On customer success, angel investing, and motivation with Annie Tsai, COO of Interact and investor at The House FundFeatured

I spoke with @Meannie, COO of Interact, which helps companies leverage quizzes for lead generation. Interact has over 60K customers globally. Annie is also a part time partner with The House Fund, investing in UC Berkeley founders. Previously, she founded ETCL, EdioLabs, and CXPBootcamp and was the Chief Customer Officer of DoubleDutch, Chief Marketing Officer of Demandforce, and director of customer experience and marketing strategy at PGi. Annie shared her advice for founders, angel investors, leaders, and mentors. What is the biggest mistake founders make around customer success?This depends a lot on stage. But, in general founders tend to think about customer success as a cost structure as opposed to a way to accelerate growth. Specific to Customer Success, founders often make these mistakes: Hiring too late: Don’t wait until you already have a book of customers to bring on your first CSM. You need to design the customer lifecycle thoughtfully and with purpose. Bringing someone on too late means that you aren’t setting your program or your customer up for success and your CSM will be playing catchup for longer than necessary (also increases churn). We call it the firefighter CSM.Hiring for price and not skill: Lots of founders try to find the cheapest resource first. That makes sense. One way where you can reduce your cost risk is by bringing on an advisor that’s familiar with go-to-market and customer success program design. They can help you understand what the must-haves are for your specific product and customer right now, and what you need to be designing for from a “now” vs “scale” perspective. Then you can hire someone more junior to execute that plan. Hiring for support instead of success when you needed success instead of support: Assuming that success will solve the problems that product/market fit gaps createdAssuming customer success is a saas thing onlyWhat are your recommendations for starting in angel investing?Start with your network. Twitter has become a pretty great channel for angel sourcing. You can start with small checks - as low as $1k. My smallest check has been $5k. What have you learned as an investor that you have brought to your work as an operator and founder?Everyone experiences pretty much the same challenges, just at different stages and at different scale. The lessons you learn at big companies can apply to small startups as long as you are reframing in the right way. My job is to ask the questions and to help make sure the people I advise are thinking about their problems in the right way. I’m not here to solve problems for them, but I am here to help them understand what it is they are truly experiencing and what are the different ways in which they can go about solving those problems. There is a lot to learn from what others have done. What motivates you even after you have achieved success?I think it depends on what the definition of success is. I tend to break big wins down into many smaller wins to keep me going. Everything builds on each other. The most important thing for me is to remain grateful that I even have the opportunity to do a lot of what I have access to today. Lots of people don’t have the ability to choose their paths, and I don’t take that for granted for a second. So a lot of what I focus on is finding manageable ways to help others. In my mom group recently I was able to review pitch decks for 5 founders. Even though I’ve already written all the angel checks I’m going to write for the year, this is something that I can do with the limited time that I have without benefit to me. A while ago I wrote this blog post on medium about the idea of building an ecosystem of success around me, and that was what a well-lived life would look like as I lay on my deathbed. I think that still holds true. What is the most surprising thing you have learned about leadership?I coach a lot of new managers on this, and it was something that I had to learn too - leadership is not about leading from the front, it’s definitely not about knowing the answers - it’s about understanding all the tools in that toolbox (including the unique role that you can play) for every situation and putting people in the position to do what they do best together. You can call it removing roadblocks, you can call it collaborative leadership - people call it a lot of things. The hard thing about being a great leader is taking the time to really understand each person on that team - their strengths, their weaknesses, their triggers, what excites them - and giving them the ability and room to do what they do best in any given situation. The second surprising thing about leadership I learned in my journey and coach new managers on is that leadership and management are very different things. Each plays an important role in an organization. You don’t need to be a manager to be a leader. I think companies are better off when there are leaders at every level of an organization influencing culture, collaboration, and communication. Managers on the other hand require specific skills and have accountability structures in place towards driving against operational and strategic goals. Not every great leader will make a great manager. Many great leaders will drown in management and hate you for it. It’s important to make sure that you don’t rabbit hole your early leaders into thinking that the only way they can be important strategically important in a company is by going into management. Because it’s not. What is your advice for other mentors?Mentorship is a tricky thing. A lot of people say they want mentors right now but what they want and need is so varied. Some people just want an ear. Others want to be told the answer. Many want access to your network before there’s mutual trust which can be a really big and unearned ask. I maintain that there is a difference between a mentor and a champion, and what most people (especially at medium to large companies) will benefit from in the shorter term is having a champion inside their company who can advocate for them in their career trajectory. You need someone in the room who can influence a decision or put you on a project. Mentors sometimes can have this type of impact but often are too far removed from the mentee’s world in order to materially and positively impact career trajectory. Where a mentor can shine is being so removed from the day to day that they can help extrapolate true root causes to tensions or challenges that mentee is facing, bringing in points of view that maybe that person has yet to discover or be exposed to, or asking the really hard questions. If the mentor is also in a parallel field, they can offer tactical options to trying - tools, parameters, tests the mentee can run. Ways to approach a problem, etc. Again, this really depends on what that mentee needs and making sure there’s a clear understanding of that upfront. (and yes, those needs evolve over time)