With all the hype going around following the sale of Wufoo earlier in the year I knew it was only right for me to invite one of the co-founders, Kevin Hale on YHP to talk about his experience starting and running Wufoo.
Kevin Hale is the Co-Founder of Wufoo, Wufoo is an Internet application that helps anybody build amazing online forms.
In 2011, Wufoo was acquired by SurveyMonkey, the leader in web-based survey solutions. Although terms of the deal were not confirmed, but sources say it was a worth up to $35 million in cash and stock.
Hi Kevin, how are you doing today? It's great to have you on YHP.
Thanks! I am stoked Let’s get this interview party started.
Can you quickly give us some background information about yourself?
My background is fine arts-based, so my perspective on the Web is a bit different from most designers in the industry. I studied Digital Arts and Modern American English Literature at a very small private liberal arts college on the east coast of Florida. The digital arts program was an interdisciplinary fine arts amalgam of computer science, art and music. Out of college I was into creative writing and electronic art. Graphic design, software interfaces, digital photography, video installations, sensor research, online storytelling, conceptual weirdness — all of it excited me.
What's funny is that I found the web to be the medium that I was the least interested in when I left school. It wasn't until I built Wufoo that I realized just how rich and complex software could be as a medium for exploring relationships. To me, Wufoo was an opportunity to extend my experiments in that space-eliciting real emotions and the feeling of friendship through software.
Tell us how the idea of Wufoo came about?
The inspiration for the product started back in 2003 when I was doing some writing and design for a small division at a research university, which is where I met Chris, who was doing some web application development there. Chris introduced me to his brother, Ryan, who at the time was still a student and writing all the database programming examples for his professor’s computer science textbook.
For about a year, we talked constantly about how frustrating it was to build these really boring forms and databases for our employers, who failed to appreciate how much tedious work was involved just to create something simple as a contact form or an online survey.
Wufoo was therefore built on the belief that since forms were the starting point for building anything useful on the web, there should be a do-it-yourself solution for creating online forms that removed the inefficiency and tediousness out of the form building process and reduce what used to take days (if not weeks) by trained professionals into something that could be done by anyone in minutes.
How did you guy raise funds to initially start the company?
We pitched our idea for Wufoo to Y Combinator, a venture firm that specializes in funding very early stage startups, and received the initial seed funding from them ($18,000) to work on our idea full time and get a prototype off the ground. Through them, we secured additional funding from Angels ($100,00) and that got us to launch.
What would you guys say were some of the reasons that Wufoo have been this successful?
We knew that we were not the only form builders in this space, so it was really important to us that the difference come out in the personality of the product in addition to its ease of use. In the beginning, we tried to look at other interfaces for inspiration, but we realized quickly that we weren't going to learn much about how to make something easy from Microsoft Access or Infopath. I actually still don't know how to use either software to create a form.
It was really depressing to see so much software out there designed to remind people they're making databases in a windowless office and so we immediately knew we wanted to go in the opposite direction.
Like most software teams, we loved making new features and releasing them to our users. Our goal, however, was not to create code that just checked off items on a feature list. Everyone on our team participates in the direction of our application, the testing of those new features, and maintaining them from a support point of view.
Because we're a small team that desires to stay a small team, everyone had to wear multiple hats in our company and that included manning the inbox and doing customer support every single week. One of the interesting side effects of having a company where everyone has to answer support emails, is that everyone had a stake in making sure application is as easy to use as possible. We called this approach to designing software Support Driven Development and it's been really great for us. The priorities and desire for simplicity and clarity are actually the result of our people wanting to make their weekly support interactions as few and positive as possible. Getting a feature into Wufoo that added unnecessary complexity became a big no-no in our company. In fact, we made adding any element to the interface the hardest thing possible in our design process. Every button, every word, every link, every switch is scrutinized to make sure it's absolutely necessary and won't generate a future support request.
Why did you decide to sell Wufoo to SurveyMonkey? How did the deal come about?
We accepted the deal because they truly understood the mission we were on with Wufoo. We also really loved the management team and the vision they had for the data collection market.
Has anything changed since your acquisition?
Well, I’m not longer the boss and I have to commute to work everyday (everyone worked from home before the acquisition). But those are small superficial things, we still get to work on making Wufoo better for our users every single day, which is wonderful. SurveyMonkey is actually doing a lot to help us scale our infrastructure behind the scenes to expand into international markets and we’re working intimately with them to bring some of the best practices we’ve learned in interface design to their application. We’ve heard a lot of horror stories from other companies that have gone through this process, but I have to say that this has been surprisingly delightful for us. Everyone is winning.
Going back a bit, what would you say was probably the hardest part of starting and launching the business?
In the beginning, before launch, I think we were always struggling with motivation. It's so hard to carry on in that early stage when there's lots of doubt and speculation about whether you're creating the right thing. But now, we've got that in spades thanks to our users. They're just really good to us. We get so many great messages thanking us for our services and that makes trying to do something right by them everyday very easy.
Two other problems we had surrounded focus and increasing awareness about the service. We worked really hard on creating a message that was consistent and simple. Wufoo is a very versatile product, which is great once you get to know it, but presents a challenge when you're trying to market it. Your story can't be more than a mouthful if you want it to travel by word of mouth.
What has been your most memorable moment so far?
Well, right before we went out there Ryan got Cat Scratch Fever. I won't go too much into it, but it has something to do with swelling of the lymph nodes and apparently feels like someone is kicking you in your precious place all over your body. This is a disease most common to the demographic consisting of 12 year-old girls. What it comes down to is only Ryan could get a disease like this. In the grand scheme of things, it didn't really affect anything because he was over it by the time we got out there, but I like telling the story because Ryan is ridiculous and that's is the flavor that always follows us around.
What would you say has been some of the key lessons that you’ve both learned so far as an entrepreneur?
When dealing with people, always be fair. When given the choice between being honest and doing anything else, be honest. Honesty will surprise you. Oh, and so will people. People are so much more understanding than companies give them credit for. The problem is companies usually make things that can’t be empathized with. Also, things that work on a first date, totally work in software.
What advices could you give to other entrepreneurs working in the same industry as you?
Don’t give up.
What are your plans for the future of the site?
Currently, we’re focused on expanding our presence and reach into international markets. That means we’re working heavily on translations, localizations, scaling and creating a billing and payment infrastructure to support
Thanks for your time Kevin.