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Article 4 min read

Stay product-obsessed: Take it from Zendesk VP and 2x founder Cristina Fonseca

Learn how Fonseca navigated radically different business environments over two tours of duty as a startup founder.

By Adam O’Donnell, Host of the Sit Down Startup podcast

Last updated July 27, 2023

Before she was VP of Product at Zendesk, Cristina Fonseca was a 2x founder: of Talkdesk in 2011, which raised more than $250 million, and of Cleverly in 2017. Though both companies were hyper-focused on customer experience, the business environment for each was drastically different.

Fonseca recently sat down with the Sit Down Startup podcast to share her founder experience. Tune into the whole episode to hear how she and her team navigated new competitors—including Zendesk—and why hyper growth isn’t the only sign of success.

In the meantime, take note of Fonseca’s top tips, whether you’re just getting started or a founder many times over.

There’s no “rinse and repeat” template for startup business development

The same founder can have wildly different experiences; from fundraising to competitors entering and leaving the market, one size does not fit all.

Fonseca describes the market noise and level of competition as fundamentally different in the six years between founding Talkdesk and Cleverly.

“Ten years ago, if you started a business that solved a meaningful problem, somehow customers would come to you,” Fonseca says. “You didn’t have to put a bunch of marketing dollars up front to attract customers.”

It shows how much the startups ecosystem has changed, particularly in tech. Fonseca says people are flooded with invitations to check out the newest software that will change their lives–and it is easy to tune out. Marketing doesn’t only come into play, it needs to be more meaningful for customers and prospects. Fonseca says that selling something that can be life-changing is quite hard. Furthermore, data security has become a much bigger concern. Legal and compliance professionals are a much bigger piece of the puzzle.

But one thing remains non-negotiable: you can’t fail on the product side. If you don’t have a top-notch product with top-notch UX that solves a real-life problem, it’s back to the drawing board until you do.

Create the most bespoke solution at scale

At Cleverly, Fonseca was focused on how machine learning could improve inefficiencies in customer service. The industry was very consultative by nature, so she and her team spent a lot of time customizing solutions for customers: such as making tweaks on the learning model or algorithm specially for one client.

While it gave the company strong grounding in being there for customers and helping them solve problems, that approach wasn’t scalable. The only way out was through, for the self-described “product obsessed” Fonseca.

“We believe there should be a scalable way, so let’s try to understand if that’s the case or not,” Fonseca says of this time. Where Talkdesk experienced the hyper growth many founders dream of, scaling Cleverly required working closely with a couple of customers until they identified an approach that would scale.

Don’t get thrown off course by competitors

Competitors will always be a factor, but it can be a good sign when there are multiple people trying to meet the demand and solve the same problem for customers.

Fonseca founded Talkdesk in 2011, right after college. As the first cloud-based call center platform, the company billed itself as Zendesk for phone systems. But Talkdesk found itself in direct competition with Zendesk after the latter unveiled Talk, its VoIP for business product. While the news came as a jolt, Fonseca kept her customers’ voices in mind to stay above the fray.

When the customer’s voice is still saying ‘we need this,’ that should be what keeps you going–not the advisors or VCs.

Carrot co-founder Tammy Sun expressed something similar as a guest on Sit Down Startup—keep your eye on the prospect, and VCs will follow.

The bottom line for Fonseca was that customers trusted them with their phone lines, and the company could not let them down. Talkdesk is still in the business of cloud-based call centers, helmed by co-founder and CEO Tiago Paiva. Fonseca departed in 2016, but life came full circle after Cleverly, Fonseca’s second startup, was acquired by Zendesk in 2021.

Share knowledge early and often

Knowledge management is essential to break silos between business functions and, therefore, run more efficiently. Building good knowledge management habits from the start can help teams have visibility into the product and the company goals, regardless of how big the company gets.

As Fonseca says, you have to aggregate internal knowledge carefully in order to scale properly.

Every founder experience is different (even for the same founder at different times), but keep Fonseca’s tips top of mind to stay the course:

  • There’s no “rinse and repeat” template for startup business development
  • Create the most bespoke solution at scale
  • Don’t get thrown off course by competitors
  • Share knowledge early and often

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