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Chris Cardell

Interview with Scott Pielsticker (ContactMonkey)

ContactMonkey is an e-mail tracking service.

I interviewed Scott Pielsticker, ContactMonkey founder to find out more. This is the two hundred and twenty seventh in a series of DW startup interviews. Big thank you to Scott!

How would you describe ContactMonkey in under 50 words?

ContactMonkey is smart email tracking for Outlook, Gmail and Salesforce.com. We track your one-to-one emails to give you valuable insight on your hottest leads and prospects.

Why did you decide to launch ContactMonkey in 2011?

I was frustrated with sending emails every day to my leads and prospects without knowing what happened to those emails. Were they opened? How many times? Where? Who seems most interested in buying my services? As I couldn’t find answers to these questions I decided to solve the problem myself!

How did you go about finding your team, Aaron Vegh and Alex Smith?

I found Aaron through an exhaustive search using all channels available to me including job boards and recommendations of friends. Alex was introduced to me by a mutual friend.

How long did it take to put together the initial version of ContactMonkey?

It took us 4 months to put together the initial MVP.

What was technically the most challenging part of developing ContactMonkey?

Dealing with edge cases! The most difficult part of the process was dealing with edge cases after the initial product was built.

The technology works through placing an image in outgoing emails, often these images are blocked unless specifically allowed by the user. How much of a barrier has this been?

This has been a relatively small barrier. We developed a best practice for our customers to include a remotely-linked image of their logo in their signature. This motivated recipients to display images as they are naturally curious of what the image is in their signature.

We also implemented link-tracking. If a recipient clicks a hyperlink in the email, no matter what it is, we can tell our customers with 100% accuracy and reliability that the link was clicked. This also tells a great story to our customers. Not only did the recipient open my email, but they clicked the link to my online promotion.

You received around $800K in funding. Had you any previous experience raising funding?

Yes. I had raised venture capital for my last company Blueback in London, UK. We eventually sold that company to a leader in our space, and that company was eventually sold to the private equity house The Carlyle Group.

Who do you see as your target audience? How are you reaching them?

Our primary target audience is B2B salespeople who use Salesforce.com. We are reaching them by embedding ourselves in the Salesforce ecosystem including the Salesforce.com AppExchange.

You recently released a service allowing your clients to scan a code to retrieve contact information. Do you have any other features in the pipeline?

Lots! Our dashboard is gong live shortly. 3 big new features are being released too but we’re keeping those under wraps for the time being.

Have you got the feedback and growth you expected since launching in 2011?

We’re now growing at 50%/month so we’re delighted with our growth so far!

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

There is not much competition in our space right now which is very exciting. The market is so new and large that several of us can co-exist very nicely.

What are you most excited about at the moment?

We are growing at 50%/month. Our biggest driver our growth is our users recommending our service which means they love it and can’t live without it.

What advice would you offer to any soon to be startup founders out there?

Passion & Perseverance. Be passionate about what you do and never give up!

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

Wonder if your email was read and your links were clicked today? ContactMonkey tracks your daily sales emails.

Finished reading? Check out ContactMonkey!

Interview with Benjamin Bartling (ZoomShift)

ZoomShift is online employee scheduling software.

I interviewed Benjamin Bartling, ZoomShift founder to find out more. This is the two hundred and twenty sixth in a series of DW startup interviews. Big thank you to Benjamin!

How would you describe ZoomShift in under 50 words?

ZoomShift is a web-based staff scheduling tool that makes scheduling simple for managers and staff members.

What made you decide to start working on ZoomShift?

It was the classic case of “scratching my own itch.” During college I saw many of my friends, as well as myself, get frustrated with the scheduling process at work. Most organizations were using basic excel spreadsheets to schedule their workers, and communication was really difficult. It made sense to move this process online to simplify it for both the managers and staff members.

What was technically the most challenging part of developing ZoomShift?

Keeping it simple. Scheduling is a complex problem, and everyone seems to approach it a bit differently. We found out pretty quick that if we built ZoomShift to work for everyone it would end up working for no one. It can be difficult to draw the line between a necessary feature and one that’s not. Our biggest challenge has been building ZoomShift to be powerful and flexible enough to work for a wide range of organizations while still keeping it simple.

Who do you see as your target audience?

Any business that has an hourly workforce. We never fail to be amazed by the wide range of businesses that rely on ZoomShift.

Does ZoomShift have any new features in the pipeline?

We always have new features in the works. Since we are still quite lean we are able to add new functionality very quickly. We have some updates planned that we are really excited about, but you will have to stay tuned to learn about them…

Where do you see ZoomShift in 5 years time?

Regarded as the simplest and most effective employee scheduling solution. I’m sure our team will grow and ZoomShift will continually evolve, but I can guarantee that our mission of finding the simplest way to schedule will always stay the same.

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

It’s simple. If you want to spend less time scheduling, reduce overtime, and increase employee satisfaction you need to check out ZoomShift.

Finished reading? Check out ZoomShift!

Interview with Ted O’Neill (Hoop.la)

Hoop.la is a hosted online community platform for group communication.

I interviewed Ted O’Neill, Hoop.la President and Founder to find out more. This is the two hundred and twenty fifth in a series of DW startup interviews. Big thank you to Ted!

How would you describe Hoop.la in under 50 words?

Hoop.la is a comprehensive online community platform that utilizes the SaaS model (software as service). It allows any organization to easily create an integrated community where members can blog, post to forums, share photos, videos, and documents, form groups, and general stay connected.

You and your wife, Rosemary are the founders of Hoop.la. What gap in the market did you discover that inspired you to work together on Hoop.la?

We’ve been making community products longer than any other company (since 1996) and our products have ranged from downloadable software to hosted solutions. What we realized however was that most sites were taking a Frankenstein approach to their online communities. They would install a blog from Company A, some forums from Company B, etc. and it always looked disjointed. Aside from sign-in issues, the design of the applications did not mesh. We created Hoop.la to allow organizations of all types and sizes to easily extend the tools available for their community of users and to do so in a way that is integrated, seamless, polished, unified, and affordable.

The current version of Hoop.la boasts features including blogs, forums, calenders and social hooks. Does this version differ much with the original?

Yes, we’ve added many new features since we initially launched the service… and we continue to add more.

What was technically the most challenging part of developing Hoop.la?

The biggest challenge was and is keeping things incredibly easy to use even as we add more features and extend the breadth of the application. Our goal is to keep things as clutter-free as possible, while keeping the application flexible and powerful. That leads to lots of tough decisions about which features are truly necessary and also how best to integrate each new feature.

Is your main target market consumers or businesses?

Our primary target is organizations who have a community of users, be it customers, advocates, fans, students, or employees. Hoop.la is designed to give a voice to those community members.

You offer 3 pricing plans including a free option. How do you persuade customers to go for the Standard or Pro option? What made you decide to go for a freemium model?

We’ve found that most established organizations opt for our Pro plan because of its benefits. We basically have two distinct customer configurations. Our non Pro accounts are in one giant environment and we pool equipment resources for those customers to keep costs low.

Pro customers, however, are each in their own sandboxed environment. That allows us to scale them as needed, provide a strong SLA guarantee, offer advanced support, and even support application customization.

As far as the freemium model goes, it is a great way to let people kick the tires and also grow into their communities, especially for new communities that are just launching or that have no established audience.

Do you have any examples of value that Hoop.la has created?

One of the biggest values we have seen for customers is the ease with which their communities can be monetized. The two primary mechanisms for that are ads and premium memberships. Hoop.la makes it very easy to include ads and the premium membership is entirely turnkey, allowing site owners to craft a premium membership based on reserving the specific features or content that they want. We have many sites earning thousands of dollars per month on premium memberships (usually far more than they earn from ads).

Another value, in terms of time-saving, has been Hoop.la’s content management features, allowing sites to create their own content moderation rules. For instance they can have all content screened automatically to check for certain keywords (competitors, bad language, etc.) or they can even automatically detect comment spam with our integration with Akismet.

Where do your priorities lie at the moment in terms of products and new features?

Our ambitions are huge with Hoop.la and our product roadmap is extensive. Some of the items on the docket for this year:

— A new customer support content module called QuestionShark. This will allow for easy tracking of questions, issues, and suggestions by customers, development of FAQs, and include some innovative features that have not been seen before.
— Support for Chat Rooms
— A revamped/improved API
— Support for a Classifieds system
— Introduction of Publication Tools for bloggers (editorial review features and blog publication calendar)

What advice would you offer to any soon to be startup founders out there?

You must have a passion for what you are trying to do. It needs to be something you would do even if no one was paying you. You must have a strong vision for your product/service and the confidence to make it happen, despite critics (many of which will be your own friends and family). And you must be able and willing to work like a dog until you reach critical mass.

In addition, interact with your customers every single day and make that a fundamental part of your corporate DNA. Your customers will give you the best ideas… and listening to what they want or the issues they are having is the best way to consistently improve your product and bring in more sales.

Finally, I would advise writing down your goals. Visualize them and then make them happen.

Finished reading? Check out Hoop.la!

Interview with Joris Vertommen (Citytrip Planner)

Citytrip Planner automatically generates personalised walking tours and city guides.

I interviewed Joris Vertommen, Citytrip Planner founder to find out more. This is the two hundred and twenty third in a series of DW startup interviews. Big thank you to Joris!

How would you describe Citytrip Planner in under 50 words?

CityTrip Planner is an online/mobile planning service that automatically generates fully personalized city trip itineraries for travelers based on personal interests and practical issues such as opening hours and hotel location. The service is available in 120+ cities and marketed as a white label solution for travel brands.

How did you meet co-founder Wouter Souffriau?

Wouter and I met at the Centre for Industrial Management, a research division of the KULeuven in Belgium, where we were both working on a PhD. We got along very well with each other, sharing interests both in- and outside the professional area. We were also both very keen on founding our own technology business, which is what we did after we obtained our PhD.

What gap in the market did you discover that persuaded you to launch Citytrip Planner 2010?

Well, we actually saw a number of trends converging in CityTrip Planner: first of all, worldwide travel had and has been steadily increasing over the last decades, including the city trip segment. Secondly, city trips are often booked at the last minute, leaving little time for travelers to research what they will do on location, especially taking into account the busy professional and personal lives that many people lead. Nevertheless you still want to get the most out of your trip. Finally, the explosion of digital information (in all sectors, not just travel) has created a large demand for personalized services.

How long did it take to put together the initial version of Citytrip Planner?

The core planning engine behind CityTrip Planner had largely been developed as part of Wouter’s PhD research, and we had already built a prototype pre-launch for testing purposes. However, the interface was very much built by engineers for engineers, and our major product development challenge ever since has been creating and maintaining a good user experience and interface, keeping in mind commercial targets.

What was technically the most challenging part of developing Citytrip Planner?

When visiting a city there are literally thousands of things you can do, but you only have limited time available. Add to that practical constraints such as the varying opening hours of attractions and the travel times to get from one attraction to the next, and you are left with a very complex planning problem trying to map your personal interests onto an ideal trip.

Our planning engine takes this planning problem out of your hands and generates a personalized itinerary within 1 second. The largest technological challenge was building an engine that delivers good results within a very short timeframe, making it relevant to use as part of online and mobile services. When we started, traditional optimization engines still needed several hours of computation time to achieve similar results.

Who do you see as your target audience? How are you reaching them?

Generally speaking, our target users are travelers with busy lives and little time to prepare their trips. We are at the moment looking into creating additional added value for different subsegments such as business travelers. Having said that, we notice that we also have many users who are using our service as an inspirational tool, finding out their ideal destination or getting an overview of what is possible on location.

From a commercial point of view, our target audience are travel brands such as (online) tour operators, hotel chains and travel companies. We make white label implementations of CityTrip Planner available for their (potential) customers, which in turn is how we get into contact with travelers.

Has Citytrip Planner got the feedback and growth you expected since launching?

We are definitely getting a lot of feedback from both our users and commercial customers which is helping us grow. Concerning actual growth: we have a B2B model and have experienced that breaking into the travel industry as a startup was more difficult than initially expected. However, we have a strong business development pipeline and the prospects are good.

How do you differentiate yourselves from your competitors?

Our functionality for travelers is much, much more relevant than the typical “50 interesting things to do” that you find with most travel service providers. In our view, personalization goes a lot further than offering a few filtering options.

For our travel brand customers, this means they can offer a state-of-the-art and relevant service to their customers. And it doesn’t stop there because CityTrip Planner acts as a data gathering platform as well, helping travel brands to get a grip on the large number of anonymous visitors that passes through their websites.

What is your primary focus in terms of new developments at the moment?

As mobile is becoming increasingly important for travelers, that is definitely an area of development we are working on. We are also looking to introduce additional features for specific traveler types such as business travelers. And finally, we are constantly adding new cities to our service.

Where do you see Citytrip Planner in 5 years time?

As a strong and relevant service for travelers, embedded within the e-commerce environment of travel brands all over the world. We will also move beyond the city trip segment, we have already built a prototype of a planner offering the same personalized service for longer holidays in whole regions e.g. two weeks in Tuscany, which is expected to launch commercially in 2015.

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

The biggest hurdle lies in business development: it takes a long time to get from initial contact with a travel brand to actually signing the contract. Everybody just has so much on their plate, so many priorities. Not surprising given the high pace at which the travel industry continues to evolve, driven by new technology creating new possibilities.

What advice would you offer to any soon to be startup founders out there?

It’s good to have a solid idea on where you want to go with your startup, but you’ll only find your way by jumping in so get started soon!

Be prepared for a rollercoaster with extreme highs and lows, it’s essential that you can handle high degrees of stress and uncertainty. If you have a family, be sure that they are on board because it will be impacting them as well.

Finally, have confidence in yourself and your ability to find solutions for the problems that you will encounter.

What are you most excited about at the moment?

We are on the verge of closing deals with several major travel brands that will help us establish a significant presence in the European travel market. It’s not just reaching that point that I find exciting, it’s about the opportunities and possibilities moving forward after that.

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

A fully personalized city trip itinerary without the planning hassle, that’s what CityTrip Planner has on offer. If you tell us what you like, we will show you how to get the most out of your city visit, and it just takes a few clicks.

Finished reading? Check out Citytrip Planner!

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