Zendesk: Why the rewards outweigh the challenges when starting up

Every company’s startup journey is different and there is no ‘one size fits all’ advice. Building Zendesk however, I have found a few core principles that can help set up and nurture a business.

Stay true to your vision

Remember, this is your business, so listen to your instincts and do what’s right for you. Zendesk started with just an idea for how to improve customer service. It wasn’t until we started trying to raise money that we even developed a business plan. 

The journey from the excitement of having an idea to the hard work of building a company is a challenging one and, when you’re just starting out it can feel like you must accept every potential opportunity. But there are times to say ‘No’ and trust your instincts. 

Early in our startup life, we desperately needed to raise money and had an interested, big name angel investor. We were getting close to closing our first investment with him, but something didn’t feel right. He was carrying the process out needlessly and being highly critical of minor issues. My founders and I decided he wasn’t right for us—even though we were nearly broke. We said “no” to that money for the sake of our vision.

It’s tempting to take any offer that might come your way. But you have to think about the long term and accept the opportunities that are right for you. 

It’s never too late

All too often, the media representation of entrepreneurs is of a genius teenager or scrappy 20-something who wants to take on the world. Reality is quite different. Having a career behind you can give you the experience and credibility that someone immediately out of college might not have. Life & work experience are valuable assets to have.  

The records of successful startups are full of older founders making it in their 30s and 40s. When we were establishing Zendesk, my two co-founders and I were in our mid to late 30s. We definitely were motivated by our age; we felt like Zendesk might be one of our last chances at startup success. That gave us extra determination and willingness to work hard. 

Success is measured ultimately by how hard you are willing to work, and by how well you can put yourself in the right place for good luck. Age is not an issue.

Hire for attitude

In Nordic culture, the mysterious law of Jante persists. This is a common mind-set which views the celebration of individual success as somehow inappropriate. When we moved Zendesk from Copenhagen to San Francisco in 2009, we experienced a completely different culture of self-promotion that is ingrained in the American psyche. It was quite a shock. We learnt that we had to adapt to a different working environment.  We would be reading CV’s thinking ‘wow, this person should have my job!’, only to be disappointed by the candidate at interview. We learnt to counter this by introducing tests into our recruitment process to bring a measured approach to it. 

More than anything, we learnt that hiring for attitude is often more important than hiring for skills in a startup. A startup consists of a close-knit group of people working really hard. There can be yelling, swearing and hurt feelings in the craziness of it all, and you need to be sure you hire people with the attitude that matches your vision and an ability to thrive in an intense environment.

Finally, the customer always comes first

Finding and signing on customers is critical in the early days of a startup. It’s also the hardest thing to do.  It requires getting closer to your customers and engaging with them early on. A little creativity and unconventional thinking can help. From the start Zendesk had a commitment to ‘touch’ every customer. This might be a regular phone call or email – just to see how things are going. But again, tailor your approach to your customers’ needs and personalities. 

When emailing customers, we found that people would seldom respond to an elaborate, well-crafted message. We began experimenting with emails with deliberate spelling mistakes, and in a far more informal style. Our assumption was that if people thought they were receiving an email from a real person, as opposed to an automated mass email, they’d be more likely to respond. It worked for us.

Always remember that customers are people, too.  Do whatever you can to reach them, but do it by treating them as individuals and with the goal of building a long-term relationship.

Ultimately, each new company will find its own way. The journey itself—both the mistakes and rewards—is what makes building a startup so rewarding.  Just stay true to yourself and your vision, and keep working hard to make it a success.

To read more about Zendesk’s journey from Copenhagen loft to the New York Stock Exchange, order a copy of Mikkel Svane’s Startupland for kindle or in hard copy on Amazon.

You can also follow Mikkel Svane on Twitter


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