Interview with Bill Dettering

Bill Dettering is a lifelong entrepreneur, with a disdain for VC culture.  Bill has founded five startups, and is now actively working on bringing interactive decision trees to mainstream acceptance with his Zingtree SaaS product. As a part of our SMB Expert Wisdom Project we contacted Bill Dettering of Zingtree and asked him 5 questions. 

1. How would you define ‘small business’ in 2016? 

My perspective on what “small” means is probably a lot different than most, since I’ve been an entrepreneur all my life, and have never taken outside money.  What has been working for Zingtree, and for other software startups I’ve founded, is a very small team (3 to 7) of dedicated people, and then adding contractors for specific projects as needed.  I’m always amazed at how we are able to keep pace with much larger organizations by just being smart and efficient with our resources.

To me, anything over 12 people is no longer “small”.  150 or more is “large”.

2. How do you think technology has re-shaped the SMEs (amazing and sad ways)?

The benefits of our technological revolution far outweigh the negatives. There are so many great, free tools to build products now than ever before. As a software publisher, we can focus on the high level stuff, and using tools like PHP. MySQL, Bootstrap, JQuery and Javascript we’re able to make an amazing end-user experience with very little effort.  Five or six years ago, building web apps like Zingtree would have taken so much longer, and now that the infrastructure is here, and getting better, “small” companies like us are able to make some awesome products that compete with and outclass offerings from much larger, public companies.

We also use SaaS services in our business, which have also been inspiring for us to build our own SaaS product.  For example, Stripe has been great for handling payments. We have also had great success engaging customers with Intercom.  And we’re hoping that the interactive decision trees our customers build with Zingtree become equally as useful to people.

The downside of the tech revolution for us is that we run the risk of having to compete with free offerings that some guy in a garage in Russia builds, at an even lower cost than we are able to do.  This has happened to one of my other previous companies, where we’re having to compete with “free”, and the incremental changes we make need to really differentiate us.  But as long as we continue to improve our SaaS product – especially with great customer feedback – I don’t see us losing business to anything free any time soon.  For example, MySQL is a threat to Oracle, yet both are able to co-exist as long as companies are willing to pay for the extra layer of power and security that Oracle offers.

3. Please give 5 notions that would define small business owners in the future. 

In order to be a good owner, I think you have to be able to manage any part of your business.  I’ve done the one-person company thing before, and this was invaluable as far as honing my skills in all aspects of running a business.  I also have 15 year old twins, and am interested in what they are learning in school, since I believe that entrepreneurship will be one of the few viable ways to earn a good living in the future. I have a liberal arts degree in psychology, and being well-rounded really helps.

For me, I think these skills are important:
– Writing code and building finished products
– Marketing: Be able to promote your products. Learn basic SEO and advertising.
– Have a sense of design.  Graphic design is my achilles heel, since I never was much good at art, but I can tell good design when I see it, and I can incorporate templates from real designers to make things that look aesthetically pleasing.
– Be focused on User Experience: As a Psychology major, and this has helped a bit in designing products that people can actually use.  Also – just using other people’s products and seeing what works and where they fail is extremely valuable.  And, listening to feedback from customers, and iterating continually to make better and better products is important.
– Be a good writer.  The ability to communicate effectively, whether in emails, search ads, product pages, blog posts, or help documentation, is super important.  If people don’t understand your product, they will abandon you.  This is probably the hardest thing for technically oriented business owners.
– Embrace Math.  Just like the science classes in school, good experimentation with A/B testing is critical in getting your product offerings just right. And just being aware of your cash flow and what it truly costs to acquire customers versus their lifetime value is important too.

4. What’s the best strategy to overcome the Digital Divide? 

One of the hot areas for our Zingtree interactive decision trees is in Call Centers, where there is a huge disparity in technology in use.  We have a range of customers. Some are still using printed paper scripts, while others are fully integrating with Salesforce, Zendesk, or other platforms.  (We even had one customer who was using an MS-DOS system – in 2016!)

The challenge for us to capture people on the other sde of the divide is to show value.  We need to properly communicate why having call center agents use dynamic, interactive scripts that can be easily modified is superior to what they are doing now, and help management justify the per-agent-per-day cost associated with it. Showing reports and analytics is also a great way to get potential customers to make the investment in time and resources to adopt our technology.

5. Who is your favourite blogger recently?

I really enjoy the blog from Groove by Alex Turnbull.  He has been very generious in exposing the inner workings of his business, including some financials.  Many of his strategies are interesting, and while we haven’t adopted everything, some things like incorporating Intercom have been invaluable. I also like reading about his organizational structure.

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