Intercom CEO Karen Peacock: ‘I do miss seeing people live’
Interview: Covid has boosted demand for the company’s communications platform
Karen Peacock, chief executive of Intercom: ‘Our new-customer acquisitions have accelerated since the pandemic started. We’re beating all of our sales goals’
Karen Peacock stepped into the role of Intercom chief executive in the midst of one of the strangest periods in recent memory. The coronavirus pandemic was in full swing, particularly in the US, where Irish-founded Intercom has an office in San Francisco.
The Bay Area was among the first parts of the US to recognise the danger posed by Covid-19 and react accordingly, declaring a state of emergency in February. In Dublin, where Intercom has a major presence, the government in March urged people to work from home where possible.
Like many businesses, Intercom closed its offices to safeguard the health of employees, turning to remote working instead. Weeks have turned into months and, although some restrictions have lifted, there is always the danger of a return to tougher measures, as was seen in Ireland this week.
So when Peacock took on the mantle of chief executive on July 1st, it was a remote handover.
“I personally miss seeing people live, and getting to interact face-to-face,” she says. “The type of work that we do, we have such great tools that we’re able to be very efficient during this time, but I do miss seeing people live.”
Founded by Eoghan McCabe, Des Traynor, Ciarán Lee and David Barrett in 2011 in Dublin, Intercom develops products that seem tailor-made for businesses in a pandemic. Its software platform brings messaging products for sales, marketing and customer support together, and enables companies to communicate easily with customers through their own websites and apps, on social media and by email.
Peacock joined the company as chief operating officer in 2017 with an impressive track record. With a BA from Harvard and an MBA from Stanford, she worked with Intuit from 2002 to 2017, ultimately rising to become senior vice-president at the company, in charge of its small business product. Under her leadership, the division saw its revenues grow to $2.5 billion, as Intuit’s market cap jumped from $7 billion to $40 billion.
Almost three years to the day she was officially announced as Intercom’s chief operating officer, Peacock was named as chief executive, succeeding co-founder McCabe. It wasn’t a surprise to her that she was being considered for the top role; it was always part of the plan.
“When Eoghan and I first started talking a little over three years ago, one of the things that he had shared with me was that at some point he was interested in moving into a chairman role and, in an ideal world, would be bringing on someone as COO who would eventually become the CEO,” she says.
“We didn’t have any particular timeline, it wasn’t a set thing, but that was always the intention and always Eoghan’s vision, so that he could continue to be involved with the company but from the board level, be part of helping on the product strategy and vision side, and transition to a new CEO for a new chapter of growth as we get bigger and bigger as a company and as we start to really scale.”
The company has certainly achieved that. In January, it recorded more than $150 million in annual recurring revenue. Two years ago, it achieved “unicorn” status – a valuation over $1 billion – after it raised $125 million in funding.
It seems as if all roads will eventually lead to an IPO. The business has momentum, despite the ongoing pandemic. It’s not that surprising. In a year when we have all had to stay as far apart as we can from each other, the ability to communicate with customers efficiently and effectively is more important to companies than ever.
Intercom has made that its business, and it was what initially attracted Peacock to the company.
“The first time I saw the Intercom product four years ago, it was a lightning bolt moment for me. I’m a product person myself; I instantly saw both what it was at that time and what it could become over time, and I realised that was the product I had needed in every SaaS business I had ever run,” she says. “This is something big, this is something that could really help businesses connect with their customers, build relationships and drive growth, and that’s what really drew me to Intercom: both the vision and the breakthrough nature of the product, and the value that I saw Intercom could and was delivering to customers.”
The company offers a conversational relationship platform to help businesses build better customer relationships and drive faster growth through real-time personal messenger-based communication.
“How do you communicate with friends? That is your expectation as a consumer. That’s my expectation as a consumer. The same shift is happening for how businesses connect with their customers, and how customers expect to be able to connect with businesses. Covid has accelerated this,” she says.
“In this time, customer relationships are more important than ever for businesses to succeed. We’ve seen overnight that businesses have had to shift to fully online and they need to maintain those relationships and scale. It’ s super critical and it’s hard.
“Conversational tech like our business messenger increases the efficiency of sales, support marketing teams to connect with customers and prospects online at scale.”
Businesses seem to agree. “Our new-customer acquisitions have accelerated since the pandemic started. We’re beating all of our sales goals. We’re seeing larger and larger customers using Intercom.”
Peacock is considered key in helping Intercom expand beyond its core client base – typically early-adopter technology companies – into more household names. The company has signed up companies such as Facebook and Amazon, and in August announced a series of new products aimed at larger businesses and enterprises. That includes powerful new management tools to bring the efficiency, scale and workflow management needed for large businesses and the personal touch of conversational support.
Aside from her role in Intercom, Peacock is a member of Dropbox’s board, and in 2019 she was named as one of the 50 most powerful women in technology by the National Diversity Council in the US. She speaks regularly on women in technology and the need for diversity in the industry.
Peacock has joined an elite club with her elevation to chief executive: only 6 per cent of CEOs in the US are female. Things are changing in the industry, but not dramatically.
“I see some changes but those changes are slow,” she says. “ The tech industry overall has a much lower representation of women and key minority groups. This is an area that we, as an industry, need to deeply invest in, getting people the right opportunities. Companies that are more diverse, I believe, are better set up for success.”
It’s not just lip service; Peacock mentors women and underrepresented minorities to help them get the right opportunities.
It’s a fraught area and Intercom itself has not always had an easy run of it. The company has run into its own difficulties over the years, including allegations of inappropriate behaviour by former chief executive McCabe. He was later cleared by an independent review. The board, including Peacock, backed him throughout the investigation.
Ultimately, Peacock says, the company is trying to foster a culture that is “deeply caring and respectful”.
“I think there is more than we can do and will do, and the whole tech industry also should do, and I hope will do, to foster more diversity and inclusion.”
Part of that culture is having open lines of communication to share new ideas and a certain amount of freedom to work on projects people feel are worth it.
It’s known as “wiggle week”, similar to Google’s 20 per cent time that allows staff to work on their own projects. For engineering purposes, Intercom’s quarters are broken into two six-week cycles, each with their specific goals. But there is always some time left over, a week that doesn’t fit that timeframe. That became wiggle week, and it is now a regular part of the calendar since it was first run in 2017.
“We have a weekly show-and-tell, where people get up and show what they’ve built,” says Peacock. “That’s part of our culture as well – constantly building, constantly trying new things and sharing new ideas. We’ve always been a company that has been about substance, and about building great products and having fun while doing it.”
So where does Intercom go from here? With Peacock at the helm, the company is targeting further growth. It is planning more investment in research and development as it continues to target bigger customers.
“Our goal is to build products that are so useful and so amazing that our customers can’t imagine wanting to go back to the old way of doing things.”
Dublin will remain a key strategic office for Intercom – even while staff cannot work from the physical office – and there are plans to hire more staff for the Irish operations. In December, Intercom signed an 18-year lease for the Cadenza building on Earlsfort Terrace; one would imagine it intends to use that space once the pandemic has ended rather than leave it lying empty.
There are some benefits to remote working, though. For Peacock, it meant eliminating a one-hour commute each way between her home and the office. “I’m saving myself roughly 10 hours a week that I can put into whatever I choose to do. I’m getting a little more exercise,” she says.
There is also the added benefit of more family time. Peacock is married with two teenage children who have also had their lives disrupted by the pandemic.
“I’m able to have lunch with my husband and kids every day, which was something I’d never done before. It’s nice to get more family time,” she says.
Like all of us, there have been family celebrations for Peacock that were marked in a very different way than anticipated. Her son’s 16th birthday fell during the initial lockdown period. “That was probably not his preferred way of spending his 16th birthday – hanging out with Mom, Dad and his little sister,” she says.
Her 20th wedding anniversary also fell during that first round of lockdowns. “The kids decorated our diningroom, and served us this nice dinner with candles. It was really a wonderful, thoughtful thing, so I will always remember that. It’s definitely forging new memories, but I do miss seeing people.
“The overall economic toll that this is taking on the world is very sad and concerning. The overall death toll and health toll is devastating. That’s why we wanted to quickly act and do everything we could to support folks in the fight against Covid.”
The company has been engaging with customers who have been badly hit by the pandemic to see what is the best way forward for them; Intercom has also offered its products free of charge to non-profit organisations involved in the fight against Covid-19.
Its approach fits with Peacock’s advice: Think of every change as an opportunity.
“Nothing is fixed, you can constantly reinvent yourself,” she says. “What’s new in this time that I can do better?” says Peacock. “And focus on customers. I have always believed if you focus on deeply understanding who your customers are, what they need and delivering real value for them, good things will happen.”