Starting From Scratch
In 2006, I had sold and resigned from my first company, Stelex Inc., and was enjoying my time off pursuing my childhood hobby, model railroads. I was designing pre-wired track layouts to sell in a train catalogue when Michael Kansky called me.
At the time, he was working in the Greater Philadelphia area as an independent software contractor, consulting for the Law School Admission Council. He said he’d been doing research on me and wanted to meet to discuss a potential business venture. I thought “Sure, why not?” It’s not often someone Google’s my name, and since I had the free time I thought his efforts had earned some of my attention in return.
He came in to tell me about ZaZaChat, an online customer service live chat software he’d developed and had originally offered to businesses for free. As it grew in popularity and demand, he started to sell it with surprising success. The only problem was he didn’t know what to do next. He was a computer guy, after all, not a businessman.
That’s where I came in. I told him “Hey, this is great, but it’s not my thing.” I dealt with bricks-and-mortar service-based business and had nothing to do with the web. But he handed me a 40-page business plan and asked me to at least take a look.
I took the plan with me on vacation and promptly forgot about it, not really expecting to be interested in his proposal anyway. When I came back and finally sat down to leaf through it (and only then for lack of anything else to read), I found 39 blank pages. There was an executive summary on page one, nothing on page two, nothing on page three, or four, or five. Turns out I could have finished it on my trip after all.
When my initial surprise subsided, I recognized this as an extremely clever way for Kansky to tell me that I had almost complete power to write the business plan myself, to really build and mold it from scratch. The opportunity was intriguing because it was so experimental and brand new and had room for creativity. I immediately called Kansky and said, “I’m in.”
Excited as I was to build this business from the ground up, I knew I still had a lot to learn. It so happened that Kansky had another similar service in mind called LiveHelpNow that he had not yet developed. I decided to use it as a testing ground for marketing strategies we could implement for ZaZaChat. Here was a chance to launch a product from zero, for me to see exactly how it happens.
I hired a marketing firm to help us identify our target markets and put together a plan. We found that our competitors were seeking out big enterprises, but no one was really catering to the needs of small and medium sized businesses. We, however, give the little guys the tools they need to succeed online, including easy integration and a customer tracking system. With the right positioning, we were able to grow LiveHelpNow so much that it actually outpaced ZaZa. For the past three years, it has undergone reviews and been named the #1 Chat Software, which has only fueled our success.
Kansky’s idea had all the potential it needed; I was there to transform it into a company. I knew how to set up the infrastructure and get a staff together. My networks in the business world allowed me to direct our software to our target markets. Most importantly, I could provide the financial backing to get the project off the ground. Kansky’s blank business plan was an invitation for me to bring these old school business skills to a modern, online model. Offering the chance to learn something new and grow in the experience was exactly the way to capture my interest and get me on board. I think our partnership works because we know how to connect our interests – software technology and business – and learn from each other in the process.
Today, we continue to expand our business by constantly thinking about our customers’ evolving needs and how we can innovate new and existing products to adapt to them. We’re always looking for new ways to make it easier for small business owners to thrive.
LEWIS SCHIFF is the executive director of the Inc. Business Owners Council. His latest book is Business Brilliant: Surprising Lessons From the Greatest Self-Made Business Icons.
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