Catching Up With Spencer Fry of Uncover

I interviewed Spencer Fry the first time a couple of years ago. Since then he’s moved on to a new company and has added a major new skill to his arsenal. Here’s my second interview with Spencer, now of Uncover.

Me: How did you know it was time to move on from Carbonmade?

Spencer FrySpencer Fry: If you’re having a great time at your job as I was, deciding to leave a company is a really difficult decision. It’s even more difficult having been the CEO and having been there for four years. For me, I was twenty-seven years old and I simply wanted to do something new. By the time I left, Carbonmade was a mature company. Meaning, we had employees, our own office space, healthcare, benefits, steady revenue, and so on. I wanted to get my hands dirty with starting something new and I wanted to learn to program. Programming was something I had always wanted to spend time to learn, but never had time to until I left Carbonmade.

Me: Why did you decide to transition from being a “business guy” to a developer? How has the transition gone?

SF: The main reason I wanted to learn to program was to be able to build the ideas I had in my head. As an entrepreneur, a day doesn’t go by when I don’t think of a new idea. Most of them are terrible, but every so often you think of something great that you can’t get out of your head. I wanted to be able to take these ideas I came up with, and also be able to build the first prototype. It hasn’t been a complete transition for me. It’s more that I added an additional skill to my resume. I still spend as much time on the product, product management, design, and business side of Uncover as I do on the programming side. I’m fortunate to work with three other talented folks, and two of them happen to code as well.

Me: Tell me about your new company, Uncover.

SF: Uncover has been ten years in the making. Co-Founding TypeFrag in December 2003 was the first time in my life that I began to see the operations side of a company. I knew from when we hired our first employee that I wanted to build a company around trust, communication, respect and openness. Uncover was founded to help companies address those areas of their businesses. Uncover is everything you need to start and run an employee recognition program for your company. What does that mean? With Uncover, you can customize a selection of perks for your employees from Music to Fitness. We have twelve different categories to choose from. It was released in April 2013 and what you see today is only the beginning. In the near future, we will help companies get insights into what areas of their company need improving and then help them address those issues. We’ve seen amazing uptake since our launch and are really excited about where we’re heading. 85% of employees in the companies signed up with Uncover are actively using it, which are numbers that have never before been seen by any other perks companies. Our customers are telling us how much they love it and how happy their employees are since they’ve signed up with Uncover.

Uncover

Me: What’s your role at Uncover? Do you still work on the business side? 

SF: My formal title is CEO and at this stage of our company that means that I do everything that needs doing. During the first four to six months of Uncover, that meant mainly product building leading up to our public release. I had my hands in everything product: design, wire framing, frontend development, and backend development. Since our release in April, my main role has shifted more into sales and marketing. I’ve spent a lot of the past few months working on getting as many companies as I can to use our product. At the same time, though, we’re very concerned about not becoming stale, so along with my team, we’ve been working on the next iteration of our product. For me that’s a lot of product management, some wire framing and design, and some frontend development.

Me: How much development do you personally do?

SF: In total, I’d say I spend about 20% of my time on development during this phase of our company. That number may go up or may go down over the next six months. When I learned to program, I knew that I didn’t want to be an engineer all day every day, I wanted to be able to prototype ideas, help with code here and there, and understand what went into building things.

Me: You learned programming in 2012. How did you do it?

SF: Learning to program at the beginning required a lot of online tutorials and books to learn the syntax of the language. I started with learning Ruby on Rails as that’s what a lot of my friends code in, so I knew I could ask them for help if I ever got stuck. However, I didn’t truly start learning to program until I began building the prototype of what would eventually become Uncover in February 2012. I’ve gone on to preach this approach to many people who want to learn to program. You need to first have an idea that you want to see through. I’d stopped and started learning to code a dozen times before, and it wasn’t until I had a burning desire to see Uncover through to its completion that I was truly motivated to keep on learning. The process would go a little bit like this: (1) I’d come up with a feature that I wanted to add, (2) I’d learn how to implement that feature through Google, StackOverflow and other resources, (3) I’d try and implement it, (4) I’d fail once or twice, and (5) I’d finally get it working. I truly believe that you can only learn how to program by building something you care about or else you’ll lose your motivation halfway through.

Me: How has your newfound programming knowledge impacted how you build new companies?

SF: From here on out, I hope that any new company I found will begin with my programming the first prototype. I think you learn so much about the product that you’re trying to build if you’re the only one actually building it. I know I did when I built Uncover. I also have a much better understanding of what goes into building every aspect of a Web application. It’s a lot more complex than most people understand, and knowing how things work and potential ways to implement features can drastically increase your ability to manage your team. Product management is something I care deeply about, and I know that I’m a better product manager having learned to program.

Me: What have you learned about marketing while launching Uncover?

SF: I’ve learned a lot and I’m continuing to learn, as Uncover is the first enterprise company that I’ve started. All of the other companies have been consumer. With a consumer company, all you have to do is to convince one person to use it whereas with an enterprise company there is usually a minimum of two people that you have to convince. In our case that’s the human resources person and the CFO. Companies also care a lot about their bottom line, so if you can convince them that your product will help them increase their bottom line, they’re much more likely to sign up with you. We know that offering perks and rewarding your employees for their hard work goes a long way toward improving employee happiness, and that’s the outcome of our service that helps a company’s bottom line. We simply need to do a better job at getting that across to the companies we approach.

Do You Have Any Questions For Spencer?

If you have any questions for Spencer or me then leave a comment below or catch up with Spencer on Twitter.

Announcing Ghost Path VPN

Ghost Path VPN

2012-2013 is an exciting time for me. Over the last year or so I’ve launched several new businesses and companies, and today I’m making my latest announcement.

Ghost Path VPN

We’ve created a virtual private networking (VPN) provider called Ghost Path.  It’s been in development for about a year and we officially launched late in 2012. It’s off to a great start and I’m expecting a fantastic 2013.

If you’re not familiar with VPN then you should look into it. Living an online life is becoming increasingly dangerous, with the rise of identity theft and all. A VPN helps eliminate a lot of the risk by securing your entire internet connection.

Biz Dev

I’m actively working on business development for Ghost Path, so if you’re a business owner, blogger, or in the media then I’d love to talk to you.

BS50 Part 9: The Importance of Design and User Interface

Bootstrapped Startup 50This post is part of the Bootstrapped Startup 50 series. The goal for the BS50 series is to cover everything that matters when bootstrapping a new startup. The posts are sequential, so it wouldn’t hurt to read from the beginning if you’re just joining in. 

First impressions mean everything. It doesn’t matter whether you are meeting someone for the first time or visiting a website for the first time. What you get out of that first, immediate interaction is going to be a cornerstone of your perception going forward. Because first impressions are so important, user interface design is critical for successful Internet startups.

Why is UI So Important?

The goal of all user interface design is to make using your product as simple and obvious as possible. You don’t want users looking around your page or app trying to find a button that they’re expecting to see. The best UI designers anticipate how a user will think about a given page and build the design around that. All user interactions should be intuitive.

Apps that are easy to use are more likely to get used. No one wants to use something that’s needlessly complicated or looks like it’s been designed by a software engineer. If you want to earn long-term users, your app must be easy to use.

Avoiding Excessive UI Sugar

All of the beautiful web design, fancy interactions, and design cues are really just UI sugar. They don’t make the product work, but they make the product more enjoyable to work with. However, just like in your diet, too much sugar can be bad. Once your overall design gets to a point where everything works really well you should consider not adding more sugar.

Excessive sugar tends to make apps and individual interactions more cluttered than they need to be. Keep things tight and clean. Over time, if you see that some extra sugar can be a benefit then go for it.

One Caveat

I don’t think that UI is quite as important in the early stages of a startup. If you’re in the process of getting your product right then you shouldn’t spend as much time worrying about UI. Having a viable product is more important than any amount of UI sugar. Worry about the sugar once you’re ready to start marketing your product.

Next Up

The next BS50 topics will be web design basics, including what pages every website should have, and recent design trends.  Stay tuned! As always, comments are welcome.

Sharpening The Saw

And Circus Boy Dances Like a Monkey on Barbed Wire
Thomas Hawk via Compfight

There’s an old saying in the NFL that “if you’re not getting better you’re getting worse.” It’s a warning to players that  emphasizes hard work and improvement, lest they be overtaken by their harder-working peers. The same warning applies to many walks of life, but none more than the business world.

The Value of Incremental Improvement

Sharpening the saw means improving your craft. Once you’ve learned the basics of a skill, future gains are usually smaller and more challenging.

Take cooking as an example. There’s a bigger gap in skill between someone turning on the stove for the first time and someone who can cook Hamburger Helper without reading the instructions, than there is between a successful chef and a five-star chef. However, it will likely take years of hard work for a successful chef to make it to a five-star level.

Entrepreneurs should always be sharpening the saw and improving the skills they need to be successful. Whether you want to improve your deal-closing skills or write better code, keep making those small improvements. Your competitors are getting better every day, so you have to do the same just to keep up.

What I’m Working On Personally

Right now, I’m working on getting better at email outreach and goal setting. I’m spending quite a bit of time hustling and spreading the word about a recent product launch, and that means lots of email. During this process I’m working on improving the impact of my communications, and becoming more effective at getting the responses I want.

The same goes for goal setting. I’ve always set very loose goals for my companies. Now I’m taking a more measured approach by setting realistic goals based on research instead of lofty dreams. I’m getting better, and more methodical, but there’s a long way to go.

What Are You Working On?

Now it’s your turn. Do you make sharpening the saw a priority in your company or career? What kinds of things are you working on right now? Comments welcome!

Sweet Number 100

Fourth on Lake Austin
Trey Ratcliff via Compfight

This is officially the 100th blog post at jimlastinger.com. I’ve been writing here since February of 2011. It’s been off and on… more off than on. I was actually a little surprised to see that there were that many posts already. I’m working on a post that highlights the hits, misses, and what I’ve learned over these first 100 posts.

Thanks to my readers, without you I wouldn’t have any reason to write. Here’s to the next 100 posts.

7 Ways That We Wow Customers Everyday

We Love Customers

One common theme between all the web services my companies operate is our emphasis on customer service. Outstanding customer service is often our biggest competitive advantage in commodity service industries.

How We Do It Better

We love our customers and appreciate it when they choose to send some of their hard-earned money our way. Here are seven things we do that other companies often don’t.

1. We send personal emails to customers when their subscription payments don’t go through.

We don’t want customers to simply receive a string of cold, automated emails from our billing system when their payments get declined. We send a friendly, personal email to each customer who has had their payment declined more than once. It’s an opportunity for us to offer our help in getting their account back in good standing. The emails come from personal accounts, not system accounts, so that customers can reply back quickly. Our personalized emails get a phenomenal response rate of over 50%.

2. We send handwritten letters to long-time customers.

A couple of our services have been in business for nearly a decade, and we have some customers that have been around for nearly all that time. We honor those customers by sending them handwritten letters from time to time. The letters are mostly just to say hello, but customers appreciate the effort and the special recognition of being an original customer.

3. We send snail mail and stickers to new customers.

We love old and new customers alike. New customers get letters and stickers from us shortly after registration. Customers love the stickers, and it is our first chance to make a lasting impression. We like to set the expectation of excellent customer service as early on in the relationship as possible.

4. Customers love T-shirts.

Everyone loves a freebie, and it’s even better when it’s a T-shirt. We periodically have contests where customers and social media followers can win branded T-shirts and merchandise. It’s a good way to generate excitement about our products as well as provide customers with something they’ll likely use for years.

5. We run a better helpdesk.

We want customer support to be as helpful as we can make it. We’ve all had experiences where we’ve sent in support requests to a company and cringed when we saw how they handled it. Support for all of our products is handled in-house. We don’t outsource support work. We don’t mark tickets as “solved” until the customer is happy.

6. We have reward programs for our most loyal customers.

We make it easy, and rewarding, for users to promote our products. For example, one of our companies gives users a 50 cent credit toward their next purchase for simply mentioning us in a tweet. Other services give service discounts based on the number of years that a customer has been paying. Rewards programs give your customers financial incentives for staying loyal and promoting your service for you.

7. We promote customers to evangelists if they show extraordinary love for the brand.

I’ve written about the importance of having an evangelist program before. It’s important for marketing, but it’s also just as important as a method for showing the company’s appreciation of the customer. We like to reward our most valuable customers with even greater perks and more access to the company’s workings. We’ve found that customers want to know how things work, how we run our businesses, etc.

Do awesome things like these and you’ll be able to beat any competitor and create lifelong customers that love your company.

Your Homework

Over the next few days I want you to think about how you show your appreciation for your customers. Can you come up with another way to wow your customers? Implement your new idea and tell me about it in the comments below.

 

Your Customers are Storytellers. Are You Listening?

Denali Howl
Peter Lee via Compfight

The customer stories that you don’t see, and often ignore, offer wonderful insights into how your product works for customers. There’s a story behind everything your customer does, behind every interaction they have with your product. Thinking about these customer stories can you give you a potential game-changing advantage over your competition.

The Stories Inside Customer Interactions

For example, think about how you handle failed monthly subscription payments for your web service. If your customer just fixed a flat tire and arrived home to sick child, you want to make it easy for her to enter a new credit card if her previous payment failed. You want to minimize barriers and make the process painless so that she can get back to what’s most important to her. This is a situation where your product could easily garner a negative association in her mind if something doesn’t go smoothly.

Another example is canceling a subscription. Think about the reasons a customer might want or need to cancel, and keep those in mind while designing your process. A customer may be extremely unhappy with your service, or perhaps they are happy with the service but can’t afford the payments. Those are two drastically different reasons for wanting to cancel the service, so which one do you focus your interaction design on? Do you want to be able to market to the customer later and try to get them back? All important questions.

If you think from the customer’s perspective, you may be able to improve their experience with your product. Think about the customer’s story. Designing better user experiences is often the difference between successful products and failures. Every advantage matters.

Customer Stories in Marketing

Large marketing departments are often masters at understanding customer stories and commonly use them to build their campaigns. You always hear, “Sell benefits, not features.” You have to understand the customer’s story to be able to turn your product’s list of features into benefits customers can’t live without.

Your Turn

Do you think through customer stories in your design process? How do you decide which customer story to focus on?

Inspiring Interviews: Ken Johnson, Co-founder of Manpacks

This post is part of an ongoing series of interviews with successful entrepreneurs who have bootstrapped their companies to profitability. Read the other entries in our Inspiring Interviews series.

Ken Johnson, Manpacks

Jim Lastinger: Tell me about Manpacks and what you do.

Ken Johnson: Manpacks is a concierge for men’s essentials. We deliver basics like underwear, socks, shirts, and toiletries on a schedule. Customers can customize packs however they like, and also control the frequency of shipments with a handy “Snooze” button. Our goal is to make it easy to resupply things every guy needs on a regular basis — we test out a lot of products, and carry only the best we find, so our selection is limited but with high quality at all price points.

JL: How did the idea for Manpacks come about?

KJ: Two busy guys brainstorming after finishing Tim Ferriss’ “Four Hour Work Week”, thinking about things we hated to do that could be put on auto-pilot. One of us said “I always need socks, but I never make time to go buy them. Why don’t they just show up at my doorstep?” Five minutes later we found the Manpacks.com domain available, and a few months later we sat down and built a fun little website, just to test the waters. The reaction was pretty intense — the idea of underwear on a subscription stirred up a lot of conversations online — and a few months later we went full-time with it.

JL: Did you take any outside funding to get started?

KJ: As a startup, we’re still “getting started” so I suppose the answer is yes. However, we worked for six months and acquired our first 300 members before taking any outside funding — a small seed investment from a startup accelerator called Betaspring. We later raised a proper seed round that enables us to accelerate growth further.

JL: What marketing advice do you have for startups with limited budgets?

KJ: If people aren’t talking about you already, rework your brand and/or messaging until you find something that works better. Paid channels are probably too expensive unless you’re doing something remarkable that makes people tell friends “this is awesome because…”

Further, if you’re very early stage, I’d recommend investing all your marketing muscle into social media and live chat on your website. Engage people and chat them up. Be real, be a tiny little company trying to succeed against all odds, and learn more about the customer pain your are trying to alleviate.

Manpacks

JL: What are some unexpected and awesome things that you do for your customers? I’m a customer and I’ve noticed the stickers that you include in each shipment.

KJ: We often include something interesting and unexpected in the packs we ship.

On the service end, I think most people are surprised by how we solve problems. This only comes up when there is a problem, but people definitely think it’s awesome when we don’t waste their time. It’s about reading between the lines and resolving issues proactively, rather than citing policy and denying responsibility in order to deflect the situation. We’re not afraid of customers returning things — we’re afraid of customers being dissatisfied and not letting us know.

We try to always be awesome, and some of the time it works out. When something is clearly not awesome, we change it!

BS50 Part 8: Planning For Your Alpha Release

Bootstrapped Startup 50This post is part of the Bootstrapped Startup 50 series. The goal for the BS50 series is to cover everything that matters when bootstrapping a new startup. The posts are sequential, so it wouldn’t hurt to read from the beginning if you’re just joining in. 

In the last installment of the BS50 we talked about why having a cofounder might now be a great idea. Now we’re getting ready to start thinking about actually building a product and how to plan for that initial alpha release. Alpha (or 1.0, beta, etc.) is what I call the first working release that you show to customers.

What Should The Alpha Include?

I’m a big believer in the fact that you should never show anything to your customers that is incomplete or less than your best. Design doesn’t necessarily have to be pixel perfect at alpha time, but the functionality needs to be there. Your alpha release needs to fulfill the promise that you are making to your customers. This isn’t to say that you need to spend month after month in development time trying to nail your implementation… I would rather you remove a few features that aren’t as essential and start working with customers as soon as possible.

Less Is More When It Comes To Features

The most important aspect of your alpha release is that it absolutely has to work. It’s more important to have just a few well-implemented features than have a full-featured app that still has some rough edges.

When you’re planning out your alpha you should first focus on your primary features. If you’re building a web app for managing social media then get that correct before you move on to less important features like payments, account management, etc. You can use an app that doesn’t accept payments when talking to a potential customer, but you can’t make a single sale if you don’t have a working product. Having the important features functional allows you to continually market your product while it’s still in development.

Preparing For Consistent Iteration

It’s important to consider your future product plans when nailing down what’s to be included in the alpha. You want your alpha release to be a stable platform on which you will build your future features and make adjustments. So be sure to not add in things that you’ll want to remove later. I’m a proponent of rapid iteration on your product in the early stages, so having a code base that makes it easy to bolt on new features is highly beneficial.

Wrapping Up

What are your thoughts on alpha releases? Are you in favor of more features or quicker customer interaction? Next up in the series we’ll be talking about about the importance of design.

Introducing Deep Field

Web Design in Waycross, GAI’m proud to officially introduce my newest company, Deep Field, Inc. I’ve tiptoed around having a full-blown web consultancy for several years and I’ve recently decided to just go for it.

I was lucky to have enough clients to create a self-sustaining company independent of MediaLeaf. So now, Deep Field is off and running. I even leased a separate office last week to give it it’s own space (more on that to come).

Deep Field is a full-service web consultancy. We can handle all of your design and development needs, but we really specialize in pay-per-click management and search engine optimization. If your business needs help online then Deep Field can take care of it.

One of the best things about opening up Deep Field as an independent company is that it allows us to really serve a small town that is dramatically underserved when it comes to web presence. Waycross, Georgia is the small city / large town where I grew up. When me and my family moved back here nearly a year ago I decided that I wanted to help the town and it’s businesses modernize as much as possible. Few businesses here have decent online presences, which is absolutely critical to success now. We want to help them (and by extension, all of the Waycross GA area) be successful. I want to give back to my hometown as much as possible, and Deep Field is one way that I’m going to be able to do that.

Pushing Forward

Now, I function as the founder and CEO of two active companies. MediaLeaf continues pushing forward as it always has as the startup and web products company. Now Deep Field is here to take over and grow all of the consulting opportunities. If you have questions or needs about either of the companies then just let me know.