“A pivot is a change in strategy without a change in vision,” says Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup.
Starting in 2011 and over the course of four years, my startup pivoted from an online community tool, to a live sales and support tool, to an outreach platform for businesses, to finally finding its identity in a campaigning and advocacy tool.
Although the product has changed and evolved over these years, the underlying vision—to enable better real-time communications—has remained unchanged.
One of the perks of being a startup is that you have the flexibility to keep changing your identity until you get the formula right. This is a look at how CallHub has evolved out of three business pivots—what we learned, where we went wrong, and how we finally got it right.
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Starting the journey with a community tool
What it was:
Gaglers Chat started as a platform to enable real-time communication in communities and marketplaces.
The chat room could be embedded on a website allowing visitors to have live interactions with others on the same page. By enabling more conversations, Gaglers hoped to transform websites into vibrant communities, prompting people to spend more time on a website.
How did it help?
Visitors to a fitness blog can have personal conversations about their fitness regime, buyers can discuss products on sale, sellers can chime in with advice for prospective buyers—all use cases aimed at building healthy communities for people within websites.
Enabling conversations keeps visitors on your website for longer durations, directly increasing chances of visitors making a purchase.
Why did it fail?
If a product fails to target a specific pain point, then it will not last for very long in a competitive market. Gaglers Chat was a nice feature to have on your site, but I couldn’t attach the product to a specific return on investment for buyers. Websites would rather deal with more face-to-face problems such as SEO, sales, advertising—all channels that could be directly monitored for returns.
Gaglers chat hoped to fix something that the market didn’t believe to be broken. It all came down to what a website considered top priority. A channel that didn’t point to specific returns didn’t garner enough priority to warrant paid customers.
The first pivot to a support tool
What it was:
One year into Gaglers Chat and things were still looking bleak. I thought it best to pivot the product in a direction that provided more tangible returns for customers.
That’s how Gaglers Chat pivoted to a live support and live sales platform with an eye on online marketplaces. While keeping the essence of the Gaglers platform intact (i.e building communities), Gaglers pivoted to a role that better aligned with current market trends.
How did it help?
Standard ecommerce models that were often limiting with their product choice and restricted supply chains were being overtaken by C2C online marketplaces like Airbnb, CommonFloor, Fiverr, and so on, that provide a larger product choice and competitive pricing, not limited by inventory or logistics.
There was a huge market for sales and support tools that could bring more customers into the fold of these C2C marketplaces. As a support channel, businesses could ensure that customer inquiries and grievances were addressed in real time. As a sales channel, the platform enabled sales agents to provide product recommendations, comparisons, and gather leads.
Why did it fail?
Technology and marketing together make the foundation for a great business strategy. A business cannot sustain itself without a working product. It also cannot sustain itself if no one hears about your product.
For me, the realization hit home after I spent too much time perfecting the product without paying attention to the people who were going to buy it. It didn’t matter if my product had tremendous potential. If people didn’t hear about it, if they didn’t read about it, if they didn’t find it in their Google searches, then the product ceased to matter.
I did go around to a lot of prospective clients, pitching my product and sending it on test runs across my contact list. But I never had a solid strategy in place for SEO, content marketing, and sales.
This would be the downfall of Gaglers Chat. Two years after it took form and with only 10 paying customers, my chat platform died a slow death.
Back then, I still had not realized the importance of a marketing strategy. I would go on to learn the ropes of marketing only on my next endeavor with CallHub.
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Moving into cloud telephony
What it was:
This time, I took the technology behind my product in an entirely new direction, while still adhering to the values that once urged me to build the Gaglers platform.
The product was still about enabling real-time communications, but now it got a facelift from a chat platform to a cloud telephony platform for businesses. Unlike with Gaglers Chat, I didn’t want to go full scale on a new product. Cloud telephony was slowly gaining momentum and I wanted to experiment with it as a viable communication medium before scaling up the product line. That is how CallHub took form.
How did it help?
CallHub provided voice broadcasting services through the cloud to businesses to ramp up sales outreach and as a lead generation tool.
Many businesses were apprehensive about the move from traditional phone lines to a platform in the cloud. But the sheer flexibility of services that were on offer, from savings on calling costs to enabling thousands of broadcasts to go out simultaneously, turned the tables in favor of cloud telephony. Insurance, real estate, telemarketing, direct sales—all of these industries would benefit from the platform.
Why did it fail?
As much as the market was in favor of the technology, it was hard for a bootstrapped startup to gain ground when heavily seeded competitors with a similar product line were throwing around seven figure marketing budgets.
CallHub was great, but it didn’t have anything to make it stand out from the crowd. In an oversaturated market where great ideas are a dime a dozen, getting your name heard can mean the difference between success and slowly withering away in obscurity.
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Finding our niche with the campaigning tool
What is it?
A successful business strategy aligns the product to a necessity in the market. This requires marketers to understand the product, do their research, and find out where the product fits best. If you don’t fit in, either you have to be the next Apple or you realign your product to fit in.
For CallHub, application integrations seemed like the next step forward to making the product accessible to a wider user base. In the process of exploring plausible market fits, I wrote an integration for CallHub and the non-partisan political CRM called NationBuilder.
The integration proved to be the right move, paving the way for CallHub’s entry into the political campaigning and advocacy space. Once the market fit was determined to be plausible and having potential for growth, my team and I set to expanding our product line and realigning our marketing strategy to focus on the campaigning and advocacy space.
How did it help?
When CallHub entered the space, political campaigns were just getting on board with moving their communications to the cloud. The technology that had been available to them was primitive and aimed primarily at businesses rather than political campaigns. The monthly pricing and charging by agent models were not suited to the seasonal nature of campaigns.
Now that we’d found our niche, CallHub aimed to create the best possible experience for political campaigns and advocacy groups. The product line grew from voice broadcasting to include phone banks, SMS marketing software, power dialers, detailed analytics, integrations, and multiple tools to accommodate every need of our target audience.
Why did it succeed?
Unlike with Gaglers chat where I decided to build a product without identifying specific pain points for the market, CallHub took it slowly at first, experimenting with new technology, determining market fit, analyzing customer pain points, and then scaling up based on results.
Rather than thrusting a new product into the market, CallHub took its time to understand and to solve real problems through the product.
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For our market, the pain points we identified and targeted are as follows:
Political campaigns carry out a majority of their outreach through volunteers who offer their services for free.
Unlike the PR campaign for a business which hires a limited number of experienced professionals for outreach, political campaigns and advocacy groups rely on large numbers to meet their targets for outreach calls.
Current businesses charged by agents or had a monthly pricing plan, which did not suit campaigns since:
- They would end up paying for individual accounts for all their volunteers
- Monthly pricing plans did not make sense for campaigns, which were seasonal in nature
A scalable pricing model which allowed for unlimited agents and charged only for calls made.
Most campaign volunteers fall on two sides of the spectrum: the millennials (ages 18-34) and the baby boomers (ages 53-71). Most product offering did not account for usability across such wide demographics, most often alienating the older demographic from new technological innovations.
We developed a workflow that provided a seamless user experience across wide demographics by working on three factors that tested as primary concerns with our target demographic:
- Simple user interface
- Specific instructions
- Less steps to achieve desired action
We built a clean and simple user interface with specific and easily understood instructions. Operations that took nine to ten clicks were optimized to achieve the same results in three to four.
Advocacy groups are often faced with the problem of finding enough voices for their cause.
The CallHub computer telephony integration allows users from across the world to join and give their voice to a campaign through their browser. CallHub services were made functional in more than 200 countries to facilitate advocacy groups with global reach.
When election time draws near, campaigns need to scale up operations within a short span of time. Using embedded forms, we cut down on steps for volunteers to sign up to the campaign and start making calls.
Embedded forms automatically create user accounts across the phone banking tool, and CRM software enables volunteers to start making calls immediately after sign up. The integration with CRM tools ensure seamless data flow between online applications, saving campaigns the need to re-enter identical data across multiple systems.
When I started on the journey to become my own boss, I thought I had a good idea of the challenges ahead. I’d read enough startup lessons and got more than enough advice from colleagues to realize that it would not be smooth sailing.
You can overcome being broke, sleepless nights, and running at a loss to get your idea off the ground. But when you’ve nurtured and groomed an idea, welcomed it into a world of unlimited possibilities, only to have it turned down by an unwelcoming market, that’s when things can get hard.
Don’t let an idea overcome you and burn you out. Learning to let go and channeling your energy into the next idea until you get it right is one of the fundamentals of becoming a successful entrepreneur. Good luck.