Loving computer games as a 13-year-old isn't out of the ordinary. Monetizing that love, though? Maybe a little more unusual.
Doug Hanna's childhood obsession with Neopets, a post-Tamagotchi-era digital pet game, led him to create a website for other gamers. When the site grew popular, Hanna had to find a way to pay the $300 month for extra server space. So he got an online gig providing technical support, and eventually sold the original site to a gaming website developer for $5,000.
"I told my mom that I had $5,000 in my PayPal account," says Hanna. "She was like 'What's PayPal, and how did you make $5,000?'"
Now 24, Hanna is hard at work on his latest entrepreneurial venture: Help.com, a startup that's creating customer-service software for businesses large and small. Slated to launch in this summer, the company's software will be entering an industry in which, Hanna says, many of the big players haven't innovated in quite a while.
As a freshman at Duke, Hanna worked for a Web-hosting company called HostGator. With his boss, Brent Oxley, Hanna raised approximately $2 million to buy a smaller company in the same sphere called a Small Orange (featured on Inc.com as one of the "America's Coolest College Start-Ups" in 2012) and became that company's CEO. Endurance purchased both companies in 2012, and Hanna had a successful "low eight figure" exit--as a junior in college.
When Hanna eventually sought to join another company, people in his circles kept mentioning their frustrations with customer service software. "Lots of companies were telling me it was a big problem that still hadn't been solved," he says.
Hanna had noticed a similar issue during his time at HostGator. As the company expanded from 150 employees to 400 in a year and a half, it rapidly outgrew its software. "We had the option to have really clunky enterprise software," says Hanna, "or software that was pretty good but was made for smaller businesses and smaller teams."
Cue the light bulb. Hanna decided to build software friendly enough for smaller companies but powerful enough for larger ones. With a $6 million investment from Oxley, his former boss, Hanna assembled a team in August 2014 and got to work. The resulting software, which has already attracted clients in the e-commerce and software as a service (SaaS) sectors, helps companies respond to their customers' needs quickly and efficiently: An advanced reporting system provides customer service managers with sortable data--by agent, team, or time of day, for example--with no spreadsheets or manual analysis necessary. Then, a live chat feature connects customers, via mobile and desktop, with support staff for answers in real time. And, perhaps most important, the user-friendly software grows along with the company.
"Customers now have not only a hope and an expectation for self-service that works extremely well, but a demand for it as well," says Chip Bell, customer-service consultant and author of The 9½ Principles of Innovative Service. Bell and Hanna worked together on a customer service blog, "Service Untitled," that Hanna founded--as a 16-year-old. "Doug knew this was coming years ago. He has a knack for not only having a finger on the pulse of the customer, but for also knowing where they're going next."
Another knack Hanna evidently has: choosing domain names. Figuring a moniker like Help.com could set his company apart in a competitive space, Hanna tracked down its owner and negotiated a deal. He won't say how much he paid, but he admits: "A lot."
And for all the extra traffic the URL is sure to drive, there's a small percentage of unintended visitors, too. "We have people call for help resetting their passwords. Usually AOL or Yahoo," Hanna says with a laugh. Some have even mistaken the site for an emergency hotline, only to be redirected--proving that as much as Hanna knows about helping customers, even he has limits. "Luckily," Hanna says, "as far as I can tell, nothing has involved bodily harm."