Grain: SaaS Lessons on Finding Your Ideal Customer Profile
Mike Adams is the co-founder and CEO of Grain, a SaaS product that helps you capture and share insights from customer meetings.
In 2018, Mike, together with his brother Jake, co-founded Grain. This was Mike's third startup venture after previously co-founding Degreed and MissionU (which was acquired by WeWork).
But instead of starting with a problem, the brothers began with a solution in mind and set out to find a problem that it could solve. As you can imagine that approach didn't work out too well.
Their first year proved challenging as they struggled to identify their ideal customer profile (ICP). Mike jokingly said that at the time, their ICP was anyone who would talk to them and liked the product.
However, after a year of refining their approach, they discovered their actual ICP and focused on one standout feature that resonated the most with customers. This led them to throw away their existing code and rebuild the product from scratch around that single feature.
Grain eventually started to get traction when the founders invested more time in interviewing prospective customers and their existing ones. This not only helped the founders build a better product, but it also gave them deeper and some surprising insights about their target customers.
Fast forward to today, Grain hit $1M ARR about a year ago, has amassed 1,300 customers, and raised $21 million, including a recent $16M Series A round.
In this episode, early-stage SaaS founders will discover:
- How Mike and Jake figured out their ideal customer profile (ICP) which helped them improve product development and marketing.
- How Grain grew from zero to 1,300 customers including companies such as Slack, Zapier, Webflow, and more.
- Mike shares lessons on how to avoid ‘herd mentality' and think for yourself in order to get more creative ideas and unique solutions
- Learning to trust your instincts as a founder when making decisions, even when everyone around you tells you to go another way.
- How to handle competition and stay ahead when other businesses are copying your ideas, features, and tactics.
I hope you enjoy it.
TranscriptClick to view transcript
This is a machine-generated transcript.[00:00:00] Omer: Welcome to another episode of the SaaS Podcast. I'm your host, Omer Khan, and this is a show where I interview proven founders and industry experts who share their stories, strategies, and insights to help you build, launch, and grow your SaaS business. In this episode, I talked to Mike Adams, the co-founder and CEO of Grain, a SaaS product that helps you capture and share insights from customer meetings. [00:00:34] In 2018, Mike, together with his brother Jake, co-Founded Grain, this was Mike's third startup venture after previously co-founding Degreed and Mission U, which was acquired by WeWork. But instead of starting with a problem, the brothers began with a solution in mind and set out to find a problem that it could solve. [00:00:52] As you can imagine, that approach didn't work out too well. Their first year approved challenging as they struggled to identify their ideal customer profile. Mike jokingly said that at the time, their ICP was anyone who would talk to them and like their product. However, after a year of refining their approach, they discovered their actual ICP and focused on one standout feature that seemed to be resonating the most with their customers, and this led them to throw away their existing code and rebuild the product from. [00:01:20] Focused around that single feature Grain eventually started to get traction when the founders invested more time in interviewing prospective customers as well as their existing ones. This not only helped the founders build a better product, but it also gave them deeper and some surprising insights about their target customers. [00:01:37] Fast forward to today, Grain hit 1 million in ARR about a year ago. Has amassed around 1300 customer and raised 21 million, including a recent 16 million Series A round. In this episode, you'll learn how Mike and Jake figured out their ideal customer profile, which helped them improve both their product development and marketing, how Grain grew from zero. [00:02:02] To 1300 customers, including companies such as Slack, Zapier, Webflow, and more. Mike shares lessons on how to avoid herd mentality and think more for yourself in order to get more creative ideas and unique solutions. And we also talk about learning to trust your instincts as a founder when making decisions. [00:02:20] Even when everyone around you tells you to go another way, and we talk about how to handle competition and stay ahead when other businesses are copying your ideas, features, and tactics. So I hope you enjoy it. [00:02:34] Mike, welcome to the show. [00:02:35] Mike: Hey, awesome to be here. [00:02:37] Omer: Do you have a favorite quote, something that inspires or motivates you, you can share with us? [00:02:41] Mike: Yeah, for fear of it being too long, just to kick things off, but I recently got recommended to read the book The Boys in the Boat, and it's a random quote that is usually not one that gets quoted, but it just, to me it really resonated when you're trying to build a business you're trying to build. [00:02:54] This is my third startup and I just feel like it's been true of the best times of all the companies I've been in. So the story is about some ragga muffins in the early 1900 depression era and Washington state who become the best crew in the entire world. So like rowing crew, and they end up competing against the Germans and the Olympics and they win in Germany while Hitler's there. [00:03:14] And it's really incredible. And so it follows the story of I would say, like the main character, his name's. And he talks about how when he is being interviewed about how the boat was some, something that was like more than the boat. And the quote specifically is it was a shared experience. [00:03:30] It was something mysterious, almost beyond definition. It was a shared experience, a singular thing that had unfolded in a golden sliver of time long ago when nine good-hearted young men strove together, pulled together as one, gave everything they had for one another bound together forever by pride and respect and love. [00:03:44] Joe is crying, at least in part for the loss of that vanished moment, but more I think for the sheer beauty of it. Sorry for that being a little bit on the long side, but it's a really powerful quote for me of this feeling you have when you're building something great with other people and you're doing your part. [00:03:59] They're doing their part, and you just can row in, un. And it's almost beyond words to the point that this man was interviewed in his nineties and was crying about this time long gone because of that bond that he had. And I feel like startups are, that for me. [00:04:12] That's great. It's unique. [00:04:14] Omer: It's got a great story behind it. And you sharing something no matter how short or long it is, as long as it resonates with you is really what that question is about. So appreciate you sharing that. So tell us about Grain. What does the product do? Who's it for? What's the main problem you're helping to solve? [00:04:27] Mike: Yeah, that's a really good question. So we recognized we started in 2018 and recognized that conversations were going to be happening over Zoom and meet in teams way more than they were gonna be happening in person. And then Covid went bananas, , and permanently shifted a lot of these things from the analog world to digital world. [00:04:45] So what Grain does is we record, transcribe, and analyze using large language. To identify the core insights and summarize large unstructured conversations down into, specific moments that are portable and shareable. I don't know if you've ever used a loom, but a grain highlight is like a 30 seconds from a Zoom call that you can embed in Slack or your Notion or whatever. [00:05:07] And that's the killer feature that everyone's really. That you can take a voice to the customer and share it or talk about a specific moment when you're coaching during a sales call or whatever else it may be. [00:05:17] Omer: Okay. Great. So before we get into grain and the story, I wanna talk a little bit about your background. You have an interesting background. As you mentioned, this is your third startup. So can you just give us a quick summary of what you were doing before you started? [00:05:31] Mike: Sure. So my story starts as a first person in my family I'd ever graduated from college, and my dad being a really hardworking construction worker who thought that the best jobs for his kids would be a doctor or a lawyer, or any of those ones that you know about. [00:05:43] And. I graduated with a bunch of debt and no real clear direction. I knew I didn't wanna be any of those things and moved to San Francisco cause my wife had a job. And I met I worked in litigation consulting, which is was great. Like very consulting skillset. I'm really grateful that I have that foundation, but I got bored pretty quickly and met who ended up being my first co-founder at a party in San Francisco. [00:06:04] And I got into startups from there. And so the first company I started is called. But my first two companies, and really like how I got into startups is around solving that problem I mentioned of that gap from, holy crap, I have a boatload of debt, or maybe I'd even wanna go into debt to get to school, and I want to figure out what I want to do. [00:06:19] So shortening that gap and the cost there to go from, to really start and launch a career. And in particular the tech acquiring the technical skills that are usually the most important to get that first. And so Degreed is in, in, in that world around credentialing. And then I started a, my second company called Mission U, which was a one year school on the back of Zoom. [00:06:41] So Zoom was the only really reliable video conferencing at the time. And our premise was that we could basically give you what's in a four year, including technical and soft skills in in one year instead of four. And we could do it completely online. And we, that was two years. We got a card by WeWork in 20. [00:06:57] And on the heels of that I started grain with the recognition that wow we recorded every single meeting at Mission U, our students sessions, our team meetings, our admissions interviews, and there's gonna be a giant opportunity and category to make sense of that. And so that's where we're going to get started. [00:07:12] I had to have an explicit moment there where I like left EdTech behind, cuz I love EdTech. And I was like, I'm just gonna go into like B2B, SaaS, and frankly no regrets. [00:07:20] I wanna talk a little [00:07:21] Omer: bit more. How you came up with the idea for Grain. Before we do that, give us a sense of the size of the business. Where are you in terms of revenue, customers, size of team? [00:07:30] Mike: Yeah, for sure. So we've crossed the million dollar threshold in annual occurring revenue. Last year and we have about 1300 customers. We tend to serve a kind of SMB segment, a lot of tools in our space and kind of video meeting intelligence. [00:07:44] There's a huge, I would say, market in sales. We have sales folks who use our product. It's actually about a third to of our users, but we deliberately chose not to be a sales only solution, and we recognized that you. The kind of 80 20 functionality of a tool like Grain is needed across a lot of different rules. [00:08:04] And there's roles and there's a lot of benefit in having one tool from cost savings to kind of centralization of data and analysis. But that's a little bit around kinda where we're at. Team size is about we're about 18. [00:08:15] Omer: And y you guys have raised about 20 million. [00:08:19] Mike: Yeah, good question. So we've raised 21 million in funding. Our most recent round was our Series A in summer it was actually fall 2021, which was a great time to race. And we raced from Tiger Global and Unusual Ventures. And before that we, had partnership at, with Zoom they had a fund and Slack and other great, venture Capitals, Parsons Partners as well. [00:08:40] Omer: Great. So let's talk a little bit more about where the idea for Grain came from you. You mentioned did it a little bit earlier, but just tell me what were you doing at the time and what was the aha moment that kind of really crystallized this opportunity for you? [00:08:54] Mike: In that second startup that I started in 2016 I was coming out of actually being part of the coding bootcamp world and I had worked at a coding bootcamp, actually was one of the first students at one of the first coding bootcamps cuz I wanted to learn to code in 2013. [00:09:07] And so I worked at a coding bootcamp and one of the things we kept running into was we'd find out like at the end of the program whether someone was a good admin or not, and all the data was gone before we could really update our algorithmic process to understand like who we should admit and who we're gonna have a harder time being able to find a job. [00:09:27] And I took that experience into Mission U when we started, which was the one year online alternative to college. And from day one, the first person I hired was an engineer. The second person we hired was in systems and we immediately started kind. With this premise that every conversation that's happening, whether it's a student or it's an internal meeting, whether it's a vendor, whether it's a, a client that we're trying to sell, that we're trying to pitch our students to, we should capture all of that cuz it's data that shouldn't be lost in ephemeral. [00:09:55] And I guess I had that insight bef two years before Grain. And so then Mission U had a sudden demise. We had, we'd raised $13 million, we had eight and a half left in the bank and. This was when WeWork's cap table was really big and they were throwing their cap table around with, their stock in large numbers. [00:10:13] That basically is how MissionU ended up getting acquired by WeWork. And they unfortunately shut down the school like soon thereafter, even though it started in the acquisition as like a. We're gonna have a WeWork and, or sorry, we're gonna have a Mission u and every WeWork. It ended up more realistically being about getting my co-founder to go and work with WeWork and I didn't really have any desire or interest to go work with WeWork. [00:10:32] And so I got an intellectual property rights waiver and I was even almost considering a pivot of let's just take this company and turn it. What became grain. But that's the main thing I wanted from the acquisition was intellectual, proper. However, be free and easy to and then clear to build on that previous experience. [00:10:46] So I guess in summary, like I was always looking from my first startup until, because I'd been a co-pilot is what I call it twice. First time I was not the ceo. Second time I was not the ceo. And third time I was the ceo. And I feel like I was always, it was always mysterious about like where you find that idea that can turn into a real viable business. [00:11:04] And what I had learned, and I it turned out to be very true, is that the best ideas usually come in the make, in the process of solving your own problems. Especially if you are in a business position trying to solve business problems, then it's easier to identify B2B problems. Usually when startup founders are like trying to find an. [00:11:20] At least when I do my kinda mentorship work, like 98% of the time they're consumer ideas because that's what, is front and center in my life around I need a sports pickup app to, find other people to play tennis with. I can't tell you how many guys, I actually think there's actually some successful businesses that have that idea, but that idea gets found a lot as people are trying to think of something to start. [00:11:40] And I guess one more piece of flavor on that. I distinctly remember before I started my second company, I was like, I'mmma be the CEO. I'm gonna, that's gonna be my idea. And my wife was like, no, you're not . It was a, it was a humbling moment. Cause she knows me better than anybody. So we're out to dinner and I'm like, what are you talking about? [00:11:56] I'm gonna do this, I'm gonna do this. And she's you don't have a very clear idea. You don't have, X, Y, and Z. And I was like, Dang. You're right. And so then I found my partner, my business partner my second co-founder who had all of those things. And then I was able to learn a little bit more of those ropes. [00:12:09] And by the time, we started grain I, I had the, the network of venture capitalists. I had the insight for a great idea. And my wife is very wise. [00:12:17] Omer: They usually are. All right. So how did you get started with Grain? Did you. Did you build an mvp? Did you start interviewing customers before you wrote any code? What was the approach you took? [00:12:31] Mike: Yeah, it's a really good question. I think because I came out with this recognition around kind of these data pipelines of you're generating a whole bunch of different conversational data. It's unstructured, it's not really useful, and you need to go through a refining process, and then there needs to be a distribution process as well. [00:12:47] O n the whiteboard, even when I was still missing you, I actually called it Zebra at the. But it was just a concept of what needed to be solved and for me personally. And then I just, from there, went out and said, do other people have this problem? And so at the time, hardly anybody was doing the vast majority of their conversations over resume. [00:13:05] Almost not very many. So I first had to start and find those folks. The thing that I guess I've learned when it comes to starting things is you wanna find an idea that. The hot, the best ratio of value a differentiated value and the least amount of behavior change. So if you can find something that people are already doing and then you can do something on top of that, that like massively adds a lot of value, that is going to be a far more likely, product to get adoption. [00:13:32] Then if something's super valuable and awesome, but they're gonna have to change everything about their workflow. And that's what makes like Slack in particular, like a really interesting and unique in fact in as we don't sell saddles here, blog post that Stuart sent to the team when they like launched in 2013. [00:13:46] He specifically calls out that like the definition of innovation is how much behavior. And Slack calls out that like they were requiring a lot of behavior change to their users. Stuart Butterfield can pull that off because he's Stuart Butterfield. I would advise most founders to like, just try to, stay within the realm of the least amount of behavior change and then try to find those opportunities where there's, differentiated values. [00:14:10] So to tie that back to grain, I was looking for the time for the teams that were already. They were already transcribing, they were already finding value, and there weren't very many of them, but I felt like that was the part that was going to change because of the unique. And so then once I started building, we started building solutions for them. [00:14:27] It really was just like tinkering, like we were in my brother's, my co-founder, and we were just in the shed in his backyard at Menlo Park, and we would come up with this idea where, what if we added a timestamp next to the note that you took in real time. So there's like a cognitive connection between Me thinking something and typing a note, and then the root material in the recording that, that's related to based on the association of when it was typed and that insight turned into a quick little prototype. [00:14:51] It ended up, I'd say being the kernel of grain, even though in the end we're actually at a place now to where we're increasingly deprecating the encouragement of a user to, mark down a moment of cognition because AI is increasingly, Faster and easier and better at, now when you finish a grain recording you've got like an instant, 10 bullet point summary of the meeting and you didn't have to take any notes at all. [00:15:12] that's where it started. And then people really liked that idea and I had to pull it up apart and say what is it that people like about this? And then that is been really important as we move into an AI world, cuz it still carries. What they liked about it was that it was a link back to truth. [00:15:28] It was a link back to reality that there was this backing up evidence of the ephemeral world that we live in, so much of our working days that I can grab the moment where the customer said it instead of regurgitating what the customer said or the moment where we agreed to it. Instead of helping that you trust my word, that we remember, the agreement or the commitment the same way. [00:15:47] And that was like the kernel I would say, of truth that we've built, the entire thing of grain around even. When I started the company, we didn't know that was what was gonna be it. [00:15:55] Omer: Yeah. I think you mentioned that when we were talking before that it took about a year for you to get to that sort of pivot where you realize that this was the one thing that users care the most about, and everything else was almost like a distraction to them. [00:16:11] Before we talk about that. I want to go back to something you said earlier about really finding. The right problem to, to solve, which is the way we should be doing things. But you also told, you made a kind of a confession before we started recording about you didn't quite take that approach in, in the early days. [00:16:28] Can you tell us about that? [00:16:30] Mike: Yeah, exactly. So you hear this phrase a lot and it's what I mentioned to you before the show is we did that. That's not what you're supposed to do. You're not supposed to start with the solution and then go and try to find what problem it solves. But we did. And it did, I would say in general work for us, but it is it's a tough kind of foundation to build from because then you have to like work backwards into, an is an ideal customer profile or a persona or whoever it's for. [00:16:54] And it's been a challenge for us, as we've said from the very beginning. That we wanna be horizontal. We don't want to be a verticalized solution. We wanna be, the best tool for, I would say, small teams. So if like you're a sales leader at a startup, like you should absolutely use grain over, the best in class enterprise solution that's gonna cost you 10 times more. [00:17:12] But one of the challenges of building for a lot of different personas at once, and when you start with a solution that backs into solving a problem is you realize, especially if you create a pretty great solution, which I think, we did it. It solves a lot of different problems, and the long tail of solving those problems is how you build great businesses and you have to make choices. [00:17:31] So as the time's gone on with grain, we've just gotten more and more narrow, I would say. We describe our strategy now as a T-shaped strategy. To where we're building to the 80 20 solution that anybody, it's simple enough what people love about our product is it's just intuitive and it's not overbuild. [00:17:45] It's not over-complicated. So it works for everybody, but we still have to have that kind of deep spike to where we know the first person who's usually going to adopt it, and that we build for their use case. And then it can spread from there. And to be frank, that has been a real journey. [00:18:00] It's been tough to figure it out. There's a lot of little spikes, from the T where you're like, is it this one or is it this one? and if you start specifically from a really clear understanding of a problem, and then you work and then you test different solutions against it, which is the more traditional path, I would say you can avoid some of the challenges that we've had going the other way where it solves so many problems. [00:18:21] It's just a matter of like, how do we think strategically about which problem to, to focus on as like the deepest spike and as the core focus. [00:18:29] When I asked you about your ICP before, You started recording, you said, in the first year our ICP was basically anybody who would talk to us, [00:18:39] anybody who thought it was cool, we were like, isn't this cool? [00:18:43] Yeah, that is cool. [00:18:44] Omer: Great. You're our ICP awesome. And it took about a year for you to start to get some clarity. You're like, how did you figure out who to focus on? Cuz that's always the one of the hardest decision. For any founder to make? [00:18:56] Mike: Oh man. We've done it so many. It's a continuous process constantly and like we just did another wave of it and it was like eye-opening and then we compared it against the positioning that we did six months ago when we just did it and we're like, oh my gosh, this is so different. [00:19:08] Largely because the large language models like came into fruition and G P T four just got released yesterday and like the world is changing under our feet. So that was part of it. But we're constantly doing a qualitative research process of talking to our customers and our users. It's just the way we go about it and what those interview guides are and what we're looking for. [00:19:28] That usually changes as we've evolved over time because you go from the early days where you're just trying to do something called a evaluative research. I actually have a blog post on this. If you go to mg adams.com, I think it, I don't write a lot, so it's like the second blog post, but it's under the Founder's Guide to Understanding Your Users. [00:19:44] And I wrote this two years into Grain, having gone through phase one, which was like, first thing you need to do is, have this. A evaluative test to make sure that what you're doing is even, problem that people, want solved and then you need to do, different series of tests, but at the beginning you're going from nothing. [00:20:03] Putting it in front of people's faces, and you should read the Mom Test if you haven't. Anybody homes podcast, because Rob Fitzpatrick really enlighten me around, like how when you do that work, if you present too much of yourself with it, people will try to protect you. And they'll say, they'll, they, they won't tell you the truth. [00:20:22] They'll be like, oh, I think it's actual, I would totally use this. And they're like, never gonna use it. So what we would do is we would actually distance ourself. We built this especially when we did that kind of pivot about a. We ran this process pretty rigorously. We brought people into our office and we just had them like go through it and we pretended like it was somebody else's product and we didn't even build it. [00:20:39] And we were the third parties that were just like trying to get feedback for somebody else. So they were like, oh yeah, I hate this, I love this. And that was like huge because the first time we went around it was our friends and they were all like, oh yeah, this is the greatest thing. It didn't really give us the clarity that we needed to know exactly who we were building for or what, what the roadmap should look like. [00:20:58] And so we knew it was definitely like a leaping moment when we did that. I would say we threw all the code base away from the first year and we started over from scratch on that inside I mentioned that process we ran that was like, I would say more rigorous and better at distancing and getting that truth. [00:21:13] And just really understanding whether or not putting something in front of people, they would use it and. That was the foundation of kind of the next phase of the business. And then I would say we launched that into the world and COVID hit and we actually had seven or eight YC companies that all got funded that were literally just doing what we like launched and pushed in the market about a month after Covid and. [00:21:31] Yeah, it was a wild time. And so then all of a sudden you're in this world where you're like, whoa. Like clearly, if we're having like YC companies literally rip off everything about our website and then copy every feature that we do, like we, just word for word and pixel for pixel basically. [00:21:44] We're clearly have solved something in this kind of second phase. So then what you're looking for is that kind of set, like more around the product market fit. You're like clearly. We built something of substance and value that people care about, but who cares about it most? Who's willing to pay the most? [00:21:59] What are the messages that resonate with them? What are the features that they need? And then how does it grow inside of an organization? And that's been, I would say, the subsequent set of qualitative processes that we've run and. Not to shill my own product, but we use our own product for that, which is we literally couldn't do that if we didn't have all of those meetings being recorded. [00:22:16] Cuz like our head of product, Jeff will go and interview 15 people. So he interviewed our 15, he just did this one, interviewed 15 of our top 40 accounts. And we had an interview guy that was trying to understand the commonality between them because they're very different. Like our user profile is because it's horizontal, it's not clear exactly who is using it for what, and we ran that qualitative process and oh my gosh, by the end of it, I watched all of them. [00:22:38] He watched all of them. We were like clipping out the moments and and then collaborating and building our hypothe. And then we realized like something that was insanely counterintuitive that honestly I had no idea was rooted in reality until I heard like 10 of our top customers say in the exact same way, like just over and over again. [00:22:57] I was like, okay. I didn't realize that we were actually like valued in, in, in that way more so than this way that I thought we were valued. [00:23:04] Omer: What was it that they said that kind of gave you that insight? [00:23:07] Mike: Specifically what we found was that like we've always positioned ourselves as a almost in the research space, like if there's a vertical spike that we go on, we've always been more about like product insights and user research. [00:23:18] So a lot of that is biased by the fact that we did have product market fit there and we still do. But there's a lot of issues that are associated with the frequency of use in that use case. Product managers love to say they talk to product, sorry to customers. Most of them don't. User researchers, you're now a big giant company where you need, all sorts of, different situations versus a smaller company that can pick it up, which is more in line with our self-serve motion. [00:23:40] What we learned was that like, for our most successful accounts, almost all of them had come through a salesperson who was looking for a cheaper version of the $150 receipt products that are built specifically for sales. And then from there, they would advocate for the customer to the product team to try to say let's build this feature. [00:23:57] And then the product team would adopt it and then the marketing team would adopt it. And then we spread from there. So I always thought before this that we entered through product. And then we spread to the team. In fact, that's what was a series H pitch and it was very clear after our qualitative research process, we actually enter far more often through a sales and revenue team motion and then spread to the team from there, because they have so much more, a higher frequency of usage, there's existing tools in the market that we are get, we get compared against, and that we can, stand out in terms of our simplicity and our affordability and our accessibility. [00:24:26] Once we have that insight it's really changed a lot around, I would say the prioritization on our current roadmap. [00:24:32] Omer: I, I think that's such a great point. You're right. I think we hear people talking more about that they talk to customers than actually, the number of conversations that are going on. [00:24:41] But if you hadn't gone through and done these interviews, , then maybe you'd never have had that insight and you'd still be thinking, product is a point of entry and everything you'd be doing in terms of messaging and onboarding and whatever could still be focused in the wrong place. So there's definitely value in doing it. I know in the kind of after that year when you re, you pivoted. You were using LinkedIn and Twitter for thought leadership, but you were also doing user interviews with people in the first 30 days of them signing up for the product. Can you just explain like what were you doing and what was the motivation behind that? [00:25:27] Mike: Sure. So there's like three years ago what we did was we, it was mostly user interviews.com, but we would, we had like just a landing page. And but, and so for the people in user interviews.com, we didn't even use landing page. We just said, Hey we targeted product managers. Those are the people we thought it was for, and we said, Hey, here's our research process and it's going to be this kind of onboarding interview where I'm gonna show you how to use this like brand new product. [00:25:52] It's behind a beta, like a beta wall. You're getting beta access to it and it's free. You don't even have to pay for it. So I'd go through my interview process to make sure there's a lot of qualification in there, making sure that they were the right person I was looking for. And then I would onboard them on the product. [00:26:05] And then I would, and then I would follow up with them in 30 days and almost all of them would agree, agreed to follow up, and then we would submit the bounty for the payment. I don't know if they still allow you to do it, but that way, but that's how we did it. And it was awesome. Like we found seriously our first like 15, 20 customers that way. [00:26:19] And then we opened it up a little bit to, trying to drive some, traffic to the landing page. But we kept it enclosed, be. And it was actually right when Covid hit that we had a board meeting and one of our investors really urged us to go out into the market and to try to like, capitalize in the moment. [00:26:34] Cuz we all thought it was gonna be like two weeks. We're like, oh my gosh, this thing is like perfectly positioned for like remote, world that we live in. All of a sudden. And we might as well, if we don't launch now, then the window's gonna be gone and it's gonna last two weeks. And it turned out it lasted, closer to two years. [00:26:48] And honestly that was a mistake. That was a major mistake. We should have stayed in closed beta for longer. It's this really difficult balance, especially if, kinda like what I was saying about consumer products, where they're obvious, I'll be honest, like rain is not the most like differentiated insight in the world. [00:27:02] Like anybody who works in a digital environment, it's just that I was in a digital environment like years before everybody. And I, so I was able to connect some of these dots find the right investor partners and team and we built a great product. But man we invited just an absurd amount of competition that is real. [00:27:16] That, that's really tough. It's tough to of get to that breakout when there was also this compe, there's also this component of, in 2012, like money was flowing, sorry, 2020 and 2021. Money was flowing like candy in the private markets cuz the interest rates were so low. And so we're in a different market now, obviously with the interest rates higher and venture isn't as, desirable of an LP asset as it was. [00:27:36] And so there's gonna be less competition, there's gonna be less money in our space. And so it's good that, know, we have that position. But just to like really tie it back to your original question, that was the right move was to try to really curate the right people in and just get 'em using the product. [00:27:49] And for the first year, frankly, sometimes two or longer, like you look at notion, you look at Figma, you look at Airtable, a lot of those products were very small user bases for three, sometimes four years. Then they made and they just kept perfecting the craft until they got it out. If Covid didn't hit and we didn't get rushed into the market I think that we would've had a lot more time to, to get that craftsmanship. [00:28:10] Cuz what you don't wanna do is build in, in, in a silo and when you're building first customers that are in your data, even if there's only 10 of 'em, but they're the 10 people that you think that you're trying to surf. You're not building in a silo as long as they're in the middle of your process and you feel like they're pretty representative of the 10,000 people that you want to go to after that. [00:28:28] And it allows you to get, make, get further progress in, in your area of insight and innovation before you of put it out into the world. And then anybody who's oh, that's a really good idea. We actually have a few of our folks that ended up copying more or less word for word what we did. [00:28:41] Some of which are actually really good competitors that have innovated a lot and pushed us to be better down the road. So there is some good that kind of comes out of it, you're splitting a little bit of market share. But most of those came from that early beta. They were like literally in our early beta trying our product. [00:28:54] And some people even pivoted their, they pivoted their entire company when Covid hit, their business died and they're like, Dude, this is a really good idea. I'll just do what these guys are doing. So that's another intuitive lesson you always hear don't talk about your competitors, blah, blah, blah. [00:29:07] It's true. You should absolutely build, we're for your customer, for user. But at the same time, competition in, in, in SaaS is fierce. And I wish I would've been a lot more, I would say, careful and contained around who we were showing the product to in those early days. And I wish we would've left it in an intubation period for. [00:29:24] Because then as soon as you put it out into general release, you're just, you've got a whole different set of problems that you're trying to solve and it can take you a lot longer to get to the, I think we would've gotten to the place where we're at now faster if we weren't in such a rush from what happened with Covid. [00:29:38] Omer: Is that the main reason you wish you'd stayed in beta for longer? [00:29:42] Mike: I think, I think it's just really like when your product bottoms up strategy, like greatness. The better the product is, the faster you do, the better. More likely you already win. And especially when you are in a product that has it's, we're not notion where it's just static. [00:29:55] Not to dunk on notion, like incredible product, incredible engineering, but there's no real time components of it. There's no video, there's no audio, there's no, transcription. Like you can in our product, like literally make a clip of what someone said 10 seconds ago. There's a lot of like innovation and technology that goes into that. [00:30:11] And there's a lot of technical upkeep that goes into that. And I would say a lot of the functionality that we've built over the last couple of years, like in particular that live sounds really cool. People don't really care because they're in the middle of a meeting and they don't have time. [00:30:22] And very few people end up getting a workflow like I use it cuz I'm the c e o and I'm a power user. And I actually just use it like 15 minutes ago before I got on this podcast. But like most people don't. And it ended up being a giant waste of roadmap. And again, that's just I think we would've gotten to that insight faster and we would've had less distractions if. [00:30:41] Once you go out into the market, it's just it's a total rat race, especially if you have something that's relevant and it's unique. And I'm not gonna say that we were, like, there was other, what we can now, what we'd still call competitors that were in this space before we were, or like right about the same time that we were. [00:30:56] But we, I would say, really went, I would say, defined this motion of creating like shareable snippets from these calls that has turned out to be like really important to this use case. And. And that while we're still differentiated because it's a really complex, interaction model on the front end to build and none of our competitors have been able to do it even close to as good as we do, it still was something that I wish we would've been able to like, build more of the tooling and the ecosystem and the pricing models and ICPs and stuff around that. [00:31:25] So that when we went to market, our onboarding was better. Our service was more reliable, and those are all like lessons in hindsight that I would say I, I would take into doing something like this next time, maybe I'd build a product that is less dependent on real time challenge, technical challenges because they're they're a beast, but Yeah I would say that's my big takeaway of like, why I wish we would've been able to stay in, in a little bit longer. [00:31:48] Omer: There's so much more. I'd love to talk about, you, you were driving some growth through partner channels like the Zoom app marketplace, Product Hunt launches. You also told me that 60% of your signups are coming through SEO now. So the work that you've been doing over the last few years has obviously been paying off there, but we don't have time to go into all those things. [00:32:07] What I want to talk a little bit about is this conversation we had a little earlier about herd mentality and some of the challenges that's caused for you and your business. Can you maybe give me an example of that? [00:32:19] Mike: Yeah, I think the one we talked about before the show, it's just a very vivid example, is SVB. [00:32:24] We had multiple term sheets on the back of our Series A for a venture debt, and we talked to the masses in the crowd and everyone was like, go with SVB. And maybe that was the right decision. Like in the end, it's actually looking like it's gonna work out. We're gonna keep our money there. [00:32:37] They're, they got a bridge bank but man, that was not a fun Friday . It was not a fun weekend. And all of our money was tied up there because of the covenants that we have on our venture debt. So we, the whole reason we went with them was because of that was the consensus. [00:32:52] That was the belief. And, my instincts actually wanted to go with a different partner that we had a term sheet from. And I just ignored it against the consensus. And that's one example. Another example is what we were just talking about in terms of launching early. [00:33:04] I did not wanna launch when we did. I did not want to, I didn't think it was the right move. There was a lot of good that came from it. To be clear. There was a lot of good that came from it, but I got topped into it and I felt like we needed more time in the in, in the container, and it put us on a very different path that in some ways was better and in some ways was worse. [00:33:22] And I would say in a lot of ways I wasn't necessarily prepared for, since I allowed myself to be, more or less convinced. Cuz as a founder there's this difficult thing cuz you're trying to be like humble, you recognize, you don't know everyth. But then there's moments where you just get reinforced over and over again where you're like, I know a lot more than my investor here. [00:33:39] This investor does. And in some ways they know more than I do in other areas. But when it comes to my product, it comes to my business. When it comes to our strategy, if anybody else knows that better than you do you should try to learn as much as you know from them as you can. And then make your own decisions on first principles. [00:33:54] But the last thing you want to do is outsource. Like another example of this is we raised a series A I was always against advisors. And then we got basically pressured into taking on an independent board seat because Tiger doesn't take board seats. And so we brought in, an advisor that was a really smart, talented person who worked at a really big company and gave us a lot of advice that was not very applicable for our business. [00:34:17] And so then we followed that advice blindly. And we spent a lot of money on areas that were just like literally $0 in roi. Like it just made no sense for our business because it was a playbook that was applied that someone else had. I tried to be like, oh, learn from other people. I don't want to, be a all. [00:34:35] But it was also against my instincts of what I did and every single time that I like end up outsourcing the thinking, which happens a lot frankly, when you're a founder, when you're tired, when you're exhausted and you're just like, man, I can't I'm just like, every day I'm just waking up and just trying to like slog through it till the next day. [00:34:49] And that's when you have to be really careful about outsourcing your thinking, cuz you're gonna pay the consequence. Of the decision because whoever told you doesn't have any accountability. They just have their playbook. And if try to be like, oh I don't know anything. [00:35:02] This person knows something and let's just do what they say. It's gonna be the wrong call most of the time, and especially over your instincts. And then second of all, You're the one who's accountable over it, so you might as well go with what you think is best and that you have control over because it's also really frustrating and energy draining when you've made a decision or you've gone down a path that you weren't super excited about or you weren't aligned with. [00:35:22] And then it turns out to be the wrong path. And now you've gotta spend all of the energy to undo it all while begrudgingly, feeling man, I should have just trusted my own instincts. So that's I guess the my, my big takeaway, over and I didn't really have that takeaway when I was a co-founder twice, it's really more it has been, when that's the ceo, there's a difference between being responsible for, the curriculum and the programming technology. [00:35:42] Like I was a mission. And being responsible for the whole business and the cap table and the people inside of it. And it's really overwhelming. It really is. And it's something I have to be very vigilant on of being, really rigorous in making sure that I'm not outsourcing that thinking. [00:35:56] Cuz you as a CEO or as a founder, you can't outsource that accountability and you're gonna pay the consequence no matter you know, whether it was good advice or not. [00:36:05] Omer: Yeah. I think that's a really powerful lesson in terms. trusting your instincts. And it's not always go with your instincts, but if something deep down is telling you something doesn't feel right, you should pay attention to that and at least, explore that. [00:36:22] And as you said, you know the thinking behind that to make sure you, you're comfortable with making the right decision. [00:36:27] Mike: It's the blindly following and outsourcing to someone else's authority that you just cannot do. Take people's. But break it down into its first principles, apply it to your situation, your knowledge, and then make a decision off of what you think is best. [00:36:40] Not just oh, I'm tired, so then they know more than I do, so let's just do what they say. That is a disaster. [00:36:44] Omer: So do you think there's a danger that you become a bit of a micromanager in terms of every decision, like if I talk to your team, would they say he's hands off, let's us make those decisions? [00:36:54] Like where's the balance when you have to walk that line between giving people trust and, some level of account accountability to make the decision. But ultimately, your head is on the chopping block, right? If things don't work out. [00:37:08] Mike: I think until you have like very clear product market fit, which usually sometimes has a series A, sometimes has a series B you should maintain as much of that control as possible while allowing decision making at the edge. [00:37:21] So like you have to take accountability over the core strategy and those core decisions, and then allow people to, within the context of that decisions they've made to solve the edge case problems, to solve it out on the edge, to solve it out as you take it to those end steps that as a founder you won't certainly don't have time to do and they're gonna make mistakes. [00:37:38] Absolutely. But the thing that you can't really do is split up a strategy amongst, a mix of executive minded books and more So there's this kind of progression of dependent ics. So I IC meaning individual contributor, independent ics, and and then you continually progress up until you get to become an executive. [00:37:57] And the people you partner with and the people you put into those kind of decision making roles, if you go back to back they have to be able to operate and have prior experience at that executive level of ownership. And I love Peter Drucker's book the Effective Executive. So I guess I'm already skipping to one of your, rapid-fire questions at the end. [00:38:13] But if you haven't read the Effective Executive, please read it. And if you're finding yourself in this like balance that I'm talking about, How do I strike this balance of not being a micromanager, but also like seating, keeping enough control that you can kinda shape the craft of the product and the outcome and the process, because, If you don't give, if you don't give people clarity about what they're trying to do and they don't understand, they, you're not gonna be happy with this role. [00:38:36] And it's not their fault, it's your fault because you took someone who probably didn't have the prior experience, they didn't have a playbook, or it was the wrong playbook and you were tired or exhausted or overstretched or whatever. Or trying to focus on something else. And you hoped that if gave them a direction to. [00:38:52] that they're going to figure it out and they just don't have the context. They just don't, unless they're your co-founder or unless they're, at that executive level they almost certainly don't have that context. It's very rare. And so your average person that you're hiring in your business needs to be able to work in an environment where, and that's what I think is oftentimes easier about hiring engineers at startups. [00:39:12] It's really hard to hire great engineer. But it's not that difficult to manage great engineers because you have a product development process where they're, the speck is laid out, the requirements are clear, and they execute and they give feedback and they contribute on the edges. [00:39:25] But ultimately it's very uncommon and it probably shouldn't be common for an engineer to, to set the strategy or to, they can influence and get feedback and absolutely should be part of the process. Oftentimes you're not expecting an engineer to just be like, Hey, here's a feature. Go figure it out. [00:39:41] The product manager does a lot of that work upfront and that level of work needs to be done, whether it's in sales or whether it's in marketing or across the board, and it's, that's just the paradox of being a founder, especially CEOs. You just don't have really time to do that, but, I would say I would just catch this with another piece of advice, which is I just hire slow, hire really slow, especially in an environment like this, but do the job yourself, know exactly how to do it, especially if you've never known the job before. [00:40:04] Like I've never done sales, never done marketing, I haven't done a lot of these things. I was always a product person and I wish I would've spent more time on the front lines of doing those jobs before we tried to hire people to those jobs, hoping that they would come in and teach us. And in many ways they did, but they just oftentimes don't have that full context. [00:40:20] So to wrap up the answer, it's I think at the smaller you are, the more centralized decision making and control should be, and the more focused on the people that you're hiring should be able to usually be pretty technical and, they're executing and contributing inside of a well scoped problem as opposed to just the free the free and easy path of go figure this part out, that I'm too busy to figure out. [00:40:42] And that just, it doesn't, in my experience, it doesn't. [00:40:44] Omer: Yeah, that's a great answer. And on that note, let's let's wrap up and get on onto the lightning round. So we've got seven quickfire questions for you. Just try to answer 'em as quickly as you can. You ready? [00:40:55] Mike: Okay. [00:40:56] Omer: What's the best piece of business advice you've ever received? [00:40:59] Mike: Work on emotional intelligence. I went to Stanford touchy-feely class on a weekend, so I didn't go to gsb, but you can just, anybody can sign up. It's one of the most life-changing things I ever did. I had a lot of reasons that were going on my life for why I did that, but like I was given some advice to like work on my emotional intelligence and to grow as a leader. And I'm really glad I did and I still have a long ways to go. [00:41:19] Omer: What book would you recommend to our audience and why? [00:41:23] Mike: So the effective executive by Peter Drucker that I mentioned earlier is life changing. Once you really have a clear definition of what an executive is and it helps to kind of balance that, what can I expect from this level of person versus, that level of person. [00:41:35] Good strategy, bad strategy I read recently, which is just. Really game changing around focusing the limited resources that you have and doing it in a deliver deliberate and intentional way. And then also Le loved recently, which is a product marketing book by the Silicon Valley product group. [00:41:48] Omer: Great. What's one attribute or characteristic in your mind of a successful founder? [00:41:52] Mike: Do it your way? Authenticity, vulnerability, embrace yourself and who you are. You're there for a reason. Like you're taking risks that others either are and now they're your competitors or haven't. And there's just, there's a reason where you're at and believe that there's good in just who you are. [00:42:08] And while you're always trying to get better, I would say lean into to what makes you unique and what you believe is true. And for me, a lot of times that's authenticity and vulnerability. Like I just I always try to just lead from. Being from a place of reality as much as. [00:42:21] Omer: What's your favorite personal productivity tool or habit? [00:42:24] Mike: It's super trendy right now, but it's Zero, which is a intermittent fasting app. I started on January 1st and I'm on like day seventies or something right now, fasting. And I love it. I love it. I love it. I love it. It's just, for me, it's great because it just regulates my glucose levels. I don't track them closely, but I just feel like more balanced energy instead of the spikes of eating snacks. [00:42:44] And then the other one is Strava. Just get outside and ride a bike or go on a run. And the more that I track it, the more it motivates me. And there's a social network around it. [00:42:51] Omer: How many hours do you fast each day? [00:42:52] Mike: I try to hit 16, so I've at least hit 12. I only have one day that I only hit 12, and every other day that I didn't hit my goal was like 14 or 15, but most of the time I do 16. [00:43:01] Yesterday I had 22. Wow. Wow. I just didn't eat dinner. . [00:43:07] Omer: What's a new or crazy business idea you'd love to pursue if you had the extra time? [00:43:11] Mike: My gosh, my wife won't kill me cuz it's her idea and it's such a good one. But we do home exchanges. We do home swaps where we stay in someone's house and they come stay in our, I don't if you're seeing like the holiday or whatever, it's like that's real. [00:43:21] We do it, we just did it with a family in Hawaii and the services that are out there right now are just like so archaic and old and crappy and they're like not brought into the modern world and just There needs, there's absolutely an opportunity, especially in an economic downturn for someone to, I would probably build that if I weren't building grain, cuz it's just something I we live, we've done, yeah, over 10 home swaps for the last decade and every single one of them has been an amazing experience. [00:43:43] We saved tons of money. It's, we go to places we wouldn't otherwise go. It's awesome. So there's definitely a business idea there. [00:43:48] Omer: What's an interesting or fun fact about you that most people don't? [00:43:52] Mike: I met my wife when I was like 14. We didn't talk for like near decade basically. We were just in the same grade and then we started dating after Thanksgiving. [00:44:03] We got married, we got engaged by by Valentine's Day and married by me. So from basically cold Turkey to married in six months. I went to byu so it's more normal there. Yeah, it was wild, but we got engaged after only dating for two months. And when people find out about me that, that's, it's pretty shocking that like any person would do that. [00:44:21] And I'm glad I did. It was awesome. It worked out. I probably married up higher than I would've if I would've waited longer. [00:44:26] Omer: Your relationship sounds like a hockey stick growth. Like not much happening for a long time. And then, and finally, what's one of your most important passions outside of your work? [00:44:36] Mike: Family. I have three kids. Golf. I freaking love golfing. It's just the even if you're playing the same course, it's just every time is different. Every shot is different. It's just like managing your mental game. Very similar to poker, frankly. And then last one is fitness. So I've just learned that, holy crap, like if I can get my endorphins going naturally, it just changes everything about my long term mood. [00:44:54] My, my short term mood, I'm. I'm just better in every way, so I've develop. A lot of routines since Covid hit. Actually it was right before Covid to where it finally culminated in an Ironman last year. Cuz it was just like obsessive. I just was got so obsessed with it and it was, it's something that I want to carry forward for the rest of my life. [00:45:11] Cuz I had seven or eight years where I basically didn't do any working out or any fitness or any running. And I just, life is way better when we got endorphins flowing through your body and your outside. [00:45:20] Omer: Thank you man for for taking the time to share your story. I think a lot of really useful lessons and perspectives on the journey you've taken so far. [00:45:28] If people wanna check out Grain, they can go to grain.com and if folks wanna get in touch with you, what's the best way for them to do that? [00:45:35] Mike: I'm ably active on Twitter, so it's twitter.com/michaelglena. And then my email, if you ever wanna reach out to me I'm pretty responsive. My Twitter dms are on email. [00:45:46] It's mike[at]grain[dot]com. [00:45:48] Omer: Awesome. Thanks man. It's been a pleasure. I wish you and the team the best of success. [00:45:52] Mike: Hey, thanks a lot. It was a lot of fun. Appreciate it. [00:45:54] Omer: Cheers.
- “The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done” by Peter F. Drucker