Customer experience lessons from unicorns

Every startup dreams of reaching unicorn status, a term used to describe one that is valued at over $1 billion. It’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly gives a unicorn its horn, so to speak, so what do successful startups have in common?

They prioritize customer experience (CX), according to the 2020 Startups CX benchmark report by Zendesk, a customer service platform. Zendesk looked at more than 4,400 startups and found a clear link between better CX and faster growth.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to CX but fast-growing startups move faster and invest more than their peers, the report states, adding: “Continuous engagement with your customers results in a product that truly fits their needs.”


The study found four key performance benchmarks from startups who have experienced fast growth to help aspiring startups assess their performance:

– Customer service drives growth. “Startups that see faster growth rates start thinking about customer service earlier and embrace more tools and processes than the rest.” In fact, the study points to the finding that one of three fast-growing startups added support within two years of founding.

– Adoption of an omnichannel strategy to cut wait times. Fast-growing startups “were more likely to use omnichannel and chat support to help cut wait times and build more efficient teams.” They implement two times faster resolution time by their second year.

– Unicorns embrace self-service. “Those that have gone on to become unicorns prioritized self-service features like online help centers and were quicker to adopt live communication channels like chat and phone support.” Unicorns were 37 percent more likely to offer omnichannel customer service, 38 percent more likely to have rolled out chat and 48 percent more likely to have phone support.

– Fast-growing startup leaders rethink their priorities and put the customer first in everything that they do. “Though fast-growth startups are more likely to use an omnichannel strategy and lean on self-service, startup leaders said these features are less influential in buying decisions.”


One recently celebrated unicorn is Insider, a business-to-business software-as-a-service marketing technology firm headquartered in Singapore. Following a $121-million Series D with $1.22-billion valuation, Insider is enabling more than a thousand leading brands like Avon, PUMA, Lenovo, Etiqa, Philips, Toyota, Watsons, Burger King and IKEA with its personalized, cross-channel customer experience platform.

Insider’s AI-powered platform brings together an extensive set of personalization capabilities with messaging channels like WhatsApp, Facebook, and SMS. It coordinates offline and online data into a unified platform that allows enterprise marketers to connect customer data across channels and systems to reveal interests and preferred touchpoints, predict future behavior, and orchestrate and deliver individualized, optimized experiences to customers.


“We’ve been ‘blitzscaling’ remarkably in the past three years and achieved 3X growth. In the same period, our global team grew by 300% and our customer base continues to increase,” founder and chief executive officer Hande Cilingir said.

Another long-time unicorn is e-commerce platform Lazada. In April 2016, Alibaba acquired a 51-percent stake in the company, becoming the controlling shareholder. During the acquisition, Lazada was valued at $1.5 billion. In 2018, the Alibaba Group invested another $1 billion, bringing Lazada’s valuation to $3.15 billion.

Lazada witnessed significant growth in 2021, thanks to its “enhanced customer experience and engagement,” which is “a boon for brands and sellers.” Its annual active consumers rose 1.8x to 130 million in September 2021 from 73 million in March 2020, according to


Closer to home, Lazada in the Philippines has implemented many “firsts” throughout the years. It was the first to introduce cash on delivery payments, established sort centers automation to ensure faster deliveries, developed AI-powered tools for reliable 24/7 in-app customer support, pioneered Shoppertainment with in-app livestreaming and interactive games, introduced image and voice search, enabled easy bill payments, launched the first-ever digital giving platform, LazadaForGood; and established same-day delivery.

Another newly minted unicorn, Mynt, the financial technology firm behind GCash, attained “double unicorn” status in late 2021 with a $300-million fresh equity deal that jacked up its valuation to over $2 billion. This allowed the company to become the country’s first fintech unicorn and one of the leading financial technology (fintech) companies in Southeast Asia.

What helps GCash stand out is how much the firm is obsessed with its customers and their experience. The company puts heavy focus on data analytics to map out its customer profiles, which dictates what products to position and what messaging is needed for each customer profile.


One great marketing campaign example involves the GInvest product. Mynt tweaked the messaging to make investments relatable and less intimidating as “own a part of Apple or Amazon” instead of inviting customers to invest in its Global Technology Feeder Fund.

It’s an opportune time that we will be holding the virtual “CX Forum with Southeast Asia’s Unicorns” on April 21, 2022. Executives from unicorn companies have been invited to share their insights on humanizing customer experience with the power of personalization. Marketing and CX practitioners who are interested in joining can send me an email.

The author is the founder and CEO of Hungry Workhorse, a digital and culture transformation consulting firm. He is a fellow at the US-based Institute for Digital Transformation and teaches strategic management in the MBA Program of De La Salle University. He can be emailed at