HCP introduced the Founder Spotlight Series in August 2021 to highlight our exceptional founders who are changing the face of entrepreneurship. Our Founder Spotlight series continues with Aneto Okonkwo, Co-Founder and CEO of Chatdesk.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Aneto takes us through his incredible journey starting Chatdesk, discusses their recent Series A round, and shares some insights on what’s next for the company.
HCP: Tell us a little bit about yourself. What were you doing before you started Chatdesk?
Aneto: Before Chatdesk I was a Product Manager at Google for seven and a half years, most recently working on voice search and Google Assistant. Before that, I was at McKinsey as a consultant out of Chicago, and I did my undergrad and master’s at Stanford.
HCP: What is Chatdesk and what does the platform do?
Chatdesk is a software company based out of New York that has been around for 5 years. We work with a lot of fast-growing companies and help them scale their support and drive sales using machine learning by turning superfans into customer support.
HCP: What led you to build Chatdesk?
Aneto: I had been at Google for a while and started thinking about what I wanted to do with the rest of my career. I began thinking about the problems in the world that I was passionate about and one of them was inequality. A lot of people need money. I’ve had a lot of great opportunities in my life, so I was asking myself how I could use the skills I’ve gained to help this problem. I started making a list of the technical insights I had that were unique in the world.
Given my background working in voice search and SMS products globally for Google, I saw the opportunity to apply what I learned to the customer service industry which employs lots of people – about 3 million people in the US and even more in countries like India and the Philippines. It’s the type of job where if you’re literate, motivated, and connected to the internet, you can do it from anywhere.
HCP: What were some of the roadblocks you ran into as you started Chatdesk and how did you overcome them?
Aneto: The key one that we’re still solving is enterprise sales. As an engineer and product person, I was focused on the product in the first few years, but what I’ve learned and what I try to tell other founders is: as a general formula, distribution is greater than product. You shouldn’t spend all your time building the product, you should spend time thinking about how you’re going to get your product into the hands of users.
HCP: Was there something in particular you had to learn to unlock enterprise sales like ease of demoing the product or ease of implementation and integration?
Aneto: All the things you mentioned plus more like pricing and positioning. One important factor is determining your best target customer. I initially targeted airlines given that they have a lot of customer service, but later found that they were not the best fit for us, at least early on, because of their size and legacy systems. Then we pivoted to e-commerce which has been great because they are technology native companies, they are quick to make decisions, and there are a lot of them. It took some time to decide what the right target customer was in terms of industry and size and the right messaging that would resonate with them.
HCP: On that note, are there any big trends you’ve noticed in your target customer?
Aneto: There are some obvious ones. For example, the increased interest in entrepreneurship has resulted in an explosion in people starting brands. That’s one of the waves we’re riding. A second bet that has come to fruition is the rise of messaging – be that text or on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. There’s a class of shoppers discovering brands through social media and messaging with those brands as part of their customer experience. That’s something we help to enable and a lot of investors are starting to see that as a whole sector they want to support called e-commerce enablement
HCP: Do you have any success stories of customers you work with?
Aneto: There are many but I’ll give a few examples. One of our first customers back in 2017 was Barkbox, a pet lifestyle and toy brand. They use our tools to deflect calls given their high call volume and for data analytics on their customer feedback. Our message volume with them has grown about 400% over the last few years so we’re grateful they trusted us in the early days and continue to be a partner even though they are a public company now.
Another example is Mented Cosmetics, a cosmetics brand for melanated skin tones. They run all their social media with Chatdesk and because they have a really engaged community, their customers are getting personalized responses that match the voice of the brand. When people get a comment from the brand it makes them feel like part of the brand. Their superfans are also sharing links to products and the company is seeing an increase in sales as a result of this customer engagement. They also just announced their Series A!
HCP: Thanks for sharing! On the note of fundraising, congratulations to you and the Chatdesk team on also raising your Series A! What is next for the business given the new funding?
Aneto: Thank you! We have ambitious goals for the company. We want to build a public company, one that does $100M+ in revenue. A company that has millions of people working on the platform, at the same scale that people work on Uber or DoorDash. That’s when I’ll be satisfied and know we’ve achieved our mission of creating jobs and creating income for people. Working backward from that there are some milestones we are working towards for a Series B like $5-10M in revenue at a certain growth rate, which will enable us to reach more customers and grow our team.
What’s most exciting is the potential next phase of our platform. The mission of the company is to solve customer service and create jobs. The best type of customer service is where you don’t have to contact the company at all. They anticipate you have a problem and they proactively solve it. For example, right now you might reach out to a company about a product only to find it’s out of stock. Usually, the conversation ends there, but the best companies we work with remember and follow up when the product is back in stock. That’s the future we’re going towards and we need to extend our platform to achieve that type of system because now we’re talking about not just connecting with social platforms on chat, we’re talking about a world where you can engage customers anywhere they are talking about products, like YouTube, Amazon, Reddit or Etsy. These are places where people are talking about products every day and no one is responding.
HCP: On the note of fundraising, what made you interested in partnering with Harlem Capital?
Aneto: There are a few different things:
1) Portfolio: Harlem Capital works with a lot of consumer brands like Pangaea and House of LR&C, so they really understand our target customers in e-commerce.
2) Team: Like us, Harlem Capital is made up of a young team that’s hungry for success. We also appreciate the diverse perspective their team brings.
3) Branding: One thing I struggle with is pumping our chests. We haven’t said much about us as a company, but it’s time for us to get out there so every Facebook advertiser and Shopify store knows what we’re doing because they all need it. HCP is very good at making noise and marketing the firm, and I wanted some of that strong PR sensibility to rub off on us.
HCP: If you could go back and start Chatdesk all over and you could tell yourself one lesson, what would that be?
Aneto: That the people you go on the journey with is the most important decision you make. You may read that everywhere but as an entrepreneur, you’re always anxious to get started. I would tell myself to not be anxious and compose the team properly from the beginning. We may have started later but we would have gone faster with the right people on the team from the beginning.
HCP: If you weren’t running Chatdesk right now, what would you be doing?
Aneto: I’d probably spend more time with my family. I just had a son, so I sometimes feel I’m not spending as much time with him as I should. That’s the only regret I have on a day-to-day basis.
I feel very fulfilled and grateful. Grateful that we have something that’s working and that people are making money from. If you go on LinkedIn you’ll see people who have Chatdesk on their profile. They don’t work for the company, I’ve never met them – they are just people who work on our platform. That feels crazy! That we built this thing that people want to put on LinkedIn as their job history. So I feel very fulfilled and grateful but it’s still early. We’re just starting and this is now the fun part.
HCP: Where can readers learn more about your business? Plug your socials!