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Interviewing Software & IT Leaders
"Get your SaaS product out there and charge money for it […] that will answer the most important question of all: Are users willing to actually pay for it? Is there a commercial life for this product?", Edwin Siebesma, Meeting King.
Edwin Siebesma is the founder and CEO of MeetingKing, a cloud-based meeting management tool. He made a great success out of WinZip, having been involved with this product for more than 10 years, 7 out of which as President and CEO. Of Dutch origin, Edwin has lived and worked in The Netherlands, Germany, Peru, Venezuela, Argentina and currently resides in Connecticut, USA.
Michael Ni: All right, so it's great to continue our interview series with software and IT leaders. We have with us today Edwin Siebesma, founder and CEO of MeetingKing, a cloud-based meeting management tool that has recently reached 10,000 users. Congratulations, Edwin.
Edwin Siebesma: Thank you.
MNI: Before letting Edwin give a quick introduction to himself, let me just add that MeetingKing is one of the winners of the Avangate 2012 Business of Software scholarships, a program aimed at helping accelerate the growth of individual software companies that we did with the Business of Software conference, working together to bring some of these innovative companies forward. It's certainly worth knowing that scholarship applicants were judged against the innovative business models, their entrepreneurial creativity, and unique customer management approaches. With that introduction, Edwin, we'd love to just give you a little bit of time to go ahead and give us a quick introduction to yourself and to MeetingKing.
ES: All right, well, thank you for having me on your show and as you might hear from my accent I'm not from the US, I'm Dutch. I have a business education and I started my general management career, about 20 years ago. I worked in Holland, Germany, Peru, Venezuela, Argentina, and landed 13 years ago here in the US in Connecticut. The reason for moving to Connecticut was the opportunity to join a good friend of mine who was running WinZip at the time. At first I was hesitant because I didn't have any real experience in the software business other than being a user. But more importantly there were 150 different zip utilities listed on download.com-so how could you be successful with that small company, with one little product? Well, as you know, that turned out to be an okay decision and after my friend left 8 months later for personal reasons I eventually took over as president and ran WinZip till the end of 2009. So then I took it easy for a year, I built a house, did some consulting and made a great trip with my family and then at the end of 2010 I started to become serious again and started MeetingKing.
So MeetingKing is a web-based meeting documentation and task management application. It helps you with all the steps before, during, and after the meeting, and to manage the tasks that you created in those meetings. So it helps you to create your agenda, write and distribute your minutes, and all the follow-up that is related with the tasks. A user from the UK called MeetingKing his "assistant from agenda preparation to task completion."
The idea for MeetingKing was born out of frustration with my meetings, both meetings that I attended but also the meetings that I chaired. Discussions would often go off-topic, we would discuss things that had been discussed before, and since everyone's personal filter is different, people left the meeting with different understandings of what was actually decided. And, in addition, task management was generally poor. The task owner might write down his own tasks, but there was no central way of making sure that things would actually get done.
We all know how we're supposed to manage a meeting. For preparation you set an agenda, you distribute it in advance so that everyone can prepare. During the meeting you stay on topic, summarize, make notes, you write down tasks, and you place unrelated new topics that come up in a "parking lot." And then after the meeting you send the minutes and you keep track of your tasks. But Mike, be honest, you know all of this, but do you do this?
MNI: I think we all recognize not only the need but also the great product and business you're building, hence why you were certainly one of our winners when it came to the Business of Software award.
ES: Right, right, it's not that we don't know what we're supposed to do, it's just that there are no tools to do it. Because if you want to do it properly you have to muddle with Word, sending emails, updated Word documents, and send links to attachments that you have in Drop Box, making the minutes in Word, send that out, manage your tasks in a separate task management tool, so it takes a lot of time, time that we don't have, so I tried to build a tool that manages all that for you.
One thing that is important to point out is it doesn't only waste a lot of time but it also ruins morale and culture within a company because people are frustrated when they have to go to yet another meeting and feel that they don't accomplish anything there.
MNI: Given how much time we all spend in meetings, I think this is something that certainly touches a pain point that we all face. But you know, I love your background and we certainly love what you're doing with MeetingKing. And as such, we felt it was just a great time to bring you on, have you share some of your insights with the folks on this podcast.
Which would then bring me to my first question, which is: why SaaS? What attracted you to this business model or this delivery model?
ES: I guess the first thing is of course that you have all the information in one place but you can access it with different devices. You can access it through your PC, through your phone, through an iPad, tablet or whatever. You can share the information because it's not stored on that one local machine like it was in the past. But because it's in the cloud you can share your information, you can work together, on the information. So MeetingKing would not exist without a SaaS model. There was simply no choice.
But there are a couple of other advantages to SaaS that I think are relevant to point out. From the user perspective, signing up for a SaaS application, the initial investment is much lower. And as a user myself, when I built MeetingKing, you now have all these great services: your payment infrastructure, Google Analytics, mail services like Constant Contact, Mad Mimi, MailChimp, the actual servers-Amazon, Linode, Rackspace, all that stuff. In the past, when you wanted to build that, it cost a lot of money.
Now, you can just get started. For the user, there's another advantage that you will always work with the most up-to-date software and when you have a desktop application or server application within your company you occasionally need to update that.
From a developer perspective, there are a couple of other advantages. You do have a limited number of platforms, of course, if you think about it. You still have Firefox, Chrome, Internet Explorer, and then maybe the iPad app, the iPhone app, and Android, but the number of configurations is a lot less than the possibilities with all the different operating systems and if you integrate with Office and you have Office 2003, 2007, 2010, so that is much less with a web app.
And another really big advantage is of course that you get instant feedback. You can see what features users are using, how often, where did they bail out, so you know what is going wrong. Now of course the funny thing is that you see a convergence between desktop and SaaS. There's even a startup, DeskMetrics, that helps desktop software vendors understand how their users are using the application, what features, etc. So SaaS and desktop are coming more and more together.
MNI: Well, certainly I think we're going to continue to see that there are going to be plenty of tools to try to help extend the life of a plethora of software that's still out there and certainly that instant feedback being part of what has been driving some of the success in SaaS, but certainly for MeetingKing the market fit, so the low friction to be able to get started, especially for the easy users that you guys are hitting and have them easily trial and get going, is a great market fit into what you guys are doing.
That said, since you've done on-premise and we've been talking a little about that, as well as your downloadable product with WinZip and now a SaaS product and consultancy in between, you're definitely in an ideal position to give your perspective on how the software buyer has shifted over the years and how those expectations on how they interact with their software, their relationship, has changed, especially as we go into more SaaS-based services. So what do you think?
MNI: Well, certainly the technology's changed and how the customer may even find out about and access that, which I think leads us a little bit to our third question, which is related to some of the disruptions going on around technology stacks and how we get things delivered. What would you say are some of the biggest challenges today and what you're doing to solve them with your business?
ES: I do want to point one more thing out, actually, on your previous question, sorry to go back. But the buyer, I was focused on the technology, and the shift that caused it, but there's also of course a cultural shift from the user's perspective. Ten years ago, nobody would even consider putting confidential information out in the cloud.
MNI: Ah, true enough.
ES: And I think it started with the home user by using Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail and then you've got Gmail. When Salesforce came out first, they had a really hard time convincing large corporations to put their data out there. And now you see more and more trends that people are becoming very comfortable with putting their information out there. I think it's also a cultural thing, in the US I think it's already very accepted. You, Avangate, do a lot of international business, you will also notice that in countries like Germany it's very different and that there the adoption rate of all these web-based applications or services is lower because they're not as comfortable putting their information out in the cloud.
MNI: No, certainly, in fact I was just having a conversation where one of our vendors had hosted on AWS and in the US that was fine. Germany clearly thought even that choice of infrastructure didn't protect privacy enough and they had to re-host and revamp their own platform just so they can better enter the German market. So it's a great point about expectations.
Well, that said, you know, the technology certainly has changed and customer expectations are certainly shifting. But with that, what do you think are some of the biggest challenges today and what are you doing to solve them?
ES: Well, I guess the biggest challenge is probably is an old challenge, but maybe it became more pronounced now with all, with the ease of the technology, so getting a product out there is not a technical question anymore. Of course you still have to build the product, but the technical investment is much more limited than it was 10 years ago. And because of that, the barriers to entry have become so low that a lot of people believe that they have a super idea, that they have the greatest thing since sliced bread and they try to promote that. Fifteen years ago, you could get the press excited about something new, now they get inundated with new products. So what channels do you use to promote your product? And moving from WinZip, the company that I joined in 1999, at a time when WinZip was already a very, very popular product, and there was a tremendous pull for it, to starting a startup is a very humbling experience. At WinZip you had this tremendous pull so all your partners, all your channel partners, were there to help you with fulfillment. So now what I'm trying to do is find channels and partners that help me to push the product. And with push I mean getting it to users' attention, try to make it visible, and then build the product from there.
MNI: Now, we clearly see very similar things as well, you know, I think one of the things we touched upon even just before the call, development is certainly a lot cheaper and there's frameworks to accelerate that delivery, just because you can deliver things online, even if it's downloaded, is just such a low barrier that the ability to get to market has now been not the issue. In fact, app stores, to a certain extent, all they do is still deliver. They don't help you distribute, get eyeballs, get people to come to your product and try it out. And that has become the new problem, for sure.
ES: Yeah, that is also, when you work with channel partners, it is important that you have channel partners that actually create demand, and not just fulfill. There's definitely a need for that as well, but not when you're a startup. So at the beginning, it is really hard and it's very important that you do get users to build that product, to fine-tune that product. That's why I'm so happy that after 8 months we recently passed the 10,000-user mark. I have a bunch of very hardcore users and they're really helping me to make this a great solution. And once you have this great solution, then of course everything will fall together and it will spread.
MNI: Well, certainly your model, where the meeting coordinator will actually invite others and expose you to other people, either in their organization or people they work with, certainly creates a built-in viral nature to your product. So like you said, for you there's the initial distribution, but there are other angles as well that help accelerate your growth. So it's a very cool model.
ES: Absolutely, and I do see the workings of that viral aspect to it, that people get invited by a supplier or by a partner that they do business with, and then after having had a couple of meetings they think, "Hey, you know, this is actually pretty cool, maybe I should use it for my organization."
MNI: And that instant feedback is great. But you know, at the same time, you have this pressure, we talked about a level of competition, because of the fact it's easier to get new products out there so many more people can develop stuff. Can you talk about some of the pressures to keep changing and in a word, the pressure to innovate and what do you have to do about that?
ES: Well, there are two aspects. One is of course because of the low barrier of entry, there are so many new entries that might be disruptive and that might get into your space. So that's one thing. The whole development cycle is short, so your competitors might come, might quickly come with a new feature, so that's from the competitive point of view. The other thing that you really have to keep an eye on is of course the technical enhancements and the changes that are occurring in our environment. As I pointed out before, the speed is so high, I mean who would have thought that we now would all have tablets? Four years ago, netbooks were the hottest thing ever, and I don't think you see them anymore.
MNI:I think we pretty much call that one a mistake, where tablets should have been in that category in the first place.
ES: Well, yes, but I don't know how many millions they sold of them.
MNI: True, true.
ES: And I guess and they might have been still very popular if the iPad hadn't come out. And the iPad, and now also to a certain extent other Android tablets as well, are very commonplace for consumers, and we slowly see the trend into businesses. So I'm really curious what's going to happen with the new tablet from Microsoft. Is that going to go the way of Zune, or is it going to be a very successful new interface?
MNI: You're right, and these are decisions you have to make bets on as well.
ES: Yeah, I mean, and one of the very difficult bets that you have to make as a developer is of course, am I going native or am I going to make an HTML5 interface that works on all these devices? There are definitely advantages to going native and certain applications when you use a lot of the features that are in the tool you have to, but for a tool like MeetingKing I think HTML is perfectly fine, and that also offers of course the great possibility that people can bring their Nook or their Kindle Fire to a meting and use that to look at the agenda and the minutes, etc.
MNI: And certainly, we see a lot of pressure with customers that we work with as well, to try and make a decision, you know, the HTML5 being very attractive, especially since it allows them to also bypass some of the fees associated with some of the platforms that we've been talking about as well, but at the same time if we turn that around, also, to just all these pressures and put you a little bit on the spot and say: if there was one piece of advice to give your fellow software entrepreneurs, what would it be?
ES: Just get going. Just do it. Get started. Obviously I was still running WinZip at the time, but I've been thinking about a meeting application for a long time before I started it. And at a certain point it just comes down to do it and get it out there. Get a minimum viable product, don't start the way I did. I still was in this WinZip mindset where if we made a little mistake and we released the product, a week later you would have a million mistakes. That's not the case when you get started. So get your first product out there, have very limited functionality.
And it's fantastic if people come to me and say, "You know, it's nice, but I wish it could do x, y, or z." That is great, because you know that they like the core and that there is a need for these features that you probably already thought of yourself anyway, but now you have justification to actually add them to the product. In the beginning I had a lot of performance problems, not a lot, but the server would occasionally go down. And it was great when people wrote in with an angry email because for me, that was proof that they were relying on the service.
So if you want to get started, go to lean startup meetings and find them in your area, go to meetup.com. Buy the book The Lean Startup by Eric Ries or Nail It, Then Scale It by Nathan Furr and Paul Ahlstrom. I have to say that I actually like that second book a bit better, the title says it all, you first have to get your product right, and you can only do that by getting feedback from your users, so you have to get it out there. Maybe it also helps that Paul [Ahlstrom] signed up for MeetingKing. I don't know.
MNI: You know, it's all about loving your customers. It's all good.
ES: But the thing you have to keep in mind is don't make the perfect first version, because you're not getting it right anyway. Your users will give you feedback and they will tell you what they would like to accomplish, but they don't know exactly how to implement it. And that is your role as entrepreneur. You have to figure out how you can help those users accomplish that particular goal.
MNI: I love it. It's something that we all actually need to embrace and we continually embrace it here as well.
ES: And the other thing that you will probably like for your company is getting it out is not only limited to your product, but it also means getting it out in a commercial form. So charge money for it. The guys from 37signals [Jason Fried and David Heinmeier Hanson] say that too, in their book Rework. Not a very scientific book, but really to the point and I love reading it. Get paying users because that will answer the most important question of all: Are users willing to actually pay for it? Is there a commercial life for this product? And the other thing is users that pay are also much more committed and much more vocal and say "Hey, this is not good," or "You have to change this" or "If would be nice if you did this." Their commitment is much higher. So get it out there and try to charge money for it.
MNI: You know, I love what you say. It's one of the comments I always give to product managers who work for me. The question they always used to go to is, "How do you feel about this feature, how do you feel about that?" I always tell them that's the wrong question. Because everyone's going to go, "That's cool, that looks really great." The question is really, "Would you buy this if I gave you this?"
MNI: Then the conversation gets much more serious and much more focused about what they actually really value versus what's cool. And I think that's a great piece of advice.
With that, let's just go to one final question. You won the Avangate scholarship in October and part of the prize was to attend the Business of Software conference. We'd love for you to share with us one or two of your takeaways from that event.
ES: Yeah. Well, first of all, let me stress that winning the scholarship was great for two reasons. First, as a recognition for MeetingKing of course, but also because it gave me the opportunity to attend this great conference. It's a fantastic event where you can share experiences with other software managers and entrepreneurs and the sessions are very high level and very inspiring. So if you are in this space or you're considering doing a startup, you should definitely attend this conference.
As I said, all the sessions were of a very high level, so it's kind of hard to pick two things out of it, but one of the things that stood out was that instant success is rare and to reach that, to change something to your product and you think "Ah, this is the silver bullet, now it's going to happen." That doesn't exist. It's just a combination of many small improvements. Gail Goodman of Constant Contact had a great presentation over that, to find your position in the market and your way to approach the market.
The other takeaway was that there's a lot of talk about the minimum viable product, but it's not only the product. There was a presentation about minimum badass user by Kathy Sierra, and it was a great presentation, it really got me thinking at a different angle to my product and the combination of the product and the users. I know this may sound a little bit cryptic if I tell you this without having been there, so the Business of Software conference has a website and these presentations either are already posted there or will be posted there. And you may want to check those out. Learn what I learned when I was there.
MNI: We certainly love this event and it's one of the few events that's really focused not on the technical side but on the business side and how to think about it whether you're a small or even a mid-sized software company and how do you actually really embrace some of the changes that are going on and some of the philosophy around delivering software, digital services, cloud services. And I think it's a great conference and one of the reasons we partnered with Mark and those guys over at Business of Software to put together the scholarship.
That said, Edwin, I really want to thank you for your time and your insight. I certainly enjoyed the conversation, and with that let me go ahead and end this interview and welcome those who are listening to the podcast to look at the Avangate site and find other great interviews that we have, whitepapers, webinars, resources, as well as feel free to carry on the conversation at our blog at avngate.com/blog. With that, see you in the next interview series, and Edwin, again, thank you very much for your time and your insight.
ES: Thank you very much, I really enjoyed it.
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