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Chris Cardell

Interview with Emeric Ernoult (AgoraPulse)

AgoraPulse is a Facebook Page management application that combines monitoring, analysis, ROI measurement and Engagement.

I interviewed Emeric Ernoult, AgoraPulse co-founder to find out more. This is the hundred and ninth in a series of DW interviews. Big thank you to Emeric!

How would you describe AgoraPulse in under 50 words?

AgoraPulse is a Facebook Marketing suite that helps Facebook Page Admins to manage their page, gain more fans, Facebook traffic and qualified opt-in leads.

It also helps the community manager to moderate content and measure results with tracking features. It is the Swiss army knife of Facebook Page managers.

Describe yourself in one sentence.

I am a French / American serial entrepreneur (5 startups) and a Facebook Marketing Geek ;-)

Tell us about your background from law school to the startup of three different business in various sectors. What led you to start working on AgoraPulse?

Being a business lawyer in DC then Paris was a great experience, but I wanted to “build” something with my life, something you can see, touch and show others :-) That is why I starting creating (or running for others) startups.

AgoraPulse became a no brainer after I failed to succeed in a business that was selling DIY web communities to brands. As all my prospects started to tell me “why should I build my own web community on your platform when all my target audience is already on Facebook?”, I knew Facebook was the ecosystem I wanted to build my next business on.

How did you meet co-founder Benoit Hédiard?

In New York, during the summer of 1993. We were both there for summer internships and kept the connection ever since. Choosing the right partner(s) is a key element of your success, and having a long term relationship with him/them is the only way to make sure you are picking the right one. Benoit has been an awesome partner during all these years.

You started working on social media in 2000 when ‘social media’ was still called ‘communities’. How different is the landscape now to then?

Wow! Much much different. Back then, no one understood what we were doing. They thought using the web to maintain relationships with people you know was a silly thing to do when you could call them or send them emails. You see what I mean ;-)

Facebook has changed all this. Now it’s natural to do so and people start to really understand the value of “social networking” on the web. That makes the landscape totally different.

In 2000, you created an app which was unsuccessful. What did you learn from the experience?

Don’t be too early to a market. Ever. Knowing when the timing is right is a lifesaving skill. But you need experience to have it.

AgoraPulse was targeted towards small businesses but you have had unexpected successes with large companies like McDonalds, Yves Rocher, Microsoft, PlayStation, Virgin, and Paul Frank. Why do you think this is? How did you promote AgoraPulse?

I think large brands were the first to really experiment and, as a consequence, to feel the need for more than what Facebook offered them in terms of tools. So they were the first to look for third party tools that would give them what they were missing.

Small and medium brands or businesses are still in the experimentation phase, but they will also feel limited by Facebook native features as they grow and learn. It’s a question of time. And also a question of building the right offering at the right price. We’re working on it every day!

We don’t do a lot of promotions, word of mouth is our best sales person ;-)

To what extent would you say that a business Facebook page is more important than its website?

I wouldn’t say that. I would just say that typical websites do not allow you to connect with your visitors / prospects / clients effectively and Facebook does.
And connecting with your visitors / prospects / clients is more an more a key element of a business’ success.

What technologies have you used to build AgoraPulse?

Groovy on Grails, Amazon web services (EC2, S3, RDS, etc.).

What was technically the most challenging part of developing AgoraPulse?

The scalability of our connection with the Facebook API. Syncing thousands and thousands of Facebook Pages in real time is demanding… And doing it at scale does require constant tuning…

You say that AgoraPulse was created to be affordable. How did you decide on your pricing model?

I asked fellow entrepreneurs who have built a self service model that was comparable. But we are still changing that model to fine tune and adapt to market conditions.

What do you wish you’d have known 5 years ago that you know now?

Timing is everything. And have a better sense of when the timing is right ;-)
And a TON of other stuff that you learn by reading books, making hundreds of mistakes, meeting tons of people…

Where do you see AgoraPulse in 5 years time?

Being the leading Social CRM self-service platform with integration with the major APIs (Facebook, but also Twitter, LinkedIn and… who knows!).

Has AgoraPulse got the feedback and growth you expected since launch?

Yes, the reality exactly matched the original business plan! But I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that I secretly hoped we would beat our projections ;-)

Who would you say is your biggest competitor?

Wildfire.

Have you passed up any opportunities which you now regret?

Nope. Regret is not in my vocabulary.

What is the biggest hurdle you have faced or are still facing?

Getting more visibility in a market place that is now a bit crowded.
2 years ago, with a so so product, you would have an article in Mashable, TechCrunch and every online marketing blog out there. Today, even with a really good product, it is very hard to get that attention. You can get it, but with a lot more effort.

What’s currently your favourite app?

Pipedrive, Indinero, Producteev. Sorry I couldn’t select one ;-)

Which entrepreneurs do you most admire?

Gillian Muessig (SEOmoz) to be so passionate about helping other entrepreneurs and ready to share her own experience in transparency and honesty.
Jay Baer (Convince & Convert) for always taking some time to listen (and respond!) to you (and he is a hell of a busy guy).
Aaron Kahlow (Online Marketing Institute) as he managed to launch 3 totally different businesses (an agency, and event business and a training/educational business). I love people who can change directions and adapt.

With your experience, what piece of advice would you give to someone starting-up?

If that is your first startup and you don’t have much experience, don’t try to be the next Facebook or Google, try to respond to a need people have today. Your chances of succeeding will be much higher.

The odds that you can raise money are thin, put yourself in a position to spend as little money as possible before you start to feel that you have a good product and a good market to sell it to. Follow the example of AppSumo and test your idea creatively on your market before you invest too much on building a product or service no one needs! A friend of mine in the real estate industry once told me that before buying a piece of real estate with the intent to rent it, he would advertise the property as “for rent” on the classifieds ads of the local newspaper and see how many calls he would get. No calls, no deal. Many calls? He would buy the thing. Smart and simple. Do the same thing with whatever you want to build and make sure your product or service can be tested this way if you need to bootstrap. Obviously, you cannot advertise for the next Facebook of Google and see how people respond ;-)

What are you most excited about at the moment?

Expanding internationally. Starting my day at 6AM with emails from Japanese clients and ending them at 1AM with emails from clients in California makes me tremendously happy. Not that I like not to sleep a lot ;-) But the idea that people all over the world like and use what we do is pure happiness.

Can you convince the reader to start using AgoraPulse in under 50 words?

If you have a Facebook Page, not a fortune 500 budget but still want to have the same great Facebook marketing tools as Microsoft, PlayStation, McDonald’s or Fiat (who are among our clients), we are the only solution out there :-)

Finished reading? Check out AgoraPulse!

Interview with Brent Frei (Smartsheet)

Smartsheet is an online project management and collaboration application that helps users manage tasks, responsibilities and documents.

I interviewed Brent Frei, Smartsheet Executive Chairman and Co-Founder to find out more. This is the hundred and eighth in a series of DW interviews. Big thank you to Brent!

How would you describe Smartsheet in under 60 words?

Smartsheet is a widely useful cloud app for planning, tracking, collaborating, and getting work done everyday. It looks like a spreadsheet, which makes it easy for teams throughout the company to use, but also features file sharing, project management and workflow capabilities. It’s a foundational online business application for SMBs and large enterprises alike.

How would you describe yourself in one sentence.

Determined.

What made you decide to startup on Smartsheet?

It was the confluence of two things that kept bugging me. The first came from my own experience managing large teams at Onyx for 10 years. I was never able to get a good solution for work management and tracking for the entire organization to standardize on. And secondly, there’s isn’t a killer app created for managing work projects and processes — and there hasn’t been over the past 25 years.

While spreadsheets had become the defacto answer for this challenge, they ran out of functionality fairly quickly when it came to teams working together, automating processes, and leveraging the power of the cloud. I wondered if the real answer might be to just “fix the spreadsheet” so it included the missing features we search for in alternate, purpose-built solutions.

Turns out, most of what people are looking to find in all those disparate apps can be built into the spreadsheet paradigm. And, with a ready market of millions upon millions of already trained-up Excel users out there, it seemed that a killer app for this category might be possible.

What were you doing before Smartsheet?

I was running Onyx, a publicly traded enterprise CRM software company with 800 people across 11 countries.

What did ten years of developing Onyx – a CRM software company you co-founded in 1994 teach you when embarking on starting up Smartsheet?

I first wanted to double down on what we did well at Onyx, namely:

– Staff the company with only the best and brightest
– Make customer success the key metric of the business

And then, we needed to address things we didn’t do as well:

– Have marketing superstars as well as technology superstars in the founding team
– Design software from the customers’ perspective
– Let marketing drive product development and not the other way around
– Less is more (make powerful concepts very simple – Apple approach)

Has your initial vision changed since first launching?

The vision, no. The nuts and bolts of how to best design the product, yes. We have a very engaged customer base and their success and their pain are ours directly. The product is a direct reflection of amping up the former and reducing the latter.

What was technically the most challenging part of developing Smartsheet?

Creating a powerful tool in a simple user interface is tough. Steve Jobs’ quote fits us perfectly: “Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

Smartsheet is trusted by more than 15,000 subscribing organizations in over 100 countries. What big clients are on your list?

Sony, PepsiCo, Cisco, HomeAway, Cleveland Clinic, ESPN, Columbia University, MetLife, Toshiba, DHL, Hilton, Publicis, Kohler, NASA, United Way.

What do you wish you’d have known ten years ago that you know now?

That my jokes are not really that funny.

Has Smartsheet got the feedback and growth you expected since launch?

The first four years were a lot of figuring out how the product should work. Once we nailed that, it’s been “hold on tight” ever since.

An active sportsman and father to four children (all under the age of five), how do you balance work/life commitments?

I slipped a 5th kid in while you weren’t looking. Balance is pretty easy really. Just make every minute count with things that matter. Most people have a ton of wasted time in every day (TV, tabloids, commuting, etc.). I have very little waste, and I don’t sleep. :-)

Ernst and Young named you a 1997 ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’. What would you say are your proudest accomplishments to date?

This is an easy one. Personally, it’s my family and friends – I’m blessed to have the best of both.

On the work front, I’m most proud of the growth and accomplishments of the people I’ve worked with – they’ve gone on from our time together to do amazing things. At Smartsheet, it’s how our software has been instrumental in making so many very bright customers heroes in their organizations.

In 2001, you were recognized by the Smithsonian Institute as a ‘Pioneer in Technology’ and awarded Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering Fletcher Award for lifetime achievement. What key goal have you yet to achieve?

Father of the Decade.

Have you passed up any opportunities which you now regret?

Nope.

Do you ever get sick of spreadsheets?!

Absolutely not. Spreadsheets are an amazing ‘crescent wrench’ of software. You can use them in so many ways which makes creative problem solving with them endless as well.

Who helped you get to where you are today?

My folks. I owe my strong values, empathy, and work ethic to their rock solid example. They’ve been a consistent source of strength and security.

With substantial experience in starting up and building businesses, what piece of advice would you give to someone starting-up?

Start-up success is 99% determination. There will be 20 valid reasons why you should quit for every 1 encouraging sign you shouldn’t. 99% of the people will accept one or more of the 20 reasons and quit. Be the 1% that makes it happen.

What are you most excited about at the moment?

The viral spread of Smartsheet within organizations. It’s fun to see a handful of users in a company sign up independently of each other, and then the teams begin to share work in Smartsheet, and soon, the whole organization is using it.

Can you convince the reader to start using Smartsheet in under 50 words?

You can set up a sheet in minutes, and be a hero inside your company within a week. Then, become employee of the year like this guy. How about that?

Finished reading? Check out Smartsheet!

Interview with Brian Ghidinelli (MotorsportReg.com)

MotorsportReg.com is an online registration management tool for driving and social events.

I interviewed Brian Ghidinelli, MotorsportReg.com founder to find out more. This interview is the hundred and seventh in a series of DW interviews. Big thank you to Brian for the interview!

How would you describe MotorsportReg.com in under 50 words?

We make it easier and more fun to organize and attend motorsport and automotive events. Organizers around the country take online registrations, manage participants and streamline their workflow. Attendees find new events, get registered quickly and have great experiences with their friends and cars without all the red tape.

Describe yourself in one sentence.

I have three passions in life: driving racecars, travel and being an entrepreneur.

Where are you based?

Across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco and 15 minutes from one of the most famous racetracks in America, Sears Point/Infineon Raceway.

After college you started, ran and sold an internet consultancy and today run your second start-up, Pukka Software, which developed MotorsportReg.com. What were the main influences that led you to startup?

It’s a combination of a strong work ethic and DIY influence growing up. My father was a partner in an accounting firm and was “the boss”. When I was seven years old, I had my own construction company of Tonka trucks building a subdivision in the garden. In the 6th grade, I bought candy in bulk and resold it at school for a crazy margin. I started a lawn-mowing and yard maintenance business in high school, ran a modem-based bulletin board system and organized an International digital art group. When I got to college, I used my credit card terminal to charge cash-strapped students to get into our house parties. I’ve always had a little hustle in me.

What inspired you to start working on MotorsportReg.com?

In 2000 I learned about High Performance Driving Schools organized by the BMW Car Club of America. It’s basically an educational event at a racetrack where an instructor sits in the right-hand seat of your daily-driven street car and teaches you how to drive at high speeds. It’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on! I had always wanted to be a racecar driver since I was a little kid tearing up mini-golf go-karts and this was something accessible.

Within a year, I was going more frequently than my wallet could afford so I began volunteering on the team that organized the events. I combined my web and technology skills with their paper-and-mail process and we created something better that helps everyone with this passion have just a little more fun.

How important is it to love what you do?

I like Derek Sivers’ philosophy of breaking down things into “No” or “HELL YEAH!”: life is way too short to waste it with people, places or things that are not engaging.

What are you most excited about, auto racing, travel or startups?

After my wife, I love racing cars the most. It’s really the only thing that stops me from being a full-time vagabond and if I didn’t, I would already live abroad somewhere. Of course, I couldn’t afford to do either of those things if I didn’t have my company but despite how many hours I work and how much I love being an entrepreneur, I still work to live, not live to work.

What technologies have you used to build MotorsportReg.com?

We use a variety of technologies – it’s mostly open source and Linux-based including Java, ColdFusion, PostgreSQL, Linux, Apache and ActiveMQ. We also use and love Wordpress. We’re very focused on getting things done and being pragmatic so we try to use the best available tool for the job at hand.

What was technically the most challenging part of developing MotorsportReg.com?

Online Payments. They seem so simple but have many details and exceptions that make getting them right difficult. Thankfully we work with Braintree Payments today and they have made our payment processing (especially PCI DSS compliance) a lot easier.

How long did it take to put together MotorsportReg.com?

It started as a nights-and-weekends prototype for one car club in 2002 and continued in that fashion for several years. It was a tax write off for my own driving and racing. It wasn’t until years later when customers basically demanded I make a real company out of it.

The first prototype was pretty simple and came together quickly. Today, there are thousands and thousands of hours of design and development effort into it and we’re a small team servicing 350 organizations across North America who put on 2,200 events annually. We’re the definition of bootstrapped.

How does MotorsportReg.com make money?

I’m not a staunch believer in freemium but there is an important network effect in motorsports so we offer a free plan to get as many of the players in one ecosystem as possible. Most of our customers use one of our two paid plans where we charge a service fee for processing registrations and we white-label our platform for larger organizations who want a branded experience. We also have partner programs for insurance, lodging and product sales.

Do you have any new features in the pipeline?

We push production code several times per week so the pace of innovation is pretty high for a small team and it’s driven by a sizeable back log of customer-driven ideas. We capture every enhancement but we have a goal of removing or simplifying one feature for every feature added. That feedback loop helps keep the product easy to use even as it changes rapidly.

We’re currently updating a few key components like reporting to make them more flexible. We’re also working on expanding our REST API so developers can make more magic happen on top of our platform.

What do you wish you’d have known 5 years ago that you know now?

Don’t skimp on automation. If you can write code to do X, spend the extra 10% to totally automate and report on X. The smaller the team, the more critical this becomes for scaling the human side of a startup. It’s also nice to know you can go to the beach and things won’t come to a screeching halt.

I also wish I would have outsourced more at an earlier stage. I’m like a lot of entrepreneurs I know in that I have very high personal standards. For me, it can be hard to delegate or outsource if I’m not confident those standards will be met and it’s something I continually work on.

Has MotorsportReg.com got the feedback and growth you expected since launch?

When I first started in 2002, I didn’t think this had the potential to be a real business. Today we’re profitable without taking any investment, I employ a small team and we expect to accelerate our growth. Our customers love our service – they literally give us hugs when we meet – because we’re making their hobby and passion more fun. That fills us with a sense of pride but it keeps us on our toes because we have a lot of people counting on us to make their lives easier.

Where do you see MotorsportReg.com in 5 years time?

I’m more excited about technology right now than I have been in a long time. We’ve been iterating on how we solve our customer problems for almost a decade and we’ve recently been planning how we can leverage current technologies and mobile apps to totally rethink participant registration and management needs for racing events.

For as long as I’ve been at this, it kind of feels like we’re starting from scratch. There are so many great tools and resources out there to start or reinvent companies and the barriers have never been lower. I think a lot of incumbent or dominant players look at that as a threat but I see it as an opportunity to continue innovating and delivering value.

Who would you say is your biggest competitor?

We have two kinds of competition – motorsport-specific services who are mostly nights-and-weekends operations run by enthusiasts and generic solutions like Eventbrite. We have a pretty unique value proposition and deeply-loved customer support which is why we dominate our niche but we don’t take that for granted.

What is the biggest hurdle you have faced or are still facing?

Being a good manager and leader. I have a degree in Mechanical Engineering. I taught myself how to program. In my adult life I’ve only received a paycheck from someone other than myself for about 18 months and at that company I was essentially my own manager.

As an entrepreneur, it’s really hard to learn how to do everything required from protecting yourself legally to hiring and firing and I don’t think I’ll ever be as good as I would like. The care and feeding of people is a lot harder than piloting a racecar!

Who helped you get to where you are today?

I’ve had a couple of colleagues who played important roles at various stages in our growth to help grow and support the company. Importantly, my wife subsidized our living expenses as I transitioned from consulting to full-time in 2007 and it would have taken much longer to get where we are if I wasn’t able to dedicate 100% of my energy. We never took any investment so the bootstrapping paid off.

If it weren’t for the Golden Gate Chapter of the BMW Car Club of America, I would have never had a prototype to grow into the service we provide today. I’m proud to say that they are still a customer 10 years later.

What are you reading at the moment?

Business Model Generation, Copy Hacker’s e-book from AppSumo and Cook’s Illustrated. What’s the point of living if you don’t eat well? :)

What one piece of advice would you give to future startup founders?

Whatever you do, don’t do it to get rich. Do it to make someone’s life better. Succeed at that and the money will follow.

What are you most excited about at the moment?

I’m about to leave for a 3-week trip to Uganda to visit with chimpanzee and gorilla researchers in the field. I’ll also be volunteering with the One Laptop Per Child program which is going to be a great experience.

Can you convince the reader to start using MotorsportReg.com in under 50 words?

If you’ve got a lead foot or want to race, we probably have events that you would like to attend. If you’ve gone nuts and are organizing a driving or social event, we’re going to make it easy and help fill your event. What else do you need?

Finished reading? Check out MotorsportReg.com and Brian’s blog “Orange is my favorite color“!

Interview with Royston Tay (Zopim)

Zopim is a proactive chat tool that small to medium businesses can use to chat with their website visitors. I interviewed Royston Tay, Zopim co-founder and CEO to find out more. This is the hundred and sixth in a series of DW interviews. Big thank you to Royston! How would you describe Zopim in under […]

Interview with Neran Ashkenazi (HelpOnClick)

HelpOnClick is an online live chat system for your website.

I interviewed Neran Ashkenazi, HelpOnClick founder to find out more. This interview is the one hundred and fifth in a series of DW interviews. Big thank you to Neran!

Describe HelpOnClick in under 50 words.

HelpOnClick, is a live chat software that allow online businesses to monitor their visitors in real time and chat with them. The result – improved conversion rate, better customer support experience and more.

What made you decide to start working on HelpOnClick?

Well, back in 2001 when I created one of my first online businesses, I really wanted to know who’s on my website and maybe even find a way to make them buy. The thought didn’t leave me until I sat down and coded the very first live chat script, which was for a single user. I was my first client :)

Where are you based? Who is the team behind HelpOnClick?

The company, OnClick Solutions ltd, is a 100% private and self-funded company owned by myself. We have an office here in Israel (Tamir, Adam and the girls – Israeli sales) however most our staff are spread around the world, main ones – Romania (Nicoleta, customer relations manager), Ukraine (Pavel – development manager, Sergey – development) and Russia (Tatiana – marketing).

Where are you clients based?

Everywhere. Mostly US and Western Europe.

What was technically the most challenging part of developing HelpOnClick?

Scaling. Since our service is an on site widget / icon, we handle the traffic of the hosting websites, low and high volume. Combined, it’s a LOT of traffic to handle. Happy to say that we’ve managed it well.

How long did it take to put together HelpOnClick?

It had two major phases:

First phase, developed ages ago, took a couple of years.
Second phase, took 3 years (that’s right), released 1.5 years ago, it’s a complete rewrite based on the years of experience. We generated an amazing product, which we continue to improve constantly.

How much do you charge customers?

We’ve always tried to keep the pricing low with simple pricing plans:

Basic plan – 1 user, 1 website: $19/m
Pro plan – 3 users, 3 websites: $29/m
Deluxe plan – unlimited users, 6 websites: $49/m

Discounts available when paying quarterly and annually.

Do you have any new features in the pipeline?

Oh yeah, plenty new features and surprises. Ones I can share:

– Google Analytics integration
– Custom invitation rules: very powerful feature, will allow the user to create chat invitation rules such as “if it’s a new visitor, came from google.com, is on the website more than 20 seconds and is browsing the pricing page – invite with a custom message XXXX”
– Mobile and tablet native apps

What advantage does HelpOnClick have over its competitors?

The most important advantage – we’re our own clients and as clients, we know what we want. This and the experience we’ve had over the years has allowed us to create a simple and to the point product that you can use immediately. Oh, and did I mention how affordable our plans are?

What is the biggest hurdle you have faced or are still facing?

Up until a few years back, before the new version of HelpOnClick went live, we dealt with really bad scaling problems that kept me up at night. I’m happy to say that our new version is in full scaling control!

What one piece of advice would you give to budding startup founders?

Be your own client. You’ll then create the best software for you and others.

What are you most excited about at the moment?

Hmm.. this really (really) cool new feature I can’t reveal :) Coming up in a few months.

Can you convince the reader to start using HelpOnClick in under 50 words?

Of course – would you like to generate 40% more sales out of your existing website traffic? A big Yeahh did you say? Come on then and give HelpOnClick a try.

Finished reading? Check out HelpOnClick!

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