Dave Will, Co-Founder and CEO at PropFuel
While working for SAP, a multi-billion dollar software company, nearly 20 years ago, Dave Will was advised to "walk faster and smile less, because perception is reality". Dave took this feedback to heart and started a business based on the antithesis of this advice. 14 years later, Dave successfully sold his company, Peach, a Learning Management System. Since then, Dave and his partner, Cameron Aubuchon, built a Feedback Automation Platform called PropFuel which is taking the old concept of a survey and turning it into a sophisticated customer and employee engagement platform.
AUTOMATED EPISODE TRANSCRIPT
[00:00:01] You're listening to Scaling Up Services where we speak with entrepreneurs authors business experts and thought leaders to give you the knowledge and insights you need to scale your service based business faster and easier. And now here is your host Business Coach Bruce Eckfeldt.
[00:00:22] Welcome everyone. This is scaling up services Bruce Eckfeldt. I'm your host and today our guest is David Will who is founder and CEO of Propfuel. And we're going to talk a little bit about his entrepreneurial experience and his experience in service companies and product companies and then what he's doing with fuel. So Dave welcome to the program.
[00:00:41] Hey Bruce thanks man I appreciate it. So what do we start.
[00:00:44] I always like to have this kind of a little bit of background how they got to what you're doing today. And in that I would love to talk about your previous company because I think there's a great story in from a service based business how do you think about the different kind of strategies and how do you develop growth in that. And then we talk a little bit about profitable but give us the background. How do you get into this.
[00:01:03] So there's a story I always like to tell. If you've ever talked to me for more than two or three minutes you probably have heard this but there is there is a time in between business school years. So this is in between a business school two years in between I was doing an internship and I was working for SJP.
[00:01:21] This is basically how my world changed from having a job to having the passion as an entrepreneur.
[00:01:28] All right. So in between these two years working for SJP huge multi-billion dollar software company complex HP and ERP system my manager Mark as he was walking me in the door he literally put his arm around my shoulder and he says so a date and you know he's low and raises that always clear you up to the fact that you're not going to have a great fit.
[00:01:52] So Dave and the other one is let's chat. There have been companies say hey act. We chat it ever ever again.
[00:02:01] He didn't say that but what he did say was so Dave and he put his arm around me as he's walking in the door literally I'm walking out the last day says a little bit of advice for you. Moving forward I encourage you when you're walking through the halls I encourage you to walk a little faster and smile less because perception is reality. That is awesome because it's you can do it. It's not like being smarter or better words.
[00:02:27] It's just like using nice relief well I'll let you know I can't do that but you can walk faster and you can smile less. You can do that it's physical I can do that.
[00:02:36] So I got fired three years later because I was incapable of actually doing that. And a phrase I would hear is something as I go lack sense of urgency. But ultimately around the tech bubble I got fired from the systems integration company I was working for at the time. And it struck me at that moment I was never going to be it sounds Eric was never gonna be great working for somebody. I was going to do I. I was a chameleon I could do all kinds of things but it was that day that I got fired and shortly thereafter I started a business on the antithesis of Mark's advice my right. One of my core values right now I got it off my wall right over here my values is Walk slow smile more I love it so is not literal walks though it's actually just means enjoy the journey not doing something where you can enjoy the journey enjoy the highs and you're going to have lows but to a certain degree you kinda kind of like a pain you know. And that's the walk slow and the smile more is pretty literal and you just smile more man. And so that was the origins of what led me down this path of career creating a business. In 2001 I started a business club what ultimately became peach new media. It started as a services company and it evolved into a software company and sold that to a KKR private equity firm.
[00:03:57] We were bolted on some other company and to that 15 and then here we are a couple of years later.
[00:04:03] A few years later I'm two years into a new startup called Prop fuel which is focused PR Opie.
[00:04:10] It's focused on creating continuous feedback campaigns through generally speaking from employees and customers something I mentioned to you earlier is good attraction and scaling up have elements of their checklist that are completely focused on. Do you get feedback from your employees and do you get feedback from your customers that solicit. We've built a system designed specifically for driving feedback on a continuous basis as opposed to like the survey monkey which you realize Survey Monkey was invented.
[00:04:44] I think back in the ancient Roman days and they stone tablets.
[00:04:51] Nothing has changed in the way we do survey now versus a thousand years ago the only thing that's changed is we email it out instead of carving it into a tap. Easy. Yeah but you look at you look at like marketing automation and it started emails started in nineteen ninety two is when most people start to get an email address and then like 20 years later we have marketing automation software that's amazing. Why haven't surveys evolve so tropical is survey automation platform that we built. We believe we're on the edge of what what people are doing and capturing feedback.
[00:05:26] And that's my story.
[00:05:27] Man fast smile less so let's talk a little bit because I think the interesting thing here is I think most companies they think about customers they think about you know basically the people that are paying them. How do they collect feedback from them.
[00:05:40] How do they make sure that their customers are satisfied. I'm not sure people really think as much about employees and how you keep employees satisfied and why that's important.
[00:05:50] And I think for service based businesses you know whether you're a retailer or whether your professional consulting firm your people are critical to your business. And I think that if you're not doing some level of getting feedback getting data from how your people are doing are they engaged. Are they motivated. Are they aligned. What can we do to improve the experience. How do we make them better employees better people better experts in the work that they're doing. I think there's a lot of people at a minimum are driving blind.
[00:06:22] They just don't know or they don't they don't know where they're going go. They don't they don't have the insight to actually improve their product and service. So I think a lot of a lot of companies will focus a lot on customer feedback but they really don't think about employee feedback and I think for service based companies it's really critical to understand understand who's engaged who's not. Where do you need to help. Where can you sharpen the ax I guess. How how did you decide on employee customer feedback like what was the driving need that you saw to get you into this space.
[00:06:51] It's interesting. It's an evolution even though we've been in business two years so this is still a startup in my eyes. In what was true or the course of the first 14 years in my first business is also true in this business and that is what you start to be is not what you're going to be. In most cases in most cases you have an idea. And if you ever watch Dan Pink's where great ideas come from you see that great ideas don't come from sitting in a corner going off and as you see in Silicon Valley going off in the desert with a bag of mushrooms they they are great ideas come from exchange and interaction. So over the course of two years what we thought we were creating and what we ended up creating have been different what we thought we were creating actually was an employee engagement platform. That's what we thought we're creating. What we ended up creating was a feedback automation platform. And let me explain what the differences in employee engagement platform is what I wish I had in my last company. You have 40 employees every week I would send out I concocted a kind of a a mix of a Google Doc an automated email a calendar reminder all this stuff to create a series of questions short just a couple of questions that would go out to employees or spark some recognition and that concept worked really really well.
[00:08:07] As an employee engagement and feedback system for me as leader of a 40 person company was awesome really really really cool system. We did all kinds of stuff with employees loved it. It's one of the few things that I implemented by things I mean kind of ancillary stuff that I implemented in my company that stuck know things like book clubs and and other rewards systems like we try these and go for a few months fizzle. This was one of the only things that really stuck for a long long period of time. So we decided I say we my partner current partner is Cameron. He is was the CTO of my last company and he and I both appreciated that element of the business and we decided that we wanted to build a business to package that up into a really cool system. That's what we thought we were creating. What we ended up creating was a feedback platform where we no longer really see much of a difference between capturing feedback from any stakeholder so employees are certainly one of the stakeholders and your business partners our stakeholder your board of directors or stakeholder your customers are certainly stakeholders you have different segments of customers that you might break down and get feedback from.
[00:09:18] If you're an association you might even have members that you're getting feedback from nonprofits have have donors that they're getting feedback from so you have all these different stakeholders and if you look at just customers as we already liberty you have different segments within the customer base. So what we've evolved to is a way to manage feedback from a lot of different entities through the use of feedback campaigns drip campaigns as well as scheduled campaigns but a piece of that is the employee feedback where generally speaking an employee feedback campaign looks different than a customer feedback campaign. But overall what we've evolved into an out you know if I'm answering question anymore but just to into is this feedback automation platform. That was our journey. And what's really cool I think about what we're doing is we're not this isn't a better mousetrap. This is a different we're catching different rodents completely friend animal. This doesn't exist. Yeah certainly there is. There's employee engagement tools especially for enterprise customer success tools that are focused on customer success. What's really cool about what we've created is we've created a system for turning feedback or driving feedback by focusing on business problems that are are fed by these campaigns. So it's almost like taking marketing automation and then turning around and instead of giving sending content your receipt in content.
[00:10:51] What's an example so give us a you know either a you know an idea of how you see it being applied or how it's been applied in cases. I get it conceptually but I'd love to kind of get some meat on the bones here.
[00:11:02] That's a good way of doing it so naturally let's talk about employee engagement. So there's there's an employee engagement campaign an employee engagement campaign might consist of weekly questions to your team along with some recognition opportunity it might consist. Maybe it's every two weeks maybe two every month. Some some people that do employee engagement let's think a little bit more along the lines of a performance map management where you might ask monthly questions a series of monthly questions that are always the same. What you learned in the last 60 or 30 days what are you. What do you most want to learn in the next 30 days. What are your top priorities this month. What were your major accomplishments in the last month. What are your hurdles. You know things like that that's performance management type questions that you might ask on a monthly basis just to. It's like the tick tock in a clock. It's keeping things rolling in. Or maybe you want to train people to start thinking strategically where you might ask weekly questions that are a little more strategic and require a little more thought like What do you admire about our competitors or or what's the what's one thing that would make this the greatest year in the history of the company. Or maybe there's an element of team bonding and morale. If you have disparate employees people in different locations maybe it's just a matter of getting people to know each other a little bit better what's something weird fact about yourself. Where do you want to go on vacation next. Describe the dream vacation. What's a good book you've read recently.
[00:12:27] What's your spirit animal. You could ask whatever you might snake by the way but that's a different story. Yeah like that.
[00:12:37] So. So that's that's one example of how you might run employee engagement camping.
[00:12:45] There's other kinds of campaigns of course you have kind of generic customer campaigns or I just got off the phone with somebody that worked with municipalities enterprises and education. Those are the three verticals. They may run a campaign specifically focused on their municipalities another campaign is done enterprises and another campaign focused on education so they have different questions for different customers that are out there.
[00:13:08] Here's another one that I really really like and I'll end with this one is a new customer campaign. This one is only going to last for 6 9 months maybe a year before they get thrust into your general customer campaign which is like this ongoing scheduled monthly or quarterly theme. But the first year of a customer is really really important because if you don't wow them if you're not really providing value in your 1 chances are they're not going to be there too. So so the year 1 questions are gonna be a little bit different you know day 1 after they become a customer maybe a week or two after they become a customer you send them a question saying So what did you think of the onboarding process or how is your sales. How was the experience sales process. What could we do better to make it more efficient to whatever. Lots of questions about the sales or the onboarding process. Tell me about something or what are you most excited about working with our company. What. Or maybe six months in what's something that you wish we did that we don't currently do. Yeah I think question oftentimes the thing they wish you did. You actually do it you know. So there is a revenue opportunity. So onboarding is another kind of campaign. So the list goes on. You could have seven eight nine different feedback campaigns going in any given company.
[00:14:29] Yeah. So how do you deal with one of things I was sure to find with this you know getting feedback and surveys in these campaigns and stuff is this kind of you know survey fatigue you know that that you know I can I can ask a lot of questions and get a little response or a lot of response on a few questions like How do you kind of strategize or dial it in in terms of what's the what's the right number of questions and different situations to get different kind of responses. What's your work. What have you learned around this.
[00:14:56] Well one thing we've learned is surveys suck right. That's like the biggest thing we've learned to survey sucked back in when they were stoned and templates and surveys suck. Now when you email a survey monkey oftentimes and I'll tell you how we came up with surveys back how we use Survey Monkey back then maybe five six seven years ago my last company we'd be talking our executive team would be there with talking to our marketing person in the company and we'd be doing over how we thought the customers perceive something we did. And then somebody you have this awesome idea they'd be like we should send a survey and we're like yes. We haven't gotten feedback from our customers in quite some time. This is what we need to do let's send a survey. OK so Amelia will you go build a survey for us. Yes I'm on it. Amelia goes and builds a survey and there's like 15 good questions. But then somebody else says you know what else we need to know. And they throw on another one before you know you got twenty five questions that are crafted probably poorly and you send this out you get maybe a 15 20 percent response rate and then you have a spreadsheet of answers you'll look at it and then you put it away or better yet I find that you look at it and find evidence for the things that you're already.
[00:16:09] No one really knew that I was right click laughs.
[00:16:15] All right. So God we could never improve on that. So anyway that's something we've improved on that.
[00:16:21] And the trick is rather than getting feedback when you think of it or when you once a year and throwing it out there it's a pain in the ass to create surveys. Nobody on the end because it's really hard to come up with the right questions too. So creating a survey sucks but taking a survey is even worse if you're on the receiving end of it and you've got you know how much do you like that progress bar at the bottom. The most exciting things about surveys are seeing how far you are in the progress. So our goal the way we've improved that the way we're seeing a better return response than most is number one we give people the option to click on something in the email. So how hard is it you're sitting there and I'm holding my phone in front of you right now. But I know you can't see this when you're listening but imagine holding your phone in right and you told me not to do this didn't you. You don't explain with your hands edge in your holding your phone in your hand and you're flipping through your e-mail you're in line at Dunkin Donuts in the morning by the way that just you don't.
[00:17:22] It's only don't get now.
[00:17:24] So you're in line at Dunkin and and they're just waiting to order that must that incredibly needed coffee and you're scrolling through your emails and you get one and ask for a survey and let's say it's an end B.S. net promoter score which is zero to 10. You can click on that eight nine ten. And I'm never passive so let's make it a nine nine. It's one button on click in your e-mail then it brings you to another page where it asks you to go into a little more information. But there's only one maybe two more questions before there's a submit button. So the difference between that and a survey oftentimes surveys a progress bar and in order to get to them you have to click on the button that says Take our survey. So you know it's some semantics in there but the bigger thing is that what we're doing is we're creating a series of these really sure check ins like the surveys we're going to come check. You're creating a series of really short check ins where people can give you a really quick answer. And as a result you're getting more feedback that's a little more accurate because it's not just a stamp in time it's a continuous flow of feedback over a long period of time. And and on your end because it's this automated system it's a heck of a lot easier to manage.
[00:18:42] Yeah yeah I'd like the idea of you're making a much much more kind of user friendly and kind of the ability to engage it's much easier and then structuring that out on the other side.
[00:18:52] This trends that you can see doing it this way as well where it's a lot more difficult to line trends up when you have different spreadsheets that you're aligning the trends up to so maybe you do an NPA every year. And then what you get is you break out the scores from at NPR and probably have your admin or some or your marketing person put a little report together and how A.S. compares. Whereas when you have a platform like this where you're continually receiving feedback over a year two years three years you can actually look at the trends right there in the platform without hiring it happened.
[00:19:25] Yeah. And what kind of I guess what kind of results have you seen or with this data. So you've collect this data you're not have these insights about what's going on with these different segments whether they're employees or vendors or partners or customers. What how have you seen from a management point of view from an operations point of view. How have you seen people turn that data into decisions or insights that have led to changes in the organization.
[00:19:47] It starts with a business problem. We're not just throwing questions out there with the hopes of identifying business problems although that happens sometimes you sometimes ask questions and you get surprised.
[00:20:01] So I guess it's easy to find problems often you know maybe there's there's opportunities that arise that does happen where see opportunities that arise.
[00:20:12] But oftentimes you're trying to solve a business problem. So what this does is that it gives you a metric track metrics associated with his business problem and it also allows you to identify opportunities to improve this particular business problem.
[00:20:26] Now having said that I always say that 60 percent of the value in feedback automation platform like 60 percent of the value is giving people a chance to hear a question and chew on it. So giving them a channel giving them a venue to talk. And that works in real life as well as it works in digitally asking people questions is incredibly valuable. Bruce when you get no compensation go to a party. What works better walking up to somebody say hey I'm Bruce X Files I'm a coach and I'm awesome. Let me tell you about how awesome I am. The things I've done with my festival as you wouldn't believe me.
[00:21:02] I mean that I would listen that people are going to look for their opportunity get another crack at the exact now and the alternative is you go up to people and you'll be like hey I'm Bruce Excel.
[00:21:11] I'm a coach I'm curious what's your business what what do you do. What are you passionate about. And you're gonna have a much deeper dialogue and you know some curiosity. So 60 percent of what we do is giving people an opportunity to tell us something. Yeah 30 percent of what we do is listening to what they're telling us right. The first one is just giving them a venue to talk. The second is actually absorbing what they're saying. The last 10 percent is actually doing something that most of the time. Bruce you don't do anything with it. Most of the time it's the asking and the listening that's most important. The last piece is occasionally you're actually going to get a nugget that is going to help you progress in that business problem or at least measure it. So. So I think oftentimes people get a little too hung up on what am I going to do with this. Well what you're going to do is you're going to listen. You think that's what you're gonna do. You're going to listen when people are talking to you. And then occasionally yes you're going to act on it there's gonna be an opportunity for improvement. So it's important when you're listening. And by the way we recommend our customers schedule 15 minutes every Friday to listen. And what I mean by that is they literally book A Time In Their calendar you know 15 minutes doesn't take more than that fact it takes less than oftentimes to scan the feedback they're getting. They don't get it doesn't happen. So scan the feedback they're getting. That's the listening part of it. And occasionally when they're scanning it they're going to see something that's really highly relevant to that business problem. Oftentimes they will see that in that case they're gonna send this opportunity off they're going to send a note off to somebody that can actually make change related to that feedback. You just got to answer a question.
[00:22:57] Yeah no it does because I think that's I like the idea that you kind of start with a context that it's not just well I'm going to have these really open ended or I mean it's like hey how was how are you doing. But you actually kind of put a hypothesis together. I mean if we think of experiment design like we have some kind of professors or some kind of frame that we're operating within and we want to inquiry around that in such a way where I'm going to get knowledge right. So how do I get more insight more data more knowledge around this. That helps me as I'm from a manager in front of you make better decisions around that.
[00:23:26] That's one of the problems I think with annual surveys Bruce is because oftentimes because it's a one shot thing we just try to send out this. It's like a buckshot right. You try to send out this damn I'm being graphic and I just.
[00:23:39] Yes Dave Davies is mimicking a shotgun. Visualize that as I continue with my analogy here but it's like this you're asking a survey that bans so many different things
[00:23:52] That you've lost your objective. Yeah and the same is true with anything offensive rocks when it comes to attraction or I mean if you don't know what problem they're trying to solve. Who knows what problem you're actually going to end up solving. Yeah would rather be very very focused on the problems that matter let's create campaigns that are focused around the feedback on those particular issues. The other stuff I don't give a shit about it. Let's not worry about other issues that are irrelevant to us.
[00:24:19] That's good. I think for you know for leaders inside service companies here this this whole idea of working with feedback whether it's internal and I like I hadn't even thought about it but the whole idea of you know your vendor is your partners you know other people in your supply chain other people that you rely upon in different ways. You know getting feedback from them like all of this is about building relationships and building kind of capability and engagement. So I think that's really I think that's really important I think some really great takeaways for folks there.
[00:24:44] What I wanted to do tick up just a little bit and before we run out time here because I think your your entrepreneurial story is really great in terms of your previous company was a service based business and you move to more of a product make business which we and we keep talking about this in the service industries is how do you either you know pivot into more product or make your service look more like a product. I would love to hear kind of how that played out for you and how that really changed the way the company operated like what you were able to do with it. Tell us a little bit about that experience for you.
[00:25:15] Yes. Should I use the back scratcher. Yeah sure. Yes. I'm holding a back scratcher here in my hand as you can see it's a nice classic wooden one has a llama sized thing on the side and a scratch on the side. And so my company. This is an analogy. People we didn't actually sell back scratchers but in this metaphor as if like I don't know it's a metaphor an analogy or simile or something like that. But we we would basically sell the service of scratching backs that we would sell a service. We said hey we'll scratch your back and here's how much it costs. And we did that for a long long time.
[00:25:50] And we built a really cool back scratcher to do it you know. But it was our back scratcher. We were using to complete the service. It struck us really really it was almost overnight how fast it struck us that we were actually a back scratching manufacturing company not a back scratching company.
[00:26:12] And and I thought that was really cool so let me let me now get away from the analogy and explain to you what we actually did. We were building platforms to help people capture content and hosted online. So in this case we were doing a lot of webinars and a lot of learning programs sometimes webcasts that we'd capture in person somewhere and we would then take all of this content both live and on demand and we put it into this Web site. We build a Web site for them centered around their learning programs. If you know anything about online learning it sounds a heck of a lot like a learning management system. And so we did one day is rather than selling the development of these sites and selling the ability to capture content. What we did one day is we decided that we were actually selling the learning management system and we created the system over the short or very very short period of time took our back scratcher and converted it into this thing that people could actually manage themselves. So we went from a services oriented business where we would charge by the project and by how much they used our services to a business that was now incurring monthly recurring revenue because they were buying our software.
[00:27:32] So we always had maintained a certain level service associated with it but by the time we sold our business Sixty five percent of it was recurring revenue.
[00:27:41] Yeah I'm sure that helped. I'm sure that helped in the sale.
[00:27:43] Oh yeah. And when it comes the multiples on a service based business versus a recurring revenue software company it's dramatically different. And we were very much so the same company we made some fundamental changes in how we sold it in the messaging. We made some fundamental changes in the product and didn't take a ton of some changes in the product building and admin functionality so that the way our people managed it we could actually put them in front of the customer and then the third thing we did is we changed our pricing model and to be honest we actually the customers made out we had to do we cut costs cut we cut the price to convert them to this monthly recurring revenue but in the long run the value of the business went way up.
[00:28:32] Yeah. Great story.
[00:28:35] So we're at time here so I would love to keep going on on all these I'm sure there's lots more stories and discussions about both of these businesses that we could get into but if people want to find out more about you about fuel what's the best way to contact you or get more information.
[00:28:49] Really easy to contact us if you just go to WWL debt truck fuel dot com. Of course I can always be reached at Dave at prop fuel dot com. I'm all over LinkedIn and and all the social media accounts too. Awesome. Yeah mean you know if you type in prop fuel or feedback automation we're the only ones that show up.
[00:29:09] There you go. Feedback automation you own you own the word yeah. Yeah I'm going to make sure those links are in the show notes so people can click through. This is great. Thanks for taking.
[00:29:19] Yeah you actually have. If anyone's interested and you go to. I don't need to. We don't need to make a special site for this and in our resources section which is very very clear. We actually have one hundred. I think it's one hundred and sixty questions to ask your employees and your customers. So it's it's a really good white paper that just spark some ideas on the kinds of questions you can start asking people to get some valuable feed back.
[00:29:44] And then if you're in associations one specific team her associations a lot of good resources. There's also a culture document now. This one's a little bit older but it's kind of a fun read because it's all about creating a great culturing organization. I think it's called one hundred one tips to creating a great culture.
[00:30:00] Awesome so I'll put links to those two so people can get right to it. Good thanks. Thanks so much. And I'll look forward to keeping in touch and hearing how things play out.
[00:30:08] Thank you brother Bruce. Scream knock and shape the time like
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