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Kolton Andrus: “Customers ARE the business”

Customer experience starts before the sale. A positive pre-sales experience is key to overall customer success and will help you hit your revenue targets. Train your sales reps to uncover problems and offer solutions — not just push your product. As part of my series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer […]

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Customer experience starts before the sale. A positive pre-sales experience is key to overall customer success and will help you hit your revenue targets. Train your sales reps to uncover problems and offer solutions — not just push your product.


As part of my series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kolton Andrus.

Kolton is co-founder and CEO of Gremlin, a startup helping organizations build more resilient systems and software. Previously he was a Chaos Engineer at Netflix who improved the streaming service’s reliability. He was also an engineer at Amazon, where he was responsible for improving the performance of their retail website.


Thank you so much for joining us! 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 cut my teeth at Amazon. They were doing very cutting-edge things when I was there almost a decade ago, and my main focus was optimizing the performance of Amazon.com as well as respond to major website outages when they happened (and fix them). I moved on to join the Netflix team, who is known in the tech industry for pioneering Chaos Engineering, which is the practice of attacking your own systems to find the weaknesses before they can impact your customers. My Co-Founder and I launched Gremlin in 2017 to help bring Chaos Engineering to every organization that has an invested interest in the reliability of their software.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

I’ve learned a lot about a lot of things. When you launch a startup, you wear many hats as a CEO. I learned about Marketing, about Sales. As an engineer by trade, I can tell you that many of us engineers don’t understand how important these things are to the business.

Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?

Customers ARE the business. Customer success is the same thing as our success. Customers renew and expand if and only if your product helps them achieve their goals. Everything we do is driven by the goals of our customers.

We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?

Far too often, companies make decisions with an inside-out mindset. By that, I mean decisions and actions are driven by a self-centric agenda, as opposed to a customer-centric agenda. ‘How can we change this process to make our jobs easier?’ or ‘How do we get customers to use more of our product?’ are examples of a self-centric approach. Instead, companies need to ask ‘How do we make our customers’ lives easier?’ and ‘What do our customers need from our product?’ The reality is, the best way to reach your self-centric goals is by effectively and efficiently meeting customer-centric goals.

Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?

It can — though if you wait for a competitor to force you to be customer-centric it might be too late!

Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?

We were the first product to market teaching people how to break their own systems. The idea behind Chaos Engineering is that you proactively find weaknesses before they cause major failures and outages. We see these headlines every week: websites crashing, software failing, banks having web issues. These problems are only getting worse as more of the world comes online.

So there’s an obvious need for the solution we offer, but many organizations are still hesitant to inject failure on purpose, even if in the long run it means better overall health. It’s similar to the idea of a flu shot a couple of hundred years ago — people may have thought you were crazy for injecting a disease on purpose. But the truth is that this process works: inject a little failure up front and build up a long-term immunity.

As the first product to market in a new space, it was critical from the start that all Gremlin customers have a white-glove experience. We’re not just teaching customers how to use our platform, we’re utilizing our expertise to teach them how to build more reliable software through a cutting-edge new discipline). One of our first customers was a top 10 US retailer and we worked tirelessly to understand their goals, visit their office on-site, share our expertise, and ensure they were successful.

Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?

Yes. That customer has continuously grown over the last two years as more and more applications take advantage of the power of Chaos Engineering and Gremlin. Even more importantly, our original champion internally at the company has now become our advocate externally, speaking with us at industry events and helping evangelize Chaos Engineering to the masses.

Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Build a customer-centric culture from Day 1. When faced with difficult customer interaction, ask yourself: ‘What would this customer’s favorite vendor do right now?’ — Make sure their favorite is you 🙂
  2. Create and iterate on your product based on customers’ needs. You may have a grand vision for your product. But as a startup, you also need to focus on what will give a customer value as quickly as possible — then grow from there.
  3. Customer experience starts before the sale. A positive pre-sales experience is key to overall customer success and will help you hit your revenue targets. Train your sales reps to uncover problems and offer solutions — not just push your product.
  4. Form a Customer Success team. While everyone at your company should be customer-centric, it should be someone’s job to ensure customer success and advocate for customers. This is a top-level function and should be represented on your leadership team, right alongside engineering, sales, marketing, etc.
  5. Don’t insulate engineering from the customer. As a software company, it’s critical that the people building the product understand how the product is being used and what customers need. Engineers may not be talking to the customers every day, but make sure not to completely abstract them from the customer experience. Establish a cadence between your customer success team and engineering, involve engineers with customer support, and in turn, they’ll build products and documentation that meet customer needs and that are easy to use.

Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well?

This will begin to happen naturally if you truly understand and prioritize your customers’ goals and help them get there. Nobody is a better champion than someone whose project has taken off via their partnership with you and your product.

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. 🙂

Well I don’t want to claim the problem we are solving at Gremlin is the most important. But it’s the one I feel most comfortable talking about because as every business becomes an online business; as our healthcare and banking and government all come online; as our cars start to drive themselves….We would be doing ourselves a big favor if we made sure these systems and services were reliable. And that’s ultimately the problem we are tackling at Gremlin.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter! @KoltonAndrus @GremlinInc

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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