When we sat down with Ohanian for our CX Academy Live event, he shared his experience as an entrepreneur and the many lessons learned along the way—from his days responding to customer feedback emails at Reddit to his current role at Seven Seven Six helping the next generation of startups push forward.
Read on for some of his lessons learned or watch the interview on-demand.
Instead of idolizing others, carve your own path
Founder mythology looms large in our culture. Steve Jobs’ legacy still defines Apple products today. Elon Musk’s unconventional approach to business made him a household name. Sara Blakely started a billion-dollar empire with just $5,000 in personal savings.
It’s great to study these people’s paths and understand what they did well, but Ohanian says “hero worship” can sometimes keep startup leaders from challenging themselves and pushing boundaries.
“I don’t think anyone who’s going to end up doing something truly transformative should be trying too hard to be like someone, because you’re not really pushing things forward.”
“I don’t think anyone who’s going to end up doing something truly transformative should be trying too hard to be like someone, because you’re not really pushing things forward,” Ohanian says.
Instead, he advises the startups he works with to improve upon what others have done and strive to create something even better.
You need to be talking to your customers from day one
When evaluating startups for his venture capital firm, Ohanian looks for leaders who have an intimate understanding of their customers.
Founders should be able to tell a compelling customer journey story describing the customer’s pain points, their problem-solving journey, and how they would use your product or service.
“You don’t have any excuse not to at least reach a minimum viable audience.”
Tools like Slack, WhatsApp, Discord, and Telegram make it easy to start having these kinds of conversations with potential customers from day one, even before you’ve written any code.
“You don’t have any excuse not to at least reach a minimum viable audience,” Ohanian says, “If you can’t do that, you’re probably not cut out to be a founder.”
As you grow, keep your customers close
Ohanian recalled that for the first three years at Reddit, he personally responded to every customer feedback email (an approach he doesn’t necessarily recommend).
That said, founders face a real challenge as they grow past those early startup days. As you add more team members and layers of internal process, your days are more likely to be spent meeting with staff and putting out fires. That leaves a lot less time to talk to customers and synthesize their feedback.
"You want those opportunities to dip back in [to your customer base] because if not, you start slipping."
Ohanian says founders should prioritize opportunities to tune into customer feedback when they can.
“You want those opportunities to dip back in [to your customer base] because if not, you start slipping,” Ohanian says.
One way startup leaders can stay connected is with app integrations for your customer service software. Tools like Slack, Trello, Airtable, and others can all be used to pull customer context into shared threads or dashboards.
Seek outsider perspectives to improve your decision-making
You also need outside perspectives to challenge your assumptions not only about your customers, but your entire industry.
Ohanian reflected on a time in Reddit’s history around 2009 when the company did not have a mobile app. At the time, it was not something Reddit customers were asking for, so his team didn’t prioritize it. It was not until 2015 that Reddit had a fully functional mobile app as it does today.
He learned the importance of challenging assumptions, and looking outside your own team when making decisions. Now Ohanian is in the habit of keeping a personal board of directors, which for him includes people outside his industry.
He refers to these outsiders as “stakeholders with no stake,” which is part of the value they provide. They are not invested in the industry or subject to its propaganda, so they can tell it like it is.
Edge out your competition with good customer service
Ohanian pointed out that startups today have one important advantage over their more established counterparts, which is customer service.
“Investing in things like customer service and support are table stakes. They shouldn’t be the exception, they should be the rule.”
Customers have high expectations for service: They want fast replies and personalized experiences, and 50 percent will switch to a competitor after one bad customer service experience.
Because startups know they need to meet these expectations, they’re more willing to prioritize the tools that can make it happen, like adding real-time live chat. Meanwhile, other companies may be slower to adopt these capabilities.
“Investing in things like customer service and support are table stakes. They shouldn’t be the exception, they should be the rule,” Ohanian says, “There are enough companies that are winning in big ways doing that, that it sets the bar for everyone else, and it’s either you’re on that level or you’re subpar and you’re going to have a bad time.”
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