5 things to do if you let a customer down

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Our product marketing manager was seeing some issues within our application the first few days of February 2015. At the end of the first week he called me to talk about it.

“Something weird is happening,” he said. “Our activation rate fell by almost half!”

Our product, PandaDoc, is a document automation and management tool for sales teams. We recognize an “activation” when a customer sends their first document.

“I’ve tested the flow with the developers. We haven’t discovered any bugs but will keep trying to find out what is going on.”

A couple of days later, we noticed that one of the web hooks from our billing provider (another SaaS company) was working strangely and returned undocumented subscription states. We were relying on this web hook to grant trials for our customers. By the time the issue was fixed, hundreds of trials had been lost as they weren’t able to send docs.

I sent an email to their CEO asking why this had happened and what they were going to do about it. I wasn’t really mad at this point as I understand things like this happen. I was hoping, however, to recover at least a portion of the damage done to us by, perhaps, being compensated for two months of free service. And hopefully a kind note saying they were sorry and it wouldn’t happen again. I felt that would have been fair.

The response I received was a long drawn-out explanation of the technical reason for the bug. The CEO also stated that it was a “light bug” and offered a $300 coupon code for our troubles.

Our discussion continued and then I received this response:

As far as bugs go, you have to know as a software maker, that there are shades of bugs. I’ve seen the open bug lists at places like Rackspace, Zendesk, Heroku, Auth.Net, Braintree, etc., and they are long lists that remain open for years. Bugs have to be triaged and prioritized just like anything else where you have limited resources and unlimited tasks.

This outraged me! We were paying this company a five-figure amount annually and were relying on their API to do business. This “light bug” cost us a few thousand if not tens of thousands of dollars in lost opportunities and time!

At this point, I felt it didn’t make sense to continue the conversation. As a former software developer, I understood where he was coming from. As a customer, however, I began to loathe him and his company and was ready to go on a warpath posting negative comments all over the web.

Instead, I took a deep breath and distanced myself from the situation, deciding to turn it into a positive learning experience. I began thinking about all of the customers my company had let down because of bugs and decided to write this blog post as a reminder for SaaS execs on how to properly deal with the people who are keeping your business alive.

Sometimes we screw up. Depending on the issue and the use of our product, we cause slight or severe damage in lost time, productivity, opportunities, etc. But as much as it is important to prevent issues from happening, it is also important to resolve what already happened in a proper way. Here are five tips on how to properly handle issues to limit further damage to clients.

1. Respond quickly

In SaaS, bugs can affect many customers at once. This makes handling affected customers really complicated. Nevertheless, you still have to stay on top of the issue.

It’s actually best, if possible, to email a client even before they’ve discovered an issue. That way they’ll be prepared, will feel comfortable knowing that your team is already working on resolving the problem, and will plan their actions accordingly moving forward.

If they discover the problem before you do, you should figure out a way to respond to every single customer affected in less than an hour. Calling your clients is obviously the best and most personal option. If there are too many customers to call and respond to individually, mass email to let them know you’re aware of the problem, that you’re sorry for any inconvenience it has caused, and that you are working as quickly as possible to fix the problem. Then get your team involved in responding to each complaint individually. Tools like Zendesk or Intercom help a lot when you need to contact a lot of people.

2. Apologize

People want to be empathized with. Apologizing and offering understanding will help resolve half of the issue and can calm a customer down a lot. Your clients should also feel you really mean it. That is why calling is better than email.

Try putting yourself in the customer’s shoes and looking at things from their perspective.

It’s imperative that you connect with your customers before they cancel their subscriptions, look at alternatives to your service, or leave negative comments or ratings about your company.

3. Never blame the customer

Some problems will obviously be completely your fault, but in other cases you’ll find the issue is a grey area. As the developer, however, it’s your responsibility to build software that minimizes user errors as much as possible.

This is a no-brainer, but in any case, never insinuate the customer was in error. Proving them wrong will be of no service to you. Even if the client agrees with your reasoning, they will probably lose some of the loyalty and respect you worked hard to earn.

If it so happens that the issue is the customer’s fault, still apologize for what happened. Politely suggest the correct way to do things in the future. More often than not, they will realize that it was really their mistake. On your end, follow up to make sure a similar problem doesn’t happen again and will not become a recurring one for users.

4. Help to recover the damage

If your company paid for all of the damages your bugs or downtime caused, it would go bankrupt very quickly. That is why a majority of the SaaS products have no SLAs (service-level agreements) in their terms of service. But taking some responsibility and compensating a client for the damage done to their business could go a long way in preserving the relationship.

How can you make it up to the clients after the problem is fixed? Some may not demand anything, but others may ask for a remedy. Negotiate with them. Offer your premium service at a discounted rate or month(s) of your subscription free of charge to ameliorate the situation.

This could affect your bottom line in the very short term, but it’s better to lose one month of revenue from a client than to lose them altogether to a competitor. This also helps go a long way with customer retention and loyalty.

Throwing in some swag might be a good idea too.

5. Follow up

It’s really important to follow up with a client a few days after the issue is resolved. By that time, the steam coming out of their ears has hopefully dissipated and they are willing to have a meaningful conversation with you aimed at rebuilding the relationship.

Apologize (again) and remind them of all of the things you’ve done to make sure the issue won’t come up again. Your clients will appreciate how much you care and that you’ve taken the necessary actions to ensure that they will be happy using your product going forward.

There is a reason the word “service” is a part of the SaaS acronym. Building a relationship with the client is of utmost importance. Highly regarded and long lasting companies focus on this very thing. Don’t underestimate how significant it is.

Sure, things happen. But we have to make certain we do our best to preserve the relationships.

Mikita Mikado is a founder of PandaDoc, document automation software for sales teams. PandaDoc is a must-have “documents add-on” for your CRM that helps to quickly assemble quotes and proposals, get electronic signatures on contracts, and track clients activity on presentations.

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How To Sell Your Company Without A Buyer

soldtag Conventional wisdom is that startups are bought, not sold. The logic follows that no matter how much an entrepreneur wants to sell a company, there needs to be an eager buyer and no amount of seller desire can manufacture one. Some people interpret this wisdom to mean that they should spend no time getting to know buyers and when a large company is ready to buy their startup, they’ll… Read More

The Pirate Bay opens up registration to new users, months after coming back online

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It’s been a rough five months for file sharing website the Pirate Bay and today the site is a little bit closer to its normal state.

The website has re-opened registration to new accounts today, for the first time since the site came back online in late JanuaryPirate BayThe torrent sharing site was taken offline in December after police raided the site’s data center in Sweden. The site was offline for nearly two months before it reappeared with a Phoenix in place of the traditional pirate ship logo and a slimmed down site. Though you could still search for and download torrents on the Pirate Bay, not all components of the site were fully functional— including new account registration.

New account registration had been shut down temporarily to stem the creation of fake accounts, according to TorrentFreak. The Pirate Bay team has since worked towards securing the site, bringing back moderators to help clear it of downloadable malware.

Now that TPB is nearly back to its pre-raid state, it’s ready to onboard new users — a function it will need to return to its previous glory as the top file sharing site. Since its time offline many users have turned to other providers for torrents.

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Startups, prioritize growth (but not at the expense of profitability)

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Should burgeoning companies focus on growth or profitability? This classic, critical question continues to challenge entrepreneurs and investors alike.

Since growth is such an important factor in determining the value of a business, one of the most important goals for private equity investors and advocates of value creation like myself is to help our portfolio companies accelerate their growth.

To demonstrate just why growth is such a great priority, here’s a table that illustrates the impact of growth on valuation on two indexes:

  • NASDAQ 100 Index (100 largest non-financial companies traded on the NASDAQ)
  • NYSE Software and Services (90 software and services companies traded on NYSE)

We divided the indexes of the top 20 percent of companies according to growth and the 20 percent slowest growing companies in the last year and in the last three years. Then we checked the multiples of these data sets.


Above: Source: CapitalIQ (December 2014); Definitions: EV, EBITDA,P/E, CAGR

As the chart demonstrates, the top 20 percent growing companies got a significant premium in their value. For example, the top 20 percent growing companies in the last three years traded under the NYSE Software and Services index were valued at 7.1 times their revenues, while the slowest growing companies were traded at 80 percent of their revenues.

That said, as important as growth is to the valuation of a company, it’s not the only thing that matters. What investors and other shareholders are eventually left with are the companies’ profits, so all efforts made to boost growth should be driven by the ultimate goal of maximizing profits.

Sometimes shareholders are willing to turn a blind eye and invest in companies even during periods when they are not profitable, because they believe that these companies are compromising on short-term profitability in order to invest in technology and operations that will enhance and accelerate their long-term growth and market dominance. But despite their willingness to “forgive” temporary lapses in profitability (even in promising companies), investors still need to see a path to long-term profitability.

A good example of such a company is Amazon.com (refer to the five-year share price performance graph below).

Amazon 5-year price performance

Above: Amazon 5-year share price performance. Source: Yahoo Finance, Jan. 2015.

The company’s share price saw a significant rise as long as Amazon’s revenues continued to grow by 20 to 40 percent annually, and many investors were willing to look past its margin issues. Now that the company’s growth is cooling down, many investors are looking again at profit margins that remain very low (less than 1 percent of operating margin). Over the 12 months ending September, 2014, the company’s revenues reached over $85 billion and the company’s losses were over $200 million.

Despite huge revenues, as the Yahoo Finance graph above shows, the share price has declined by approximately 25 percent since the beginning of the year.

So how does profitability impact the company’s valuation?

The table below demonstrates how valuation is impacted by both revenue growth and profitability (EBITDA margin):


Above: Source: CapitalIQ (December 2014); Definitions: EV, EBITDA,P/E, CAGR

We took the same NYSE Software and Services dataset presented above and checked the EV/REV multiples for different growth rates in the last three years and different EBITDA margins.

As you can see, profitability impacts the valuation but mainly for companies with more moderate growth rates. For example, companies that grew between 5 and 15 percent in the last three years were valued at only 1.4 times their revenues when their EBITDA margin was below 10 percent vs. 3.5x their revenues when the EBITDA margin was over 20 percent. This magnitude is less viable in companies that have fast growth, such as the Amazon example.

In summary, it’s a good thing to strive for fast growth for your company, but always aim to stay “lean and mean” to reach significant profitability once you reach scale. This will prove to be especially important should your growth rates cool down.

Amit Ashkenazi is Principal of Viola Private Equity.


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Cleantech Is Dead, Long Live Cleantech

cleantechdead I’m old enough to remember when the smartest folks on Sand Hill Road thought cleantech was going to be the next big thing. When venture dollars into the “sector” (really, a loose collection of very different markets and technologies, bundled together under a convenient label) were growing by leaps and bounds year over year. When the New York Times declared “Capitalism… Read More

WhatsApp now has 800M monthly active users

WhatsApp Calls
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Messenger app WhatsApp now has 800 million monthly active users, says founder Jan Koum.

The app is up 100 million users since January, when it hit 700 million monthly active users. The app has been expanding rapidly. Just a month ago Google Play showed that WhatsApp had been downloaded on Android over a billion times. With this type of growth the company is poised to hit a billion monthly active users by the end of the year.

Recently WhatsApp expanded its service beyond text messaging to include voice calling.

Facebook acquired the popular messaging app for $22 billion in cash and stock in February of last year. The company has invested not only in WhatsApp, but its own messenger, which recently surpassed 600 million users.

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With Hykoo, You Can Combine Video And Text To Create 12-Second Short Films

Hykoo Despite all the mobile video apps out there, Gary Krieg said there’s still something missing — a need he’s trying to fill with his new app Hykoo. See, Vine has created its own set of stars, and Meerkat and Periscope offer new platforms for livestreaming, but Krieg pitched Hykoo as an attempt to build an Instagram for video (which, yes, Instagram itself is also doing ).… Read More

Wallet Wars: The fight to dominate payments is just beginning

Star Wars
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Two weeks ago, I walked into Starbucks and ordered a black coffee – not because I wanted to have an unimaginably awkward enlightening conversation about race relations with the barista, but because Starbucks’ mobile payment system fascinates me, and Dunkin’ Donuts was too far away.

During the company’s earnings call on January 22, CEO Howard Schultz told investors that 13 million customers use Starbucks’ mobile apps, they complete over 7 million mobile transactions per week, and they represent 16 percent of total revenue. That’s impressive.

However, Starbucks’ success reminds me of AOL, Netscape, and Napster in the early days of the Internet. Their digital “wallet” has the trappings of an early technology champion that will fall prey to companies that think bigger and execute later. A world with one mobile payment app per company would be unfeasible and inconvenient for consumers, no matter how many Frappuccino’s they guzzle per week. Don’t believe for a second that Apple, Google, Samsung, PayPal, Alibaba and the other Wallet Warriors will tolerate a payment ecosystem in which every major company processes its own transactions.

They all want a cut. Just look at the acquisitions in 2015. Samsung picked up LoopPay, the “most accepted mobile wallet on the planet.” PayPal snatched Paydiant, a white label platform for mobile payments, loyalty, offers and more. Google nabbed SoftCard (formerly and tragically “Isis”), an NFC mobile wallet that will be discontinued and integrated into Google Wallet.

Welcome to Wallet Wars. The fight to dominate the payments galaxy is just beginning. Predicting a winner at this point is like predicting that Google would dominate search when middle school teachers were still telling students to use Ask Jeeves. However, we can still examine how this war will change the payment ecosystem. The three key pieces – the emerging tech ‘solar systems’, the rebranding of finance, and the future invisibility of payments – are already apparent. It’s time to connect these pieces.

The Amazon Model and New Tech Empires

Ask an entrepreneur why Amazon took a chance on Fire Phone and consequently hemorrhaged $170 million in Q3 2014 alone, and you’ll hear that Amazon wanted to “dominate consumer mindshare.” You could say the same about all the major tech companies that have transformed into holding companies. Google.com is a search engine – Google Inc. is a holding company. Facebook.com is a social network – Facebook, Inc. is a holding company. They are all creating their own solar systems where consumers and businesses can get everything they need and blissfully ignore the rest of the galaxy. To do this effectively, you need your own payment system.

As long as companies are dependent on the credit card ecosystem, they are doomed to lose roughly 2 percent of every transaction to the Visa-MasterCard-tel. This is why Wal-Mart’s Merchant Customer Exchange (MCX) gave Apple Pay the bird and started CurrentC, its own mobile payment service. Why pay Apple (or credit card companies) when you don’t need to? If you have enough customers and the budget to build a bomb-proof mobile wallet, it pays to win back that 2 percent.

The difference between the tech companies and Starbucks is that tech players will not settle with dominating payments in their own solar system. They’re all confident they can innovate – or acquire – more effectively than their peers. The Wallet Wars are all about maximizing the number of people who use your wallet and maximizing the number of transactions it processes.

The Rebranding of Finance

Credit and bank cards are the staple of our current payment system – they are somewhere between the 2,700 year-old payment technology we still use (a.k.a. coins) and new mobile wallets we’re testing. Consumers would love to stop entering credit card numbers with every online purchase, but the airline miles, cashback, and services are worth it. Credit cards appear in the major digital wallets, but increasingly, they operate behind the scenes. Particularly for millennials, who will adopt digital wallets as they enter their prime spending years, the credit cards will become invisible. The payment ecosystem will undergo a rebranding.

To understand this point, visualize the payment process on Amazon. When you check out for the first time, you create an account and you enter credit cards, debit cards, bank accounts, or Amazon Store Cards. Maybe you register for Prime to get the 2-day shipping and streaming service. Then, you rely on one-click ordering, which hides the credit card branding. Ditto with PayPal – once you enter your bank or credit card info, you stop seeing it. In your mind, you bought with PayPal, not your Visa Sapphire Preferred.

So with enough mobile wallet adoption, especially among millennials who claim to hate the banks, the credit card-tel will lose center stage. Visa, MasterCard, Chase, and Bank of America could launch their own mobile wallets. They could even achieve technological parity with the tech companies if they make the right acquisition. However, once Apple, Google, Amazon, etc. start offering credit card-style perks without the application process, brutal APRs, and harsh penalties, why would a millennial want the card? Right now, Visa and MasterCard rule because they are accepted everywhere. We don’t have long to wait before digital wallets are as widely accepted.

Would You Just Tell Us Who Wins?    

Nope, no one can name the winner of the Wallet Wars. Right now, we’re watching the AOLs, Netscapes, and Napsters of the mobile payment revolution duke it out. They may start the fire, but someone else is likely to grab the torch. It will all come down to adoption, security, and “invisibility.”

Adoption is the foremost challenge because if you can’t sell consumers and businesses on a wallet, you’re doomed. I consider 2015 payment technology’s “college experimentation” year because consumers are still willing to try everything out. Swiping with Apple Pay or Samsung Pay is a novelty. They’re not real wallet replacements yet – you still need to carry your driver’s license, health insurance card, etc. – but they have to start building the user base. The ease of the payment system and the availability of merchants that accept it will influence whether consumers stick or churn. This is one reason Apple Pay can play “frenemies” with the credit card companies they probably hope to usurp one day. Right now, Apple needs their reach.

Security fiascos will end several digital wallets. When so many options exist, why trust your cards with the guys who can’t protect them? During its beta run in October, CurrentC was breached, but the hackers only stole email addresses. If a wallet loses credit card information, consumers will leave in droves.

The winning wallets will do to commerce what Uber has done to transportation: They will make payments feel “invisible.” Once you give Uber credit card info, you’re done. Besides booking and riding in a car, you take no additional action to complete a transaction. The best digital wallets will figure out how to do that in all brick-and-mortar and digital environments. No wallet is close.

The Most Invisible Wallet Wins

The rise of tech solar systems is the source of the digital wallet revolution. The rebranding of the financial ecosystem will consummate it. The most invisible wallet will win the wars.

No one needs to control the whole galaxy just yet. The wallet warriors are going to find users among existing customers that already connect and consume on their platform.

In the meantime, all the business that aren’t in the Wallet Wars would do best to stay above the fray. Don’t spend millions changing your POS system just to accommodate one mobile wallet. It could be gone in a year. NFC is all the rage, but someone will inevitably improve upon it. No API isn’t going to solve the conflict.

So the Wallet Wars are all about adoption and not screwing up, to put it simply. You just have to get people using your payment system in your own ecosystem, like Starbucks has. Maybe Schultz has plans to go SaaS and sell mobile payment tech to other companies … but I doubt it. Their system will begin to look too niche – it will need to integrate with one of the wallet warriors. Like with Star Wars, you can count on a lot of sequels. In the Wallet Wars though, the characters will only get better. May the Force be with them all.

Ralph Dangelmaier is CEO of BlueSnap.

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We’re not talking about what VR is doing to our eyes … and our brains

Immersed in a virtual world.
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OK, so it’s pretty funny seeing someone fall over after trying a virtual reality headset for the first time. But with companies like Facebook, Valve, and Sony all pushing to bring their own VR solutions to a mainstream market — worth an estimated $30 billion by 2020 — maybe we should have more concern for what the technology is actually doing to our bodies and minds.

It’s true that every new technology comes with new fears — and often they’re completely unfounded. Some folks blamed the wireless radio for distracting children from their school work back in 1936, and Edison’s first electric power plant ran for two years before the American public actually trusted it.

But VR is a technology that will shortly explode into the mainstream — with people potentially immersing themselves for significant parts of their day — and there’s not been much discussion about the potential physical and mental health ramifications.

So what are the potential risks, and how real are they? I’ve picked through some of the academic papers on VR and talked to experts across a variety of fields to find out more.

Focusing on a virtual world

In order to understand some of the potential problems with VR, it’s important to appreciate the biological mechanisms at work when you view a stereoscopic image.

Looking at any stereoscopic display is counterintuitive. That’s because there are two mechanisms at work when you look at something in the real world, and these need to follow different rules for VR.

In the real world, our eyes work to both focus and converge on a point in space when we look toward it — it’s a natural reflex called the accommodation-convergence reflex.

“The distance you need to converge your eyes to and the distance you need to focus your eyes to are the same distance,” explained Marty Banks, professor of optometry, vision science, psychology, and neuroscience at UC Berkeley in a phone call. “The brain has coupled these two response together — that’s why it’s called vergence-accommodation coupling. It makes total sense in the world we live in.”

Oculus Rift is heading to the mainstream soon, thanks to massive financial backing from Facebook.

Above: Oculus Rift is heading to the mainstream soon, thanks to massive financial backing from Facebook.

Image Credit: Flickr/Maurizio Pesce

With VR, though, our eyes always focus on a fixed point while trying to converge or diverge toward objects that can appear either nearby or distant. This mismatch is known as the vergence-accommodation conflict, and it’s the reason many people experience visual discomfort when using a VR.

“We believe the brain has to fight against its normal coupling to handle that problem, and that makes some people uncomfortable,” said Banks. “That makes some people’s eyes tired. There are even some cases where it makes people nauseous; it gives them a headache.”

Banks told me about claims — largely unfounded so far, in his opinion — that people might experience long-lasting changes in the coupling between vergence and accommodation due to VR headsets. “I don’t believe that,” he said.

“Those couplings are fairly plastic. You can learn to change those relationships. The one you have naturally, I think you’ll just go back to that when you take the headset off and look around the room and give your eyes a second to adjust.”

But our experience of VR so far hasn’t included sustained use of HMDs for extended periods of time, especially by a large community. We’re heading into unknown territory, and even experts like Banks can’t be sure what we’ll find.

The Oculus Rift headset.

Above: The Oculus Rift headset.

Heading down the rabbit hole

“Whenever you introduce something that is new that people might be using for a long period of time, obviously you should be on the lookout for potential problems,” said Banks. “That’s just being sensible.”

I asked whether using VR systems for long periods of time could result in long-term vergence-accommodation problems.
“Well, we don’t really know,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a smoking gun out there, but what we don’t know is long-term use — let’s say 12 hours a day — would that have any long-term effect? I doubt it, but I can’t prove that to you scientifically.

“I think that’s something we want to keep an eye on.”

Development builds of Oculus Rift have been around since late 2012, and early adopters have already reported ocular problems with extended use. While these reports aren’t especially widespread, they’re enough to raise concerns.

Reddit user Abore reported persistent eye after using the Oculus headset. “My left eye has been giving me shit due to the Rift,” he said. “Specifically the muscles behind it. Definitely eye strain and it persists hours after I take the Rift off. I’m taking a week off to let it recover.”

And Lee Hutchinson of Ars Technica noted sustained visual effects after long sessions playing Elite: Dangerous on Oculus Rift’s DK2 build.

Playing Elite: Dangerous with the Oculus Rift.

Above: Playing Elite: Dangerous with the Oculus Rift.

Image Credit: Flickr/-JvL-

“With the Rift fitted properly against my face,” said Hutchinson, “the normally too-tiny-to-see pixel grid of the display is clearly visible, and staring at that grid for hours at a time is burning the pattern into my retinas, like a Pac-Man maze making a permanent impression on a CRT monitor.

“I can still faintly see this grid right now when I squeeze my eyes shut, in spite of the fact that I’ve had a solid night’s sleep. It’s superimposed over the usual retina noise I get when I close my eyes—or perhaps it’s better to say that it’s a very prominent part of the noise.”

Newer versions of the Oculus headset have a higher resolution display, but this is still an interesting side-effect of sustained use. I asked Marty Banks about it, but he couldn’t nail down what the cause could have been.

“You could get an after-image,” he said, “but when you get an after-image and then look out at an illuminated world they usually go away within a few seconds to, at most, a minute or so. That sounds — if it persisted longer than a few minutes — that it’s not an after image. That strikes me as odd — I’ve never seen that myself.

“I’m sure he’s not making it up, but I don’t have a bucket to put that in.”

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