Editor’s Note: While I was attending the QualtricsX4 Summit 2023, I had the opportunity to sit down with Michel Feaster, Global Head of Product Marketing and CPO of Research, to discuss her entrepreneurial journey. Read on to learn about Michel’s (1) foray managing gas stations, well before becoming a successful entrepreneur (2) fascination with people and technology, which led to the launch of Usermind, and (3) advice on how to build a great tech company, starting with understanding customer pain points.
I have read that you like to build things. When did you first realize that was important to you?
So … I dropped out of college, Harvard, at 19. I went home, and my mom said, “You have to work. You have to get a job and pay rent. You can’t live at home.”
So I went and worked at gas stations. I worked at gas stations for five years. I ended up managing. You know how it works. First you work overnight, then you get the seven to three shift. First, I became the lead; then, I was the manager. I ended up running a bunch of different convenience stores and restaurants, as well.
I ended up having this journey that was all about managing people. I would say most of what I learned about management and building teams was from that period of my life. And, I know it sounds silly, but I managed gas stations when food was coming into them. I became really fascinated with the concept of what products you provide. I mean, eventually I got my break into tech, but so much of the passion of my life really started in that time.
I would say my first set of insights was…I just love working with and through people. And I think technology is a people business and really smart people can do things that people who aren’t as smart can’t do. When you look at great tech companies, what you really see inside them is very differentiated talent. And management is about how you attract and motivate and organize that talent to be successful.
When I got my break into tech, my partner at the time saw a help wanted that read, “Thinks on your feet, likes people.” It was for an old stodgy mainframe company, and I ended up in pre-sales.
That’s when I found my second great passion: finding customer problems and using technology to solve them. Which is also all about people.
“Management is about how you attract and motivate and organize that talent to be successful.”
The reason I love product is…I love helping people and taking out pain or solving problems. So many people work in the enterprise and feel unheard, and no one cares about them. So it’s the ultimate expression to me of people on the product side. You go and interview researchers and you ask about where they’re running into walls. And if we build great software, we take that away and things become possible that couldn’t.
I would say that probably my mid-30s is when I found my product calling. When I transitioned into the product organization, and I realized that I could interview people and find pain. Then when you come back six months later and you show a prototype, it’s not even the product they had foreseen as humans. It’s a beautiful thing. That animated my product chapter, and it makes my life meaningful. You leave the world different because you built software, but you also leave the world different because you touch people’s lives, either who work for you or in the world, and that’s my meaning.
How did you go about discovering the pain that led to Usermind? Do you remember the moment, the a-ha that started you in that journey?
I’m a product person, so I did 300 interviews. When I think about big problems or opportunities, for me everything is, How much change is hitting a single human? Disruption is the terrible word in tech, but when the world changes enough around a person, a new way is needed. And when a new way is needed, new software companies get born.
So, the search to build Usermind started with the thought, where is enough change that, literally, the world is going to be totally different and I could build something big and disruptive.
I started with just three hypotheses, which was basically companies are going to digitize every interaction with the customer and companies are not going to build all that tech. They’re going to buy a lot of it from SaaS companies, and then they’re going to have to integrate it together because every SaaS product will have an API. In a sense…that a customer comes to a company, and they have to go through a website, they’re then they are talked to by a human, then they’re back on the website, and we really have no breadcrumbs of that full end-to-end journey.
So when I thought, okay, this is a hypothesis, I literally did 300 interviews. I emailed friends, looking to learn from the marketing and sales operations teams. I thought, I want to go talk to the tech people who are maintaining the website, who are maintaining Salesforce, and I want to talk about, where are these customer transitions really jarring? Where is it that the data breaks down or the view of the journey breaks down? And I uncovered this giant gap.
First of all, nobody even knows where you are in the journey. In general, the data doesn’t connect together. Then, second of all, because I don’t know you’re in the journey, you have these incredibly jarring experiences, where I had customers tell me, “I just called in with an escalation and then I got a marketing email a day later that was so dissonant,” or, “I’m an avid user but when I go back to the website, no one remembers. Help articles don’t get surfaced to me.”
And so, honestly, the thing that inspired me to really do something, found the company, was I thought it was a technology idea that was very hard. Connecting all these systems together is quite hard. Integration is a hard technology problem. And so I like hard things.
I think if you solve a hard technology problem, you can build a valuable company.
Then, I also thought the amount of rage and pain that’s created for humans from all this experience is. Because if I was going to spend 10 or 12 years of my life doing something, I would like it to be something that does good in the world.
There were probably a couple different company ideas in that detective work, but that’s why Usermind was the one I and my co-founder chose to found. It seemed really hard, interesting, valuable. If we could make customer journeys better, it drives revenue, it drives retention, but also just… it makes people happier.
Were you nervous when Qualtrics was romancing you and making an acquisition offer?
One of the interesting dynamics in the market is that Adobe launched their journey orchestration platform nine months before Qualtrics and I came together. And a big part of why I was excited was, I thought, Okay. What’s happening is people are realizing journeys matter, but they’re kind of afraid to buy them from little startups.
So in my mind I’m thinking, I think I need to become part of the right big company for the idea to cross the chasm. When I thought about, Who’s the landscape of relevant people you can join? There are companies like Qualtrics in the CX space. There are call center companies. That’s the other place journeys really matter, and there’s CDP companies, and I talked to them all.
At the end of the day, I wanted the deal to happen because I felt like they were visionary. They have somehow not just become a technology company, but they’ve become an evangelist for this idea of experience management. And I thought, if we could put this technology into this incredible megaphone where they can explain journeys to the world, because, at least in my mind, the technology works.
It’s a complicated organizational problem, because not often does one buyer own every touchpoint. And so as a tiny startup, you’re struggling to find these buyers who own the journey end to end. But you come here and the CMO of UPS owns the journey end to end, and Qualtrics has a relationship with him and he’s out there talking about journeys.
In my mind, it was the perfect combination, because we didn’t need just a home for the technology, we needed a company to help the idea become mainstream.
By the way, all the best enterprise software companies do this. They co-create, with their most visionary customers, the future, and then the rest of the market benefits.
There’s often a disconnect between the traditional market research and the experience management industries. Can you connect any dots to help people see a bigger picture?
“When you look at the world around you, nothing that we see here wasn’t designed by research.”
What I think is the tension is, or the reason it doesn’t seem connected, is that experience management is primarily about employees and customers, as you hear Qualtrics talk about it. But, yet, there is a constituent at the table, which is the product in the market that is just as important in that life cycle. When you really think about the future of experience management, what I want to know is what product was the customer interacting with me on, not just what journey are they on or what employee touched them.
I have a perspective on research, which is, I think we are before the Precambrian explosion of research. When you look at the world around you, nothing that we see here wasn’t designed by research. The number of products and services and markets being created is 1,000 times today what it was 10 years ago, and it will be 1,000 times from now. So, in my opinion, we are about to enter the golden age of research. The researcher is going to become one of the most strategic people in the company because they’re going to be able not just to do traditional research, but predictive research.
I personally believe that we have not yet seen research be a strategic capability in companies. It is going to emerge as a strategic function. Insights is going to be a C-level agenda. And I think that the technology with which we do research is going to become completely transformed. Panel will change, quant and qual are converging. All of a sudden AI and data mining become strategic.
What advice might you have for the start-ups in our audience?
I’d say two things. I always tell people, “Found now.” Everyone sits on the fence and is like, Should I do it? Shouldn’t I do it. The only way to know, the only way out, is through. If you are wanting to do it and you have an idea, there’s no way to know if the idea is good by thinking about it. The only way to know if the idea is good is to be kinetic and get in the business of trying to build a company and succeeding or failing. That would be my first and most powerful piece of advice.
The second thing I would tell entrepreneurs that will be unexpected is in your entrepreneurial journey. You think it’s about the business you’re building. In fact, you will become a totally different leader and human being. Entrepreneurs face fear and freedom in ways that the average human does not experience. The average human does not live a life with the total freedom to pivot their company tomorrow, nor the fear and responsibility that comes with that. And, for me, the greatest outcome of Usermind was I became a better human, a more compassionate leader, more empathetic to other people. My struggle has made me appreciate other people’s struggle. And I think it is the thing no one says about the entrepreneurial journey, is it can make you an infinitely better human being in addition to being a business owner.