Buzzwords are annoying. High-pressure sales pitches are annoying. Your competitors are sort of annoying.
And ERP? Really annoying.
That’s the perspective of Tyler and Bracken King, two brothers who develop and market an online customer manager tool called Less Annoying Software. I stumbled across their software thanks to an excellent blog post recently posted by Tyler: 6 reasons small businesses shouldn't use big-business software.
Intrigued by the forthright marketing message of Less Annoying Software (LAS), I direct-messaged the brothers’ twitter feed to see if they’d be interested in an interview. They were, and their disarming frankness provides an object lesson for any software vendor interested in targeting the SMB market. Our interview follows.
TEC: Which came first: the branding (“Less Annoying Software”), or the concept for the software itself?
Bracken: The branding came first. When you're making software, there's a somewhat necessary tradeoff between power and ease of use. When we started LAS, we didn't know exactly where we wanted to be on that spectrum. What we did know is that there are ways to make both complex and simple software "less annoying," and that was a direction worth pursuing. Eventually, we settled on customer management as an area where less annoying software would be particularly useful.
TEC: What do prospect customers say when you introduce them to the concept of less annoying software?
Tyler: Most of our sales happen entirely online, so we don't know exactly what many of the customers think. When we do get feedback, it's generally from people that love the concept.
Bracken: You'd be hard pressed to find someone who is against the idea of making software less annoying. You can argue whether that should be the primary goal (we obviously think it is), but the goal on its own is hard to dispute. The tricky part, of course, is actually living up to the billing.
TEC: Is your branding vindicated by your customers’ experiences with LAS?
Tyler: Our product isn't meant to please everyone, but we definitely seem to be striking a chord with our users. However, the customers that I'm most proud of are the ones that sign up and start using LAS without ever talking to us. To me, that means that our software is so simple and easy that they don't need to ask questions or talk to a sales rep. They feel comfortable diving right in. I love speaking with customers, but I think our software is accomplishing its goals when we don't have to.
TEC: Why customer management software? Do you see a functional gap that is not addressed by other developers?
Tyler: There are tons of CRM products out there and many of them do their jobs well. The opportunity we saw with LAS was based on how many people don't use CRMs at all. My last company worked closely with health insurance agents, and I was surprised by how many of them tracked customer information using an Excel spreadsheet. These people were so overwhelmed by most business software that they ended up not using anything at all.
That company (the one that works with health insurance agents) was led by Paul Zane Pilzer, a successful economist and entrepreneur. One of the most valuable lessons he taught me was that rather than fight over a piece of an existing market, new companies should strive to create a market that didn't previously exist, which creates new wealth for society as a whole. At Less Annoying Software, our goal is to introduce new customers to CRMs rather than to compete directly with existing CRM products.
TEC: “Less Annoying”: Why not “absolutely friendly software,” “software that is much much better for you” …? Why so negative? Y’all sound positively peeved.
Tyler: You've probably heard the phrase "no news is good news." The same concept applies to software. When software is well-designed and easy to use, no one notices. People only notice software when something isn't working properly or they can't understand it, so that's what we want to focus on. We find that most consumers aren't looking for more features or cool new technology—they just want something that works without getting in their way.
TEC: You’ve adopted the mantra “Don’t be so annoying.” This echoes Google’s “Don’t be evil.” Is it a poke at Google, or just a catchy tagline?
Bracken: I'd never really thought of the parallel before, but I think it's pretty fitting actually. For a big corporation, not being "evil" can be a surprisingly difficult goal if you're not actively avoiding it. Similarly, it's really easy for software to slip into the realm of annoying if you're not constantly thinking about it. From a design perspective, it's easier to step away from a concrete negative (evil, annoying), than it is to step towards an ill-defined positive (good, user-friendly).
TEC: And is the “so” tacit acknowledgement that software is implicitly annoying, that there’s no such thing as perfectly un-annoying software?
Bracken: Absolutely. Business software is supposed to help people solve problems, and problems are fundamentally annoying. At its best, software is a way to get you from the problem to the solution easily and quickly. Until a solution exists that takes literally no effort or time, it will have to be somewhat annoying.
We're striving to make the process of solving problems less annoying. We think our software does a pretty good job of that right now, but we still have plenty of ideas to improve it. If we ever get to the point that we think our software is "un-annoying" it just means we aren't trying hard enough.
TEC: As far as your product roadmap is concerned, what’s next for Less Annoying Software? Do you have plans to expand the product into full-blown CRM software?
Tyler: There are basically two areas that we need to work on. The most important one is improving our customer education. We think that our tool is very easy to use, but we can learn from the questions our users ask us to make the product even easier. In the next couple of weeks we'll be releasing a new "Guided Tour" feature that walks each new user through the application step-by-step so that they can understand how the entire thing works before getting started.
We also need to add a few key features. Simplicity is our main priority, so I doubt we'll ever become a "full-blown" CRM, but we definitely have ideas on how to make our tools more powerful without adding complexity. Some examples of features we'll be releasing soon are a reminder system to make organizing tasks easier, and a mobile site so that our users can access LAS when they're away from their computer.
TEC: Who are your competitors? Who do you lose deals to? Who do you win deals against?
Bracken: As we said earlier, our ideal customer is someone who hasn't used a CRM before, and they probably aren't doing a lot of comparison shopping either. For the most part, if someone tries out our product and stops using it, they're probably not going to another CRM; they're going back to whatever they used before (outlook, excel, pen and paper, etc). So that's really our main competition. As far as competing products, if I had to pick a couple, I'd say Intuit's online customer manager and Highrise by 37Signals.
TEC: What has been your biggest business challenge to date?
Tyler: Our business model is kind of a paradox. We want our sales to happen online (we're certainly not cut out to be salesmen), but our target audience doesn't even know what a CRM is so why would they come to our site in the first place? The key will be inbound marketing (blogs, social media, SEO, etc), but most of our target customers don't spend much time reading blogs or browsing social networking sites, so it's challenging. Despite the difficulty, we still think there's a huge opportunity there, and we're definitely making progress.
TEC: What has been your biggest technical challenge to date?
Tyler: I think the hardest part has been staying away from feature bloat. We're both programmers, so we get really excited about new technology we could introduce to our product. In the end, we have to remind ourselves that our users don't care about "cool" technology—they just want something that works. This project definitely requires more technical restraint than anything we've done in the past.
TEC: Given your advice to small businesses about the perils of big-business software, what advice would you give to large companies about the software selection process?
Tyler: I think there are a few main things that big businesses could do to improve the effectiveness of the software they choose. The first one is accepting the fact that change happens. In the past, companies could invest huge amounts of money to set up infrastructure that would be relevant for several decades. Technology is moving too fast for that now. Companies like Google are showing how effective quick, iterative improvement can be with software. This doesn't mean that companies shouldn't put thought into their software selection, but they need to come to terms with the fact that they'll want to revisit the issue again in two years instead of ten.
Bracken: Online software is making incremental change much easier. The developers can improve the software over time without disrupting the users. Nothing prevents a company from doing the same with traditional (in-house) software, but it's harder for a company to hold itself to that standard.
Tyler: Also, I think a lot of big companies drive away talented employees (particularly programmers) by using legacy software. Companies spend a lot of time considering the impact their software will have on their bottom line, but they ignore the impact it will have on employee morale. Many of my friends are elite programmers (at companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft) and I can assure you that they'd never consider working at a company that forces everyone to use Internet Explorer 6.
Bracken: The last thing I'd add is that businesses should really expect more out of enterprise software, because that's the only way it will improve. If you've used personal software that outperforms your enterprise solution, something is seriously wrong. I can't understand how anyone who has used Gmail, Yahoo mail, or just about any other modern webmail application, can be satisfied with the Exchange webmail interface.
Tyler: Right now, it seems like consumer software (Mint, Twitter, etc.) is generally very usable while business software is very functional. There's no reason why we can't have both usability and functionality in one package for enterprise software, but I have yet to see that happen.
How about you? Irritated by ERP? Boonswoggled by BPM? I welcome all your thoughts—leave your comments below, and I’ll respond as soon as I can get to a computer.