I'm a Web Developer and Entrepreneur out of Washington DC.

Zvi Band

Founder of Contactually.
I'm also passionate about growing the DC startup community, and I've founded Proudly Made in DC and the DC Tech Meetup.

Know your history

11/17/2014
“Our ancestors have invented, we can at least innovate” – Amit Kalantri

When I first jotted down the idea for Contactually, I thought it was unique (otherwise I likely would not have bothered to capture it). As expected, I was wrong. We only found a couple then-active companies with any kind of meaningful feature overlap.

However, as we started working more and more on the idea, more and more ghosts emerged. We found many people who had tried this before, some just an idea or prototype, some a total failure, some pivots away, and a couple acquisitions.
Our ingrained curiosity led us to figure out why. Why were some successful, and some not? What could we learn?
We did something unconventional – we spoke to them. Dozens of people. The concept of a startup postmortem is only recently gaining popularity, so we went to the source.
The learnings were invaluable. While what we got was just data points, and often times just delivered with a bitter tone of expected failure for us, we developed some core principals which, in my opinion, have aided tremendously to our continued survival.
  • Charge for your product. Early.
  • Therefore, build something people will pay for and find people who will pay for it.
  • This is not a consumer application. This is for professionals.
  • Do not rely on spamming a users address book. It just doesn’t work.
Very early on, investors we met with pushed the opposite of these points. We prioritized the learnings from our ancestors, and stuck to our guns. And we are still here. The similar products we’ve seen that haven’t heeded these rules aren’t.

The early difference between success and failure

11/15/2014

Customer development.

A few weeks ago I was walking around DC Tech Day, looking at all the super early stage ventures, some little more than an idea. I normally vehemently shun pessimism, but I couldn’t help but think that the vast majority were dead from the beginning. I couldn’t think of anyone they could call a legitimate customer, and when probing them, the unicorn “consumer” was their target customer.
We see hundreds and hundreds of amazing ideas fail because of the lack of an accessible market. While I do believe that big consumer ideas sometimes appear as toys, that doesn’t necessarily empower every entrepreneur to just go out and build toys.
The other week I was lecturing about the first 90 days of an idea (I might teach it again if you’re interested) to aspiring entrepreneurs. I made it clear that I subscribe to the lean startup methodology’s belief in early and continuous customer development. The class was pretty much all about customer development. I see it as common sense, but to the class, this was an eye opening experience and, in their own words, a totally different perspective.
I hope I made an impact.

Whitespace

11/13/2014

One of the major realizations that I came to was, as the company got bigger, I remained too execution oriented. I’m very good at working on big rocks vs small rocks, but I found that the rocks I was tackling were still not big enough. This was backed up by my advisors, investors, team leads, and coach.

I was ready and willing to make the change, but didn’t know where to begin. My career to date has been coming up with and executing a daily task list, pounding through bugs, checking off boxes.
One of my advisors suggested whitespace time. Block a few hours a week out of the office to think. Just letting my mind wander is not useful, so before I start, I come up with the items I want to focus on, and what the deliverable is (often times an Evernote outline).
I also make a point to get out of the office and into a different environment. One awesome thing about DC is there is no shortage of places to go. The convention center is across the street from our new office, where you can blend in to whatever conference is happening. There are a few hotel lobbies to hang out at. My favorite is the National Portrait Gallery, just a few blocks down the street.
Close email, unplug team chat, and just focus.
It’s been incredibly productive so far.

A company I advised failed yesterday

11/05/2014

We made some great announcements at 11 AM yesterday morning.

I wasn’t tweeting or posting about it because I was in a meeting. At the same time the internet and our team was celebrating our milestones, I was helping a founder I had been advising for months shut down his company.

He’s an incredibly smart guy. He had a big vision – one of those “better the world and make money doing it.” And while he had built out a powerful platform before I started advising him weekly, he had no customers. So we focused on that. And we couldn’t get any customers, no matter what was tried. His co-founders weren’t lasered in on getting customers, they wanted to focus on the technology. So there was no business.

Failure is empowering. Too many ventures drift off into the darkness and are simply forgotten by the creator. Daily execution becomes skipping a day or two, or three, or fifty. Clearly saying that something didn’t work allows you to learn from it. By the time we sat down face to face yesterday, it was clear he was looking for an out. So we gave it to him. We made it clear he shouldn’t feel guilty or that our time was wasted – it definitely wasn’t.

Every day, I look at the amazing team executing on vastly different parts of the business – one person on the phone training a customer. Another figuring out a new marketing initiative. Another going deep into the code to identify a flaw that is affecting a user. Then the thousands of customers that we have.

Despite all the time spent on the problems of the business – organizational change, churn, maintaining that steep growth curve, I’m so thankful that we have yet to fail. We’ve done the right things – well, enough to get us to this point in time.

Onward and upward.

Firing Myself

10/05/2014

It’s inevitable – and vital – that, as a company scales, a founder has to remove roles from themselves.

At first it’s building a team underneath you – specialists, demand fulfillment, etc. Less time is spend on day-to-day execution, and more time is spent planning, overseeing, and managing. But there still may be some bastions of your original role remaining as part of your overall responsibilities.

But we reached a point where I had to fire myself from that. Not just because the company needed me focused on more high-leverage activities. But my skills didn’t match what was needed for this stage of the company. In order to grow the very product I had created, I had to remove myself from it.

As a founder, I’m still responsible for the overall vision and high-level execution. But day-to-day, the role I once valued myself by is no longer mine.

For 24 hours, I’ve never felt more miserable. Then, I never felt more empowered.

 

 

Charlatans

09/28/2014

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while, as it’s something I’ve often stewed about (when in truth I shouldn’t).

There are a lot of charlatans in the startup journey.

Charlatans that claim to be angel investors, but haven’t written a check in years, if ever.

Charlatans that claim to be working on their startup.

Charlatans that will happily advise your startup, because they know The Way.

Charlatans that say their startup will beat yours.

Charlatans that go on stage, beat their chest, and it turns out there’s nothing behind the curtains.

Charlatans with “tons of contacts” that want to do business development.

Charlatans in VC firms, that have no fund to make new investments out of.

Charlatans will waste your time. Charlatans will get your hopes up. Charlatans will give you bad data. 

I wish it were socially acceptable to call these people out in anything more public than a 1-1 conversation or reference check. Sometimes it’s not their fault, they don’t realize it.

But as soon as your BS meter starts going up, run. Charlatans are everywhere.

The Startup Guide to NPS (Net Promoter Score)

09/16/2014

A little over a year ago, we were overhauling our metrics, and were looking for a practice for measuring overall happiness, primarily with our product. There are straightforward quantitative metrics you can leverage and track, which we do, such as conversion rates, churn, and ACV. But we wanted a signal that would give us a leading indicator as to how successful we were overall. We happened on Net Promoter Score, which surprisingly few people talk about (Eric Ries wrote a good post). There still isn’t that much written about how to tactically implement NPS in a startup, as well as lessons you may learn going forward. Here is what we have learned and practiced.

Rolling Your Own vs Existing Product

Aside from existing survey tools like SurveyMonkey, at the time we couldn’t find a pre-baked NPS tool (there’s now CustomerVille, Promoter.io, Delighted, and others). We decided to roll our own. It’s pretty simple to implement, was directly integrated into the customer experience, and then we have direct access to the data.

How It Looks

Here’s how we designed ours to look – it’s a modal that pops up when people open up Contactually. You can grab the stars off of FontAwesome. People click on the appropriate star or they click “Not Right Now” – it’s important to have an exit option. We didn’t for a short time, and saw that if people were forced to make a decision, they would get pissed off and make a low ranking, solely because they were being bothered.

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 8.41.01 AM

Now those familiar with NPS may notice that there is a discrepancy between what the “proper” implementation of the survey. We have 10 stars to choose from, but ideally you’d have 11 options, with ability to give a score of 0 as an option. Given how the resulting score is calculated, we decided to stick with our survey choices, and would see little difference.

We also ask a followup question, which has proved immensely valuable.

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 8.50.07 AM

When to ask

There doesn’t seem to be any best practice here, so this is what we came up with. Given we’re a SaaS product, there’s a customer lifecycle to be mindful of, and we wanted to track that. Our system flags people to receive the NPS survey, and the next time they log in, they’ll be presented with the questions. We ask all users on the 30th day after signing up, and then we also ask every 90 days after we last asked them, repeating in perpetuity. We’re pretty happy with this pattern.

Measuring the data

This is pretty straightforward with the NPS survey. Keeping in mind my note above re: 10 options instead of 11, this is a bit of Ruby code.

Now, the fun comes in when you decide which survey results you want to look at. Our standard is to look at results on a rolling 30 basis, but we can sometimes go right down to the week if we want something more granular (day-by-day is too spiky).

The valuable thing that you can do now is start separating out results by user cohort or common characteristics. We measure and track separately new userspaid customers, and all users. You can imagine how those translate into different parts of your business – happier new users means higher conversion rates, while happier paid customers reduces churn.

Reporting and leveraging the data

We look at the data weekly as part of our weekly metric ritual. However we also have the daily raw survey results emailed out to the team automatically, as part of our larger automated nightly stat email (more on that in another post). Seeing customers who express their love for your product when you first open your email in the morning gives you a little bit of extra dopamine, and then our customer success team reaches out to anyone with a negative score to see what’s going on. Overall, it helps establish some baseline bridge and empathy between the customers and our entire team.

With access to the full database of results, NPS scores can be used in analysis – e.g. examining common traits among high-scoring respondents. One practice we’ve done in the past is query all low-scoring new users to understand what we could have done better.

With permission, you can also start circulating the results, and using the qualitative feedback in marketing efforts.

We also send the raw NPS results to investors and advisors :-)

Some gotchas

  • Given NPS is user-generated content, keep in mind that their perception (aka score) may differ from the reality of their actions. People with 9s or 10s may love your product but still churn out for a different reason. People could be momentarily ticked off by a bug or something completely unrelated, and give you a 0 that day. My favorite anecdote is asking people why they gave us such low score, and they respond that Contactually is their secret, and they don’t want to tell anyone. Oh well.
  • Even when averaging out over a rolling 30, the results can sometimes be spiky. We cheer when it hits new peaks, and try and see what’s happening when it dips. While we focus more on the overall trend, looking at the cohorts gives us some better idea (e.g. a lot of people signing up after a conference on the same day).
  • The general goal is to have it be positive (more promoters than detractors), and people will throw out different numbers. Some throw out +50 as a target. You can look at a lot of benchmarks, but with such a wide distribution, it’s clear that there is no best practice here. We just care about the direction and velocity of our score, and focus on making it better each month.

Culture

09/14/2014

I never valued company culture.

Culture, mission statement, values – that was all stuff that I never saw anyone pay any attention to other than lip service. Any conversations about values seemed so far removed from the day-to-day of what I was doing.

Fast forward to today – Contactually is passing 40 people. Values, mission, culture – that’s what I think about the most. Mission keeps your eye on the ball in a way no product roadmap or task list could do. Culture (not perks) gets employees jumping out of bed each morning and coming into the office, with no thought in their mind of leaving anytime soon. Values makes sure that the things that mattered so much when founding the company still carry through to today.

We’ve updated the values on our site. And we have a mission statement that we truly believe in (the latter being a recent addition).

The one thing for a startup CEO

07/06/2014

I’ve been involved in numerous ventures and surrounded in a world of startups and founders doling out advice, blog posts, and anecdotes. I read this stuff voraciously, and tried to take it to heart when it was finally time for my at-bat. To no-one’s surprise, the knowledge that “stuck” was the information I was either looking for, or made sense. Other lessons were skipped or devalued. The only way to learn these lessons was to get punched in the face.

I’ll start with the most important thing I’ve learned. Forget code, pitch decks, users, metrics, funding, press. The most important thing in a startup is people.

What I’ve written below comes about as, when I hear myself talk nowadays, I’m shocked as to the content. As a software developer, talking about people, culture, vision, etc. does not come naturally to me. It’s not a tangible product or trackable metric, and it took a long time, and lots of missteps (which I still make), to start to appreciate it.

Bringing the absolute best people onto your team, and never stopping that effort. Very quickly remove the ones that turn out not to be the best.

Communication and coordination – the flywheel may be spinning with everyone heading in the same direction initially. You have to find and invest in systems to ensure that everyone keeps moving in the same direction consistently.

Culture. Culture is the glue. There are so many forces at work against you, but culture can zero all of them out for your people.

Leadership. Figure out the type of leader you are, and the type of leader that the people in your company need you to be.

Your customers are people too. They are just as important as the people in your company. It’s really easy to pay lip service to that mantra, and really hard to fulfill that – especially as you start to have more customers than you ever fathomed.

Fire yourself. Your people are better individual contributors than you.


If you’re reading this as a first time founder, or while still employed, this advice does not come as a surprise to you – because I’m not the only one who says it. My goal, and hope here, is by being another voice, potentially you will start focusing on this earlier than I do.

Technical Debt + Red October

03/22/2014

There’s been a little bit written about technical debt in an early stage software product. Technical debt is something we think a lot about at Contactually.

Technical debt is a balance of problems that are generated through rapid product development, normally in an early stage product.

“Move fast and break things

Given how key it is for a startup to test product in front of customers as fast as possible, technical debt is not just a byproduct but a necessity. Given how many unknowns we were encountering in the early days of Contactually (and even now), we adopted one of Facebook’s core mantras and made it our own. While we were still getting to product market fit, we gave ourselves permission to launch things that were not fully tested, did not have all edge cases satisfied, and frankly, were ugly in both form and function.

Now that we’ve achieved an acceptable level of product/market fit in our core offering, we’ve course corrected. Actually, to be completely honest, it’s not that we woke up one day and saw that we’re checking all the boxes and could clean out the skeletons in our closet. Our users told us. Overwhelming support issues, higher churn, shaky metrics, and a incessant stream of bug reports. They loved the promise of the product, but the actual day to day usage was bumpy.

Technical debt is usually attributed to the code-level shortcuts taken, marked by a quick TODO and quickly forgotten. Who cares about those? We’re building a user facing product, so our debt was anything that the user would see:

  • As we kept adding + modifying, overall performance started to decline.
  • Bugs appeared.
  • Usability issues were numerous.
  • The design was extended and stretched too far, yielding an overall unattractive mess.

Making the decision

Late 2013, we knew we were in trouble. It was clear, even just in talking to our team, that we were spending more time hearing about issues with the product than positive results. We had to act fast. We made the decision that, for now, we had reached a level of feature completeness, and just needed to make what we have work.

It was time to pay down. But how?

The squeaky wheel gets the grease

At first, the engineering team and I came up with a list of all the problems we saw in the application, and our wishlist. To no-one’s surprise, it yielded a list of internal architectural challenges, refactors, and rewrites.
But what matters to the user?

We changed our tune, quickly. Here’s what we did:

  • Started tracking overall satisfaction - Net Promoter Score is the most straightforward. To this day, the NPS is the clearest indicator of user satisfaction with our product.
  • Tracked application performance, and identified hotspots – The best way to improve performance is pretty obvious – look at what’s slow, and fix it. A few minutes clicking around on New Relic can give an engineer a clear idea of what the slowest pages are, the least performant database queries, and clear areas for code optimization. We started at the top and just worked our way down. We now report on our Apdex score (New Relic’s measurement of how fast pages return) weekly as a top-level company metric.
  • Actually fixed bugs If you haven’t set up a simple exception-reporting tool like Airbrake, Exceptional, or Honeybadger in your application, do so now. To pay down debt, we just… started fixing what we saw. (Note: clearing your backlog of exceptions also really helps overall performance, too). We now wince every time we see a bug report come in that’s anything other than some strange exception.
  • Asked our users – This was the thing I was most excited about, and the hardest pill to swallow at the same time. We had already amassed a collection of issues that we received inbound from users. That was nice, but knowing that we were only hearing what someone had gone out of their way to tell us, we didn’t have a clear signal. So we did something insane – we asked our top 300 users to give us their list of every annoyance, frustration, bug, blocker they had. We ended up with something on the order of 1200+ items. We looked through every single one, prioritized, grouped, and ended up with a list of what we knew we needed to fix. Granted, we had a lot of feature requests and off-topic improvements (blah blah faster horse…), but we could see what people were having issues with.
  • Internally, we sat down the entire company for a two hour session where everyone went page by page, workflow by workflow, and logged everything they could find.

Red-October-poster

We made the conscientious decision to not build any new features until we fixed the majority of these. In fact, no planned feature enhancements or internal tooling was done either. We shut down everything to focus on these issues. We called it Red October.

We emerged from it triumphant. Our team felt better not just with the end result, but the process.

Managing Technical Debt ongoing

We’re now a little bit better with how we manage debt – we have to be. Our core values & culture guides us to help our users as much as possible – and buggy software doesn’t do much for them. So here’s what we do:

  • Track performance as a top-level company metric.
  • Regular meetings with the sales + support teams to understand the “burning issues” and concerns that we’re hearing from customers – and prioritize those.
  • Track our Net Promoter Score, and identify issues resulting from that.
  • Periodically ping both our most active users as well as newly activated customers, to understand what their main concerns are.

While we have no regrets for the path that got us here, we know we had to break a few eggs and disappoint our customers. Moving forward, the burden is on us to deliver value, in both new and existing components of the product.

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