The SaaS Podcast

Mode: How 3 First-Time Founders Built an 8-Figure SaaS – with Benn Stancil [307]

Mode: How 3 First-Time Founders Built an 8-Figure SaaS

Benn Stancil is the co-founder and chief analytics officer of Mode, a collaborative data science platform for analysts and data scientists to analyze, visualize, and share data.

In 2013, Benn and his co-founders Derek and Josh were working for the same company where they had built an internal tool to help them do their jobs.

They discovered that a lot of companies were building similar tools and figured that there might be an opportunity for them to launch a startup.

In the last 8 years, they've grown Mode into an 8-figure SaaS business, with over 150 employees, and have raised $81M in funding.

In this episode, I talk to Benn about:

  • How they got started and acquired early customers while overcoming the challenge of all three of them being first-time founders.
  • The struggles they faced with positioning a product that didn't fit well into any existing product categories, and often confused customers.
  • How the founders learned to overcome ‘analysis paralysis' and make faster decisions without continuously second-guessing themselves.
  • How they use content marketing to attract new customers and create engaging and shareable content for a topic that's pretty dry.
  • And we talk about lessons Benn has learned about the best ways for founders to stay motivated so they can get through the hard times.

I hope you enjoy it.

Transcript

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[00:00:00] Omer: Welcome to another episode of The SaaS Podcast. I'm your host Omer Khan, and this is the show where I interview proven founders and industry experts who shared their stories, strategies, and insights to help you build, launch and grow your SaaS business. And this episode, I talk to Benn Stancil the Co-Founder and Chief Analytics Officer of Mode, a collaborative data science platform for analysts and data scientists to analyze, visualize and share data.

[00:00:37] In 2013 Ben and his co-founders Derek and Josh were working for the same company where they had built an internal tool to help them do their jobs.

[00:00:47] They discovered that a lot of companies were building similar tools and. That there might be an opportunity for them to launch a startup. So the three of them decided to take the leap. In the last eight years, they've grown Mode into an eight-figure SaaS business with over 150 employees and have raised $81 million in funding.

[00:01:08] In this episode, I talked to Ben about how they got started and acquired early customers while overcoming the challenges of all three of them being first-time founders. The struggles they faced with positioning a product that didn't fit well into any existing product category and often confused customers, how the founders learned to overcome analysis paralysis and make faster decisions without continuously second-guessing themselves, how they use content marketing to attract new customers and create engaging and shareable content for a topic that's pretty dry, and we talk about lessons ben has learned about the best ways for founders to stay motivated so they can get through some of the hard times. So, I hope you enjoy it.

[00:01:54] All right, let's get on with the show. Ben welcome to the show.

[00:02:00] Benn: Great to be here.

[00:02:01] Omer: So, do you have a favorite quote, something that inspires or motivates you or just gets you out of bed that you can share with us?

[00:02:07] Benn: Oh, this is necessarily like a motivational quote, but it's a quote that's I think helped me through a lot of the things that I do now as I've done in my time at Mode.

[00:02:17] So it's a quote from an author. She's a writer for the New Yorker. She wrote a book that got a lot of press, I think a year ago called Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino. She was talking to me about her writing process and she said, the thing that she does is she reads it over and over again until she can stand it. And I think as someone who has nailed, does a fair amount of writing on, on data topics and things like that, that's a, it's a really good motivator for me to remind me of like, this is how you, you know, when something is good is basically keep doing it until you like it.

[00:02:47] And like, you will be your harshest critic. Get it to a point when you like it. And when you like it, it's probably far enough along. And I think it's also, there's something about like, it's not weird over and over until you like it. It's read and over and over until you can stand it. Which to me is also like a reflection of, even if you don't feel like this is great, that's probably actually much better than you think it is.

[00:03:05] And so it's sort of a reminder in some ways to push it to a point that you don't hate it, but don't give yourself too much of a hard time. If you don't think it's the greatest thing ever, because nothing you create you're ever going to think is the greatest thing ever

[00:03:16] Omer: Yeah, right. Love it. So, tell us about Mode. What does the product do? Who is it? And what's the main problem you're helping to solve?

[00:03:25] Benn: Sure. So, Mode is a analytics and data science platform for analysts and data scientists that will also for the rest of the business. So the main problem that we try to solve is companies now have a lot of data. They want to make decisions with that data. They have kind of a collection of tools that help them do that, but they often do it in a fairly disjointed way and don't help the kind of data professionals do it in the way that they want. So for instance, companies love have BI tools for kind of dashboarding and reporting.

[00:03:50] An analyst and data scientists will have more technical tools for, for doing deeper analysis. But those two things are often very disconnected. The tools that analysts data scientists have things like Jupiter notebooks and our studio and those kinds of things, desktop sequel, editors, aren't easy to share. They're not easy to communicate with other people around their business. And so as a result, what happens is analysts could ask questions based on what happened in a dashboard after recreate that work. And some other tools that's more suitable for them. They then figure out some answers. They have to share it by taking a scheme, screenshots and send it over to email.

[00:04:22] There's kind of a very difficult back and forth between that analyst and whoever the business stakeholder is they're trying to work with. It really slows down the process of how they're answering those questions. And then once they answer it, those answers kind of get forgotten and lost in emails and Slack threads and those kinds of things.

[00:04:37] So our, our, what Mode does is it, it really streamlines that entire process where you can build out dashboards and reports that you need. When you have questions about it's very easy to open those off into more technical tools where analysts can explore them further with SQL and Python and R. And then when they have new answers, that to answer these deeper questions, they can just copy and paste URL, send it back and forth to, to their stakeholders and having a much more streamlined collaboration process with those folks to have answer questions much faster.

[00:05:02] So, so really our aim is to help businesses understand their data better to answer their questions faster. And we do that by, by helping the, the analysts and data professionals really do their jobs more effectively.

[00:05:14] Omer: Got it. And give us a sense of the size of the business in terms of revenue, size of the team.

[00:05:20] Benn: Sure. So, Mode is about 150 to 200 people. So we're in that range in terms of revenue. It's a, it's an eight-figure business, and we've been around now for about eight years and have raised around $80 million over the course.

[00:05:36] Omer: And in terms of your customers, I don't know the number of customers, but I know that you've got a number of enterprise customers. Like how's an Anheuser-Busch and Bloomberg. Who else is working with you guys?

[00:05:48] Benn: Yeah. So, we have a range of different customers. As you mentioned, Anheuser-Busch, Bloomberg of some other big, big-name customers that folks have probably heard of Conde Nast, Lift, DoorDash, Zillow, or all, all customers. We, so we sell to, to anybody who's kind of forward-thinking about data.

[00:06:03] That, that one of the things we see is a lot of companies see data as we're used to see data as a tool for reporting, it was the sort of thing that you put in to binders to send to exact once a quarter for their board meetings and things like that. Now people are increasingly using data for driving data decisions for being more operational.

[00:06:22] And so Mode is a tool that really helps with that process. And so any company, big or small, new industry, old industry that is thinking about data in that way is, is a company that, that we work with. So, that obviously includes a lot of tech companies, but it also includes a lot of media companies that are thinking. It also includes, you know, some, some hundreds of year-old companies like Anheuser-Busch that are trying to modernize the way they operate and are seeing their businesses. Now data businesses, as much as they are sort of the traditional operations and, you know, packaged good businesses.

[00:06:53] Omer: Awesome. Now you founded the business in 2013 with your co-founders Derek and Josh. And none of you guys had ever founded a business for. So I think this is an interesting experience in terms of first-time founders and where you've taken this business over the last seven, eight years. So, why don't we stop there and talk a little bit about what were you guys doing at the time and how did you come up with the idea for Mode.

[00:07:24] Benn: The three of us were working together on, on a data team and a company called Yammer. Yammer was an early version of Microsoft teams basically, or similar to Microsoft Teams or Slack or any new ways of communicating at work product. So, Yammer was acquired by Microsoft. It did not become teams, but again, sort of inspired by similar ideas.

[00:07:44] We were on the data team there. And as a part of that data team, we had to serve people around the business to, to answer these questions that they were trying to answer about how people were using our products. And so Yammer was a kind of forward-thinking company in this regard, it modeled the way that they built their products and marketed it after the way that social gaming companies actually did at the time where a lot of it is, all right, let's launch a feature let's AB test it. Let's see how people use it. Let's understand like what drives more usage and then make decisions that way. And that's, that's now become sort of fairly conventional and the way that a lot of products get developed, but it wasn't at the time. And so Yammer had a, a fairly robust data team that was responsible for helping people around the business, make those decisions.

[00:08:24] And to do that, we had built a series of internal tools that enabled us as analysts to very quickly answer questions, to share those answers with other. It was essentially the tools that we lived in to, to do our jobs. And so, once we got acquired, a couple of things happened where we saw one, that tool started.

[00:08:40] We actually began, when Yammer got acquired by Microsoft. That tool started to spread around Microsoft where we realized, hey, this is actually a valuable thing for not just us. We weren't like some special data team. There was a pretty wide demand for this kind of, kind of tool within Microsoft. And it was also something once we started talking to other companies around Silicon valley, we realized a lot of people had built similar, internally. So Uber had a version of this and Airbnb had a version and Facebook kind of version and Spotify and Pinterest and LinkedIn, all these companies had built these kinds of query tools for analysts to do their work and then send results to people that they're working.

[00:09:12] And so I'm seeing both of those things, we, we basically realized, hey, if like everybody's building the same thing, then, then maybe there's a market for this. And there's a market, you know, as, as analytics and data science become more prevalent. We don't really have any tools that are designed for those specific folks.

[00:09:25] Why don't we build a sort of dedicated suite of tools for, for those people. And so that's, that's really what we set out to do.

[00:09:30] Omer: So, this tool that you'd built internally was that basically like the first iteration of mode or a very similar product?

[00:09:39] Benn: Yeah, you can. I mean, it was, it was the version of Mode that you would imagine being built in a quarter of the time by an internal team, as an internal tool, that's got plenty of rough edges and tons of things. You're like, it'd be cool if we could do this, but we're never going to actually do it. And so I think that the bones of it were similar, it was, it was structurally kind of the same idea, but implemented in a very different way, much less robust.

[00:10:04] Omer: And so you were at Microsoft for about a year?

[00:10:08] Benn: Yeah, just about.

[00:10:09] Omer: I think I was at Microsoft at the time as well. This was back in. Yeah. So, this was, the acquisition was around 2013.

[00:10:18] Benn: The acquisition was a 2012. I think it was announced in the spring of 2012. And then, and then closed in the fall. And we joined Yammer was a part of the, the office division. So, we joined with the intent of being a kind of social layer around O 365, which is their online word and Excel and things like that.

[00:10:37] I kind of their Google docs, competitors Yammer was that for a bit. And then I think shortly after the acquisition was actually when Slack started to blow up. And so, so Microsoft turned to developing teams. As kind of their social layer instead of, instead of using Yammer and teams was modeled more after Slack.

[00:10:54] And now I think obviously Teams are doing quite well and Yammer exists, I think, but in a sort of diminished form.

[00:11:00] Omer: Okay. So, you guys have got the idea, you've kind of seen a proof of concept working internally with teams on this. How did you go about starting the business?

[00:11:08] Benn: Yeah, I mean, so, so we were fortunate in that way that we, we coming out of an acquisition that you get, there's a lot of coattails to ride in that, in that process.

[00:11:17] Like I joined. Shortly before I joined Yammer shortly before it got acquired, I had no material impact on the acquisition whatsoever. However, when you leave a company that has a successful exit like that, a lot of people see it as like, oh, you came from a successful company. Therefore, you must know what you're doing.

[00:11:29] Not necessarily a case, but, but you are able to, at least in Silicon Valley kind of ride some of that, that momentum. And so, we essentially went out and, you know, we had the idea for the business. We knew we wanted to build. There are a bunch of people we knew through the acquisition and stuff that, that we're interested in, in putting a little bit of angel money into it, just to, to help us get the thing off the ground.

[00:11:51] Also through the acquisition that we've, you know, worked with a bunch of people that we knew were good. And so, I handful of the, the Yammer folks that we had worked with that knew us, and we knew them ultimately came over to, to join, to help build the very first versions of it. And so, the company kind of grew from there, but that was that wasn't a lot of ways the seed of it was, of using the network that we'd already had and, and building from that.

[00:12:12] So, you know, I think it speaks a little bit to how Silicon Valley works that it's much easier if you have that network and understanding of we're very sort of fortunate and privileged to be able to do that. But if you have it, then, then there's certainly a lot of avenues for being able to, to start something or at least sort of get the initial idea off the ground and see how it might go.

[00:12:30] Omer: And, and how long did it take you to, to build the product and, and were you guys also going out. And doing some customer development and doing any more validation of this as a product, or did you kind of feel like, well, we've seen this work, we understand this enough from what we saw internally and from what we've seen in some of the organizations, we know what we need to go to.

[00:12:55] Benn: So, in terms of the timing, we launched it, we launched the first version of Mode pretty quickly. We launched it, I believe in April of 2014 after founding the company in August of 2013. So it's about a nine-month period between when we went from starting the company to when we went from, from publicly launching the product.

[00:13:13] Frankly, I think we probably did that too quickly. I, you know, we, we sort of were anxious to get the product out there. We liked what we had built and we're like, let's go show it to people. And, and so, you know, I think you could probably take it one more time than we did, but, you know, so it is in, in terms of doing the customer research and things like that, I think this is an area where we actually under-invested.

[00:13:32] We, we understood the customer very well for a particular type of customer. Like we knew analysts, we knew data scientists. We knew the problems that we had had really well, because we had been solving them for, for a few years between the three of us at, at Yammer. And we've talked to a bunch of people while we were there.

[00:13:48] And just like we had lived that, that life. I think we under-invested in understanding the dynamics of the market. And I think it's easy to do that when you're, you're excited about a company excited about an idea. It's easy to think like I've got this great idea and I just want to go out and do it.

[00:14:03] And that the kind of market research feels kind of like. And I think we should have done more of it, frankly. Like we should've had a little better sense of exactly where we thought we would be positioned in the market. Exactly. What other tools people were out there working on, what problems they were solving with those tools, where were there gaps in that, that set of tools?

[00:14:20] You know, we, we had some intuitive sense of this and would do some customer development to help validate it or, or, or prove it wrong. But I think that's something. That if I were to do it all over again, you can do for a fairly long amount of time and just learn a ton about, and the more that you have more, that foundation, you have the much better you'll make decisions and building a product and figure out how to sell to and things like that.

[00:14:42] So, so we did some of it, but, but I think you can always never do enough.

[00:14:46] Omer: Give me an example of why that was something you look back and feel like you should have done differently. What was the outcome or the challenge of under investing in that?

[00:14:55] Benn: So, I think one of the things that, Mode is a product that, that fell to some extent between existing products. That we, there were BI tools and dashboards, which are kind of the things that put people put on TV screens.

[00:15:09] You know, here's a chart of our number of signups or active users or revenue or orders or what. That are kind of static reporting. And then there are these, that of tools that are the Jupiter's in our studios and sort of the deep dive analytical products. And we knew that Mode fit between those two things.

[00:15:24] And we knew we could talk to some customers and describe that and they would see it and they would get it. One of the things though, I don't think we did enough of was figuring out exactly like what to call that. The industry had defined terms for the dashboarding stuff. They define terms for the analytics, data, science products meld fit into a thing that wasn't really defined yet.

[00:15:42] And so in some ways I think we were like, well, the product will work. We don't need to worry about it. We don't need to figure out exactly how to talk about it. That'll be fine. And, and for some customers that was the case for other customers, they needed to know what they were buying. Like they just, they just needed a noun for it.

[00:15:56] And I don't think. When we talk to those folks and we didn't have an answer, it made it a much harder sale or a much harder nearly days just to get them to try it. Because like, was it a BI tool? Doesn't look like a BI tool. Is it a data science tool? And the way that I think of these tools, it doesn't look like that either.

[00:16:11] And so, you know, I think that that had, we done more kind of upfront research and things like that, we would have had a lot better language to talk to those folks a lot easier time describing what exactly we're doing. And so, so, you know, that's the sort of thing where we're not as able to necessarily solve that problem exactly but, but we can under anticipated some of the dynamics in that. And it led us to having a bunch of conversations with our other customers that did, I'm sure it could have gone better. People would have been more interested in what we're building. If we just had sort of the terms to describe it in a, in a cleaner way.

[00:16:40] Omer: Did you ever find that noun? So like how long did it take?

[00:16:44] Benn: So not really, actually, no, I think that is changing and that the, there is, there is a noun, and I was actually just talking to someone yesterday. In the, in the diagram of the data tooling and the world, there is now a box that is kind of Modes box. It doesn't have a clean name.

[00:17:00] It's sort of an analytics tool is what, what I think they named it. But mode has created a bit of a box there because I don't think we, we sold that well upfront. It took us longer to get there then than we would have, but it's still a thing I think. The noun is missing a little bit. And, and there are, there are times when I think that's appropriate.

[00:17:18] Not like it's, it's easy for every company when you start out to be like, we're going to define our own category. That's a really steep hill to climb. Mode has over the course of eight years, carved out a category in some senses, but, but it's difficult to say, like, we are a new category of tool. People are going to come to you with, with a lot of preexisting sort of notions of how things work and, and they're going to very strongly want to put you in one of those boxes.

[00:17:41] Omer: Okay. Great. So, you've got that challenge while you, you guys are building the product and trying to go out and find customers. Once you launched the product, what was the reaction apart from people are having to figure out where Mode actually fit. What happened when they started to use the products?

[00:18:00] Benn: During the very early stages of building a company or a product there, there are sort of two phases to your company's life.

[00:18:07] There's the phase before you have customers in the phase. As soon as you have customers, a lot of things change. So, both for better and worse, really. For, on the good side, obviously it's great to have customers. You get a lot of feedback. You hear what people like you know, you, you actually, there's a lot of validation in that when you're, you're seeing someone use it and you see how they, how they enjoy it.

[00:18:25] Or what it is they're frustrated by and, you know, kind of your work on the right things where you can adjust. So, so a lot of that is, is the entire dynamic changes there where it's no longer you having to kind of conjure stuff up in your head. But instead, you can, you can follow the pole of, of what it is people are asking for the, the not downside, but the, the other kind of side of that is, you know, have customers you have to support, which means not only like you've got to keep the service up and you've got to make sure everything works and bugs are suddenly no longer kind of a thing to get to but are things that are, that are issues that need to be addressed because you're affecting how well somebody can do their job. But you also start having commitments.

[00:19:00] You also start having customers who are coming to you with the expectation of what it is you're going to do next. And so, especially in the early days, like nobody's buying a product that was just launched because of the thing that product does that, you know, they're, they're buying it for. A seed of something that it does and the sense that it's going to grow into something that's really exciting and that they want to influence that and things like that.

[00:19:21] And so each customer you add has a new expectation now is like, okay, what are they? What's the future that they are investing in when they buy your product. And so that now starts to, it starts to pull you towards those futures. You start to get tied to that kind of thing. And so I think that changes a lot too where your roadmaps are again, no longer your ideas or the ideas that are in your customer's heads as well. And so you've gotta, you've gotta kinda make sure you're following the pull in that direction.

[00:19:46] Omer: Yeah. Give me one example of that, because I know one of the things that you guys struggled with was you were getting all kinds of random requests from people.

[00:19:54] Benn: Yeah. I mean, so, so part of that, I think I had mentioned that, that we fell between. Yeah, we were, we were positioned between the kind of traditional BI tooling world and the data science world. That meant that if you look at sort of the distribution of customers, there are a number of customers who would be right in the middle of that, who were like, we're looking for something that combines these things exactly what you do is exactly right. We have no complaints, but then you'd also have some customers that come in on the table. One, who's largely looking for a dashboarding tool, but is a little bit frustrated with how the other ones work and want something that it's got a few of the features that you have, or somebody who's mostly looking for a tool for their analysts and data scientists, you know, that they like the fact that it's got some dashboarding bits to it, but mostly they're just looking for a workflow for the way those folks work.

[00:20:37] And so those two customers on either end of that distribution would pull us towards the other where they're like, I mostly want a dashboarding tool. So give me the features that help me enhance that and the people on the data science side will say, that is great. The dashboarding stuff there's more than enough give me the things that helped my data science.

[00:20:53] And so the, the thing that you have to be disciplined about, it's not to say like, don't take on those customers, but it's being saying the same things to both of them, so that their expectations of where you're going is, is the same that you don't want the dashboarding company to think, okay, the next thing you're going to build is a great way for me to put this on a TV so that I can put it up in my office.

[00:21:12] And the data science people to think. Great. The next thing you're going to build is an integration with, with the AWS machine learning infrastructure, so that I can start deploying these models to, to that. And like, if they believe that either explicitly, because you told them more kind of implicitly in the way that you sold them and, and your alignment of your vision with theirs, then, then that's how you end up in a place where it gets really tricky.

[00:21:36] It's fine to sell to different types of customers, as long as they just understand the direction we're going is here. And if they're good with that, great. If they're not, then, then early on, you have to be willing to recognize some customers aren't fits or over the long-term will sort of end up costing more than they, they pay you by, by how much they kind of dictate what it is that they want.

[00:21:55] Omer: So how did you guys decide what you would build into the product and what you wouldn't getting? Any customer is, is attractive in the early days. And if they want, this random feature doesn't seem like that much of a big deal. But then multiply that by 25, 50 customers and then you could end up going in lots of different directions.

[00:22:19] So, how did you guys manage that and decide what you were going to build and what you weren’t.

[00:22:25] Benn: Well, yeah, that's certainly the problem and, and it's, it's almost a problem with step further because even if those 25 features are easy to build or are relatively simple things to add. There's a lot of signals in that when they ask for it.

[00:22:37] It's oh, you took one step. I'm assuming you're now going to take the next 10. You try to address it a number of ways. I think you; you address it by. Basically, have to make a decision and, and really aggressively pursue people that, that look like the folks that you want to sell to. I think the thing that makes it difficult is if you're just kind of taking the customers as they come, you're going to get that very mixed set of folks, the easiest way, especially early to identify as who is the buyer.

[00:23:03] And so we try to address it through whatever means we could make it very clear who it is that we wanted to sell to. So that way, even if the product didn't exactly fit their needs, there was always kind of a brand sense behind what it is that mode was for in. So, I think that the very first tagline we ever had was by analysts for analysts, which is a little bit of a cliche construction and these sorts of things, but it worked, and it pretty succinctly said who we were and who we were looking for.

[00:23:32] And so I think like we, we wanted to early avoid a lot of references to BI, to dashboards those kinds of things. Because we knew those might draw customers, but they also might draw us in like the expectation of what it is that we're going to build.

[00:23:48] We also did a lot of marketing that was affinity marketing for analysts, where we, for instance, would publish content that wasn't selling their product, but it was just kind of talking to them as analysts and in the subjects, they might be interested in.

[00:24:00] And so that helped kind of establish, again, the brand of what Mode was for this particular type of hire. It wasn't a sort of perfect see by any means to prevent some of these things I was talking about. But it helped at least narrow the conversations we were talking to, to, to the point where most people who came to us and were interested in Mode or people who kind of understood what we were and understood this is probably who, who we were and what we gonna do.

[00:24:23] Omer: And I think it goes back to that point, you made earlier about having the noun that you can, I mean, it is basically a positioning that you got to be so careful about the words you use because BI or dashboard or any of these other things could set it's like a domino effect of what goes on in the prospect's minds when they hear that first.

[00:24:42] And then they have a whole bunch of expectations on what your product is going to do before they've even seen it.

[00:24:49] Benn: Yeah. And, and inside it's, it's both, this was something I think we were, we were really surprised by it's both easier and harder to do that than you think it's easier. And that people will believe what you tell them.

[00:25:00] That, that if you label your product as this, people will say it as this. And so, back into like the, one of the very first sort of taglines we had about what the product was. So, we had this by analysts for analysts to kind of that our sort of brand and what the tagline for what the product was, was collaborative analytics platform.

[00:25:18] And so, you know, the first thing we launched for Mode was basically like a SaaS app with a query tool in it with some charts. And we'd asked our customers like, why did you buy it? And then be like, well, it was collaborative. And there wasn't really anything in it that made it collaborative. It didn't have collaborative features in a particular way, but we just said that, and that was something like, okay.

[00:25:35] Customers were kind of just parroting back to us that, oh yeah. I said it was collaborative, it was collaborative. And so like, I think it's easier in some ways to get people to, to brand your product with those things. If you just call it that. It's harder and that the word they remembered was collaborative.

[00:25:49] And that's about the extent of it. What anybody will remember is like two or three words. If you can't do it in two or three words, you've kind of already lost the battle. You can't be like, well, let me tell you it's this and this and this. People need to know what it is and, and you know, what two or three words to attach to it.

[00:26:03] And that's one of the reasons why I think the category creation thing can be very difficult. And in the beginning, is, people need a box to put it in and they have kind of their, their pre-existing boxes and, and they're going to do their best to put it in one of those boxes.

[00:26:15] Omer: How did you get your first 10 customers. Who was going and doing the sales? Was this outbound where you are relying on other kinds of marketing channels, but where did this first 10 customers come from and who was driving that.

[00:26:30] Benn: So, we got customers, you know, no idea about the first 10 specifically, but we got customers in the, the early days from basically three channels. One was the, the, I mentioned before we had kind of a content blog.

[00:26:45] So back when Mode was first getting started, there were three of us, Josh, who was our technical co-founder was building the product, Derek who's. Our CEO was out doing kind of customer development, talking to investors, but kind of being the face of the company. And he's, he's the likable one. So, so that was his job.

[00:27:01] And then I, my background is as an analyst, and I had nothing to do. There's no data for me to analyze. Basically, it's not clear what you do on day one as an analyst of a company with no, no product that no data, no customers. So while I was, you know, as part of that founding team, we'll never know. But the thing that I did was I wrote basically blog posts that were about things that were related to data.

[00:27:22] And they were kind of in the, this was before FiveThirtyEight had been launched as a separate site, but there were kind of in the vein of that sort of stuff where it was like pop culture and sports and politics topics from a, from kind of a data angle. So the very first blog we ever wrote which is the first thing that's published on those blog.

[00:27:38] And it's still there actually. I post about Miley Cyrus and the VMAs. I mean, it was like this data-driven look at the VMA or whatever. And so that, those sorts of that sort of content started to get some attention from just like data people. Cause they're like, this is interesting. I know that this product does, and I'm not really here for the product, but it's cool they're talking to me in this kind of way.

[00:27:56] And so we got some customers through that through, they were just like aware of Mode. We talked to them as to who they were, we didn't market to them. We just got to talk to them in a way that they wanted to be talked to.

[00:28:06] We got some customers through traditional kind of launch stuff. When you first launch a product, there's gonna be a lot of people who are just like cool, a new thing. I want to poke at it. And then we got a handful of customers from people we knew were coming from like the analytics space ourselves. We knew people in the analytics market.

[00:28:23] We knew, you know, people we could talk to that were in different teams. Those were like a lot of cases. The early research customer research we did, we're talking to those folks, and we've got a product out and some ways we had built it for them. Whereas. These are the things they said they wanted and we went out and built them.

[00:28:36] And so I think that was the, you know, using your own kind of personal network for, for our customer base initially is often going to be the easiest way to go.

[00:28:43] Omer: So one of the things we talked about before we started recording and it's kind of stuck out for me was when you said, even though all of us come from an analytics background, making decisions quickly is really important for us.

[00:28:55] And more important, I guess, is like committing to that decision. Tell me a little bit about that because it's probably an unfair stereotype, but when you think about founders with analytics, backgrounds, building an analytic product, you could be forgiven for thinking you guys are sitting there with spreadsheets or whatever, to make a lot of these decisions.

[00:29:12] And, and what's, what's the reality of, of how you guys have been approaching how you make decisions.

[00:29:17] Benn: I mean, that's not an unfair characterization. In spirit, I think that is a, the way that we would think essentially, like there, there is an analytical tendency to describe problems in and shades of gray in terms of probabilities, in terms of things that, that may be true or are likely to be true.

[00:29:37] You read the way the analyst writes or the way that's like, it's the way that an economist writes, which is this thing suggests this and this implies that, and this is now likely to happen. And there's a lot of caveating and hedging. And while I think that can be appropriate for sort of describing the way that the world works.

[00:29:56] When you're running a business, it's not like you don't want to run a business on, on caveats and hedges. And so, you know, I think we, we had sort of a constitutional tendency to do that more than we should have. And I think, you know, for, for companies that are, that are in the position we were in, or, you know, any company really, but, but early stages, especially my view now, after having gone through this is the best decision is essentially the one that you make quickly.

[00:30:19] And the one that you stick to. And, sure like, think about it for a bit don't make a terrible one. But in a lot of cases, what matters more than the actual decision you make is, is your commitment to it and, and the speed with which you make it. So, I was talking to another customer, another company that's actually in sort of a similar position with, as, as Mode was, what's kind of balanced between two markets.

[00:30:43] And they were trying to make a decision. That's a smaller company. That's a fairly early-stage thing. I think there are sort of like pre-series A or in the process of raising this. And they were saying like, Hey, we realized we could go this direction. We could go this direction. You know, we're really given a lot of thinking.

[00:30:54] Do you have any advice on what we should do? And my answer to them was if you've thought about it this far, and you don't have an answer yet, it doesn't matter. That if you've spent two months trying to consider this, and there's no clear direction, the thing that matters is you choose one and you stick to it that you could probably make both work both.

[00:31:13] Or, you know, at this point they seem relatively equal on balance. Just choose the one that you're kind of more excited about choose the one that sounds more fun, but choose the one that you could stick to and just stick to it. And, and, you know, there's a lot of ways for companies to be successful, a lot of different products, you could build a lot of different ways you can market it.

[00:31:30] The thing that will make it successful as a commitment to it. Not like you doing the analysis to, to such a degree that, you know, this is going to get it right. Even if you make the right decision, the right decision sort of made in an incomplete or a waffling way is much less likely to be successful than a worse decision that you are fully committed to.

[00:31:49] Omer: Yeah, that's great. All right. So, you talked about these three channels that you acquired the early customers from through the content you were writing, which by the way, I think is taking that approach with like Miley Cyrus and the VMAs and some of the other content that I've seen you, right. If you're a non-analytics person, it's a pretty dry topic.

[00:32:10] And when you can write it in a way where you connect it with real world things, I think it makes it a lot more interesting for the rest of us to go and engage in and read that type of content.

[00:32:22] Benn: One, one other thing I would say about that, and this is a bit of a philosophy in general that I think a lot of people underestimate is how valuable, just something that can be entertaining is. That, that whether or not it's content, whether or not it's, it's the way that it talks get put together, whether or not it's the sort of brand of your product. Whether or not, it's honestly the sort of, in some ways, the way the product interacts, there's a lot of things that, that people think like it needs to be smart. It needs to work really well. I need to say clever things.

[00:32:51] People are drawn to things that they, they enjoy that you're, that are entertaining. And so, a lot of the stuff that we try to do, or like I try to do and content and things like that is, do I want it to make, like, what is the talk that you remembered a conference?

[00:33:03] You don't necessarily remember the one who had like the most novel ideas on their sides. And a lot of cases, you remember the one that was major where you didn't look at your phone for half an hour. And so I think, I think there is, there is a under-appreciation, a lot of cases. And, and how companies think about what it is they're doing by not recognizing that your customers are people and people will respond to things that are retaining or things that are emotional or those kinds of things much more strongly than they'll respond to, you know, the most clever ideas.

[00:33:30] Omer: It's a good lesson for founders who want to do content marketing, but either they feel like I don't know what to write about, or they are in a space where they feel like, well, whatever I'm going to write is going to be pretty dry. Content is not going to be that interesting. I think what you've done is show them that you can take a whole bunch of stuff.

[00:33:50] And mash it together and create something interesting. I know you still do a lot of writing. How do you come up with ideas to make them interesting?

[00:33:58] Benn: So how do you, so part of it is, it's sort of the ideas for the things, in general, like, you know, what is the subject of the post? You have to talk to people that ideas come from having conversations with people from participating in sort of community conversations.

[00:34:14] Like basically you, as you do that, you start to have sort of seeds of ideas and things like that in your head. And then every conversation you have, you start to realize like, oh, I can connect this and connect that like ideas have to form from other people, not just from yourself. So, I think, I think a big part of it is sort of keeping stuff loaded in the back of your head a lot of times and just kind of seeing where you can start to tie those ideas to other things you've seen.

[00:34:36] In terms of like, how do you tell the stories around it and stuff like that? I think, I don't know. I think part of that is like trying to do something that is entertaining to yourself. That to go back to the, to the Jia Tolentino quote I had at the beginning that that's kind of where I try to do this is like, what is it that, that I wouldn't hate to read?

[00:34:53] You know? Like what sort of stories do I want to tell what sort of things would be kind of interesting? What sort of things do I have fun writing? Because it's telling something that I think is interesting. Like, if you hate writing it, people are gonna hate reading it. And so I think you've gotta, gotta approach it a little bit of like, let yourself have some fun.

[00:35:10] And then hopefully that translates into, to it being fun for the people who, who are seeing that. I'm sure there's some sort of version of this, this idea. And like, I am not an actor or anything by any means or performers, but, but the people who are, you know, musicians or actors, I'm sure there's some version of like, do it for a way where you're enjoying it. And like the audience can tell if you're having fun versus if you're you're up there because you have to be. And I think, I think you have to kind of start for some of that and writing and giving talks and whatever else.

[00:35:40] Omer: Yeah. And, and I don't think it's just by writing from when we were talking. I think this is the way you also think about choosing what to work on.

[00:35:46] Benn: Yeah, for sure. There's and there is a big part of, one of the, the kind of, I think, underappreciated questions in deciding what project to work on or which role do you want to, you want to do within a startup when it's really small and you can kind of pull monitor directions, or even if you startup should start a company at all.

[00:36:05] Is, does it sound fun. Like in any of these things that you're committing a lot of work to, it needs to be kind of fun because there's going to be times when it's not, there's gonna be times when it feels like you're losing. There's gonna be times when it's a grind. There's gonna be times when, like you just, aren't motivated to get up in the morning to do it.

[00:36:22] And, and if you don't like it, if there's nothing about it, that's fun, you are going to really struggle in those moments. And if you do think it's fun, kind of the opposite is true, where you're like, even in those times, it's hard, you're gonna be excited to do it. You're going to do a better job of it.

[00:36:33] It's like finding something that you enjoy and this isn't, this isn't just like a sort of cliche, like do a job that you enjoy the type of thing. It's, it's more finding something that you can find that kind of internal motivation. Is really important in, in any of these kinds of longer-term endeavors. I think it's particularly true in starting a company, which is, you know, there are, there are dark moments in that process.

[00:36:53] And if you can't tie it to something sort of intrinsic about what you're doing, but that's because you enjoy the day to day or whether or not it's because, you know, you're just really motivated to try to solve the problem. If it doesn't work. Those, those dark moments are just sort of all the dark.

[00:37:07] Omer: I think many of us end up working on projects or businesses that we think lead to happiness if you're miserable along the way then and I think it's also this, this idea of, if you're going to be building a startup, it's a marathon. Right. And if you really don't care that much about it, and it's not something that raises your energy, it's going to be really hard to keep doing that day in, day out, year after year.

[00:37:31] Benn: Yeah. And this is actually, I was just talking to someone recently about this, that there's, this there's this like meme or something that I've seen that, that says something along the lines of being an adult is, is telling yourself it'll calm down next week, every day until the day you die. And that's, that's kind of a startup, is this sense of alright nails the crazy moment.

[00:37:52] Like once we finally get through this quarter, or once we launched this feature, or once we closed this round, or once we hire this person, like, all right, that's, that's the moment that it'll start to calm. And, and it's sort of this series of mirages that, that each one of those things leads to the next where like, it never really calms down.

[00:38:10] But it's easy. I think to, to tell yourself that it's easy to think, like I just need to push through this last little bit and then it'll it'll happen. I think honestly, it's taken me a really long time to kind of internalize that. And, and one of the things that changed that is now, as you mentioned, I, I do basically more like back to the roots of what I did is doing more writing and stuff.

[00:38:31] And so I, I write a thing that I tried to publish once a week. And that's nail like an indefinite commitment that makes it obvious that no, the thing that I did this week, I'm gonna do it next week. I'm gonna the following day, the following week, this isn't a sort of hill to get over where it's like, once I finish this, then it'll calm down.

[00:38:48] It's it's no, it's it's every week, there's an ask for the same thing and I have to do it. And I think like that is life at a startup. It's an ask for something every week that you got to do. They're not gonna be the same ask by any means. It's usually a totally different one every week, but every week is going to have that, that hill to climb and so you have to be excited about the prospect of climbing the hill, not the view from the top, cause you never really get it.

[00:39:08] Omer: Yep. All right, great. On that note, I think let's wrap up and move on to the lightning round. So, I've got seven quick-fire questions for you.

[00:39:17] Benn: All right let's do it.

[00:39:19] Omer: Alright. What's the best piece of business advice you've ever received?

[00:39:22] Benn: Honestly, it's probably, I don't know that I've had like catchy version of it, probably something along the lines of these make decisions and sort of make a decision that you commit to versus versus the right one or, you know, hang up on the right one. You know, I think, I think that's, that's just such an easy thing to get stuck on and to internalize that, like, it doesn't matter as much what we do and just let go of the difficult decision and move on with it takes a lot, but I think that's, that's a really, really viable thing to do. If you can do it.

[00:39:48] Omer: What book would you recommend to our audience and why?

[00:39:50] Benn: Let me come back to that one.

[00:39:51] Omer: What's one attribute or characteristic in your mind of a successful founder?

[00:39:56] Benn: I think that like flexibility really, and, and a willingness to recognize that sort of the terrain underneath is always gonna be changing and kind of comfort in that, you know, If you're too rigid in, in any kind of direction, the whole thing's going to fall apart.

[00:40:10] And so I think, I think founders who are very flexible, willing to kind of roll with the punches and be calm in those moments can really do a lot for, for keeping the company calm, keeping the company, stable founders that freak out and make everybody freak out or founders that are super chill about everything can make everything everybody's super chill about everything.

[00:40:27] Flexibility in those sorts of moments that nothing is too high, nothing is too low that I think really sets the right tone.

[00:40:32] Omer: What's your favorite personal productivity tool or habit?

[00:40:36] Benn: Muting Slack threads. So, I mean, I have all sorts of beef with Slack. I want to enumerate them here, but muting Slack channels to me is an extremely valuable thing that I strongly encourage anybody to do.

[00:40:50] It's the only way to like actually get any sort of focus and pay attention to things you need to pay attention to instead of kind of just reading the, the noise of everything happening in the company all the time.

[00:41:00] Omer: What's a new, old, crazy business idea. You'd love to pursue if you had the extra time?

[00:41:04] Benn: There's plenty of ideas and sort of like the data space. These aren't really new were crazy. This is like a small thing that is not like fun idea, but there's a lot of, a lot of data tools are out there today. A lot of them basically kind of, they drive up costs and all sorts of ways. I think there's a lot of, a lot of space for data tools that help you manage how much it costs to actually run other data.

[00:41:25] We have basically spent no time figuring out how much data tooling costs. And I think there's, there's actually a pretty big opportunity for, for basically going in and saying, Hey, you buy this tool and guess what? We'll automatically save you X dollars a month. The tool that everybody would just buy right off, right off the shelf.

[00:41:40] Omer: What's an interesting or fun fact about you that most people don't know?

[00:41:42] Benn: I play a lot of baseball. I don't know how much people know that. Yeah, I've basically played baseball my whole life, still playing baseball, going to hang on from, from playing baseball and refuse to play softball until my arm falls off.

[00:41:54] So. Looking forward to, to join in the geezer leagues at 70, still attempting to pretend to be an athlete.

[00:42:01] Omer: And finding what's one of your most important passions outside of your work?

[00:42:05] Benn: Actually, that baseball in a lot of ways is a big part of, it's been a big part of my life in a lot of ways. I think it's, for me, it's important to have a like competitive outlet, like.

[00:42:15] I think a lot of people actually kind of want that, but end up putting it on their work, which I think is kind of a detrimental thing. It's good for me to have a place where you can go, you can compete and sort of everybody's there for the same competition. If you don't have that. I think you end up starting competing on, on sort of artificial fields, essentially, where you're, you're competing with your coworkers about status.

[00:42:35] You're competing with peers about who's more successful. You're competing with friends about, you know, what jobs you have. And I think having like that kind of competitive outlet to me of a place where you can go, you can, you can have the competition and you can leave it is, is like a really healthy thing.

[00:42:49] Omer: Okay. Are you ready to go back to the book recommendation?

[00:42:52] Benn: Move on it comes to mind is actually a book called “Why are all the black children sitting together in the cafeteria?” It's kind of an academic book, but it's a book by, I believe she's a sociologist about sort of the dynamics of race in America in a way that isn't written.

[00:43:06] And sort of the, like, there's obviously a lot of like conversation about race, especially over the last year and a half. A lot of it's written it's good, but it's written in sort of like for a pop audience in mind, it's written for sort of a mass-market in mind. And this book is, is a bit more of an academic dive into the dynamics that, that are in play and in sort of the racial system in America or the dynamics in America.

[00:43:29] And, and I think it's a really interesting and valuable read because it doesn't present this as trying to tell a story with, with a particular kind of like an emotional attachment to it. It kind of tells it and just like, these are the facts and this is how it is that I think is, is eye-opening and it's tender.

[00:43:47] And it's, it's sort of matter of factness that you don't get in some of the like books on, on race that you typically would read. If, you know, you kind of follow the, the various, like anti-racism reading lists so that people put together now that I think are are good, but, but tend to lean more on emotion than on kind of the historical nature of, of the very problematic system that we have built.

[00:44:12] Omer: Yup. Great. Okay. We'll include a link to that in the show notes. So Ben, thanks. Thanks for joining me and sharing the story of Mode and some of the lessons you guys have learned along the way. If people want to find out more about Mode they can go to mode.com and if folks want to get in touch with you, what's the best way for them to do that.

[00:44:30] Benn: Sure. So. Easiest way ways you can email me my email address. It's just benn[at]mode[dot]com. And you can or reach out on Twitter, which my Twitter handle is @bennstancil. Benn with two Ns. And then most of the stuff we're talking about, like the, the various writing and things like that it's on Substack. And so that's just benn[at]substack[dot]com.

[00:44:48] Omer: Great. Thank you. And I wish you and the team the best of success.

[00:44:51] Benn: Thanks. Thanks for having me. This is great.

[00:44:53] Omer: Cheers. Thanks for listening. I hope you enjoyed this episode.

[00:44:58] If you enjoyed this episode, then I would truly appreciate it. If you took a couple of minutes to give the show a five-star rating and leave a one or two sentences. It's a quick and simple way to show your support for the show and to help new listeners find, to find us. So, thank you for doing that. Until next time, take care.

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