Why Growing A Dedicated Community Before You Launch Is So Important – With Kevin Hale of Wufoo

by Tim Jahn on November 2, 2010

When Kevin Hale and his co-founders Chris and Ryan launched their site Wufoo.com, they had a dedicated community of 30,000 people paying attention.

The day that Wufoo exclusively launched on TechCrunch, Wufoo’s servers crashed.  And the negative comments about Wufoo started piling up on the TechCrunch article.  But that dedicated community that Kevin, Chris, and Ryan had grown previously chimed in to the comments and defended the Wufoo team, without them even being asked to do so.

Watch my interview above with Kevin to learn how Wufoo built their community before launch and why Kevin thinks that’s so important.


Kevin Hale:
My name is Kevin Hale. I am one of the co-founders of Infinity Box Inc. We built and developed a web service called Wufoo. It’s an online HTML form builder. It helps people create online surveys, contact forms, power event registration, and power simple online payments.

And we’ve been doing this for about four years now with my two other co-founders Chris and Ryan. And based in Tampa, Florida and we’re doing really, really well, profitable and growing.

Tim Jahn:
And how did you meet your two co-founders?

Kevin Hale:
Well Chris and Ryan, they’re brothers. And I met Chris while working at a research university, we were part of the research arm, building little database applications and I was also doing some writing covering research there at the university and also helping with some web design.

Tim Jahn:
Awesome and then how did you guys come about with getting together in terms of business? Where did the idea come from and how did you guys collaborate?

Kevin Hale:
Well we had known each other for about two years before we decided to go and do this. Chris is like your standard entrepreneur type, like he, like all of his life grown, grown up mowing people’s lawn, doing car washes, doing everything he can to make money.

Like his dream was always to run a business and he was always trying out different ideas. And Ryan was a programmer; he was finishing up his CS degree, his Information Technologist degree and let me think here.

Basically Chris and I got really, really frustrated while working at the university with all of the departments and lots of different groups of people asking us to build these simple data base apps. And we always would think, wow it would be really great if we could sort have people do this themselves.

And our idea at the time was to build like a content manager that allowed you to, not just have a back end, but out, a line have a front end that also collects data, so you can you know switch it around.

It wasn’t until we applied for Y Combinator and we talked, sat down with Paul Graham and other people there that they came up the idea that you should just go after the sort of the form builder market rather than content manager market which was less crowded at the time. So that’s how we came to be.

Tim Jahn:
And so you basically built the, you built your company out of frustration forth with an actual need which I find is usually the best way.

Kevin Hale:
Yeah, we had an idea, but we didn’t actually start building or writing any code until we, after we got accepted into YCombinator actually. So we were still working on, for our jobs, we were doing stuff on the side. We had actually even tried, we had first started writing a blog called Particle Tree and we had been writing articles for that, just sharing everything that we’re learning and doing research about.

And then eventually we decided we’d do a magazine to sort of sell some copies of that and use that to sort of fuel Ryan and I quitting our jobs allowed us you know take time off, start working on some kind of software eventually. And at that early stage when we’re boot strapping, Chris was actually keeping his job at the university and splitting his pay check with all three of us at the time.

Yeah, that, so that was like really tight and we had done that for about two months and then we heard about YCombinator, got accepted into that program. Chris then finally quit his job and then that’s when we started writing and building out Wufoo.

Tim Jahn:
Well tell me more about this blog. Why — you guys started this blog to —

Kevin Hale:
Yeah, we went to South by Southwest, I think that was in 2005 and we heard Jason Fried speak, How to do Big Things with Small Teams. And one of the things he talked about was building an audience first. And we just took straight from that playbook. We’re like sounds good. We wrote this blog called Particle Tree. And at the time when we launched Wufoo, we had about 30,000 people subscribe to the blog at the time, so we had this very nice audience of people when we launched into beta where we can say, “hey you’ve known and been reading stuff and research for a long time. We’ve established a relationship with you and we know you guys sort of trust the stuff that we work on. Definitely check this out.”

And you know it was a lot more engagement from that kind of audience that just to start you know do a cold launch and do something from secret and no one knew what we were doing and stuff like that, so. That was one of the huge booms for us in terms of giving us a lot of benefiting by a lot of different users in the early you know launch phase.

Tim Jahn:
How did you get 30,000 subscribers in 2005 to a blog?

Kevin Hale:
We wrote really good articles and we wrote all the time. I mean that’s all we would do in our spare time is we would come up with different ideas and experiments, we’d test them out, and then we’d write you know these really in depth articles and share out every piece of code that we had.

It was just all, you know through what would you call it, you know I would say it’s audience by generosity. So it just really, really worked out for us you know.

I had a publishing and writing background so I knew we could write these in a certain way that would make it, even a non-technical person for the most part could understand them, but we covered a whole wide range of topics. So we covered everything from, everything we’re learning about business in economics to programming aspects to design aspects, so covered all this you know three prong approach and each one of us would write about each one of those topics.

And you know as it developed over time a lot of people you know, word of mouth told each other and — you know this was in the early days, this was before like Twitter or anything. I think mostly, the big things that were popular at the time was mostly like Delicious and this was when Slash Out was still big, so.

Tim Jahn:
So you, you had a built in audience and going into Wufoo in terms of you had this whole audience to introduce your new product to and hopefully convert to customers.

Kevin Hale:
Oh yeah, yeah. Well I mean we had a large audience to try us out and you know do the beta testing and play with that stuff. One interesting thing though about those beta testers is that they don’t end up being a really good determiner of who your final paying customers are going to be.

They’re really good for like trying out your software and signing up and creating buzz for it, but they’re not so good in terms of being the ones who are going to eventually pay for the software. So I think our conversion rate was like .005 percent of beta testers converted to paying customers and this is when we, at the time of launch we offered them like a 50% discount for the lifetime of the product on any plan that they wanted.

So that’s something that I try to tell people about, you know sort of doing beta testing in extended you know beta groups, like don’t think, don’t do pricing surveys with those groups of people who are beta testing your product in the early stages because those won’t ultimately be you know your final paying audience. We checked the demographics of it and really our users now, they’re really less text savvy, right?

They’re not early adopters. They’re, a lot of people you know who have challenges on their teams dealing with other IT people and they use us as an alternative to get away from that. And so those people aren’t the ones reading like tech cards or reading you know the latest development blogs. These are people who are looking for solutions, so we would’ve never found them for like a beta testing process, so.

Tim Jahn:
How important do you think it was to have that built in audience generated by that blog for your initial kind of launch and your initial segway?

Kevin Hale:
Oh, it was huge. Here’s one good story to exemplify that. So we had the beta testing, we had about 5,000 people who signed up for beta testing at the time. and when we launched on Tech Crunch we did an exclusive launch with them, our servers crashed on that first day, we just had some mis-configuration with the servers.

And so they got swamped and what end up happening is you know Tech Crunch wrote a really nice review of us at that time, but then in the comments they were like, oh I guess they can’t scale or whatever. And it was pretty negative right at, you know the beginning.

But a couple other people who had been reading Particle Tree and people who had been beta testing, they chimed into the comments like right away, we couldn’t have even you know been there at the time when they realized because we’re dealing with the servers. And they’re writing, “you know these guys, they do really great work, you know I’ve been working with them or I’ve been reading their stuff for a long time, they’re really smart guys, they know what they’re doing, this is just a hiccup like you got to give them you know benefit of the doubt on this.”

And you just know, that whole discussion changed right there in the comments and that’s not something we could have done without establishing a reputation you know with some of our past actions.

Tim Jahn:
So you mentioned that one of your co-founders is kind of the stereotypical entrepreneur, they’ve been trying to make money from everything that they could in their past. What about yourself? Are you not of that type and you somehow got involved in wanting to create a company? How did you get into this?

Kevin Hale:
I would have no, I was never interested in starting a company. Through college, my background in college was a fine arts degree in something called digital arts which is combination of computer science, art, and music. I was mostly just mobile arts into a disciplinary degree to where I worked inside museums and did interactive rooms and sensors and did video editing and technologies and stuff, so I was interested in art work that engaged the audience.

And then I also had another major in modern American literature. So my focus was on like story telling and designing and my plans at the time when I was working with Chris was I was taking my year off before going to graduate school and I was going to get like my MFA and teach art to hippies. Like that was my goal in life. And so at the time something delayed me from going you know off to graduate school, I had to stay another year working and so that resulted me being like okay, since I you know don’t have something going on right and I have a lot of energy and I want to work on a project, you know let’s do something.

And since the three of us like had the skills that you know complement each other really well, we had this idea about you know we had saw as a problem at work and we thought okay maybe we can make this happen.

So yeah, no this was, this was an interesting tangent for me, but I just really enjoyed a lot. Like in college I used to think that, you know web design or web art or internet art at the time was like the most boring and one interesting art forms that there could be. I was really not excited about it because I was like it was almost impossible to get somebody to go into a museum and look at like a computer screen and feel like emotion towards it. And so I was always frustrated by that.

But when we built the software you know Wufoo had this opportunity to approach it from a completely different angle and this is why, you know so the copy’s very different and the design is very different and there’s all this sort of interesting aspect to the software. And we try to make it so that it had a personality, right? It didn’t remind that they worked inside of a cubicle.

And I’ve noticed that the changes that you can make in a web application as a designer, you get this immediate feedback, right? Because we have, you know hundred of thousands of users on the system. and so when I make one change or I change colors or I change copy or text, I immediately see that feedback come in through support or this is nice feedback we’ve brought.

It’s a greater engagement from those kind of users than I ever had while working at you know in museums in college, so I always found that to be really exciting and that’s been a really nice surprise for me while doing business.

Tim Jahn:
I’m curious, I think it’s really cool how you guys started off, or you used that idea of generating a blog to become known in the industry and then generate an audience which is, now days I think a pretty common technique, but in 2005 I don’t think it was as much. How did that translate into later on in the business, like today, do you still have that same community from Particle Tree surrounding your product?

Kevin Hale:
We haven’t — Wufoo takes all of our attention right now and any innovation that we have we usually throw it into our product or service. The key thing I think that we learned from Particle Tree is that the importance of a publication schedule, right?

So like, if you have a consistent release of something that you create, so whether that’s blog posts or software features, right, that is what helps create a growing audience because what they see is momentum, right? And so the discipline of always understanding that you have to get something shipped out there — like you can write lots of things in rough draft, but until you get something into its final form and pushed out there, like that idea or whatever isn’t in its final form.

And so for us when we create a feature or new software in Wufoo, we know that just because we pushed it, we commit it to the code, and it’s up on the servers, and people can click on it doesn’t mean that that’s done, it’s not published yet. So we have this extensive publishing cycle that goes on with every new feature that gets done.

So one is like documentation has to be written before it can be released, we have the blog post, we have the Twitter, we have you know Facebook, so that’s the standard stuff. But then we also have like Enapp, notification inside the system, a newsletter, like there’s lots of stuff that has to be talked about and then there has to be some marketing materials. Like there’s a whole range of process that has to happen in order to get some to understand, hey there is a new feature, right?

And that understanding of the communication cycle of features that has to be part of the development cycle, I think that’s what helps us continue to generate momentum within our own users and audience, right. Because if we’re just building new features and no one knows about them and they’re not using them, you’re wasting resources, you’re wasting opportunity, and you’re wasting sort of this, this knowledge gap that people don’t realize, like hey there are benefits being developed constantly.

So I think one of the things that people sort of love about our app is they come in, they can log in, they can see “since you’ve been gone” you know these are the new features that have been developed. And since we have that sort of set up people are like wow I’m always impressed, I’m always excited that you know this is a live application that’s not sort of you know people are sitting on their morals, you know attracting money from that. So I think that has always been a huge help for us.

Also how we deal with the community, like in Particle Tree it was always nice to interact with the people via the comments and stuff about you know we’d write an article and people would help us with their suggestions and stuff. And interacting with them at that point, and trying to be really good about those interactions translate you know into what creates really great customer support inside of the app, so. I think there’s definitely lots of parallels. You’ll see if you look on the Wufoo blog it’s way more active that the Particle Tree is, but that’s just because where our attention are focused.

Tim Jahn:
What’s the biggest challenge in maintaining that kind of momentum?

Kevin Hale:
Well keeping things polished, like I said getting things published, like, also it contributes to employee satisfaction, right? So employees like work on features, I think, I think there was study in the Harvard Business Review and they talked about one of the leading indicators of whether an employee is like satisfied with their job is whether they feel like they’re contributing you know to the success of their environment or their community or you know their work place.

And so you know if we have employees who develop really cool features for us and they create it, but then our users aren’t using them or they don’t know about them, then you know things fall apart. They’re not as excited about building the next thing out there.

So you know we have a lot of process in place that we try to focus on hoping employees understand like this is how you get a feature pushed out, you know to an audience or pushed out into a product, you know, it doesn’t just start out as like developing the code and writing it out and committing it out there and thinking that’s going to be enough.

Like it has to go all the way through to you know getting the focus information out there. I think the other thing is the writing aspects of it were really, really important. like even now we’ve always stressed at the beginning you now getting everyone on board in terms of improving their writing skills, so either writing the documentation or writing you know blog host announcing the new features.

We spent a lot of time on our copy, we’re very, very careful about it and I think every word on the website we try to craft it in a way that it sort of focuses on both on the benefits, the emotional aspects of it, of the utility, simplicity, usability, like there’s all these sort of things that go into play in terms of how you write on to the web.

And you have to be efficient with the words that you use, otherwise people like sort of lose out on the, with their attention span. So I think that whole writing cycle and pulling it inside of the software cycle, there’s lots of really easy parallels that work really well for that.

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