hackernews article please..

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  5. 2

    I really liked this podcast. There is a lot to learn from Des. Really inspiring. I learnt that they literally built their customer base one by one.

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  6. 2

    Really awesome podcast! Thanks for sharing your experience.

  7. 2

    Interesting podcast, enjoyed listening to this.

  8. 2

    Loved this podcast episode!

    "When you plant those seeds, you're maximizing your opportunity."

    Thanks a LOT.

  9. 2

    Great tactical tips here, including on fundraising and grit. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  10. 2

    really inspiring Des Traynor, thanks for sharing

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    My Main Takeaways:

    • Solve your own pain: “Intercom” came from Des and his team solving their own pain regarding communication with customers on one of their already-successful businesses “Exceptionally”. They built a set of tools to solve their problem, and eventually they had an entire suite of tools that they could productize. Soon their soon-to-be product “Intercom” would become more popular than their product “Exceptionally”. So they then sold their product Exceptionally to Rackspace, and worked on Intercom full time. Then their CEO Owen moved to San Francisco.

    • Learn to define what your product is NOT: Early customers wanted them to turn Intercom into an analytics tool, but Des and his team knew that that was not what Intercom was for (there were already many other analytics tools).

    • Have a vision if you want to make a big business: They defined a vision for Intercom in the early stages. They did this by writing down everything that they believed on a white board.

    • Having a clear mission and being mission-driven is really important when you want to bring other people on-board.

    • Be Mission-Driven: Des does NOT believe that the key to success is to just keep building MVPs to see what business idea sticks. Instead he believes that you should try to build something that is in alignment with something that you fundamentally believe about the world.

    • Don’t confuse movement with momentum.

    • Anchor a business around a core set of beliefs.

    • Every single meaningful opinion that you have should be divisive in that, not everyone thinks it should be true.

    • Tackle a problem that you really know yourself.

    • Ask yourself if it’s a big AND common (enough) problem.

    • Des says that Intercom’s heroes when starting in business were Basecamp/37Signals by Jason Fried.

    • Intercom ran a free beta for quite a while.

    • You don’t need to raise money for your startup. Just solve a problem, and customers will pay you a monthly fee [if it’s valuable enough] and you can make a living from it.

    • They raised $1 million funding to increase the speed of execution and delivery.

    • When trying to get the first few customers, Des would manually write long bespoke emails to potential customers who he believed would benefit from Intercom (His goal was 10 a day). He did this one by one, and would stay up until 3am to get onto a Skype call with them even just for feedback on how he could improve the proposal.

    • Be willing to go to any lengths necessary: Des went to great lengths in the early days to on-board customers.

    • Start with direct sales: You got so much feedback by listening to why people would or would not use your product.

    • When you start charging for your free product, naturally you will experience a drop-off in users.

    • Free users want more software (features), paid users want better software (features).

    • Don’t try to save money by building everything yourself, if the math works out, then you might as well pay for existing tools.

    • Avoid low-effort low-impact tasks. Focus on Low-effort high-impact or high-effort high-impact.

    • Don’t focus on things like analytics and funnel optimisation until your website generates sufficient enough traffic where the 0.1% changes in optimisation result in significant enough differences income.

    • Take growing your brand seriously.

    • Don’t charge dirt cheap prices with the hope of getting more sales.

    • Marketing is a much larger field than people think: Des thought that marketing was only 1 team, but it is about 10 teams (Product Marketing, Product Education, Demand Generation, Content Marketing, PR and Analyst Communications, Brand Design, Partnerships, Resellers, Lifecycle marketing, etc…)

    • Advice for beginner founders: Draw your funnel as a customer at the end of the funnel who is really happy and giving you money. And at the start of the funnel there is a soon-to-be customer who has a pain but has no idea who you are. How does the customer find you? What’s their journey like? Work backwards from the happy customer to map out their journey, so that you can identify the necessary channels to focus on

    • Never settle thinking that you know your customer and no longer need to have conversations with them and seek feedback. Industries change all the time, so make sure that you remain on the pulse by staying in a constant state of market research.

    • Focus on long-term growth strategies, saving the short term growth strategies for emergencies only.

  12. 1

    Awesome podcast. One of my favourites right now

  13. 1

    One of the best episodes on the IH podcast! Thanks for the great interview @destraynor and @csallen.

    I'm a big fan of Intercom and see it as our role model. It's the epitome of state-of-the-art SaaS that truly makes online businesses personal.

    There's so much to learn from Intercom's journey. Thanks again for sharing.

  14. 1

    The reference to the infamous DHH "step one, step two, step three" YouTube video, any chance you have a link to that please?

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      Yes, I too would like to watch that! Did you manage to find it?

  15. 1

    Hmm... he takes multiple swipes at low pricing and is down on B2C companies. Then he even uses rewriting in Erlang as an example of really bad thing to do...

    Could this be a case of Whatsapp envy? 🤣

    1. 1

      I will take swipes at low pricing in a B2B space because I think it's generally a bad idea. It's rarely the result of economic or elastic analysis, and more that people don't know how to charge.

      I'm not down on B2C companies, I didn't say anything negative about them I don't think?

      Lastly I had no idea WhatsApp used Erlang (or even what the implications of that would mean).

      And I'm a WhatsApp fan :-)

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        Haha, it was good natured ribbing. I make screencasts for Elixir, which runs on the Erlang virtual machine. I discovered its power while working on a free video chat app targeted at SE Asian users.

        Erlang has some very desirable properties when it comes to concurrency and stability that made it a perfect fit for Whatsapp and enabled them to scale so far with so few resources. FB chat used to use it too, before they had the resources to rewrite their core infrastructure in C++.

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