Jakob Knutzen is the co-founder and CEO of Butter, an all-in-one tool that helps people plan and run highly engaging virtual workshops. He and his two co-founders started the company in April 2020, right at the beginning of the pandemic when many companies switched to remote work. A year after they started, in April 2021, they launched more publicly on Product Hunt and became the the most upvoted product of the day.
It seems like every company is trying to solve virtual collaboration and there are a lot of products out there. After using the product and speaking with Jakob, I think Butter will eventually be used by every company who has remote employees…essentially every tech company. Butter is truly building an innovative product that combines serious workshop tools with light-hearted features that make you smile.
They’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from Silicon Valley. Jakob and the team were finalists for two of Product Hunt’s Golden Kitty awards - Product Hunt’s annual award. One for the Creator Economy category and another for best Product Demo Video category.
When reading Jakob’s comment on their Product Hunt launch page, the problem that they are trying to solve really resonated with me, having been through many conference workshops that felt sterile and sleepy:
“We all loved the energy of being part of a really great trainings and workshops — where we left the session feeling really inspired and connected with people, ready to take on the world. But when we tried facilitating online workshops ourselves when the pandemic first hit, something seemed to be off. Online workshops just didn’t feel as valuable as they used to be when they were in person.”
In our conversation, Jakob talks about:
My questions are in bold; this interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
In your Product Hunt post last year, you said that you started Butter because you were so frustrated, in the early days of the pandemic, with how bad virtual collaboration tools were. Let’s start there. How did the idea for Butter come together?
Jakob Knutzen: Long story short, we were a couple of founders that had started a game streaming startup back in 2018 called StreamCrux. We wanted to create a content platform for game streaming. It didn't work out and we shut down in January of 2020, but we stuck together. We were kind of this perfect trio. We had the hacker, the hipster and the hustler. A CTO, a product person, and then me, the growth and strategy guy.
We had built the gaming company as a fully remote company and we knew we wanted to build something within the remote space, but we didn't really know what to build. That’s always the hard thing, right? One of the big problems we made in our previous startup was not correctly identifying the problem that we were solving. So we spent quite a bit of time in the early 2020 to identify which problem we should solve within the remote space. Then COVID struck a month and a half later.
Oh wow. So you were already thinking about the remote space before the pandemic. That means you had a bit of a headstart on building tools for teams working remotely.
JK: I hate to call COVID fortunate, but we made the most of it. We started doing workshops for startups and teams that had been pushed remotely by COVID to teach them the best practices that we had learned on how to operate as a remote-only team. From that we began to identify problems that we could build a software solution around.
Earlier in my career I had been a consultant at an agency and hosted lots of in person workshops. We began to see that it was so hard to do a workshop remotely. That was when the idea hit us. We saw that there were two big problems.
First was the big technical overload for the facilitator. When I was facilitating workshops, I had to manage breakout rooms while sending over links, making sure that people got into the right tools, opening up docs, and all of that stuff. The technical overload for me as a facilitator was just humongous, and it took my focus away from doing what I needed to do during the workshop, which was to facilitate a discussion.
The other problem was that it was hard to get people engaged and interacting during the session. You know how this can be on a big Zoom call. Some people don’t have cameras on, some people are looking at something else on their computer. It was just hard to get that excitement going that you'd be able to get going in a physical room.
Those are the two big problems that we set out to solve with Butter. We are building an all-in-one product that enables people to have highly engaging collaborative sessions remotely.
Gotcha. So how did you get from those two problems to your Product Hunt launch in April 2021? Did you spend a year with your heads down building the product or were you beta testing it along the way?
JK: We launched the product two weeks after we had the idea. I think that's a common fallacy on Product Hunt, it’s not actually a real product launch. A lot of people will prepare the Product Hunt launch quite a bit in advance and only launch on Product Hunt once they actually have something that's tangible and it’s clear that they’ll get real traction from the public launch.
We had the idea for Butter in May 2020 and we launched the first version in June. It was a companion app for Zoom, totally different from today’s product. The idea was to have something that facilitators and participants could use on their phone while they were on the Zoom to participate in workshop activities. But it turned out to be super wrong. People loved the idea and we got a lot of early users, but it didn't stick at all. Then over the weekend our CTO, Adam, slapped the companion app together with a pre-built video solution. Suddenly, we had a fully fledged video platform together with many of the features that we built in the companion app. It was ugly, as F, but it was still lovely. That was when we began seeing real traction. Suddenly, we had the stirrings of what Butter is today.
So you have this ugly prototype, but it works and you can tell it’s what customers want. How were you getting feedback from people and how did you incorporate feedback into the product development process?
JK: Going back to the mistake we made in our previous startup of not understanding the problem, it was important to us not to make that again. Just because we thought we had these two problems of technical overload and lack of interactivity when facilitating complex collaborative sessions - workshops, trainings, coaching sessions, etc - didn’t mean that a lot of other people had them as well.
The first and most important thing that we did for almost all of 2020 was collecting insights and feedback from people facilitating these collaborative sessions. We reached out to anyone on LinkedIn that called themselves a facilitator, coach, consultant, or trainer. We started with closer connections but eventually expanded it out. We told them that we were building a product to solve our hypothesis about these two problems. Would they talk to us to give us feedback and tell us about their experience transitioning from facilitating physical sessions to virtual. We did that with around 800 people throughout the second half of 2020. At the peak, I was doing between 30 and 50 interviews a week.
We’d get great feedback from those calls, but it was also a growth hack because we did all of those interviews on Butter. We sent a Butter lnk for the interview, they pop in, they’d tell us some golden nuggets about the issues they faced, and a percentage of them would ask us what this Butter thing was. We’d do a little demo and some people would sign up. It helped get our early growth started.
That’s a great way to approach it. You get to do your user research and demo the product for people. Once they signed up and started to use Butter, did you have a process for collecting ongoing feedback from them?
JK: Yes, we set up quite the process. After we're finished with this Butter call, you'll be taken to a little page with a slider where you can rate how good the experience was and give us feedback. There is an Intercom ticket generated based on that feedback. We're able to write back to people and start a conversation. We basically collected tens of thousands of data points based on these simple conversations happening after the Butter sessions.
Aside from that, we also recently introduced a Product Market Fit score, based on Superhuman, a startup that is building a faster email service. After a customer has conducted a certain number of larger sessions we send them a survey that asks them “How would you feel if you could no longer use Butter? A) Very disappointed B) Somewhat disappointed C) Not disappointed.” This helps us identify our biggest supporters, the people that would be most disappointed, and really focus on their feedback and the commonalities between them to identify who our product is best for. We also often set up an interview to dive deeper on the questions which gives us a full product feedback process.
I honestly believe that as a founder, one of the most important things you can do is just stay super close to the users.
I totally agree with you. I hadn’t heard of Superhuman’s Product Market Fit framework, they’ve been very successful in driving adoption of their product. I’ll be sure to look that up afterwards. Does that framework give you a specific metric that you can measure your progress against every week or do you use something else?
JK: Sort of, yes. When you first sign up for Butter, we ask, “how are you hoping to use Butter?” With pre-filled options like workshops, education, etc. This helps us know what segment that customer falls into. We then combine those responses with the Superhuman survey. We are looking at what percentage answered they’d be “very disappointed” if our product didn’t exist and they are within our core customer segment. We are very focused on how we’re performing towards that.
Another key success metric is how many people host five person or more meetings per week. Having a meeting with five or more people is our “aha moment,” where people really use all the Butter features to their maximum. If there are only two people in the meeting it’s not what Butter is meant for.
Right, I guess it’s pretty hard to do a poll with only two people on the call. Going back to those early days after your launch. Was there anything you spent time on pre-launch that turned out not to matter?
JK: No, not really. It was so nice that we launched quickly. I know a lot of people doing waitlists these days. But I think the transparency and feedback that we got from loads of users early on was super beneficial.
There's so many things that we spent time on and built that didn't turn out to help with product market fit. But again, you can't find it without searching for it, right? So there's nothing that I regret because everything is part of the search.
But this whole “launch early” idea is definitely something that I'd recommend. Also, I don’t believe in these silver bullet features. If we build this one feature it will suddenly change everything. Instead, be persistent and just keep going.
Let’s talk about your Product Hunt launch. You said that happened about 10 months after you released the first version of Butter. How did things shift in the company when you did go out more publicly and do the Product Hunt launch?
JK: It's a good question. I'd say Product Hunt is extremely strong for acquisition and awareness, especially in the US market. Our geographical footprint started in Europe and Asia, with the Product Hunt launch, we acquired quite a few users in the U.S., which was very helpful.
I think the second order effect was investor interest. We certainly got on the radar of a lot of investors based on the Product Hunt launch.
The third impact was a bit of pride. Pride for the team internally to be able to say, “we built this and we’re product of the day.” There were also the Golden Kitty awards for people in the top three of each category. So the Product Hunt launch gave the team a lot of pride.
It’s good to take those moments to celebrate the team’s work. Transitioning gears a bit, what's been the most challenging part of the past year or so?
JK: I think it's been understanding what our true growth is. Covid has spurred growth, we're a video collaboration product and a lot of our growth that’s been driven due to COVID hasn’t been sustainable growth. In other words, how much is going to drop off as soon as COVID recedes in a particular region?
For instance, we had a huge explosion in growth in the Taiwan educational market with High Schools and Universities adopting our product. It doubled our users over the course of two weeks. But we were very cautious about celebrating the success of our product in Taiwan because we correctly knew that once the COVID lockdown stopped, that we'd see a lot of that usage go away as people went back to the classroom. So it’s been very difficult to make sure we are always keeping ourselves honest when evaluating the growth of our Butter.
Has that also made it challenging when fundraising where you may forecast your growth rate based on a recent spike in usage, but then you have pressure to hit that forecast?
JK: It can be a tough situation. But I think a lot of startups wrongly optimize for investor storylines instead of optimizing for their business. I think the most dangerous thing would be if we had hired too many people to support the growth that wasn't sustainable. Or worse, if we had celebrated too early for achieving a milestone and then it drops down and it hurts morale. The emotional roller coaster can be hard on a team.
We have been super conscious that we don’t build for users that are not going to stick around afterwards. If we had built out a lot of educational features, then we would have been left with a product that wasn't actually targeting the users that are our best customers.
That’s a very good point. Now, time for the quick fire round. I’m looking for short, just a few sentence answers here. What do you know now that you wish you'd known when you started Butter in April 2020?
JK: So much stuff. One thing I'd really highlight is what I learned when we raised our Seed round last year. We closed about a year ago in February 2021. I learned so much about how to craft our story and especially the importance of crafting a story that was ambitious enough. One thing that a lot of European founders find difficult is how to talk audaciously and think big. I wish that I'd known that before I started raising the round so that I could have started with a big ambitious story. The ambitious story is definitely there and when I think about how I tell it today, it's very different from the story that I told a year ago.
How did you learn to tell a more ambitious story to investors? Did you get feedback from investors that you weren’t ambitious enough?
JK: Something like that. The first pitch I did was with [redacted], a big Silicon Valley venture capital firm with five partners listening to the pitch.
I told them a way too small story about how we were building a better Zoom for workshops. There was nothing very exciting about the vision. I didn’t tell them we were building a full workflow tool for online collaboration. They just said, “Oh it’s just Zoom for a small vertical, that’s not big enough for us.”
Got it, sounds like it was pretty obvious to you that your vision was too narrow. Next question, What book do you recommend the most and why?
JK: One book that I really want to highlight is Erin Mayer's The Culture Map. She also wrote the No Rules Rules book about Netflix. I think Culture Map was the origin of that book. This book has been incredibly helpful to me. We are a team of 20 people, across 14 countries with loads of nationalities, and understanding the differences of cultures has been super important. I recommend this book to anyone that wants to have a remote team.
What are you most proud of?
JK: Building a remote team across so many countries and time zones that has a huge amount of trust and emotional openness within the team. We ship very fast and move very fast. You can only do that if there's a very high degree of psychological safety, emotional safety, and trust between the team members. I think that's my proudest achievement of everything we’ve built.
Were you able to build that with things you learned from The Culture Map book you mentioned earlier, or was it more based on your natural personality?
JK: I think we as a leadership team are extremely emotionally open and able to be very vulnerable towards each other. That shows throughout the organization. We encourage a lot of transparency, but transparency with context. Transparency is easy, right? You can always send out your budget or whatever. But transparency with context, where you actually explain things and take the time to explain it and give details around it. It's the patience that's required to actually explain things and give people context that creates true trust around that transparency. That's what can be really difficult and that's what we've been practicing since day one.
Last question for you, what advice would you have to someone who wants to become an entrepreneur and start a company in 2022?
It's very cool that your team is so geographically and culturally diverse. Those were all of my questions. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me.
JK: Thanks so much for reaching out!
I hope you enjoyed my interview with Jakob and learned a few things. If you did, share it with others on Twitter. This helps more people discover my newsletter 😊 -Tyler