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“Build an MVP that people want and get it in the hands of customers quickly.” With Douglas Brown & Sammy Courtright

Build an MVP that people want and get it in the hands of customers quickly. The operative word here is ‘quickly.’ Sometimes, you want to wait for the product to be perfect. DON’T WAIT! Watch people interact with your product. It will teach you so much. I used to entertain the idea of not releasing a […]

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Build an MVP that people want and get it in the hands of customers quickly. The operative word here is ‘quickly.’ Sometimes, you want to wait for the product to be perfect. DON’T WAIT! Watch people interact with your product. It will teach you so much. I used to entertain the idea of not releasing a new feature until it was perfect. Huge mistake. I missed out on learning because I was fixated on perfecting.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sammy Courtright.

Hailing from Australia, Sammy Courtright is the co-founder and Chief Brand Officer of Ten Spot, an all-in-one platform that helps companies connect, engage, and manage remote and on-site employees.

After finding it frustrating to stay healthy in a typical 9-to-5 environment, Sammy and her co-founder, Jonathan Cohn, teamed up in 2014 to create Fitspot, whose mission was to deliver wellness where employees needed it the most — at work. Renamed Ten Spot in 2020, the company not only rebranded to expand beyond wellness, but now offers a centralized solution for companies to increase their productivity, boost retention and build a strong culture.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve always been very creatively inclined, and in school, I studied theatre. However, at the same time, there’s always been part of my brain hyper-focused on solving problems.

Anytime I go into a restaurant or a store, I find myself thinking about all the ways it could be more efficient and scalable, and have even emailed the owners with my ideas (I know, I am that person). That is how I met Jon, my co-founder. Mutual friends introduced us and once I heard about what he was working on, I started telling him all the ideas I had to make it scale.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

In our first few months of existence, an engineer who worked for us hijacked our entire code base and held it for ransom for 45 days. We learned, after the fact, that he had created a segment of the code using his personal email address rather than his work email address.

For 45 days, we literally had no insight into the product. We didn’t know who was using it or if there were any bookings–nothing! With legal assistance, this was ultimately resolved. It was a jarring (and slightly expensive!) lesson for us when it came to safeguarding and protecting the company’s intellectual property.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Last fall, I was sitting in a cafe in New York, having a cup of coffee, and some guy I’d never met before approached me and said, “Sammy?” I was thinking, “I’ve never met this person before…right?” and replied, “Yeah?” And he said, “Ten Spot, right? My friend’s cousin sent me your pitch deck.”

Moral of the story: your pitch deck isn’t your business card. We always prefer it when people ask to share company collateral before sharing it with others!

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?

We had plans to return to Los Angeles after completing Techstars Atlanta, but at the end of the program, we were offered free office space and access to incredible resources–things that early-stage startups cannot refuse.

So 90 days turned into two years! It wasn’t an easy decision. I only had a carry-on suitcase of clothes. I flew back to LA for a weekend to pack up my apartment, said ‘hi’ and ‘bye’ to friends, and flew right back to Atlanta.

Running a company can be lonely, and at the time, I didn’t have any family or friends in Atlanta. It would have been easy at times to throw in the towel, but we didn’t.

I feel a strong sense of responsibility. The fact that my name is attached to what I’m building and that I took money from people, I want this to be successful. Although the move was unsettling and lonely, I found my focus and stride. That is what drives me to continue and persevere.

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 about that?

LJ Kwak Yang, who is a Leadership Development expert is a godsend. We met at Techstars. We work together to develop my leadership skills. At times, I am sure she feels like my therapist, but the best part is that she allows me to vent, then she gives me tangible next steps and exercises. She helps me navigate the ups and downs that come with running your own business.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Life is inherently risky. There is only one big risk you should avoid at all costs, and that is the risk of doing nothing.” — Denis Waitley.

It is not easy running an early-stage company. I am, ironically, quite risk-averse. This quote reminds me to always take the plunge, make the tough decision, and speak up because any path taken involves risk.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

Workforces are now distributed (accelerated by COVID), and in many cases, team cohesion has eroded and productivity has decreased. Meanwhile, leadership struggles to engage their employees. It’s become important to find a way to break quarantine routines and bring essential on-site and remote employees together in a new way.

Distributed teams pose a difficult challenge. In widespread offices (or homes,) it means employees are left to do their own thing. Coordinating virtual events can feel daunting and, if not executed correctly, may negatively impact the employee experience, leading to lower employee morale and higher employee turnover. Ten Spot provides solutions to this challenging problem that stick–it gets the engagement piece; it connects teams, and lets employers manage the entire process themselves in one centralized place.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

COVID-19 has upended the workplace as we know it. As we’ve navigated this new world for Ten Spot and worked to solve our own issues with how to make our now distributed workforce as engaged, supported and productive as possible, we’ve been innovating in such a way that has enabled us to solve these same issues — and more — for our customers.

Distributed teams aren’t going anywhere. We don’t want our customers to have to piece together a fragmented solution to connect, engage, and manage their distributed teams. That is why we built the all-in-one workforce engagement platform that takes the heavy lifting off your plate whether your team is on-site or remote.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Right now, we’re obsessed with the idea of peer-to-peer learning. So many companies are tasked with not only hiring, but onboarding and training employees they have never met in person, and that they may not meet in person for a long time. This creates a lot of awkward challenges for both the employer and the new employee. How do you make sure the new employee is getting trained effectively, what are the areas they need to develop skills in, and perhaps most importantly, do they feel like they are part of their team and the company?

So, what we’re exploring is a peer-to-peer learning tool designed to help employees acclimate to their new company, learn company systems, and get to know their team members. Additionally, the program will provide outlets for employees to both teach and gain new skills — so both the mentee and mentor are improving and growing, and feel acknowledged and recognized by their company, team, and co-workers.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I don’t think anyone can or should ever be satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech — and in this case, never being satisfied is a good thing.

In many ways, Tech is still very much a “boys club” — less than 5 percent of tech startups are female-owned, and females hold only 28 percent of software jobs (source: The Muse)

What will it take to really change the status quo? Everything from early education to supporting females in these industries empowers women to come up with unique solutions to problems. A sprinkle of unconscious bias training always helps!

I read an article that suggested that women don’t apply for jobs unless they are 100 percent qualified. This is because they are afraid they will fail, or they feel it would be ‘breaking the rules’ in terms of what the employer is looking for. This makes me think that we need to train everyone to support women, and we need to help women get over their fear of failure and breaking the rules. We need to encourage women to apply for jobs that will challenge them and encourage employers to hire based on potential.

We practice what we preach at Ten Spot — we have a female founder, 40 percent of our board is female, and we have a diverse set of experts that host the services on our platform.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

More VCs need to take a chance on ambitious and capable women.

In 2009, only 10 percent of companies were female co-founded companies. That number has since doubled, which means things are on the right track, but there is still work to be done to support female founders financially.

I’m grateful for the VC that led our series A round. Neither of us, me or my male co-founder, had prior startup experience, but we are relentless and passionate about what we do and they saw the potential.

Other big challenges for women in Tech is making sure that women feel both emotionally and physically safe at work. This is just one survey in one field, but in a survey of 474 astronomers, 40 percent of women of color reported feeling “unsafe in the workplace as a result of their gender or sex,” and 28 percent said they had felt unsafe at work because of their race. (Source: Chronicle)

If someone doesn’t feel safe at work, how are they going to be able to thrive and succeed?

What would you advise to another tech 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 or sales and “restart their engines”?

I would say, always bring it back to the customer. Have conversations with prospects, get a read on what’s important to them and what they need, and talk to your current customers about your product. Prioritize feedback and always map back as to why your product or service has value to them. Jump into the weeds and sell the product yourself.

I would also look to understand why there’s a standstill. Is it because the innovation piece is missing? Or did you stop listening to your customers?

Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

Get the right people in the right roles. Hire the right sales leader who is relentless on hitting and exceeding goals while focusing on personnel development. Experiment with competitions and rewards to get your sales team engaged and motivated.

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

When prospecting, make it a point to find and attract “lookalikes.” Once you’ve hooked someone or found success with an organization, mimic their demographics and target others who are just like them. Look for ways to land and expand–or create referral opportunities whenever possible.

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

Solve the most important problems your users and customers have, not the ones they wish they had or which you know how to solve.

Have conversations with your customers with minimal agenda. You need to know about them and their lives, not just whether they ‘like’ your product. The most interesting opportunities come when an offhand comment sparks a new idea.

Also, do everything you can to remove friction at key moments–that doesn’t mean sacrificing security but making sure that users aren’t held back from seeing and realizing your product’s core value. Make it easy to do the things that will hook them and keep them coming back.

From a customer service perspective, make it easy for customers to contact you and respond in a timely manner. It is all about managing expectations.

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

We monitor product usage and keep an ongoing dialogue with our customers to ensure they’re knowledgeable about our offerings and how it adds value to their employees. Churn should rarely be a surprise.

They became your customer for a reason — continuously educate your customers on how your product is adding value, always go back to why they decided to work with you in the first place, and reiterate the ROI. Our platform continues to grow and evolve. When we release new features, all customers get access as part of their subscription, so we are always providing our customers with more value as our relationship continues.

Finally, be comfortable with change: given the current global crisis, customers may need to scale up and scale down. We always receive appreciative feedback on how accommodating we are.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.

1. Do your research. A couple of questions you need to answer are: is the market you’re selling to large enough? Does it have momentum? Become the expert in your industry, the ‘know-it-all.’ When you’re in the early stages, it’s tempting to cut corners, but research is crucial and so helpful. I always check out other companies in our space and attend webinars on relevant topics because it only makes our product better.

2. Build an MVP that people want and get it in the hands of customers quickly. The operative word here is ‘quickly.’ Sometimes, you want to wait for the product to be perfect. DON’T WAIT! Watch people interact with your product. It will teach you so much. I used to entertain the idea of not releasing a new feature until it was perfect. Huge mistake. I missed out on learning because I was fixated on perfecting.

3. Be comfortable iterating. At times your company and product might feel like your child. You are so close to it that you find yourself making emotional decisions versus business decisions. When you are too close to something, it is hard to listen to feedback and make changes. The data doesn’t lie! If you find that ‘your favorite feature’ isn’t getting the traction you anticipated, it is time to move on and put your energy into the features that customers are using.

4. Be comfortable selling something that is not perfect. Initially, this concept stressed me out. How could I ever put something in front of a prospect that wasn’t up to my standard?! Then I had to ask myself: what is worse? A new customer interacting with a not-so-perfect feature or no customer at all? Be transparent that your product is always evolving but don’t miss out on an opportunity to close new business.

5. Hire slow and fire quickly. This is an oldie but a goodie. We run a thorough interview process at Ten Spot because every hire greatly impacts our team at this stage. If it is not working out with someone, it’s usually something you can assess within their first four-six weeks, and move on.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂

I value education, and I don’t believe that learning should stop when you leave school. I recently read a report that said to remain relevant in the workforce and your job, you need to be learning and developing new skills at least every four years. This creates one of those challenges that I’d like to help solve, starting with Ten Spot’s customers.

Going back to school is expensive, and it usually doesn’t keep someone in the job market while attending, meaning learning and skill development needs to either occur on the job or with your employer’s support.

We are in the process of rolling out peer-to-peer learning on Ten Spot’s platform but envision it going beyond mentoring and expanding into important skills training. This can start with live sessions that are ultimately recorded and archived for use by new employees or anyone needing a refresher course.

I feel if we can help companies do this across the board, we’re helping make education more accessible. Employees can then learn and develop new skills without sacrificing their jobs and without their employers losing them.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Ryan Seacrest. He is one of the hardest working people in the entertainment industry. He is everywhere but somehow manages to fly under the radar. I admire his ability to identify opportunities, his relentless work ethic and how he manages to juggle so many different jobs at once. My first question: does he sleep?

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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