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Meet Sean Laurence: Our New Customer Champion

Sean laurence

If we had a megaphone, we’d use it. That’s how excited we are about our first real employee (other than co-founders), Sean Laurence. Sean has been with us for a little over a month in his new role as Customer Champion. The title is a tall order, we know, but Sean is already exceeding our every expectation (and, most importantly, our customers’ expectations!).

Sean’s charm and quick wit have been an instant hit on our fun-loving team, and we can’t wait for our customers to get to know him. Below, Sean answers a few questions about how he landed with us.

Where are you from?

I'm originally from Westborough, Massachusetts, and have lived in Boulder, Somerville and Cambridge.

How do you like living in Boston?

I absolutely love living here. There are loads of interesting people, lots of compelling events happening constantly and great seafood! It's such a great place to be as an entrepreneur, too. I love meeting all the different folks who are in involved in the Boston startup community.

What's your professional background?

I've been in the business of making people smile for a while. Most recently, I was one of the super-friendly people who you'd buy your iPad or iPhone from at an Apple Store. Before that, I was helping employers and job seekers meet through Monster.com. My entrepreneurial fire was lit, though, when I started my own company, Doctor PC. All of this experience helped give me a foundation of knowledge for how to help turn a small company into a bigger one.

What about working at Brightwurks appealed to you?

There's something extremely exciting happening in Boston right now. People have a burning desire to innovate and build greatness. It's a vibe that's known as Boston's Silicon Valley. I had a yearning to join this innovation community. I consider myself very fortunate to have found both a product and culture fit. I wanted to work for a company that is bringing smiles to peoples’ faces everyday.

How's the new job going so far?

There's a saying that goes something like this: "Find what you love to do and get paid for it." I found it! The feeling of getting out of bed every morning and doing something you're passionate about is absolutely incredible. If you don't have that feeling now, drop what you're doing and start looking for it.

What are you most excited about in your new role as Customer Champion?

Bands have their groupies. Apple has their fanatics. I want to build an army of people that can't stop talking about how much they love using Help Scout. People like making other people smile. That's what I'm most excited about—making people happy.

Do you have a favorite customer story?

Many of Apple's customers have amazing stories. Once this little girl told me how she lost her iPod just before the winter. It was her first iPod and she was very sad. The snow came and she couldn't find it anywhere. When the snow melted, she found it. She was sure that it wouldn't work anymore. She let it dry out and it worked!

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Come Work with Us!

We're really excited to have a growing business on our hands, which means we get to add some outstanding new people to the team.

New Jobs Page

To learn more about the available positions, visit our new jobs page. We can answer any questions and tell you more about the company once we meet you.

Meet Us on September 7 in Boston

In partnership with the other TechStars Boston companies, we're putting on a job fair at Microsoft's NERD center in Cambridge. It's tomorrow September 7 at 5:30pm. Eight of our companies will have 5 minutes each to pitch you and talk about their open positions.

Even if it's just for fun, come to the job fair and say hello. We'd love to meet you.

Register on this event page to attend: http://tsbostonjobfair2011.eventbrite.com/

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Lessons Learned Running a Private Beta

On the web, building a successful business depends on moving quickly, testing often and talking to your customers. We're big believers in launching your MVP (minimum viable product) because it accelerates the learning process.

However, what if your product simply isn't ready yet? It might be close, but still has bugs and UI issues to figure out. That's where we were about 6 weeks before launching Help Scout, when we decided to do a private beta. I've never been a fan of the "beta" tag, but it felt right in this case. We were desperate for feedback.

If you decide to do a beta, planning is critical so that you can make the most of your participants' time and willingness to put up with your product in it's early stages. Here are some of the lessons we came away with:

1. Qualify the Participants

A private beta is for true early adopters, with patience and a genuine willingness to help. Make sure you seek out participants that fit this profile, have the pain point you are solving and are able to spend time using the product.

We announced our private beta on this blog and stopped taking applications after the first 100 signups. We then reached out to every single person with a series of questions. Such as:

  • What does your company do? How many people are there?
  • What's appealing to you about Help Scout? How would it fit into your business?
  • How many email inquiries do you get on average per day?
  • What do you currently use to solve this problem?
  • What features are most important to you in an email ticketing system?

Most of our participants answered the questions. If I had to do it over again, I'd make everyone fill them out. If people aren't willing to answer a few questions from you, they aren't going to provide good feedback about your product. We ended up with about 30 companies that fit the profile and we gave them access to the application.

2. Talk to Participants

Most of your participants will not be pro-active in communicating with you. You must go out of your way several times during the process to reach out for feedback. This feedback is absolute gold, but you have to ask for it. The more rapport you can get with your participants, the better feedback you can expect.

Looking back, the best feedback we got by far was over the phone. Nothing really does the trick like talking with someone in real-time about their problem and your product. We still listen back to some of our calls when we envision how our customers would want a certain feature to work.

3. Keep Participants in the Loop

It can be really frustrating to use a product that doesn't always work properly. With that in mind, you must be overly transparent with participants about bugs, ongoing issues and so forth.

In Help Scout, we created an "outstanding issues" page that outlined everything we knew about. We also listed forthcoming features and items that were recently knocked off the list. This cut down on the number of repeated inquiries we got and kept our participants in the know. Win-Win!

4. Reward Your Customers

At Brightwurks we're huge fans of saying thanks. We rewarded people based on their level of participation during the program. 10-15 of the most active companies got free accounts with unlimited users for life, provided they agree to keep giving feedback and let us reach out every once in a while to get their opinion.

For other participants, we gave them a free month or year based on how active/helpful they were. For EVERY company, we said thanks. That's really important.

5. Don't Draw it Out

When the product is ready, launch it! Our private beta was less than 6 weeks, just long enough for us to knock out some bugs and build all of the account management/billing tools. Launching the MVP is still crucial; private beta just gives you a short time to bridge the gap. Don't lose momentum and stay focused on launching.

Running a private beta is something that requires a LOT of time and thought if you want to get a lot out of it. Put a plan on paper and free up your schedule to talk with customers every day. Follow these steps and it will be incredibly helpful, putting you on the right path to launching a solid product.

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New Help Scout Blog

Programming note: last week we launched an official Help Scout blog. We'll be talking about product news and updates there, but any sort of behind-the-scenes or company stuff will still be posted here. Feed My Inbox news will also stay here. 

Stay tuned to this blog ... our next article will talk about lessons learned running the Help Scout private beta. But if you are a Help Scout customer, it's a good idea to check out the new one too!

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Shutting Down Linkpatch

Over the last several months, it's become clear that Linkpatch doesn't get much love from our team by way of new features and improvements. We've finally decided to shut it down, effective January 31.

Every customer has been sent an email about our decision and no further charges will be processed for paid accounts. Customers with annual billing will be refunded all remaining months they paid for. If you have any other questions about your account, feel free to email help@linkpatch.com or let us know in the comments.

We came up with the idea for Linkpatch over four years ago. It's been a great tool to help us keep track of broken links and we'll continue using it internally. So why shut it down? 3 reasons:

Lack of passion

Time is finite. It's important to dedicate all your energy to things you are 200% passionate about. Linkpatch has never been that way for us. It's a nice little utility, but it's not something we want to hang our hat on.

18 months after launching the public version of Linkpatch, we haven't added any significant features. We have a list of things we'd love to do, but nothing gets done because we're not passionate about the product like we are our other apps.

In hindsight, Linkpatch would have been best kept as a little PHP script that we use internally or maybe released as an open source project. We didn't have what it took to see the product through in the long term. You can't ever half-ass a web app and expect it to be a success.

Limited Market

Linkpatch is a product for people that build websites. In the grand scheme, it's a small market of potential customers. We'd prefer to focus our energy on building products that can have a larger impact.

Focus

It's hard enough to build a great product without distractions. Linkpatch is a distraction we got excited about, but weren't fully dedicated to. By shutting it down, our focus can be squarely on making Feed My Inbox and Help Scout better products in 2011 and beyond.

It sucks to quit at something, but it's been an invaluable learning experience. We won't make these mistakes again.

We've done some research and came up with the following alternatives to Linkpatch. We have little to no experience using these products, so they are ordered alphabetically:

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Building a Web App- Behind the Scenes of Linkpatch

The idea for our latest application, called Linkpatch, came nearly 2 years ago. The important decisions we made over the course of that time are what I would like to discuss today, in hopes of describing our process of creating web apps, and explaining why we think this app will be extremely valuable for website developers, managers and owners.

The Process

We created the basic functions of the application in about a week, and started using it internally as soon as we could. We did the same thing when building Feed My Inbox. As a company that can't justify extensive planning, usability testing and so forth upfront, this was by far the best approach for us.

By installing Linkpatch on client websites and working through errors on our own, we were able to fix any bugs, think of useful features and update the app accordingly. That's definitely a huge luxury of developing an app that's for people just like us. As big believers in Getting Real, the first version of Linkpatch is the most basic iteration we could widdle down. We have a long list of other features that would be useful for tracking website errors, but it's more important to launch as soon as possible and get an idea of what you (the customers) think. Better yet, if no one finds the app as useful as we do, our investment in features so far has been minimal.

Why did it take 2 years?

Another thing we don't do much is plan for the future. That way, we can change course on a moment's notice. Almost a year ago, we decided to build Feed My Inbox instead of focusing on Linkpatch. Thanks to the wild success of that application, it's taken a lot for us to find time outside of client work to finish this project. I would not ever recommend spending 2 years on a web app before it sees the light of day, but we've only spent an actual 3-4 months actively working on it. Since we were using it internally the whole time and it met our immediate needs, we were able to put it on the burner until we could really make it the priority.

Webmasters need better

The one reason we developed Linkpatch is because link checkers and site crawlers don't cut it. They absolutely don't, and there is one glaring reason why: they don't account for external sites linking to you.

It's always a good move to run your site through a program that checks for broken links. The internal link structure of your site is important to verify. However, internal broken links are a very small piece of the puzzle! How about all the other sites you don't own that might have mis-typed or out-of-date links to your site? The only way to catch external links to your site that are broken is to monitor them on a regular basis.

Aside from webserver logs (messy), monitoring traffic to your error pages is the only way to catch those issues and submit a fix quickly. Webmasters and analytics junkies alike can all see how fewer broken links can lead to a better user experience. If someone gets a 404 (page not found) error on your site, by having Linkpatch installed, you have what you need to keep it from happening again ... no matter where the broken link is.

Filling a small void

I recognize that the void Linkpatch fills is a small one, for a relatively small (but growing) group of people. It will take longer for us to market this app and help people understand why it is so important. But if you want to provide great service to your clients, cover all your bases and be well above the status quo as a webmaster, you will pay attention to broken links on a regular basis. I hope you have tried it and gotten a free 5-site account with our introductory promotion. If so, please don't hesitate to let us know what you think, and how we can make it better.

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Say Hello to Linkpatch

This announcement has been an extremely long time in the making, but we are thrilled that today is the day to talk about our second web app, called Linkpatch.

Linkpatch is meant for anyone that develops, oversees or works on a website. The purpose is simple: it sends you an email whenever someone encounters a 404 page (or other error pages, for that matter) on your website. The email has tons of useful information, from which you can figure out exactly what the problem is and fix it. Here is what a Linkpatch email looks like:

Linkpatch Email

As you can see, the email provides a wealth of information about the user, where they came from and where they were trying to go. No matter what kind of error it is, you have all you need to go in and fix whatever might be wrong.

It's a foundation

As you may have seen with Feed My Inbox, the way we build web apps is to start extremely simple, let it simmer, and listen to our customers. Once we have a great idea of where we want to take things next, we build in more features.

Linkpatch is no exception. We know it's a really simple idea, but it's extremely useful for people that are behind-the-scenes of any website. We have tons of ideas on how to make this service more useful for webmasters, but we're going to let this app simmer first and listen to what you people have to say.

We're committed to Linkpatch, and building out a wealth of fantastic features in the future, just like we are committed to Feed My Inbox.

How to get a FREE 5-site account

Starting today, we have a special offer for all you early adopters out there. For 30 days (through July 8), we're giving away FREE 5-site accounts to anyone that is willing to post a message about Linkpatch on Twitter.

Visit this page to submit your tweet and get a free 5-site account.

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Learning as You Go

What I really love about building web applications is watching them take on a life of their own. Feed My Inbox was our first real experiment with web apps, and it's been an incredibly fun experience. What started as a way for my Mom to read my personal twitter feed has now evolved into a legitimate business that is now supporting nearly 15,000 customers and counting. We're really proud of that, and won't be letting up anytime soon.

If there is anything I have learned as part of this process, it is to create the most simple iteration of your product and launch. Strip it down to the bare bones features; and launch.

This has a few crucial benefits for any small, self-funded company:

  • It's easier to see light at the end of the tunnel, and do what it takes to launch a product without losing momentum.
  • If your app is a bust, the time and money you spent on it is minimal.
  • Less features to start means a more manageable learning curve for people to get started using it.
  • Most importantly, you can count on your customers to tell you what features are really important, instead of trusting your own personal opinion.

Since Feed My Inbox launched, we have learned a TON. My best thinking 6 months ago would be ridiculous compared to what I know now about the app, our customers, and where we're headed. For instance, I thought from the beginning that we could support the service with advertising. Boy was I wrong about that. We WILL in fact monetize the service, but it will look nothing like what I had originally thought. What a waste of time it would have been for us to build anything out to support that original business model.

I want to be clear that this article is not about being anti-features. It's about being anti- business plans and pricing charts and complicated wireframes and wasteful marketing plans before your app even has any legs. Let your software breathe, listen to your customers, THEN make the best decisions you can about what's next.

Bottom line, screw what anyone else thinks and launch it. If you make mistakes, that makes you human. The quickest way to expose and fix them is to launch the project. On the web, nothing is permanent. If it's wrong, change it. If it's great, make the most of it. Either way, just get it out there and it's okay to learn as you go.

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Mobile Awesomeness

We've been working on a little side project for about a month, and today we get to share it with you. Be warned, this website is a little bit geeky. It's called Mobile Awesomeness (http://www.mobileawesomeness.com). The site will showcase the very best in mobile web design, as well as share news and resources about developing for the mobile web.

We are design junkies, and have a great appreciation for all of the website showcase sites out there. Mobile Awesomeness is a showcase dedicated solely to mobile sites, and is the very first of it's kind according to our research. So if you are looking to see the best in mobile web design, or are looking for resources to get you started in learning to develop for this medium, head on over!