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Four years ago, Remind Co-founder Brett Kopf searched for “teachers who use Twitter” on Google. He compiled a list of 500 names and reached out to each teacher one at a time. Within weeks, he had scheduled Skype calls or coffee dates with half of them. His methodology was simple. Kopf had two questions that he’d ask and then he’d shut up and listen.

This singular act was the seed of Remind’s obsession with its customers, but it sprouted from fertile ground. To this day, Kopf invokes Mrs. Whitefield, his high school teacher who helped him tackle his learning disabilities, and became as involved in his education as his parents. Remind has built an app that enables teachers to message students and update parents.

Not only does Kopf never forget his teacher, but he’s driven to return the personalized support to the millions of other Mrs. Whitefields who are Remind customers. Every week, the startup receives thousands of support tickets — which balloons to 10,000 when the school year starts — and the team answers each ticket one by one. With presence in more than half of US public schools and over 2 billion messages sent between teachers, students and parents, the startup channels all its efforts to deepen parental involvement, empower teachers and support students.

In this exclusive interview, Kopf unpacks what customer obsession involves and how Remind has deliberately designed its process to never stray far from customer needs and experiences. He’s the first to admit how customer obsession becomes very difficult at scale and offers tips that’ll help you stay the course. For startups that strive to be closer to their customers, but have become inured to empty-calorie buzzwords like customer centricity, read on. Kopf offers tested tactics that will illustrate what it truly means to be obsessed with your customers and help you better absorb, amplify and adapt to their feedback.

To hire, build, fundraise or sell, you need a story. And that story is about your customer. It’s your bones — your skeleton. Without it, you crumple to the floor.

The Difference Between Intention and Obsession

Before Kopf assembled his initial list of 500 teachers, there were about three years of starts and stops. “The inflection point was around the time we relocated to the Bay Area from Chicago. We had gotten into an incubator and received the advice that in some shape or form becomes the gospel for startups: talk to your users constantly, solve their problem and build a simple product,” says Kopf. “The problem with well-worn advice like this is that people hear it, nod and go on their merry way. But we hadn’t heard it summarized like this, as we had no idea what we were doing. It was fresh to us and we realized that most people invert the first two steps: they try to solve their customer’s problem before talking to them constantly — or sometimes even once.”

After that, Kopf wondered how the startup even lasted as long as it did without actually having a plan to speak directly to customers. “It wasn’t laziness or arrogance — it was a fogginess. I knew my customers had a problem and I had a vision of wanting to connect people involved with students. But I didn’t understand which problem to solve,” says Kopf. “You can see the problem now, right? It was all about what I was thinking and figuring out. The bottom line is that I didn’t talk to my customers enough. I couldn’t truly say who they were. I wasn’t obsessed.”

Here’s what it means to be obsessed with your customer:

You know what it’s like to be your customer’s customer.

Kopf’s devotion to teachers is rooted in his formative experience as a student — essentially his customer’s customer. One fast way to enrich your understanding of your customers is to have a clearer understanding of who they serve. “I'm not a teacher. I've never claimed to be. I started a company because I struggled in school since I was five and have a few learning disabilities,” says Kopf. “It’s given me a unique filter when I talk to hundreds of teachers. At some point in our conversations, I listen as my five-year-old self and digest their challenges and needs from that perspective. I better understand how helping them would have helped me as a student.”

How? Don’t internalize it from a distance — experience it. If you’re helping doctors, meet with the types of patients they see. For B2B SaaS startups, how can you better understand the companies they’re selling to? Cast aside the market research reports and outsourced focus groups, and find a way to shadow your customer’s customer.

You know your customers by name.

To know your customers by name means you can talk to more than the few “poster children” cases that are featured in your marketing collateral or pitches. “Like clockwork, within the first 60 seconds of introducing Remind, I speak emotionally about why and for whom we exist. I say that we’ve talked to hundreds of teachers and show photos. This is Jane. This is Amy. This is Sally. She's in Mobile, Alabama,” says Kopf. “You need to be able to name the person who is struggling with the challenge your company is solving. It should be that personal. I’ve found that if you know them by name, you’re more likely to have invested the time to learn about their problem. It’s a good proxy and first step.”

How? Your team and you are the best judge of this test. How often do you reference the same customers in your pitches or meetings? How dated is your anecdote about them? If you’re a startup pinning your pitch to customer stories that are more than a year old, it’s time to refresh your stock — and rekindle those relationships.

We talked to all interested users before building a product. Because of that they’re now in our DNA. It’s why we’re never far from customer challenges.

You meet your customers where they are.

The only gauge possibly more important than knowing customers by name is if they know you by name. “In the early years, I’d have coffee in-person with teachers, often at their houses. I visited their classrooms. I’d meet their families. I’ve flown to other states to meet with teachers. If they know you, they’ll root for your success and also cut you a break if something goes wrong. They’ll think of you as a good human being who had a lapse,” says Kopf. “This is called humanizing the company. It’s a multidimensional relationship. It’s when it becomes less about service level agreements and more about customers feeling that you care in the most fundamental of ways.”

Meeting your customers where they are also means building a product that’s outfitted to be inclusive and therefore can serve a wide range of customers. “Remind is actively used in over 50% of US public schools  — in some of the most well-heeled and underfunded districts in the country. In fact, we have one in ten Title 1 teachers actively using Remind. Meeting customers where they are means supporting every platform — from iPhone to SMS.”

How? At the start, get in the van or on a flight and physically meet people. Do it yourself. There’s no substitute or magic formula to it. As your company grows, it’s true that you can’t be everywhere at once. That’s why feedback must come through every person in your organization. Structurally, Remind has established a lot of ties between customer support, product and engineering. “Feedback comes from everywhere. You have the researcher who’s doing several user research studies or usability tests a week. In addition to our support team, we have local staff in different states who interview teachers for feedback,” says Kopf. “They’re at teacher conferences and visiting up to five schools every few days. They’re hosting events where they don’t sell Remind. They have joined — not just embedded themselves in — the community.”

Brett Kopf at Remind's office

You’ve hired your customer.

Around 10% of Remind’s staff are former teachers. “We continue to hire teachers to be sure this user voice is constantly reinforced in all we do,” says Kopf. “It’s helpful when making product decisions to have them chime in and say, oh I taught for five years in this district and we never did that or, this is what we had to do to communicate with parents. Unlike user groups, they don’t disband after the initial feedback. They are part of the team, feel invested and bring their expertise to bear even after the product ships.”

How? Just as Kopf can always draw from his experience as a student, Remind benefits from having the institutional memory of instructors. Just as it’s valuable to have in-house counsel who intimately knows legalities and the particulars of your startup, consider bringing current or former customers on board. They can be full-time hires or short-term experts-in-residence.

How to Scale a Startup That’s Obsessed With Its Customers

As Remind has grown to 70 employees serving 35 million teachers, students, parents and administrators, it can no longer visit each teacher at each school to get the depth of feedback that helped it launch successfully. Yet it’s found ways to harvest and route feedback into its product development. That’s meant finding ways to communicate with its customers with frequency while being present and responsive and staying accessible to and aware of the educational landscape. Here’s how:

Be frequent.

Be present.

Remind Co-founder Brett Kopf

Be responsive.

Be accessible.

Be aware.

True customer obsession is not when you can’t stop talking about your users. It’s when you don’t stop hearing about them in your organization.

These habits and tactics have not only strengthened Remind’s bond with millions of teachers, but also have distributed the customer relationships that were previously held by its founders to Remind’s full team. The difference between an obsessed founder and obsessed startup is often the difference between leading a company and leading an industry. It starts with knowing the difference between intention and obsession, by knowing your customer’s name, meeting them where they are and knowing firsthand who they serve. Through frequent individual and group outreach via in-person, digital and social channels, startups can achieve customer obsession at scale. The impact compounds and startups will be surprised how their customers and teams find new and impactful ways to contribute.

“We’ve had teachers volunteer to talk to candidates to close recruits or give talks to our team. Employees jump up to share customer stories each week during All Hands. In meetings, they’ll ask ‘Is this teacher-obsessed?’ to get to the heart of a matter when making product decisions,” says Kopf. “All this moves me to my core. Sometimes I tell my team that, if I could everyday, I’d answer support tickets because I love solving problems for teachers. That's why customer obsession is such an integral, inclusive facet of our company. That's why we answer every single support ticket one by one. Everyone has a Mrs. Whitefield.”

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