Q&A with Brian White of Intercom

Kehlan talks with Brian White, director of engineering at Intercom, one of Ireland’s best startup stories of recent times. With a billion monthly users for its business messaging service, the company has new development plans.

For anyone who has been living under a rock lately, tell us what Intercom does?

Our mission is to make internet business personal. I think the best way to think about is this: If you go back about 15 or 20 years, businesses by default had to have a personal touch.

You had your coffee shops or your hardware shops where you could see people browsing around. If they needed help or wanted to clarify something, all you had to do was head down to them and ask.

Since then the scale of the internet has grown. With that scaling comes the loss of the ability to know who your customers are. We lost that personal touch. That gap is what we’re trying to close.

A simple example would be that if someone downloads your app or buys your product, there is a good chance that they will know whether or not they like your product within the first eight hours of getting it. Intercom allows you connect them personally to find out.

It has Irish people at its head, but it is an American based company?

Yeah. So we have the headquarters in San Francisco and our R&D facility here in Dublin. We have four Irish founders who started in another consultancy company called Contrast in the mid-2000s.

Contrast was a pretty epic company. I remember reading their blog and thinking I needed to get a job there. I was working at a much smaller company at the time and I remember thinking, “These people are so smart; they know what they’re doing”.

I also thought that I was nowhere near good enough to work there, so I ended up at Amazon. They then set up Sentinel, which was an error tracking application. Around 2008-2009, applications were finding it really hard to scale without errors.

I’m sure a lot of people will remember the twitter ‘fail whale’ of the same time. So Sentinel provided a constant update on how your application was performing. It was really one of the first of its kind to tackle something like that.

They told me about this problem that came up. Somebody had paid them for the service, a nominal $9 a month.

They emailed out apology service emails every time something went down. One day, they got an email saying, “This is the fourth time I have recently received one of these emails. I don’t know what your product is, I don’t know what it does, but seems to be down all the time”.

So this was someone who had just signed up but never really used the service and was getting emails irrelevant to them. So they got this idea to create an in-app message to customers. Turns out it was one of the first in-app messages ever to be sent.

Now it’s possible to get updates directly from the customer about their experience by contacting them. It saves time for you and lets the customer provide instantaneous feedback on the product. From that grew Intercom.

There are Facebook and Slack as well. What makes you different?

For us, it’s about how customers want to talk to companies. With the likes of Facebook and their messenger service, it’s designed to keep you on their platform.

Facebook is never going to build a Twitter integration into their platform, that would take people away from them to another messaging service.

For us, the channel doesn’t matter, what does matter is that you are able to reach the people that you need to. We’re always experimenting with using new channels. So if it’s Facebook or Twitter or SMS, it doesn’t matter to us.

Convenience for the user is what matters.

People want to buy online, but they still want a personal touch too?

Yeah, it’s a really important route for us. Perhaps we don’t sell that aspect of things event to our own customers, but it’s very important. For example, we’ve just launched out new messaging service, which is really slick.

As part of it, companies can connect Twitter profiles or LinkedIn profiles to their chat session with customers. This doesn’t have anything to do with getting them more followers, but actually to show that there is a real person behind the online interaction.

If you browse the web these days you get these little pop-ups where you’re asked to ‘talk to us’. They have those stock photos of somebody on a headset. We really want to change that. People want to trust you and speak to the person behind what they just bought.

Is there then a constant reassessment of Intercom and how it works?

One of the things that was a surprise to me when I arrived at Intercom was the level of autonomy that was given to people and teams.

So on the Intercom platform, we sell a range of products. Each one of those products has been designed and built by a single group of people. It’s quite a mix of skill sets in each.

We’ll have people from research, analytics and product design. It’s really up the team to develop how something is built and what happens to it next. Customers will say we need this, to do X, Y and Z.

It will be up to us to interpret that and develop a product accordingly. It’s a really satisfying thing to see when you work with a bunch of really smart people to make something work and then have people buy into that too.

What can we see from you in the next phase for Intercom?

We’ll continue to iterate on what we’ve got, but I think there is still really interesting areas to come where we’ll be inventing new stuff. We talk a lot about first principles.

So any new area that we move into, we work really hard to go from what’s real problems that we’re trying to solve here and what’s the first principles approach.

We don’t want to build a better version of something that someone else has built. We want to figure out what the problem is and then figure out the best way to solve it.

There are some pretty exciting new sides of the products that will come along soon enough. Even in themes and strands connected with the product, I’m expecting some exciting things.

We always considered ourselves as competing with consumer software. We don’t see ourselves as competing with enterprise grand software.

We very much see ourselves as consumer grade software that just so happens to be targeted at enterprise. You won’t have to wait long to find out about some great things we’ve got planned.

For more information: www.intercom.io


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