I’m Martha Bitar, co-founder and CEO of Flodesk. Ask me anything!

Hey y’all! I’m a first-time founder, grew up in Mexico, ended up in San Francisco via a sales job at Oracle, met my co-founders, and started Flodesk—an email marketing platform that helps small business owners design emails people love to open.

We founded Flodesk in 2019 and have bootstrapped it to $10M in annual recurring revenue.

Yes, we built yet another email marketing platform knowing it would be very hard to compete with Mailchimp, ActiveCampaign and the hundreds of other established players in the space. Little after we launched alpha, Squarespace also released an email marketing product, closing what we had identified as the gap in the market (beautiful designs + robust functionality). We thought we were doomed, but competition has had little to no impact on our trajectory.

A couple of fun facts about Flodesk:

I’m proud to share our leadership is 75% women, 75% underrepresented minorities.

We’re a team of 21, globally distributed across the US, Mexico, Vietnam, Chile, South Africa, Hungary, and Spain. Most of us have never met in person (waiting the pandemic out for our first retreat).

Our YoY growth stands at 391%, primarily led by viral loops and organic channels.

We’re a little customer-obsessed.

Let’s talk about:

  • Where to find your first customers
  • How to grow without a sales team
  • Competing in a highly saturated market
  • Viral loops: what are they, how to find them, how to optimize them
  • Why your best answers will always come from customers
  • Bootstrapping to profitability
  • Building a remote-first, globally distributed team
  • Mental health and how to find your practice
  • Digital nomading around the globe
  • Anything else! AMA!
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This April 15th (11 AM PST), we’re really looking forward to hosting Flodesk’s co-founder and CEO, Martha Bitar. Martha and team have forged great progress in a short span while operating in one of the most unthinkably competitive SaaS categories. And they ascribe their monumental journey to an almost clinical sense of customer obsession, which, for instance, includes a daily, team-wide workout routine, a series of customer-focussed reps they all tend to. Inspiring, right? So, be sure to tune in and learn from Martha’s unique, status-quo-defying perspectives on all things SaaS!

Martha’s brain-pickings :raised_hands:

Here are some incredibly interesting insights drawn from interview excerpts to help you understand her thought process and key ideas better. Dive in!

On the often overlooked responsibility of taking care of oneself as a leader

I started FloDesk when I had a full-time job and that job was very intense. I remember working all night, all weekend and there were times when I’d come and just start crying because I couldn’t help it. And I wasn’t eating right or working out and it was really out of balance and I do not recommend that to anyone.

But I remember having a conversation with my mom and she said, “You really have to stop doing this because you’re not signing up for a startup of one year, you’re trying to build something generational and it’s going to take probably 5-10 years, maybe more.

If you burn out today then how is that really responsible towards the people that you’re promising to serve for the long term? People are trusting you and giving you their money, buying your tool and you’re not taking care of yourself in a way that you’re going to show up the next day the next month.” That was a really hard thing to hear. You never want to hear those truths.

She wasn’t telling me I had to take care of myself but it was more like this is not right and you’re not being responsible for others as well. That led to me creating a plan and I said when I hit this milestone at FloDesk, I’ll leave my full-time job and go full-time into FloDesk.

Then I made a plan to start eating healthier and working from home some days and having those hard conversations and coming to the realization that in my full-time job, I was doing a lot not because I needed to just because I always have had that mindset that you have to go above and beyond.

I think a lot of people that started a business have to have that kind of personality and it took to having a conversation with my former boss and saying that I couldn’t do this any long so I have to quit or do my job and that’s it. It was so funny because I went into that meeting with some much fear and he told me I needed to do my job and that I needed to stop stressing myself so much and I was still going to have a lot of impact.

So I recommend that you don’t get yourself to that level and if you already did then stop and take action right away so that you can be there for the people that you’re promising to be there for.

On witnessing the unmistakable promise of being customer-led

One story that I want to share here…It started when the pandemic started and we were freaking out a bit because we saw a dip in usage and the first thing that we did is what we know how to do is that we got on the phones with customers and we started asking them why they weren’t using Flodesk.

And this was a couple of days of lower usage. And what we heard from them was that everything had changed so quickly. Some of them were photographed and they were booking things and they knew that they needed to share some safety protocols. Some were physical stores and all of a sudden they had to go online.

So they weren’t using it because they were paralysed but because there were all of these communication situations that were completely unprecedented. And they had no idea how to handle that and if you think about it, the customer that we serve is an entrepreneur that most of the time they’re doing this alone.

So they don’t have a PR team, they don’t have anyone telling them, ‘hey, here’s how to communicate with them.’ So having that information gave us so much color into what was really needed and then what we did was we partnered with a couple of customers who were already creating their own templates…

And we collected a collection of COVID templates in the platform. And that turned what could have been the really truly the lowest month for us, into our biggest spike to that date and up until today those templates are the most used in the platform.

Source: SaaStr | 2020

On how community influences low churn

So we haven’t actually had much churn. We saw a slight dip when the pandemic started as many SaaS companies and that recovered pretty quickly. We have lower churn than industry churn. We haven’t done a lot of testing with churn because it hasn’t been a huge problem to fix but I think the community does play a part in that.

We do have a help center full of articles and content that we created. It’s not quite dynamic so we’re continuing to work on that and we’re also featuring member content in the help center. We also have a Facebook group where members often post questions.

But most of the time, it’s not even a product-related question, it’s more of a business or marketing strategy question. So we realized that people are probably churning not just because they can’t learn the tool because they can’t figure out the strategy so having that access to a pool of people who already did it or are also trying to figure it out is so important. I’m always surprised at how willing people are to share their secrets. They’ll answer each other’s questions and share what worked for them.

That’s key to me and it’s one of those things that makes it worth it for us to spend time in that group. There are days that someone will post something that’s negative and it’s frustrating because we can’t build things overnight. But that’s the feedback that’s taking us where we need to go. So again it’s not what we did, it’s what our members took charge of and we followed.

Source: MeetEdgar | 2020

On challenging status-quo pricing and deciding against a free plan

Very early on we realised that we wanted to make sure that we are not having a free plan. Because with email marketing that becomes really detrimental for a lot of your legit users. You get a lot of spammers…We also knew that it just wasn’t our business model. So we’ve never had a free plan. And not having a free plan, actually allows us to have a more accessible pricing for the long term.

And then another thing that we think about with email marketing is that the pricing in the industry is a little outdated. Based on what people are actually using. Imagine if you’re starting a website and the website provider tells you, ‘hey I’m going to charge you more if you start hitting more visitors.’ Like yes, there are costs that do grow in the backend, but they don’t grow at the rate where you can’t keep an accessible price.

And if you think about the target market that we’re serving, we can’t just make it accessible in terms of ease of use and the design piece, but it has to be accessible when it comes to pricing too. So we did a lot of experimentation and analysis and then we came back to what we knew was something that we could sustain long term. That was also going to work for our customers. And by choosing to not do a free plan, we were able to afford it.

Source: SaaStr | 2020

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Hey Martha,

Glad to have you on Relay!

Loved reading about Flodesk’s daily, customer-centric workout regimen and how that has contributed to laudable growth. As someone who’s always on the lookout for operationalising the fundamental values of a business, this was really fascinating to learn.

It’ll be great to hear: How do different departments process (within and across teams) all the customer insights this daily routine generates? And also, on the hiring front, what helps you evaluate for the skill of customer-centricity especially for non-customer-facing roles?

Cheers. Looking forward to your AMA.

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Hey Martha,

Thanks for doing this! Kudos on the great journey Flodesk has charted! :slightly_smiling_face:

What one cannot help but notice is the great number of self-written case studies people have published on their switch to Flodesk, even hosted on their own blogs/sites. Which, I imagine, is a dream for an early-stage startup.

Wingman’s co-founder, Shruti (@wingman4sales), recently emphasized how important those early case studies can be for addressing the trust question.

Looks like Flodesk has found a system to capture word of mouth in the best way possible. I think it’ll be really helpful for fellow founders to learn what are some of the elements that inform this system.

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Great questions @rajaraman. I’ll start with the second one—on the hiring front, we ask behavioral questions specific to customer-centricity.

This part is SUPER tricky because the answers you’d expect of a customer-centric candidate are exactly the opposite of what you’d want to hire. For example, one of the questions we ask is “let’s say you’re working at a burger restaurant, and a client walks in asking for spaghetti, what do you tell this client?”. You’d think a customer-centric candidate would go out of their way to make this customer happy, right? WRONG. If the candidate attempts to convince the client to stay by saying something like “we can make you a spaghetti burger!” or “let me talk to the kitchen and see what we can do” then they’re really focused on doing what they think is good for the restaurant. We want them to love the customer so much, that they’re willing to send them elsewhere if they know we don’t have what they need. So an ideal answer would be something like “let me get you directions to the best spaghetti restaurant in town”.

And back to the first question re: gaining and processing the customer insights. The first part is to create spaces where everyone in the company can have direct access to customers. We do this in a few ways, from scheduling daily calls with customers to creating a community group in Facebook where our customers talk to each other that each team member joins.

You’re asking specifically about operationalizing these insights, and the key here is not to create new processes, but to embed customer-centricity into all of the daily processes you’d have anyway.

  1. It starts with goals: OKRs typically map to company benefits, but if you map OKRs to customer benefits, then every single day, every single goal that each team member is working on will be tied to customer data. Then, when we have OKR syncs or updates, these inherently need and include customer insights.

  2. Roadmap planning: similarly, you’ll want to embed customer-centricity into your product roadmap planning. This one is hard because you really have to get your entire team to put ego aside. It’s very easy to fall in love with solutions and feature ideas, so you need to find a framework that can evaluate your features from a client perspective. We use two models here, one is the KANO model and the other is the Jar. First, we start by creating a list of all of the features that have been requested by customers and also include those that teams are very excited about or think are needed. All ideas are welcomed. The next step is to use the KANO model to categorize them according to what features will satisfy and delight customers. This step is critical because it also shows you how much time to invest in each feature. That way if one feature is basic (meaning customers will be dissatisfied if you don’t build it, but their delight won’t increase by much if you keep investing in it) then you know that you just need to build the bare minimum and liberate time to invest elsewhere. Similarly, it highlights many features that we internally get excited about because we nerd out on them but that our customers will be completely indifferent to, and we may not need to spend time on after all. Once we have this process completed and we have narrowed down the features we’ll be working on, we use the Jar model (this was shared by one of Airbnb’s PMs after reading a children’s book to her daughter) and it’s essentially the idea that you have one jar to fill with rocks, pebbles, and pixie dust. If you start filling it up with pixie dust or pebbles, your big rocks (big bets) will no longer fit. So you start by sizing all of the narrowed down features, pick a few big rocks to start with, then fill the rest of the jar accordingly. Pixie dust are features that typically require a day or two of one person’s time to create but end up majorly delighting customers (it’s much easier to identify these if you do the KANO model first.

  3. All hands: each all hands we have a space dedicated to a Customer Story. One person from the team picks a customer, they follow them for a week, get familiar with their business and their why, and then present the story to the whole company.

And so on. Again what’s worked best for us is not to create new processes since these could be distracting and too much process can slow us down, but to map each of our existing processes to customer benefits so we’re exercising daily without needing to go to the gym.

Let me know if this helps!

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Hi Martha, thank you so much for offering to do an AMA on Relay – it’s so inspiring to hear your story.

First, congrats on building such an amazing business. You seem to be truly living the dream!

A few questions from me – hope these aren’t too nerdy haha!

  • Differentiation: do you stay up at night worrying about competition at all? It’s such a crowded space – do you feel your primary “moat” is brand based? I feel like you have SUCH a cool brand for an email platform, so I assume that must at least play some part in winning and retaining customers!
  • Pricing: the fixed price is so bold, I love it. Have you experimented with scalable pricing? Do you feel you are losing money as customers expand? Is it actually impossible to pay more than $38 / month for Flodesk? Have you ever had heated debates about turning away high value customers to keep this simplicity?
  • $10m ARR: Jaw. Drop. How on earth did you manage such phenomenal growth in SUCH a short space of time without raising money? How How How?! Without a sales team – this is such speedy growth. My sense is you have been extremely focused – how have you managed to decide on your focus and avoid distractions?

Thanks again Martha, and congratulations on such an inspiring ride so far. It’s made my day reading about your story!

James

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Hey Martha,

Thanks so much for doing this!

As others have noted, Flodesk has had a remarkable journey. Quite inspiring! :raised_hands:

Being a first-time founder, especially given the pace at which the business has grown, what were some of the core skills that you had to acquire/hone as a leader in such a small amount of time? And what helped/what kinds of resources did you rely on as you went about doing that?

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Hey Martha,

Thanks for taking the time for this AMA and congratulations on your progress to date, it’s stunning!

I’d love to hear a bit more about how you think about developing your community. Why did you choose Facebook? Do you pro-actively manage it or let it grow organically? Did you wait until you had a certain amount of PMF before launching it?

thanks
Neil

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Hi @marthabitar,

Super impressed with your team of 21, bootstrapped and $10M ARR in a crowded space! Love it!

I really want to hear more stories from you in terms of how you listened to customers. We try to get them on a call, because we don’t want to build what they ask for, but rather understand what they’re trying to solve, but it always seems so hard.

I’m also curious about product management, how you turn insights into a roadmap and do you communicate this with your customers? Do you have a PM at all? How does it all work?

Thank you for answering!

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Hey Martha,

Thanks so much for doing this! Amazing journey! :rocket:

I would love to learn how your extensive background in enterprise sales has influenced your approach towards Flodesk, which, I assume, has been quite product-driven from the outset?

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Hi Krish! Thank you for having me. And yes! I remember I had set a Google notification for anything on the web that mentioned Flodesk, and of course I’d never get any notifications. Then the week of the beta launch happened and I started getting a few a day of members writing blog posts about their Flodesk experience, publishing tutorials on YouTube, it was exciting! In full transparency, we didn’t orchestrate that, but we did go back to understand what caused it to continue encouraging it. Our hypothesis is that in big part it was launching in beta combined with our target audience being small business owners who are already super savvy about SEO. So when they found this new tool they loved that barely had any content out there (no help center even), they recognized the upside of being among the first to publish. This set the tone for the rest of the community.

Then what we did was optimize and encourage this behavior as much as we could by featuring their content instead of ours. If you go to our IG stories, for example (https://www.instagram.com/flodesk/?hl=en) you’ll notice that every single day we publish member content.

Another area you can see member featured content is Flodesk University: http://university.flodesk.com/. Same thing goes for our welcome series. The idea is to not create content that will compete with user generated content, but instead put their content at the center of all of our platforms.

Once we understood that our members naturally want to capture the SEO when they publish new content, we also started making it easier for them to recognize the content that will probably work best for them. You can see the email we sent about our Zapier release here: Your Early Access to Zapier! ⚡ | Flodesk. If you scroll, you’ll find the invitation to share on their blogs and a bit of guidance on what content to include.

As we started doing more of this ^, we started getting requests by our members to provide assets like images, logos, and other graphics and content to help make their posts about Flodesk more robust, so we created an Affiliate Success Kit: https://assets.flodesk.com/assets/Flodesk_Affiliate_Success_Kit.pdf.

Which brings me to the last, but probably the most important part. Affiliate & referral programs often limit themselves in two ways:

  1. They invite only influencers to share and earn.
  2. They focus on the benefit to the influencers.

Our biggest learning here has been that for users to share something, they need to be able to provide tangible value to their audience. So while our members do earn $19 when a new member joins, they are also able to offer 50% off Flodesk with their unique code. It’s this second part, the ability to give their audience value that is the real motivator. The second learning is that our market is very ad savvy and doesn’t always trust the recommendations of big influencers, since these are often sponsored. So instead of working with big names, we invited all members, whether they had a following or not, to be part of the program and get an affiliate code whenever they needed. This resulted in real members sharing their real experiences and 76% of our word of mouth wins coming from small voices.

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Hey James! Hahah too nerdy, these are great!

Differentiation: YES. At the beginning I would stay up all night fearing a competitor would figure out this major gap that was hiding in plain sight. Then my biggest fear happened and Squarespace released email marketing. I thought that was the end for us, since they already had a large customer base, and their brand was very well known. Ask me what actually happened? Nothing. To date, we haven’t had a single member leaving us for SQSP and a good part of our members use them for websites. What I realized was that the market is big enough for a lot of different solutions since there are also a lot of different needs. You’re familiar with this since you’re also in the marketing automation space (love that), just Mailchimp has 14M+ users. How many tiny startups could become unicorns with just a tiny portion of that marketshare? And then we have Gen Z, with over 50% of their generation already jumping into entrepreneurship. I’d say our primary moat is the education built into the software. Members don’t have to struggle by starting anything from scratch, so they’re more successful, which means they share their success more often and churn less. Think about the buying journey today, it’s no longer about speaking to a sales rep, you post in your forum looking for a recommendation, then get your community to share what worked for them. It’s more important than ever to focus on making the user successful since the rest of the cycle stems from there, at least for us.

Pricing: we played with so many scenarios, and this was the most sustainable one. If you think about it, we’re not priced that low, you could get the equivalent service at other providers for free. Not having a free plan is what afforded us this bolder pricing. Backend costs are very predictable now, so the reason email marketing platforms charge in tiers is because they can. This is less tied to their growing costs and more to optimizing the max revenue per user based on their needs. It’s very smart, but for us lowering the anxiety of paying more the more you’re successful was a bigger priority. And yes, we’ve had large customers offering to pay a lot to use Flodesk, but it’s never been a debate since we’ve always been clear on this. We know our market, and taking on high value customers would be a distraction roadmap and support wise.

$10M ARR: regarding growth without a sales team, I shared a bit about our target market’s buying journey in my last reply, but it really comes down to this. Our main goal is to make our members successful. We have a viral loop embedded in the product, it’s the hotmail model. When a new member successfully sends their first email, their audience sees the result of using Flodesk, then at the bottom of the email, they see an invitation to try it out. Same thing happens with word of mouth referrals, you’ll only get them if your users are successful in using your product. For us, it was clear from the beginning that we wouldn’t have a sales team. Our monthly subscription is $38/mo, so there’s no way we’d be able to make the math work unless it was product led growth fueled by customer behavior.

How to decide to focus and avoid distractions? It depends on what you call a distraction. I often tell Rebecca, my cofounder, to get up and go on a walk because she spends so much time on her screen. I’d rather her be doing her best work than staying focused all day long and burn out. The most important part for me here is alignment. All hands, offsites, team meetings, 1:1s, these are so easy to skip early on but they turn out to be the most important for alignment, and if everyone’s on the same page on all the things we say no to (for example with frameworks like the KANO model in reply 1), it’s easy to avoid distractions.

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Thank you Aditi! I still feel inadequate every single day. The earliest learning was how to work with my co-founders. There’s three of us, Rebecca is our Chief Design Officer and Trong is our Chief Technical Officer. To make it more difficult, we had time zone differences and at the beginning we were all working on Flodesk on nights and weekends, so our schedules were all over the place. We had very poor communication. We were all trying to prove to each other that we could do this, which was a big issue. Thankfully we learned pretty quickly that we needed to leave all ego at the door and admit when we didn’t know how to do something, when we were going to be delayed with a deliverable, we let go of the attempt to be perfect and started working on really transparent, frequent communication. As soon as we started interacting with customers (or potential customers at the beginning) this became a lot easier because one thing we were all aligned on from the get go is that what matters the most is that we’re serving our customers well.

On the skillset or competencies side, we are honest with ourselves when we’re no longer able to be the best at what we do, and that means hiring someone. I had to do that with accounting and support. It was hard to let go at the beginning, but it came down to doing the task myself first for as long as possible so I could understand what we’d need to hire for, then I focused on hiring someone who was way better than me at that competency, and just as important, I’d make sure to trust them and let them run independently once they were onboarded.

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Hey Neil! We chose Facebook because it wouldn’t require asking our members to log into and learn a new tool. The goal was to make it super easy for them to find each other and Facebook was already part of their daily routine. We launched the community along with our beta and let it grow organically. When we finally decided we needed to manage it, something really beautiful happened. One of our members in the community had already stepped up and was answering questions voluntarily. She was pointing members out to existing posts with answers or to our help center, and even troubleshooting with them. So we asked if she’d want to join the team and she said yes! It was such an organic process. We’ll probably scale this way if we need to in the future. A few pieces of unsolicited advice here: as a founder, you’ll see many negative comments in your community. That’s okay. If you go in with the expectation that everything is going to be positive all the time, you’ll face disappointment and will probably get some degree of anxiety. It’s best to go in with the expectation that if there are issues or some customers are unhappy, you WANT to hear this. You want to create that space for the hard conversations to be had and leave those posts up. First, it’s the right thing to do. We always want our customers to know all of the struggles they’ll find with Flodesk because in the end we want them to make the right decision for their business. And second, you’ll learn about issues so much faster and you’ll be able to address them properly. It creates an almost immediate feedback loop!

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Hey Ai Ching! Learning how to listen to customers was one of the hardest things! We found two things that helped us get very good insights:

  1. Setting expectations: when we do a demo or an interview, a lot of times our customers will have questions for us that if we answer, it would result in us biasing our customer. For example, if we’re showing them a new builder idea and they ask “is there a way for me to send myself a test” if we say yes or no, we’re missing out the reason why they’re asking. So as soon as we start a call, we let our customer know that to avoid biasing them and to really understand what they need, we might sound awkward, we might avoid answering questions or bounce a question back with another question.

  2. Which brings me to the next and probably most important part of listening—asking why. Let’s take that previous example, our customer asked if they’d be able to send themselves a test. If we take this at face value, we might just build a way for them to send themselves a test. If we ask why once, we might hear that they always send themselves a test before doing a real email send. If we ask why again, we might hear that the act of pressing send gives them anxiety. We ask why again and learn that they might think of one more thing to edit right as they’re sending or that they’re afraid they might have a typo or would’ve forgotten to include a link. With this information, the real why, we decide to include a “send a test” feature, yes, but not where we were planning to build it, but much earlier in the process, right in the editor, since it sounds like part of the creation process and not the sending. With this information, we also decide to add an “undo my send” button to ease the anxiety of pressing that send button.

We don’t yet communicate our roadmap with our customers because things change so often! New priorities come up, fires get in the way, etc., we instead focus on building trust, listening a lot, and shipping often.

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Wow @marthabitar, loving these in-depth takes, thank you! Your grasp of your customers seems so masterful. And it looks like you’ve had that as a core focus from the get go. So I have to ask the customary time-travel question, if you were to go back to early 2019, would you change anything fundamental in your approach to Flodesk? :slight_smile:

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Fun question, Akhilesh! You know what’s interesting? I was doing enterprise sales about 7 years ago and even back then the executives that I’d speak to would want to bypass me in favor of doing a trial of the product. While I think many models still benefit and require enterprise sales, we’ve also been moving in the direction of product led for a while. A hybrid model will likely be the case for those companies who can afford it, but for us, at $38/mo, the sale is more transactional in nature, so we can get away with a self service model. That said, I think learning how to sell is something that will come in handy for almost anything. I learned that it’s not about pitching product, but about finding a pain. If there’s a pain, there’s a space for a solution. Then all we had to do was build the best solution.

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Haha yes! I would freak out less. I remember the first time our system crashed. It was a few months after launching and I thought that would be the end of our journey. We were down for about 4 hours and those were the longest. The next morning, I woke up to about 12 customers telling their audience on IG stories that we broke the internet and that they had to join now. I was so focused on making sure that everything was perfect and would be so deflated every time we’d have one issue, one bug, one upset customer. I would fundamentally change that approach. I now know that sometimes things are going to happen, often things that are out of our control (like that time AWS was down) and what matters most is how we handle those incidents: did we communicate promptly and transparently internally and with our customers? Did we create a plan to get better in the future? Did we do a guilt-free and hyper objective retro? That’s my big one. Would love to hear yours.

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@marthabitar!

As @rajaraman pointed out, your remarkable understanding of customers, described in these detailed responses, just gleams through the systems and habits that power Flodesk. And I’m certain your experiences will help recast what it really means to be customer obsessed. :raised_hands:

Thanks so much for taking the time to do this and sharing a window into the inspiring Flodesk journey! :cherry_blossom: :slight_smile:

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And, as always, thanks to our ever-thoughtful Relay founders @jamesgill, @ncameron, @cathching, @aditi1002, @Akhilesh, @alfred, and @kenped for joining us today! :raised_hands:

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