״A utopian North Star״—How Intercom’s Director of Business Systems finds revenue levers, Part 1
If you’ve ever chatted with a company through its website chat widget and thought, huh, that was pretty useful, odds are you’ve used Intercom.
The company was an early pioneer that made chat features intuitive and friendly, and helped them branch into their current manifold use cases, from customer support to marketing and accelerating sales. At a decade old, the firm has 30,000 paying customers and more than 600 employees, and with that growth have come interesting new internal systems challenges of the sort Jalal Iftikhar, Global Director of Business Systems, delights in solving.
We asked Jalal about how his team is evolving, the role BSAs play, how Drake’s equation can be applied to the quote to cash problem, and why he believes everything starts with a quasi-utopian North Star goal.
The following interview has been lightly edited for brevity.
Salto: How is the Intercom business systems team evolving?
Jalal Iftikhar: Like any company in hypergrowth, we’re evolving rapidly. Maybe a year back, our business systems unit was all working in silos. We had our sales ops team, our marketing operations team, and our billing team, and each had their own tech stack. The question we were asking internally was “How should we be solving for our journey in the future?” It felt like we’d reached the max output from all the teams. How could we get to a level where we were adding more fungibility, thinking about problems holistically, all under one roof to do it fairly quickly, without creating a single point of failure?
That led us to gather all the teams that now fall under one umbrella—billing, data engineering, sales systems, and support systems. Then, there's a substructure for the business system analysts, the business systems engineers, and the product engineers.
How do you properly decode the business side’s needs?
Our business system analysts (BSAs). The way I see them is they’re the front line. They know the heartbeat of the business. They're working closely with the stakeholders. They should know the processes inside out. They should know the metrics each stakeholder cares about, and act almost like a product manager. They should say, "Okay, here’s where they want to go. How can we get them there?”
Everything is seen through that lens of helping the business team achieve a goal. To give you an example, let's say our goal for our SDRs is making 50 dials a day. The way I want the BSAs to think about it is, how could we make them do one hundred dials a day? And how do we do one hundred dials a day to the right customers with the right intent to buy?
Now, the utopian scenario would be that they make one phone call and it leads to one opportunity and one deal that includes every product. You’re never going to get there, but that should be the goal. When you try to get there, maybe you take it from 20 to 40 dials, and then you can ask whether you want to spend more effort getting it higher. Perhaps you don’t, and now you want to focus elsewhere, but at least you have that North Star to work toward.
What else should business systems teams be looking at?
Two things: How can and should the architecture we have be built? And how can we sustain it over the long run? This is of course a lot easier on the business systems side than the product side. On the business side, things are easily quantifiable. BSAs can add that architectural lens of, okay, we want to hit X amount of revenue, how do we get there? If you know your goal, you can reverse engineer it back into activities.
There are more questions, of course: Do we have the architecture? Do we have the systems in place? Can we report on them reliably? Do we have at least 95% confidence in our data integrity between all our systems? Do we have flexibility built in? Things will always change. You always have to be asking, are we painting ourselves into a corner with these systems?
How do you build for both the present and the future?
It all starts with the North Star. It shouldn’t be something that delivers in three months, or six. It’s longer-term. It’s, what’s our next company growth goal? What do they need in the next three years? When the leadership team provides answers to that, I can sit with my team and ask, what do we need in place to hit that? Then, we reverse decompose it into a quarterly roadmap. As long as we have that North Star, we’re good.
Now, what would make me worried is if we were implementing things on a quarterly basis without tying it back to either a strategy or vision. If there’s no connection, we have an issue. That’s when we have to pause and ask, are we headed in the right direction?
What surprised you when you combined the business systems and engineering teams?
The working styles. Engineering thinks in a different way. Business teams are more dynamic and maybe have a higher tolerance for risk. Whereas product teams ask, “What if we ship it and it breaks?” business systems teams ask, “What happens if we don't get this out by next quarter?” Both have a lot they can teach each other.
I think Intercom’s engineering team has always had the North Star mentality, and I had it at past jobs. I would always hate stopping and changing all the time. I always wanted to know what the end state would look like, even if we weren’t ever going to achieve it. That’s where the joke about making one call and closing one deal comes from. That’s the ultimate result. That is being as efficient as possible.
In this regard, I’ve always really been taken with Andy Grove’s factory view: Before you change the factory, visit it. You have to understand every lever, every sublever, and only then can you maximize things.
What’s top of mind for you right now?
We’ll continue our work on integrating the teams. It’s a journey. We’re learning from each other on a daily basis, which I can tell because there are so many ah-ha moments. Like, “Oh, we never thought about it this way.” I think it takes a year to go through the storming, forming, and norming stages, and we’re flirting with norming right now.
Another thing is our entire lead-to-cash process. Previously, we thought of it as silos, and when things are siloed, every change is like the butterfly effect. There’s something in the past I’ve used called Drake’s equation. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but it’s this equation invented by an astrophysicist to estimate the number of active extraterrestrial civilizations. I went to a course where Michael Dearing was teaching and he pointed out it’s basically the same as the sales velocity equation, in that it helps you understand how changes to one part of an equation affect other parts. So if your win rate changes, you can see it has a downstream effect. At a previous company, this provided really helpful insight. The company threw a lot of money into marketing. Because we operated in silos, we got a lot of leads, but we didn’t have the sales power to close them all. It made me realize, huh, that part of the funnel just wasn’t ready to digest that.
At Intercom, I’m hyper-focused on asking, what is our goal for marketing, sales, and finance? I want to talk to all our leaders and understand how their needs interconnect and interweave. I want to understand every underlying dependency so that whenever we make a change, I know the effect it’s going to have in other systems.
When you see it that way, the business is really more like a living organism.
Tune in for Part 2 of this interview, where Jalal shares ideas on stakeholder management, creating internal change champions, and the top question he’s asking himself.