“The job is constantly changing. The second stuff starts feeling comfortable, you have to change that and push the envelope as much as you can.”
Basel Fakhoury, co-founder of User Interviews
Basel Fakhoury is the co-founder and CEO of User Interviews, a platform designed to change the way businesses make decisions with vetted insights from consumers and professionals alike. Basel’s road has been paved with ups and downs, but through it all a continued belief in self—as well as an awesome support system—has helped guide him through the many unknowns of entrepreneurship.
What was your initial vision for User Interviews?
Me and my co-founders started [another company called] MobileSuites. It was a mobile app for hotel travelers looking for hotel services. The idea was that since hotels are big, and mobile on-demand is big if we brought them together it would be big. But, after starting it, we didn’t get the interest we wanted. Then we started doing research into what customers wanted and we got further and further away from the initial mission.
We did many different things to get participants for research. One was, we would buy refundable JetBlue tickets, go to the airport, and ask travelers for feedback. Then refund the tickets, leave and come back the next day. Doing this obviously wasn’t scalable. So we talked to people at tech companies to see how they found participants and realized [that kind of research] was needed, but these companies didn't have a solution. Initially we thought this would be for startups, but then we realized all sorts of companies need to do user research.
Did you have any fears about becoming an entrepreneur?
I didn't. That was more because I didn’t know what it meant. I was in law school when we started. My main fear was, “If I do this, I’m giving up the lawyer path.” Which was true. I was trying to weigh the differences: “If I stay in law school it’s a clear path. But if I do this, I don’t get the resume and internships within the lawyer path.” That was the thing I was grappling with. I didn’t internalize what starting a company meant. That was the main thing. I wasn’t sitting down thinking, “I want to live the life of an entrepreneur,” because I didn’t know what that meant.
What has been your greatest struggle in founding User Interviews?
The job is constantly changing. The second stuff starts feeling comfortable, you have to change that and push the envelope as much as you can. The greatest struggle was when MobileSuites was failing. After a year and a half we had to shut it down.
What has been your greatest triumph in your founder’s journey thus far?
When we first started building the team, we had people who had great resumes and backgrounds and they got excited about the company and the product. And we also had cool companies like Pinterest and Thumbtack use us from the very beginning. At the beginning, we did anything we could to hustle. When we tested out the idea, we realized we hit a pain point as we talked to other companies that had similar issues. Companies were solving the problem by just posting on Craigslist. Before we had a website and full product, we’d go to Craigslist and respond to a large amount of companies’ posts a day.
We were like, “Hey! We’ll do this for you for X amount of dollars.” They didn't know who we were. But people would say, “Sure. If you want to, that’s fine.” We would gather the data, send back an Excel [spreadsheet], and use other solutions. With this kind of work, we were able to get huge companies because it was such a big pain point and because the bar was so low [for us].
“You have to be able to say, ‘You’re right,’ when someone has a better idea and not take it as a hit to your ego.”
Basel Fakhoury, co-founder of User Interviews
What has been your biggest sacrifice?
Sleep. I don't like to talk about, “Oh, I work this much.” These days my work-life balance is a lot better, but in the beginning we had to do everything because there was no money. We had to make product decisions, call participants, handle all the emails, sales, and operations. It was really stressful. Since our product was not just software there was a lot of operations – when we made a sale we needed to get people in and fill those sales.
It’s all-encompassing. If something comes and interest you, you can’t just go and learn it, or you can’t take a class on new skills even if you want to. It’s hard to find the time. It’s hard to have anything on the side. There was a time when I wanted to find out about some other types of businesses but I couldn't learn about a new technology or anything like that.
Did anyone in your life try to dissuade you from becoming an entrepreneur?
No one tried to dissuade me. Some people were like, “You should make sure you take the bar or do something with your law degree.” They weren't like, “Don’t do it!” They were saying, “Do X.” But I couldn't do both.
I think in the early days of the startup, everything is precarious. If you’re not focused or [if you] take a month off, the company could die. It was hard for people to understand that when other people are able to do something on the side, I just didn’t have the time.
Has anyone in your personal life been a constant source of support?
Most of my family and friends have been supportive. Startups are so cool now. People get excited about it. For me, it was interesting that I never worked at a large company so I didn't know the difference between startups and big corp. Between 2012 and 2015, startups felt like they became a cool thing to do. I found out about startups early before graduating Duke undergrad in 2012. Nobody was at a startup, but in my senior year there were clubs just starting to pop up. When I went back to campus after graduating, Duke had invested a ton in startups. I think the timing was right for me.
Tell me about your work-life balance.
It's pretty good now. I tend to work 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., sometimes 7 p.m and then an hour or so at night. I have time to see friends, go to the gym, watch TV, etc. But, it’s never going to be a 40-hours-a-week job and you can never fully turn off. You're always checking email. Even on vacation it can be hard to disengage.
Did you ever come close to giving up?
When MobileSuites was looking like it was failing, I was close to giving up. We all leaned on each other to keep pushing. If I was a single founder, I might have given up, but my co-founders and I kept pushing each other. It clearly wasn’t getting traction. Nothing was working. We had to be honest with ourselves and realize the product wasn't real. But there was something else out there and we should explore it. It’s hard to have that optimism if you’re by yourself. But the second we hit on the new idea and received the market validation everything switched. The hardest part is that point in the middle where you have to admit it’s not working.
What would make you feel as though you accomplished what you set out to do with User Interviews?
Everyone says they want to listen and engage with users, but it’s difficult. If we change the way companies make decisions by changing that process and they [these companies] embrace it—helping them become big and profitable—that would be what we set out to do.
Also, I want User Interviews to be a company people would like to work at and feel like they can grow and build relationships.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?
You can’t get married to arguments or ideas. You have to be able to say, “You’re right,” when someone has a better idea and not take it as a hit to your ego. You should both able to change your mind but also argue your point if you think you're right.
Also sometimes you just have to make things happen. It’s just got to work. Sometimes it’s manual. Sometimes it’s not scalable but you can usually find a way.
This interview has been lightly edited from an in-person conversation for clarity. Capturing Lightning is a project from Woden, a strategic storytelling agency in Philadelphia that helps organizations articulate who they are and why people should care. To learn more about how to tell your story, visit us at wodenworks.com.