Ep #93 | The Ideal Customer

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CHRIS DIX

Chris Dix is the founder and chief developer of Thoughtpost. He has over 20 years of professional software development experience with multiple industries and organizations, including finance, IoT, and NASA. He is also an author and speaker on software development, contributing to books and magazine articles, and presenting at national technology events for O’Reilly, VSLive, and Microsoft.

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Shantel: Hey, Chris. Welcome to the show.

Chris: Thank you. I appreciate you having me.

Shantel: Of course. We're excited to learn more about Thoughtpost and how you got started. To kick things off for our listeners, do you mind sharing a little bit more about Thoughtpost ... who you guys are?

Chris: Sure. Well, Thoughtpost is a software company startup. We provide messaging solutions for businesses so we're a little bit different than your average chat bot company which is kind of what we do. But we try to bridge the gap between consumer messaging and business messaging so if you're a business who wants to reach your customers on Facebook, Twitter, let them text you, we have software that helps you automate that process and get their information into your systems. And we also provide conversational agents or chat bots that run on your internal messaging. So, if you're a company that uses Slack or Microsoft Teams, we have bots that will help you be more productive and streamline your business processes, things like that.

Shantel: Well, I'm very excited to chat with you. This already sounds like a service that we at Imagine Media need. But backtracking a little bit, this startup, what prompted you to start this? How long have you guys been in business?

Chris: Well, Thoughtpost as a company has been around for probably, I guess it's almost 15 years now. But it was always a vehicle for my consulting work. I am a software developer. I've been one for a long time. And so, Thoughtpost was a way for me to incorporate and do consulting gigs around Charlotte, which is where we're based. But it was a couple years ago that I actually was home back in Virginia for a high school reunion and saw a friend of mind who I had grown up with who I hadn't seen in years and started talking to him about what I was doing, about software development. And he was like, "You're writing software. You're out there working." And I said, "Yeah, yeah." And he was like, "So why haven't I heard of anything you've done?" You have this idea of a software developer like Zuckerberg or somebody like that who is actually creating products and putting things out there. And when he mentioned that to me, I didn't have a good answer for him. So, I thought maybe I should be trying something more than just doing some consulting. So, I got back to Charlotte and started working on some ideas for products and it was about a year ago that I started to really put it together and make something happen. And that's kind of when things really kicked off.

Shantel: And are you still doing the consulting as well?

Chris: Yeah. That helps pay the bills while business is starting to grow. We're still very small, very young, as far as a product business goes. So yes, I do a lot of ... that's how we bootstrap our product work is with consulting.

Shantel: Okay. And you said we a couple times, so are you already starting to build out a team?

Chris: Yes. It's still mostly me wearing a lot of hats but I do have some people I'm working with. One person who is helping me on the sales side. One person helps with the financial side, bookkeeping. And then, I also use a consultant for creative media where I don't really have a lot of skills. Anywhere where my skills are lacking, I try to bring somebody on board who can help out at least part-time with augmenting our skills.

Shantel: That's great. Yeah, I think that's one of my favorite questions to ask of entrepreneurs of what ... I mean, there's so many hats we're always wearing.

Chris: Mm-hmm.

Shantel: But what's the one hat you can't wait to get off your plate? And oftentimes, at the beginning, unless you're an accountant by trade, the financial piece is that first piece.

| FIND PEOPLE WHO CAN BE THE SKILLS YOU DON’T HAVE |

Chris: Oh, I hate that part definitely. That, and honestly, sales doesn't come naturally to me either. I think I'm a people person. I like talking to people but I feel more at home actually in the product development than the business-y side of it. So, it's nice to find people who can really build out and be the skills that you don't have, at least not yet.

Shantel: Absolutely. So, you mentioned helping part-time the sales role. Is it a company that is helping generate leads for you or you have a part-time salesperson?

Chris: Just a part-time salesperson right now. But I have looked at some companies who are helping with the sales lead generation. I think we're going to get to that point hopefully later this year because I know there are a lot of companies in that space that do some great work. So, I've had some conversations there.

Shantel: Yeah. I'm always so interested in how people scale the business development side because initially, at least for us on the service side, it's so near and dear to our process and how we do things and to train and wrap up another person to sell in that same way. Have you seen a difference in selling the software solution versus you’re consulting in the way that you approach the sales process?

Chris: I would say very much, yeah. The selling of a product, it's a whole new thing to me and that's why I'm glad I have some help in that area. And I know we'll need more. When I'm selling consulting service, I'm really just selling my experience and my background or the people who work with me, their skills and experience. And from product, you really have to come at it from a whole different perspective, I think, in terms of support and really are you solving a problem for them rather than coming in and helping them through a solution? And some companies will look at you a little differently because you're small and some will like that. It's really been a very different sales experience for me though.

Shantel: Mm-hmm. Do you find that it's really for your part-time person just scale? So how many calls they're making, how many emails they're sending? A little bit less high touch and not as long of a sales funnel?

Chris: Well, yeah. I think a lot of it is just scale for them, at least at first. We're starting ... part of it has been trying to figure out who that ideal first customer is for us and it's taken us a while to get there, I think. I think now we have a better idea of really who to focus on and it's just taken us a while to get there. At first we thought, like probably a lot of businesses do, that we had a solution that would fit so many different kind of businesses but you can't really approach it that way. It's a lot better to find our target customer is really managed service providers who are using this particular product. And once you start to focus in on that, then it's a different kind of process and you can really get it down to a process and something that's repeatable.

Shantel: I agree with you completely. I think it's hard to turn away business that you have someone knock on the door that you could help but may not be that ideal client. There's so much power in really honing in on a specific industry or niche or problem that you're trying to solve.

Chris: Yeah. I had a really wise boss many years ago, back in Atlanta, actually when I used to live there. And we had some ideas for products that we were floating around the room and we worked in one of those two really tall buildings up at the concourse, that king and queen looking buildings.

Shantel: Yeah.

Chris: Yeah. And so, people were floating all of these different ideas for products, some of them really good, and he kind of took control of the meeting and said, "You know, if we wanted to, we could go and we could buy some squeegees and some rope and cleaning supplies and we could get out and we could clean the windows of this building and we could find a way to be profitable at it and make some money. But that's not what we do." And so, that kind of stuck with me as you should really know what you do and have a focus on that and it just kind of stuck with me.

Shantel: Definitely. Well, who have you guys narrowed down as that ideal customer?

| THE IDEAL CUSTOMER |

Chris: That's a good question. Yeah, I think that our real ideal ... We believe that our ideal first customer is managed service providers, MSPs, which are companies that provide IT services like networking and various technical support, Office 365. They often use products like ConnectWise and other ticketing software. So, we've found that they are really open to the idea of letting their customers reach them through messaging. So, whether it's texting or web chat or however. And they want to capture that information and get it into ConnectWise, which is what they're using. So, we have a solution that does that for them. And then, their internal people like to use Slack or Microsoft Teams, products like that. And so, being able to let one of their customers send them a text message saying, "Hey, my email is down." And then, making that connection into their internal tools like a Slack or Microsoft Teams, it really streamlines their process. So, we think that that is our ideal customer. That's where we've gotten the most traction so far and where people are kind of excited when we start to talk about it.

Shantel: And I think knowing that probably helps your messaging if you're marketing, you know who you're talking to, how to speak their language, hit on their pain points.

Chris: Yeah, I think it does. And it helps too that I have some insight into that and some friends in that domain that can help me in an advisory role to say, "Hey, this is what we think you should be saying. This is how much we think people would like to pay for this." And just having that kind of resource to draw upon in the industry has been very helpful for us too.

Shantel: Absolutely. Do you find that this software solution feeds into your consulting practice because as you get to know your customers, they may have a need that then you can also help solve or the other way around?

Chris: Yeah, no. I think it kind of goes both ways. I think having a good relationship with them from the consulting side gives us some credibility in terms of saying I know we're small but we have a product. If they already know us, then they can trust us a little better. And having a product also does seem to open some doors for the consulting. Having them look at us and say, "Well, they must know what they're talking about. They've got a product in that space." Then, it does sort of one a door for let's let them help us with this other solution. Yeah, I think it goes both ways.

Shantel: Do you hope to transition out of the consulting side at any point? Is that a long term goal?

Chris: Yeah. I like consulting but it doesn't really scale like a product kind of business does. Part of this has been realizing that I have been doing this for over 20 years and building a lot of tools and products for other companies. And those companies are then taking those and growing their businesses and making enough of a profit not only to pay for other employees but to pay me as well. And so, if I really want to make something that's going to scale and really grow and really be something large, then I think we do need to transition out of the consulting space. But for now, and certainly in the past, it pays the bills.

Shantel: I get it. For now, juggling those two pieces, can you walk us through how do you manage your day to day? Do you have a system in place for how much time you spend on one over the other? How do you compartmentalize, if you will?

Chris: Sure. Well, a lot of early morning, a lot of late nights right now. Trying to get as much into the day as I can. I find there's a little bit of quiet time if I can get an early start before the day then I can spend a little time on the product. Normal daytime hours I'm probably going 50/50 between handling some support calls on products we've already created for customers, outside of this space. But also, working on new products and projects for various customers. So, it's probably a 50/50 split during my day. Usually then, I'll spend the last few hours before dinner or after dinner just catching up on all of the little things from the day, note taking, bookkeeping, just trying to make sure I'm ready for the next one. So, certainly this entrepreneurial life, even more than the consulting, is a 24/7 kind of operation.

Shantel: Yeah. It's challenging to turn it off, that's for sure.

Chris: It is.

Shantel: I imagine when you have a product, it literally doesn't sleep. So, always problem solving.

Chris: Yeah. That is turning out to be a bit of a challenge. I know we're going to need some help with support going forward. It is hard because yeah, it doesn't sleep and on the flip side, it's nice because it can make money for you while you're sleeping. So, you just have to balance it out I guess.

Shantel: You said early mornings. So, are you, Chris, one of those 4:00 AM risers or?

Chris: Not that early. I'm more of a sunrise kind of person.

Shantel: Okay.

Chris: But I do tend to burn the midnight oil a little bit, especially trying to find some time. Usually, it's not until the end of the day when I can settle down and relax a little bit and maybe watch some TV with the wife and kids and just have a little family time.

Shantel: Yeah. I think it's a unique opportunity as a business owner and entrepreneur to really try to optimize your day and be mindful of maybe I hit that wall or I am not an early morning person so I'm not going to try to do this during that timeframe, instead I'll workout then. Really, just trying to be mindful of how can I be the best when I'm there and use that time effectively.

| OPTIMIZE YOUR DAY |

Chris: Yeah, yeah. It's been tricky to find that balance and especially to make sure that everything that needs to get done just from a normal life perspective gets done. People need to be places, meals need to be made. And laundry and all that plus work is a lot.

Shantel: Absolutely. I don't know if it's a generational thing or just a society thing of just trying to optimize ... optimize is the wrong word ... but outsource as much as possible or just make things easier. I've found myself, I've hired a VA, a virtual assistant. And I have someone help with laundry, a laundry service that comes. And I get groceries delivered. Anything to help offload some of those personal tasks each day so that I can actually use when I am and have that brainpower, actually use it on the business as opposed to worrying about the laundry list of stuff I have to do at home as well.

Chris: Yeah. I tend to have a hard time delegating for a lot of things but I have found that I really need to for stuff like that. Yeah, I used to like to mow the lawn and now I try to find somebody to do that for me. Yes, definitely, takeout and anything that can save a little time.

Shantel: Yeah. That's also that tricky battle of highest and best use of your time. But if it's something that you enjoy, like still making sure you have things like that. That lawn time of unwinding, yeah.

Chris: Yeah.

Shantel: Well, I would love to switch gears a little bit. A year into this new company. Of course, you've had a business in the past but what has been the most challenging thing that you've learned so far in this new startup?

Chris: Oh, the most challenging thing. I guess just the fact that you need to be able to have a, I guess, a thick skin and persistence. I've found from the consulting side, you don't get so many rejections. You know? We've had some success and some good luck, but it takes a lot of hard work and trying over and over again and being willing to hear that your idea is not good or that it needs changed. That was harder than I guess I expected and something that I wasn't used to. But it's, you just really have to be persistent.

Shantel: Is it also challenging as a developer if you just hearing if something needs to be changed or updated, knowing that it's not exactly perfect yet but really sing it to the public. Has that been hard to let's just put it up and we'll continue to iterate?

Chris: That really is. You hit the nail on the head there. It's hard to put something out there knowing that it's not perfect. What's that saying? Perfect is the enemy of the good or something like that. You have to know, at some point, that you have to put it out there. You have to put not just the code out there but also your ideas out there. It's easy to get stuck in this loop of I'm going to keep tweaking it and making it perfect before people get to see it and tell me it's wrong. Whether it's an idea or a piece of code or a feature, and I've had to really learn to resist that temptation of tinkering with it until I think it's perfect.

Shantel: I do wonder if your background in more of a service type scenario, if you wanting to make sure that the customer is happy has really put you at an advantage as you're building the software because you may be pulling for customer suggestions and really valuing that input. Do you feel like you learned a lot coming from that background, that you've been able to apply into this product?

Chris: I think that has helped me. I think that it's been a different kind of conversation to have with the potential customers and with the people that I want to get my ideas out there. But I think having come from the consulting side of it a little bit, it gave me a few better people skills than I would have if I had just been sitting behind a desk in a product-based company for the last 15 years or so. The fact that I have been out there and talking to customers helped and I had to do it even more to make this work.

Shantel: Yeah. That makes sense. What do you do when you're feeling a little drained or that you need to recharge?

Chris: That's a good question. Yeah, it depends. I guess when I'm feeling mentally drained, sometimes I like to exercise or go for a run, something like that. When I'm feeling just plain old exhausted, I like to just sit down and spend some quiet time with my wife or the kids and just unwind a little.

Shantel: Do the kids have any interest in the product or business that you're building or they may become entrepreneurs?

Chris: Some of them do. Yeah, some of them are interested in this sort of software work and then some of them have sworn off any job that's going to use a computer for the rest of their lives. So, my oldest is in college now going for something data science related. And one of my other kids is an artist. So, it's a mix.

Shantel: And the one that is interested in software, do you think that they'll want to take an entrepreneurial path?

Chris: I would encourage them to as long as they know what they're getting into. I'm not sure if he wants to. I've been trying to encourage him to intern at Thoughtpost this summer but we'll see how lucky we get with that.

Shantel: You said if you know what you're getting into. Are you very honest and transparent about the ups and downs of having your own business to them?

Chris: Yes, I try to be. I try to, in a sense, the consulting side of it was almost a family business until this product stuff started happening. But yeah, I try to tell them about not just the successes that we're having on a day to day basis but when we get a little bit of a setback, to be honest about that too and let them know that you have to push through some of those and just be persistent.

Shantel: I love that. I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs and one thing that ... I should have asked more questions like when I noticed that my dad was having a hard day or something ... they always talked about how exciting and great and then, I think it's so important also to just reflect on there are going to be harder times or things maybe challenging. You have to have that thick skin, like you mentioned. I also think that it's great that you're talking about that with your kids.

Chris: Thanks.

Shantel: Well Chris, I just have a couple more questions to wrap things up.

Chris: Sure.

Shantel: And I'm eager to hear what is the long term vision for Thoughtpost? What's on the horizon for you guys?

Chris: Well, we want to continue to focus on this target customer that we've got, MSPs. I think that we are, we're actually trying to attend some upcoming conventions for that industry, get our name out there, and get more success stories and case studies with customers to show how the tool really can help their business and businesses like theirs. So, we're going to keep on that and keep trying to grow the product and the features and support more platforms like ConnectWise. I think there's a whole world of companies out there that could benefit from some conversational agents, just helping them be a little more productive.

Shantel: Well, we would love to cheer you on and help promote in any way. So, if any of our listeners fall in that customer niche or are interested in learning more about your story or maybe just sharing some resources, Chris, what's the best way to get in touch?

Chris: Thank you. You can reach us on our website at thoughtpost.com. You can follow us on Twitter @thoughtpost. Also, you can reach me by email at contact@thoughtpost.com. We're definitely interested in hearing about people who are interested in our product and especially new industries, new opportunities, and yeah, we'd love to hear from you.

Shantel: Great. Well, good luck at the conferences. We're excited to stay in touch. Thank you so much for carving out the time to be on the show.

Chris: Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed it.