5 Years of Aha! — This Is What We Have Learned so Far
Something different. This is what my co-founder Dr. Chris Waters and I had in mind when we founded Aha! five years ago. We had spent nearly 20 years working in Silicon Valley and building breakthrough products at both large technology companies and smaller startups. And in plain terms — we were successful in lots of meaningful ways but we experienced a lot we did not like in the process.
Growth at all costs. Hype. Out of touch board of directors. A big loss of focus on what really matters: people.
We had the goal of building something different — a product and company people would love.
So with a wry smile, we launched Aha! on April Fool’s Day 2013. There were two of us in the room to celebrate the launch. We quickly got to work. No one loves software companies — so we had a lot of work to do.
Our focus was first on building a high-quality product that solved a real need for customers. Fortunately, we knew the problem we were trying to solve — a better way for product managers to set a winning strategy and build visual roadmaps — because we had lived it for two decades ourselves.
We took a long-term approach to building the business — no outside funding and no quick-exit aspirations. We were committed to realizing sustainable success that would be lasting by taking a human-centered approach that we and our kids could be proud of.
With gratitude and honor, I can say that the first five years of Aha! have been a remarkable success.
Today, with a similar April Fool’s Day grin that I had when we launched the company, more than 70 Aha! teammates are celebrating. We are one of the fastest-growing software companies in the U.S. — doing it all with an entirely distributed team and no salespeople. Most importantly, we have not veered from our values.
The fact that our approach has worked has surprised some folks, of course, which is natural. (Everything truly new always does.) Those with wide eyes are likely reacting to our rejection of what has become the unfortunate emerging technology company status quo. You know the story: Raise over $100 million, burn through that money in order to generate $100M in annual revenue, and file for an IPO. But who does that really serve?
There is comfort in the known, I guess, and we continue to challenge the assumptions that so many have accepted as inevitable.
The Aha! way contradicts the standard story for company building that is still celebrated in Silicon Valley — the narrative that you can manufacture scale without substance, treat people as a commodity, and generally behave as arrogant entrepreneurs. The narrative assumes that money is the ultimate goal. We dared to say that serving people well is what matters.
So, here are the most important theories we have proved over the last five years and what we have learned:
You can build the company you want to work in
Chris and I always knew we could be happy working at a place where we did meaningful work with motivated colleagues and were appreciated for it. Everyone who joins our team is committed to working with integrity, ambition, and a whole lot of effort. We built the company we wanted and an environment that is filled with team spirit.
You can go deep on strategy and still move really fast
Look, I mean really fast. We can do both because of The Responsive Method (TRM), the framework for success that we pioneered and live by. With TRM as our guide, we benefit from urgent interactions without sacrificing the “why” behind the work. It keeps us moving forward while staying focused on our goals.
You can build a juggernaut with no venture capital
Aha! has never accepted a single dollar of VC or other funding. And I am so glad. Instead of chasing investors, our team chased customer love. We concentrated our efforts on building a sizable customer base. We worked hard to solve problems for those customers. Simple but true. This is how we built a highly respected company.
You can tell customers yes and no
We did not earn customer devotion by blindly saying “yes” to everyone. We earned it by having a vision and delivering real value. Every day. Listening closely to what customers want and need with TRM as our guide. This allows us to serve people well. And sometimes we are not the perfect fit for a customer and that is okay. If we are appealing to everyone, we know that we are serving no one exceptionally well.
You can grow fast without a sales team
The key is to focus on the solution rather than the sale. We do this by only hiring former product managers for our Customer Success team. Why? Because our customers tend to be product managers — our team has lived their problems. Without traditional sales and inherently conflicted commission programs, we can interact with customers and with each other and focus on doing what is right.
You can hire the best and work remotely
We founded Aha! on the premise and promise of remote work. We love the flexibility and no commute. Even better is the fact that we have a nearly unlimited talent pool. We now have teammates in more than 20 states and multiple countries. When we have a position to fill, we are able to hire the best person for the job — no matter where they live. Remote work makes everyone happy. Remember that work is about achievement, not location.
You can grow talent and promote from within
This is the advantage of hiring experts and giving them the tools to grow their skills. When you hire well, you create a deep talent bench. If a teammate stumbles in a new role, someone will be there to catch them. Trust that people will step up when you need them to. We look for opportunities to promote from within for leadership positions.
You can be exceptionally demanding and kind
We believe in continuously sharing direct feedback. We celebrate what is going well and share what is not working and how things can be improved. Yes, sometimes these conversations can be hard — but never unkind. This is because goals and expectations are shared transparently. We have found that, when everyone is clear on how their work fits into the plan, feedback is easy to deliver and digest.
You can work very, very hard and not burn out
Aha! has proven something that I have always believed — there is no such thing as work-life balance. You cannot really separate the two. Work is life and life is a part of work. Our team strives for sustainable happiness instead. It means achieving what you want in your whole life.
Ultimately, our team has proven that you can build a successful enterprise software company that puts people first and is truly loved — by customers and employees.
How do we know? Our customers tell us every day. Practically since that first day five years ago when we rolled out Aha!, customers have sent us “love notes” telling us how delighted they are with our product and how we treat them. More than 3,000 people told us they loved us last year alone.
But Chris and I have never spent too much time looking back. We do not lean towards grandiose self-celebration. Why should we? Aha! is much bigger than we are. The team is what matters and will define our success over the next five years.
What will this post look like when we celebrate our first decade in business? I am not sure, but I am confident that the next five years will be even more exciting than the first five. There is nothing more thrilling than helping companies innovate and build their own lovable products.