Taylor Brown of Fivetran: “Amazing customer service starts with the product”

Amazing customer service starts with the product. At Fivetran, similar to a company like Apple, we work to wow our customers with the product itself. The majority of our decisions have been made for the customer. We take a mountain of complexity that our customers usually deal with, and we handle it for them in […]

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Amazing customer service starts with the product. At Fivetran, similar to a company like Apple, we work to wow our customers with the product itself. The majority of our decisions have been made for the customer. We take a mountain of complexity that our customers usually deal with, and we handle it for them in the best possible way. Apple was a pioneer in this — removing configuration options. They focused on making the interface so dead simple and intuitive with no options to mess things up, enabling the user to ultimately focus on high value things — living their life connected to the rest of the world, capturing photos and videos. In our case, we completely remove this complexity, so that our customers can focus on driving their business forward.


As part of my series about “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Taylor Brown, COO and co-founder of Fivetran.

Taylor is passionate about helping good humans build awesome products. He draws inspiration from his time as a liberal arts student at Amherst College, experience as a designer at North Social, and lifelong athletic endeavors. Most recently he has built Fivetran, a fully managed automated data integration provider, from an idea to a rapidly growing global business valued at more than 1.2 billion dollars. He believes that magic happens when you can build a simple yet powerful product that is truly innovative and helps users solve a hard problem. He understands this is only possible with an amazing team and is privileged to work with the best in the business.


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 co-founded Fivetran in 2012 with my longtime friend George Fraser, who is our CEO. I was raised in Boulder, Colorado and George grew up in New York, but we would see each other every summer. Our families share a cabin on a beautiful lake in Wisconsin. It’s an amazing story dating back four generations — all the way back to 1922. Every summer our families go on vacation there together.

Before Fivetran, George was a neuroscientist and I was a practicing artist, after earning my college degree in fine arts. It was actually an advantage that we didn’t know anything about data integration as it allowed us to think differently and come up with an entirely new approach to solving a very complicated business and technology problem. Legacy data management providers had built really complicated tools, and we wanted to do something the exact opposite. Our mission is to make access to data as simple and reliable as electricity — and we are well on our way. It all goes back to how we built our technology platform in the early days.

Shortly after we decided to go into business together, we applied to and were accepted into the prestigious Y Combinator incubator program. We worked hard to determine our product market fit and started building our network, which proved to be invaluable — especially when it came to finding our initial investors.

We started with the idea to build a vertically integrated data analysis tool. We built many iterations of this product over the first two years and realized the huge unsolved problem that no one had figured out was the data integration component — and how to automate it and make it ridiculously simple for customers. So, we stripped everything else out and built our automated data integration tool, growing from a single customer in late 2015 to more than 1,600 today.

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 toughest days were the early days, when we didn’t get much sleep. We had a “desk” made of boxes in the garage where we did our initial software coding. As for Y Combinator, it is ALL work. We found a funky, short-term rental in Mountain View (Silicon Valley), that we affectionately called the Moon Cottage — complete with shag carpet! George used to set our heater thermostat to 80 degrees to wake us up at 6:30 AM after crashing every night about 1 AM — we would literally wake up sweating! It’s still a ton of work today — but it’s a labor of love as we know we have built something special — that customers desperately need. And once they try Fivetran, they are “hooked” and end up increasing their data consumption with us.

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?

We made lots of mistakes along the way to building Fivetran so there is no one mistake that stands out. There are small mistakes, which we learned from and moved forward. Learning was the key thing that helped us succeed at this time.

One example that comes to mind is, early in our journey it was difficult to find product-market-fit. We didn’t ask prospects if they would spend money on the product ideas we had. As such, we always got lukewarm positive affirmations that we were going the right direction. Once we asked if people would pay for our product, we got much better feedback and direction. Had we started doing this sooner, we would have accelerated our product-market fit by at least 1 year or more out of 2.5.

There is a great book about this called “Monetizing Innovation.”

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

Our first principles helped us to build an innovative product that solves customers’ problems in an automated way. We also drove a sales focused culture from early on.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

You really have to love it, and be surrounded by people who you really trust and believe in.

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?

After completing the prestigious Y-Combinator accelerator program, my longtime friend, George Fraser, and I co-founded Fivetran in 2012. Along the journey of building our business, we were able to learn from our past experiences, as well as from one another. One of our key mottos was and still continues to be, “let’s not overcomplicate it,” and that helped us simplify and streamline things. George has been a great leader for not only myself, but also for the wider team at Fivetran.

In addition to George, early partners, such as Looker and Snowflake, helped Fivetran get to where we are today and learn key lessons.

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?

Honestly, I would suggest reading “From Good to Great” or “Built to Last” by Jim Collins. He has amazing directions of what are the key things to do to go from good to great, and in which order, with amazing examples.

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?

Yes! Early on, when we were small, we had more of an unspoken purpose that was just part of our collective knowledge. This came from years of working together, and talking daily about our approach towards helping our customers.

Once we were larger, we realized that this collective knowledge was breaking down because we had 3–4 offices worldwide, and 150+ employees, so we sat down with the executive team, and spent a day writing down our Core values, core purpose, BHAG (big hairy audacious goal), and flywheel. Everyone on the team read the books “Good to Great”, “Built to Last”, and “Turning the Flywheel.” The output of this exercise was a really great core purpose statement that has been a north star for the business. That statement is: make access to data as simple and reliable as electricity. There are a lot of similarities in what we are doing and what the energy companies did in the early 19th century.

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”?

It can still be very hard, and usually not long lasting if you have to “motivate” people manually. If there is a standstill in the business, it’s likely because you either 1) have the wrong people on the bus (the right people don’t need to be motivated) or 2) have a problem with the business. Often 1 leads to 2.

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?

Challenge is the way! Challenges in the economy, market, world, etc. while they can be hard, they can also create opportunities to improve. The reality is that if there are problems that your business is facing due to external factors, then usually your competitors are facing the same issues. It’s a great time to make the changes that you have been procrastinating to do, but that is right for the business.

For example, author Jim Collins talks about Kimberly-Clark having to sell the paper mills (their core business for many years) because it was not profitable anymore. This is where you have to be bold and do the obvious thing, but not the easy thing. He used an analogy of the paper mill being akin to having cancer in your hand, and having the guts to cut your hand off to save the rest of your body. You have to see any challenge as an opportunity to continue to make your business better.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

Focus. From a 2 person company to a 500 person company, there is always a challenge on “what do we focus our efforts towards?” This is the single most challenging thing to get right. When you’re small, it’s easy to just focus on the wrong things, and not listen to customers and not ever get product-market fit. When you’re a larger company, it’s easy to let politics, or lack of discipline seep in, causing you to easily start focusing on way too many things, and seize to focus on the one thing that you need.

Jim Collins hedgehog concept is helpful in this, asking:

  1. What can you be the best in the world at?
  2. What are you passionate about (love doing)?
  3. What can you make money doing?

If you stay intensely focused on these 3 things, and continue to reevaluate, then you will be ok. For instance, with Kimberly-Clark they had #2 and #3 for the paper mills, but they lacked #1. They could no longer be best in the world at this, so they cut this part of their business to refocus their efforts in another area where they could compete for #1, and have #2 and #3.

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?

In my experience, increasing conversions is really a science, and can vary widely by channel or segment. In all cases, the key is to really understand your customer’s buyer journey, their needs, their role at the company, and the things that they need to know before moving to the next stage. If you can really understand all of these things, then you can work to deliver all of the right things at the right time to increase conversions. This is a very high leverage and important task when optimizing any funnel, and scaling a business.

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?

I’m not a brand pro and it varies from industry to industry and B2C vs B2B, but in general, having a strong brand means having a recognizable, trusted, and motivational brand.

Being recognizable is key to capturing your audience’s attention at the right time. Trusted means that your audience believes what you are telling them. Motivational means that your brand somehow motivates them to envision a future with your product that is somehow better for them. This could be a razor company where you have purchased razors your entire life, so you trust it, and know that your face will be perfectly smooth in the future. Or this could be an automated data integration company like Fivetran, where you know that you and your company will have reliable, and accurate access to your data in the future to drive data-driven decisions that ultimately helps you to outperform your competitors.

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?

Amazing customer service starts with the product. At Fivetran, similar to a company like Apple, we work to wow our customers with the product itself. The majority of our decisions have been made for the customer. We take a mountain of complexity that our customers usually deal with, and we handle it for them in the best possible way. Apple was a pioneer in this — removing configuration options. They focused on making the interface so dead simple and intuitive with no options to mess things up, enabling the user to ultimately focus on high value things — living their life connected to the rest of the world, capturing photos and videos. In our case, we completely remove this complexity, so that our customers can focus on driving their business forward.

Outside of the product, having a great customer experience means helping the customer when they have issues or the product is not working. We aim to be swift, polite, and helpful. Many companies miss on the third item, helping the customer in a human way. This is table stakes in the world today, but unfortunately, many companies miss this.

What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

Having grown up with social media, I don’t see it as a risk, but rather as another way to connect with our audience. When the telephone first came out, people were scared that it would invade the privacy of their homes and community. After a few short years, people realized that the telephone was an amazing way to connect and communicate with friends and family, actually extending the home and community. I feel the same way about social media — it’s a communication tool, that when used correctly, is an extremely important way to engage with your audience.

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?

  1. Focusing on the wrong things, such as not talking to users.
  2. Getting in their own way. Unfortunately, ego and the need to hold power over others is the biggest reason that companies fail after they find product-market fit. It’s a shame because there are so many dollars put towards good ideas that fail due to founders driving their own business into the ground
  3. Sound fundamentals. Many founders, or CEOs, just don’t follow sound business fundamentals. This is an absolute must. CEOs and founders who are very innovative try to innovate in EVERY aspect of their business. The thing is that you can only afford to innovate in select areas in your business — and that should be your product.

How can our readers further follow you online?

You can find me on Twitter, @taylorwcbrown, or on LinkedIn.. Another great place is Fivetran’s website, Fivetran.com, or our blog at Fivetran.com/blog.

This was very inspiring and informative. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this interview!

Thank you!


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