Ninja’s, Super Mario, superheroes: there’s no shortage of pop culture in everything Kaizo does. The Amsterdam-based startup offers performance management software for customer support but adds a stiff dose of gaming to the mix. Co-CEO and co-founder Christoph Auer-Welsbach left his gaming days behind him. “Building a business is now my game.”
Service and games
“We want people to become superheroes”, says Auer-Welsbach. He co-founded Kaizo together with Dominik Blattner. The SaaS company employs gamification to empower service agents of companies to level up their game.
It does so by offering real-time insights to accelerate proactive performance improvement, guidance for teams towards making a data-driven impact on their company and an engaging and motivating digital work environment that feels like a fun game.
Kaizo recently raised €4 million in funding in a round led by Belgian VC Fortino Capital Partners. It allows the startup to scale up and take a big bite out of the $350 billion-market they are targeting.
Super Mario World
Serious business. But gaming is at the heart of Kaizo. It’s even ingrained in the name. Kaizo, which translates from Japanese to ‘remodel’, is a series of re-invented levels from Super Mario World with extreme difficulty. “Kaizo is when you are the best of the best”, says Auer-Welsbach. “When you have to play the most difficult levels in the business.”
There’s also another part to the name, says Auer-Welsbach. “We want to remodel how performance development is done.” It’s not all that deep though, as he admits. “Kaizo is also catchy. And the domain name was still available.”
To add to the gaming and Japanese vibes, Kaizo uses an easily recognisable ninja all over its platform. “A ninja is something that shows us you have to train hard to become a superhero”, says Auer-Welsbach. Kaizo’s ninja has a double-sided face, representing both the human and technological part of the platform. And, Auer Welsbach points out, it’s unisex. “Did you know that the first ninjas were female?”
“We kind of ran with the Japanese theme”, Auer-Welsbach explains Kaizo’s appearance. “One of the first features on the platform was a dojo, a personal training space for users. As a result, the ninja was the perfect avatar. But nothing is stopping us from adding other elements, like a cowboy village, to the platform.”
Kaizo’s origin story
Ninjas and cowboys aside, the origin story of Kaizo is a bit more mundane: two guys becoming friends, talking about work. Auer-Welsbach: “Dominik [Blattner, co-founder of Kaizo] and I knew each other from Rockstart accelerator in Amsterdam. I needed a spare room and he had one. We became friends as he was working on his startup while I was working at IBM Ventures. We’d spend a lot of time talking about what he did, discussing KPI management and the likes.”
One of Blattner’s clients asked how they could derive actions from KPIs, which got the ball rolling. “We thought it out but figured it would be hard to roll it out as enterprise software. So we decided to focus on mid-market companies with SaaS-model. We can help companies to self-manage their employees, to help them perform better.”
‘Approach the workforce’
“There are many tools and CRM-systems, but we specifically wanted to do two things. First, we wanted to be part of the workflow, so Kaizo integrates with the work. And second, we wanted to motivate people to actually use it themselves.”
To achieve that last part, Auer-Welsbach says it is important to stay really close to the people that use their product: “Many solutions provide management tools. We tried to approach 90 per cent of the workforce instead. We try to be close to the end-user and focus on helping them manage themselves.”
Empowering employees to improve themselves is not only beneficial for themselves, it works for the entire organisation. “The overhead can be reduced, the agility is increasing, and processes become more streamlined. There are benefits on both sides.”
From founder to VC to founder
Auer-Weslbach is an experienced entrepreneur who previously founded several startups. His previous gig put him on the other side of the table, as a VC for IBM Ventures. Auer-Welsbach says he is happy to be back founding companies. “I wanted to go back into the entrepreneurial world with something I could help others with. As a founder, there’s always the thrill of whether you can make it happen or not.”
His previous experience as both founder and VC might come in handy. “I know the pitfalls and am less likely to make stupid mistakes. But the focus also makes it easier to get blindsided. With experience, you’ll still make mistakes. You just make them differently. You’re just failing faster and working smoother.”
Sharing struggles and success at Rise
To avoid getting blindsided, it is good to check in with fellow entrepreneurs with companies in a similar phase. It’s what Auer-Welsbach found particularly valuable when participating in the Rise programme from Techleap.nl. “The peer-group insights are really useful. There are nine other companies on the verge of a Series A. We all have similar struggles, challenges and successes. We chose a path that pushes growth and we are now moving more to a paid model. Rise helped us validate that we are on the right track.”
It allows Kaizo to keep on scaling, and Auer Welsbach sees lots of opportunities. “We are targeting a double-digit billion-dollar annual market. We have a viable opportunity at hand. With our current growth, we believe we’ve hit a sweet spot. We are young, have great traction, we’ve raised €7 million in 18 months.”
“Now we need to attract more customers and make sure our growth model works.” Right now, Kaizo’s platform is only available for customer support, but Auer-Welsbach sees his product rolling out to other verticals in the future as well.
COVID propelled the world 10 years forward
When talking about growing a company for the past 18 months, it is impossible to ignore the impact COVID-19 had on the world. Kaizo seems to be in a good position, as their platform seems to work well with companies that are forced to adopt a ‘working from home’ strategy all of a sudden. Auer-Welsbach: “Before the pandemic, when we talked to VCs about the future of work, people said the current scenario was 10 or 15 years out. This accelerated growth on our side.”
“But we can’t forget industries that didn’t do well. SaaS, e-commerce, supply chain and delivery business skyrocketed. But for instance, restaurants and the automotive business lost traction. We had to deal with the challenge to help both sides. We helped struggling businesses by giving them access to our tools and shared business insights. We also created peer groups for them, we didn’t just want to let them go.”
“Our mission is to empower people inside organisations and with that also organisations themselves. You can’t do that with only the ones that do well. You need every customer to do well and give them 100 per cent. The whole team was up for it.”
‘The nicest customers’
It seems like Kaizo, in tune with their name, likes to play the game at a different, more difficult level: with a hidden mission to make service agents more respected across the board. “We have the nicest customers in the world because they are in customer support. They are all empathic, heartfelt people.”
“Customer service has established itself as the backbone for a business’s success. They are the first line between business and product. They’re the face of the company that can make all the difference. Yet, they still remain the unsung heroes. The recognition and empowerment support departments receive is minuscule in comparison to the impact they have on companies. That’s something we are working on changing.” It has at least changed himself, admits Auer-Welsbach. “Since starting Kaizo, I interact more positively with customer service reps because I now understand the amazing work they’re doing.”