Unforgettable Customers

This week, one of my favorite customers of all time passed away: Neal Page. Neal had been fighting Acute Myeloid Leukemia, and a good friend of mine sent me news that he succumbed to it this past Monday – I hadn’t talked to Neal in a few years, so I was unaware of all of this. You can read about Neal here.

As I reflected on him, it got me to thinking about a situation that happened to me a few years ago.

When we were raising our most recent fund, a prospective investor was finalizing his due diligence process on us, as we were being presented to his management for approval. He had taken interest in our somewhat unique approach to apply our deep sales and marketing backgrounds to the venture side of things, and as a final step of his due diligence process, he asked to speak to 50 former customers that either my partner Brian or I served from our past.

I remember this vividly, as I was standing in a cab line in front of the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco at around 4pm when he asked me this, and he asked if we could assemble the list for him the next day. What a great challenge! We were scrambling, but psyched to quickly go through our contact lists to find the names and most recent contact info of our favorite customers from the past 20 years of our careers. Luckily for us, we had left a positive enough impression on these folks that after many years, they were more than willing to speak on our behalf based on this request.

It took numerous phone calls and a lot of Google to track our list of 50 former customers down. What was interesting in some cases that here it was almost 20 years later, and I am calling former customers to ask them to take a phone call from someone to talk about their customer experience with me from way back. For me, at the top of the list, was Neal Page. Neal was the general manager of a graphics division for Sun Microsystems in Raleigh, N.C., and I had the privilege of working with him when I was a sales manager for C-Cube Microsystems, a video chip start-up.

In the case with Neal as with many on our list, he was completely supportive, as he was able to vividly recollect our great experience together as if it had just happened. I was psyched that his memory of the relationship was as positive as mine.

My experience with Neal was far from ordinary, as he wanted to use one of our high demand ICs in a way that we had never intended, and it required special programming that consumed significant engineering resources from both of our companies. It was quite a battle to get my company to agree to support this project, and I believe Neal had a similar experience with his company to justify the program all together.

I’ve always believed that to be a great salesperson, that about half the time, your selling is done with your own company, as your customer is asking to use your product in an unconventional, but potentially lucrative manner. You have to make extraordinary requests of your own company’s scarce resources to satisfy the needs of the customer, risking your own reputation within your company, since you really have no idea if the project will net huge revenues in the end. Anyway, my experience with Neal was unforgettable, as we worked together for about 2 years, and we succeeded in getting our 2 companies to cooperate in ways that we had never intended, and that eventually led to a product line for our company that we likely would never had developed on our own.

I actually have no idea who on our list that the LP called, but we were very fortunate that we did get their commitment, so I suspect those calls went well. As I reflect back on that exercise, I think about what a great exercise it was go back in history to reconnect with people who we had dealt with as customer/supplier in years past. In many cases, these were customers that we went to battle with as partners, fighting with our respective employers to justify the existence of a particular project, and in most cases, netting positive results for both. These customers were instrumental in our success as operating executives, and it’s interesting how often I use those experiences when I work with my portfolio companies.

I am saddened that Neal lost his fight to Leukemia this week – from reading his company’s blog, Neal was a true fighter, and his motto was “Hike On”. So even though I lost one of my favorite customers of all time, I will always have the memory of our experiences together, and vow to hike on to use those experiences to help our companies in their quest to build great companies with unforgettable customers.

Clint Chao is a founding general partner at Formative Ventures. He invests in emerging technologies start-ups in areas such as communications, wireless, and next-generation Internet solutions. His investments and board leadership include Mashery, Marketocracy, Silicon Clocks, Smalltown, SOASTA, and Zyray Wireless (acquired by Broadcom in 2004).

Prior to co-founding Formative Ventures, Clint served as vice president of marketing, sales, and business development at SkyStream Networks (acquired by Tandberg TV), a leading provider of video routing equipment.