Help Scout is a customer service platform with more than 10,000 paying customers in 140+ countries.
Our team of 100+ is all remote, and we’ve been that way since founding the company in 2011. We’re also one of only a few software companies that is a certified B Corp, which means our mission is a balance of profit and purpose.
I’m happy to talk about building products, building teams, working remotely, or anything else that’s on your mind. I’m also passionate about Diversity & Inclusion initiatives (read our 2019 report here).
I’ll be back on February 13 to answer all of your questions. Talk soon!
Note: This AMA is closed for new questions, but you can check out the existing conversations below.
In this AMA, we had Nick Francis — the co-founder and CEO of Help Scout, a passionate D&I advocate, and an expert at building products and teams — share his thoughtful insights on what it looks like to deliberately craft your startup culture, positioning in a crowded market, funding, and more. Dive in!
AMA Index (Nick’s brain-pickings)
(founding insights, opinions, and observations; deftly examined and articulated)
— Nick shares his thinking on codifying org values and dispatches some lessons for his younger self; “Don’t fool yourself into thinking at any point it will become easier”
— How Help Scout’s engineering teams work?
— Nick probes (and clarifies) a founder’s approach to buyers, users, and investments
— An admirable founding philosophy: “Double down on things you cannot write a check for”
— On the deep ties of word-of-mouth and content
— Sage messaging advice: “When all else fails, use your customers’ words”
— How Help Scout does org-wide support at a 100-member company?
— Why Nick feels that a B Corp certification was worth the effort, despite the obvious and unobvious challenges
— Notes on Help Scout’s evolving GTM-positioning efforts
— Questioning per-seat pricing is quite fashionable in SaaS; here’s why Nick believes that it’s still the best for their business model even with all the imperfections
— The everyday commitment of values
— On what remote teams want: “at 25 people you’ll need the organization, process, and procedure of a 100+ co-located team”
— A compendium of Help Scout’s long-running inquiry into remote work
— Nick’s take on management (“the trick isn’t tooling – it’s outstanding managers”) and equity (“build a company people are proud to be part of”)
Further reading/listening/pondering from the interwebz /
(Other insightful excerpts drawn from blog posts, interviews, and conversations)
On culture and being a remote org:
“There’s a shift early on in a company when you go from founders working in a room together to founders also working alongside people that you hire to then the people that you hire hiring people to be part of your team. And at some point, you have to codify what your values are because the founders aren’t hiring everybody.”
“The reason we decided to build a remote culture was all about talent. Selfishly, it wasn’t that I wanted to live all over the world and be a journeyman. It wasn’t anything about my own quality of life because frankly, I felt like we needed to have a better team, a more talented group of individuals as part of our company in order to survive in a really crowded market. We’re in the world’s largest software market – CRM.”
Source: Interview with Nick Francis, CEO and Co-Founder of Help Scout
On standing out in a crowded market:
“So what is it that enables a small company in a crowded market to stand out and achieve runaway success? I’ve been asking this question for years, and what stands out to me in every case is the company’s ability to position their product. They know their market so well that they can craft a brand that’s differentiated from everything else, and uniquely resonates with ‘their people.’”
Source: How to Stand Out in a Crowded Market
On building a for-good org:
“Real people run this company, and we can’t pretend we don’t have values and beliefs. Treating others with love and respect is a value shared broadly by our team. That may mean we lose a few customers, but as Thorleifsson says, as a human being I have no doubt it’s the right thing to do.”
Source: Introducing Help Scout for Good
Stay in touch:
You can follow Nick to stay updated with his discoveries and insights:
- Nick on Twitter
- Nick on LinkedIn
Welcome to Relay. I am sure the learnings from all of you will be very valuable for the next generation of startups. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer the questions.
I am a first-time founder and I hesitated to codify our values for a long time due to unknown reasons (fears?). I thought everyone should let their inner compass guide them while we just focus on better hiring and more importantly on the survival first.
When you reflect back on your journey between your first company (Project83) and Help Scout, what did you do differently with respect to documenting values and the way you set up the team? What lessons would you share with your younger self (2005) to build a better company as a first-time founder?
Hi Nick! Thanks for taking the time. We are also fully remote at EnjoyHQ, and it has taken us some time to establish effective processes and rituals/practices in our engineering team. How do engineering teams work at Help Scout? Perhaps if you could share what tools and weekly practices you’ve found helpful. Thanks!
Thanks for making yourself available here on Relay! I greatly appreciate the opportunity to ask a few questions. Actually, I have three:
How do you overcome the issue that large corporate prospects often “race to be second” i.e. we have had several F500 companies tell us that they love our solution and that we should come back when we have a client similar to their own company that is live with our system?
How do you energize and motivate end-users who often bear the majority of the work using a new SaaS solution? We often find that owners or C-level executives give us the green light and are highly enthusiastic. However, operators are hesitant or even reluctant to use our solution because it means more work for them. We address this issue with management upfront, of course, but it is often hard to get the necessary commitment when the rubber hits the road.
How do you overcome a vicious cycle where you are asking for, say, $2M in seed funding and VCs tell you that you need to show $2M in revenues to get the money. Obviously we would not need the funding, if we had it in revenues.
Thank you very much again! I look forward to your answers.
Welcome to Relay!
It’s amazing to read your story about wanting to build a company with values.
What are some of the distribution tactics that have worked well for you and have helped you stand out in such a crowded space? How do you differentiate from a product and positioning standpoint? What do you do get your customers see the values beyond the product?
Yes, these are broad questions, but would love to hear about some tactical things Help Scout does.
Thanks for taking your time to do this AMA!
Could you share what your marketing strategy was at launch?
Has this strategy changed years later, or is pretty similar?
Hi Nick!! BIG fan!!!
We are a new tech startup in Indianapolis and one of the earliest companies to successfully get our B Corp certification! We’re actually the first B Corp Certified/Indiana Domestic Benefit company in the state. We actually include pronouns throughout our platform.
I’m curious to know your thought process on messaging. I’ve found it very difficult to explain our software in an easy, clear way. It might be lack of sleep/time/resources (haha) but we’ve been so embedded in the technology that it’s hard to explain (for me at least) what we do. We’re already pulling significant interest - but not streamlining the messaging to make lead gen successful yet.
Great work on Help Scout!!
Another one, Nick.
I can’t fail to notice that all employees at Help Scout spend time with customers directly. I’ve always dreamt of building such a team. What advice would you have for other companies to go about implementing it?
Big Help Scout and Nick Francis fan here! This quote in your Help Scout for Good post really resonated with me:
We’d like to see more businesses in the world that balance profit and purpose.
In our experience, the best way to catalyze that sort of change is to model it for others to see.
I’d love to hear more about how it’s been to operate as a B corp. What’s been challenging about it? Are there benefits that have come from it that you weren’t expecting?
thanks for making the time to do this AMA. And it has been inspirational watching how Helpscout has grown in a crowded market.
I particularly enjoyed reading about how “positioning the product” is the key to standing out and how you have used Relationship vs Transactional as the axis to differentiate. I can also understand how this might influence your product roadmap.
What is less clear is how you go about communicating this to prospects and potential buyers. For example, on your landing page, this differentiation does not seem to be a big focus.
What advise would you have on how should one go about clarifying or communicating your product’s positioning so that a new prospect gets it instantly.
Thanks a ton for taking the time to do this AMA! My question is around pricing. How did you settle on pricing for your product? What made you choose per-user pricing instead of # of customers or another unit?
Thanks for doing this AMA.
My question is with respect to working with a remote team. You have mentioned about codifying values. How did you go about doing that initially? But also, how do you make sure that your values are not being diluted as the company expands - especially when the team is remote?
We are also a fully remote team, when our team size was small it felt like we were more productive remote. In the last 12 months we grown from 2 to 40. It’s been a challenge to get the team to work together. I’d love to hear more on how you organise the team, what kinds of structures and routines do you have in place?
Also hiring remote seems more challenging and expensive than if we had an office, any good channels you guys use?
Thanks for taking the time to take our questions! As with any other startup, finding talent is one of the hardest tasks and remote teams do sound very attractive.
- How do you establish a company culture with remote employees? How do you make sure they do the right thing for your customers?
- I always thought of remote employees as freelancers. How do you create a sense of belonging that makes them stick to Helpscout? Are all employees shareholders as well?
- Would you ever look for an exit and how would that work for your employees?
Thanks for your time. Eager to hear your responses.
It’s great to learn about your success so far with HelpScout and how you’ve managed a robust remote team - it’s really inspiring.
My company with just less than 20 employees, we are already on a remote culture path but it gets really challenging for me to manage sometimes especially with deadlines been missed frequently.
- How do you manage your team? Is there a tool you use to measure productivity? (please specify for tech team and sales team if different.)
- Is there an equity slice that keeps them motivated and stick with HelpScout ?
- If your employees are shareholders, what vetting structure works for you?
Thanks for all the wonderful questions.
Nick will be here in just a bit to answer them. Stay tuned!
Hey Krish! Great question. Your hesitation is valid. I think it’s important to build the team up a bit before naming your values. As a founder, your DNA is a big part of the company’s DNA, but if you do it right, the employees will make up a significant part of it as well – and you want your values to represent what makes the company great.
We created our core values when the company was 10-15 people. It wasn’t a founder that catalyzed the process, actually – it was Becca, our Head of People Ops. She conducted interviews with every single person on the team about what makes the company special, and what they want the company to stand for. Then she put together a summary of what she learned and handed it to the three founders. Together we synthesized all the information and came up with our three core values.
This is what we came up with:
As for a few lessons I’d share with my younger self, these come to mind:
- The journey is immensely rewarding, but never gets easier. Don’t fool yourself into thinking at any point it will become easier.
- Search far and wide for the best people – people better than you, who represent the values you want the company to be about. It will not be quick or easy, but with hiring it pays to be a pessimist.
- Developing self-awareness is the key to growth as a CEO. Surround yourself with coaches, mentors, and advisors that will keep you accountable, help you identify weaknesses, and challenge you to do better.
Hey Sofia! Great question. This blog post has a few tips and tricks we’ve developed over time. We’ve since migrated from Trello to Jira, but otherwise the tools mentioned in the post are still accurate.
The teams function much like co-located teams in principle: each one is a cross-functional group of engineers, QA, design, support, and product. The team has a mission and a roadmap. We work in 8-week development cycles and try to ship at least a portion of a project within the dev cycle.
One resource that’s been very inspirational to us in terms of building products is a book called Shape Up, by Ryan Singer from Basecamp. I’d highly recommend giving it a read. They are really good at this stuff.
Currently our product/engineering organization is about 50-ish people. One thing that’s been a game-changer is hiring a technical program manager to help the team work better across teams and complex projects. If I were to do it over, I’d bring this function in way earlier. Here’s a screenshot of the job description we used for the role.
Hey Chris! Thanks for the questions.
Adoption with the first few customers can be a challenge. We don’t sell to the F500, but I would assume the “come back” answer is an excuse. I’d go deep to understand what’s behind that. If they aren’t in a hurry to buy, I’d question whether the problem my product solves is painful enough for the customer. Why don’t they see the value? I’d eliminate all other barriers to entry (price, training, implementation effort) and make it easy for them to buy. If they still don’t buy, my product isn’t good enough and I’ll have to solve for that.
This is a tough one to answer without digging into your business, but ultimately in order to retain customers in the long-term, you’ll have to make the buyer and the user happy. We have a similar challenge, as the buyer and user are often different for us. In your shoes I would do some research to identify a way for end-users to get value from the product. C-level folks likely won’t give the green light for long unless the users are seeing value.
Similar to question #1, assume this is an excuse, because in this case I’m pretty sure it is. You aren’t getting the full, honest feedback. They don’t believe this is a good investment yet. I’d focus 100% on the buyer and closing sales. In my opinion, funding is rocket fuel. It should not be used to prove a concept or fund operations – it should be used as fuel to achieve a certain level of scale and growth. For that reason, I’d forget about any funding until you know you have a great business.