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Founders and Customers: Love and Service
+ Texts with Founders & new podcast on fundraising
Two quick notes before today’s essay:
I launched a sister newsletter to Multitudes called Texts with Founders — it’s a weekly newsletter highlighting tested tactics I share with other founders. Recent posts include:
Fundraising difficulty has not changed much except that on the edges (companies with limited traction or momentum) it’s much harder.
Founders should think about fundraising the same way investors think about it — otherwise they’ll be misaligned with investor expectations on returns.
The worst time to raise money is when you need it. The best time to raise it is when you don’t. And the best time to focus on customers is immediately and always.
Founders and Customers: Love and Service
After ending a strategy call with a startup, I turned to my partner and remarked that the two co-founders truly love their customers.
“They are never going to let these people down.”
If you have ever been a founder, you know how hard it is to get anyone to take you seriously in the early days. That’s why it’s an incredible feeling when you have early customers who do.
The reason early customers take your startup seriously is not because you have a polished product—usually it’s filled with bugs—but because you care about them and want to solve a significant problem they have. The only way you can care enough is by genuinely loving your customers.
The default relationship between a customer and an established business is a contact form or hold music. You are lucky if you ever get connected with a helpful human at a large company. In the early days of startups, the difference could not be starker—customers can easily text or email the founders.
If you contact a founder, it quickly becomes clear if they care about you. If they do, it’s an experience unlike what you would typically expect from customer support. Bug with the software? Text the founder, and it’s fixed in 30 minutes. Small feature request? The founders might implement it later that day. While established businesses can sometimes win with distribution and product stability, founders can win by going above and beyond.
When founders love their customers, it causes the company to thrive. Customers are more likely to be loyal and open to trying new products and features. They’ll provide more frequent and honest feedback. They’ll also share their positive experiences with friends and colleagues.
The co-founders I mentioned previously have a close texting relationship with their early customers. You can tell if founders love their customers by hearing how they talk about them internally. These co-founders know each customer by name, why they use the product, and their long-term goals. The founders speak about their customers as something closer to friends than clients. You can see the genuine excitement on their faces when a specific customer comes up in conversation.
While I am not sure you need to love your customers to build a successful startup, you’ll likely be making things more difficult for yourself if you don’t. Some companies work on specific problems—Astroforge’s asteroid mining comes to mind—where direct love for your customers seems less relevant. But this seems more like an exception than the rule. And even then, Astroforge is clearly motivated by a love for humanity and American innovation. Put another way: feeling like you are working in service of someone or something is highly motivating.
I’ve previously written about how founders often run out of hope before they run out of money. But why do they run out of hope? One explanation is that they do not care enough about their customers to maintain the force of will required to overcome the challenges of building something meaningful.
A while back, I worked with a team that seemed to be on a promising path. The founders had figured out distribution in a market where few others had succeeded. As a result, they raised a significant amount of money, made some hires, and began developing a product their customers would love.
However, things soon took a turn for the worse. The distribution channel didn't work as well as expected, and potential customers they reached through it did not want the product. The startup tried several product iterations, but none seemed to click.
After catching up with the founders, I realized they did not love their target customers; in fact, they had grown to resent them. It was startling. At that point, I knew there was no chance of the startup creating a successful product in that market. Building a successful company is impossible if you look down on your customers. The startup eventually shut down.
It might be easy for some to criticize those founders, but I believe that would be unfair. This kind of situation sadly occurs frequently—even outside of work. While I've never experienced this in my ventures, I've seen how quickly frustration over a challenging situation can turn into resentment towards someone you don't care about.
Love motivates people to work through challenges that might otherwise lead them to give up. If those founders had focused on building for a customer they genuinely loved, they would have been more likely to persevere and create something that addressed a deep need. If they were to find a customer they loved serving, I would invest in them again.
Another founder I work with recently commented that they were "willing to suffer enormously” to ship something that helps their customers. Startups can be incredibly painful. It seems almost unreasonable to expect a founder to endure extreme pain if they do not have love to sustain them. I am unsure if a passion for building products or scaling businesses is sufficient. You serve customers—other humans. They define the value of your products and business. How can you dedicate over a decade to serving someone you do not love?
Thank you to Sam Barsness and Lauren Self for feedback on drafts of this essay
If you feel these resources might benefit someone you know please text or email them about it—would love for this work to be of service to more founders.
Here are some of my most recent Multitudes essays:
Recent posts from Texts with Founders: