February 22, 2013

New Year’s resolution slipping? It’s Beeminder to the rescue!

imagesIt’s probably no surprise that 45 of every 100 Americans make a New Year’s resolution…but the depressing statistic is that only eight will see that resolution through to the end of 365 days.  That’s why the concept behind Portland startup Beeminder is so intriguing.  It offers goal setting with teeth: either meet the milestones for the goals you set, or you (literally) pay the price.  Beeminder combines the best elements of self-tracking and commitment contracts.  You keep all your data points on a Yellow Brick Road to your goal or you pay a financial penalty.  The combination is powerful, and Beeminder calls it flexible self-control.

In our continuing series of interviews with startup entrepreneurs, we asked co-founder Daniel Reeves to share a few thoughts on his startup, what inspired it and how Beeminder is reaching its audiences.

Question: What was the inspiration behind Beeminder?  Was there a personal goal you were trying to achieve, but not reaching, or were you wanting to become an  entrepreneur, and this seemed like a viable company idea?  How long did it take for the germ of an idea to gel into being an actual company? Who’s been most instrumental in your success to date?

Answer: There are two origin stories for Beeminder — both true! In 2005, the year after Bethany Soule and I met, I was trying to finish my PhD thesis, arguably the most procrastination-prone activity in history. Bethany came to my rescue with all manner of crazy incentive and productivity schemes. She dubbed it the Voluntary Harassment Program. So years ago, we were already heading in the direction of Beeminder but it wasn’t until 2008 that we first built a website embodying the ideas. That’s when I started helping a friend lose weight by implementing the principles from The Hacker’s Diet via email and Mathematica. Bethany was doing similar things in Excel for herself and we joined forces and hacked together Kibotzer, the kibitzing robot. That continued as a side project for a couple years till late 2010 when we quit our day jobs to work on it full-time, which is also when we changed the name to Beeminder. It then took us another year until we publicly launched, in late 2011.

As for who’s been most instrumental in our success, top billing goes to the folks at Beeminder.  But maybe that’s like saying we’ve been most instrumental in our own success, depending on how we’re defining “we!” So aside from the Beeminder team and advisors, we’d like to give a special shout out to Jim Huston and Angela Jackson of the Portland Seed Fund. We’re also grateful for all the folks doing amazing things with the Beeminder API. We’re pretty blown away by how much awesomer Beeminder is becoming thanks to the hacker community around it.

Question: Most folks use Beeminder to help manage weight loss, but there are other useful applications.  What’s the most interesting goal that Beeminder has been used to track?  What’s a goal that Beeminder has NOT been used to help achieve, but that you think would be viable for it?  What’s the one Beeminder feature you wish more people would take note of?

Answer: There are two uncommon but, I think, quite powerful goals that are among my favorites, both of which we’ve blogged about. First is Jake Jenkins beeminding his guitar playing and fulfilling a lifelong dream that he wasn’t finding time to bring to fruition without Beeminder.  The second is Gandalf Saxe beeminding his studying — every student who procrastinates and ends up cramming for exams should be using Beeminder!

If we’re allowed to answer this in a preposterously meta way, our favorite Beeminder goal is our own User-Visible Improvements to Beeminder. We have a $1000 commitment contract on averaging one user-visible improvement to Beeminder every day. We’re going on 700 improvements now — and we tweet about them. We can honestly say that Beeminder would not have made it as a startup if it weren’t for that Beeminder goal forcing us to keep making inexorable forward progress.

As for the feature more people should take note of, it’s the Road Dial. We talk about it in excruciating detail on our blog and we think it embodies what makes Beeminder better than our biggest competitor, StickK.  The Road Dial is the ability to change the steepness of your path to your goal, your Yellow Brick Road, and makes Beeminder very flexible, but not so flexible that it defeats the point of a commitment contract.  It lets you change your mind about what you’ve committed to, but always with a one-week delay, so you can never change your mind out of laziness (unless you’re particularly forward-thinking about your laziness).

Question:  How do people find Beeminder? It would seem that social media would be a good marketing outlet, but it takes time to build receptive audiences. How are you spreading the word about Beeminder? Any successful ideas you could share for others out there on a limited marketing budget who might be developing a B2C product?

Answer:  People have been finding Beeminder via various blogs like Lifehacker, Quantified Self and LessWrong. We’re involved in these communities and have also been gradually building credibility by putting a ton of thought into our own blog. Our biggest recent marketing coup was getting featured in Southwest Airlines’ inflight magazine, Spirit. That one was almost pure luck though. The one thing we did right was to have our phone number at the bottom of our site. The journalist who wrote the feature originally wanted to write about our competitor, GymPact, but couldn’t find a phone number for them. So he called us!

July 23, 2012

Crowdsourced Chirpsy bolsters Twitter feeds

While it might be easy, sharing your thoughts on Twitter can be time-consuming.  Thankfully, Seattle startup Chirpsy offers an economical way for you to have a steady stream of tweets without spending your entire day on the site.  Chirpsy is a service that leverages crowdsourcing for both the evaluation and drafting of content for microblogs.  Chirpsy can create relevant tweets to supplement personal Twitter posts, giving your feed much more depth and creating opportunities to participate in additional conversations.

As part of our continuing series of interviews with entrepreneurs, we asked Chirpsy founder Isaac Nichols to share some insight into his company, where it’s heading, and how to best utilize Chirpsy within an existing Twitter campaign.

Question: Tell us a little about Chirpsy. What was the inspiration behind the company’s product? Do you have partners that were particularly key to launching the company? At this stage, are you utilizing personal funding?

Answer: The inspiration for Chirpsy grew out of our frustration with trying to keep our Twitter account fresh with relevant content. At my previous startup, TurkForce, we frequently gained sales leads when we posted tweets about the latest crowdsourcing news and trends. Posting a few status updates every day seemed like it should be easy, but we quickly found that it takes a lot of time, energy, and dedication to keep it going. Given the short shelf life of the content, we wanted to keep it updated with new content every day, but with so many competing priorities running a business, posting a tweet was rarely at the top of the list. We would sadly let our Twitter account would languish for days and sometimes weeks, and I’m sure we missed out on many business opportunities as a result.

This is where the genesis of Chirpsy came from – our need to keep our social media presence updated with relevant content on an ongoing basis to attract new sales and the realization that this was a perfect scenario for a crowdsourcing solution. The around-the-clock nature and very human element of social media pairs perfectly with a 24×7 on demand crowdsourced workforce.

At that time, we didn’t have the resources to go after this business idea. Fast forward a few years – TurkForce was acquired and I had the opportunity to focus on something new – the time was right to revisit this idea. I partnered with the team at PugetWorks who loved the concept and had the resources to make it happen. After a few rough prototypes to prove the utility of the service, Chirpsy was born.

We were fortunate enough to be one of six companies chosen to present at the MIT Demo Forum event in December 2011, where we unveiled Chirpsy for the first time and launched our Beta. Later in January 2012 we officially launched our service to the world at the Emerging Media Conference in San Francisco.

Currently we are a self-funded bootstrapped business.

Question: Social media outlets such as Twitter were created to foster conversations. It seems that Chirpsy’s goal is to create tweets that link to relevant media posts and blogs – if this is correct, do you envision that customers will use your posts as supplementary or supportive tweets to their own? And if Chirpsy’s tweets are stand-alone (without additional input from a company), how do you plan to understand a company’s business well enough to act as its voice?

Answer: We are not trying to replace the person managing your social media strategy. We never post on your behalf, but we do provide an easy to use interface that allows you to edit and queue up content for future posting.

We have initially designed Chirpsy to focus on finding and creating great content that your followers will love. It shouldn’t be a revelation that when you join the conversation on social media networks, it’s a good idea to avoid talking about yourself or your business all the time. Just like in real life, it is more socially acceptable to talk more about your industry and what others are doing. This helps you earn the trust and establish credibility with your followers. This is the type of content that we are initially focused on – tweets that link to the latest news and blog articles that your followers will enjoy and learn from. We expect this content will be used as supplementary content to other tweets you might include about internal news and announcements. This content is crafted to help organically spur new conversations with your followers.

When a company signs up for Chirpsy, they provide us their writing guidelines and existing Twitter account to use as a model for us to follow. If we send you something that isn’t up to your standards – either the content that we link to isn’t right or the message of the tweet, you can easily reject it and provide us the reason why it isn’t to you liking. This process turns into additional feedback to our crowdsourced team that helps refine the articles that are chosen along with their writing style. This process may take a few iterations to get just right, but once it is setup the writing can become remarkably in-tune with your needs. Another side benefit of our service is that you effectively receive a curated news stream for your business. Many customers have reported they love reading the content because it helps them stay on top of their industry news and trends.

Question: What’s the upcoming roadmap for Chirpsy? How do you plan to reach out to potential users? You’ve already rolled out your entry level subscription service; what’s the timeline for more comprehensive offerings?

Answer: In January we launched with our $199/month plan that provides 20 tweets a week. Based on customer feedback we recently launched two new plans: a $99/month plan that gives you a tweet a day (7 tweets a week) and a higher volume $379/month plan that gives you 40 tweets a week. Custom plans can be requested, but we expect these three plans to satisfy social media appetites of all sizes. Along with the new plans, we added the ability to integrate approved tweets into HootSuite and other Twitter clients that offer tweet-scheduling capability. We have many more improvements underway and are continually listening to our customers for ideas on how we improve our service.

As for marketing Chirpsy, we have obviously been leveraging social media. The great thing about social media is that people who manage social media accounts are a vocal community that willingly share the tools and tips that work for them. Networking and word of mouth have been our most effective customer acquisition channels so far. We have several other marketing plans we are working on for identifying and reaching out to additional customers in a cost-effective manner. We are also interested in making deals with social media firms who manage a large number of clients and want to leverage our services to help them scale.

July 19, 2012

BodSix lets social gamers hit the road

If you’re into social networks and games — and also love maps and travel — BodSix has got just the product for you. This Seattle-based startup is launching an addictive new leisure activity that combines the magic of GPS location-based services with mobile device gaming. Best of all, the app is free! As part of our continuing series of interviews with entrepreneurs, we asked BodSix CEO and co-founder Jeff Dixon to tell us a little about his company, his experience with Kickstarter as a funding source and the meaning behind the company name.

Question: Developing a location-based service is hard enough…but combining it with gaming is a new twist.  Tell us a little about BodSix, and why you think consumers are ready for a product such as Map Monsters.  Since you’re envisioning this as a free app, how will you monetize it so that BodSix can remain a viable company?  Or is your eventual strategy to license/sell it to a third party? How do you plan to promote it, through regional rollouts (since location is a factor)?

Answer: Any time a new technology, like GPS, is introduced to games, it allows for new and interesting dynamics. BodSix was founded to create fun mobile games that exploited this technology. We believe that games are inherently more interesting if they change based on where you play them.  Location-based services and games have been around for awhile, but using location is tricky. Most game developers over-rely on location, forcing players to physically move around to interact with the game. Our philosophy is to leverage location as a secondary mechanic to develop games that are fun to play from a single location, but allow the player to advance more quickly when played from multiple locations.

Free-to-play with in-app purchase is the ONLY viable business model for mobile application development, especially for a title that doesn’t yet have brand awareness. Free-to-play apps generate significantly more downloads and awareness, drivers that are so crucial in establishing a foothold in the market. Free-to-play also is more profitable because it doesn’t cap what players will spend in a game. As evidence, reference the top paid download on the iOS charts and see its position on the top grossing charts. As I’m writing this, the top paid download, Amazing Alex, is only number 13 on the top grossing chart.

iTunes only allows us to control application distribution at the country level. After we complete play testing, we plan to release the game in the U.S. as well as other markets on a country-by-country basis.

Jeff Dixon

Question: We’re curious about your experience with Kickstarter (which we love, by the way).  Although you did not reach your goal and were not funded, you did, in fact, get more than 200 people to pledge over $200,000.  Do you think you set your goal too high?  What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs looking at Kickstarter as a way to launch their dreams?  Will you try Kickstarter again in the future?

Answer: With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to say that we set our goal too high. Of course, the money would have been nice. That said, there are a lot of non-insignificant hidden costs associated with Kickstarter, ranging from video production, to PR, to team distraction, as well as administrative overhead during the campaign and reward management post-campaign. Raising less than our target would have made the cost of administration (plus the direct cost of rewards) close to a break-even proposition.

I think a lot of game companies under-estimate these hidden costs and raise too little cash. In the end, they find themselves losing 4-6 weeks of traction with few residual funds with which to actually develop the project. Of course, you don’t hear much about this, since people typically focus on the projects that raise multiples of their goal.

Despite not reaching our goal, I remain bullish on Kickstarter and other crowd funding options. If nothing else, it forces you to focus your narrative, to create a compelling video, to establish an early fan base, and to flex your PR and marketing muscles. We don’t have immediate plans to relaunch our campaign for our current project, but I would definitely consider it with future projects.

Question: Naming a company is often critical to its success.  How did you come up with the name for BodSix?  Did an available URL play any role in your decision process?  Did you have a brainstorming session to create the name, or was it a brain flash?  What could you tell other entrepreneurs to consider when naming their companies?

Answer: We are more focused on branding individual game titles than the name of our company. We’re on a tight budget, so we narrowed down (and expanded) a list of potential game titles by asking friends and family. Next, we sent a very brief questionnaire to folks in our game’s target demographic. The targeting tools offered by Facebook ads helped us reach casual game players to the exclusion of non-gamers.

Developing the BodSix name was a less rigorous process. It’s an anagram of the first three letters of my co-founder and my last names. :)

July 9, 2012

eNotes takes the work out of homework

“Who was Dr. Francis E. Townsend?” If you don’t know the answer, you’re not alone…questions like this one are posed to Seattle-based eNotes experts from students across the country as part of their homework routine.  Thousands of students and teachers use this comprehensive online educational resource daily to read a book synopsis, develop a study guide, ask a question or just to read and chat about an interesting topic.  And if you’re one of today’s parents challenged by the complex subjects your children are tackling in school, it’s time to rejoice — you now have a resource at your fingertips for science, math, literature and more.

(Side note: Dr. Townsend was a vocal critic of the New Deal and was instrumental in the formation of Social Security as we know it today.)

As part of our continuing series of interviews with technology company entrepreneurs, we asked Brad Satoris, president of eNotes, to tell us a little more about his company, how it came to challenge Cliffs Notes as a homework resource for students everywhere, what problems he encountered early on and where he’s taking eNotes in the future.

Question: Tell us a little about eNotes.  What was your “aha!” moment that spurred you on to form the company?  Did you hit any stumbling blocks early on?  What advice could you give that would help other entrepreneurs avoid the same problems?

Answer: eNotes actually began as a website called AllShakespeare.com back in 1999. At the time, the other co-founder and I had just graduated from college and the web was starting to gain a lot of momentum. We started looking at lists published by some search engines of most commonly searched terms, and the ones at the top were things that didn’t really interest us, such as Britney Spears and Pokemon. But “Shakespeare” was always in the Top 50. Both of us were big fans of Shakespeare, and given the vast amount of information available about him, we thought a study site for Shakespeare could be something useful for students, teachers, and fans of the author. We hired a PhD candidate at the Shakespeare Institute (University of Birmingham), who wrote commentary to 10 of Shakespeare’s most popular works, and we put these alongside the texts of the plays. We decided early on that we would give away a certain amount of content for free but require a subscription for access to the complete commentaries.  The first day we went online we received a few orders, and a few more the next day — it was clear this was a viable business.

We acquired the eNotes.com domain in 2003, and now cover more than 30,000 works of literature.  The money we paid to our Shakespeare writer represented the only out-of-pocket investment we ever made in the company; we’ve bootstrapped ever since.

When I think of stumbling blocks we experienced early on, they mostly focus on early hires.  Hiring people is the most difficult thing you will do. We were lucky to have some great employees in the early days of the company who did amazing work for us, but we’ve also seen complacency develop with some positions.  You will need specialized talent in almost any business you start, but don’t ever think you can’t replace an employee — no matter how specialized the skill set.  One of the worst situations that can develop at a start-up is an employee who thinks he or she isn’t replaceable.

My advice to other entrepreneurs is to obsess over the quality of your product or service. If you have a great product or service, the other things that a successful business requires will fall into place more easily.  For example, we did very little marketing early on, but our site rose in the search engines because we had great content and a user-friendly site.  We focused squarely on the website, and didn’t worry or think too much about marketing or other things we felt were peripheral to our business.  All businesses are unique, of course, and what is peripheral to your particular business is something you have to decide.

The other advice I would give, and something I regret not following too well, is to step away from your business every chance you get. Life is too short to spend in front of a computer all day. Get outside, take a walk, take a vacation. No matter how important you think your business is, it’s not that important.

Question: We understand the site’s functions that offer book synopses, etc., but how does eNotes differ from Ask.com when it comes to individual questions?  And if your audience is primarily students, does your web traffic suffer during the summer months?  How do you compensate for this?  What’s been your most successful way to reach students as potential users?

Answer: When we decided to do a Question and Answer service we wanted to differentiate it from all the others by making sure we were creating high-quality content. To that end we were prepared to pay for answers from individuals that we vetted and approved.  A lot of the software behind our Q&A is designed to handle compensating experts for their answers and to constantly evaluate their work.  In order to become an “eNotes editor” and get paid for your answers, you need to fill out an application on our website, and provide three answers before we review and approve your application. As a result of this process, we have hundreds of teachers and other highly educated individuals answering questions from students and other teachers.  This makes us a little different in that you would be hard-pressed to find any substandard answers. Our goal with the Q&A is to build a unique, high-quality reference work.

Another goal of the Q&A is to provide a space for student and teachers to communicate. We allow students to become “fans” of an editor, and to direct their questions to particular editors if they wish.  They can also message editors through our messaging system.  The education space on the internet is still very much in its infancy; we think the winners will be those services that facilitate real-time or near real-time interaction between educators and learners. We see the Q&A as a small step in that direction.

Summer is definitely slower than the rest of the year for us; that’s just the nature of a seasonal business like ours. Having said that, plenty of students go to summer school, and summer is also a time for us to step back and roadmap our projects and goals for the coming school year.  Also, our site is somewhat unique in that roughly 20% of our audience is teachers.  Teachers are our best customers — they stay with us longer and many of them teach summer school.

In terms of reaching students, we’ve been online for more than eight years now, and a lot of students have heard of eNotes. We do some amount of marketing and outreach through social media, and we’ve also been fortunate so far to do well in the natural results of the major search engines.

Question: How do you recruit your experts?  What screening processes are in place to ensure that the answers provided on eNotes are accurate?

Answer: We run ads in various places, and we also solicit from our own user base. We have a fairly large library of lesson plans, and our study guides contain higher level content, such as published criticism, that attracts teachers to our site. We want these teachers to work for eNotes. For us, the ideal customer is a teacher who subscribes to our site, and then later becomes an editor.  This creates a kind of virtuous circle where teachers use eNotes and then contribute their talent and skills for the benefit of the next group of users.

The suite of software that runs our Q&A also has a concept of a “super editor” or “managing editor.”  These are the very best of our editors that we move into a more full-time position, where they review other editors answers for accuracy and quality.  They also identify the best answers and give bonuses to the authors, and also promote these answers so they become more visible to our user base.

June 29, 2012

Geedra gets it together, photo-wise

It’s hard to imagine how one might organize and work with potentially thousands of photos…and yet, construction managers, architects, inspectors and developers do just that.  Depending on the size of the project, the visual images that are captured and maintained to record a building or development’s progress can quickly escalate into dizzying proportions.  That’s why Geedra, a Seattle-based startup, has a product that is so useful for its intended audience.  It’s a cloud-based solution that automates the filing and storing of building and development project photos, ensuring comprehensive and consistent availability.

As part of our continuing series of interviews with entrepreneurs, we asked Rob Mathewson, founder and Geedra CEO, to share a few thoughts.

Question: Company names are so important — Geedra stands out because it is unusual.  Tell us a little about how you went about naming the company, and whether or not the name actually ties back to your industry in some way.  Did the need for a URL dictate its choice?  What process did you go through to select the name, and what tips could you give other entrepreneurs who are struggling with nomenclature?

Answer: It took a while to come up with the name. Initially, we set out to create a functional name that would give people a sense of what we did with photos. Ultimately, we abandoned that for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, we were doing something completely different, so the name alone couldn’t tell the whole story. Once we accepted that, we stepped back and tried to consider a name that related to the problem we were trying to solve. We have always assumed that the high risk associated with construction projects comes from the tenuous relationship that exists between the owner, the architect and the general contractor (a “three-headed monster”) that partner together for every construction project. I was a big fan of Godzilla as a kid, so the three-headed Ghidorah came to mind.  I vaguely remembered something about double vowel names being more Google friendly. And so, Geedra was born.

I’d say one in one hundred people can identify the origins of the name. But as soon as anyone in the construction industry hears the story of the three-headed monster, they get it instantly.

Naming a company or product is so tough, especially the first one. Aside from URL and trademark considerations, keep it simple. Try not to be too contrived or wrapped up with cute spelling. Make sure that people can pronounce the name correctly when they read it. Try using it over the phone with a few different folks. I find networking events great for test driving names and tag lines because you can read the reaction of people’s faces to give you a true gauge on the effectiveness of the verbiage. “Listen” to their faces more than their opinions.

Finally, stay away from the Godzilla names. That’s been done already :-)

Question: It’s obvious that one of Geedra’s strengths is the team’s knowledge of the construction and building industry.  Will you ever venture into other potential markets for Geedra?  Which ones are you looking at?  If not, what are your plans for growing Geedra’s customer base in the coming months?

Answer: There was $900 billion in construction work in the US in 2011. Our goal for Geedra is to establish the ubiquitous photo-data standard for reporting on building conditions for every contractor, owner and architect on the planet. People refer to Geedra as working in a “niche market.”  If so, it’s a REALLY deep niche.  Having said that, several folks in a variety of industries have approached us about various photo-data applications. We’ll address those opportunities when circumstances allow.

Question: Geedra has done an admirable job of gaining publicity and coverage on a shoestring budget.  For example, we really liked the Geedra Pitch Video on YouTube.  Tell us a little about how you created it, how much it cost and the different ways you’ve been able to utilize it.  What advice could you give to others who might need a similar video but not know how to go about creating one?

Answer: When you’re bootstrapping, you’re forced to become incredibly self-sufficient. I was able to put that video together myself using iMovie, a screen capture app and a canned music loop. I found a blog post that was pretty helpful in providing guidance and resources. With the exception of the soundtrack, I created all of the content and did the narration myself.

The funny thing about that video is that I was in the middle of writing the original captions when I saw the video for Dollar Shave Club. I thought to myself, “Now, that’s the way to do it.”  So, I scrapped my plain, vanilla captions, put on my Stephen Colbert hat and went to work. Having a good sense of humor as a scrappy startup is another way to stand out in a crowd.

April 4, 2012

Punchkeeper wants to skinny up your wallet

How many customer loyalty cards are you currently carrying in your wallet?  Punch or plastic cards for the local grocery store, casino, bookstore and coffee shop are bulking up consumer wallets across the country…and a Seattle startup, Punchkeeper, has created an alternative to the fat wallet syndrome using a smartphone application and QR codes.  In just a few months, co-founder Val Trask and her team have enticed numerous local businesses to ditch paper and plastic in favor of digital.  As part of our continuing series of interviews with entrepreneurs, we asked Val to share some of her startup experiences.

Question: Tell us a little about Punchkeeper.  How did you get the idea for this startup, and who are your current mentors (if any)?  What’s your timeline for expansion — will you be seeking investors?

Answer: Punchkeeper was born from lunch hour banter between my co-founders Matty Mitchell, designer and Jon Ohrt, developer. They loved loyalty programs but hated carrying punch cards and it wasn’t long before they realized that, with their powers combined, they could do something about it.  At the time I was finishing my MBA and they brought me on to turn the idea into a business.

We spent our first year bootstrapping. We were as scrappy as possible while conducting market research, making the app, beta testing, building a team, and getting into our first stores. Our next phase will require funding to scale and add more features. We’re polishing our pitch deck at the moment.

Question: Once Google acquired Punchd, we figured Google Wallet would eventually include a digital loyalty card function.  When you have a potential competitor as large as Google, how does this figure into your marketing strategy?  How do you plan to differentiate Punchkeeper from similar alternatives?

Answer: Nobody likes to hear that their new competitor is Google. It’s a young and large industry though, and there’s no shortage of potential. Punchkeeper differentiates by offering customization of digital cards so that businesses can actually have their cards reflect their own branding; many business owners liked that about paper cards and we didn’t want to lose that personalization. Also, not every small business owner wants to work with a big company, many are fond of greater human contact and small businesses helping small businesses.

Question: You’ve got quite a roster of local area small businesses that have signed on to use Punchkeeper.  How did you reach out to them?  As a startup, we’d assume that your sales staff is minimal, so can you share your successful strategies for building a merchant network with other entrepreneurs?  What has been your best promotional tactic to date?  Do you plan to extend out from the Seattle area by the end of the year?

Answer: We’ve worked hard to get in front of as many business owners as possible. It’s tough when there’s a small staff but the app isn’t worth much without locations for people to use it. The only advice that I can give to similar businesses trying to gain initial traction with a limited budget and bandwidth is to just keep at it – like so many things, it’s a numbers game.

In terms of promotions, we’ve tried a lot of grassroots approaches. The best so far has been word of mouth, or first-hand experiences from happy business owners and the customers that visit their shops. A lot of the success of adoption at a business is the extent to which staff is trained and promotional materials are visible. We dedicate substantial effort into understanding how to best help a business reach out to its audience effectively.

We’re already in a few locations outside of Seattle and we plan to use funding to help support more growth nationally. One of the beauties of a business like this is that you could be a business owner in a town that I’ve never even heard of and be up-and-running with our app within a matter of minutes.


January 13, 2012

Ethofy simplifies sales channel management

With customers such as Microsoft, IBM and Toshiba, Seattle-based Ethofy is hardly in its infancy; in fact, it was one of the first area startups to recognize the potential of cloud computing.  Today, Ethofy automates critical sales channel activities through SaaS solutions that tackle a thorny problem: how to easily entice channel partners into using a business’s marketing materials and content.  As part of our continuing series of interviews with entrepreneurs, we asked Rob Savette, the company’s vice president of sales and marketing, to share his insight into Ethofy and the role social media tools can play in sales strategies.

Question: What was the problem Ethofy wanted to solve when it was founded in 2003?  Since then, the company’s products have certainly evolved.  Tell us a little about your goals today and what you’re delivering to the marketplace.

Answer: Since 2003 Ethofy has been primarily focused on helping companies communicate and sell more effectively through their sales channels. Obviously, that market has rapidly evolved – both in the actual market dynamics as well as the technologies and solutions that service that market. As a small, entrepreneurial company we have constantly worked to stay at the forefront of those changes. I believe that the largest shift in that dynamic has been to move from a fundamental “pull” model to much more of the “push” model we see today. Whereas 10 years ago people were developing partner portals and programs that put the onus on partners to go and get what they needed, today we not only work hard at having those resources available, but we also provide mechanisms and solutions that push information, materials and tools out to the partners as well. I believe that the recent evolution of social marketing tools will play a huge role in that push process.

Question: We’re particularly interested in your views on utilizing social media to boost business results.  What social media channels and tools have you found to be most effective in the business setting?  For a small business just now entering the social media arena, what advice would you give?

Answer: I’ll skip right to the second part of your question because of two reasons: 1) the list is too long to cover fairly in a short time, and 2) more significantly, I think the answer to the second part drives the answer to the first.

The main piece of advice I’d give is that before you start to research and choose social marketing solutions, get very clear about what you’d like to achieve.  The decisions you make regarding what you want to address, whether it be immediate sales, building your pipeline, improving customer service, growing your customer base, defining or redefining your brand, etc. will be the absolute driving factor in your search for a social solution.  Once you’ve made that decision, you can then decide what to shop for in the tool market.

Question: How do you think businesses can most effectively use microsites?  We’ve seen independent or sole proprietors utilize them, and wondered about the time vs. return ratio.  How can a business ensure that a microsite is appropriate for its marketing mix, and do you have any tips for how to best turn a microsite into an effective communications tool?

Answer: Wow – this is a pretty deep question that ties to many issues that are specific to an organization. In general, I would say the following:

For small organizations: if there is a specific set of business problems that can be best solved by a microsite, then go for it. An example would be a company that spends a great deal of time working through configuration questions to generate leads and sales. This type of complex problem can be solved very effectively by a microsite.  I advise against “taking a shot” at a microsite because you think it will be great. This type of vagueness can lead to a lengthy development process, and produces relatively expensive and ineffective microsites.

For large companies: assuming that a large company supports either a large sales team, a large partner program or both, I would highly recommend investing in the development of microsites in your marketing strategy. Microsites are the type of tool that allow your sales people to focus more on the act of selling by allowing the microsite to provide some of the information and messaging transfer. They will also allow you to provide powerful and complex solutions to your partner (a great value add to them) while guaranteeing you control the look, feel, and messaging of the microsite.

October 12, 2011

Get ready…On The Go Technologies enters Seattle startup scene

The mobile application space gets more crowded every day. Although this certainly presents a challenge to a new market player, it’s one that Seattle startup On The Go Technologies is willing to tackle. In our continuing series of interviews with entrepreneurs, we asked Drew Morrison to tell us a little about On The Go Technologies and to share some of his experience in prepping a company to launch with others who may be considering a similar move in the near future.

Drew Morrison

Question: On The Go Technologies has only been on the Seattle startup scene for a year, so tell us a little about your company.  Who are your co- founders?  You’re a mobile software development team, but what is your primary focus?

Answer: Yes, we’re a pretty new company.   We spent 10 months as a fumbling LLC struggling to gather moment as well as to gain a clear understanding of how to execute. We had this great idea, we just didn’t really know what to do with it.  Our greatest gains have come in the past 2-3 months. We were able to find two amazing advisors: Jeff Coon of Makegood Software and Richard Luck of Loudlever.  I can’t tell you enough how blessed we are to have these two on our team.  Both have a tremendous amount of knowledge, passion and heart, and thankfully, they offered a lot of that to us.  Additionally, during this time we finally were able to  build a team (two developers, two non-developers), hire a contractor to help with UI (Bill Hones), secure our first test subjects and finally make the transition to a C-Corp.  We just built our first prototype a few weeks ago (yes, applause here!) and are working on gathering more intel to build a marketable beta, which we hope to have in the market around Christmas.

As a company, we’re only four deep; five if you include our contract guy, Bill.  There are the three co-founders: I handle everything related to business,
Nicholas Sveslosky handles everything product related (he had the idea for On the Go) and Chris Rosenquest is our technology guru.  Alhough he isn’t technically a co-founder, our fourth member is truly a rock star.  Kevin Mansel is our senior developer, but I think his title should be “stud.”  With the four of us, we have this unique dynamic.  The guys trust me to lead and direct us in the right direction, which I can only do because I trust they all can do their jobs just as proficiently.  We’re this weird mix of business-junky-meets-Zen-master-meets-technogeek-meets-techno-nut… I have no real description for us except that we’re the team of OTG and yet, I keep hearing the theme song to the Addams Family as I type this…

Our focus is addressing a problem that we see in the market — a lack of simplicity that allows a user to quickly search, locate, plan multiple venues and navigate all in ONE easy-to-use platform.  In a nutshell, we are focusing on improving current consumer location software platforms and other current colloquial consumer sites like Yelp or Urbanspoon and make them function in one easy-to-use mobile or non-mobile program or application.  Our twist comes in how we present information and the functionality we offer to a user by suggesting venues and events based specifically on their personal preferences.  Our goal is to make a user a local expert no matter what city he or she is in.

Question: It seems that you are in one of the most challenging business climates for startups.  Not only is there a lot of noise in the market for enabling mobile technologies…the economic sector is very tight for young businesses these days.  What’s your strategy for getting On The Go Technologies out of the starting gate?  Since you’re an investor as well as an entrepreneur, are you bootstrapping the company?  Or are you looking for angel or VC funding and, if so, how are you getting in front of other potential investors?  Have you found the Seattle startup community helpful for business and funding support?

Answer: Gosh, tough market?  You bet.  Everyone is trying to go mobile and mobile apps is the hot ticket.  We really only have a few years to make our mark before this eventually fizzles out and we’re all back to the drawing boards. And you’re right, the economy is just terrible, making it impossible for new startups to get financing, unless you’re an ex-Apple exec, which many of us aren’t.  The question of strategy was a huge discussion point for us. In the beginning it was only Nicholas and me, two non-technical co-founders piecing together this huge puzzle.  I almost think this helped us.  Since we didn’t know how to build, we really had to focus on what the problem was and how to best approach it to get our answer to, “How do I get into a highly saturated market?”  To us was a no brainer, don’t enter it.

On The Go’s core product might have the final end user as the consumer and our primary build specs about making it functionally very appeasing to the user, but we don’t have to get to the user by going directly to him or her. Instead, we chose to partner with hotels.  Build them a quality commercial product that can integrate with their current guest services or concierges and allow their guests to benefit from the marriage.  This process gets us into the market with a lower barrier to entrance, we can fine tune our pitch and sales goals and go after hotels that inherently have hundreds, thousands and even millions of guests annually…and in the end, we get what we have always wanted: consumer users.

In the beginning, we did seek out VCs and angels.  We found this process dull, mainly because no one responded!  I think out of 20 requests, only one or two had the decency to respond.  It was this lack of response that made me realize that we were going to have to do this on our own.  As great of an idea as we had, no one was funding ideas anymore (not for Average Joes, at least); we would have to take that idea to reality and then, we could re-approach those oh-so-grand VC and angel guys that for some reason could not hit a “reply” button.  So for now, we are bootstrapping.  Nicholas and I have put in a sizable amount, but this time around, OTG will look to me to fund them.  I feel honored that I can and am happy to push our company forward.  Now, in fairness to VC and angels, I know they’re busy and see a lot of ideas come across their desks.  I’m not bitter and, in fact, their lack of response helped me to revamp our approach, a good thing for us.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is the startup community.  Let me tell you how amazing it is and how open and willing everyone is in Seattle to help a fellow entrepreneur out.  All I had to do was to join a few forums and meetup groups and email my idea and a request for help, and literally the same day, people responded offering valuable opinions and face time.  To this day it still amazes me how much good advice, coffee time, referrals and support we received for basically being an idea funded by two daydreamers.  If life allows me, I’m going to make sure everyone that helped us along the way receives their due thanks.  Guys like Jeff Coon, Richard Luck, Justin Smith, Derek Johnson, Chirag Pancholi, Brandyn Hill (and her concierges), Bret Matteson and our awesome attorneys Gordon Empey and Allan Hambleton from Cooley LLP (to name a few) have all made a solid difference in our lives.  If we are successful, I can honestly say that it’s because of these people and their commitment to help fellow startups do the impossible: survive.  Seattle seems to emulate an age-old saying, “It takes a village to raise a family.”  And I tell ya what, Seattle is a cool village to be family in.  Trust me.

Question: You are a serial entrepreneur.  What do you find so attractive about creating new companies?  Any advice you can share with other potential entrepreneurs about launching a company in today’s market climate?

Answer: Yes, I am a serial entrepreneur.  I currently own three companies, each started from the ground up.  I have half a dozen other startups that have failed, but each failure added to the success of the next.  I think the most attractive part of self-starting is knowing that you’re taking this basic idea that’s in your head and then figuring out the problems to make it come to life and grow and survive.  I think it’s human nature to build. It isn’t easy and very few of us can actually make it.  But in reality, the line that separates the successful from the failed is very very thin.  It’s that uncertainty of which side of the line I’m really on that helps drive me.

If I had any good advice to offer to other potential entrepreneurs, it’d be something like this.   Do what you know and do it well.  If you don’t know how to do something, get someone on board that does.  There is a huge difference in running a company and owning a company, and most owners are terrible at running theirs.  Know your weakness and let others execute.  And don’t waste time writing big plans and hoarding over who gets what, and what fair is.  There are thousands, if not millions of us that have come before you and have already thought of what you have.  If you are just a single owner, hire people to do your admin and all the roles to support you. If there are multiple partners, then complete your idea on paper, determine if it’s actually doable, adds REAL value and then, go to an attorney like Cooley to help you sort out the inner workings.  You’re not as smart as the rest of the world if you don’t utilize them to help you.  Now go build, go create, go open a new company.  Know that you will fail, but learn at least one thing from that and try try again.  Successful people are the ones that have failed the most, but chose not to give up.  You’ll see what I mean one day.

August 23, 2011

Thinkspace: so much more than space to think…and going global

Entrepreneurs are a hardy lot. While it’s exciting to be the captain of your destiny, it can also be lonely…but not if you’re located in the Seattle area, because thinkspace is out to change that concept.  Located near the Microsoft campus in Redmond, thinkspace is transforming the startup and small business experience from one that can be solitary into one that gives each member a sense of a community sharing similar core values.   Thinkspace is passionate about becoming each member company’s personal cheering squad, contributing to their sustainable growth, and creating an environment that inspires them.

It’s such an unusual business concept that, as part of our continuing series of interviews with entrepreneurs, we asked thinkspace’s community marketing manager, Kristin Eide, to share a few thoughts about the company, its mission and what we can look forward to in the future.

Question: Thinkspace seems to be so much more than a shared office and conference facility; in some respects, it’s almost an incubator minus the financial backing.  Tell us a little about it.  What was the inspiration behind thinkspace?  How many companies are currently in residence?  We keep thinking about what happens when roommates have little spats, so what kind of screening process (if any) do companies need to go through before they can utilize thinkspace?

Answer: Definitely. If thinkspace were only office space, I would have a really boring job. Thinkspace is a community of entrepreneurs, small businesses, startups and non-profits. We recognize that starting a business is scary, and we want to support our members by providing services to make their experience easier. We also offer virtual services for business that want to look bigger without blowing up their overhead expenses.

Our CEO and founder, Peter Chee, started thinkspace in May 2008. Peter was working from home and really missed the innovative startup vibe that he once experienced when working from an office with coworkers. With thinkspace, he wanted to build a community of “ridiculously smart people.” Our member companies are just that.

We have over 80 companies physically located inside thinkspace. However, we have around 200 thinkspace member companies using thinkspace as their part-time office or virtual location. To name a handful of the companies inside of our building, we have Newline Software, Puzzazz, Parnassus Group, Mobisante, and Heinz Marketing.

In terms of a screening process, we haven’t run into any issues with unruly members so far! From the moment we meet with potential thinkspace members to the day they move in, we’ve usually gotten to know the company really well and have determined that they will be a great cultural fit for the building!

Kristin Eide, thinkspace

Question: With so much office space available, how are you promoting thinkspace against the more traditional competition?  You’ve got a large audience following you on Twitter, and we’re always looking for tips.  How are you continuing to build your base?  Are you running any promotions, or simply encouraging thinkspace tenants to either hashmark you or send out re-tweets?  Are you using your blog as part of your self-promotion efforts and, if so, how do you encourage regular contributions to it?  How important a factor does Facebook play in your overall communications strategy?

Answer: You’re right, there is a ton of office space out there. However, that’s exactly what it is…office space. Thinkspace is a community with more of a warm friendly vibe compared to what you would find elsewhere. In terms of marketing, word of mouth has been the main source of our success so far. As thinkspace’s Community Marketing Manager, it’s my job (and passion) to meet anyone and everyone connected to the Seattle startup community. As you mentioned, we are very active on Twitter.  Often times, I am attending events alone so Twitter is a great resource for breaking the ice ahead of time. We use Twitter as a channel for connecting with potential thinkspace members, industry thought leaders, and just all around cool people.

Our entire team contributes to the thinkspace blog. We also have several guest authors (usually thinkspace members) who contribute articles.  We like to write about our member companies, general insights for starting a business, tech industry news, upcoming events, and personal development.  Blogging is a great conversation starter, and it’s a lot of fun. Self-promotion has a time and a place. We try to do very little of it on our blog and social accounts. We would rather promote our members who are up to way cooler things than providing office space!

Question: What’s ahead for thinkspace?  Any thoughts about expanding to other areas?  Any upcoming events?

Answer: We are definitely looking to expand! Seattle is first on our list.  We are hoping to secure a Seattle location very soon. Next we will be looking at expanding internationally in Vancouver, BC and Shanghai. Eventually we will be growing to other US cities (and the rest of the world!).

Events are one of the best things about working in thinkspace! There’s always something going on each month. This month we hosted Seattle Mind Camp 7 on August 20-21, a 24-hour self-organized unconference.   In September, we will be hosting our monthly Wine Wednesday event on September 14 and a Tech Tuesday event on September 20.  For Tech Tuesday, we will be talking about “Sales for Startups” with Matt Heinz from Heinz Marketing. You can follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our newsletter to hear about any future events!

July 11, 2011

Opiniator captures “moment of truth” customer feedback on the fly

We all know it’s far easier to get more business from an existing, happy customer than it is to make a new sale.  It hurts when a customer chooses to take his or her business elsewhere.  So how can a business owner truly know if a recent customer has had a good experience?  Portland-based startup Opiniator has come up with a solution that invites customers to immediately use their mobile devices to give their feedback (scores, comparisons, benchmarks, ideas) about a  business while they are still in the restaurant, store or utilizing the service.

Opiniator’s goal is to become the leading “moment of truth” feedback and performance management system using mobile and internet surveys.  As part of our continuing series of interviews with entrepreneurs, we asked Opiniator founder Matt Selbie to share a little insight on the startup’s game-changing methodology for collecting customer feedback.

Question: Tell us a little about Opiniator.

Answer: Opiniator is customer feedback technology, delivered as SaaS, that helps prevent customers defecting from any business. This means the business can grow its cash flow and protect its reputation by ALWAYS delivering what its customers want.  Opiniator does this by delivering real-time, actionable, point of experience customer feedback with analysis and alerts, using the customers’ personal cell phones.  The company is two years old and based in Portland.

Matt Selbie

Question: What gave you the idea to tie mobile technology with customer feedback and target it at hospitality/retail venues?

Answer: Most customer feedback methods are flawed. They deliver too little data, too late after the event, that’s too complex or too expensive. The greatest problem is that the generated feedback is not actionable, i.e., it’s not immediately leading to corrective action – so why collect feedback in the first place? We decided that the mobile device was the only way  real customers could use something they are familiar with to give feedback at the point of experience.  The cell phone is the ideal input device as it offers a choice of feedback methods – voice, text and web – so it’s highly convenient and can reach 100 percent of the customer base.

Hospitality/retail was the main focus when Opiniator was launched, as these industries seemed the most overt in their desire for customer feedback. We now serve healthcare and other professional services markets.

Question: Is the startup operating solely in the Portland area?

Answer: No. We have clients in many states.

Question: What are your plans for expansion – and will you seek outside funding for this?

Answer: We have realized that the Opiniator platform has wider utility in several industries, so now we are working to raise money to develop a world class sales and marketing organization to complement what we think is a special technology that solves a really big problem most businesses suffer from.

Question: In the highly competitive field of restaurant dining, having an edge – in this case, immediate customer feedback via Opiniator – would seem to be vital. Yet, we all know that many food & beverage establishments run on such a tight profit margin that new technology tools are often at the bottom of the purchasing list. What’s the most effective sales pitch for countering this problem? Are you expanding your target markets to help grow Opiniator?

Answer: The pitch is straightforward and revolves around the existing defection rates of the business and/or the market. For example, in the restaurant business, annual defection can be over 30 percent; that is, 30 percent of customers try it once , never to return.  The reason and correction could be delivered via appropriate customer feedback, but this rarely happens. So the pitch is that Opiniator can help solve customer defection, which always provides a higher economic payoff than any customer acquisition tactic — it’s much more profitable to retain your base than to spend money on acquiring new customers.

As stated earlier, our target markets now include healthcare, field services, professional services, retail and events.

Question: We noted that you’ve got an outreach campaign to potential clients running on Twitter. Are you finding Twitter an effective way to reach new business targets?

Answer: Twitter is a developing tactic for us – we have not yet figured out its full potential. We use it as an awareness generating mechanism BUT also search for certain keywords…in our case, “comment cards,” “customer feedback,” “mystery shopper,” etc.  We’re not engaging potential customers at this point, but rather use it as a way to identify, then pursue through other means.