Pivots, Transparency, and 2018 Learnings at Hugo

Josh Lowy
December 21, 2018

Pivoting from Hugo to Hugo

Hugo as you know it today was born out of solving a problem for ourselves when we faced a number of challenges with the original product we set out to build. At the time, we were still focused on meetings, but with a solution targeted towards meeting preparation for individuals. It was clear that we hadn’t achieved product-market fit. We struggled to consistently deliver quality and there was low willingness to pay - a bad combination! At the same time, we couldn't agree as a team on a shared set of problems that we should prioritize to reverse our trajectory. Darren (my co-founder) and I spent an enormous amount of time and energy trying to get alignment around what our customers biggest pain points were and how to respond in order to save ourselves.

While there was uncertainty around what product changes we needed to make, Darren and I were certain that we wouldn’t find those answers without team alignment. So we built a proof of concept (POC) into the product that allowed us to bring the team into the room with each customer - meeting notes would be posted to a group Slack channel in real-time, and we quickly added the ability to create Trello cards from those notes too. We noticed change almost overnight - now when we were running around town chasing people for feedback, everyone back at the office was plugged in to that firehose. Even better, prioritization in roadmap sessions was easy because:

a) We had attribution between a feature request and target customers.

b) Problem-solving was more organic because now our team could weigh in on solutions as a result of reading notes from customer conversations.

Everything used to be an expensive, top-down process. Darren and I would have to aggregate customer insights, package them up based on patterns, come up with some possible solutions and then share them with the team in one big fat weekly reveal session (that always ran over time!). With our Hugo hack, all of this effort disappeared. We started to work more effectively as a team, while building a product that turned out to be more valuable to our customers too.

We started to realize the usefulness of our hack for others when showing it during our research - the company’s we were speaking to were managing 60-100 different SaaS tools on average. In a world where cross-functional collaboration was so important, team alignment was tough because each team ran their workflows in a tool that no one else had access to and in trying to form a full picture, everyone was actually looking through a different keyhole.

People saw in Hugo, a way to break down these information silos without having to abandon their existing tools. We had been on the wrong side of meetings the whole time! While we focused our initial efforts on a solution for meeting preparation, our customers really needed help with what happens after a meeting - what was said, who else needs to know about it and who needs to take action.

Hugo has obviously evolved significantly since then. That is due to the strength of our engineering team along with some guiding principles that inform how we operate as a broader team - we optimize ourselves to run faster and faster feedback loops, opting for less planning and cheaper lessons. Our customers can also be blown away by the speed at which we implement their input. Even by start-up standards, the compounding nature of this process has lead to massive progress in a short period of time.

This context is important in order to appreciate the biggest lesson that we learned this year - how to build a product and business when our ability to predict even in the short term was getting harder and harder. Because we move at fast pace, we generate new information and run in to new challenges fas too. Additionally, our peers and customers are changing at a faster and faster rate as our world becomes more interconnected - everything from new technology becoming available to us via an API (data enrichment, machine learning) to shifts in real estate (co-working) and job trends (flexible workforces) that mean we can change our team cost structures. We couldn’t shake the feeling that we were standing on quicksand. So we embraced the reality that we would constantly face unforeseen challenges, and opted for the inverse of prediction - accept that we don’t know what we don’t know and to be optimizing for rapid adaptation as new information is generated.

The combination of fast feedback loops, and running our team on the new Hugo product meant we were primed for adaptability. Let me share some examples. By default, everyone on the team is tapped into the firehose of feedback that we generate when talking to customers as well as each other. Second, team input isn’t constrained by role, we operate as an idea-meritocracy so that anyone can provide product, growth, and even pricing input on a regular basis regardless of their designated daily responsibilities. Thirdly, we keep our development cycles short (max 1-2 weeks), so that we're able to reduce the costs of a mistake and respond to new information within days rather than months.

This combination of open access to information, decentralized input and short development cycles means that we operate under the assumption that we immediately focus on what the most pressing question will be for us in a few weeks and what the best answer to that question may be. Now, we identify that question, surface the best answer from our team, and execute a new plan (or tweak to the old one) faster than anyone else! Run that loop on repeat, and you’re in business!

Pervasive Transparency

At Hugo, transparency impacts our internal approach to product development as well as the way we interact with our customers.

Hugo is open by default. Notes are accessible to everyone else in the team, unless explicitly made private (most apps are the inverse), and our customers come to us to improve how they work together by breaking down team silos. If you're someone who is focused on protection of information and compartmentalizing your teams, Hugo is not for you. Embracing this as our product identity meant we could be bolder about how our product differentiates from the crowd, and having an open way of thinking means that gap will only widen over time.

Aside from making it seamless for notes to be shared across teams, transparency has also been our guiding principle in dealing with customers. We're lucky to have a devoted base of users who aren’t shy to share their feedback. In return, we include them in the development process. We share concept designs, feature descriptions and eventually beta-testing prior to public release. Just as the inclusion of the Hugo team in lateral matters has increased the quality of our work, allowing our customers to shape features throughout the first few iterations has taken Hugo to a new level entirely. For example, the new v1 of Hugo focused on pushing information out from a meeting, to other teammates who weren’t in the room. Some users started to use our templates feature to save notes early, as a hack to share an agenda with attendees ahead of time. Since we built a native agendas feature that can be shared with attendees, existing Hugo customers started to grow their team size because the tool could now serve as a platform for the whole company.

This was definitely a subconscious decision. As people asked for more involvement we just tried to keep up with their demands. But reflecting on this past year has made us realize how important the process was, and we will adopt it as a key KPI for 2019.

Casualization of Customer Support

In addition to embracing customer criticism, we have also learned the power of 'casualizing' customer support. We made a decision early on to integrate customer chat into the product to enable real-time problem resolution and to elevate the importance of customer dialogue. Our approach was simple - any user should be able to initiate a conversation with a member of the team, and we should be available to respond as quickly as we would to a text from a friend.

The results have been unbelievable. There is a strong positive correlation between customers who engage in support chat, and the likelihood for their company to convert to a paid account. Not only that, but within this population, users who engaged to complain are more likely to increase their Hugo team size than those who engage to compliment us.

Characteristics of an effective team in 2019

So those are our three big reflections for 2018. As you can see, there is a clear theme that binds these adjacent topics - transparency. Freedom of information is how we surface the best solutions across our rockstar team. It is how we include our most devoted customers in the evolution of Hugo and it's how we position ourselves to be agile and resilient in the face of constant uncertainty.

We have put together some thoughts on what we think will make us a more effective company in 2019, and we would like to share them with you too!

Think of employees as customers

Hugo has a long way to go, but here's how we think about the statement “employees as customers”. One of the most important parts about optimizing Hugo to be resilient, is that change can come from and be implemented by anyone in the team. In order for that to happen, everyone needs to be extremely engaged in and focused on one thought, "What does Hugo need to do to be better?" Better can be in the form of a major feature that will allow us to service new customers, or it could be as simple as improving font legibility to make the product more intuitive to current users.

The future of a resilient company lies in a young team team. Today, young workers value speed,  autonomy and ownership. Or to put it another way, we hate any B.S. that arbitrarily gets in the way of getting stuff done, like company red tape and narrow hierarchies that slow the flow of information. Moving in to 2019, we will embrace this in order to make sure our team is happy with the the company they have chosen to work for - at Hugo, information will flow up, down, and sideways with the least number of nodes required to make a decision. Because one thing is for sure, as our team have had more input in to and influence over the way Hugo operates, our product has improved by an order of magnitude.

Focus on qualitative insights

One of the key thoughts underpinning Hugo in the early days was that meeting knowledge is one of the richest sources of proprietary data that a company generates. Meetings are where you generate customer insights, make decisions about future priorities and no other company on the planet (no matter how much capital they have), can replicate that information. In a world where access to data is no longer a differentiated strategy, conversations and their qualitative insights matter!

Companies that balance their inclusion of qualitative data (QBR calls, customer emails, interview sessions etc), along with quantitative insights are more competitive. First of all, the law of low numbers really plays in your favor. Despite what we would like to think of ourselves, we’re not that unique afterall, and it only takes 5-10 conversations to identify patterns in the needs and preferences of your customer base. Most importantly, conversations give context. Asking someone “why?” 5 times is how you achieve the empathy required to speak their language (literally use the words that they use), really know the job to be done and appreciate the frustrations they face at work every day.

Real human-to-human conversations with your customers also increase investment and advocacy from them. Feedback sessions allow your customers to be brought into the evolution of your product, giving them agency and empowering them to become your biggest fans.

Casualization of customer support

I touched on this earlier, and again this is something we will double down on in 2019. Think back to a time where you made the effort to submit a feature request or report a bug to a company you recently purchased from (personally or at work), and all you got back from them was a vague email full of non-commitments that was clearly a support template, and it took the rep three days to respond!

As tech consumers, we would bend over backwards for the companies that allow us to just get in touch with a real human and can give us simple answers on how to solve a problem or if a feature request seems reasonable in the future.

That's what we will continue to work on at Hugo, making our team as approachable as texting a friend, and trying to be upfront whenever we can.

What we’ve really come to understand this year is that building Hugo to solve our own problems means that we’re our first, best customer. And what we want for ourselves is what we offer our users - they want to destroy team silos, achieve autonomy at work, and to just focus on doing the right things rather than doing things right.

Our world today is too complex, so we’ve discarded prediction in place of adaptation. I could not have told you at the beginning of this year, what our product would look like by the end of 2018. But I could have told you our methodology to surface the right way forward.

Now, as we look to accomplish even more in 2019, we’ll modify these frameworks to be even more open and even more decentralized, from the inside-out!

Learn more about Hugo and give us your valuable feedback by exploring your own account. We look forward to hearing from you!


Hugo. Connected Meeting Notes

Centralized, searchable meeting notes that connect with your favorite tools.
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