The relentless march of technological improvement means that by their very nature technology businesses fail.
That’s why as founders, product people, marketer – or whatever our role is – we need to be acutely aware of all the different technological shifts happening in the industry and consistently ask ourselves if and how these things actually affect us? This is not just some dry strategic exercise. If you don’t do it your business could die an awful lot quicker than you expect.
It is the nature of our industry, it is the nature of technology, that every product dies. That’s a very morbid thought, but if you don’t believe me on that, page me, or fax me, or write me up something on your typewriter. They were all epic businesses once upon a time, but they are no more.
Death is on my mind for a lot of reasons. It is the nature of every technology to die. It is the nature, therefore, of a lot of technology businesses to die, which leaves you with an eternal question – how can we stay alive?
I wasn’t always so morbid. When myself and my cofounders Eoghan, David and Ciaran signed Intercom’s incorporation papers in San Francisco in 2011, we were pretty optimistic back then. Intercom has been something of a roller coaster. But a very good roller coaster – real Six Flags stuff.
Above is a graph of one of our metrics – homepage traffic. There’s been a few different phases at Intercom, and the ones I can roughly identify are the phase when the product is being born, the phase where we had to then go and grow the product, and lastly the phase where we have to survive. The latter is where we’re thinking: “Okay, we’ve made something. How do we stay relevant in technological cycle after cycle after cycle?”
Put another way, we have to make it work, we have to make it grow, and then we have to keep it relevant. We have to give folks a reason why they should continue to use Intercom. Today we have more than 15,000 customers, tens of millions of dollars in revenue, and $116 million raised. All of these things should be cause for celebration, but the reality is we’ve never felt more vulnerable. We spent so long hoping something could come along and exist, that when it began to exist we were like, “Holy shit, what if it goes away?”
I get that sense in part because I’ve put a seventh of my life into Intercom (which makes me 35, I’ll save you the math). That’s a significant chunk of time to work on anything, and of course the idea that it might one day no longer be around is terrifying.
The weird thing is, this isn’t what we were sold – when we read all the books about startups, and heard how it’s supposed to work. I was always thought the deal with startups was like The Shawshank Redemption. You crawl through 100 yards of shit, and you ’re free. But what it actually is more like is you crawl through 100 yards of shit, and then your options are, much like Andy Dufresne said, “Get busy living or get busy dying.” How do you stay relevant? How do you stay alive?