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From EMEA to AMER to the world: The Zendesk customer service startup story

What up-and-coming startups can learn from the Zendesk founders' experience.

By Michaela Keady, Zendesk for Startups, Strategic Partnerships

Last updated March 13, 2023

Zendesk was founded in 2007 on a makeshift kitchen table in Copenhagen, Denmark. Today, it is a global company with more than 5,000 employees—but you never forget where you came from, or how you came up. The following is adapted from Startupland: How Three Guys Risked Everything to Turn an Idea into a Global Business, a book about the Zendesk origin story, written by co-founder and former CEO Mikkel Svane.

Any startup founder can confirm—startups are wonderful environments for energy and creativity. Different personalities come together, bonded by their mission to succeed and create the next game-changing thing for customers. They can also be tough, anxiety-inducing environments for those same reasons. Passion and drive can only take you so far when bills need to be paid. Being completely transparent with family can start to feel scary—can they really know that we’re this close to having nothing in the bank? Few who haven’t been there can fully understand—the founder community is so unique and tight-knit, perhaps because it can be a lonely job for these reasons.

Looking back at the highs and the lows, here’s what the Zendesk founders learned.

Play to your strengths—especially in the early days

Small teams of co-founders can give themselves an edge by identifying and playing to their different strengths. In the early days, the trio of Zendesk founders all brought different skills to the table. As Svane describes in Startupland, Morten Primdahl was the back-end expert, putting his engineering talent and penchant for perfection to work. Alexander Aghassipour covered the front end, building a customer-centric approach and simplicity into the product from the beginning. Svane brought a deep understanding of the customer-service domain and, in his words, “an impatience to get things done.”

“We were different, but in a way we were like the three necessary legs of a tripod—dependent on one another and strong only if we were together,” Svane says.

VC-founder fit—don’t be afraid to turn down cash

As any founder will attest, the struggle for VC is real. Some funding environments and years are tougher than others. In the early days of Zendesk, bills were piling up and freelancers who were helping build the product needed to be paid. So it may come as a surprise that the founders actually turned down money.

Buoyed by news of the strong Danish venture capital market and the founders’ firm belief in the product they were building, Svane recalls thinking that fundraising would be pretty easy. The truth was that it was incredibly difficult. Even so, the founders committed to what you might call VC-founder fit, turning down funding when the match was a little one-sided for their liking. One Danish angel investor who had a good track record said he wanted to invest up to $500K, and they were hopeful.

It’s customary for investors and VC to ask for materials that validate the business–it is a sizable investment, after all. But Svane recalls the investor grilling him about the materials not being up to par. The founders concluded that it was a strategy: the investor knew they were running out of money, and he was trying to weaken them to gain the upper hand in the negotiation.

The takeaway: be wary of investors who won’t work hand-in-hand with founders.

“We did not want to be controlled by someone who was aligned with what was best for them but not the company.”Mikkel Svane, Zendesk co-founder and former CEO

Furthermore, Svane says not all VCs are appropriate for every stage of the company’s journey–much like how childhood, young adulthood, middle age, and the golden years all have different needs, so does a startup’s needs in a funding partner as it matures. Choose wisely for each phase by looking at other companies in their portfolio and sharing experiences with fellow founders.

Zendesk cleared the Series A hurdle in 2009 with Charles River Ventures, agreeing to move the company to Boston, where the investors were based. After an IPO in 2014 and the decision to go private in 2022, a constant in the Zendesk story is a focus on customer experience.

Startup founders should always stay focused on the customer. Regardless of how much VC rolls in or whichever growth-hacking strategy is making the rounds, the customer is still the one counting on your product to help them live their lives or run their businesses.

We were selling a customer support service, so clearly we had to be pretty good at customer support ourselves or no one would want what we were selling.

Everyone worked hard to “touch” every customer and create a truly frictionless and intuitive online experience. We created rules about when in a trial customer’s lifecycle we would be in contact with them and how we would interact. We called every company that signed up for a new trial and asked how they were doing. We prided ourselves on being casual, not trying to sell, but trying to build a relationship. We experimented with the format and structure of these interactions all the time. And we still do.

There was no sales team and no marketing team, so this was the approach we took to do those jobs. It wasn’t as if we had a manual; we used the resources we had, and we learned a lot of unconventional best practices that we still use today.

Make it personal

Our fancy, perfectly crafted emails didn’t get responses. Then we made them simpler, added one handcrafted sentence, and added spelling errors—and they got a higher response rate. People realized it wasn’t an automated email but a message from a real person—and they responded to that.

It’s all about the conversation

It doesn’t really matter what you actually interact about with the trial customer. The fact that you interact is what matters. We could quickly see a direct correlation between response rates to our emails and conversions to customers.

Today, it’s still about the conversation. Customers want to have more informal customer service interactions, messaging brands they do business with like they do to friends and family. According to the 2023 Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report, customers crave connection and personalized experiences. And the only way to deliver on that promise is to keep customers top of mind–from Series A through IPO and beyond.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Startupland: How Three Guys Risked Everything to Turn an Idea into a Global Business by Mikkel Svane with Carlye Adler. Copyright (c) 2015 by Zendesk, Inc. All rights reserved. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.

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