Note: I noticed the Hootsuite APAC folks were holding a neat event called #TheOwlys. As such, i said hello. Ergo:
Hello #Owls of #HootsuiteAPAC – i’m your great-uncle Daveo and I’m laden with creation myths and stories. Just saying hello to you #renegades celebrating social goodness at #TheOwlys. Perhaps one day I can say hello in person, in the meantime, I will send my stunt double.
I am especially proud of the community focused narrative of which I’ll share a bit here:
Investing in Community-Building Programs
But it’s important to note that freemium was just one part of our formula for user growth. Another big piece of the puzzle was investing in a fully functional community department at Hootsuite. In many startups, the community team – if there’s one at all – is treated as an extension of marketing or customer support. While their ostensible role may be “building a community” of users, they spend a lot of their time pitching products and fielding help calls.
Our community department, by contrast, didn’t have direct sales or support responsibilities. Instead, their primary mandate was to help people who already knew and loved our product connect with one another. They built out social media channels in a half-dozen key languages, enabling users around the world to share updates and learn about Hootsuite news and events. And they organized crowd-sourced translation efforts, recruiting international users to adapt our interface into local languages, everything from German and Italian to Thai and Chinese. (Amazingly, translations were volunteer-driven – motivated by love of the technology and a liberal helping of swag, i.e. stickers, t-shirts and cuddly stuffed animals inspired by our owl logo.)
Online efforts were supplemented by old-fashioned face-to-face events. In emerging markets, the community team helped users organize hundreds of free meetups (branded as “HootUps”), where people could get together and trade Hootsuite tips. Ultimately, a network of hundreds of volunteer “ambassadors” around the world took shape, enthusiastic users who spread the word about Hootsuite in their countries. Many of these ambassadors, not surprisingly, were bloggers, consultants and marketers who just so happened to have large online audiences of their own.
Cumulatively, these projects gave us entree into new markets, initiating the viral chain of adoption in other countries and spreading Hootsuite far beyond its original North American user base.
An article by Ryan Holmes talking about the tactics and methods Hootsuite used to build with small budgets and big fun including Hootups, community activities like translation project, creative swag and more…
Ryan Holmes: With literally millions of apps competing for attention, startups are finding themselves forced to pour ever greater sums into marketing efforts. But money isn’t always the answer…
But more money isn’t always the answer. In Hootsuite’s first three years, we grew our user base from zero to five million people. During that time, our marketing budget was pretty much non-existent. We turned instead to a pair of complementary, low-cost approaches to find and keep customers. It may well have made all the difference.
Freemium economics One fundamental decision made shortly after launching in 2009 was to make our social media tool a freemium service. The majority of our users — and we very quickly reached the million mark — paid nothing. They could (and still can) log in for free to view their social media accounts from one dashboard, schedule messages and see analytics. Companies that wanted beefed up functionality and extra support, paid a monthly fee, ranging from as little as $9 to $1,000 and up for large enterprises with lots of employees.
Why invest so many resources and so much bandwidth catering to millions of free users who would never account for a cent of revenue? For starters, freemium dramatically reduces the need for traditional marketing and sales efforts. Our free users — in steady, predictable numbers — became paid users. Instead of having to sell them on the merits of our product with expensive ads, we let them see for themselves. Our product became our best marketing tool and salesperson. On average more than half our paying customers, including large clients, start out as free users.
Meanwhile, our free user base fulfilled another key function: It kept us honest. Free users are fickle; they’re not locked in by a contract or any other obligations. They can, at any moment, pick up and take their “business” elsewhere. So to maintain and grow our free user base, we had to continually update our product, rolling out new features to stay ahead of the pack.
These same features helped us win and keep paying customers. While other corporate tools were years behind the social media curve, our efforts to satisfy free users meant we could offer big enterprise customers the latest technology.
Seeing value in community But the freemium approach wouldn’t have been as effective were it not for another equally important strategy: investing in a fully functional community department. In many startups, the community team, if there’s one at all, is treated as an extension of marketing or customer support. While their ostensible role may be “building a community” of users, they spend a lot of time pitching products and fielding help calls.
Our community department, by contrast, didn’t have direct sales or support responsibilities. Their primary mandate was to help people who already knew our product connect with one another. In the early days, they set up social media accounts in a half-dozen key languages, sharing updates with users around the world.
At the same time, they led a crowdsourced translation effort that saw our tool translated into more than a dozen local languages, from German and Italian to Thai and Chinese. (Amazingly, translations were volunteer-driven — motivated by love of the technology and a liberal helping of swag, i.e. stickers, T-shirts and cuddly stuffed animals inspired by our owl logo.)
Online efforts were supplemented by old-fashioned face-to-face events. In emerging markets, the community team helped users organize hundreds of free meetups (branded as “HootUps”), where people could get together and trade product tips. Ultimately, a network of hundreds of volunteer “ambassadors” around the world took shape, enthusiastic users who agreed to spread the word in their countries. Many of these ambassadors were bloggers, consultants and marketers whose own agenda of developing a large online following aligned well with ours.
Cumulatively, these projects gave us entree into new markets, initiating the viral chain of adoption in other countries and spreading our product beyond its original North American user base.
Day two or three, depending on how you count ‘em, of my 3rd quest to South by Southwest in Austin Texas… And I gotta say, it’s shaping up just fine man. You know, I’m keeping up a solid effort and fully professional about spreading the love of my job, and that’s going really well. Also very important to maximize the party and good times, and that, too, is progressing suitably well.
Despite shaking off some nasty flu and general haggardness from excess travel and in general just haven’t taken very good care of myself, and then coupled with some disorganization and long stories about things that didn’t get printed and didn’t get delivered and stuff, yeah it’s rolling along just fine. Let’s see, well where shall I start this time around?
Let’s just say yesterday morning,… because the night before I think I told you about,… it was a night down at the Gingerman, one of my favourite beer drinking places and it’s moved around the corner to a location that might even be finer than its previous. Well I’m really surprised that’s even possible because that old location was just fine.
Yesterday I rallied up after my slumber and scarfed down some nasty coffee and went down to the Hideout Coffee Shop. I met up with this nice Canadian lady that I met every time that I’m down here and as soon as I walked in the door she said, “You’re here from Canada” and I’m like, “Yes I am!”
It was packed and hectic. Just like last year I was late. There were these migas breakfast burritos laden with a bunch of leftover odds n ends shit: egg, cornflakes, etc. Tasty. I really needed a good proper breakfast! Where should I go? She told me some directions to this place and I thought I was going off track but then it all came together and I got some wicked blueberry pancakes at the Counter Cafe with poached eggs just the way i like em.
Again, I am in some dire need of sustenance. I was thinking that I needed to nourish the body to nourish the soul. At the Hideout I got a big giant smoothie. It was quite charming.
Then, at the convention centre, I stood in line and got my badge! You gotta have a badge. If you don’t have a lanyard, man, you don’t belong.
Then I rallied with some buddies and we sat on the lawn drinking Sobe green tea. I had some Japanese envelopes from my papery stash — back from 1983! I was fortunate to be able to augment my stash with some more packets from a Japanese dollar store in Tinseltown. So I sat with some buddies (John and Jason) and I filled these wee dossiers with stickers, tattoos, pins and sealed my card in. It was like a bundle of diplomatic goodness. Good time doing arts and crafts in the sunshine.
Then I found a little table to setup. I was curious about a press release I had put out. So I’m thinking of issues about privacy, elitism, notions about early adoption, etc.
Then I headed off to Mellow Johnnies — it’s a bike shop, a complete beauty. It wasn’t super fancy but it felt really comfortable. They had smoothies and maps for local riding routes. I could see how you might like living here with all the distance. There’s not really mountains — not by the B.C. definition.
If you’re not careful you end up living on appetizers, which is why today I’m on a quest for a proper breakfast. That day I had some great guacamole . . . ice, Moonstar beer. Ah, so! And talking with a whole bunch of people. This particular event had to do with my professional capacity. The people knew what I was doing and knew what I was up to and we had some intelligent discourse about this particular topic.
My highlight was sharing these envelopes with all these people. And explained the love and care that went into those things and they opened them up with excitement.
Transforming your customers into your company’s marketing team sounds crazy but just might work, especially when those customers are eager college students.
Host events like HootSuite
According to a recent survey, branded live events are the No. 1 driver of brand recommendations. These events clock in at 65 percent, beating out even a friend’s recommendation (63 percent) in importance when it comes to brand experience.
Knowing this, many campus ambassador programs make events an integral part of marketing efforts in order to attract new consumers. For instance, social media metric company HootSuite empowers users and brand ambassadors to host “HootUps.” These gatherings are put together by campus ambassadors and fans of the company, and involve discussions of social media best practices and networking.
The events are branded with HootSuite swag, yet they offer students real-world value and the ability to make great contacts. If your events offer consumers and customers something useful, they’ll be likely to equate your brand with providing concrete value to their lives.
After eight SXSW conferences, I’ve learned that the hard way. When my company was first getting off the ground, we were completely lost in the shuffle, despite our best efforts. In 2012, however, we had a 28-foot-long, 15,000-pound secret weapon. To stand out amid the gala parties and blow-out bashes hosted by much bigger tech companies, HootSuite decided to take to the streets. We transformed a Ford E-450 shuttle bus into possibly the world’s biggest owl, in honor of our mascot – mounting a pair of giant eyes above the windshield and affixing enormous plastic wings on the sides.
Cheesy? Yes. Effective, absolutely. By the end of the conference, our logo had been splashed across the pages of USA Today, Mashable and Inc. The conference’s highest profile attendees were clamoring to get on board and party with us. And investors whom I didn’t even know were inquiring about thecompany. In the end, it cost us around $30,000 to buy and outfit the vehicle. Considering that hosting just a single party at SXSW can cost as much, if not more, that’s an absolute steal. This year, in fact, we’re bringing HootBus back for its third ride.
In a spontaneous spiel to colleagues, Dave shares the motivations and practical logistics for organizing Hootups – including sending swag packages and promotional support – and articulates the benefits for the organizer (notoriety and being part of something interesting) as well as resultant perks for the company including signups and culture artifacts like photos, tweets and happy users.
Jenn Peddie interviewed me alongside a batch of other community-minded organizers and wranglers as part of a series. This interview was live-streamed and happened directly after i did a panel for an opera convention.
Pirates with Keyboards ~ (Dev)eloping Hoot Company Culture by Dave Olson
As published in Vancouver is Awesome’s 2013 print issue on 22 April 2013
Originally published in Vancouver is Awesome’s yearly print edition, this article is now shared in original form for posterity and your enjoyment.
Inside of HootSuite, we often hear about what people think our internal company culture is like. From typing cats, to crazy rumours, all we can say is that it’s different and possibly weirder than you might expect.
My point of view is a bit unique as I joined HootSuite as the first non-technical employee from the outside. At that time it was me, the CEO, and a core group of developers (devs). From my time here in the nest, I have a few observations to share about what makes our largest department unique.
A Culture of Camaraderie
Dev culture is dev culture. Throughout the company, we have programs and activities to connect different departments together in social settings. This is critically important when companies scale by bringing in different disciplines like sales teams, partner and affiliate programs, and marketing. These all have their own distinct cultures and the devs consistently show off their pieces of flair.
Dev camaraderie is forged during late night coding sessions and time sensitive problem solving, leading to a mutual professional respect. Of course this respect also manifests itself in foosball duels, nerf gun battles, stacks of pizza boxes on release night, and even arts and crafts.
We don’t have to manufacture culture… it grows organically.
#FunFact: One of our front-end devs, Eric, routinely sketches pictures of his colleagues on the back of cardboard or notebook paper… he’s even been known to make shrines to colleagues who are celebrating a birthday.
No Dev left behind
Devs want to produce code which gets used. In some big companies, programmers will digitally write poetic code which never sees light of day due to company direction changes, internal bickering, or lack of coordinated execution.
At HootSuite, my dev colleagues seem to thrive on developing code which is both deployed quickly and will be used widely. This isn’t just for senior devs, the egalitarian approach means all worthy code is used no matter who wrote it.
Devs own their projects and are thus responsible for figuring them out. It’s a collaborative atmosphere where small task forces develop to address specific problems, and they’re given an opportunity to choose their tools in order to fulfill their mandate. This stands in opposition to being pushed into a dogmatic technical solution from someone outside the team.
Front Row View of Rapid Growth
There’s a big difference between managing services and writing code to serve a 100,000 user market, compared to a 5 or 50 million user market. At HootSuite, we have a unique view of the challenges around scaling rapidly – and globally.
Faced the challenges of ensuring services are up around the clock, everywhere, in many languages, while also coexisting with major social network service providers, our devs flourish. This situation offers incredibly valuable skills and experience which can only be gained in this kind of rare environment.
Keep in mind, HootSuite isn’t just for helping people sell more widgets or sharing what they had for lunch… HootSuite plays a role in major world events including theEgyptian Revolution, where Twitter and Facebook were blocked by the Egyptian Government, but HootSuite remained functional. So for 36 hours, we facilitated the voice for the revolution, the counter-revolution, major media, and even the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
Fortunately, one dev added right-to-left scripting for the iPhone, which allowed people to use HootSuite in Arabic in the midst of the struggle. Luckily for us, the systems were able to sustain 7000% growth overnight from Egypt.
Nimble & Agile
Each morning, the devs gather around a cardboard sign that reads “what i’m doing.” While circled around a screen with columns of cryptic tickets, much like medieval monks contemplating the gospels, they massage every idea and distil each into a domino-like line of micro tasks. These tasks are then dutifully moved from column to column until released into the wild.
Keep in mind, projects will go from idea to completion and release in a matter of days. As was the case in the Secure Profiles Tool which came on the heels of noteworthy social media PR conundrums from Red Cross and Chrysler.
From idea on Thursday, to product release and announcement on Tuesday, this is more than just agile – this is yoga-like flexibility!
Oldschool is still school
When I first arrived with small group of devs, I noticed how they relentlessly worked to ensure quality. Three years later, the core founding devs still work hardest and continually lead by example.
They’re doing it because they love doing it, and the passion and tenacity is contagious to the juniors. While HootSuite enjoys attention from the outside, at our core, the devs are guardians of their culture and work to bring the newbs to rarefied air rapidly. No room for b-lists skills in this tribe.
#FunFact: Our “QA Dude” has documented HootSuite’s good times with a seemingly endless stream of wigglies. These fun snaps capture the bits of our growth and culture that the major media will never see including our semi-secret shotgun ritual at each million milestone.
While some companies can get away with displaying ‘fail whales’ and stock outage messages when things go awry, we take a different approach at HootSuite. With a global audience doing remarkable things from managing social at heavy hitting brands or sharing mom’s clam chowder recipe, we take our system seriously.
I recall the morning when the Amazon Web Services Cloud went offline, and i noticed our normally serene CTO’s brow slightly furrowed(!) This let me know that we were in for the long haul on this problem. I headed for a large coffee.
Without missing a beat, our systems admin (who is constantly on the ready for the zombie apocalypse with a CB/HAM enabled transformer jeep) headed out the door to Army and Navy saying: “i’m gonna need a toothbrush, a towel, and two packs of smokes.”
Fifteen hours later, we were back online (the first such company of the downed companies), and through some resourceful and ingenious solutions, we had data in store back up and running. We also managed to spin the Amazon outage chaos into apositive story and a case study.
While HootSuite’s brand is often manifested via our Owly mascot, lists of the notable brands using the tool, and our noble CEO’s face seemingly *everywhere*, within the company we all know that without the devs rocking the keyboards with precision and dedication, we’d be nowhere. Further, what they are doing is far from vanilla – there’s some heavy duty, wild tech going on under the hood and a crew which is encouraged to actually innovate, not just talk about it.
Whether through arduous nights of coding, wearing pirates outfits, or staging their very own watermelon Olympics, the devs at HootSuite have forged a contagious culture of innovation and perfection, delicately balanced with skullduggery.
To them, i say, “Thanks for letting this liberal arts community guy hang out with ya.”