Ask Me Anything: Intercom CEO and Co-Founder Eoghan McCabe
Hi, I’m the CEO and a co-founder of Intercom, a fundamentally new way for internet businesses to communicate with customers, personally, at scale. We’ve raised $66M, and have more than 8,000 customers in 85 countries.
I’m from Dublin, Ireland, where I ran a software design consultancy called Contrast that worked on many successful products including Storyful (acquired by NewsCorp), Smartling (raised $63M), and FieldAware (raised $36M). After that I co-founded Exceptional, a SaaS business which was acquired in 2011. The frustrations we experienced as a SaaS business trying to communicate with our customers led to me moving to San Francisco to found Intercom.
So, I’m on my third company, I’m a designer founder, and I think too much about technology, software, business, and life. Ask me anything!
This AMA originally appeared on Product Hunt LIVE and has been slightly edited for clarity.
1. What was it like getting Intercom started?
Scary, lonely, grueling. But it would have been harder without having so many solid, trusted co-founders. Intercom has four co-founders: me, Des Traynor, David Barret, and Ciaran Lee. We had worked for about four years together before starting Intercom.
“Good co-founders are so, so important.”
2. What pieces of Intercom did you build first?
We built the in-app stuff first! We built something like it into our last product (Exceptional) and decided to try productizing it. It was just a simple, chat-style pop-up that could hold arbitrary content. There was no such thing as “in-app messaging” back then. We landed on that term because we couldn’t think of anything sexier. And it just stuck.
3. Now that Intercom has grown so much, what do you do/like doing on a daily basis?
Meetings! I have a lot more meetings — and emails. My life is meetings and emails. 😅 What I like doing is dreaming about the future, spending time with my co-founders and the leadership team here, and planning increasingly ambitious goals.
4. What is the best thing about working at Intercom?
It’s a company where we’ve been able to stick to our principles and values, doing things our way, rather than copying anyone else, and have that strategy actually be successful and result in incredible growth.
“It’s more fun to be original and be yourself, and usually a more successful approach in the long term.”
5. What would the you of two years ago think of you today?
Two years ago we had just raised our Series A of $6M and had like 16 people in the company. We’ve now raised $66M and will soon have about 220 in the company. Our revenue has expanded about 70x since then. A lot has changed!
I’d be impressed and disappointed. Mostly impressed, I think, because I’ve always doubted myself to some degree. I’d be so impressed we actually got this far. Disappointed because I have an incredibly high bar for myself, and am very conscious that life is incredibly short. I have a lot I want to get done, and I know we could have moved even faster. That’s what keeps me going.
6. How do you guys fight complexity and over-engineering?
It’s hard. There are many things we do. One is that we ship features and products to customers very, very early. So we frequently find that the simpler solutions are all we need and don’t have to go much further at that time to solve the majority of a problem for the majority of our customers.
7. What was the biggest communication fail you saw before starting Intercom and how has it been remedied?
Generally internet companies sending their customers to support forms where they would have to categorize their enquiry (sales, support, etc.), pick a priority, if not first have to dig through an FAQ, and jump through hoops to get help. It was and is the most impersonal and disrespectful thing you could do to your customers. Imagine someone in a coffee shop saying “wait, is this a sales or support enquiry” when you tried to talk to them.
8. You guys started with a big mission. In cases like this how do you identify an MVP?
I’m not much of a lean startup person.
“We build primarily by touch and feel, by intuition.”
We just built the smallest, simplest thing we thought would be awesome, shared it with the world, and took it from there.
9. What piece of advice would you give yourself at age 16, 18, or 25? Would you do anything differently?
I’d say, “Hey! Eoghan! This is you, but from the future. I know this is weird. Shut up for a second. Listen, you’re fucking awesome. Be you more. Focus on what you’re passionate about. Be real and real people will want to be around you and work with and for you. Work hard and enjoy every day. Success and great things will follow.” I basically did this, but I could have done it a lot earlier in life.
10. How long did it take you guys to hit $1M ARR and what are some of the important learnings during that journey?
Too long. We didn’t charge for the product for a whole year after we launched in beta. And then for the first year that we did, we only charged a flat fee of $50/month to everyone. I’m not sure we regret that. One benefit of charging and growing revenue early is to demonstrate to outsiders (e.g. investors) that you are delivering value to the world.
“A benefit of not charging is that you can obsessively focus on initial/core product, get away with many mistakes, and easily find friendly early users.”
11. What’s the most difficult aspect of hiring in a company growing as quickly as Intercom?
Good question! It’s all really fucking hard. 😬 The most difficult aspect is keeping your bar high. You have new people hiring new people! It’s so easy for the company at large to lose sense of what you value and what type of people made you successful in the first place. We put a lot of effort into writing out and communicating our values and are about to publish a book internally about them.
12. If you had only one tip to share with entrepreneurs on how to build a successful startup, what is it?
Cliche alert…my number one tip is to work on something you’re truly passionate about, something you truly believe in, and success will follow.
13. How early into Intercom did you decide to head for SF and set up shop there?
I came here about six months before we incorporated in August 2011, knowing we wanted to try do Intercom the Valley way, building a bigger, VC-backed company.
14. What’s the breakdown between your Dublin and SF offices?
It’s about 50/50. We have about 170 people in total. All business functions are in the HQ in SF. 100% of our product development is in Ireland.
15. What lessons have you learned along the way with having a US and EU office?
All video conferencing technology needs a lot of innovation!
16. What do you believe to be true that very few people agree with you on?
The whole Intercom idea — one platform for everyone in a company to communicate with their customers — has been strongly contested as a smart thing to build and sell. I’ve had a lot of people tell me it was dumb.
17. You started Intercom because you saw the communication problem first hand in your previous companies. Is there another issue you experienced that you could have been working on if you hadn’t started Intercom?
Yes, we actually started working on another product about the same time as Intercom. It was called Whiteboarder. It was an app/service to take, store, and share photos of drawings/notes in teams. We were very excited about it at the time. I still think it’s a fun idea. But we realized quickly that Intercom was a way bigger opportunity and decided to kill Whiteboarder and go all-in on one product.
18. What is the most critical part of creating satisfying communication with customers? Is there a recipe?
Another cliche alert …
Think of every shit communication you’ve experienced recently e.g. untargeted, spammy, fake emails. It’s the opposite of personal.
19. The Intercom podcast is really growing on me. Do you view podcasts as an important part of communicating with customers in the future?
Yes. But it’s just one of many mediums. Really glad you like it. Here it is for those who don’t know about it: www.intercom.io/podcast
20. Do you find recruiting quality people harder in Dublin or SF?
It’s about the same for us, because we hire for different roles in each city — all R&D in Ireland and all business functions in SF. In Ireland it would be hard/impossible to hire great marketing people because there just haven’t been many big tech companies headquartered there; conversely it’s hard to hire great engineers in SF because there are so many R&D-centric tech companies based here.
21. What is the best thing about building your own business? What is the worst thing?
It’s certainly not my own business anymore. We have about 170 people working on Intercom, who all have a stake in the company and contribute to what makes it great. But I’ll speak for the founders at the point we started the company. The best thing was the freedom to do things our way and be successful. And the worst thing was the freedom to do things our way and fail.
22. What advice you would give SaaS companies on how to build their marketing and branding efforts, especially when they are bootstrapped and mostly technical?
We are just over four years old. For most of the life of this company we had no sales and marketing but awesome customer and revenue growth. We obsessed about building something unique and very awesome and literally remarkable, such that people would tell their friends about it, and spread our ideas far and wide on our blog and then our books to grow our brand in a meaningful way.
“Product-focused and bootstrapped businesses can do this too and hire great product-focused marketers later when you’re ready to grow to the next level.”
23. Have you recently had a “crush” on any new B2B startups?
This is too damn obvious. There is so much fucking hype about Slack. But when you look at what they build, and how they build it, what they say, and who they hire, you can tell they are actually a really special, very, very unique company.
24. What was the trigger behind modularizing your product?
We wanted to make it easier to understand and adopt. It was and is a crazy-big product/platform.
25. What’s been the best/worst parts of segmenting Intercom?
The best has been insane new growth. The worst has been the complexity we’ve had to take on and fight in the process. But generally it has been amazing for us.
Intercom is a platform that makes it easy for web and mobile business to communicate with their customers, personally and at scale. To learn more about our mission and experience how we think about design, customer support, marketing, and more, check out our blog.