July’s Startup Junkie Underground saw Jim Mooney, founder and CEO of References-Online, telling the story of his business and the influence his customers have had on its development. According to Mooney, he has been able to turn “one good idea” into a successful business employing over 20 people without ever taking on outside financing. With a background in business-to-business sales, Mooney knew firsthand the difficulties in connecting a prospective customer with a reference customer. The task was especially difficult for new companies that might have relatively few customers, as even a customer willing to provide a reference may tire of the process after a few calls. Mooney’s idea was to create recorded references that were easy to access but with less marketing spin than “the glowing testimonials found on the corporate website.” References-Online’s initial product were audio recordings of interviews with reference customers, all conducted by a third party and available online. The interviews were split into short segments of about a minute in length by topic to allow prospective customers easy access to the information (Mooney notes that in seven years no prospect has ever hit the “play all button”), and also allows companies to track what information was of interest to the prospect and tailor future messaging accordingly.
Since this initial idea, Mooney has largely allowed his customers to define the product extensions and new products for his company, which now operates on a Software-as-a-Service model. To Mooney, this customer involvement affords several benefits. First and foremost, it ensures that “someone is willing to pay,” a key criterion Mooney considers internally: “I still think, ‘Would I take money out of my pocket [to buy the product]?’” Customer participation in development also “generates customer engagement” which in turn creates a sense of loyalty and participation, both important in times of frequent belt-tightening. Mooney acknowledged that sometimes coordination of customer feedback into product design can be a logistical challenge, but his company is structured such that those receiving customer feedback (account managers and the implementation team) report into the same person, the VP of Operations, as the product development team.
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Among the innovations suggested by customers have been video interviews, sending the interviewee a webcam instead of using a video crew, offering references in multiple languages, and creating a database service to manage customer references and preferences (when calls are allowed, how many, etc,) for those looking for an actual phone reference. Most recently the company has created a product that allows companies to invite potential customers to look at promotional and marketing materials (e.g. case studies, product specs, etc.) through a portal that provides tracking of the specific materials viewed.
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