In the early days, when talking to users (potential or existing), there’s an eager impulse to pitch. The impulse mounts. By turn, shaping and resolving whatever founders had already believed in. Unearthing little about the users or their challenges.
“…once we start pitching people, 90% of them won’t engage us with honest feedback. We won’t get useful answers.”
In the following exchange, Cord’s co-founder and CEO, Nimrod Priell, shares how he has remained untainted by that impulse, how the startup culture conditions it, and the baseline, exceptional rigor required to carve out better hypotheses and impactful products today:
— Why they conducted 78 user interviews before writing a single line of code
— How user research (and not pitching) made them hone Cord’s proposition
— Why MVPs worked in a different era and what’s demanded from products now
I do feel that I have a couple of advantages.
One that I’ve been around for a while in tech. I’m not that old. But nearing 40, I’m definitely older compared to your average first-time founder.
I began working near the tail-end of the 2000 crash. Worked through the 2008 recession and saw what that did to the ecosystem. Over the years I’ve been at failed startups, acquired startups, big tech, and I’ve even advised startups before starting Cord.
The other advantage is just being a good sponge for new ideas, frameworks, and processes. I’ve not invented any single thing that I’ll share here. All my lessons are ones that I’ve picked up from/through others.
I give a lot of stuff a shot. And then I love analyzing and figuring out what works for me.
When it comes to acquiring new models of thinking and operating, where I’ve fumbled in the past and where I see others fumble is following the letter not the spirit, missing a bigger point or completely misunderstanding a particular aspect.
These two advantages dictated how we approached the user interviews for Cord and the sheer number (78 to be precise, before writing a single line of code) of them we ended up doing.
I was a reluctant founder in a way. Scared of doing this new thing. I didn’t plunge into it with a lot of confidence. So I needed the user interviews to convince myself that I was ready. To convince my co-founder, Jackson, that this was worth his time.
This reluctance arose from both of us having had fairly successful careers and the opportunity cost of stepping away from that success. Jackson had been an early Facebook engineer and spent years there. I had had my share of great outcomes.
Thus we were giving up quite a bit by pursuing this.
We wanted the conviction that this is the right, unique, and correct idea for the market.
Even after the 78 user interviews, we got a bunch of stuff wrong. Stuff we’ve pivoted from, since. But those early conversations definitely helped cement why and who this problem affects in amazing detail.
Plus, we didn’t stop there. We ran well over 200 interviews by the first year. At some point that practice transitioned into research sprints and exploratory sales calls.
But in those original user interviews we were already trying to hone in on not just the product but different segments and personas, and answering some of the first roadmap questions we had.
There’s a very specific example of this.
A narrative we were hearing a lot from friends and other folks who had been thinking smartly about products for some time or were investors in similar products, was that mobile would be super important.
“You have to do mobile, the world is moving or has moved there. B2B will follow.” Or: “How can Cord solve for collaboration without building for mobile?”
That was a question we had to answer for ourselves. With the interviews we tried to really, really dig into what teams used mobile for, what they expected to be able to do on mobile, all in the context of B2B SaaS tools. Turns out very few people cared about mobile.
We learned that there was no material shift in expectations or needs for them to drive their core B2B SaaS features (whether it was for something as collaboration-first as Figma or an FP&A product) on mobile, although they might use it for surfacing fast answers, data, or some such activity.
This invalidation of a widely-believed narrative informed the roadmap, who we hired first, and what we ended up building in that first year.
A common mistake I see early-stage founders make is that they’re not able to switch or even distinguish between the pitch mode and research mode in conversations with users.
They feel an urge to constantly pitch the solution, probably because that’s where much of the focus of hustle culture and how investments must be chased comes from.
Not realizing that once we start pitching people, 90% of them won’t engage us with honest feedback. We won’t get useful answers. Just versions of, “aha, I get it, that’s cool.”
They’re completely different conversations. On the other hand, even the best sales people focus on qualification, which is not the same as pitching the product but quite similar to user interviews.
Cord, for me, was the first role I had doing anything like sales or GTM. And I learned a tonne by applying what I knew about user interviews into sales.
Although, there are a couple of advantageous insights that I brought to this role, owing to my past experience. Both things that founders often lack. Things that they just don’t notice unless somebody points it out to them.
When I worked at Facebook, I was involved in a very, data-heavy team that helped PMs and PMMs with analytics on how people behaved while using their apps. And this team was married and intertwined with another team that did qualitative user research.
We followed this system that our VP at Facebook had come up with and something we went back to alot. Which was that, every decision had to be made on a 2/2. Where the 2/2 is qualitative and quantitative data, mapped with first party and then third party data.
First party and third party don’t matter much for the sake of what we’re talking about.
But the idea that you always had to have the quantitative and the qualitative data together in order to inform a big decision, led to having these teams work very, very closely together.
At Facebook, I was running this data team, and also acting as a PM for an app with a few million users. So we often used the services of these user researchers. Once I went all the way to India, to Mumbai, with my entire team to do user research there for a week.
Also to New York and to a couple of other places. I got to know how the best in the world, and this place was very particular about who they hired and so on, did user research.
Of course, I couldn’t afford doing everything they did, with the startup. Yet I had gathered the fundamentals of doing it right before approaching Cord’s hypotheses.
The second thing that helped immensely was that I wasn’t tainted by the experience of having done pitches.
I had not pitched to investors. Neither had I been in sales before. When you’re a founder who starts with pitching to anyone (investors or employees), it just shapes how you engage with these conversations even with potential users.
I notice this when I talk to founders who are trying to sell to us as a client on their new SaaS offerings. A bunch of them start with, “oh, this is a huge market opportunity.” They just pull out these lines that are steeped in pitching routines.
If I’m a client, I don’t care if your market opportunity is big. You should ask me about my problems. Best sales pitches that I’ve ever done or I’ve ever been on, are the ones where the seller speaks 10% of the time.
And what they do is just ask: “So, what do you, the client, think we, at startup X, can do for you? What are your problems? What do you need?”
I later read up on this.
Again, this isn’t something I came up with. It’s consultative selling. The best kind.
Especially with our buyers. They’re not used to being sold to. They hate being sold to. We sell to PMs, engineers, and designers to some extent. They’re all allergic to pitches.
So we’re very particular about letting them flesh out, in great detail, what their needs are. And only then suggesting that we, being experts in this space, can walk them through what we believe to be true about the problem and how best to solve it.
Put differently: They often sell to themselves. They just realize on their own that this is a problem and that ours is a legit solution, the only one in the market today.
Here are a couple of surprising incidents that affirmed we were making the right calls by placing that research-driven mindset first.
Towards the end of the first set of user interview calls, having spoken with different categories of users and having honed our proposition, we kicked off a set of chats with startup founders (who weren’t primary user personas but had major influence) to find out if they’d embed Cord into their products.
With each, I’d take the usual route. Listen first. Learn about how they thought about the problems. And only then showing them some mocks and getting feedback on our ideas.
On the first call itself, a successful bootstrapped founder whose company has since been acquired said, “this is awesome, can I be an angel investor?”
And we weren’t seeking investments at all. So we told them we’d get back when we start raising. Then it happened again that very week. Another founder I talked to, Snyk’s Guy Podjarny, said, “hey, can I get involved and invest?”
Both of these completely unsolicited requests were powerful nods for the validation process.
But it took close to a 100 user interviews and a constant refining of our understanding, to get there.
And the road ahead, once we started building, was as exacting.
The notion that a minimum viable product doesn’t cut it, in a lot of instances, is fundamental to how people need to think about their startup journey.
Because the Lean Startup was written at a point in time where mobile was just starting up as a platform. And you could get away with things. Really. The first apps on mobile were exceptionally basic and still got propelled into huge success.
On the B2B side, a lot of givens we take for granted today just didn’t exist back then. A self-serve kind of SaaS model for example. Everything was over a long sales cycle. SMBs were completely underserved. There were barely any sophisticated tools.
You could build a basic thing like Shopify (when it started) and score massive success. The need to grab a space first mattered a lot and people’s expectations were low.
Today, there’s a focus on other elements. And we cannot get those right if we serve burnt pizza. People wouldn’t comment and tell us anything if they’re dealing with a poorly executed product.
Essentially, if you measure yourself quantitatively, trying to get high retention for example, which is a good measure of PMF and getting to some scale, or getting a good CAC and better rates across different parts of the funnel, none of it will work if the whole product experience doesn’t shine.
What that means is that, as founders, we do have to put a lot more attention to quality and a lot less attention to metrics than most of the PMs who’re trained or who grew up in these post-PMF, large companies that are scaling or optimizing.
This has certainly been an unlearning for me. Or a relearning for the early days of my career. Because after 5.5 years at Facebook as a PM and as a data team leader, everything that was hammered into me was around how analytics and experimentation give you the right path forward.
And that’s just not the case.
It’s true for incremental growth. It’s not true for new experiments, ideas, and products. That’s actually something that Facebook got wrong.
Facebook had a period where it was investing in this initiative called Facebook Creative Labs, with which they aimed at expanding the core Facebook apps like messenger and building novel experiences that people might want. Essentially, to build the next Instagram in-house, instead of spending billions on acquisitions.
That failed miserably.
Internally, some leaders noted that one of the reasons why Facebook Creative Labs would never have come up with something like Instagram is that it just didn’t allocate enough time, enough patience for these experiments to come to fruition.
Instagram took 4 years to build up. Not to scale. To build up, to refine and hone the product until it was useful. Same with Figma (I know the stories as we share investors).
They took years to hit their stride. Notion, incredible story, again. 4+ years. Where they almost ran out of cash. And they didn’t really pivot much.
All of these companies seem like overnight successes.
They’re all overnight successes, yes, but years in the making.
What we built in the first half of the year was total crap.
Cord is now, 2 years in, with some of the best engineers one can hire in Europe, getting to the level of quality that people expect from the core loops in the product. I don’t think there are shortcuts here. This takes hard work and ardent attention to details.
Without reaching that level, users simply turn themselves off from even the most useful products. And it isn’t just bugs or bad design experience. Things that you can clock in metrics.
People can leave for the tiniest of things in the journey. An interface that’s slightly slower than they’d expected. A brand not quite resonating with them.
Getting all of that right just takes time.