“5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App or SAAS” with Vern Weitzman of Cira Apps
Make sure your product fills a need in the market and, if you can make it unique, even better. If you are entering a market with other contenders, you have to be clear what differentiates your product from the others already available. Do your market research, talk to potential customers, and experts in your space. Our path was more clear than most as the first company I founded already had an on-premise software solution. But, as the cloud adoption became clear, I spoke to existing customers and cloud experts to make sure we were on the right track for the cloud solution.
As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App or SAAS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Vern Weitzman. Vern is an entrepreneur and an avid consumer of new ideas, principles, and innovations in technology. Vern started his career as a software engineer. In 1987, he founded his first company, SessionWare, which developed apps for enterprise. Today, his company Cira Apps Ltd. offers a specialized technology solution for enterprise, helping them to automatically synchronize and update contact lists and calendars across very large organizations.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I started working with BlackBerry in 1999, helping deploy thousands of handheld devices. Working in the heart of cutting edge mobility, I acquired a foundation of technology and user knowledge that I have used when developing new software products. It also helped me spot a market opportunity for server and handheld app solutions specifically for the Microsoft Exchange platform. In 2001, I founded itrezzo and ended up with a lot of great customers. I learned a lot from building that company and solution and it prepared me for my next company.
By the next decade, the market was changing, technology was maturing, and it was clear we had to pivot. Existing customers began migrating from on-premise messaging to cloud-based Microsoft Office 365. I wish I could say that we moved faster, but I was initially skeptical about how many medium and large enterprises would migrate to the cloud. After exploring options and cloud technology, we decided to build cloud-specific applications for Office 365.
We launched CiraSync in April of 2016. Today, the SaaS platform has more than 120,000 users at over a 1,000 enterprise companies. We’re growing, we have amazing customers, and less than 5% churn. I can honestly say that we seem to have hit our stride in 2020.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
The idea goes back a long time, to the September 11 tragedy in 2001. This was in my BlackBerry days. We had a couple of customers and one in particular lost their network infrastructure on that terrible day. Their data center lost power, so they couldn’t make phone calls. The customer realized these great wireless devices were useless at a time when everyone needed to communicate during an emergency. They didn’t have anyone’s phone number — and BlackBerry PIN to PIN messaging was the fail safe.
We did develop a solution. By automating PIN updates in everyone’s address book, we realized you could instantly communicate with your co-workers in an emergency.
The point is that automating contact list updates for everyone in the organization provides a huge advantage, whether you’re in an emergency or doing day-to-day operations. Push up-to-date contact lists and calendars to smart devices and everyone is working so much more efficiently.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Yes, we had some early momentum with itrezzo, found some good clients, giving us a revenue stream that was respectable. But technology was changing rapidly, and that created new expectations from our customers.
You look at your smartphone today and it basically just works — well, most of the time. It’s like magic — not like the early days of mobile devices, where you could maybe use it for texting and not much else, even phone calls. Today, there’s a higher expectation of what technology can do — and that it should happen instantly.
The problem with our itrezzo offering was that it relied on fairly intense customization work with on-premise servers. We couldn’t show the real value of our offering without first doing some very heavy lifting for our clients, which wasn’t scalable. We’d be lucky to get a new client maybe every month. We were burning through our runway.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Shifting to a cloud offering made all the difference. Initially, I worried that it would be less secure and more costly than how we were doing it, but that was proven to be totally wrong. So, when we figured out what we needed to do, we went all in.
By moving to the cloud, with an enterprise SaaS solution, sales became so much easier. The demo (or our freemium version) was the onboarding; the onboarding was the demo (freemium version).
What I mean by that is, let’s say a prospect calls us up. They need their Microsoft Office 365 contact lists and calendars synced across 500 employee smartphones. In 30 mins or less, it’s working exactly as it should without on-premise configuration.
The demo is the onboarding and customers can even generate a sales quote or buy licenses right from their dashboard without signing a contract. Thanks to this quick process, we now have thousands of customers, with no sales team needed to close deals!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
We were trying to remove all possible technical hurdles to make the onboarding seamless with our new cloud offering. I spent weeks losing sleep over how we could do this final step for them.
It turned out that I could have just slept in for those weeks! Instead of doing it for them, our biggest, killer lead conversion tool is enabling the customers to onboard themselves!
When a web visitor wants to sync the GAL to their iPhone, it takes about one minute and three steps for the user to complete the GAL Contact sync — and they actually love how convenient it is. They see the value instantly and we don’t have to spend an hour installing enterprise software. It’s a win-win. Within 5 weeks of implementing this change, we had 30 new clients.
The lesson? You want to be proactive in helping your customers, but nothing beats helping them help themselves.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our customer success team and the way we provide technical support to customers has been a great differentiator. The reason I know is that in most of the reviews by customers, our customer success team is called out as stellar again and again.
Often our software is performing exactly as we promised, but their smartphones aren’t working properly. We have gotten pretty good at solving ActiveSync , iOS, and Android problems and we just help the customer debug and fix their mobility issues. Finger pointing is never a good way to end a support call so we just keep going until the customer is successful. As you can imagine, this is deeply appreciated.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
To stay motivated, I’ve been going to a lot of Tony Robbins seminars. The primary instigator for me was the business mastery seminar Idid in Las Vegas. That whole track keeps me focused and engaged in trying to improve both myself and things that are important for the business.
One thing I’ve gotten out of the seminars is that as individuals, there are three types of identities. An artist, where you just want to create new stuff. You can be a leader, someone who wants to lead other people. Or entrepreneur, who wants to make money.
I’m not really all three of those. I’m more of an artist. I like to focus on the art of creating really cool software.
As an example of how I’ve put this into practice, this year I hired a chief marketing officer. . It was a big financial decision, but it’s been so helpful and productive. I spend only 5 percent of the time I used to on marketing, which has opened up my time for what I really want to do, so I don’t burn out.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I have found that reaching out to other founders, CEOs, and experts can be very helpful: most people are willing to share their expertise and experiences.
I have also learned a lot from attending marketing and technology conferences. And, lastly working with people with shared values for a long time have helped me tremendously in building the companies to where they are today.
So many of our team members have been with both companies for more than 5 years and it makes for great teamwork and contributions.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?
We’ve landed over one thousand paid enterprise customers for CiraSync in less than three years.
To develop a large customer base like ours, you want to give the customer what they want. This sounds simple, but for many companies, it’s hard to pull off. The key is to make the experience frictionless.
First, you want to avoid selling with drawn-out (and complicated) demos, endless sales meetings and high-pressure sales conversations over the phone. Customers don’t want it — and, equally important is the fact that it wastes your time, too.
With a freemium version, you can give it enough functionality and value to prove it works. Make it fast and easy to sign up. For example, the solution setup requires just an email, without requiring a first name, last name, company name, or phone number.
Second, help them see the value proposition after instant onboarding. Now that they have proof, customers can go for the paid option of the full-functionality software and take action right away.
Finally, you want to offer easy access to support to get past any final hesitations.Too many companies hide their phone number and require you to seduce a bot before you can talk to a live person. We offer free support 24 hours via email, phone calls, and online meetings — and they know that going in, so they have reassurance we’re there for them.
What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?
We have two versions of our SaaS solution: a freemium version and a paid enterprise version. The freemium version is quick and easy to get started: takes less than 2 mins to onboard and start using the solution.
The enterprise edition provides a rich feature set, scales very quickly and easily to a large subscriber base and is really a set-it-and-forget-it software. Enterprises looking for the full solution also get a free 30-day enterprise trial with no contract or credit card to get started. This ensures that customers are willing to try the software without hesitation.
The days of asking people for credit cards, contracts, and lots of detailed information are long past.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app or a SAAS? Please share a story or an example for each.
First, make sure your product fills a need in the market and, if you can make it unique, even better. If you are entering a market with other contenders, you have to be clear what differentiates your product from the others already available. Do your market research, talk to potential customers, and experts in your space. Our path was more clear than most as the first company I founded already had an on-premise software solution. But, as the cloud adoption became clear, I spoke to existing customers and cloud experts to make sure we were on the right track for the cloud solution.
Second, make the onboarding simple, quick, and effective. Show value of your solution immediately. Make the ah-ha moment come early for the customer when they use your solution. This is something we have done right from the beginning of launching our solution and even now, three years later, continue to look at our onboarding on a regular basis.
Third, remove all friction on your website that could hinder a new customer. All the information should be logically organized, the pricing absolutely clear, and as much information you can share for the customer to consume before signing up for the product will help you in closing the sale.
Fourth, talk to your existing customers: prioritize the features they request. Make your software updates quick and frequent. Don’t wait for months to release new versions; release improvements weekly if you can.
Lastly, but as important as the above four above, educate potential users of your solution. I put a lot of effort into writing blog posts and articles, even if I did not expect a lot of my readers to turn into customers. Anytime customers have questions about how our solution works — or what isn’t working for them, I create easy-to-follow guides so they can make the most of what they have.
These articles became the basis of our FAQ sections that our customer success representatives use to give quality advice. Ideally, we want to provide enough information and transparency that most people are able to answer their own questions.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Automated recycling. We are producing too much garbage and we used to ship it to third-world countries. But they don’t want our garbage any more (is that really surprising?). Using machine learning and setting up some cameras and robots, a company should be able to watch workers sort a conveyor belt of garbage for a few weeks. The machines will learn how to sort out recyclables and landfill, toxic stuff vs recyclables, etc. This kind of service wouldn’t just make money — it could really solve a big problem facing people all over the world.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
The Cirasync Twitter account has all of the company updates at https://twitter.com/cirasync, and I’m easy to find on LinkedIn, if anyone wants to reach out.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!