Recently I was waiting on hold for over 10 minutes to make an appointment with my physical therapist. Just at that perfect moment of boredom, an unknown number shows up on my phone. Of course, I fear that it’s another economics student in need of a tutor. If I’m correct, I’ll probably end up playing phone tag for the next two days before I can get them to schedule a study session. It’s times like these I can’t help but think why can’t we just schedule all our appointments online?
It’s no secret that I have an obsession with simple technologies solving complex problems, like the telephone. As we embark on the 21st century, you’d think something like online scheduling should be the norm but instead it remains an unfulfilled promise of the future and therefore a pleasant surprise when you find a business that uses it. It shouldn’t be that hard, and online scheduling apps and software do exist. Yet, too many business owners are still unaware of these tools and/or the full benefits of using them.
So in the spirit of Startup Weekend, it would only be appropriate to interview a startup whose mission is to make the world a better place through online scheduling; I am pleased to introduce Felix Livni and Lowell Manners the founders of Schedulista.
You are both ex Googlers with over a two decades worth of engineering experience between the two of you. You could easily create anything you want, so why online scheduling?
Felix: Lowell and I had been talking about doing something together for awhile. We were tossing around ideas and we knew that we wanted to do something for small businesses. We also knew that we would have to be bootstrapped, we knew that we wanted something that had a minimal network effect, and that was neither so new that it would be a huge risk, nor so so established that we would face serious competition.
Lowell: We also knew that in the future everyone would schedule appointments online. But, in 2011, very few businesses were. It is like e-commerce was in 1996. Almost no businesses sold goods online in ‘96, but everyone knew it was inevitable. So, yes, Online scheduling was the perfect fit for us, it fit both our philosophical and business points of view…
What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about scheduling and/or your customers?
Felix: Every service business schedules appointments. But each type of business does it differently. Dentists don’t schedule the same way as accountants. Personal trainers, hairstylists, acupuncturists — they’re all subtly different. This wasn’t obvious to us in the beginning. It is easy to think you can simplify an existing business process. You can’t.
What is been the biggest challenge that you faced in the first year of business?
Felix: Getting our first 50 customers. We launched after just two months with a minimal product. We knew we would learn the most by talking with prospects, so we decided we would cold call businesses rather than use Google ads or some other advertising mechanism. We built a tool to scrape the top massage therapist businesses from Yelp. Lowell and I called 1600 businesses in Chicago, Los Angeles, Austin, and Memphis. We talked to 90 massage therapists, and signed up 20 new accounts. We then built an auto-dialer using Twilio, and connected our home-grown CRM to auto-track calls, time spent, etc. and hired a full-time salesperson. We reached 50 customers within the month.
What is the biggest challenge you face now?
Felix: Finding the right people to hire as we grow the business. This has been especially challenging since we are hiring for positions outside of our core expertise.
Your toughest business decision was?
Felix: Last year we were approached by Locaweb. Locaweb is not well known in the United States, but in Brazil they are a name brand. They are the Go Daddy of Brazil. They host more than 1 out of every 4 Brazilian websites. They wanted to partner with Schedulista to bring online scheduling to Brazil. We had to decide if we wanted to spend two months localizing, rebranding and integrating our software with Locaweb. Two months is a significant opportunity cost for a startup in its first year of business. We went back and forth. It was obviously going to be defocusing. There was also significant financial risk before the deal was penned. We had to pay two legal teams, one in the US and one in Brazil. But, an influx of cash as well as the possibility of lots of revenue later sounded pretty good. In the end, we had developed a great relationship with the management team at Locaweb, and figured it was just too exciting to turn down. Looking back, it was the right decision. Today you can buy Marcadata — online scheduling software for the Brazilian market powered by Schedulista.
How did your friends and family react when you started your business?
Lowell: Both my parents have been self employed for their entire adult lives. To them, starting a company is much more reasonable than having a boss. I’ll never forget a Thanksgiving 7 years ago, just after I had started working at Microsoft, my dad asked very earnestly: “So at Microsoft… You have a boss right? Do they tell you what to do? What if you don’t want to do it? How does that work?”. My parents saw me starting a company as me coming to my senses.
Felix: I told my wife. We went for a long walk. That night we sat down to go over our financials and to create a budget for the next year. Her one request: That we wouldn’t actually eat Top Ramen for dinner every night. I assumed my parents would be a harder sell. I was leaving what had been my dream job for uncertainty and risk. And, at that point, Lowell and hadn’t even decided what our new company would do. But, my parents surprised me. They were excited without questions or fears about risk or outcome. I do remember they were most interested in who I had chosen as my business partner. My friends, though, were baffled.
Have you always wanted to start your own business?
Lowell: When I was 10 I played piano on the street for money. In high school, I started a business writing guides for online games – less profitable than being a cute kid busking! So I guess the answer is “yes,” I always wanted to start my own business. I was very lucky to find a fantastic business partner, which made taking the leap a no brainer.
Felix: Like Lowell, my parents owned their own business. Growing up, my dad was full of a million business ideas. Car windows that auto-tinted when you parked, gift cards that would sing to you, etc. and he was always coming up with plans about how to put his least favorite businesses out of business. But it did take me a while to realize that running a company was actually something that I wanted to do myself.
You’re different from the other online scheduler companies because….
Felix: Better product. Our product is easier to use and has deeper scheduling features. Oh, and our Google calendar sync actually works. We think it goes without saying that having the best product is the most important thing, so that’s what we focus on.
Is there anything else besides having a better product that sets you apart?
Felix: Customer service. Small businesses are different than consumers. Consumers want free. Small businesses want great customer service. In this new world of software-as-a-service, really great customer service is the rarest thing. It is hard. It is expensive. And SAAS is new enough where the industry is still figuring out the right patterns. We’ve devoted a lot of time and effort to develop fantastic customer service and we believe that makes a big difference.
To learn more about online scheduling software visit schedulista and Marcadata
Picture via Geekwire