Meet Alexander Aghassipour, co-founder & Chief Product Officer at Zendesk

Zendesk recently celebrated its 10 year anniversary. I wanted to observe the occasion by interviewing Alexander Aghassipour, one of the three co-founders of Zendesk.

Mikkel has given many interviews over the years and wrote about the company’s amazing journey in his book Startupland — but Alexander and Morten have operated mostly behind the scenes, so read on for a rare opportunity to hear more about some of Alex’ unique insights and learnings!

This — Alexander’s loft in Copenhagen — is where it all began. From left to right: Me, Morten, Picasso, Zendesk pop-up display, Mikkel. Alex is not on the photo because someone had to take the photo.

Christoph: Less than 1% of all companies that raise early-stage funding become a unicorn. What do you think was it that Zendesk had which the other 99% didn’t have? If you had to rank the importance of factors like idea, timing, luck and team, what would the ranking look like?

Alexander: I think you are missing a vital element — crazy hard work. Work ethic and the team you assemble are the most important factors. If you don’t work like crazy until you “arrive” (for years on end), you will never make it. Building a startup is extremely hard. There is no “if I am smart, I only need to work 30 hours a week”. Or “The hours I put in after 40 hours a week have diminishing returns anyway”.

If you don’t have a founding team that complements and inspires one other, you are starting off with a serious handicap. Don’t start out with a pure engineering team, or an all business team. Outsourcing in the early stages is extremely difficult.

Next important item is timing (also known as luck). The very last item is the idea or concept. The inconvenient truth is that ideas are cheap and plentiful

Another important point is to stay away from the mainstream. At any given time, it seems like everyone is pursuing variations of the same 3–4 ideas. Partner with someone with domain knowledge of an industry that is underserved — and go own it.

Christoph: I agree 100% on the crazy hard work part. I think the idea to “work smarter, not harder” is BS because your competitors will work smart and hard. I’m surprised that you give so little weight to the idea, though. I think the right idea/product/market is crucial as well, at least if you want to build a very large company. Maybe the right way to frame it is that an excellent team can create a good, profitable company even in a mediocre market, but to build a really large company, like Zendesk, you need an excellent team in an excellent market?

Alexander: Well, I am being provocative to drive home my point. There is this notion about The Idea being 90% and the rest being secondary, and yet we’ve all at some point thought “Hey, I had that idea long before team X executed on it and became super successful!” The truth is, many people probably had the idea — but only one team went ahead and executed well on it. That’s what wins.

Of course an excellent market will give you an advantage out of the gate. But it doesn’t matter if you can’t execute well. I’d rather invest in a stellar team in a mediocre market than in a mediocre team in a stellar market.

Christoph: Understood, and agree. On another topic, in case of Zendesk it’s clear that moving the company to the US was critical to its success. If you were to start another company today, or if you’re asked for advice by European founders, would you say that today it’s possible to build a globally leading SaaS company from Europe?

Alexander: This is a very hard question. Moving to Silicon Valley gives you a ton of local network effects. It’s a gigantic, well-oiled machine that’s designed to take startups all the way to IPO and beyond. Whatever stage you’re at, there will be multiple super talented people who’ve done it before, available to help you manage the process.

At the same time, there is so much competition in hiring. Everything in the Bay Area is expensive and salaries and compensation are through the roof. Today, Europe is in much better shape in respect to funding and expertise compared to when we started out. But still, not on par with Silicon Valley.

With the right team, network/funders, marketing and product, I believe you can build a globally leading SaaS company from Europe. But I still can’t think of a case where relocating to the Bay Area would not be a business advantage, especially if you get a top tier VC as a partner.

S̶a̶n̶t̶a̶ C̶la̶u̶s̶ Alexander, Morten, and Mikkel on the day of the IPO

Christoph: How did your relationship with Morten and Mikkel evolve over time? You started as friends and peers, but I guess at some point Mikkel became your boss. Did that cause tension? (not that there was no tension in the old days :) )

Alexander: The tension was there from the very start. We are still friends, but I will say that we are all battle scarred, which ultimately helped make Zendesk a better company. If you are passionate about what you are building, you will confront and challenge each other. You will fight and you will sometimes be a less than stellar person. If you at the same time can keep respecting each other, I think a lot of exceptional value will come out of that process.

I see Morten, Mikkel and I first and foremost as founders. An important thing to figure out early is what you are good at and what you are not good at. Closely related is what you enjoy doing and what you don’t enjoy doing. You will never be good at what you don’t enjoy doing. Ultimately that determines your role in your company as it grows.

At some restaurant in San Francisco. This time, we found somebody to click the button.

Christoph: What were some of the hardest things for you personally during this journey?

Alexander: Letting go of things (and hire accordingly). A “hero culture” is toxic.

Christoph: Do you remember any lessons that you learned that you can share with other founders?

Alexander: Product first. Don’t outsource. Get out of your own way. Nothing worthwhile is ever easy.

Christoph: One difficulty for many product people is how to decide what to actually build, and in which order, i.e. how to reconcile all the feedback and requests you’re getting from users with your own vision for the product. Was that a big issue, or did you always know very clearly what Zendesk was going to look like?

Alexander: We knew we wanted to build something we would enjoy using ourselves. Our chosen product space made that a bit meta: We were building a support software company, using our own product to support our customers using our product.

Customer support was very unsexy in 2008 and few were looking at it. Today it’s the fastest growing sector in the software industry. We knew back then we had to build a product that did not look or feel like anything already in existence in our space. We knew that every business had to provide customer support, and there were no good mainstream tools for it.

We were blessed in that my two co-founders had a lot of domain knowledge that I didn’t have. As a product person, I tried to build a product that would make sense to my use case — I wanted to provide great customer care, but I did not want to learn technical customer service lingo or read an ITIL (look it up) manual. I did not want to be scared and overwhelmed by options. I wanted convention, not configuration.

We were also blessed in that a lot of our early adopters were non-support professionals as well. Deliberately, as we spent our very small marketing budget trying to reach a non-traditional audience for customer support. Designers, startups and early adopters.

This created a great feedback loop and really helped make our product easy and enjoyable to use, while steering our product in a direction that was new, and ultimately expanded the industry we were in.

Thanks very much for your time, Alexander! May the Zendesk story continue to inspire SaaS founders in Europe and beyond! :-)