Starting a Commerce Application Company
Interview with Bazaarvoice Co-Founder Brant Barton
Brant Barton opened Bazaarvoice with Brett Hurt in 2006. Now they have offices in Austin, London, Paris, and Singapore.
Bazaarvoice is the worldwide leader in hosted social commerce applications that drive sales.
Tell me about your current business. What are you doing exactly?
Bazaarvoice helps 250+ businesses gather user-generated content on their websites and use that content to drive measurable business results. For example, our product Ratings & Reviews solution enables consumers to write reviews of products on their favorite retailer and manufacturer websites, and our customers use that review content to increase sales, drive natural search traffic to their websites, decrease return rates, and much more. We offer two other social commerce solutions - Ask & Answer, which enables customer-driven Q&A, and Stories, which allows customers to share experiences around themes, brands, or holidays - as well as several programs and services that enhance our offerings. We have a professional services team that works directly with each of our clients to help them get the most from their customer-generated content.
When did you start the business?
I co-founded the business with Brett Hurt, our CEO, in May 2005, and we publicly launched the company in February 2006.
What were you doing before this, and is this your first business?
Prior to founding Bazaarvoice, I worked at Coremetrics along with Brett, who founded the company in 1999. Coremetrics is a leading provider of web analytics solutions for the eCommerce industry, servicing over 1,000 clients today. At Coremetrics, I led a team of web analytics experts, trainers, and support analysts responsible for driving customer success and ROI. My team generated hundreds of millions of dollars in business value by helping companies identify opportunities for optimization of their web sites, online marketing programs, and merchandising strategies. Before Coremetrics, I held leadership roles at two other start-up companies, and I started my career at Sapient, a leading interactive agency and consulting firm. Bazaarvoice is the first business that I have been involved in starting from inception, from the very first iteration of the business idea, whereas I joined other start-ups at stage 1 but not stage 0!
Where did you get the startup money?
Our initial funding came from a small group of angel investors. We incorporated the business, hired our first employee, and began developing the first version of our Ratings & Reviews solution with this funding. A few months later, we raised approximately $4 million in a Series A round from Austin Ventures and participating angel investors.
Who are your main competitors? How do you compete against them?
Our main competitor in the US is PowerReviews. They offer product reviews inexpensively (mostly for free) to small and mid-sized businesses, and run a consumer-focused online shopping portal. This split focus means they do not create new products as quickly as we do, and their low prices do not support the level of service we provide, to truly help clients drive the most business results from user-generated content.
We compete against them with our superior products and proven, consistent business metrics, combined with our personalized client management that positions a Community Manager as an extension of their online marketing team.
How has your experience in running the business been different from what you expected?
Managing the velocity of our growth has been more challenging than I could have ever predicted. Rapid growth is a wonderful "problem" to have, but it strains every function and system in the company. In hindsight, I suppose that I expected many decisions to be more calculated than they are in reality. Our leadership team meets weekly for 3-4 hours and we quickly analyze internal and external data (and gut instincts) to make critical decisions about the business. This particular team of executives has considerable leadership experience which is a luxury and true benefit in working at Bazaarvoice. We work hard to make sure we don't compromise excellence. So far, we've had great success running the business in this way.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently?
It's a hard question to answer because I feel so fortunate for our success to date, which has exceeded my expectations! The easy answer is that I wish we had started the company earlier. The more serious answer is that I wish I personally had more time to spend on recruiting and training new employees, especially those that we are promoting to leadership roles within the company because their development is critical to our long-term success and ability to scale with grace.
What have you done that has been very effective in helping to grow the business?
Culture has been a big focus of ours from the very beginning. We want Bazaarvoice to continue to attract the very best people long after the halo effect of being an exciting high-tech start-up has diminished. We've focused on hiring the best people we can find and then leveraging those employees to find more people like them. It's cliché to say that we have a work hard, play hard culture, but it's true. We set a very high bar for performance, but we believe in rewarding and recognizing top performers. Each quarter, we ask our employees to nominate top performers from across the company. Our executive team reviews the list of nominees and based on the quantity and quality of feedback, we select five people to recognize for their above and beyond contributions to our success and culture and we reward them with additional equity ownership in the company. This is hugely important to our culture, that every member of our team recognizes their ability to make a contribution that is visible and appreciated by the entire company, our customers, our partners, our investors, etc. When you can create that dynamic in your organization, you can challenge people to consistently exceed their goals and expectations of their own performance, which is essential to remaining competitive in a rapid-growth industry.
What advice would you give to somebody else who wanted to start a similar business?
Start selling on day 1 and never stop. Your investments in product development, technology infrastructure, brand and product marketing, and even hiring a team should trail your efforts to sell your idea to companies that will be good, collaborative, early stage customers for your business. We did this very effectively at Bazaarvoice by quickly signing up three customers to use the beta version of our Ratings & Reviews solution. We worked closely with these companies to shape the product and work out the kinks. When we finally launched the company publicly, around 4 months after launching our beta customers, our first product was battled-tested and we had a much better understanding of how to position and sell our services. Furthermore, all three beta customers had become long-term, paying customers, helping us dramatically offset our early sales and marketing costs, such as exhibiting at tradeshows, travel, marketing collateral, etc. So, in summary, start selling as early as possible, even if your product only exists in the form of a presentation or prototype. You will learn a tremendous amount by pitching the first five prospects for your product or service before you spend the first dollar on product development or marketing.
Thanks for sharing your story, Brant. It sounds like you and Brett are off to a strong start!
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