A Virtual Office and No Need for VCs


This is Part 2 of my podcast interview with ZDNet’s Phil Wainewright. In it, I discuss our  virtual office and other lean & mean business practices that enabled gwabbit to achieve profitability within 6 months of launch in a major recession with $0 venture capital. You can hear the podcast at http://www.ebizq.net/blogs/connectedweb/2009/09/a_virtual_office_and_no_need_f.php

The transcript of the interview appears below:

—Transcript—

PW: Todd, we talk a lot about software as a service here on the Connected Web and one of the things, of course, with Gwabbit is that you don’t provide it as a service — because that doesn’t make sense for something which actually runs in the inbox client. It has to be there on the client to do its job. It would run in the cloud, obviously, if the client was running in the cloud — if, for instance, you were working with Gmail. And we were talking also about the potential to aggregate contact information in the cloud, with these Gwabbit clients reporting back to a sort of Gwabbit cloud, which I thought was a very interesting idea.

But one of the things that I think is quite prevalent these days is that when software companies are getting established, this ability to reach volume very quickly is very front of mind. Now, you’ve taken, not a novel approach, but one that is a little bit out-of-fashion with your product, because you charge for it, I believe?

TM: Yes, we actually charge money for our product, which is apparently an extraordinary, or novel, concept within the industry.

Do you ever meet people who try and talk you out of doing it that way?

Oh yes, absolutely. And I’ll just tell you a quick story. When we introduced the product at the Demo conference in March, a VC walked up to me and, without introducing himself, he just got in my face and said ‘Where do you get off charging 19.95 for your product?’ And I was really taken aback. I mean I did —

These VCs are quite parsimonious, aren’t they? They don’t like to pay $20 for a software product.

[laughs] Well, I think that this really had less to do with the pricing of our product. I think it had more to do with trying to get a pantsload response out of some young hungry entrepreneur. I’m neither young or hungry and so I didn’t give him the response I think he was looking for. So instead I just replied to him, ‘I’m not looking for money.’

His response was interesting. He literally took a step back. It was as though somebody had sucker-punched him. And then he started making some small talk and — I think he was looking for his own exit strategy — and then he just walked off.

So what is your model? What’s your — the strategy you’ve got for growing the business?

You know the — our model is pretty fundamental. We make a product. It costs us money to make the product. We charge money for it. We believe that the pricing of the product is commensurate with the value that we’re offering to the market — and fortunately, we’re finding that, in fact, appears to be the case.

So in terms of growing the business, our plan is to fund the growth of the business out of the operations. And so far, that appears to be coming to pass.

So how are you managing to keep your costs down?

Well, that raises another very interesting point. We have taken, I think, a very different approach than the norm on Silicon Valley, where I think that normally what you do is you go out and you raise a bunch of venture capital and then you spend it. And I think that there’s a tendency to promote waste in that kind of model.

What we’re doing instead is, we’re growing the company organically. And the way that we keep our cost under control — or the principal way that we do it — is through virtual officing. And this is something that I picked up through my previous company, which I sold last year. That company and this one are 100% virtual offices. So there’s no bricks-and-mortar whatsoever.

So everyone works from home and you don’t even have a reception desk with a receptionist and a meeting room somewhere?

Exactly right. It’s 100% virtual. It’s interesting. I think that when I tell most people about virtual officing, their comeback is, ‘Well, you must save a lot of money in rent.’ And certainly, that’s a benefit, but I would say that it’s not in my top ten list of benefits for virtual officing.

The great big benefit for virtual officing is really productivity. So we find that we’re about twice as productive as a traditional office. And what we have found by looking at other companies and organizations that have attempted virtual officing, they’re reporting similar kinds of numbers.

For example, I’m writing an op-ed piece right now. And in the course of doing this research, I came upon a study from an Arizona healthcare co-operative. They sent four employees home for seven months, and what they found was that these employees — they would normally produce, or process, 2,100 healthcare claims — and while they were virtual officing, they actually produced 4,700 healthcare claims. So they more than doubled the number of healthcare claims that they processed.

And they couldn’t believe those numbers. So they actually went out and they started studying other companies and organizations that had done the same thing, and they were reporting similar kinds of numbers. For example, AT&T did a pilot study and they actually found productivity boosts of about 75%.

But why is that? What are people — how are people able to find so much more time, or work so much faster, just through being at home?

It comes from a variety of sources, I think. One is that certainly, they’re not wasting time in commute — and then the preparation for commuting, getting ready for work — which can easily chew up a couple of hours each day. You find that virtual employees tend to spend more time on the job, simply because it’s convenient to do that. So they might tend to start work a little earlier. They might tend to work a little bit later.

Virtual employees typically do not have nearly as many distractions. So they don’t have people dropping into the office to chat. They don’t have as many watercooler conversations. They tend to have fewer meetings, and the meetings that they have tend to be more productive; they don’t tend to last as long, they tend to get over much more quickly than in the traditional office.

So added up, it makes a tremendous gain overall in productivity and a huge savings in opportunity cost. My company could not be profitable at this point, if we were running a traditional office.

And do think the model scales? Do you think you can become a big company and still operate virtually rather than needing to bring people in to some kind of location?

Yes. And my experience with my prior company, WebFeat, suggests that the model does scale. We were not a huge company. At the time that I sold the company, I think that we had about 40 employees. I saw no reason at the time that the company could not scale to 100 or 1,000 employees. And it’s interesting you bring that up, because that’s one of the chief complaints or arguments against virtual officing that I get, that, ‘Well, it just can’t scale.’ But I just don’t see it. I haven’t seen any reason why the model can’t scale into a large company.

So Todd, one final piece of advice for our listeners. If there was one thing that you could pass on about how the Web is changing business, especially the software business, what would you say?

Well, I think that the biggest thing that I would recommend to entrepreneurs and to business people is — as we’ve seen in recent years — circling back to the revenue model. In recent years, I think that advertising has borne the burden for revenue in the software business. And I’m not quite sure where that changed, in time. Back when I got started in the industry — and this is in the prehistoric days, back in the Comdex era — it wasn’t something that you thought twice about. You made a software product and you charged for it.

Yeah. I think, to be fair, advertising — in the Web 2.0 space and the start-up space, people have been attracted by it. But I think the companies that are more in the business space tend to look to more traditional mechanisms. But I think — I would certainly concur with you that — now that we’ve got to an era where people are thinking more carefully about the value for money that they’re getting and the reliability of the products that they’re using, then they’re looking for products where they hand over an amount of money and they get a contracted amount of value back.

Yes. And circling back to your question and any advice that I could offer. I think that the advice would be, when making decisions about a revenue model, I would encourage business people to evaluate the revenue model based on what is appropriate for the product or service in the market — as opposed to being swept up in the inertia of whatever happens to be fashionable at the time. I think that, certainly, an advertising revenue model makes sense for certain kinds of products and services. But at the end of the day, it’s simply another option in the revenue matrix that is available to business people. It may be appropriate for some products but it’s not appropriate for others.

And in any event, I think that it would make good sense for business people to make evaluations based on what’s best for their product and services, as opposed to what happens to be trendy or in vogue at the time.

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