Client Spotlight: Interview with Brian Hutchins, CEO of Waitlist Me
In this client spotlight, we got the chance to interview Brian Hutchins, CEO of Waitlist Me. With almost 20 years of experience working with several successful startups in internet marketing and product management, Brian shares how solving a problem can become a great product for a new business.
What’s your story? Can you tell us about Waitlist Me: what you do, who do you cater to, etc.
Waitlist Me is a waitlist and reservation management application for restaurants and other businesses that use text and phone call notifications to alert customers when it is their turn. We make it simple for businesses to see key information about their waiting and scheduled customers at a glance and then just press a button to notify them when it’s their turn. This gives their customers more visibility into the wait time, more accurate wait quotes, and flexibility to walk around or do something else while they wait. Waitlist Me helps businesses deliver a higher level of service, and ultimately see better business results.
Every business idea aims to solve a specific problem. What problem did you see that sparked the idea for Waitlist Me?
Waiting in lines, especially in crowded areas, has always been painful. That was the original inspiration for the product. Traditional solutions like paper waitlists are messy and inefficient, and buzzer systems are clunky and expensive. Plus, who needs buzzers these days when everyone carries a cell phone? We have always aimed to make the waiting experience less painful, and with COVID-19, we were happy to also be helping with social distancing and related health benefits of avoiding crowds.
When did you first realize that you had a great business idea in your hands?
One important part of making a great product into a great business is validating that it is providing enough value to people that they are willing to pay for it. When we first launched Waitlist Me it was totally free, but at a certain point, we realized we had to see if it was a viable business that people would pay for. When we did put limits on the free service and moved to a paid subscription model, we were pleasantly surprised that most of our customers that were actively using the service decided it was worth paying to continue using it. That is when we really knew we had more than a cool product idea and had a great business idea.
When it comes to funding, what type of investors did you approach? How did you win them over?
Waitlist Me had a different path in that it started out as part of another company called Firespotter Labs, which raised $3M from Google Ventures on the strength of its founding team and had an initial focus on incubating business ideas. In addition to creating Waitlist Me, which was originally called Noshlist, the company made some other very successful products in the telephony space, UberConference, and Dialpad, and eventually changed its name to Dialpad. As Dialpad evolved to focus on the larger enterprise telephony market, Waitlist Me was spun off from Dialpad as an independent company in 2015. At that time, Waitlist Me had enough revenues to bootstrap its operations and took out a small loan to accelerate growth rather than taking money from investors.
What were some of the biggest challenges that you faced in developing Waitlist Me?
One of the biggest challenges we faced with selling our solution to small business owners is that they weren’t very tech-savvy, especially in 2012 when the product was first released. A lot of businesses were still using paper waitlists, so we really had to focus on making our software as simple as possible. We focused on paper as our main competitor to help us continually make our software intuitive enough for a regular person to get started on their own in a few minutes and not require any special training.
What is the best advice you ever received when you started your business?
I think one thing I have learned is that a single piece of static advice is not as valuable as informed advice over time. The best advice comes from a deeper understanding of a particular situation, which can change at different points in time. That is why one of the best things we did was set up an advisor program where we would have monthly calls over a couple of years with a small group of smart and experienced people. This provided a good balance of access to expert advice that was very specific to the different types of challenges we faced as the product and company evolved.
How is Waitlist Me different from the others in your industry?
We provide the best value in the industry. Waitlist Me’s mission is to empower businesses to dramatically improve customer wait experiences with a service and apps that are simple, flexible, and incredibly cost-effective. We continually obsess over making Waitlist Me intuitive and user-friendly. We believe our apps should be easy for employees to use with little or no training, and that the business customers touched by our service should find it trustworthy and helpful. To be flexible enough to be used in a variety of businesses, we have built a truly cross-platform service to work across iOS, Android, and the web in different business environments.
There are many ways to customize the Waitlist Me service for different business needs and to personalize key customer touchpoints to fit different business branding. Waitlist Me combines the best features with the lowest price. We have deep experience in delivering highly scalable software and telephony solutions, and by taking a product-oriented approach to delivering a solution that just works. We don’t have to build in the higher sales, training, and overhead costs that more complicated software might require.
How long did it take for you to develop your business plan? How long did it take to get your 1st sales?
In the beginning, we were more focused on optimizing the product experience, scaling the product, and offering the service for free for a couple of years. We did some experimenting with charging some advanced features after the first year but didn’t really develop the beginnings of our business plan and pricing structure for about two years. When we did switch to our new model with limits on free users and simple subscription pricing, we got hundreds of upgrades almost immediately from the customers that had been using the service for free. This validated the value of the service and route we eventually chose with the business model.
Any advice you can give to young entrepreneurs?
These days it is easy and cost-effective to just build something and see how it works. Start with a need you think isn’t being served and make an MVP (minimum viable product) you can test out with your target customers. Even if it isn’t a resounding success on the first try, you will learn a lot in the process and be developing the type of skills you need to refine your idea or start a new idea. Instead of trying to figure out a perfect idea on the first try, start building solutions you can evolve and learn from.
What are your business plans going forward?
There is still a lot of room for expanding distribution in the markets and industries where we already have traction, so part of the plan is to continue increasing awareness of our core value proposition. Meanwhile, there are strategies we can employ to add features and drive adoption both in new industries and in more countries. We also have some longer-term ideas to add whole new feature sets to help businesses deliver better service and more benefits to their customers. Technology and other market forces are rapidly changing the ways businesses operate, and we think there are several exciting new ways we might provide additional solutions to businesses.