Taking time at the end of the year to reflect is a great exercise. It allows me to think through things that went both well and poorly. It helps me focus on what’s next.
It is amazing how fast this year has flown by. This year I began doing contract work for Trustfuel, a company that builds software for customer success managers. After a pivot and a few product iterations, I decided to join the team full-time.
This year I also became the host of DN FM, the Designer News Podcast. I’m a huge fan of the community, and am glad I’m able to contribute.
As far as yearly reviews go, this is the third that I’ve done. It’s interesting to go back and see what I’d accomplished (and failed). If you’re interested in past reviews, check out my reviews from 2014 and 2015.
SidePrize and 2015
To understand my story, we’ll need to rewind a bit back to 2015. I spent almost the entire year working on a fantasy sports startup called SidePrize.
The Los Angeles Dodgers helped fund SidePrize. Our team moved out to Los Angeles in the summer of 2015 and spent several months in their accelerator program.
We were planning to raise another round following a killer season for the fantasy sports industry. The Dodgers Demo Day in November and presented an ideal time to raise. Unfortunately when Demo Day rolled around, we hit a roadblock.
Two hours before our CEO got on stage to pitch SidePrize, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman declared daily fantasy illegal. Raising money wasn’t going to be an option in the midst of legal turmoil.
We had to punt and extend our runway. The company would have to make some tough decisions. One of those decisions was to let two fantastic engineers go. The other was to let me go.
Adam, Dan and Tareq continued working on SidePrize.
At the time it was not a permanent goodbye. The plan was for me to take on contract work doing design and front-end development for a few months. In early spring SidePrize would have a better idea of it’s needs and finances.
I was fortunate.
A guy named David Klanac sublet office space from SidePrize in the Atlanta Tech Village. This was before we moved to Los Angeles. In December of 2015 he was planning to rebuild his Net Promoter Score tool, Trustfuel. But first need a designer to help with that project.
If you’ve ever been asked “How likely are you to recommend (company or product) to a friend or colleague?” then you’ve taken an NPS survey. It’s an popular consumer survey method because of its inherent simplicity.
At the time Trustfuel was not a simple tool—and that’s why he hired me.
I spent a couple weeks researching survey tools, learning about NPS and designing a new product. That was followed by a month working with the team to completely rebuild the NPS from the ground up. We cut a ton of features, menus and pages that weren’t valuable.
The new Trustfuel was easy-to-use. New customers could upload a CSV of contacts and immediately start sending surveys.
In previous jobs I spent countless hours fiddling with business software that was painful to use. In the world of business software the end-users of the software are not always those who write the check. Businesses are slowly realizing that bad software has a cost in employee productivity.
We spent early February talking with prospective customers and planning new features.
After several conversations we realized there wasn’t a whole lot of enthusiasm for the product—even with a new coat of paint. It worked. They would probably use it. But it didn’t solve pain points for them.
As we had more and more discussions with account managers and customer success professionals, we started to change focus.
In discussions later that month we prodded for clues. What were their biggest challenges? What kept them up at night?
Almost everyone we talked with was exasperated. Many were keeping up with customers across sales tools, spreadsheets, task managers and note taking tools. It was maddening. A significant amount of time was spent entering and re-entering the same data.
As we had more and more conversations, we realized these problems were a trend for growing customer success teams. The lone CSM could make working across spreadsheets and tools work, but what happens when a second CSM joins?
It was a disaster. There’s no good way to transfer that knowledge to the new team member. Plus, it’s taxing to collaborate across a variety of tools.
Net Promoter Score was a helpful gauge of how loyal customers were to the company. However, it did not solve their foremost problem.
CSMs were spending time managing software, not managing customers.
The Platform for Customer Success
I started my research again. This time I began looking at account management and customer success products. What pain points were they trying to solve and how did they solve them?
I found many products were laser-focused on predictive health scores. There were tons of inputs. In theory businesses would add weights to certain ones and a number would be added to each account. This number would represent how likely a customer was to churn come renewal. There was some slight variation, but every tool was trying to do the same thing.
In a way they were solving the same problem as our Net Promoter Score tool. Instead of asking customers if they were willing to recommend the product, they used data and fancy algorithms.
After all the discussions we had with people in the industry, we felt like that was an old problem. Customer success needed a CRM. One that was actually designed to manage customer relationships, not sales pipelines.
I spent the first week of March designing a CRM concept and built an Invision prototype. We took that prototype and went back to several of the CSMs and account managers we spoke with about our NPS tool.
They loved it!
After showing it to a dozen CSMs, it felt like we were onto something. We began building our customer success platform in March and haven’t looked back.
A Career Decision
By April I had a tough career decision to make. It was more complicated than to stay at Trustfuel or go back to SidePrize. Another Atlanta startup was in need of a product designer. They had raised a series A and offered me a significant amount of money to join the team.
I had decided not to go back to SidePrize. I didn’t think going back would have been a good decision for the company. I was burnt out on fantasy and didn’t think I was the person to decide where the product should go.
There were a lot of high-level ideas floating around. We discussed expanding into season-long fantasy, e-sports and other gaming events. It’s easy to talk in abscractions, but I knew executing those concepts would be extremely difficult. In the end I wasn’t the right person to design or lead the SidePrize product.
Then there was this other company. They had raised a Series A and sought out product designers in Atlanta (there aren’t a lot of us here). They came across on LinkedIn and I went through a few interviews. I liked the team, but wasn’t terribly familiar with the market they served. They made me an offer that neither SidePrize or Trustfuel could match.
After some deliberation I turned that offer down and decided to stay with Trustfuel.
The Trustfuel team is incredibly talented. I love working with David, Kayla and Jaron. At the time our new CS platform was rough around the edges, but I saw giant potential.
More than anything, joining Trustfuel seemed like a good risk to take. It felt like (and still feels like) we had something the market wants. If Trustfuel doesn’t work, it’s entirely a matter of execution.
I wrote six posts for my blog this year—including this review. Unintentionally, this matches the same number of posts I’ve written the last two years.
Writing is one of those things I am never satisfied with. I could have written 100 posts this year and still see room for more. With that said there were two particularly good posts this year. One was about building a job board in WordPress, which covers my process for building the Trustfuel Job board.
I had a few days between sprints, and we thought a job board would be a good side project to attract growing customer success teams. Specifically, the post talks about why I chose WordPress instead of Meteor or Rails.
The other, more controversial post, was about the problems with dashboards. The Trustfuel team had some heated internal debates about building a dashboard into our product.
In theory dashboards sound helpful—see everything in one place—but in practice they rarely are. Worse, when something is called “a dashboard” it becomes a dumping ground for features that aren’t good enough to stand on their own.
I felt like I needed to vent. Fortunately, you won’t find anything named dashboard within our product.
Although you’ll find only a few new posts on this blog, I probably wrote more than any year since I was working for The Auburn Plainsman. Search is one of the primary channels new customers discover Trustfuel. This year I’ve spent a significant amount of time writing posts about customer success and Net Promoter Score for the Trustfuel blog.
After all my research, I wrote a giant review of NPS software. It takes a look at the differences between major tools and highlights some newer players in the space.
I also co-authored a 50-page book about scaling customer success programs with Kayla. It took a significant amount of work to write, edit and lay out the book, but I think it was worth it.
In addition to the Trustfuel blog I’ve also been rather active on Quora the last few months. It started as a marketing experiment. I knew there were a few answers that would rank well in search. Those posts have provided a good amount of traffic to the site and many of them have requested demos.
The more I wrote on Quora, the more I realized I enjoyed answering questions outside of customer success. There are some fantastic responses to questions about SaaS there. I find myself responding more and more. Here are a few of my responses from the last year.
- Should you give free stuff to cancelled subscribers?
- How do I market a SaaS product where the market does not exist yet?
- Client Success or Customer Success: What’s the most common terminology?
I’ve been considering expanding on some of these Quora answers and posting them on this blog. We’ll see.
In the past I’ve used side projects as a way to learn new things and experiment. I also view them as a way to change of pace after working on something for a long period of time.
DN FM: The Designer News Podcast
The big new project for this year was joining the Designer News team as the host of the DN FM podcast. I’ve mentioned before how much I love the DN community, and with my background I thought being the host was a good fit.
We publish DN FM biweekly and have done 12 episodes to date. If you’re looking for a taste of the show I’d recommend one of the two following interviews:
The interview with Invision CEO Clark Valberg is probably my favorite interview I’ve ever produced—that includes the several years of Signal Tower interviews. He’s incredibly personable and I think their marketing efforts are brilliant. The end of the interview is pretty funny. Clark wants to keep the conversation going and I’m trying to sign off.
Etsy VP of Design Randy J. Hunt is on the list of people I want to get a beer and talk design shop with. I spent a significant amount of time preparing for this show and never once looked at my notes. I thought the episode turned out fantastic. He’s one of those guys who is constantly thinking about design.
When I signed up to host the show, I was hoping that it would be a lot more hands off than Signal Tower was. I was hoping I’d be able to do the fun part—talk with interesting people and not have to worry about any post production. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.
Perhaps, it’s my need to control and perfect my work, but I spent a significant amount of time editing content before handing it off to our producer. While I’m not editing out “uhs” and “ums,” it still takes a significant time commitment.
Early on an issue for the show was my audio quality. My apartment has a concrete floor. It’s not ideal for recording. My Blue Snowball microphone picked up a serious echo. Upgrading to a Blue Yeti helped significantly as I now have better control over gain.
What’s next for DN FM?
We’re going to take January off. While I am proud of the shows we produced so far, I’m not sure that the current format is right for DN. When I decided to take on hosting the podcast, I figured I would continue what I was doing at Signal Tower.
Signal Tower was never a podcast. It was something more permanent—kind of like Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History (although Hardcore History is a great piece of art, I don’t pretend that ST comes close to that). I think most people associate radio shows with podcasts. They focus on current topics. Podcasts aren’t meant to be timeless.
The other part is that Designer News is a community. However, we seldom had guests from the community on the show.
In 2017 we’re going to simplify the DN FM format significantly. We’re going to get together with a member of the community (or two) and pick top topics to discuss. That’s it.
It will be interesting to see how it shapes up.
Advertisers and Fantasy News
Advertisers and Fantasy News were two online communities I had started over the last few years.
Advertisers was a community for creatives working in the advertising industry. It was my first attempt at building an online community. Advertisers was at the fringes of many other communities such as DN, Growth Hackers and Inbound.org. And perhaps, because of that it never gained critical mass.
One of the major features I built into Advertisers was a directory. I wrote a bit about how this turned out in last year’s review:
“My hypothesis was that building a directory would drive search engine traffic to the site—primarily creative agencies looking for more visibility. They’d request to be added, discover the newsboard and become active members.”
“It didn’t quite work out that way. Instead I got a ton of inquiries from spammy SEO agencies trying to boost their backlink profile. No doubt I miscalculated. Creative agencies really don’t understand or care about traffic, while SEO agencies do, but don’t have any creative work.”
In any case I’m retiring from my work on Advertisers. It was a failed experiment. A good one, but failed. I’ve let the domain expire.
My other online community was Fantasy News. The idea was to build a community around fantasy sports. It was also a place that SidePrize could make updates and discuss features.
There’s an entire post I need to write about building online communities—or how not to build them. If you’re looking for successful examples, see what Ryan Hoover has done with Product Hunt or Courtland Allen is doing with Indie Hackers.
The Trustfuel Job Board
I build a job board for people looking for customer success jobs. It needed to be easy to maintain. Plus I only had a few days, so it had to be simple.
Our goal was to familiarize customer success managers with our brand as they found the Job Board through search results. Alternatively, Companies posting job listings would make good leads. Our target customer is someone with a small, but growing CS team.
In my post about building the job board I mentioned adding location tags and a remote option. We still don’t get enough listings for this to make sense.
So far this project seems to have been a success. We rank highly for several search terms. Plus, we’ve had some larger companies like Box post job listings. Maybe they’ll buy software from us one day.
2016 Customer Success Industry Report
Perhaps my favorite project of the year had nothing to do with products. It was Trustfuel’s 2016 Customer Success Report.
In early fall Kayla sent out a survey to about 3,000 customer success professionals. We asked things like “What is your official job title?” and “What are your biggest focuses right now?” I took the responses from that survey and turned it into a 20-something page report.
As someone who generally designs software doing graphic design work is a nice change of pace. All-in-all the report has been one of our most downloaded assets. I’ve received a ton of compliments on the designs.
Other Odds and Ends
With more than 3,000 words this post is starting to get out of hand. I’m also continuing the trend of progressively publishing this review later and later. With that said, I’ll try and be brief in this section.
Occasionally, I’ll get an email asking when the next interview will be published. You might have guessed it from the section about DN FM, but I’m no longer doing interviews.
Countless hours of work have gone into Signal Tower, and I’m proud of it. I’ll continue to pay for hosting and keep the site running in the near future.
I’ve read a considerable amount of books this year. Many of these books were ones that I had read long ago—1984, A Brave New World and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
Most of the books were ones that I had never read before. The notable ones:
The Fountainhead was written before Atlas Shrugged. It focuses on the battle between individualism and collectivism. While thought provoking, it doesn’t feel as epic as Atlas Shrugged.
A quick note on Atlas Shrugged: Read the book with a grain of salt. It’s a book that is fashionable to hate. Most of those who hate it, have not read it.
Ready Player One has been a book I’ve seen praised everywhere. The book provides a lot of nostalgia about video games 80s/90s culture. I found the story a bit underwhelming.
Foundation by Isaac Asimov changed my view of fiction. It’s a collection of short stories that takes place over 400 years. Technological advances rise and fall within warring factions in the universe. I can’t wait to start reading other books in the series.
There were a handful of books that I wanted to get do but didn’t.
Titan, which I’m reading now, follows the life of John D. Rockefeller. I’m a quarter of the way through the book—it goes into deep detail. Most of the focus has been on his childhood and early business ventures.
All I Did Was Ask, which is about Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. I belive that Terry Gross is the best interviewer alive. I’ve listened to countless episodes of Fresh Air and have never heard a boring interview. She asks difficult questions with such a thoughtful curiosity. I’ve studied her in my own effort to become a better interviewer. That’s how this book landed on my list. I can’t wait to get to it.
This blog has served me well. It’s been about three years since I implemented this theme.
I do want to move this site from Digital Ocean to Flywheel. For whatever reason, the one-click WordPress applications on Digital Ocean have issues with memory. About once a month I have to restart the server, because the site is down.
Yes, I’ve added memory swap. I’ve wasted enough time doing sys admin stuff. I’d rather pay a few bucks per month more and not have down time.
I’ve hosted Signal Tower, Trustfuel and the Trustfuel Job Board on Flywheel and have never had an issue. I can’t once remember any of those sites being down.
The big question is should I do a redesign before I make the move? It’s a big project and I honestly don’t belive I’ve got time for it right now.
There have been a few small changes this year. I removed my projects page from the main navigation and replaced it with a library of books I recommend.
The projects section was kind of like a portfolio, but many of the projects were dated. Things like Icon Yard, Advertisers and Fantasy News no longer exist.
I do want to make it easier to sign up for my newsletter. I’ve told myself not to fiddle with it unless I start writing more. We’ll see about that.
Plans for 2017
This year I’d like to write more on this blog. I say that every year, but maybe I can make it happen in 2017. I mentioned it earlier, but I’m pretty active on the Software-as-a-Service community on Quora. Some of those extra posts can be expansions on some of my answers.
In addition to Quora posts, you might find a few product reviews. A project that I restrained myself from starting this year was building a review site. Before I going all in on a new project like that, I figured it would be best to write reviews here.
I spend a lot of time researching before I buy specific products. I think very carefully about what makes a good tumbler or why I like a specific scale.
What else in 2017?
I plan to continue building Trustfuel. It feels like we’re at the cusp of gaining a lot of traction. I’m excited to see what happens this year!