Natalie Nagele of Wildbit: “Customers are human beings”

Customers are human beings: The world of internet products is crowded and exhausting for consumers, and B2B is no exception. You can stand out by simply remembering that your customer is not a user ID in some database that should be upsold daily. They are human beings. And if you treat them as humans, they […]

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Customers are human beings: The world of internet products is crowded and exhausting for consumers, and B2B is no exception. You can stand out by simply remembering that your customer is not a user ID in some database that should be upsold daily. They are human beings. And if you treat them as humans, they will reward you with their loyalty and support, no matter the competition that will continue to spring up daily.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Natalie Nagele, co-founder and CEO of Wildbit, the team behind Postmark, dmarc digests, Beanstalk and People-First Jobs. Committed to proving you can grow a profitable company while prioritizing people, she has led the creation of multi-million dollar products while focusing on her belief that business should be human.

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 came to the US as a Jewish Refugee with my family in 1989. My parents left behind their families and their careers as a doctor and a classical musician to start over in a country that would allow them the freedom to do whatever they worked hard to accomplish. They started by doing odd jobs and ultimately built several businesses. As a child, I was able to see my mom work to build a large business, while my dad worked to support her. Later on they switched, and my dad ran a business while my mom worked in this new venture. It feels like being an entrepreneur was always in the cards for me.

When I met my husband and co-founder, Chris Nagele, he was running Wildbit as a small consulting business. I was in college, but it felt natural to help with the business behind the scenes. We worked in web design in those early years, but it wasn’t long before we started creating our own products. This is when Chris and I looked more closely at the strengths we each brought to the company, and I took over leading the “front of the house” as CEO while he handled the product development as CTO.

Wildbit has been in business 20 years, and we’ve been running it together for the last 17.

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

I will share a very transformational story. Chris and I were pretty burned out on running the business and met a friend and fellow software founder for advice. We shared our concerns, worries, and feelings of exhaustion.

He listened intently, and then looked at us and said, very simply, “Why can’t you build the business exactly like you want to? Why can’t it be filled with all the things you love to do, and none of the things you hate?”

It was such a simple question, but we both were dumbfounded. We had completely lost track of the fact that we were ultimately in control.

This conversation led to the biggest changes in our business. We started building out a leadership team, we stopped work on projects that were draining our energy and started building a new operating system and framework to optimize for happiness. Apparently we needed a reminder: this is our business, and we should love working on it. We can design it so we maximize our happiness, too.

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?

This is probably only funny in hindsight, but in the early days of our first big product, Beanstalk, we had a month or so where our servers would crash every day at 4pm. Since it was the close of business, our customers would finish their day by committing their code to Beanstalk, and the servers couldn’t take on the load.

We knew the fix, but it was going to take some time to implement, so we told customers it was going to happen and to please bear with us for a bit. We opened up a chat room every day at 4pm to talk with customers about their work and how they used our products. We were honest about our issues and how we were working to fix them. We were stressed out, but also really grateful for the opportunity to get to know our customers so well. And I still hear from those early adopters who remember those chats fondly.

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?

When we started off, I would attend technology conferences and other developers and founders assumed I was “the wife.” I would often get excluded from conversations, because it wasn’t common for a woman to be running a software business, especially one as technical as ours. These experiences only encouraged me to speak up and correct folks.

Many times, developers and engineers outside our company assume I don’t understand what is being discussed. I’m not an engineer, but I’ve been running a software company for 15 years. I’m not embarrassed to ask questions. I understand a lot more than I’m given credit for.

I take being dismissed as a challenge to ask better questions and understand more. There have been many scenarios where I ask a question, only to discover that the person who’s just been underestimating me can’t explain a technical issue themselves.

Overall, I’ve found that my biggest challenge in the software industry is just being more present and confident in myself. It took me years to see Wildbit as my business and not just my husband’s business. My own self-doubt was a barrier in the early years, and that’s something I had to work hard to overcome. The more I focused on my strengths as a CEO, the more confident I became in these situations. Chris is a strong supporter, and he’s quick to direct discussions my way. But it has taken me years to gain the confidence to speak up and correct individuals when they assume that I can’t possibly know what I’m talking about.

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?

My mom! My mom was a classical musician in Russia. When we first came to the US, she worked as an ultrasound tech, because it was the fastest way to make good money to support her family. Then she started her own business, and I watched her struggle and fight to make her way. All throughout, she was incredibly present and focused on her girls. I aspire to be like her: strong, independent, warm, and caring.

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?

We believe that businesses are product-agnostic, and that products are an output of a team’s skills, strengths, beliefs and values. Companies that define themselves by what they make automatically impose limits around what they can do. Wildbit started out as a consulting company, and we designed a lot of websites for restaurants, bars and nightclubs. Today we built software. Maybe we’ll do something completely different in the next 10 years.

We are a company that was established on the idea of team first rather than product or market first. So we just have a very different perspective on the idea of what it means to be a software company. We’ve grown and become the company we are by constantly asking why we do what we do and how we can do it better. So, you could say the pain point we help address is one of understanding how you can help people do their very best work, on projects they are passionate about, in an environment where respect and support are fundamental.

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

One of our core Principles is that businesses exist to serve people. As a tool, the business exists to support all of its human constituents: the Founders, the Team, the Customers and the Community. We’re focused on building a sustainable organization that provides fulfillment for everyone that works here. That’s the driving force behind everything from our 32-hour work week, which puts a priority on what Cal Newport calls “deep work,” to flexible hours, to making sure the work is challenging and exciting.

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

We just launched People-First Jobs, a new kind of job board that is focused on helping job seekers find companies who put people first. People-First Jobs grew out of our own internal emphasis on building a company that puts the team first, and also because we believe that most job boards have it wrong. Instead of searching for a role, you should seek out a company.

More and more people are searching for a place where they can do incredible work at a reasonable pace, with a team that cares deeply about their success and craft. We don’t hire often at Wildbit and don’t always have an opening. Instead of turning people away, we set out to create a resource of like-minded companies who are currently hiring.

As this resource grows we hope to give job seekers a new, healthier alternative to work than it has been traditionally understood.

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?

In some ways, I am excited by the progress I have seen. I laugh when remembering how there was never a line in the women’s bathroom at conferences when I was first starting out. There’s definitely a long line now!

But it’s impossible to look at that progress and think it’s enough. People are very impressed that our leadership team is two-thirds women, because it’s such an anomaly. Most often the CEOs in the room are men, and I’m one of very few women. I see my colleagues working hard to include women at the table, but the representation is far from equal.

While I’ve personally never gone through the process of raising money, the horror stories I’ve heard as it relates to women founders is disappointing. If we’re not invested in women equally, we won’t see the progress we need — not just in tech, but in the world. Leadership should be representative of the constituents it supports. We need more women in leadership roles, especially women of color, to make sure that our industry is a net positive in our communities. So far what we’ve seen is an embarrassment.

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?

There’s still a lack of equality when judging the actions of female owners to their male counterparts. Too often I see women getting judged as emotional, bitchy or angry for the same behavior that men get commended for as being strong and confident. Women are expected to be soft, caring, warm and simply “nice.” When we don’t meet those expectations, or have ambitions and dreams of our own, it creates tension since we’re being perceived as not playing the part. Our own attempts to live up to those expectations end in frustration, which might mirror the very behavior we are told to avoid. It’s a vicious cycle, and we’re simply not doing enough to change these types of unconscious bias and gender stereotyping.

My only advice to other female founders is to keep doing what you’re doing, because our actions will speak the loudest. Women are just as capable to lead as men, and we should continue to show that our passion and compassion are a strength — not a hindrance. Our capability will show in our results as highly successful founders.

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”?

Having your business growth come to a standstill can be a dark time for a company. I know it was for Wildbit. Chris and I lost our passion to come into work each day. But if you let it, a plateau can be a catalyst for change and growth at your company.

What we did to get out of it was not what you’d think. We didn’t pour a bunch of money into marketing, launch new features or hire a new sales manager. Instead, we did some deep soul searching.

What saved us was asking ourselves, “Why do we want to run a business in the first place?”

It wasn’t easy, but I came out of that time with a lot more clarity, and one of the things I realized was that, if you let it, your business will become a beast that consumes you. It will drive you to, “Hire more, go faster, get funding.”

Ultimately, the path forward is taking back control of your business from that beast. For us, this has trickled down into everything: from the investments we make in marketing, to how much we pay ourselves, to our decision to create a new product instead of evolving a multi-million dollar product.

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?

The key word here is right customer, not just any customer who will pay the bills. This takes time, research, empathy, and a genuine desire to understand your market, along with the courage to say “no” to prospective buyers (or fire customers) who don’t fit the ideal profile. Too many businesses approach sales and marketing by seeing leads, MQLs and funnels instead of seeing humans, and are focused on growth by any and all means possible. It’s probably why some of the most successful founders are the ones who create businesses that “scratch their own itch” — it comes with a fundamental and intimate understanding of the customer, their pain points and a genuine desire to help solve those problems. If you can replicate that understanding and approach your marketing with authenticity and transparency, you’re on the right path.

Our largest product, Postmark, is used by software companies to reliably deliver the emails that power their products and applications. Email as a service is very complicated, particularly when it comes to getting emails delivered to their final destinations. We have prioritized our marketing around helping people understand email deliverability. We do this with content but also with free tools to help everyone solve complex issues with deliverability. Because our buyers are often technical product owners, they also get to know us because we share content on how we run our own business. So we openly share our own trials as a software company, and build relationships that encourage word of mouth.

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?

This is all going to sound so basic, and yet most businesses don’t do it. Treat your customers as human beings. With empathy and care. And don’t focus first on what can scale, focus instead on what creates the best experience.

In practice that means focusing on the entire user journey. We start with sales and marketing, where our language is direct, honest and human. Our product team does all pre-sales conversations, which means they know the product best, they can quickly and honestly discuss product roadmap, and they aren’t incentivized to push solutions or convince you to buy.

Our product team is obsessed with user experience, from the login page to cancelation form. We continuously put ourselves in our customers’ proverbial shoes, not to see how we can make more money from them, but how can we make the product more enjoyable or valuable to them.

And finally, our entire customer support team is given full authority and support to take their time. There’s no KPI to measure how quickly they get to a resolution. Instead, we value how quickly we can be available to a customer, and then how helpful they found our answers.

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. Know yourself: Understanding your own motivations and goals is not a luxury, it’s a requirement to make sure you’re taking an authentic journey with your company. Without grounding myself in the true reasons for being an entrepreneur, I allowed the business to take control of my life. I wasn’t enjoying my work, and I was tired and burnt out. We have realistic goals for ourselves, from how much money we want to personally make, to how we want to spend our days. Being honest and upfront has allowed us to build a business that supports those goals.
  2. Team first: Your business is only as good as the people. You can bully and demand and control your way to some level of success, but it will eventually blow up. We’ve always prioritized our team above all else. Focusing on their well-being ensured they could focus on our products and our customers with clear minds and open hearts. Our entire success is a result of the people that work at Wildbit, not Chris and Natalie.
  3. Your business is a snowflake: All businesses are the sum of the individual human beings that work inside of it. Which means it is as unique as all of those individuals. Embrace the uniqueness, and solve challenges uniquely. It’s important to listen and learn from others’ experiences and to apply philosophies and principles that make sense to you. But remember, your competitors are in the same market, solving the same problems, and doing it differently for a reason. You can make your own decisions and your own rules. Don’t follow someone else’s.
  4. Customers are human beings: The world of internet products is crowded and exhausting for consumers, and B2B is no exception. You can stand out by simply remembering that your customer is not a user ID in some database that should be upsold daily. They are human beings. And if you treat them as humans, they will reward you with their loyalty and support, no matter the competition that will continue to spring up daily.
  5. Community matters: I spend a lot of time thinking about the people that supported us in the early days. From family and friends, to early employees, to early fans and customers. We consider our impact on our communities all the time. From open source tools, to mentorship, to speaking engagements. We think about ways in which our business can have a positive impact outside of ourselves.

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. 🙂

Building more ethical, people-first businesses can have a massive ripple effect into other areas of our lives. I spend a lot of time thinking about the status quo and the acceptance that businesses are important and ethical just because they create jobs. I want to see entrepreneurs and founders take the next step and make sure these jobs are good quality, and that the business itself is providing a product or service that has a net positive impact on the world. If we can create more businesses that put people first, we can slowly but permanently create a more ethical world.

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 🙂

Melinda Gates! Not only because she’s an incredible force for good, but also because she works with her husband. I’d love to hear her perspective on being a partner both in life and work, especially when your partner is a powerful and well known entrepreneur. And understand a bit about how she views priorities for her work with the Gates Foundation.

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

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