It’s Not About You: Finding Success Through Managing Ego and Focusing on End Users
· 5 min read
Whether playing on a Division I basketball squad fighting to make the playoffs or running a startup technology company reorganizing personnel as it scales, UserZoom Co-founder and Chief Visionary Officer (CVO) Alfonso de la Nuez has been a part of many tough decisions to call on the right talent at the right time. Sometimes this included benching himself when he thought someone else could do a better job.
A staunch advocate of putting team mission before personal stats, Alfonso is also a firm believer in falling in love with the problem you are trying to solve before launching your business. Such a focused mindset can be crucial in gauging the market for your ideas before getting too lost in other distractions.
In addition to identifying UX as a fundamental consideration for any SaaS company building new products, Alfonso also noticed a gap early on between companies’ efforts to prioritize UX, and the costly methods and resources required to effectively collect actionable data about user preferences and behavior.
UserZoom helps companies close that gap, presenting insights about UX in an affordable, efficient manner that reveals information and findings from user interactions with prototypes or live software in hours.
Alfonso spoke with me on an episode of the SaaS Origin Stories podcast about his victories and missteps over the years, and generously shares critical lessons from his experience, which he also outlines in his new book “The Digital Experience Company: Winning in the Digital Economy.”
A Two-Way Mirror to Reflect Reality
Leading up to the dot-com collapse in the early 2000s, many new companies were scoring high valuations, based on management teams’ visions that did not incorporate into business models the actual interactions individuals had with websites and products.
Efforts to test and measure the real-world experiences users were having with digital products were just taking shape, and techniques to record UX interactions started as just that, recordings.
UX consulting company teams like the one Alfonso worked with captured footage with video cameras as test subjects navigated websites, or tried out software products his clients were designing or researching. The subjects were situated in physical labs behind a two-way mirror and instructed to think out loud as they performed tasks designed to assess usability.
Alfonso and his team described themselves as “user advocates” and invited their clients to observe the tests in person from the other side of the mirror. As his customers watched users struggle, Alfonso shares that, “a lot of times, it was funny. Other times, it was more dramatic. The customer would observe from the other side of the room and say, ‘…just click there! Don’t you see? It’s right there! Click there!’”
The client reactions to users failing miserably to utilize their software were so priceless that they ended up prominently featured in marketing efforts to demonstrate the value of such research. Currently, automation and remote accessibility are key selling points of UX research software like UserZoom — features that don’t require quite as much staging.
Full Service or DIY Subscription?
After spending years refining UX research, Alfonso helped to launch UserZoom in 2007, focusing on providing UX insights that were just as revealing as in-person tests, but used software to provide data more quickly and efficiently.
UserZoom began by offering a service-based model, wherein companies would hire the organization to do the work for them. High-touch, consultative sales efforts touted the value of delegating research and measurement efforts out-of-house and gave companies a team of experts ready to work on their behalf.
Initially focusing on sophisticated, advanced clients, the Spanish company secured large contracts with technology juggernauts like Google, which recognized the importance of placing the user at the forefront of product development.
Two years later, around 2009, Alfonso describes having conversations with the tech giant about a different model based on licenses (not services). “Google told us … you guys are great guys, and you provide a great service. [Now] we want the keys to the car.”
As demand for a subscription model grew, UserZoom pivoted to their product, giving customers usernames and passwords to access the UX insight software on their own. The services-based approach fell entirely to the wayside for a period of time and, eventually, a hybrid model offering both services and subscriptions prevailed, essentially creating two very different branches of the company.
“It was hard [basically] running two companies at once,” Alfonso admits. Given the chance to go back, he would hire more people and raise more capital to keep both models in play for the duration of the growth process and allocate more dedicated resources to each approach.
Keeping Some Skin in the Game
Alfonso (originally from Madrid) initially endured significant challenges and hardships helping to build the Spanish company from the ground up on U.S. soil. As UserZoom continued growing, it became apparent that leveraging capital from outside sources could be a wise strategy to maximize the company’s potential.
Networking in places such as the Plug and Play Tech Center in Silicon Valley, Alfonso’s team put considerable time into establishing connections in the industry. That effort paid off — they did not have to solicit investors at all when it came time to raise capital. These contacts could see the value in their product, as well as the patience and strategy the company’s leaders had demonstrated in assessing the market.
Alfonso makes an important distinction between the choices he and his colleagues faced when it came time to compare offers from private equity (PE) and venture capital (VC) firms. PE firms tend to prefer a majority investment, with plenty of control over operations and significant interest in the steady, profitable growth of the company in which they have a stake.
VC firms can have a much different approach, with greater emphasis on minority investment positions, hypergrowth at all costs, and rapidly increasing market share.
In addition to assessing the culture, mission and goals of PE and VC, Alfonso recommends discussing motives and strategic plans up front with investors and stepping out of the way at different stages of growth.
Alfonso points to his ability to put ego aside as one of the most important factors explaining his current Chief Visionary Officer role at UserZoom. New leadership decided to keep him on board once PE came into the picture, in contrast to the fate of many other executives after a large acquisition: termination.
As he puts it, stepping aside into a different role is “very hard to do when you’ve been the founder and you’ve created a business, and you think that [you’re] Michael Jordan … or Spider-Man, or some sort of superhero — which you are, by the way, because it’s very difficult to do that.”
There’s No Excuse Not To Have a Phenomenal UX
Now that accessible tools exist to gather actionable data fast, Alfonso believes that all SaaS entrepreneurs and leaders would do well to appreciate the competitive advantage that an easy, memorable user experience can provide.
“The user becomes your greatest salesperson,” he explains. Product-led growth (PLG) is a core strategy of many SaaS companies in the current market, and pioneers searching for advice as they build new products can look to the three mistakes Alfonso openly discusses as cautionary tales from his journey to success:
- Employ a hybrid sales model combining subscriptions and services. Looking back, Alfonso thinks that his team missed opportunities by fully dropping the service model for so long.
- Invest earlier in UX design. “I’d hire a product designer and a product leader before I’d hire a salesperson,” Alfonso says.
- Raise capital earlier. Bootstrapping operations can mean saving critical funds and developing a scrappy, resourceful company culture that can yield dividends in many ways. However, suffering doesn’t inherently breed success and leveraging outside capital, in a measured and responsible way, can accelerate wins in a uniquely exponential fashion. Alfonso wishes he had realized that sooner.
Alfonso suggests that humility also played a role in his longevity, and attributes much of his continued accomplishments to the wisdom in asking for help. As he says, “How many people can raise their hand and say, ‘I’m not the right person to make this decision,’ or simply, ‘I don’t know.’”
From having difficult conversations about reorganization to deciding whether to loosen your grip on the reins, Alfonso’s path has not been easy, but has been made easier by understanding the importance of evolving throughout changes and putting the interests of the organization and consumer above your own immediate impulses.
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