How Intercom became a unicorn product

Iconic Products episode 002

Since its inception at the founders’ favorite hometown coffee shop, Intercom has been growing at an incredible rate.

Growing from $1 million to $50 million in annual recurring revenue in just 3 years (between 2014 and 2017), it might be one of the fastest growing tech startups out there. Growing faster than Shopify, Twilio, Zendesk, HubSpot… and only being topped by Slack. 📈

This growth can largely be attributed to word-of-mouth sales, which in turn is caused by an iconic product.

Is the product thát amazing? 😮 Why? How?

Let’s dive into it. 👇

Intercom brings human relationships to the internet

Probably like a sizable amount of startups, Intercom started with a few hipster nerds hanging out at a Dublin coffee shop, called Third Floor Espresso. ☕

They’d be sitting there watching the owner interacting with customers, developing real human relationships, and building customer loyalty. And then they contrasted that with the customer relationships they were having at their own tech startup at the time, Exceptional.

They were doing their entire business over the internet. Hardly ever met up with their customers. Didn’t build any human relationships. And in turn, no real loyalty. 🙁

And although there were quite a lot of software systems available to communicate with customers, they’d more often get in the way of building these relationships.

customer service guy

Try developing a real connection if you’re handing out customer support tickets or sending generic email campaigns through clunky products that require a ton of handling to get anything done. 😒

They set out to fix the internet’s talking-to-actual-humans problem. To bring humanity back to internet business. Coming from a strong belief that relationships make businesses better.

Intercom is built for specific “Jobs To Be Done”

One of the main insights of the Intercom founders was that products need to get out of the way of building relationships.

Products are hired to get a specific job done. And they should be built towards this purpose in the most efficient and focused way possible.

Many companies focus their thinking around customer personas. The Intercom team says: personas are cool, but they don’t tell the whole story. They are for empathy, not for fresh product thinking. 💭

Where the guys at Trello talk about ignoring individual feature requests themselves, and focusing on the pain points in the workflow instead (more on that in the previous episode about Trello), the Intercom team brings in the “Jobs To Be Done” framework.

They focus on why people want features. In which situation, with which motivation, to what end.

People are experts in their problem, not in the solution. The Intercom team zooms in on the solution in all its aspects.

noah jr. asking allie hamilton, 'what do you want?'

For every feature, they make a “job story”: 👇

When _____, I want to _____, So I can _____

These job stories are then worked out from start to end, from first thought to satisfaction. The entire story being as efficient and focused as possible.

Unbundling the Intercom product brings focus

At the start, Intercom was one big monolithic solution.

The team wanted to bring one integrated solution that covers a help desk, emailing, live chat, marketing automation, and a customer database. Spanning the whole customer relationship.

The problem was that many customers wanted to hire Intercom only for one job, maybe two jobs, but not for the whole shebang.

They also got confused about what Intercom was: is it a help desk? Is it a chat? Is it an emailing platform? 🤔

zoey deschanel asking, 'what is this?'

Splitting up Intercom in separate — but integrated — products enabled a much tighter problem-solution fit, without letting go of the vision of facilitating the whole customer relationship.

It made everything much more focused: the product, the onboarding, the messaging, the ads. 😌

Different roads were created into Intercom. And in the other direction, different roads were created for Intercom into their customers.

Intercom has been juggling with these products a lot over time. Only since the Salesflare team started using Intercom, products have been merged, renamed and re-positioned several times.

The product naming was historically very clear about the exact job every product would do, with names like Acquire, Engage, Respond, and Educate. The recent naming Messages, Articles, and Inbox takes a step away from this, trading clarity about the job to be done for pure simplicity.

Intercom keeps reinventing its core

Unlike many other products, Intercom keeps a deliberate focus on its core functionality. Not on adding fancy new gimmicks, but on making the product better. 🔧

The team believes that it’s worth more to work on improving core functionality, than to work on edge case functionality, or even to add new functionality.

They believe that you achieve greatness in 1,000 small steps, and move forward through hundreds of small releases that add value to customers.

baby steps

Achieving a great and easy-to-use product requires removing all unnecessary complexity, so every user can solve their problems as efficiently as possible. It’s about looking at the smallest possible part of the workflow where your product delivers value and improving on that.

But it’s also about reinventing complete experiences. The team often rethinks how the product is laid out, how onboarding customers works.

One of the more famous changes Intercom has made in its history, is making it possible to use the product without having to install its code on your website.

They figured that if their platform could be used as an email marketing platform as well, why not create a parallel onboarding that only requires importing a .csv file of customer data. Import, filter, and send out emails.

Conversion spiked by 40%. 😲

kid screaming, "it's working!"

Still, this is one of these legendary moments of success everyone dreams about. The reality is that, also for Intercom, the bulk of the success comes with tiny improvements cumulating.

Intercom is determined to stay relevant

During my recent coffee with Intercom co-founder Des Traynor (coming soon on Founder Coffee), Des mentioned he still sees himself working at Intercom in 10–20 years.

The Intercom team is building their company, product and brand for the long term. Without knowing what the future will bring, they are fully determined to stay relevant. 💪

Intercom is working to improve customer loyalty for internet businesses with a centralized platform that centers around messaging, and I think we can all agree that:

  • Customer loyalty and human relationships are timeless
  • The internet is here to stay, and the amount of internet businesses will only increase
  • People will keep enjoying everything in one place
  • Messaging is replacing email (although that’s probably more of a temporary thing)

And even if the communication media change more swiftly, the “Jobs To Be Done” will stay around for a much longer time.

Intercom won’t completely change strategy because of smartwatches, voice commands, machine learning, gamification, or big data. It might leverage these technologies, but it will not build its business around a hype.

The team likes to compare their product with fax machines. Fax machines were very useful during a very specific time period. Now they’re gone. ☠

guy talking about how fax machines are outdated

Business communication between people is here to stay… and we sincerely hope that means Intercom is here to stay as well.

Keep rocking it, team Intercom! 🤘

easy to use CRM

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Jeroen Corthout