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Big investment into important business trend – “‘customer service as a service” /article in BRW, March 2014

30 Mar

Mark Harbottle and Leni Mayo put $250K on ‘customer service as a service’ trend

When Mikey de Wildt couldn’t deal with the customer enquiries from a WordPress plug-in he’d developed, he created a company aiming to help other micro-businesses in the same situation.

Serial entrepreneurs Leni Mayo and Mark Harbottle are backing ‘customer service as a service’ to catch on among start-ups, pouring $250,000 into a former colleague’s business which will answer your customers’ emails from $199 a month.

Mikey de Wildt, former engineer at the Harbottle-founded, Mayo-backed Sitepoint and 99designs, launched influx.com late last year as a solution to a problem he’d experienced himself.

As a side project he’d created a plug-in to WordPress which allowed bloggers to automatically backup their work to Dropbox. The plug-in has since been downloaded more than 750,000 times, creating what de Wildt calls “a second full time job” dealing with customer enquiries.

However the volume of enquiries was still too low to get the established outsourced customer service providers interested, de Wildt claims, while an ad he placed for freelancers to work an hour a day didn’t attract people willing to serve to his standards.

He started discussing his idea for influx.com over “Friday night beers” with Mayo and Harbottle, whom de Wildt knows well enough to refer to exclusively by his nickname, ‘Dax’.

“They were hands-off [at 99designs] by that stage after the Accel Partners investment, but I was lucky enough to still have great access to those guys.”

Inspired by Mike Moyer’s book on dividing equity in early stage companies,Slicing Pie, the trio established a ‘grunt fund’ to record contributions, and de Wildt began hiring the three influx.com staff that now service 10 clients alongside him, based within Sitepoint’s Melbourne office.

All four email-answerers have a technical background, de Wildt says, and he claims they are soon able to resolve 90 per cent of all customer queries for a given client.

“It’s only the real doozies we have to elevate to the founding team or developer. I’m trying to develop vertical niches – for instance ‘Wordpress themes’ or ‘Kickstarter alumni’, and the trends in customer support within these vertical niches are very similar,” de Wildt says.

“Ideally as I build the business I’ll develop pods that can share that knowledge across the clientele.”

De Wildt, who retains majority ownership of influx.com, is using the $250,000 to establish offices offshore so he can offer a 24/7 service.

“I used to work for NASA and they had satellites 60 degrees apart – in California, Canberra and Madrid – to get a 360 degree view of space so I figure I need something similar,” he says.

He is considering Monterey, Mexico, as a relatively low-cost way to service Silicon Valley start-ups.

The influx.com founders have set a target of 80 clients by the end of 2014, and Harbottle thinks there are enough young businesses out there “struggling to juggle customer service and scaling” for that target to be considered conservative.

“Traditional startup advice says stay close to your customer so you know what they want, however making the time to focus on other aspects of your business such as refining your product is just as important,” argues de Wildt.

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