Customer First Startups - An Introduction


Welcome to the inaugural article of Customer First Startups. This series will provide some new information for those who are considering joining a startup for the first time, and a platform for discussion for those who are working at startups and aspiring to be customer-centric. There are dozens of books, podcasts, articles, and LinkedIn posts about what it means to be customer-centric, but most of it is from the perspective of enterprise business with loads of people, resources, infrastructure, and processes.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of challenges to implementing customer success best practices and a customer-centric approach in an enterprise or established business. However, depending on the stage of the startup, you may find yourself with very few of those coveted resources. And most of the advice out there assumes you have them.

First: If you haven’t worked at a startup before, here are some things to know…

  1. Startups at their essence are scrappy. You can’t do everything you’d like to; you have to be able to prioritize and do the most valuable thing for you and your customer. One of the challenges is that the “most valuable thing” can change daily (if you let it), so you need some frameworks to help focus your energy. One of the most useful frameworks that I’ve run across is based on product and user complexity by Jennifer Chiang in “Startup’s Guide to Customer Success”, if you haven’t read her book, do yourself a favor and order it now. (We’ll have the opportunity to dig into the book with Jennifer in an interview soon.)
  2. Startups move fast and there are lots of opportunities. The ability to adapt is a key skill working in an early-stage startup since they evolve and pivot frequently—a famous example of that is the story of Slack pivoting from a B2C interactive game startup to a B2B chat platform, but it happens in small and big ways all the time. You may start at a B2B SaaS that 6 months later becomes B2B2C—requiring entirely different strategies and tactics from onboarding to engagement for your new customer segment.
  3. There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to talking about startups. The genesis story and the background and skills of the founder(s) will tell you the most about the product, the culture, and the company.
  4. The startup stage makes a difference.

Early Stage.

If it is still early stage, the “hats” you’ll wear are highly dependent on who else is there, what you bring to the table or can quickly learn, and what needs to be done. You will focus your efforts at least partially on Onboarding to ensure that your customer’s time to value is as short as possible and as high quality as possible, and then determine your focus based on product and user complexity. (Yep, another plug for Jennifer’s book.)

~Series A and beyond.

If you are starting a Customer Success program in a startup that has been around a few years and has dozens of people on staff, then you are walking into a change management situation as well. That is to say, someone has been doing at least part of the customer success role before you arrived—Sales, Account Managers, Operations, Support, Product, someone. It’s critical to understand the context of who has been filling which parts of the role, as well as an understanding of the customer experience, customer journey, and any key customers/ segments impacting your business. Carlos Quezada, Chief Customer Officer at Aruba, provides a great perspective on this topic and how it led him to focus on developing a Tech Touch program in a recent Customer Success Leadership Network Meetup.


You may find yourself working at a startup that is an international offshoot of an established company branching out. Or an established company that pivoted and is “starting over” with legacy people and systems. Technically, it’s an established business, so you may have access to some resources. But it may also have some similarities to a startup. As a starting point, you’ll want to understand what the relationship between the legacy or main business is and what you need to do in your “startup”. There may be a continuation of culture that you need to shepherd, or alternatively, apply your change management skills to help evolve.

Questions / Things to understand before you join a startup:

There are lots of resources out on the web that discuss negotiation strategies for pay vs equity, so I won’t cover it here. Following are some things you may not know to ask about…

  1. Infrastructure.

What tools are they using? How do they communicate? Where are files kept? What processes do they have around documentation, team meetings, data, and (insert here). If no processes are currently set up, how does it happen today? What is the architecture and access to data about how the customer is using the product? (This impacts what metrics and measurement you can implement to understand customer usage and adoption.) Is there a budget for new tools? Who is involved in the decision-making process?

  1. New Employee Onboarding.

How are new employees onboarded? If you’re starting at an early-stage startup, you may be supplying your own desk at home or ordering and building your desk on your first day (or whenever it arrives). What about a computer, or a cell phone? Find out if there’s a process, budget, stipend, or reimbursement for all of these. How will you be paid and how often? (Especially important if you are working for an international company.)

  1. Culture.

Some companies put a ping pong table and snacks in the kitchen and call it “culture”. However, new companies have the opportunity to work in new ways and take on best practices if they choose to be intentional. Diverse teams have been shown to lead to more profitable products and companies, which is where you want to be. Tech companies can be among the least diverse workplaces, but they don’t need to be. It’s in your best interest to observe and ask what they’re concretely doing in their hiring practices to ensure diverse hires. Who is on their board and executive team? Transparency and pay equity are good signs that a company is thoughtful about OKRs, and it’s easiest to implement in a new company before there are any irregularities to fix, so it’s worth your time to understand their plans around transparency too.

There are countless books and articles connecting customer-centric and employee-centric best practices to profits and successful companies, so this will be part of the discussion in our series too.


What thoughts or questions did this article bring up? Are you working at a customer-centric startup? Tell me more! I’d love to hear from you — Contact me on LinkedIn