Morten Primdahl is the co-founder of Zendesk, and has been Chief Technology Officer since August 2007. He is involved on all technical levels - all the way from the web pages to the application and onwards to the infrastructure components and database.
Prior to co-founding Zendesk, Morten consulted on a number of technology projects, ranging from helping startups establishing a technical platform, to doing heavy duty consulting for online banking systems. Ahead of his talk for Billion Dollar Scale Ups, we asked him about his experiences with Zendesk and the challenges of scaling a team...
How do you retain company culture while scaling a team?
As a founder you see a lot of the business, however as CTO you also see the building blocks of the business — particularly a SaaS based one like Zendesk. We’ve grown so quickly over the last eight or so years that it’s sometimes difficult to keep up. We’re around 900 employees now in 11 offices globally and we've definitely had lots to solve challenges due to the fast growth of the company.
Dealing with people and culture is very hard. You go from a place where everyone is involved in everything, you communicate broadly, and you then move to a need-to-know basis because all of a sudden your financial data becomes sensitive as a public company. The way we’ve tried to retain the company culture as we spread around the world is to try and stay true to our values. We’ve kept things beautifully simple and not forgotten where we came from. We’ve also hired people with the same spirit as us. It’s difficult but if you can communicate, be transparent and be true to your own values as a founder of the business, that goes some way to helping retain the culture of the business.
How do you keep the company from becoming "political" as business functions expand?
Speaking as CTO, we have fully embraced being a global engineering organisation. While it does come with challenges, we find that we can overcome lots of those using communication, spending time face-to-face, having great people and leadership in place, as well as focus and invest in our culture in each and every office. Having globally distributed teams is always going to be a challenge, but if you respect the people you hire and allow them to thrive in the job you’ve hired them to do, give them autonomy and guide but don’t force, it retains the honesty in an organisation.
How do you help people to scale? i.e. from being a manager of a few people to managing many?
Certainly with the engineering organisation, the part I’m most involved with, people can move freely. So if you care more about infrastructure than the front end, or the other way around, we can accommodate that. It’s important to give people that flexibility. People change, their likes and dislikes change and their aspirations change. You just have to learn to respect that and not fight it.
We also want to give people opportunities if they want to take on the responsibility. Sometimes that can mean taking on a management role if maybe they haven’t done that in the past. They need good mentors, people they can work with and learn from. They need to have the right preparation before they move into the new role. It’s all about planning and communication.
How do you structure Product Management to keep building the best possible business?
To be honest, my focus has been on the engineering side of the business and Alex looked after product so I left a lot of that to him. However, I would echo what I said earlier about hiring the right people. You need to have different opinions and you need to have people who can challenge you in all areas of the business because there is not one single owner of the best ideas in a business. Also, you need to listen to your customers; they will tell you what they want from your product. We continue to take on board feedback from our customers when thinking of the product roadmap.
What are the toughest lessons that you have learned?
The single biggest lesson for me was to remove the blinkers. When you’re building a business and there are just a few of you doing everything, it’s very easy to keep your head down and just get on with stuff. If I could go back to when we started, I would tell myself to lift my head up and take a moment to think about the business, where is it heading? What challenges are we facing? Is the thing I’m working on the best for the business in the long term?
Another tough lesson was that if you move a business to another country you have no experience of working in, don’t expect everything to work the same way. We found that in the US particularly when we were looking to hire people. The whole recruiting culture in the US is very different to Denmark.
How do you think about the role of sales teams when deploying digital business?
When we started, we reached our first 10,000 customers without having a sales team. Customers tried the product and if they liked it, they entered their credit card details online. Regardless what business you’re in, digital or otherwise, you need to be able to sell your product or service and when you’re looking to grow you need to invest in sales expertise.
There’s no silver bullet however and each business is very different so you need to figure out the right time for your business to engage a sales function. Some businesses have that from the start, some rely on their digital platform to deliver sales initially and grow the function later. The most important thing for a founder is to lift your head up and climb out of the trench regularly, so you can see where the business is going and plan what you need to get you around the next corner.
How do you retain staff?
Treat them well and give them a purpose. One thing that separates us from some other businesses is our focus on balancing work and life. We work pretty decent, regular hours. People show up at nine, ten and leave at five, six. We’ve never been the company that would go in there and just put that kind of pressure on our employees. They need to enjoy what they do and when they’re happy you can see if in their work, in their output and in their relationships with each other. We believe in balance and sustainability. We want to create a work environment that is, first and foremost, long-term sustainable.