Serial entrepreneur’s expanding his tech success from base in the Valley
Intercom’s Eoghan McCabe puts making internet personal at heart of business
Eoghan McCabe: he is already on his third company Intercom, having seen his second, Exceptional, sold for an undisclosed sum
If you were in any way insecure, Intercom’s chief executive might make you feel a little inadequate. At 31, Eoghan McCabe is already on his third company. His second, Exceptional, was sold for an undisclosed sum, but rumours have it that it was significant. Intercom, meanwhile, has been blazing a trail since he and his co-founders Des Traynor, Ciarán Lee and David Barrett set up the company in 2011.
Simply put, Intercom enables its clients to communicate directly with customers. Its suite of products allows companies to communicate directly with customers via their own website, inside their respective web and mobile apps, and by email.
It’s like a Facebook for companies and their customers, but without the vague status updates and selfies. You can chat with customers or send them stickers and smileys – whatever your preferred way of doing business allows. Most importantly, it gives you all the information you need to communicate with your customers easily and effectively.
There are battle lines being drawn in the industry. On one side, you have the established companies, with their separate tools for marketing, sales and support – all separate, not communicating effectively with other parts of the business and generally being a bit rubbish. In the other corner, you have Intercom, ready to snatch what market share it can by offering customers a more holistic approach to communicating with their own clients.
“The net effect of all these separate tools is that no one in a business is on the same page, and as a result, the customer gets a massively disjointed, messy experience,” McCabe says.
“That’s especially a problem now as all businesses are becoming internet businesses. There are literally now millions of internet businesses, and consumers are increasingly looking for and expecting a far more personal and human experience. So customers being treated like statistics, like just another number, they do not appreciate that.”
In fact, it was McCabe and his co-founders’ own experience with these very siloed systems – what he describes as “old-school, crappy solutions” – that led to the creation of Intercom.
“We’ve always said from the start that our mission is to make internet business personal. We look at the way internet business works today, we look at the old tools that are being used by internet businesses, and we see an opportunity to fundamentally rethink how things are done,” he says. “In our last business Exceptional, we had to use all these old-school tools and it really, really sucked.”
In the last decade or two, things have changed dramatically. It’s a world where email, far from being a revolutionary means of communication, is now considered old school, and one where the personal touch can mean a lot. It’s that personal touch that Intercom is trying to bring to internet businesses.
“The best way to think about us, and the way we describe ourselves, is fundamentally a brand new and better way for every team in an internet business to communicate with their customers,” he says.
“You can talk to the customer when they’re in the product – much like when you’re in a shop, someone will come up directly to you and talk to you there rather than send you an email or send you a letter in the mail.”
Although it has signed up a few high-profile names, Intercom is also aiming itself at the earlier companies. McCabe points out that the newer firms are the future of the industry, so getting in early with them is a good move for the business.
“The first approach that any disruptive technology takes is that it starts at the very bottom of the market for the early stage, the early innovators, the people who haven’t yet adopted these platforms. That’s always a greenfield opportunity for brand new types of technologies,” he says.
And it’s paid off for the firm. Coming into its fourth year of business, Intercom has already raised $66 million in funding, counting the most recent announcement of its series C round. It has 7,000 paying customers – the firm offers a 14-day trial – and it has increased its revenues 100-fold since it went for funding in 2013.
In the past, McCabe has been quoted as saying the company was aiming for the $1 billion valuation. But he refuses to be drawn on how close that actually is.
“I think valuation is something you talk about when you don’t have anything else interesting to say,” he says. “I think valuation is something you can get people excited about in the short term; pinning our dreams and plans on valuation, that would really suggest – if not prove – that was the thing, that this was a wealth generating endeavour. And it’s just not.
“I think wealth and money is respectable. I think anyone who invests in Intercom and works really hard to make this dream come true should be rewarded, and they definitely will be. But we didn’t start this to make money. We started this to build what we know we needed.”
Intercom is unusual in that the co-founders have been through the start-up process twice before – together. It’s a rare thing, McCabe admits, and one that has allowed the company to flourish.
“Founding a company with someone is so tough. It’s an incredibly intense relationship. You need to have your principles aligned, you need to want the same things out of it, you need to share a lot of values.
“There are a lot of speed-dating events for founders where you will go and talk to people for five minutes and then move on to the next seat. Out of that apparently people are supposed to find founders that they’re going to work with for the next 20 years; it makes no sense. It does work out sometimes, but it’s damn hard.”
Irish roots, US HQ
Despite its roots, if you were to refer to Intercom as an Irish start-up, you’d be more than a little off-base. Sure, its founders may be Irish. It even has an Irish office, with its development done out of a Dublin hub that it plans to expand this year. But the company was incorporated in the US, funded by US investors and has its headquarters on the US west coast.
“Calling it an Irish start-up doesn’t do any would-be Irish founders a favour,” says McCabe. “I want them to know that there is real value in being out here [in Silicon Valley] and being among the best in the business.”
Any preconceived notions you have about Silicon Valley and start-ups should be left at the door. Intercom steers clear of valuations, doesn’t reveal its revenue – although it will say that it’s growing at a fast rate – and fails to conform to a single stereotype of what a Silicon Valley start-up should be. There are no football tables or pinball machines. Intercom may be a startup but it’s strictly for people who are serious about their work.
That doesn’t mean the company can’t have fun; but the flip side of starting early enough means that not only are their customers happy, but employees actually get to see their own homes for longer than an hour in the evening.
Disproving the Silicon Valley start-up stereotype gives him a certain satisfaction.
“People think that start-ups are all about acting the idiot and wasting your life; then you come into Intercom and you see the opposite – that really benefits us,” he says.
However, it’s hard to avoid everything. McCabe admits he’s at least tried the latest craze among the tech elite on the west coast: Soylent. The beige goop has found a following among those who need to make the most of their time, and although it’s supposed to be nutritionally balanced, it’s not the most appetising thing to cross your plate.
“Wait ’til you taste it,” he laughs. “The future version of me that meditates, I’ll probably eat Soylent too.”
Getting out of Dublin four years ago was the right move for Intercom and its founders. Sure, there are downsides to the Valley. They can’t pronounce his name for a start (“The standard one is Yo-gan”), and there is a certain level of distraction around the tech hub.
But the benefits outweigh all that.
“There’s a mood of optimism that it’s safe to try crazy ideas. And sometimes, just sometimes, the craziest ideas, the ones that we all laugh about, end up being real game changers,” he says.
“The phrase ‘change the world’ is cheesy and I avoid it, but you can definitely change your own world out here in a way that’s hard in other places because they give crazy people a hard time. Here it’s safe to be crazy.”
Dublin can’t be Silicon Valley, McCabe stresses. That’s not an insult; in fact, it’s the opposite.
“I think there’s an opportunity for Ireland to be its own thing. I think it does Ireland a disservice to try and call it the Silicon Valley of Europe. Who wants to be a Silicon Valley of Europe? Why don’t you be Ireland?” he says.
“I’m really proud of where Dublin has come. There’s a lot of exciting start-ups and in a couple of ways we’re like the bigger company now. We’re definitely in an ecosystem that’s far more interesting.
“Having said that it’s still nascent, and the nature of the work that you can do at Intercom, it literally does not happen anywhere else in Ireland.”
McCabe points out that not only does Intercom have some operations here, the company has also managed to turn the Silicon Valley process on its head somewhat. Its research and development is based in Dublin, and will remain so.
In fact, Intercom is planning to double the team within 12 months. The current 70-strong team is about to turn into 140 and possibly more down the line.
Future of messaging
“That’s kind of our secret weapon,” he says. “We’re a Valley company with a Valley approach to our business, raising money here and bringing in the type of talent on the business side that we could not get in Ireland.
“But our secret weapon is we have ex-Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook engineers in Ireland, world-class engineers who, unlike weird folks like me who want to leave their home and family behind them, want to be in Ireland; they love Ireland.
“It also allows us to escape the Valley echo chamber here. I take a very sober view about being over here. The money and expertise around technology companies is here. But there’s a lot of distractions. So our Dublin company with our world-class engineers get to be obsessive about product.”
Intercom is also set to hold a major product event in Dublin on September 9th, where key figures in the company will discuss things such as the future of messaging, and continuous deployment.
Demand for tickets has been high, and the proceeds of the event are going to CoderDojo. You could say it’s Intercom’s way of supporting the next generation of tech entrepreneurs and engineers.
Reinventing himself as a CEO year after year is McCabe’s ongoing goal, but it’s one he has to meet to keep pace with the different challenges that managing an ever growing company will bring.
“I’ve done well so far. I think I can figure out the next couple of years too,” he says.
It has been a hectic few years for Intercom and its founders, but it’s paid off. The $35 million Series C funding round announced this week has proved once again that Intercom is on to something.
“Even as you hold true to some idea or dream, you’re secretly always doubting it – what if I’m wrong, this is scary, everyone is telling you’re an idiot. I’m not saying we were brave. Maybe we were foolish.
“But finally, it’s really blowing up and people are betting on this platform as oppose to the old way of doing things, a load of siloed solutions invented 10-15 years ago,” he sayd
The future for Intercom seems mapped out – in the short term at least. Grow the company, double the workforce, keep expanding and signing up customers. Dublin will play a major part in that, and McCabe intends to keep steering the company with his co-founders, learning on the job as the company doubles in size and more.
“Will I be the next Steve Jobs? Probably not, and I’m okay with that,” he says. “But I can try to be even a 50th as successful as some of the people out here.”
Name: Eoghan McCabe
Lives: San Francisco
Something you would expect: He can be found in the evenings meeting potential investors or new hires, something he’s still very hands-on with.
Something that might surprise: He’s given Soylent, the powdered meal replacement product that’s become the latest tech entrepreneur fad, a try – if only to taste it. “I wouldn’t be a Silicon Valley yuppie if I hadn’t.”