Embracing Transparency & Building Culture: Advice from Appcues Founder, Jonathan Kim

Andy Cook
September 2, 2018
Interview with Jonathan Kim

We recently interviewed Jonathan Kim. He’s the founder of Appcues, the user experience platform that helps drive engagement with products and features. Appcues maintains a laser focus on creating the best possible customer experience. Jonathan works to ensure this focus plays a key role in the company culture and each hire they make.

Jonathan shares the cultural values that his team has adopted and the ways in which these values help them recruit new employees. He also touches on how the team embraces transparency from open salaries to learning from their mistakes.

Putting Empathy at the Center of the Company

As a customer-driven company, it’s no surprise that empathy is at the heart of what Jonathan and his team do at Appcues. Being in the business of user experience means that not only does Appcues have to create a powerful, useful product for their customers, but they also have to bear in mind the usage by their customers’ customers.

In order to build empathy with customers, Appcues engineers carry out their own support. It might seem unusual at first, but by taking this approach, the engineers get a first-hand understanding of what the users are enjoying about the product, what they’re finding difficult, and where they need more.

Who better to listen to the problems that users are facing than the people who created the product? Engineers who are directly exposed to this feedback can then take ownership of the problems and figure out solutions themselves.

While there may have been some friction at first, Jonathan points out that engineers now love the idea of carrying out support for their own customers.

“People (the engineers) love it, they love creating something that people will actually use, and when people love the product that they’re building. They get to see that through user testing and hear that through support, both when things go well, and also when they don’t.”

With that in mind, it’s not hard to see why this cycle results in improvements that users really need and want, as well as stronger relationships between Appcues and their customers.

Cultural Values at Appcues

Appcues has five cultural values they follow on a day-to-day basis. We didn’t list these in any specific order, and some carry with them a deeper explanation than others, but it’s a taste of what the company has used to fuel its recent growth and success.

1. Customer first

Solving problems based on the perspective of the Appcues customers, not Appcues itself.

Think back to the engineers who carry out support tasks themselves. If they just assumed users were facing a particular problem, rather than actually clarifying with the user first, would they be in the best possible position to make the correct changes?

2. Keep no secrets

Transparency is crucial, and there’s no better example of transparency than in relation to the way employee salaries are disclosed. As Jonathan mentioned, if two engineers are doing the same work, they should be paid the same amount. Appcues use salary bands to ensure that’s the case.

Jonathan mentions that this is his number one tip for any Founders hiring employees for the first time. An unwavering commitment to transparency can be a powerful and effective way of building a sense of clarity and trust across your entire company as it grows from less than 10 employees to 100s.

“When we first started we didn’t have the same transparency with salary bands and equity… I would [introduce] that 100 times over.”

It can also help you figure out whether a candidate is a good fit for your team.

For example, clearly state before or during an interview that according to company policy, employees are paid using salary bands, and each employee’s band is published for the entire company to see. If a candidate has an issue with this, they probably won’t want the job, and thus, may not be the right cultural fit anyhow.

As Jonathan reiterates,

“All people care about is that they’re not getting cheated. If they believe in your mission and they believe in your company, they just want to know that they’re getting a fair share.”

Oh, and just to guarantee ultra-transparency, all Slack channels and board decks are public.

3. No permission needed

The common way to perceive this is to think that no permissions simply means you can do or create whatever you want. However, while Appcues is happy for their employees to get creative and do what they think is best, they still have processes to follow.

For example, if an engineer thinks she could do an excellent blog post on a particular feature or function, she is more than welcome to, but she’ll follow the same (or similar) process to that of the marketing team.

4. Get it done

Jonathan rightly kept this point concise. The most important thing is that each employee gets their tasks done. They have all the equipment, tools, and autonomy they need at their disposal so getting things done should be their priority. As he puts it himself:

“There’s really no excuse. You’ve got all the information, nothing is holding you back, and at the end of the day it’s what the customer cares about (the product they’re using).”

5. Enjoy the journey

Getting things done is important for the business, but it’s important that employees enjoy what they do too.

Shaping culture as your company grows

Naturally, as a company grows, the culture will tend to change or shift at least a little bit. Since its inception in 2013, Appcues has grown to 42 employees.

In contrast to some startups, Jonathan suggests they didn’t really define their cultural values until they had 10-15 employees. Before then, the approach was to focus heavily on work and creating the product.

Coming into work early, leaving work late, and spending most of your time with headphones on listening to music while grinding out tons of work may feel manageable with a handful of people, but once the team grows, you have to introduce a little more structure.

By clarifying the cultural values and encouraging fun opportunities for team bonding, Appcues was able to begin building a culture that reflected their early employees and the company goals.

Learning from your mistakes

Jonathan admits that Appcues has had good times and bad. As they’ve grown, it became increasingly valuable to lean into the hard times.  A common way for startups to avoid repetitive mistakes is to document the problems or mistakes they make and detail how the team handled them.

Jonathan suggests actually assigning a tactical action to each problem the moment it’s spotted, so that a) it gets fixed quickly, and b) the team can learn from the mistake while it is fresh in their minds.

If something goes wrong on the technical side, the engineering team will occasionally do a postmortem to the entire company. This holds the engineering team to account for their mistakes but also gives them a chance to discuss and refine the process they took to correct any mistakes made.

There’s also value in learning to do this early. As a company grows, it can get harder to admit a mistake. With more people on the team, the possibility of embarrassment increases. Better to practice early on how to admit mistakes, in order to better learn from it.

A Bright Road Ahead

Jonathan sees a lot of success in Appcues’ future. And he notes that this is due almost entirely to having such a strong team with a shared vision of what it means to be customer-driven. This unified belief system and alignment of goals allow Appcues to navigate any new challenges that come their way.