Stay focused on that 10X vision, especially when things get rocky. There will always be roadblocks — find the way over/under/around those roadblocks.
As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Andy Kurtzig.
Andy Kurtzig is the founder and CEO of JustAnswer. Kurtzig is an established entrepreneur with two successful acquisitions before founding JustAnswer. Kurtzig has been recognized as “One of the Bay Area’s Most Admired CEOs” by the San Francisco Business Times and one of Goldman Sachs “Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs.” Prior to JustAnswer, Kurtzig founded and later sold eBenefits, a cloud-based Human Resources application. eBenefits received funding from established venture capital firms NEA, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, and WR Hambrecht. Before that, Kurtzig developed and sold ANSER, a software program for the newspaper industry, while still in college. Kurtzig is also an angel investor, with successful investments including StubHub (acquired by eBay) and iLike (acquired by MySpace), and an active philanthropist, with a passion for finding a cure for juvenile diabetes. Kurtzig holds a B.S. in Business Administration from UC Berkeley. When he’s not working, Kurtzig’s interests include spending time with his wife and his three children.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I started JustAnswer back in 2003 when my wife was pregnant with our first child and — like so many first-time moms — had tons of questions and concerns at all hours of the day and night. It wasn’t always possible or practical to call her OB/GYN or to wait until her next appointment to get answers to everything she wanted to know. That’s what gave me the idea to develop a site that would help people like my wife to connect with verified and vetted doctors (and all kinds of professionals) to get answers and advice whenever and from wherever they happened to be. Because I’m a programmer and a serial entrepreneur (I’d already started and sold two businesses by that point), it made sense to create this marketplace connecting people with vetted, live experts to solve this problem. Today, we have more than 12,000 experts across more than 700 categories and serve customers in 196 countries.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
The hard times for us started when we made a change in direction after about eight years operating JustAnswer successfully as a lean, boot-strapped organization. It was around that time in 2011–2012 that we decided to raise outside capital and went on to close two rounds of venture funding for a total of 51 million dollars. This decision eventually led to a huge setback for us. Suddenly, with that money burning a hole in our pockets, we felt pressured to take some big risks that were out of character for our company, culture and mission.
For example, we decided to take that investment and pour it into a complete rebrand — a new name (Pearl.com) and a completely new site. Everyone liked the new name and brand … except for the customers. We should have focused on our customers at the beginning. Sales suffered, traffic plummeted and morale tanked when the transition ultimately didn’t work.
Believe me, it’s really hard to admit we made some big mistakes, but that’s what I had to do. Eventually in 2014 (two years after the rebrand) we announced a return to the original brand. In order to save the business, we had to drastically scale back, returning to the previous discipline of our earlier years — that included laying off the staff we had hired who were no longer a fit. That of course had ripple effects and we ended up losing some of the people we wanted to keep. But the whole ordeal set us back significantly for a few years after 2014, as we rebuilt the momentum and growth rate of our earlier years.
Throughout this transition and rebuilding period, it was definitely not fun. In fact it was painful. I remember speaking to my mentor and Board member Charles Schwab at this time and he told me: “Andy — This is the part where you have to grind it out.” And ultimately that’s what it took to get through it and come out the other side. We put our heads down, nose to the grindstone and did the hard work to return to our earlier, hungry and customer-focused mentality.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Our core values at JustAnswer started out as “Smart and Fun”. Then we hired someone who was really smart and really fun, but didn’t get anything done… So, our core values are now “Smart, fun & get things done!”
He would sit in the corner pontificating about one issue or another, but never actually did anything. It was a lot of fun to debate opportunities with him, but once we had enough information to make a decision and move forward, he would waffle. Ever hear the saying, “good is the enemy of great”? I think he needed 100% confidence before he could move forward, but very few things are perfectly teed up like that in startup life or when you’re trying to do something new.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story illustrating that?
What makes our company truly stand out is that we actually help real people every day, sometimes in life-changing ways or life-saving situations. Being able to connect people with an expert who can answer questions and provide critical, educated and personalized advice to help them solve real life problems in real time without having to leave their home or pay hundreds of dollars an hour means we are truly making a difference in people’s lives.
Literally every day we hear dozens of stories from customers illustrating how much we’ve helped them with important problems in their lives. For example, recently one of our JustAnswer legal experts advised a woman about legal custody and guardianship issues involving her grandson whom she was trying to enroll in school while removing the child from a volatile home situation. Or just last weekend, we had a woman who found a four-week-old kitten under her home on a Saturday. A Veterinarian on our spent most of the weekend giving her personalized instructions on how to keep the newborn alive via dropper feeding, etc. until she could get him into an offline vet on Monday. That vet told our customer that JustAnswer saved the kitten’s life. We have another Expert in the relationship and parenting category who has personally helped stressed out parents navigate the strain of digital device addiction, depression and anxiety in homebound children and teens during the pandemic.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
My biggest tip is to start a business you truly, authentically enjoy. It’s just critical to love what you do. JustAnswer is my hobby as well as my job, so I wake up every morning eager to go to “work”! It’s fun to help customers and create a better future for them.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story involving them?
Charles Schwab has been a great mentor, friend, investor and board member for over 10 years. I vividly remember, after our layoffs in 2014, I met with Chuck to talk about the turnaround strategy and he said… “Andy — This is the part where you grind it out. It won’t always be fun, but just keep moving forward and you’ll make it through.” He was right. And, those words helped me power through the tough times.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?
Good companies provide 10% more value to their customers than alternatives. Great companies provide 10X more value to their customers. Amazon is a great company. Google is a great company. Tesla is a great company.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Culture Matters. Be clear about your culture. Hire only culture fits — No exceptions. I still interview nearly every candidate (even fresh out of college) before we hire them.
- Mission Matters. Why are you and your team working so hard? (Hint: It’s not for the salary) Most people want to make a positive impact in the world and it’s important to stay focused on that. JustAnswer’s mission is: “We help people” That’s what we do all day long. Consumers come to JustAnswer with their problems and the Experts solve their problems. We also help Experts put their knowledge to work.
- Have a clear vision of what 10X better looks like for your customers. The customer defines how much progress you’re making towards 10X. Test, test, test. I’m not Steve Jobs and can’t build for five years before putting a product in customers hands. Get a simple product in customers hands ASAP, then learn from them.
- Stay focused on that 10X vision, especially when things get rocky. There will always be roadblocks — find the way over/under/around those roadblocks.
- Break the 10X into a series of hypotheses, so you can start making progress this week. If A is true and B is true and C is true and D is true, then we’ll be 10X better. Now, go figure out how to make A true.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?
One less often cited benefit for becoming a purpose-driven business is simply that it’s more fun! As Steve Jobs once told John Sculley (Pepsi Exec at the time), ““Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?”
What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?
My advice to a business leader whose company has stalled out is don’t blame external factors. You need to keep growing and evolving with the business. The moves that worked when you had one employee don’t work anymore at 10 employees. And, those moves don’t work any more at 40 employees. And, those moves don’t work at 100. But, no one shows up at your doorstep and hits you on the head and tells you what or when to change. You need to keep learning and trying different things.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
For us, successful growth and momentum even during tough times always comes down to maintaining a strict focus on the customer, using real data to constantly learn from them — what do they want? What do they not want? Then keep testing and learning and improving your product or service. Keeping this focus and discipline insulates you from turbulence in the market and economic cycles.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
The people part. It’s easy to wake up with a brilliant idea. (in your own head), but it’s really hard to build and maintain a strong culture over time. It reminds me of the African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” You can’t build something that’s 10X better for customers on your own.
As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?
Easy. Test. A lot. Constant A/B testing (and MVT and MAB testing) lets you figure out what resonates with your customer and what doesn’t. Test channels, funnels, prices, packaging… Test everything.
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
We are trying to bring the same intensity to the post-conversion experience as we do with the pre-conversion flow. Think about all the key customer touch points, then test and learn your way to delighted customers at each step along their journey. This is obviously asier said than done, but it’s a must if you’re trying to be 10X like we are.
Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?
The customer defines success with their feet and their wallet. If you want more customers or want them to spend more with you, you have to give exceptional service.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Focus on the customer! What does the customer want? Too many Founder/CEO’s are focused on tax structures (LLC vs C-Corp) or office space or logo’s. If the customer doesn’t want what you sell, you won’t need that other stuff.
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Kindness. Be kind. My wife even made some “Kindness Calendars” recently that we’ve given away to our friends, family and colleagues.
18 — How can our readers further follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!