How to Start a Startup: How to Build Products Users Love

What does it mean to make products that users love? What does that look like?

According to Kevin Hale, founder of Wufoo and partner at Y Combinator, making products users love involves focusing the bulk of your energy on the customer.

“My philosophy behind a lot of things that I teach in startups is, the best way to get to $1 billion is to focus on the values that help you get that first dollar to acquire that first user,” Hale advises. “If you get that right, everything else will take care of itself.”

Kevin expounded on his business philosophy during a lecture at Stanford University, which was part of YC President Sam Altman’s series on How to Start a Startup.

(For more startup advice, check out How to Start a Startup: The Book. It’s the ultimate reference guide to creating a successful tech startup.)

When you visit the Wufoo site, you can already tell it’s an outlier. Where most startups are constantly finding new ways to be slick and sexy, Wufoo is unabashed in its goofy persona. As Hale says, it looks like something Fisher Price made. But because it’s easy to use, they can call some of the largest companies in the world their clients. 

Its childlike appearance is not the only thing that separates Wufoo from its competitors. During fundraising they raised about $118,000 total. But their return to their investors was about 29,561%. To put that in perspective, the average startup raises about $25 million, and the average return for their investors is about 676%.

Wufoo’s ROI is something investors dream of but rarely attain. And much of their success comes from their adamance for building relationships with their consumers.

The Wufoo team constantly asks themselves: “How do relationships work in the real world and how can we apply them to the way we run our business and build our product that way?”

Seducing your customers

When it comes to human relationships, it’s the first impressions that matter. That’s why when we go on a date, we put our best self forward through our dress and mannerisms.

You need to make those initial interactions with your customers memorable – the first email, login, links, advertisements, and customer support. Hale says that all those moments are opportunities to seduce.

For example, when you go to Wufoo’s login link, there’s a dinosaur on it. Hover on it and the dinosaur will say RARRR. Unless you’re dead inside, this simple detail will put a smile on your face. So every time you login, you will associate positive emotions with their product.

Seducing your customers doesn’t have to involve some glossy campaign. As long as you think about what emotions you provoke on your user’s face, you’re heading in the right direction.

Approaching customer support like a marriage

Hale takes customer service lessons from marriage psychologist John Gottman. Gottman is famous for being able to predict (with freakish accuracy) whether a couple is going to divorce. He just needs to watch them fight for 15 minutes.

Anticipating customers’ needs

According to Gottman, in human relationships everybody fights about the exact same things: money, kids, sex, time, etc. The same goes for customer support.

Money = this costs too much or I’m having trouble with credit cards.

Kids = users’ client.

Sex  = performance (how long you’re up and how fast).

Etc = competition and partnerships.

Knowing these customer service triggers helps you anticipate what problems your users will bring to you. This way you’re better equipped to solve their problems.

Always respond to your customers

Gottman also says that couples often break up because of four major causes: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Stonewalling is one of the worst things a person can do in a relationship, yet startups do it often.

Stonewalling is when you have a lot of customer support calls coming in and you refuse to respond. Not meeting your customers’ needs is the “biggest cause of churn in the early stages of startups,” says Hale.

Everyone on your team should do customer support

Another practice that separated Wufoo from a typical startup was the integration of customer support into the role of software development. They upheld values they felt weren’t discussed enough, like responsibility, accountability, humility, and modesty. They call it SDD (Support Driven Development).

Jared Spool, a user interface engineer, largely informed these values. He says that there’s a direct correlation to how much time software developers spend directly exposed to users and the quality of their designs. So Wufoo spent 30% of their engineering time on internal tools to help with customer support. 

Hale says that, as a result, their developer were “getting exposed to our users 4 to 8 hours every single week,” changing the way they built software.

“We redesigned our documentation over and over again, A/B tested it constantly. One iteration of our documentation page reduced customer support by 30% overnight,” Hale explained.

So by concentrating on customer service, the product team actually had a 30% reduction of their workload.

Emotions are important 

Wufoo prioritizes customer support because it’s integral to every step of the conversion process. If you fail at customer service, conversions just don’t happen. One staple activity for the Wufoo team was frequent customer service experiments.

The little experiment that could

Not being face-to-face with the bulk of their users provided this emotional disconnect that hindered the customer support process.

The Wufoo team addressed this by adding a drop-down to their support form that asked users about their current emotional state. Think of it as the predecessor to Facebook’s emoticon statuses.

The team expected this experiment to fail. But not only was the support field filled out 75.8% of the time, users also filled out the emotional state drop-down 78.1% of the time. How the users felt about a problem was just as important as the technical solutions the Wufoo team provided.

The secret to getting nicer users

Working in customer support is extremely stressful. You’re basically getting paid to have people yell at you for eight hours every day. Customer support workers often have the least amount of power to affect change in an organization, but they receive the majority of the users’ frustrations.

Because Wufoo had their software team doing support work, users became less frustrated. This was because they were interacting with people who could actually do something about their problems.

But providing an emotional outlet brought it to another level. People started being nicer to the support team as a result. Users became more rational and in turn made the Wufoo team’s job more pleasant.

Next Steps

You can read a full transcript of Hale’s lecture here.

Also, if you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out How to Start a Startup: The Book. It’s the ultimate reference guide to creating a successful tech startup.

How to Start a Startup: The Book

Featured image was taken from the video of Kevin Hale’s lecture at Stanford.

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