Learning to Take the Lead: Why Sometimes it Makes Sense to Ignore Your Customers

This is Part II of OpenView’s interview with Dennis R. Mortensen, founder of artificial intelligence company x.ai. You can check out Part I here.

Dennis R. Mortensen spent nearly 20 years of his entrepreneurial career in enterprise ventures. Throughout those two decades, he came to understand that, in order to run a successful enterprise company, you truly have to love every single customer.

“You almost have a personal relationship with every one of your customers. You’ve certainly visited their offices, you’ve shaken their hands, you’ve been out to dinner with them, and if they are not happy, your only job is to make them happy,” said Dennis.

But, running an enterprise business is nothing like running his consumer-facing x.ai, an artificial intelligence company that provides an AI-powered personal assistant to schedule meetings for its users. This transition has been a positive learning experience for Dennis, one that he’s slowly coming to terms with.

“Let’s take something that’s extremely successful on the consumer side, the iPhone. Every single day, there will be a user of the iPhone who’ll tell the world, ‘This is the shittiest phone I’ve ever seen.’ First of all, that’s just not true. You’ve seen shittier phones in your life before, but the statement is out there now. And there’s just not room or time to go and persuade this one customer that it’s actually a really great phone. But, if you could spend just one hour with that one customer, you could possibly persuade them that it is a great phone and not, in fact, the shittiest phone in the world. And this is exactly the tactic you would apply in an enterprise SaaS business where the price point is high. ”

Unfortunately, in the world of B2C there’s just not room for the level of personal attention Dennis would like to pay to each customer.

“At x.ai, we have tens of thousands of prospective customers on our wait list, almost all of whom I’ll never know. That’s a feeling that I have to get used to—that I probably can’t please everybody, that I probably can’t know everybody, that there won’t be room enough or PowerPoints enough or dinners enough for me to persuade everybody to love our product. That really takes some emotional effort for me to move to that paradigm. I have to come to terms with the fact that there may one day be a user who will say Amy [x.ai’s scheduling robot] is an idiot, when I just know that’s not the case.”

Training Himself to Think Differently

While Dennis isn’t convinced that x.ai is purely a B2C play, it’s certainly unlike any B2B company he’s run previously.

“I’m not sure we are completely consumer. Is Dropbox a consumer company or not? That’s actually a hard question to answer. I’m sure most of their revenue is derived from the enterprise, but their profile is certainly ‘consumerish’. The same could be said of x.ai. We’re probably going to end up in the same boat as Dropbox—we have a ‘consumerish’ profile and, at first our revenue is likely to come from individuals (albeit business) users and not the the enterprise. However, that is likely to change as we go to market.

Whether x.ai is squarely a consumer-facing company remains to be seen, but something that has been made abundantly clear to Dennis during his transition from running an enterprise company to a consumer-facing one is that in B2C, you simply can’t listen to your customers in the same way.

“You have to dictate to some extent. For example, at x.ai, we are very much believers in the idea of invisible software—there is nothing to install; Amy only exists in dialogue with our customers. But some of our users have requested to be blind copied for every meeting Amy sets. We do this only for the first three meetings just to make sure our customers get some understanding of how Amy communicates with their employees, their partners, and their customers. If we continued to blind copy the customer after that third time, it would actually be a disservice. X.ai is supposed to alleviate some of the stress in your inbox, not add to it. So I listen to what our customers ask for, but I simply shouldn’t follow through on every single request.”

If x.ai were a full enterprise play, Dennis notes that he’d “build an ‘always bcc me’ option in a set of preferences customers could toggle on and off.” But, in the world of consumer (or ‘consumerish’), Dennis has learned that it’s about making a set of calls and sticking by those beliefs.

Check back next month for Part III in this series.

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