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Leading a startup during a pandemic: 5 lessons from 5 founders

We sat down (virtually) with some inspiring founders for our new startups podcast. Find out what they had to say about customer experience, empathy and hope for the future.

By Sarah Olson, Senior Associate, Content Marketing, @seolson5

Published August 10, 2020
Last updated August 10, 2020

You might say this is one of the worst possible times to be growing a business, but that’s not necessarily the case.

On our new Sit Down Startup podcast, we talked to founders about how a customer-focused approach can help you thrive even as the world transforms before your eyes. They shared their thoughts on customer experience, empathy and hope as we look to the future.

Read on for a few lessons from some inspiring founders.

Listen to the Sit Down Startup podcast

From one home office to another, Zendesk leaders chat with founders, CEOs, and makers on their startup journey. You can subscribe to the Sit Down Startup podcast via Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.

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  1. Lead with your heart

    James Gutierrez is the Founder and CEO of Aura, a startup that provides credit-building loans to people who are underbanked or credit invisible, meaning they don’t have any recognized credit history.

    Not having a credit score excludes people from important benefits like renting certain apartments, getting lower rates on auto insurance or being approved for mortgage loans, Gutierrez explained.

    “Aura is about fairness and leading with our heart and compassion and bringing people into the system,” Gutierrez said on the podcast.

    “We always say that our community may not have formal collateral, but they have moral collateral.”
    James Gutierrez, Founder and CEO, Aura

    Driven by their compassion, they knew they needed to help their customers who are facing job loss due to the pandemic. After talking directly to customers, they created a “pay what you can” program that allows borrowers to reduce their monthly payment amount or even skip a payment if needed.

    This was an easy decision, Gutierrez said, because Aura truly believes in their customers.

    “We always say that our community may not have formal collateral, but they have moral collateral. They really want to pay back [their loans],” he said.

    Listen to the full conversation to find out how they plan to keep growing.

  2. Build a community for your customers

    Derek Anderson is the Co-Founder and CEO of Startup Grind, a global community for educating and connecting entrepreneurs.

    Before the pandemic, Startup Grind regularly hosted in-person events where entrepreneurs could learn and connect with each other. Obviously, those events came to a screeching halt when COVID-19 set in.

    But it hasn’t been entirely bad, Anderson said on the podcast. They’ve seen their virtual events this year draw nearly 10x as many attendees as their in-person events last year, expanding their reach beyond anything they could have imagined.

    “At no time in the history of humankind have people been more lonely than they are today.”
    Derek Anderson, Co-Founder and CEO, Startup Grind

    Especially now, people are longing for a sense of community and human connection.

    “At no time in the history of humankind have people been more lonely than they are today,” Anderson said on the podcast. “Building a community is a way to bring similar-valued people together under a common thread of interest or beliefs or shared passion or business pursuits.”

    These communities can be good for business too. Listen to this episode to learn more.

  3. Invest in your customer support team

    Elisa Reggiardo is the Chief Brand Officer of Tymeshift, a workforce management solution that helps customer support teams share information, making life easier for agents and improving team performance.

    Reggiardo has spent her entire career in support-related roles, so she is in a unique position to make the case for prioritizing customer support.

    “I like to say support agents are worth their weight in gold,” Reggiardo said on the podcast. “None of [our work] would happen if they weren’t there for our customers.”

    In the midst of a pandemic, when many support teams have had to pivot to remote work, having a workforce management tool can help keep your support running smoothly–for both agents and customers.

    “I like to say support agents are worth their weight in gold.”
    Elisa Reggiardo, Chief Brand Officer, Tymeshift

    “It doesn’t sound super fun,” Reggiardo said on the podcast, “But actually, it is so important for CX teams to have a tool that allows them to have the right person at the right place doing the right thing.”

    Listen to the rest of the conversation to see how you can help your support team thrive by providing transparent information.

  4. Know when to change your roadmap

    Anthony Kelly is the Co-Founder and Chief Customer Officer at Glofox. They create gym management software for fitness entrepreneurs and enterprises.

    Due to the pandemic, many gyms have pivoted to online classes. But according to Kelly, they have had to rely on cumbersome solutions, such as manually emailing class links to customers.

    Glofox saw an urgent need among their customer base, so they paused everything on their product roadmap and started building an integrated live streaming and on-demand video solution into their software.

    “You have to be able to adapt and build products and services for customers that they need right now.”
    Anthony Kelly, Co-Founder and Chief Customer Officer, Glofox

    “You have to be able to adapt and build products and services for customers that they need right now, not what they needed a couple of years ago,” Kelly explained on the podcast.

    The effort paid off, and they were able to draw more new businesses and migrations as a result of their new streaming capabilities.

    “My personal philosophy is that when the customer wins, we all win.” Kelly said.

    Listen to the episode to find out how Glofox’s focus on customer feedback is propelling its international growth.

  5. Immerse yourself in the customer experience

    Guillaume Moubeche is the Co-Founder and CEO of Lemist, an email outreach platform that helps businesses and sales teams get noticed.

    Business leaders have been wondering whether it’s appropriate to make a sales pitch during the pandemic, when many businesses are stressed and strapped for resources.

    Moubeche explained that now is an important time to reach out to both prospects and current customers.

    “In times of crisis, people are going to face new challenges, so actually they’re going to need help,” he explained. “Selling is about helping people.”

    But he emphasized that salespeople should be empathetic and really try to understand the needs of the person they are reaching out to.

    “In times of crisis, people are going to face new challenges, so actually they’re going to need help.”
    Guillaume Moubeche, Co-Founder and CEO, Lemlist

    One way to do that, according to Moubeche, is to spend time resolving customer support tickets. He spends about half an hour a week on tickets, and these conversations fuel everything from sales to product development.

    “I really enjoy talking to everyone,” he said. “You get insights about your product and how to make it something people really want and really need.”

    Tune in to this episode for more tips to help make your customer communications count.

Customer experience is everyone’s job

A common theme that emerged from our conversations on the Sit Down Startup podcast is that, pandemic times or not, customers are everything. Talk to your customers often, listen deeply and with empathy, and then do everything you can to try to help them—even if it means abandoning your entire product roadmap for a while.

Customer experience is everyone’s job, but it’s not always an easy one. The right tools and training can help with that. With our Zendesk for Startups program, you can get access to free software, tailored resources and a growing network of startups you can connect with as you tackle CX challenges together.

Apply here for the Zendesk for Startups program.