The founder of Favstar, a tool that surfaces popular Twitter favourites, has launched a new startup with a Twitter focus — bringing a customer support tool called Respondly out of private beta today. Its tagline best sums up what this b2b startup is aiming for: ‘Team inbox for email & Twitter’.
The basic concept, say co-founders Tim Haines and Phil Cockfield, is to strip back the problem of managing customer support across multiple touchpoints — by focusing on making it easy for teams to respond to (and keep on top of) incoming emails and tweets.
The pair previously worked together on a Favstar redesign in 2012 but have known each other for a decade. The idea for a unified system for managing support-related comms came to them when they were trying to manage Favstar user enquiries.
“As Favstar user numbers grew, so did the amount of user enquiries, and those enquiries naturally came in via Twitter. We were getting crushed by the daily onslaught of these support tweets,” they note.
Early design and prototyping on Respondly started in January last year, with those prototypes put into active use fielding enquiries from Favstar’s 3 million+ monthly users.
The pair have also beta-tested the product with a small group of third-party beta testers — fewer than 200 organizations in all, says Haines — including the likes of Tweetbot, Pocket and Stripe. So really it’s been cherry-picking those startups that are going to immediately grok its pared back, consumerised approach to the support problem.
“The strategy for Respondly has been to compete through nuanced, minimalist design that provides a simple yet more powerful experience for users,” says Haines when asked how Respondly sets itself apart from existing customer support/social media comms management tools.
“Time and again the industry has seen seemingly minimal changes to the design of a social messaging system result in an out-sized improvement in adoption and the way people engage with the tool. Our goal with Respondly was to translate these design lessons over to a team-based business tool,” he adds.
Specifically, Respondly offers a central, shared inbox for support teams to manage and respond to incoming customer support enquiries via email and Twitter. During set-up the team members who will be using it are added, along with any associated email addresses, Twitter accounts and Twitter searches you want to monitor.
Tweets and emails then land in this shared inbox where the whole team can triage the conversations — with no issues about who gets to see what, since the whole team can see everything.
All emails and tweets relating to a particular conversation also get grouped together, to make it easier to keep track of any back-and-forth, with threads resurfaced if a new missive comes winging in to highlight associated context for whoever’s picking up the thread this time.
“Respondly solves the problem of communication amongst a team and their customers becoming fragmented, siloed, hard to manage, or just plain forgotten,” says Haines. “It provides the central, ‘go to’ location that all team members can find and collaborate on a conversation with a customer.
“Whether the team does customer support, public relations work, or marketing, they’ll find Respondly is a powerful way of keeping the whole team on top of conversations as they happen in real-time.”
Respondly can, says Haines, be used both as a way to do group comms internally, or as a system for managing external comms coming in to a team that need assigning and responding to. Its potential market is therefore considerably broader than pure customer support (even though the startup’s initial focus is on the support market as, well, a way to keep the business focused).
“While we have focused initially on customer support as a strategic first step, the wider vision for Respondly extends much further. The logical extension of where ‘team collaboration around public conversations’ takes you, is to a place that is significantly larger than customer support alone,” he says.
“Starting with a focus on customer support grounds Respondly in a pragmatic, go-to-market reality, and avoids the problem of trying to ‘boil the ocean’ by going too wide, too soon. Getting the basics for the ‘support collaboration’ use-case done really well opens up an enormous market for all manner of powerful team collaboration on the platform.”
In terms of the competitive landscape, Haines notes that “several” of the early beta-customers have switched to Respondly from Zendesk, Desk.com and Hootsuite.
“A common statement we’ve heard is that Respondly is easier to use, and lets you get your work done faster,” he adds.
Stripping away the layers of complexity of dashboard tools like Hootsuite is exactly the aim of Respondly. But although its initial focus is just on email and Twitter, it’s likely the startup will expand these touchpoints to add more social media options — such as Facebook — in future.
The risk, of course, with anything that leans on simplicity as its USP, is that over time all the complexity gets added back in as users demand the additional features you stripped out in the first place. Ergo, the service that started simple ends up just as hoary and horrible to use as the rivals it was set up to disrupt.
But Respondly in its current form is a long way from social media dashboard hell. And considering the founders’ highfalutin user-centric design talk, they will presumably be sticking out their necks to ensure the product doesn’t stray from its righteous UI path down the line.
In the meanwhile, Haines argues that existing email interfaces are ripe for disruption — and you really can’t argue with him there. (Although getting people to switch from something they are so habitualised to using, even if they don’t actually like using it, is quite another matter.)
“Gmail is 10 years old and largely unchanged from it’s initial release. Even more so with Outlook. The scope for elegant, powerful design around email, and the impact that will have on email as the ‘de facto communication channel’ for small businesses worldwide, is immense,” he says.
“Add to email the nuanced integration of Twitter, and you’re on the path to side-stepping a false dichotomy between ‘email’ OR ‘social’. It’s a ‘yes AND’ relationship we’re building between these channels. Twitter is our first step for social-media channels done right,” he adds.
The business model for Respondly is straightforward software-as-a-service, with its introductory plan costing $9 per month (there is also a free 40-day trial period so new users can kick its tires), rising to $849 per month for its premium enterprise plan.
It doesn’t charge per individual user, since the tool itself needs a team to function fully. Haines say the usage/features “sweet spot” sits at $79 per month for the entire team.
Haines and Cockfield have been self-funding Respondly thus far but say they are exploring the option of doing a seed raise post-launch to accelerate development — assuming they can find the right kind of investors.
“We’re not in a hurry to do a deal,” says Haines, adding: “The main focus for us is to partner with the right kind of investors – folks that have sophistication and appreciation of using design as a competitive lever in business software.”