Matthew: Hi, this is Matthew Wise with FounderLY. We empower entrepreneurs to have a voice and share their story with the world, enabling others to learn about building products and starting companies. It’s with great pleasure that I’m here today with Alex Bard, who is the founder of Assistly. Assistly is a hosted customer support platform for small and mid-sized businesses. With that said, Alex we’d love for you to give our audience a brief bio.
Alex: So, I’m a career entrepreneur. The only real job I’ve ever had is right of college I went to work on Wall Street. So my background is finance. I’m a numbers geek. I love numbers and figuring out how they impact a business. So, with that, I went to work on Wall Street, 72nd floor of the World Trade Center. Very quickly I found out that imagination and creativity are not really rewarded, especially when you’re just starting out. Right at that time that I started to get the itch to leave, one of my good friends from junior high school, high school and college called me up and he said, “Hey, I’m doing this internet technology thing. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. We need somebody to come over and help us with design.” So, not only am I sort of a finance and number junkie, but I love really great design. So, at that point I felt I had nothing to lose, and I dove right in. That was 1996. That began the start of my entrepreneurial career. Since then I’ve been part of starting four companies, three out of the four in customer service and support, including Assistly.
Matthew: What makes Assistly unique? Who’s it for and why are you so passionate about it?
Alex: So, I’ve always been really passionate about customer service. That’s the first company that we did together, because at the end of the day I’m a customer. We’re all customers. And you know when you get that great experience. It makes you feel wonderful, and you want to tell other people about it. I wanted to be part of making that experience come true for everyone. And if my software can help do that, then that’s really special and rewarding. So, Assistly is a customer support platform optimized for SMBs to help them capture all the ways that their customers communicate, whether it’s through social media or through traditional channels. Then it helps those companies manage those interactions, manage that dialog really efficiently to make those companies awesomely responsive.
Matthew: What are some of the technology and market trends that currently exist, and where do you see things developing in the future for your space?
Alex: When we started at Assistly in October,2009, the primary hypothesis was that social media was going to have an profound impact on the importance of customer support. That it would force companies to revisit their process and tools for how they engage with customers. That was kind of the massive trend then that we placed a bet on. So, when we built Assistly, we built it with social media at the core of the process, and at the core of the experience. So, today the evolution of that is that social media is even more important than it was then. We’re all on Twitter. We’re all on Facebook and Tumbler and WordPress. We’re all using these personal publishing platforms to get our voice heard. So, businesses need to react to that. Now on top of being social, we’re mobile. So, we’re always connected. That makes it that businesses need to respond to customers in even a more real time nature. So, that’s kind of the technology shift that we’re emphasizing today. Social, mobile, and then the final piece is global. We’re all connected and now we’re interacting globally. So, those are the three main shifts that we’re addressing as a company, and helping businesses address with their customers.
Matthew: What inspired you to start Assistly? How do you come up with ideas and discover the opportunity?
Alex: As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been part of starting four companies. Three of them have been in customer service and support. This is a space that I’ve been hugely passionate about. I’ve also done these companies with my best friends, dating all the way back to junior high school. So, we’ve worked together, and we’ve got really complementary skill sets. The prior company, right before Assistly, was a company called GUImedia. It was a widget, analytics and distribution company that was funded by Mark Cuban and ultimately acquired in 2008 by AOL. We spent together, the four of us together, a year and a half at AOL through a very tumultuous time for the company as they were going through a lot of changes. We realized that they were no longer a product company. They were becoming a content company. We’re hugely product focused and really passionate about it.
So, towards the end of our tenure there, we started talking about opportunities that we wanted to do together again, because we’ve worked together in the past, and we really enjoy it. There were a couple of guidelines that we wanted to follow in thinking about what type of idea or company we wanted to build. One was we wanted to have fun doing it. Two was we wanted it to be something that we had experience in. Three was that we wanted it to be a stand alone business, something that could fund its own growth and development. Something that didn’t have to ultimately be acquired, but could become a big company in and of itself. So, as we started to think about those things, as we started to look at the various trends going on in the marketplace, social was big thing that was happening. We started to see and forecast that social was going to have a huge impact on the importance of customer service. You go back to the fact that we’d done it before. We looked at other companies in this space and didn’t see a lot of evolution in those companies in addressing social and using new technologies and new business models. We saw that it was a perfect opportunity to jump in.
Matthew: Who are your co-founders? How did you meet? What qualities do they posses, and how did you guys make a good fit?
Alex: Gary Benitt is my best friend since junior high school. We’ve never lived more than three miles apart, and we’ve done every single company together. He’s our COO. He’s our operations guy. He can handle anything that comes at the company. He is the best utility infielder I could have ever dreamed of having in any company that I’ve been part of. Then you have Brad Birnbaum, who’s our CTO. When I told the story earlier of the first entrepreneur gig I had was because my friend from junior high school called me and said, “I’m building this company.” That was Brad. He was always the smartest technologist that I knew. He’s always working on cutting edge technologies, so he fits in brilliantly because he helps shape our overall technical vision. Finally, Jeremy Suriel, who was the first hire at the at first company. eShare Technologies, who was a brilliant architect and technologist. So the four of us have really complementary skill sets.
Matthew: From idea to product launch, how long did it take and when did you actually launch Assistly?
Alex: We officially started Assistly in October of 2009. The first version, I would call it an alpha, we launched in January of 2010. When I say we launched it, I mean it went out to a handful of customers, ten companies at most. We shared our vision with them, shared the product. Got them engaged, and they actually helped us define the road map from an alpha to a beta, which was a more widely released product, which was September, 2010, to the full public release, which was October, 2010.
Matthew: Are there any unique metrics or social proof about Assistly that you’d like to share with the audience?
Alex: Well, we’re growing like mad, which is amazing. We now count our customers in the thousands. We have incredible companies using the product, like Yelp, Pandora, Spotify, 37 Signals, and many, many others. So, I think that validates what we’re doing. We’re helping companies deliver a much better support experience to their customers.
Matthew: We know founder space, you need challenges when you decide to build a company. What has been the hardest part about building Assistly and how do you overcome this obstacle?
Alex: I’m fortunate in that I’ve done this four times. I think ultimately the hardest thing for a founder is to just do it. Reid Hoffman has this great quote where he says, “Entrepreneurship is jumping off a cliff and building a plane on the way down.” Most people don’t jump. That’s the challenge. I’ve jumped many times. So, it was easier for me to jump this time, especially when I had my friends to jump with. The four of us could build an early version of the product, get it done, and bring it to market to share it with companies. It wasn’t as hard for me this time around as it was in the past. Plus, this was a space that we already had a lot of experience in, which further made it easy for us.