“Listen Carefully to Your Customers—but Don’t Build What They Ask For”
Interview with Tandem CEO and Co-founder Rajiv Ayyangar.
We all know that remote work and distributed companies are a little different from the traditional office setting. There’s always a little bit of magic that’s lost when you don’t have those informal interactions at the office. But in a world that’s becoming increasingly remote and distributed, one startup is trying to replicate the feeling of being in an office. Tandem is a virtual office app that aims to bring back the serendipity of an office setting, even when the team is working remotely.
Tandem CEO and co-founder Rajiv Ayyangar joined startup coach Roland Siebelink on this week’s episode of the Midstage Startup Momentum Podcast. Rajiv talked about the inspiration for Tandem and the importance of collaboration. The two also discussed how Tandem got started and the important lessons Rajiv and his co-founders have learned along the way.
- The advantages of having a team-first mentality when launching a startup.
- The best way for a startup to discover its blindspots as quickly as possible.
- The importance of keeping growth and convergence separated.
- Why it was helpful for Tandem to set company-wide OKRs earlier than other startups.
- Why you shouldn’t value the feedback you receive from every customer equally.
- The pros and cons of using your own product.
Roland Siebelink: Hello and welcome to the Midstage Startup Momentum Podcast. My name is Roland Siebelink and I’m a startup coach for mid-stage startups. And today with us we have one of the most amazing founders and CEOs that we have here in the Bay Area, it’s Rajiv Ayyangar, who is the co-founder and CEO of Tandem Chat. Hello, Rajiv. How are you today?
Rajiv Ayyangar: Hello, Roland. Great to be here.
Roland Siebelink: Excellent. Tell us more, what does the company do and what difference does it make for whom in the world?
Rajiv Ayyangar: Tandem is a virtual office for your team. It’s a desktop app and mobile where you can see who’s online. You can talk in one click. And it brings back the serendipity and creativity of working together in an office. We started a company very briefly when my co-founders and I were friends from previous startups. We were working on a different idea. Both of them had kids, and so we all of a sudden went remote and we really felt the difference in the collaboration. We started prototyping an app that later became Tandem.
Roland Siebelink: Excellent. I understand this was something you were working on pre-pandemic already.
Rajiv Ayyangar: Yes, we were working on it before the pandemic already. Even before the pandemic, every company at some scale starts to become distributed. There was already a huge need. I think that the pandemic accelerated the transformation that was happening all along.
Roland Siebelink: Excellent. Yes. That’s definitely the story I’ve heard from many startups. It sounds like you’ve been with your co-founders working in a collaboration space for a while then, so can you tell us a little bit about the history before Tandem?
Rajiv Ayyangar: Absolutely. One of my co-founders, Bernat, I met him - we were on the founding team of a productivity startup, Aviate, which was an Android home screen that showed you the apps that you needed at the moment it’s necessary. We worked together on that startup and then our team got acquired into Yahoo, where we worked on Aviate at Yahoo. And that’s where we met Tim, our third co-founder.
Tim previously founded another productivity startup, a to-do list on Android that grew to around six million users and was acquired into Yahoo before us. And we all three worked on Aviate at Yahoo together. And that’s where - I knew Bernat was the best designer I’d ever worked with. Tim is the best engineer I’ve ever worked with. We have to do something together. After Yahoo, we would brainstorm and come up with ideas together until we decided to start something.
Roland Siebelink: Excellent. Why the passion for the collaboration space?
Rajiv Ayyangar: For me, I’ve always felt that when you think together - actually think together - you can go farther, explore farther than you can alone. I remember from some of my earliest memories, in college, 2 a.m., working on a problem set where you have that Eureka moment, where you really feel like you’re thinking together and breaking down problems together. For me, that’s just the best feeling. It’s how you make friends, lifelong friends at work. It’s part of what makes work fun, what makes it feel like an adventure together.
We started the company, partly for an idea, but mainly to work together. We felt like we could do many different things, but if we’re collaborating, it’s gonna be great. And so, when we went remote all of a sudden, we lost a big chunk of that collaboration that caused us to look inward and say, “How can we get this back? How can we feel like a team again?”
Roland Siebelink: It’s really almost like a chemistry based startup, if I get that right.
Rajiv Ayyangar: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. It was team first.
Roland Siebelink: Okay, because I was just actually writing up a blog post about “Should startups be problem-first or technology-first.” And thank you for adding another perspective to that, which could be team first.
Rajiv Ayyangar: Absolutely. I’m biased, but I think it’s the best reason to do a startup. What happens often in the early stages is you change your idea. And that can be a small change in direction. It can be the same problem, same market, different format. Or it could be a large change.
We worked in cryptocurrency, we worked in personal finance, we explored analytics. We explored a lot of different areas. And on one hand, those extreme shifts are very challenging. But on the other hand, if you’re doing it for the team, it’s almost as if I got to work on four startups with two friends rather than just one. There’s a fun aspect to it. If you start for the team, you have a lot more flexibility on what you can work on.
Roland Siebelink: Okay. That’s very good. Very good to hear. Rajiv, one way in which you can get the team working better together - as I hear from many founders - is to have relatively clearly defined responsibilities or roles, if you will. Dave McClure used to call it the ideal founding team of the hacker, the hipster, and the hustler. Is that something that you experienced in your team as well?
Rajiv Ayyangar: Yeah, I think that is a real thing. I work on product, Bernat primarily on design, Tim primarily on engineering. We do have our areas of ownership. At the same time, we overlap a lot, especially on product because we’re making a tool for collaboration in the productivity space. We all have a lot of insight on that. A lot of overlap but clear areas of ownership. I think that helps a lot.
By contrast, we do know many startups where it’s maybe two engineers or two more similar people. And on one hand, that can lead to some really powerful collaboration. On the other hand, it’s easier to lock horns a bit. There are pros and cons to both.
Roland Siebelink: Have you seen some of these startups then potentially also having problems with blind spots? Certain areas such as building a go-to market that none of the founders really have much experience let alone passion in.
Rajiv Ayyangar: That can happen, definitely. Although, as an early stage founder, there are so many blind spots. I almost lean toward If you have alignment and you move quickly, you’ll quickly discover your blind spots. And the real failure mode is either being afraid to commit and move quickly or not being able to agree on the direction in the early founding team. And that’s something that we had to work through a lot. Three founders trying to figure out which direction to go. That’s something that I think we developed a pretty good framework for as we went along that really let us commit to a direction without necessarily getting everybody on board or getting complete consensus.
Roland Siebelink: I definitely am interested in hearing a little bit more about that. I know we’re still sticking to the early stage and we also want to move more to the mid-stage soon, but how did you do that? You mentioned you were exploring four or five completely different areas. At what point were you able to make the decision, and on what basis, to move on from one to a new field?
Rajiv Ayyangar: Yeah. The most useful framework that we developed was thinking about growth and convergence as two separate modes, where growth is elaborating on the idea, you’re growing the idea into its strongest form. And then convergence is you’re applying critical pressure to see if this is something that we actually have research to work on? Does this idea have a future? What is the most efficient way to test or validate this idea?
And the reason we found it really helpful to separate these modes is because - there are a couple of reasons. One, early ideas are fragile. You don’t have any evidence. You have your own conviction. And it’s very easy to tear down the early ideas. And often you need to go through a bad idea to get to a good idea. It’s very possible to prematurely prune these ideas. The goal is to get an idea that’s strong enough that when you converge, you forge something that you can then execute on.
The second reason we found this is super important is it allowed us as a trio of founders to explore the swings of “This idea has a lot of promise, and then let’s see if we can tear it down.” And the amplitude of creativity and convergence is much greater, whereas you don’t intentionally align on whether we are together growing this idea or we are together converging. What tends to happen a lot is one person’s excited about an idea. Somebody else is not as excited about it. And so it evens out and you end up with a deadlock and no creative amplitude. And so, in order for an idea to reach that - we say, escape velocity of group conviction - you need to allow yourselves to be fully in growth mode or fully in conversion mode.
Roland Siebelink: I love that. It only brings to mind the six thinking hats that is one of those frameworks to also force people to take on a certain perspective, but I think it’s also even related to what is great about OKRs. You always have the inspiring side separate from the “okay now let’s measure it” side. Almost the right brain versus the left brain. Would you say that’s all a little bit in the same realm?
Rajiv Ayyangar: I think there’s a connection there as well. And something that we haven’t talked about too much, but we did company-wide OKRs maybe much earlier than most companies would. We found it very helpful from a motivation standpoint, alignment standpoint, just helping keep ourselves accountable and helping direct our efforts and focus our efforts.
Roland Siebelink: Very good. It’s good to see that even at the early stage, those are very good frameworks to help drive higher performance. Then Tandem became a company that broke through this “let’s try it out mode” and then you started to have traction. Let’s move a little bit to that midstage. What made you realize you had a degree of product-market fit and what happened afterwards?
Rajiv Ayyangar: Like many companies, you try to launch multiple times to see if it resonates and to get better at explaining what’s happening. We launched several times where nobody really noticed, but what really clicked was when we isolated the core of the app, which was seeing who’s around and talking in a click. And we realized that the best way to explain what we were doing was as a virtual office. The virtual office started out as us searching for a way to explain what our app delivered in a way that people could understand and try it out.
And now it’s become a huge category in and of itself. It’s real-time communication within the company. Breaking out of the conference-call model and providing a much lower friction way to talk. And there are several approaches that have their merits, but settling on the virtual office for remote teams was a critical step for us.
When we launched - I think on Product Hunt about two years ago - that was when things really started resonating. We got just a ton of teams signing up, giving us feedback, telling us where the product was broken, complaining about it. All of these things were such good, good signs. Of course, it felt hard in the moment, but this was the market pulling things into existence.
What happened, as you might imagine when COVID hit, was an order of magnitude more intense. And that really put a lot of pressure on us to scale the team, scale the infrastructure. But that early sign was that Product Hunt launch. We’ve launched previous products on Product Hunt. I would actually recommend it to anybody who’s thinking about an early-stage idea because whether things resonate strongly or weakly, you get a lot of feedback.
Roland Siebelink: How much further has the journey gone in the meanwhile? How should I imagine Tandem as what size company? What can you share in terms of growth or revenue or employee number?
Rajiv Ayyangar: Yeah, absolutely. We’re smaller than most people think. We’re used by around 1,000 companies around the world. A surprising amount of traction in many places, Africa, Europe, Asia. It’s truly global, which is most challenging from an infrastructure standpoint and just really rewarding. My parents are from India and the Philippines. My co-founder was born in Spain. Other co-founder was born in Shanghai. We’re a global team. It’s really rewarding to be able to help companies around the world.
And we’re used in companies from seed-stage startups to Fortune 500s. And that’s an amazing range. That does create a product and design challenge. But it’s really a confirmation that working together with people, there’s some things that are fundamental. No matter what size company, what stage of the company, the need to collaborate, the need to have spontaneous conversations, the need to talk in the hallways before and after meetings, the need to connect with your coworkers. This is all fundamental.
And so the challenge for us in this season is taking the things that are working at the team level and at the multi-team level, and making sure they work at the organizational level in different industries. Taking things that worked within the tech industry and highly collaborative information work and making sure they work in the other adjacent industries that are adopting.
Roland Siebelink: How do you make sure you don’t target your market too broadly and potentially start diluting your value proposition to such a degree that nobody really identifies with it anymore?
Rajiv Ayyangar: It’s such an important question. And I think the answer is you have to be a little bit more ruthless than you think about who you’re going to focus on. When you think about what other industry do you want to serve, you can have a long-term view, but how you get there has to be a narrow path. While we have teams at companies of all sizes, at any given point, we have a certain company size that we’re more focused on, that we’re listening to more closely.
Right now, it’s around the Series A, Series B range, where we have many teams at larger companies that we are supporting because there’s a lot of similarity. But in terms of thinking about the organizational level and the next set of features that we’re building, we’re focused on that Series A, Series B range.
Roland Siebelink: Okay. Series A, Series B, does it then imply essentially that you are focusing primarily on tech companies as well?
You’re just familiar with them, right? Does it help to have maybe still many friends and inside knowledge of these companies? Is that still something you rely on at this stage?
Rajiv Ayyangar: Yes, absolutely. I think you have to have deep empathy for your customer, and it helps if you are similar to the customer. I think that there is something truly special about working on collaboration apps, which is that we live in Tandem itself. We live in the product. It’s this beautiful flywheel of when we improve Tandem, we ourselves work better. And we can also share that with our users. That’s something that I think is very unique to productivity. It’s why all three of us have worked in productivity for a long time. It’s a really fun and really rare thing to be able to do.
Roland Siebelink: Talk About scratching your own itch. It’s like you’re scratching it all day long, essentially.
Rajiv Ayyangar: Absolutely. And on the product and design side, there is a challenge with that, which is that when you are the user, it’s tempting to extrapolate too far from what you like. You have to check your intuition with just tons and tons of hours talking to users, having them tell you why your product is terrible, why it’s not working for them. It keeps you grounded, keeps you moving forward. It keeps you humble.
Roland Siebelink: Not trying to adopt the Steve jobs syndrome, in other words. “I know better than my customers what they need.” I see too many founders - in Silicon Valley, in particular - that feel that that might be an easier way, but I don’t see much success with it, to be honest.
Rajiv Ayyangar: Yeah. I’d have to agree. There’s one model that I like is to listen very, very closely to your users but don’t build what they’re asking for, build to the underlying need, which I think is a nice framework. It’s a combination of listening and not listening.
Roland Siebelink: You did say you still rely a lot on companies that you know, where you have friends, where you have some inside knowledge. How does that then scale to a bigger go-to market to ultimately going beyond just the direct companies around you that look and feel just like your own.
Rajiv Ayyangar: I’ll answer in terms of how companies find us and then in terms of how we build the product. In terms of how companies find us, the term product led growth has been thrown around a lot. I think that describes what we are seeing with people finding us. Most people find us through a colleague or a friend through word of mouth, through Twitter, through social media. And I think that’s a Testament to when you build something that’s delightful that people love, they tell each other. And we’re in a wonderful era where a team at Netflix can find Tandem and decide to use it. You have the freedom to use the best tools, which is amazing. That’s the main way people find us.
Now, what that means is that we do have a lot of types of teams and companies that are not maybe exactly who we’re designing for, who are coming in and they can request. And so, that’s where we do have to apply some rigor on who we listen to, who we listened to the most closely. There are some things like the general call experience, reliability, that, of course, we listen to everybody. But then there are things, especially around the organizational dynamics, how closed to make Tandem, how open to make Tandem, how transparent, where we do have to make sure we’re listening to the right set of teams. And then when we add an adjacent segment. We have to make sure that “Yes, this is not going to distract us from our core mission.” Because eventually we want to help everybody work together, everybody think together, everybody be connected, but we need to sequence out who we fit to first.
Roland Siebelink: How big do you see Tandem becoming?
Rajiv Ayyangar: I think that there’s not much of a limit there. If you think about what communications is like, we’re living in this age where digital communications is sitting in the flow of how we work on different apps, how we talk to each other, how we send information to each other. And right now there’s an enormous gap between what it feels like to work distributed and what it can feel like to work in person. I think closing that gap - we’re just getting started. Where we see this going is a future where if you think back on the last week, you can’t recall which of your teammates were in person, which were at home, which were remote. It’s all fluid. It’s all equally connected. That will just transform how we think about work.
Roland Siebelink: I love that vision. It’s so compelling and so tangible. It’s really, really awesome, Rajiv.
Rajiv, tell me, what’s the next big challenge for a Tandem and what can any listeners to this podcast potentially help you with? What are you looking for? How can they contribute to Tandem?
Rajiv Ayyangar: I think the question for us is how can we help you? How can we help the listeners? Especially companies that are scaling, collaboration is so important. The way you bring new employees into the company is so important. We want to make sure that every company that wants to use Tandem, that needs a virtual office, can use it. If you are feeling the need on your team, If you are a distributed team, please try Tandem out. If you have any questions, contact us. We’re here to support you.
Roland Siebelink: Okay, perfect. Of course, any investors that might potentially be looking to be part of a next round - where you have not yet commented, if that’s in the cards or not, and I’ll leave that open - I’m happy to provide introductions to Rajiv as well, of course. If that’s welcome for investors among our audience.
What’s the last word of advice, Rajiv, if you think of listeners to this podcast, typically founders a little bit behind you in their journey. What’s the one word of advice you would give them?
Rajiv Ayyangar: If you want to go fast, you know, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.
Roland Siebelink: That’s really what you’ve experienced, huh?
Rajiv Ayyangar: And I think that in so many ways we create relationships through talking. We feed off each other’s thoughts. I think this is another thing I’d say. A lot of people have experienced the shift to remote work as replacing the hallway conversations with endless zoom calls. I think we all know that endless scheduled zoom calls are not collaboration. But don’t then go to, “We shouldn’t talk to each other.” Still the best way to collaborate is to think together in real time.
And look for other ways to do that. And I think with tandem, with other virtual offices, a lot more is opening up where you can recover the more spontaneous conversations, the water cooler chats, the brainstorms in the office. Don’t give up on real-time collaboration cause it’s actually starting to become more flexible and more powerful than what we’re used to in the office. Watch the space and keep experimenting with your team.
Roland Siebelink: Yeah. If I might add to that, the startups we coach, I definitely see those that are able to embrace this new future on its own terms and say, “Let’s not just try to mimic what we did in the office, but let’s just embrace this new reality and embrace the flexibility and become remote-first companies.” I think those are the most successful ones for sure. And any single one of them should be using Tandem.
Well, thank you so much, Rajiv Ayyangar, the co-founder and CEO of Tandem. This was an absolute honor to have you on this podcast.
Rajiv Ayyangar: Thanks so much, Roland. It was a great conversation and just the topic that we care about a ton. It’s great to share a little bit and I hope that your listeners will try Tandem and tell us where it’s broken and tell us where we need to make it better. That motivates us a ton.
Roland Siebelink: Okay. Just for the sake of the listeners, the URL is…
Rajiv Ayyangar: Tandem.Chat.
Roland Siebelink: Tandem.Chat. Excellent. I will guide everyone there, and thank you so much, Rajiv, once again for joining the Midstage Startup Momentum Podcast.
Rajiv Ayyangar: Sounds good. Tandem.Chat or @Tandem on Twitter. Excellent.
Roland Siebelink: Even better. Thank you so much, Rajiv.
Roland Siebelink talks all things tech startup and bring you interviews with tech cofounders across the world.