Since I was 6 years old I’ve had a passion for technology, that was the age my father introduced me to computers. We had an Intel 8086 XT with 16KB of memory, and a monitor that only displayed green text, I was instantly hooked and wanted to know everything this machine was capable of. Growing up I realized that computers were greatly improving people’s lives, but there were steep learning curves, I became deeply passionate about teaching people how to use technology.
Fast forward two decades, I ended up leading the Corporate Engineering efforts for Google in Canada where I trained and supported Google employees for 6 years. I learned a great deal of knowledge about technology, and more importantly, how people learn and use it to improve their lives. I made the difficult decision to leave Google in 2013, but with a sense of purpose, to teach the world how to use technology. I joined forces with my long time friend and business partner Varun Malhotra, we launched Synergyse, the first fully interactive training system for Google Apps. This is our story to date of how we have built and grown our business to provide over 1000 organizations and 1 million people Google Apps training in 1 year.
Understanding the problem
We knew that learning how to use technology in general was a problem, but we wanted to focus on a specific area that built upon our experience. I had been working in the IT division at Google, essentially living and breathing inside Google Apps, which the company itself runs on. Varun had been working at CDW providing hardware and software solutions to IT organizations of all sizes, learning what their pain points were.
Training is a key component in teaching people how to use technology. Combining our knowledge we did a lot of research into the training market and discovered that the training solutions for Google Apps were very traditional and didn’t really take advantage of the great advances in web technology. One of the main issues with training is getting people to take it, generally training is not viewed as an exciting activity and something you are forced to do. We decided that this was the problem we were going to solve, we were going to make training fun, interactive and available directly in the applications you needed training on.
As the first stage in our mission, we were going to teach the world how to use Google Apps, in a way that made sense for fast paced work environments.
Defining the solution
We are strong believers in the Lean Startup movement, utilizing the techniques we learned from Eric Reis we were able to define our solution clearly, and filter down the key activities we needed to take. We also took advantage of the Business Model Canvas to define exactly how we were going to build our business, bring it to market and solve real problems in the training market.
We researched heavily into video training solutions and realized there were a number of issues. Having a library of training material available on an outside portal meant there was another barrier to entry, you had to leave your day to day workflow in order to consume the material, and then you had to remember it and apply it back in the applications you’re using. Videos were hard to keep up to date, as Google Apps tends to change on a regular basis, if a substantial UX change were to roll out it could require all training videos to be updated.
Inspired by our friends at Streak, we realized it was possible to overlay our own experience on top of the live Google Apps interfaces, in a similar fashion to how they brought their own CRM experience to Gmail. Synergyse Training for Google Apps was born, as a simple, yet powerful software training solution that could overlay real-time training material on top of the Google Apps interfaces. We could build it in a way that would adapt to the UX changes being rolled out to Google Apps, and easily allow us to build new training content. To stay lean, we initially developed Synergyse to work with 3 key Google Apps: Gmail, Calendar and Drive. If we could show real value in helping people learn these core Apps, we could later expand into other Apps like Sites, Docs, Sheets and Slides.
Building the team
Varun had great experience in enterprise sales and I had the right experience to lead our product & content efforts, we were missing a solid engineer to execute on our technology strategy. We started looking in the usual places, for this business we wanted to get someone on board who would have a vested interest in the company, and more importantly believed in our vision and mission.
We ended up looking into our own networks and connected with Alex Kennberg, who I had previously worked with at Google, and he was now out on his own bringing great technology ideas to life. He had the right skill set to develop our software, he also had the right managerial experience and entrepreneurial spirit that was a great fit for our team. I think it is important to explore your own networks when trying to build a team, often you will find the best people are already connected to you in some way, and a level of trust is already established. Alex believed in Synergyse and joined us as our VP of engineering.
We also ended up using oDesk to outsource some of our part-time roles like QA and administrative work, this allowed us to stay lean in hiring and easily manage remote workers on our team.
Choosing the right technology
We knew the only way we could overlay our interactive training material on top of the Google Apps interfaces was by building the frontend system as a Chrome extension. Extensions allow you to inject your own code into existing web applications and build new experiences. At first we thought we may need to build the extension for other browsers too (Safari, Firefox, IE etc) but we realized that our target market was primarily using Chrome, and by choosing one browser to start we were following the lean startup principles. Chromebooks were also starting to pick up steam in the education market and that further solidified our decision.
On the backend, using a cloud service provider was an obvious choice, we didn’t want to worry about the headaches of managing our own server hardware or trying to scale. It boiled down to a choice between Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud Platform, at the time Google’s offering was fairly new and Amazon had more mature options, but we chose Google because it made more sense from a product and security standpoint. We could tell our customers that our backend was running in the same datacenter environments that Google Apps runs in, and we could rely on Google’s experience in scaling. This proved to be a wise decision as we have nothing but great success using the Google Cloud Platform, and we’ve never had to worry about scalability issues.
Launching to market
Our launch strategy was fairly simple, we wanted to have a pre-launch website up that we could direct interested people to and collect their email addresses, and we wanted to get some press. To the tackle the first task, we made use of LaunchRock which provided us with a fully functional website and contact form, and required no programming. We did some basic online marketing by posting in social communities relevant to Google Apps and started collecting email addresses, this also didn’t cost us anything.
To try and get press, we researched the most prominent technology blogs and reached out directly to writers who were writing about topics related to our market, such as Google Apps and Chromebooks. We probably reached out to over 100 writers, and luckily got a response from TechCrunch, who agreed to blog about us on our launch day. Thanks to the TechCrunch post we received over 1500 unique visitors to our website on launch, and actually secured a few small and medium sized organizations as clients because of it.
One of the most important decisions we had to make was whether or not we were going to charge customers for our product, many advisors said it would be better to offer the product for free, gain traction and then try to charge for it later. Although this formula has worked well for other businesses, we were bootstrapping with our own savings and weren’t sure if we needed to raise money or if we could start selling out of the gate.
One of the advantages to choosing Google Apps is that it is a consumer, education, enterprise and government solution, which meant we had a large market to explore. Through internal testing we were showing that people gained real value and knowledge from our software. We had friends and family members testing out beta versions of Synergyse before we released it, and using the software we were able to actually teach them features inside of Gmail they did not know exist. We also demonstrated an early beta version of the software to potential clients and they immediately saw value in our training system and they wish that it had previously existed.
This gave us some validation to our hypothesis, we believed strongly in the value we could deliver and decided we were going to charge $10 per user per year, to be in-line with Google’s pricing for Google Apps which is $50 per user per year. We would also offer our training software to students for free if an education client purchased licenses for their full-time staff. This turned out to be a wise decision, as we closed a large enterprise deal on our second day of business. We also starting seeing traction in the education market, where Google Apps is free, and we turned a profit in our first few months of business.
B2B sales strategy
Developing our sales strategy involved understanding the Google Apps ecosystem, developing leads, utilizing multiple channels and working with partners.
We learned there was a strong community presence amongst educators, particularly those which use Google Apps in their schools. They share lot of valuable information with each other on Google+ and Twitter. We also learned about a strong third-party ecosystem of solutions for Google Apps, covering security, administration, automation and more verticals.
We developed leads through social media, we also launched a blog that contributed valuable tips to the Google Apps community. We had to understand who the decision maker was, and we suspected it would be the IT department, through meetings with potential clients we learned this to be true. We leveraged LinkedIn to find the right contacts and established meetings over Google Hangouts where we could easily demonstrate our software, and not have to travel.
When you are selling something you truly believe in, you are genuine in nature. We tend not to structure our meetings as a pitch, but more so around understanding the problems of our clients and demonstrating the value we can bring to help solve those problems. We also found that demonstrating the software and being able to answer questions in real time was extremely powerful in helping clients understand what we do.
Events are a critical marketing strategy for us, we try to attend or sponsor as many Google Apps related events as possible. We also participate in large educational technology conferences such as ISTE. These are the places you will get to meet your potential clients face to face and get valuable feedback on your product. We also find events great for networking with other software companies and learning about their experiences in our market.
We were fortunate that Google already had a strong partner channel established for reselling Google Apps and third-party solutions. We learned who all the major partners were in the Google Apps reseller ecosystem, and managed to partner with over 40 of them throughout the year through demonstrations and meetings. We were able to get the partners onboard because we showed the value our training would bring to their clients, and we gave them strong margins to position Synergyse as a change management solution. This was very important for us because it allowed us to expand our sales team without having to directly hire people. The partner channel also gave us access to clients that they already had established relationships with.
Our valued clients
Growing to 1 million users has been faster than we anticipated, this is partly because in B2B you have the potential to sign on really large customers. We provide training for some large enterprise clients with over 25,000 employees. In the education market, we have a few school districts on board with over 100,000 students covering schools across entire cities and regions. When we sign on a new client, we make sure to establish technical deployment calls to go over how to deploy our Chrome extension to their entire fleet of computers. Deployment of Synergyse typically takes less than 30 minutes and we worked to make this process as easy as possible for IT departments, we provide them with documentation, a direct support channel and assistance where necessary.
Learning from our clients has also been a very important and critical part of our business, understanding how they use our software and what they would like it to do allows us to determine future features and roadmaps. We realized a lot of clients had their own custom video content that they were hosting internally on shared sites and other portals. The problem was that not a lot of employees were watching the videos as they needed to navigate away to them to find them. We solved this problem for our clients by allowing them to upload their custom video content directly to the Synergyse system, and surface their content directly in our software menu. In other words, employees could now find these videos directly in Google Apps and not have to leave their workflow to watch them. We have also learned about new features they want training on within Google Apps and we continuously work with our clients to enhance and improve our own content.
What the future holds
We have a clear vision to teach the world how to use technology, and we are at an exciting stage in the business where we can take things to the next level. Our current training solution can be applied to the entire web, and there are a multitude of new devices for us to expand our reach and further our mission.
We are growing rapidly and hiring rockstar engineers who can can not only execute our vision, but also believe in it. Drop us a line if you are interested in joining the team and teaching the world how to use technology.