How CellBreaker Scaled Customer Service Without Losing Personal Touch
When we launched our pilot in January 2014, we had very few users and a whole lot of ambition. The entire premise of CellBreaker was that, with automation technology, we could complete the tedious and time-consuming process of getting out of a contract for millions of consumers simultaneously, which, we thought, would result in a world of contracts without pain; if you hated your carrier, you could just leave, quickly and easily, with no termination fee.
But, as I've often said, for most of that 15-month-long pilot, we were a technology company with very little technology.
Customers As Investors
We had no investment and were bootstrapping on about $10K of initial startup capital. But from May 2013 to December 2013, we had whittled that $10K down to almost nothing. In December 2013, on the eve of our pilot launch, our bank account was running on fumes. For this reason, we knew that our pilot had to be designed in a way that allowed us to continue to bootstrap within the constraints of a paper-thin budget. A double-digit bank account balance is a dubious safety net. What did we do? We adopted the mindset that our only investment during the pilot would come from our customers, consumers with the precisely the problem we set out to solve, who trusted us enough to pay for our solution.
One symptom of this mindset was that, for at least the first six months of the pilot, every single customer received my personal thanks for, as I would say, "giving us a shot." I recall having the impression that folks on the receiving end of this gratitude simply appreciated this unusual degree of humility--because, as Lee Hower of NextView Ventures so nicely put it, "not everyone is killing it." Just like any creature, there is a life-cycle for a startup, and it begins with formation and infancy. Acknowledging that he doesn't have it all figured out is probably the most honest thing an infant could do. People appreciate honesty, I've discovered.
Where We Spent Money First
By May 2014, the early results of the "customers as investors" mindset (and little else) had landed CellBreaker in the finals for a $50K NC IDEA grant, which we ended up winning. Still a technology company with almost no technology, $46K dropped into our bank account, and we had to decide how to spend it. Our first expenditure was not technology. It was customer service. We hired, the now legendary, Reagan. Everyone loved Reagan. Everyone.
Not just customers--randos would sometimes walk up to me after bumping into Reagan at pitch events and tradeshows to tell me how awesome Reagan was.
[Me]: "Oh, thanks for the feedback. Are you a customer?"
[Rando]: "No. Reagan just started chatting with me, and I asked her what she did, and she told me about CellBreaker."
[Me, thinking, why isn't Reagan our pitch person?]
[Rando]: "She looked me straight in the eyes. Very articulate. She's awesome."
[Me]: "Yea, she is. I'm going to tell her about the compliment you've paid her, as I think she would appreciate that."
[Rando]: You should also give her a raise."
Her title was Community Manager, but her role was really all things customer: customer service, sales, order fulfillment, customer experience.
When she came on in August 2014, we had just under 800 customers. By the time Reagan left, earlier this month, we had over 8,000. During that growth, that shit did not hit the fan, that customers actually began evangelizing to their friends about CellBreaker, that we landed our first $25K investment, is feather exclusively in Reagan's cap. To quote so many randos, "Reagan is awesome."
It seems counter-intuitive, I know. But high-quality customer service, we decided, was prerequisite to high-quality technology, and we prioritized our spending accordingly. I hear it often: so many technology startups fall out of touch with reality--customers, investors, partners--because they fall in love with their technology at the expense and exclusion of everything else. Obviously, those startups never had a Reagan, otherwise there would be no contest.
Finally, The Technology
By January 2015, we were winding down our 15-month pilot and preparing to launch our next platform in March 2015. We sent an email out at the end of January to investors and partners highlighting what we planned to focus on for the next 45 days in advance of the March launch.
The lion's share of our focus would be on a test for the new platform's pricing model. Whereas, during our 15-month pilot, we charged $10 for an analysis of a customer's account and contract "breakability," the new platform would launch with a free and recurring analysis.
The free part was a big change--both for our cashflow and for the cost-benefit analysis a potential customer would weigh in deciding whether to sign up. By making the analysis free, we hypothesized, a higher percentage of people visiting the site would request an analysis. This would give us more "breakable" leads, and, even if the analysis-breaker conversion stayed the same, more breakable leads meant more breakers.
The recurring part was an important change too, because, by making the analysis free and recurring, customers had an incentive to stick around even after we got them out of their unwanted contract. This is what we hypothesized, anyway. What we knew from our pilot is that, once folks get out of a contract for an "essential service" like cell phone, they immediately sign up for new service, usually with a new provider. This means that there will always be some service--in contract or not--that our technology could monitor for customers, for free and automatically.
We were excited to run the test and collect data to validate our new pricing model, and based on immediate feedback we received from investors and partners who received that email, so were they.
A Rocky Transition
While we anticipated that the transition from the pilot to the new platform might be a bit choppy, we didn't anticipate our entire system shutting down. But it did, completely. Unfortunately, though, this wasn't due to any sort of normal growing pains or expected setup costs. It was due to theft.
I won't harp on it here. But the short story is that two unscrupulous guys who did contract development for us in the past weren't fans of our proposal to reduce our revenue in the short-term (by making the analysis free). So, one day in early February 2015, without warning, they surreptitiously hijacked three of our core assets that were vital to our operations. In doing so, they severed connections between those core assets and all of the ancillary services that enabled us to serve our high volume of customers (>7K at the time).
This is how the two unscrupulous guys euphemized the theft on their blog:
After a year and a half of a mutually beneficial relationship, our client decided to stop honoring our revenue share agreement. In a desire to avoid litigation procedures, we decided to suspend the client’s access from their application. However, and we want to be very clear on this, Vaporware did not steal any assets or information. In fact, despite numerous public accusations of criminal theft, Vaporware has had permitted access to the client’s servers and information since the start of the relationship, and that access remains active at the time of this blog post. We learned that our response was adversarial and pushed the client further away from reasonable settlement terms, instead of providing persuasion to uphold the contractual agreements.
While they acknowledged the attempted extortion, they argued that "suspending access" did not constitute theft. Nor did they elaborate on the fact that their actions, theft or not, completely derailed CellBreaker's operations and threatened to harm CellBreaker customers.
In any case, we weren't going to let anyone harm our customers--not carriers, not rogue developers, no one. They eventually relented and tried to return many of the stolen CellBreaker assets, but the pieces were a mangled pile of disconnected parts. The system remained inoperable.
What this forced us to do was put the test on hold and focus on recovering.
Recovery consisted of two priorities:
- Rebuilding the hijacked system from the ground up.
- Keeping all active customer cases on track, despite not having access to most of our system.
Suffice it to say that the period between early February and this week was a crisis moment for CellBreaker. But it wasn't primarily a technology or order fulfillment crisis. It was primarily a customer relations crisis.
One of the symptoms of the theft was our inability to communicate promptly with existing customers. Our product team was working double-time on rebuilding the CellBreaker system and launching the new platform, and everyone else was busy keeping customer cases on track, leaving no one to focus on customer communication. Trust me, regardless of advances in technology or business models, if you fail to communicate effectively with your customers, they will hate you; and I'm pretty sure that some hate surfaced in this situation, and duly so. We flat-out sucked at communication during this period (just look at some of the customer posts to our social media pages during this period; ouch).
Another symptom was zero cashflow. With the system broken, new customers weren't able to sign up or place new orders. Remember that part about customers being our main investors? Well, in essence, despite customers wanting to invest during this period, they couldn't. So our cashflow dried up, and we couldn't afford to retain key team members. One of these casualties was our star Community Manager. She had to be able to pay her bills, and she couldn't afford to wait for CellBreaker to recover.
Humpty Dumpty, Put Back Together Again
This week, we finally recovered. With no time for announcement or celebration, we quietly launched both our new platform, Veeto, and the rebuilt CellBreaker. We transitioned customers to the new CellBreaker, and then I personally reached out to customers one phone call at a time, in advance of writing this post, hat in hand, to offer both an explanation and an apology for what occurred.
Fully expecting to encounter beacoups of frustration and discontent, I was surprised to discover that customers empathized with our recent struggle and appreciated how we responded, prioritizing getting our system back online and keeping customer cases on track. Sure, they agreed that the communication blackout sucked, but they were pleased to share in the excitement of having overcome the crisis. Maybe they were just excited about the fact that, now, we're actually a technology company with technology. Hell, I know I was/am.
High-quality customer service is one of the core pillars of the CellBreaker mission: contracts without pain. Our startup is a protest against big service providers who don't care about the customer experience. We obsess over it, and lose sleep when it lags. But we also walk away from every conversation in which a customer says something like, "good job" or "I'm a fan of what you're doing" with smiles so pronounced that our faces hurt and a high so pulsing that we also lose sleep (not a whole lot of sleep around here).
I think the key lessons we've learned are:
- Think of your early customers as your first investors, and do what you must to get investment.
- Invest in customer service first and technology second.
- Don't walk away from your mission without a fight, without leaving it all on the field.
- Celebrate victories with customers.
Who are you building your startup for?
It's analagous to the difference between fending for yourself and fending for your family. You fight harder and longer for your family when you know that the consequence of losing is pain for your family. Maybe you're OK with enduring pain yourself. But you don't want to be the guy that subjects your family to pain because you gave up too soon. CellBreaker customers are all family. This is for them.
YOUR CELLBREAKER FOUNDER