Linda Lian believes the next generation of software businesses will find customers differently – not through account managers and top-down company-wide contracts, but through communities, the fans and avid users of tools who discuss, critique, and share best practices about them online.
“We’re trying to reinvent the relationship that software companies have had with their customers,” says Lian, the CEO of a startup called Common Room. “It should be more authentic, and more personal.”
The entrepreneur would know. At Amazon Web Services, she helped manage arguably the web’s largest such community of technologists and entrepreneurs, first as the cloud giant spread the gospel of serverless computing, then its Alexa voice-app’s developer tools. Now at Common Room, a Seattle-based company she founded last year, Lian’s hoping to bring the same ability to identify and leverage engaged users and fans to software companies as soon as they’re ready.
Staying behind the scenes for the past year, Common Room has already assembled a first group of test companies that includes high-flying startup customers like Confluent, Figma and Notion. Now the company is announcing itself to the world with its own community for community-minded professionals and $52 million in combined funding from venture capital investors. The most recent: a $32.3 million Series B funding round led by Greylock. While both parties declined to comment on valuation, a source tells Forbes that the recent capital infusion values at about $300 million.
Why so much excitement for a year-old company with more businesses testing it than it has employees? Some of it is the reputation of the businesses happily trying Common Room so far, a who’s who of the types of new wave of work software and infrastructure businesses that Common Room wants to reach first. It’s also, Greylock partner Sarah Guo says, because as more of work and personal life moves online, how people pick software tools is increasingly up to the individual users, informed by where they spend their time in internet groups.
“I really had the story of Common Room in my head, and not because I’m so brilliant, but because I’ve seen the power of community for a lot of our companies,” Guo says. “We’ve entered a period of time where more informed people are choosing their own tools.”
After stints at Morgan Stanley, mobile security startup Lookout and venture capital firm Madrona Venture Group, Lian spent just two and a half years at Amazon before leaving in January 2020 and incorporating Common Room the following month. She added cofounder Francis Luu, a longtime product designer at Facebook, in June, then engineering-focused cofounders Viraj Mody and Tom Kleinpeter in August. Mody had led engineers at trucking startup Convoy and previously sold a business with Kleinpeter to Dropbox, where Kleinpeter still worked until Common Room. Along the way, she raised a $4.3 million seed round from Index Ventures and Madrona in March while still solo, then a $16.3 million Series A led by Index in September, with former Twitter executives Dick Costolo and Adam Bain’s 01 Advisors and LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner’s Next Play Ventures joining. (Common Room also has a large group of tech executive angel investors from the likes of Discord, GitHub, Salesforce, Stripe and Twilio, among others.)
After six months of collecting feedback from potential customer, Lian shifted Common Room’s focus to start as essentially a dashboard for tracking and managing who is interacting with a business online and how. They started building around the Series A in September, and brought on the first beta test customer in December.
At Clubhouse – not the voice-based app, but the project management software maker – creative marketing director Richard Huffaker uses Common Room to see who is talking about his company’s tools on GitHub, Slack and Twitter, and who seem like the brand’s most loyal fans. “It’s much easier to find those people and recognize them,” he says, allowing the startup to consider campaigns like an upcoming one to send swag to power members of its community. On the reporting side, Clubhouse can then see how those users engage afterward, helping the company budget more for such projects in the future.
“Everyone kind of intellectually gets that community is important in a company like ours,” says Rudan Zhang, Clubhouse’s vice president of marketing. “But when it comes time to actually allocate budget and resources, it’s one of those areas that is the least straightforward.”
Key to Common Room’s prospects is Lian’s ability to expand the idea of community, too. Some of the startup’s earliest users don’t have community in their title or job description at all, she notes. At Gremlin, a startup that helps companies prevent outages by testing their reliability using “chaos engineering,” principal site reliability engineer and executive team member Tammy Bryant Butow uses Common Room to help manage a Slack group of nearly 8,000 people. Most importantly, she says, she can easily see who the first few people interested in Gremlin’s approach to site reliability at a new business are, and make sure to reach out. “It’s creating a really genuine place, creating win-win opportunities,” she says.
With the funding, Lian plans to hire aggressively in Seattle and remote locations as well. Common Room has interest from large public companies, she says, meaning it needs to build out customer success functions while also investing more in its product and sales.
That need, not some bid for exclusivity, is why Common Room remains waitlist-only for the next few weeks at least. “We hope it won’t be too long,” says Lian.
Down the road, Common Room may look to expand out of developer- and work software-focused businesses to serve media companies, online education businesses, or even some consumer-facing businesses – anything where a close relationship with customers who stick around is valuable. “We’re creating a new category that doesn’t exist yet, so we have to take a consulting mindset advising on strategy, best practices and creating the playbook,” Lian says. “But we want to enable our customers to feel heard, supported and connected.”
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