Being Ousted As Founding CEO Is A Rite Of Passage

I’m introducing a new feature of my blog called “Dear VCDave.” I advise many entrepreneurs and each week I receive a number of practical, real-world questions. These are day to day operating issues, from “The investors are replacing me as CEO, what’s your advice?” to “My co-founder is moving to another city to be with his fiancee, what’s the best way to handle?”

While I’ve traditionally shared the answers to these questions with those asking them directly in emails and phone calls, a number of entrepreneurs have asked that I share these questions and answers in a format others can learn from — here they are.

DEAR VCDAVE: My investors are replacing me as CEO. What’s your input on that?
– Ousted CEO

DEAR OUSTED:
Congratulations! Consider it a rite of passage. If it makes you feel better, many great entrepreneurs have been ousted as CEO–Steve Jobs, for one. Getting fired sucks. It’s even more painful when it’s your baby, a company you created from nothing.

It’s natural to question yourself and wonder what the investors thought was missing, regardless of what they say. Maybe they thought you couldn’t raise money. Or that you weren’t scaling with the company’s growth. Perhaps they want to bring in someone of their own. Or they just have bad judgment.

You could, of course, fight your investors on the decision (see: Yahoo). You might win, but you’d better have some other investors lined up. More likely, you and they will destroy the company and they’ll end up keeping what’s left.

You’ll have time for soul-searching later. It’s probably a mix of many factors, some having to do with you, some having to do with the investors, others having to do with the situation. Don’t let it get to you. Stay focused. Focus on keeping the business running. Sort out your equity and near-term compensation. Figure out your go-forward relationship with the company. Be helpful with the new CEO on-boarding process.

May 15, 2012

What You Can Learn From Apple’s Insanely Great Customer Service

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve been on a customer service tear lately. That’s because we’ve been scaling up customers at Speechpad at a record rate and interacting with a lot of them in the process. I’d read Delivering Happiness by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, but our recent growth rate has given me a new found appreciation — and involvement in — delivering great customer service.

This weekend I did the unthinkable and dunked my iPhone in water. Not a few drops of water but a full on bath. In other words, I needed a new phone. My first stop was verizonwireless.com. I know — what was I thinking? I reached a customer service rep on the web site who duly had me log into the web site to figure out that my next upgrade date was January of 2013. I inquired about other options and the rep suggested I buy one of their cheapest feature phones. A no-go.

source: knowyourmobile.com

I had heard and read good things about Apple store service so I headed over to the downtown San Francisco store to see what they could do. From the greeting at the door, to the service check-in, to my new phone, my total in-store time was under 40 minutes.

Most memorable for me was the Genius Bar. What a great concept – turning the idea of service into a bar with stools, a long counter, and service techs taking the place of bartenders. But first I was walked up the stairs to an Apple rep who checked me in for an appointment that would take place 10 minutes later. There’s something awesome about finding out you have to make an appointment and then having that appointment be 10 minutes later.

I browsed the web and time flew by — about 15 minutes later a tech arrived to take a look at my phone. He returned a few minutes later and told me the replacement cost: $149. I was overjoyed. No shipping, no return process, no paperwork, just a few checkboxes and a signature on an iPad and voila: a new iPhone.

The toughest part was getting it registered on the Verizon network. Even the Apple Genius couldn’t get that part to work until he consulted with someone else who showed a way to work around the Verizon registration system! Go figure.

And of course there was the wireless credit card swipe that let me pay right at the Genius table.

Some key takeaways:
- Personalized service, using my name
- A great environment that turned something usually dreaded (customer service) on its ear by converting it into a luxury experience — going to a bar
- Immediate exchange
- Low friction – no paperwork (just some electronic forms)
- An apology that things were “taking so long” (e.g. a whopping five minutes) when dealing with the Verizon registration issue

All in all, an insanely great customer service experience.

May 14, 2012

The Magic Of Immediate Customer Service

When it comes to customer service, there’s nothing quite like delivering an immediate response.

Google optimizes the delivery of search results down to the last millisecond. That’s because fast web sites delight people. They like it when web pages appear quickly, when sites are snappy and responsive. People love it when they order something on Amazon and they get the package on-time, as promised, two days later. The same holds true for customer service in every business.

When it comes to Speechpad, nothing makes me happier than a happy customer. Companies spend a lot of time putting CRM systems in place and hiring and training customer support people. Yet there remains nothing quite so magical as getting back to a customer immediately.

Not the next day; not in a few hours; right away. Granted, we can’t always respond to customers immediately, but we try to get back to them immediately as often as possible. At Speechpad, customers have questions about uploading very large files, about pricing, about 24 hour turnaround. We try to address many of these questions through our web site and our FAQ.

Yet there’s nothing customers like quite so much as knowing there’s someone on the other end of their email or phone call who cares about getting their transcription done on time. As self-serve as our web site is, customers like to know, especially when they first start working with us, that we’re dedicated to delivering great transcriptions.

And nothing makes me happier when it comes to customer service than responding to their inquiries immediately. There is something magical about immediate customer service. That means when an inquiry comes in, we respond right away.

Even in a hyper-connected world where dozens of new tweets appear every minute, getting back to people right away–truly right away–remains magical. There’s simply no substitute for that level of immediacy and responsiveness, whether it’s during the business day or on a night or weekend.

Highly responsive customer service not only shows you’re responsive, it gives customers a positive feeling about your company. It differentiates you from the competition.

So when it comes to customer service, think about response times. Don’t let emails sit in the queue until you have the perfect answer. Don’t send an automated message. Send a personal reply and do it right away. Immediacy matters.

May 14, 2012

How Bad Customer Service Can Kill Your Business And What To Do About It

I was speaking with a Speechpad customer yesterday–let’s call him John–who said, “I was just so happy to get a response. Some of the companies I contact I don’t even hear back from.” This customer does two to three weekly webcasts. He wanted to get them transcribed so they would be searchable and indexable in Google.

John told me that he’s tried a number of different transcription services. Sometimes he’ll submit a transcription and never hear back! Imagine it–a customer ready and willing to buy, a customer with a budget who never gets a response.

Our goal is to respond to customers within minutes after they contact us. Sometimes it takes us a few hours. But we make it a goal to respond very quickly. Responsiveness differentiates Speechpad from other companies in the industry.

In contrast, this morning I was on the phone with Garmin customer service. A few weeks ago my Garmin 500 bike GPS stopped working. I called Garmin and they set me up for a replacement. The Garmin rep on the phone told me that they would ship out a new unit to me right after they received the one I was sending in.

Sometimes customer service people just want to give you good news since they know you’re having a bad experience. Any good news. The problem with this approach is that it sets a high expectation. And in this case, Garmin failed to deliver on that expectation. I had to call today because I still hadn’t received the replacement unit even though Garmin received my GPS on April 23 — over two and a half weeks ago.

When it comes to customer service, the best approach is to tell people the truth. Can’t give them a discount? Tell them that. Don’t come up with excuses, just tell them the truth. Don’t set expectations you can’t deliver on–set expectations you can beat.

Bad customer service can kill an otherwise great product. Great customer service is part of the Whole Product Experience: everything that encompasses your product, from the product itself, to how that product is marketed and sold, and the service that goes with it.

Delivering great customer service increases customer loyalty, which in turn generates new business through referrals as those happy customers tell their friends and colleagues what a great experience they had with your company.

Great customer service can also help overcome early issues with a product. If a file upload fails or a web site doesn’t work with a particular browser version, customer service can go a long way toward addressing those issues. And customers love getting fast replies. It shows that you’re on it, you’re with it, and that your company takes their business seriously. Plus, they’re used to getting such slow replies from other companies that fast responses really wow them.

Customer service impacts how people perceive your product and company, and ultimately has a huge impact on whether they recommend your company to other people. Don’t just think about the product — think about how you’ll deliver it as part of the Whole Product Experience.

May 10, 2012

Should You Ever Fire A Customer?

Sometimes, you have to fire a customer. When you’re in the business of making customers happy, it’s a very difficult realization to come to. It’s painful, but there is a certain satisfaction in bracing yourself for the decision and being able to say “no.”

At Speechpad, demand for our transcription services is growing faster than during any previous quarter in the company’s history. We’re scaling our workforce as fast as possible, while keeping quality high and prices low. We have a choice about which work to take, and which not to.

Transcription for video is by far the fastest growing segment of our business. It’s what has put Speechpad into hyper-growth mode. People get videos transcribed so that that video can be searchable, indexable, and discoverable. High-speed Internet and the ability to upload hundreds of megs of files, or to share them with us via Dropbox, Google Drive, and other file sharing services has made dealing with large video files a non-issue.

And people love video. It’s one of the most compelling ways to engage  – just look at the excitement around services like Socialcam and Viddy. But to make that video relevant and accessible, it needs to be available in text form. That’s where Speechpad comes in.

In working with one particular customer, we realized we were doing a ton of extra work for the customer and that ultimately we weren’t profitable. We were losing money on the work we were doing for this customer. Although we’re highly focused on revenue growth, as a boot-strapped company, we take profitability very seriously. It’s OK to lose money on a large customer if we’re in the “startup” phase of a new vertical or new service, but at steady state, we should be profitable. We realized that simply wasn’t the case. And the time we were investing in that customer was causing us to spend less time on areas that are bigger and can scale faster.

It was tough deciding to stop working with this customer especially because we could see that other companies were able to meet this customer’s needs. They could do it and we couldn’t. It is a tough, tough reality to face, but an incredibly valuable one. When put in the context of our other opportunities, not doing the unprofitable work and instead focusing on scaling our profitable work made a ton of sense. It was agonizing making the decision. But it was a relief once we made it.

It’s painful, frustrating, and disappointing to fire a customer. But sometimes you’ve got to do it. Ultimately, the customer will be more successful and so will you.

Apr 26, 2012

Why Repinning Makes People Happy

If you go on Pinterest, you’ll discover that people love repinning. According to one study, some 80% of pins are repins. Pinterest makes some very subtle and smart use of gaming dynamics, the same kind of dynamics that have made games from Zynga and sites like Facebook addictive and popular. Here are some key lessons to apply to your own products:

1. Repinning is easy. Repinning is incredibly low friction. You click, choose a category, and you’re done. When you’re dealing with a lazy user whose alternative is spending time watching TV – which requires no action other than clicking a remote from time to time, repinning is about as easy as it gets. Humans are lazy. Make things easy for them.

2. Repinning provides a dopamine kick. Dopamine, as I’ve written about previously, drives a lot of human action. It’s core to the reward system of the brain. When people repin, they get a little hit of dopamine, a little rush from the feeling of accomplishment. It’s the same feeling they get when they click on coins to collect them in Zynga games. Build the click  click-reward dynamic into your own products. It’s simple but highly effective.

3. Repinning makes something yours. Once you repin something, it’s no longer a repin – it becomes your pin. It’s yours. Your pin gets repinned. People like having things of their own.

4. Repinning is self-reenforcing. You get an email saying who and how many people have repinned your (re-)pin, causing a dopamine rush. There’s a certain, subtle fulfillment in getting larger number of repins. When other people repin your pin, it provides validation. To make your own product self re-enforcing, give people validation and let them know when they’ve been validated.

5. By collecting pins, people share their aspirations. Pinning and repinning provide a form of self-identification and a way to share things that are aspirational: places you want to visit, homes you’d like to live in, styles you’d like to emulate, and so on. The Facebook timeline shows people who we were and are. Pinterest shows people who we aspire to be.

Apr 26, 2012

How Instagram Beat The Other Photo Sharing Apps

Picplz and Path are the ones you’ve heard of. But there are dozens more you haven’t heard of. How did Instagram beat them out?

Back in September of 2010 I wrote 10 Ways To Apply Game Mechanics To Non Game Services. Instagram did just that. In addition to a great user interface, lightning fast filters, and Facebook (and other social networks) integration, Instagram got the game mechanics right.

The Instagram Popular Photos tab turned taking photos into a contest for the Instagram community. It built on the fun aspects of filters, the social aspects of sharing and liking, by adding a friendly form of competition. People wanted to see their photos appear on the Popular tab, and while the number of Likes a photo received wasn’t the only factor that caused a photo to appear there, it was a big one.

There are many more reasons Instagram grew to 30M users in just over a year and a half–but one of the biggest is it’s smart use game mechanics. After all, what user doesn’t want to be Popular?

Apr 9, 2012

Why The World Wants To Make Video Searchable

Video — YouTube and other video sites — is the top area where marketers plan on increasing their social media efforts, finds Social Media Examiner in an April 2012 report. The rapid growth in the number of phones that can record video means lots of people have hand-held video recording devices with them all the time. High speed Internet access means getting video online is easier than ever. Yet making video content easy to discover and search remains hard.

socialmediaexaminer-future-social-meida-activities-april2012.jpg

That’s because while voice to text software is great for simple dictation and commands (like Apple’s Siri), it’s still poor when it comes to general transcription. This year, Speechpad has seen a dramatic increase in the amount of video content our customers want transcribed. Here’s why:

1. Search engines can find your video content. More than just keywords or titles, complete transcriptions of videos provide content for search engines to index. More content, more visits to your web site, more users or customers for your product.

2. Your videos become relevant. Rather than having to watch an entire video, your users or customers can easily go to the portion of video they find relevant. If you post an interview, for example, that covers a lot of different topics, a user interested in one topic can go straight to the segment they care about.

3. You unlock the value of your video. Video content is one of the easiest forms of content to produce today. iPhones and Android devices make excellent recording devices, which means creating interviews, product overviews, whiteboard sessions, and other video content is easy. High-speed Internet access means it’s no longer hard to get that video online. Combine these two trends: huge growth in the number of hand-held video recording devices and ease of getting video online, and you have an incredible valuable way to create content. The challenge is unlocking the value of that content.

Transcribing video into text makes video content searchable, accessible, and relevant.

Apr 9, 2012

How Speechpad Grew From One Transcriber To Thousands

When we started Speechpad, we had this idea that we could transform a large, established industry–transcription–by bringing it online, making it easy to access, and opening the work up to thousands of highly qualified workers with Internet access.

For a long time, every time I’d tell people about this approach to doing work, they’d ask me where the workers would come from. I’d tell them that with unemployment rates hovering around 10%, it wasn’t going to be that hard to find qualified people to do transcription work. The hard part was going to be getting customers.

But it turns out that one new use case is driving more growth in the business than just about anything else–video. Because people have high speed Internet connections, they can now get their videos–often very large files–online to get them transcribed.

Sure, they could extract the audio to get smaller files, but quite often the video contains critical information such as on-screen text that they want to have included in the transcription. Other customers are dissatisfied with their current transcription providers or want an online experience that’s easier and faster.

So I signed up a large initial customer. We based the initial version of our SaaS workflow and dynamic pricing system on meeting that customer’s requirements. For a while we worked on just making both sides of the equation work–supply and demand; customers and transcribers.

And then we started doing marketing. Existing customers started referring new customers. Customers with hundreds of thousands of minutes of audio and video signed up for Speechpad. We re-designed the web site and made uploading audio and video and getting great transcriptions back really easy. And suddenly we were on a path to grow 400% year over year. Demand was off the charts.

In a matter of weeks we had to switch from putting almost all of our focus on demand generation to scaling supply.

Sure, I learned about supply and demand in my Economics course at Stanford. Cross one index finger over the other and you’ll see the quintessential supply = demand rule of Econ 101. But there’s nothing quite like managing supply and demand in real time. It’s stressful and exciting all at once. 

The market required that we scale up supply to meet demand. And so scale we did. We went from a handful of transcribers to dozens, to hundreds, and then to thousands. Managing a rapidly growing supply side cannot be done with spreadsheets.

It requires workflow management–qualifications, ratings, review, practice tests, feedback, audit logs, and the other essential components of managing a very large pool of workers to meet the demands of customers with millions of minutes of audio and video. It also requires community managers.

And just as I love talking to customers, I also enjoy talking to transcribers, both new and existing. I especially like talking to our transcribers when we launch a new customer because I get to find out how we can make our workflow system better and more efficient for them to use. And equally rewarding is helping some of our transcribers move from doing transcription to doing transcription and being customer account managers–after all, they know the product better than just about anyone else.

That’s how supply and demand went from Econ theory to real-world practice. And it’s how we went from one transcriber to thousands.

Apr 5, 2012

Why I Love Talking With Customers

“This has been an easy process and it’s been a pleasure working with you. I will recommend Speechpad to my other colleagues.”

I admit it. I love getting this kind of feedback. It’s a great feeling knowing we made a customer happy–especially since we get a lot of new business via referrals. And it doesn’t hurt that it helps keep us on track to 400% revenue growth this year.

Many of our customers go to Speechpad.com, sign up, enter their credit card info and get great, high quality transcriptions back.

But there are also those customers who want to talk to us on the phone. They have larger orders, special requirements, or just want to speak with someone about their specific needs. Our account managers will often refer a customer to me in these cases.

Talking with these customers is awesome. Simply put, there is nothing like direct customer interaction. And in the transcription business, time matters — a lot. Customers want to see that we’re responsive, and most already have a well-defined need. They’re ready to buy. They want responsive answers to their questions, a process that’s easy, and fast turnaround.

Friday evening I got just such a message. We had a potential customer with 25 one-hour interviews who wanted to talk to us on the phone.  I called this customer myself. She uploaded her first file for transcription as a test and by this morning we had the transcription turned around and delivered to her. She’s now uploading the rest of her files.

Calling this customer ASAP not only made the customer happy–it also gave me insight into questions she had that were not answered by our web site. And it helped me understand her use case in detail so we can continue to expand the market. If you’re not already talking with your customers and users — whether via email or on the phone — I highly recommend it. There’s just nothing else like a happy customer.

Apr 2, 2012
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