Inside Inovo
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Inside Inovo

How to translate customer insights into the best possible product — Maciej Ciołek, Zowie

Today we publish my interview with Maciej Ciołek, Co-Founder and CTO of Zowie.

Zowie is an AI-powered customer service automation tool for enterprise clients, incl. L’Oreal, InPost, Aviva, Avon, and Brainly. It helps fast-growing companies grow even faster by removing customer service bottlenecks. In 24 hours they automate 30% of customer service inquiries and up to 90% in a few weeks. The company was founded by Maja Schaefer and Matt Ciolek, and it is backed by Inovo Venture Partners since September 2020. In January 2022 they announced raising USD 5M (20 mln PLN) in a seed round led by Gradient Ventures (Google’s AI-focused VC, based in Silicon Valley) and 10x Founders. And it’s just the beginning of the road!

I sat down with Maciej to discuss:

✅ Is it true that a founder must sell?

✅ What’s the value behind recording all sales calls?

✅ More features doesn’t mean better product — how does building a product really look like?

✅ What’s the difference between pitching the product from the features perspective and pitching the product from the solutions perspective?

You can also find this episode on: YouTube, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spreaker.

Maciej, thanks for being with us today.

It’s a great pleasure, Maciej. Thank you very much.

First of all, maybe if you could give a couple of sentences of what Zowie does so that our listeners can get a better understanding of the basis here.

So Zowie is a customer success automation platform. Our main goal is to help ecommerce brands automate repetitive questions for everyone who’s visiting their website. So with Zowie they can provide 24 hours of support. And whenever a customer, potential buyer, is visiting the website, they can ask a question and get a response to that simple repetitive question straight away. This is how we can increase the overall customer satisfaction and how we can make sure that they will finally place the order. We increase the response time, but also we’ve seen that we are able to grow the conversion rates for our customers. So Zowie is an enabler for growing sales for our customers.

Okay, awesome. Thanks for that. So let’s start from the beginning. We became your investor something like twelve months ago and before that you were running a successful software house. Let’s maybe start with that transition from being a software house to a product-led tech company that raises VC funding. How did it work for you? Is it the same or is it different? And if it’s different, how?

It was a great journey for me personally because, of course, when we were running Codeheroes, our software house, we were mainly focused on delivering the features, products, and solutions for our customers. And we realized that a couple of projects we did in the past were focused on customer support automation. We understood that the way we’re doing it for our customers, it’s not scalable because we’re just doing again and again some kind of software. And this is how we realized that there is some kind of problem in the market because everyone was hiring agencies to implement some kind of chatbot solution. And our goal was to just focus on this and make sure that maybe we can build a product. And this is how we started building the platform.

From today’s perspective, would you say it’s an easy process to go from service oriented organization to a product oriented organization?

Completely not. In the first weeks when we made this change from a software house into a product company, we were mostly focused — rather I was focused on having the best features and driving a lot of features because the more features we have the better — we’ll be the best on the market. It was also connected to the fact that we wanted to be a very generic tool. The problem in the beginning for myself was thinking that if we’ll be the platform, then you can automate everything. We’ll have the best product. After a couple of months, I realized what does exactly an ideal customer profile mean and how to address those needs. And in the last couple of months it was the biggest lesson for me to just understand exactly what it means to build a strong product and what it means to deliver the features which are needed by our customers.

Okay, so let’s double tap on that because it’s actually very interesting, something that we see a lot especially in first-time founders who had never built a product before. How did you think about what the product should be? You mentioned that you were thinking, “okay, let’s build as many features as possible because it will ultimately mean that we have the best product.” But then you said, “okay, it’s not really the case.” So what does it really look like? How do you think about the product right now?

I believe that at the stage of the company where we are and everyone will be is that the founder must sell. It’s very important. And with Maja, we did this kind of split that Maja was responsible for driving leads, marketing, and fundraising, I was mostly focused on sales, customer success, and product. So I had the pleasure to run like 500 sales calls in the last twelve months. And this was the biggest learning experience of my life because being on those calls, winning or losing the deals and understanding what you’re missing was the most important. And we just learned everything from our customers. So on the first sales calls I was just coming and showing, “hey, this is the platform, these are all the features we have.” But I realized that customers are looking for something different. They are not looking into our features, they are looking for the customer experience of their customer. And this was the split… This was the biggest shift that instead of just building the product for everyone, we started defining two potential profiles of our customers.

At the beginning of 2021, we were focused on two types of customers. The first one was: startups. So B2C startups who are always struggling with customer service. And the other profile was: ecommerce. Ecommerce is growing very fast right now and they are also struggling with customer service. And our team, who is responsible for lead generation, they’re generating like 50/50 different types of leads. And I was on the calls with both of them. And for the startup world, I realized that the problem was that each startup has different needs. They have a different system, different set up, and different problems. And there was a question if our generic platform will be good for them. On the other hand, on the ecommerce side, when I was on the calls, I realized that everything is very repetitive. The questions are very repetitive; the problems are repetitive. And this is how we got to the conclusion after a couple of months of testing this strategy with our profile that our customers are in ecommerce. And this is why Zowie is laser-focused on ecommerce. And this moment was when we completely realized that instead of building a generic platform for everyone (which there are already hundreds of on the market, and you can build chatbots as you wish), we are fully focused on ecommerce. And this is why we’re driving the best product for ecommerce. And Maciej, who was on the calls a couple of months ago, was selling the features and showing that you can build any kind of chatbot.

Okay.

Maciej on the calls right now is someone who is saying, “I know your business, I’m an ecommerce expert. We have only ecommerce customers. And I’m showing you how we are going to solve your problems.” This is the completely different speed of me thinking a couple of months ago pitching the product from the features perspective and Maciej, who is pitching the product right now from the solutions perspective. And I think it was the biggest problem for me in the beginning to understand what is the ideal customer profile and how to define it. But the way we did it, we just made a bet. Get startups, get ecommerce and see where you’re driving better value and what are their needs.

In a way, it’s music to my ears. And obviously since we are an investor, we’ve known for a long time. The fact that at the beginning of early-stage companies, people tend to think about technology in a way, as you mentioned, “we’re going to build this feature and that feature.” There is no real customer discovery behind those decisions. It’s probably one of the biggest issues that you see because you spend a lot of time and resources building something that people actually don’t care about or don’t care about as much as you would think. And this is a very interesting notion.

You said something along the lines of each founder should spend time talking with customers, doing sales calls. And actually those sales calls, I would call them discovery sales calls, they ultimately influence your product decisions. And this is a very important notion, which we are looking at when we are talking with new companies, but also that we are trying to encourage among all our portfolio companies. And it is super exciting that you already see the results of having this kind of attitude.

Another thing is ultimately you have those discovery sales calls and then you understand, “okay, for this particular group of customers, they have a set of problems. So let’s solve them.” But still you need to somehow prioritize which of the problems to solve first. So how do you think about it? How do you make a decision of, “okay, this week or this month we are going to focus on X instead of Y.”

Thanks very much for this question. So when we were building Zowie and in the last couple of months especially, the biggest problem we had was how to make sure that we will be able to provide the biggest value from the beginning. With all the other chatbot providers you need to spend a lot of time to prepare your knowledge base, configure the solution and you’ll see the results after a couple of weeks or even months. And it’s very technical to configure. So we understood that whenever I was talking with a potential customer, I was talking to customer service people. People who are rather nontechnical. They don’t understand what AI does. They don’t know how to build decision trees.

Our goal is to, first of all, focus on their experience and make sure that whenever they are going to use Zowie they will not be afraid because our success strongly depends on their knowledge of customer service. We had to figure out a way in which they would be able to move their knowledge from the FAQs and templates they were currently using to Zowie. This is, for example, the first problem we had to solve. How quickly can we onboard customers to make this process effortless for them. For example, this is what we did. As we focused on ecommerce, we prepared a pre-trained ecommerce knowledge base of 150 ready-to-use automations and integrations with top ecommerce brands like Shopify, WooCommerce, Magenta and so on. Right now, if our customers want to enable Zowie, they can just go into the platform, pick the top 50 or 30 problems they want to solve, provide their content, connect Zowie to Shopify and it works. They can be up and running with us in 24 hours. With the others, they’ll spend months. And no one is willing to test it out or to move with this kind of project. So this is how we prioritize. First of all, we’re focused on making sure that our customer can be onboarded quickly and together with the team we’re thinking what kind of features we can have in the platform to solve this issue.

Okay.

Once we solve this then… I’m also leading the customer success team and I also need to listen to not only the sales calls but also the onboarding calls and all the performance review calls. And then we realized that the problem we had is that it’s very time consuming for our customers to improve a chatbot. The second problem we were focused on with the team was how can we make this process easier for them and how are we defining that our customers are using our product. So there are a lot of products on the market when your goal is that customers are going to log into your platform every day and spend as much time as they need.

Our problem was a little different because our goal was that the customer was coming to our platform on a regular basis to achieve their goals, like growing the automation ratio and spending less time on this. And this is how we came up with the solution which is called AI based recommendation. So whenever you have a chatbot and the chatbot, let’s say is able to understand 50% of the traffic, you still have 50% of traffic that you don’t understand. And with other tools and with Zowie in the beginning, you had to manually go through the list of unrecognized questions which can take, according to the scale of the business, hours or days. And this is how we leverage our AI engine to generate AI based recommendations. Right now whenever our customer is logging onto the platform, they are not going through thousands of unrecognized questions. They have like top ten recommendations, what they need to do with their knowledge base to improve it.

Awesome. Sorry to cut in, but just to zoom out a little bit, to make it a little bit more generic, let me rephrase and tell me if I understand correctly. So basically you’re making a product decision based on the insights that you get the on sales discovery calls. And to make this decision, you’re actually trying to understand, “okay, which is the biggest value driver for our customer.”

That’s correct.

And then what you also said is in practice, you basically just look at the usage patterns of your customers and you think about, “okay, what is going to be a good KPI that will mean that our customers maximize the value out of the tool.”

That’s correct.

You would be surprised how many people that we talked to are not really thinking about building a product this way. I’m a big believer that ultimately the best product will win and the best product means the one that brings the most value to the end customer. But people still don’t think about it this way. So this is why I want to make sure that both on the general level and the specific level people will get the idea here.

So just to rephrase what I said, you’re 100% right. First of all, there are sales calls and I was leading the sales calls with both me and the sales team. The first feedback we’d get were the questions, “how long does it take to implement it?” “How much time do I need to spend?” In the beginning, were saying that “you need to generate everything, provide everything by yourself”. And our customers realized that it’s too time consuming. The problem we had in the beginning with closing the deals was time to value. We had this problem, we started working with the product team on this problem: “how can we reduce the time to value?” And the first two quarters, the team was focused on how we can reduce the time to value. And it was exactly predefined knowledge base of ecommerce. They can predefine ready to use integrations so they can go and be up and running with Zowie in one day.The second problem was from the customer success team. They came to us and said, “our customers are not happy with the fact that they need to invest a lot of time to make it better.” The other quarter was focused on how we are going to reduce the time our customers need to spend in order to grow with us. And for example, right now, the challenge in the company we have is: “how are we going to grow our net retention?” And the whole product team is focused on what improvements in the product we can introduce to help our customer success managers grow our accounts?

Okay.

It’s always about listening to what are the problems. And of course, I’m a huge believer in having a roadmap and the roadmap should be strictly connected to your vision. But this roadmap will be influenced every month, every quarter with signals from the sales team, customer success team, and all the other teams in the organization.

You mentioned that you spend a lot of your time doing sales calls and customer discovery. I remember when we first talked, before our investment, most of your customers were in Poland. At some point, you reached a point in which you could very easily close a customer in Poland. From the funnel perspective and conversion perspective, it was working very smoothly. But you still made a conscious decision to focus on other geographies, notably US customers, which were, especially in the beginning, much harder to close. Right? Why would you do that? Why would you focus on a geography where it’s difficult to sell instead of taking the ones that were easier and closer to your headquarters? Whatever.

Of course, we have never abandoned closing sales in Poland, and we’re still closing deals in Poland. But forever we wanted to build something global. So the idea was that either we’ll go into countries like Germany and France, but the challenge is that you also need your product to be fully compliant with those geographies. Then you need to be the best in France, in Germany and all of this stuff. We realized that the best region for us are the English speaking markets. This is how we also defined our personas. We were looking, in the beginning,for English speaking customer service departments. And this is also why we decided to go in this direction and just focus on the States, because we always wanted to be on this market. Because we believe that the customer service on this market and ecommerce on this market started on this market and just kept growing very quickly. So this is exactly the place where we want to be. And you’re right, in the beginning it was very hard because I remember my first calls with the potential United States customers and the pitch, the way we were talking, the way we were presenting the value proposition — it was completely different. I had to even learn the language that they are speaking. But after a couple of calls, I was able to realize what their problems were. And the most important part of discovery calls is just to listen, listen, listen. The first calls were too focused on our features. After some feedback from our advisors and investors, I was more focused on listening to the customers. And this is how we were able to figure out what the real problems were and how we can refine our pitch, make it better and just progress. And of course, it was a challenge. But once we closed our first two or three customers from customer service departments in the States, then we were able to realize what’s the problem. And how we can name it and how we can pitch it.

We are big believers in going for a big win in Inovo and we’re looking for founders thinking similarly, “okay, where can we make the biggest difference? What is the single biggest problem or market that we can attack? Where do we have a good chance of winning it?” And when you look at it from this perspective, winning Germany or France, even if you’re the best on those markets, US is 350M people, right? It’s a huge market. So if you manage to crack it in the States, you’re probably better off than cracking any of the single European market. But also it comes with challenges. Like, as you mentioned, doing those first customer calls were like “okay, I need to learn what are they talking about?” Even starting with language and pronunciation, and going through how you structure your pitch and how you ask questions. But I also see sometimes that going after the US market has some implications on the organization itself. Like, you’re working in different time zones. How did focusing on the US, this decision, how did it impact Zowie as an organization?

Of course, we had to be ready to work a little in the afternoon hours. I think that the Eastern time zone is not so painful for us. Of course, the Pacific time zone is very challenging, but we can manage this. Most of the customers are from the Eastern time zone. It’s just a six hour difference. First of all, we had to make a decision to move from a Polish speaking organization to an English speaking organization. But we also helped ourselves getting to this market because the first decision when we started growing our sales team was to hire English speaking people. The first account executive that we hired was from the UK.

Okay.

This was the way how we were able to first of all validate if I am the right guy to sell or maybe we also need an English speaking person, like native English speaking person to close the deals. Definitely. Alim, who joined us, helped us a lot in regard to growing this pitch, understanding our customers and pitching it correctly. And it was a very smart move. I think that it was a very good decision to hire this account executive because he helped us a lot and we were able to just understand it. And of course, it’s a 5 or 6 hour difference, but it means that they’re starting when we are around 12:00 or 3:00 PM. So you need to work a little late. But if you want to attack this market, you need to do this. And as I said, coming back to the beginning of the conversation, founder must close the deals and must sell. So from my perspective, me personally, I just agreed, “Okay, I will do this,” and we did it. And now we are at the stage when we can … “Okay, we understand everything. I know how to pitch it. Now, I can start hiring account executives in the States because I can share my knowledge, share my experience, and just train them how to do this.”

I love this approach. I truly love it. Okay. Some people especially at the early stages are like, “Okay, so I’m building this product. I believe it’s going to bring value. I have some insights around that. But still most of my network and potential customers that I can reach are in Poland or maybe in Germany.” Some people struggle with getting on the calls with customers. If you could tell us how did you start getting on those first customer discovery calls? Like even before you were able to close, you had to jump on a call. Even to make a bad sales call, you had to have a sales call in the first place. So how did you get to them? Was it going through your network? Or did you do cold mailing? What was the game there?

Of course, we got a lot of introductions from our investors and our network. It was very helpful. But at the end of the day, introductions are limited. Then we needed to start building some kind of a sales machine. It was a strong experience of Maja in the software agency that we had because we were doing a lot of outbound. We just leveraged this experience to Zowie and this is how we started building the outbound processes at Zowie and just started doing the cold mailing. It’s easier for us because during the cold calling it was hard, of course, from the language perspective. It’s taking much more time to jump on the call. So we started with the cold mailing machine and the most important part then was to define the persona. Because if we are expecting SDRs to bring some kind of demos, sales calls, discovery calls, I need to be sure that they are going to bring us 50 similar looking personas. What we did first, we had just a simple meeting and we decided what kind of personas we’re looking for and we’re expecting from SDRs to bring. And every week we had SQL review meetings where we were just giving feedback. “This one lead was good, this wasn’t good because you’re missing this and this.” Then this is how they were able to understand how they can source people. What kind of people we’re looking for and how we’re able to build a repetitive stream of similar looking potential customers. This was the most important part. Because you cannot forecast anything, you cannot measure any number if your funnel will be built with completely different kinds of leads. Once we get to the stage that our funnel was built from the same kind of persona people, so ecommerce or startups at the beginning, they were able to just analyze what the problem is, what is repetitive. Of course, it’s hard to start cold mailing and cold calling. The first emails I remember we were sending were not so good but of course the way SDRs were able to improve their emails was just by listening to our calls and just seeing what are the customers’ problems. What I would say and the most important advice I got from one of our advisors “Maciej, start recording every call, like every call.” If you have any chance to buy any kind of software which is able to record any call you have; do the automatic transcript and build a library of the calls, do it from day one because it’s very helpful and then you can ask your SDR guys to start listening to the calls. Everyone in the company should listen to the calls because this is the voice of the customers and this is how you can learn it. I was so shocked one day when I had a 1on1 with one of our best backend developers and Łukasz told me that, “Oh Maciej, do you know what I do sometimes when I’m starting my day? I just open the recordings and listen to your calls.” And I said, “Łukasz. you’re really doing this?”. He said, “Yes, I do, because I want to understand what our customers are looking for.” People want to know. People in the organization that we’re building in Zowie, they really want to understand our customers. They are doing this even though I didn’t know about it. It is so fantastic that our product team is listening to the calls. SDRs are listening to the calls. And this is the way that we learn it. And this is how we finally started growing the conversion in outbound because they were able to refine the pitch in the emails. This is how we started to grow the conversion in sales because this is also how we were able to grow this conversion through improving the pitch. And this is also how we started making better products. Because our product team was able to listen to the customers and they were able to come up with some ideas of how to improve it.

One thing that stands out to me is how, first of all, you have internal feedback in the organization. And I think it’s one of the most valuable things you can implement in the organization — fostering this culture of feedback. When I compare those early-stage hyper growth companies versus more established companies, the thing I like the most is that the ones that are successful are usually straight shooters. They’re like, “okay, this is how it works. This is how we can improve. This is what our customers say. Let’s think about how we can make it better” instead of getting more political about it. It doesn’t really matter. This is what it is. Let’s try to improve it on a daily or weekly basis. And the second thing, which I absolutely adore, is your focus on customer voice. The fact that this is one of the lights that drive your company. I think it’s very unique. And this is one of the reasons you were able to build the organization that you built. And I only wish that more people would think about it this way. It’s very up… with what I think is the most important part of building any organization, especially in technology. But I wanted to focus for a second there on a different topic that you mentioned. So one of the things that I always wonder about is “how do people that run our companies get better?” Because we’re all learning, we’re all trying to be a better version of ourselves. And you mentioned that you got the insight of recording the calls from an advisor. So I would like to understand what’s your perspective on getting better as a Co-Founder, as a CTO, how do you do that? Who helps you with that? How does it look like in practice?

So I wish to have a month, each month, where I think about how much more I know versus the previous month or quarter or the year. When you are doing something you can notice only your perspective. And this is why I had a lot of regular 1on1s with our investors, so with you, with other people who joined our organization, and I was just making sure that they can give me feedback. They were able to listen to my calls, I was showing the problems we had. I was showing what kind of numbers we had on the spot. And we were just looking into this together. And they gave me feedback. There were cases when it was sometimes harsh feedback like, “You did it very bad. You need to improve it.” In some cases, it was, “Yeah, it was perfect.” We need to be open to this and we cannot be just blindly focused on one thing and go in that direction. We need to be open to change. And I believe that in the state that we are, if the organization is not changing every month and is not getting better, it means that we’re in a state of stagnancy, so we need to grow. I think that as a founder, you need to find people who were already where you are at right now, people in the business, people from the investor side, from the advisor side who can take a look at what you are doing and just give you their view. Sometimes it’s the right feedback. Sometimes they maybe don’t understand everything and they’re just not giving the right advice, but they’re giving advice which opens your mind, let’s you think. And this is what, for example, we get from Inovo and from advisors who join us, because they believed in us and they still believe in us regarding what we are doing. Any kind of feedback we get just allows me to take a step back, think about it and move forward. And I believe that we would not be the organization that we are right now without this help and support. You just need to be open. You’re going to give a lot of feedback to your team and to the people who are building the company with you. But you always need to, as a founder, be open to feedback. And for example, me personally, I always need to be open also to the feedback from my team. Because when you’re scaling an organization, you are not able to see everything. So on these regular sessions with my team, on 1on1s, I am getting feedback and I’m always asking what I can improve in my behavior, in my processes, what we can improve in the organization. Sometimes I’m shocked what kind of things they are able to see that I was blind to and not able to see and how quickly they can address it. I’m always saying that “we are going to make a lot of mistakes, but please be transparent and tell me to my face what’s not working, because this is the only way how I, as a founder, can quickly address it and quickly fix it.”

Okay.I tend to think that the gift of perspective is one of the best gifts you can give to another person. It’s difficult to be in someone else’s shoes. Exactly. But you can give them your own perspective, and then it’s their job to make a decision whether it’s valuable or not. We’re talking today just after you announced your last round. So if you could shed a little bit of light on how the process looked like from your perspective. Getting US-based VCs on board and getting some of your customers to become your business angels, what did it look like?

Yes. The biggest job was done, of course, by Maja because she was spending a lot of time on getting the calls, pitching Zowie, and just refining the pitch and making this better. Maja did a great job understanding and showing our value. We, as an organization, had to prove that we are able to build a product which customers are buying, which they love. And this is exactly what was my job. To make sure that the product we are building and the organization we are building is one that customers love. And yes, we had a success that one of our customers became one of our investors. And this is one of the big ecommerce brands in Europe. We also had a lot of success that a lot of our advisors continue with us. It’s really hard because it’s not just one thing. It’s always a lot of things which finally get to one point and just explode. And this is exactly the state where we are right now. There are a lot of simple, small pieces in the organization, different people who are taking part on a daily basis, and they are part of the success. And I cannot say that it’s just me and Maja. We were able to guide it in the right direction, that everyone is committed to the success. And this is how we did it. Regarding the process, of course, Maja was mainly responsible for the whole process, and she did it perfectly. But my job in the process was to show potential investors that we are a customer centric organization, that we are a feedback centric organization. And just to show them. So, for example, we were showing them when we failed, when we did it good, how our customer voice influenced our roadmap, what kind of functionalities we added to the product to make sure that we are addressing their needs. So I think that all of our investors can see at Zowie that we are customer centric. We are listening to our customers’ voice. We are building everything to support them. And I think that this is one of the strongest parts of Zowie. That we will succeed as an organization and as people who are building this product, because we want to be sure that every problem our customers have will be addressed and that we can address it.

Okay, Maciek. I really hope that this culture of being customer centric stays with you for a long, long time. And I wish all the best to both you and Maja and the whole company on the road that is ahead of you. Thank you very much for coming in and sharing your experiences and I hope we will have a chance to talk about how Zowie changes in the next twelve months.

Thank you very much.

Thanks.

Inovo Venture Partners is a first-choice VC for ambitious founders from Poland and the CEE region. We back early-stage, post-traction startups with up to €3M of initial investment, and help them build global brands while driving growth of the local startup ecosystem. We take great pride in being close to top founders who think big. We’re investors in: Booksy, Infermedica, Spacelift, Tidio, AI Clearing, Zowie, Jutro Medical, Intiaro, Packhelp, Preply, Eyerim, Allset, SunRoof, Archbee, AhoyConnect, and uPacjenta. Our second fund reached a total of €54M.

For more information visit: inovo.vc

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