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Desk.com Sells for $80 Million Just 11 Months After Product Release; Founder Tells How
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Alex Bard is a software entrepreneur who has been part of the founding team of four internet start ups, including eShare Technologies (1996-1999), eAssist Global Solutions (1999-2004), Goowy Media (2004-2008) and Desk.com (founded 2009).

Desk.com released the alpha version of its customer service application in early 2010, the beta version came out in September 2010, and the full public release was in October 2010. In September 2011, Salesforce.com bought the company for $80 million.

Not a bad return for two years' work.

Of course, Bard and his team have many more years of experience and knowledge under their collective belts. Desk.com (originally called Assistly) was founded by Bard, Gary Benitt, Brad Birnbaum, and Jeremy Suriel, who'd worked together since the 1990s in building customer service-based companies.

Post-acquisition, Bard is now VP and GM of Salesforce.com and CEO of Desk.com. He's also an advisor and investor in several start-ups including Watercooler, Foodzie, Irata Labs (acquired by IGN), and others.

We caught up with him recently to get his advice for fellow software entrepreneurs.

Tip #1: Your investors may become buyers.

Desk.com was originally self-funded by the founders. The firm took a seed round in April 2010, plus a second round in December 2010; Salesforce.com was an investor in that second round.

"Prior to the acquisition, we experienced tremendous growth," says Bard, "and a big reason we were excited about the deal was there was a lot of alignment along the social front. We knew that Salesforce would allow us accelerate the pace."

Today. the number of companies that use the product is in the thousands, Bard says; 30 percent of them are international.

Desk.com headquarters are in San Francisco, inside the Salesforce facilities. There are also development-specific offices in New York, plus remote office "everywhere," Bard says.

Employee count is currently under 100, but growing: "We're hiring aggressively, in product development, product management, testing and QA, and support and sales," he says.

Tip #2: Build what you know, but adapt to changing times.

"I've build three or four companies in the customer support arena," says Bard. "Each time, each company was created to take advantage of what we saw as a significant market movement.

"The first, in 1990, capitalized on the fact that the web was becoming a channel. We launched a support product to engage customer email or chat. The second was in the late 1990s, when we saw that customers were beginning to communicate in in new ways.

"Then in 2009, with Assistly, the hypothesis was that social media would have a profound and lasting effect on customer support. Most businesses think of support as a cost center and a necessary evil. With social media, the experience a customer has -- both good and bad -- is now broadcast and amplified much more broadly than ever before.

"So when we started, in our slide deck, we used a quote from Jeff Bezos: 'If you make a customer unhappy in the physical world, they'll tell six people. If you make someone unhappy on the internet, they'll tell 6,000 friends.'

"Social media is not a fad; it's clearly a way we communicate. Here's an example: Zappos, whose motto is 'Powered by service.' Their tagline used to be, 'World's largest shoe store.' What makes them special is their focus on the customer and on customer support.

There are businesses where it is critical today, and others where it will become more important over time. There are 900 million users on Facebook who are using these avenues more and more to communicate."

Tip #3: Design your product to do what the customer wants, not what you want.

"In a perfect world, every customer gets supported, because every customer represents an opportunity to delight someone," Bard says.

"I recently spent time with the CTO of the world's largest bank. They're very interested in a customer's complete profile, not just how much money that customer has. This bank is now looking at influence -- who am I connected to? How much money do I influence? Maybe at first brush I don't look that valuable, but if I have a terrible experience, I can influence whole bunch of people to leave the bank.

"Our tool is integrated with Klout, and also integrates to back office apps to see how much that customer has spent. It isn’t perfect, but it's getting better. Still, you have to want to understand what that [customer] value is."

"Customer support is tough in any business. The customer controls the communication more than the company does. In the past, a customer could call the company, or send them a letter, and that was the best you could do.

"Today, you won't do that. If you've had a bad experience, you'll go on Facebook or Twitter and scream.

"That challenge exists for companies like mine that deliver a B2B solution, but also works for a taco shop or a toll booth operator. It"s making us all more accountable for our actions."

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