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!