It’s been a couple of weeks since I attended Infusionsoft’s annual small business love-in AKA ICON conference in Phoenix.
“Love” is the one word that keeps sticking in my mind. Because after several days of keynotes, sessions, interviews and just wandering around, it’s clear that Infusionsoft really does love its customers. Not just its customers’ money, which is something entirely different.
You see, Infusionsoft is not an ordinary tech company. Yes, they build and sell software (more on that below). Yes, they do marketing and selling. Yes, they provide customer service. Yes, they must deliver a return to their investors (who have pumped in an impressive $125M so far).
All tech companies do these things. But what many if not most are missing is a genuine passion for their customers.
Infusionsoft is a company founded by entrepreneurs to focus on helping entrepreneurs. From day one their mission has been to serve small businesses, defined as up 25 employees, and they continue to stay true to that mission. This is rare because inevitably once software vendors get a taste of success at larger firms, they shift their attention upmarket and leave their small customers behind, having served their role as start-up fodder. (RightNow, Netsuite, GetSatisfaction, Salesforce.com come to mind, just to name a few.)
But not Infusionsoft. Despite growing to some 30,000 customers since being founded in 2001, co-founder, CEO and entrepreneurial love guru Clate Mask says they continue to focus on the under 25 segment. He did acknowledge they don’t kick out customers that grow beyond that, but says that just .5% of Infusionsoft customers have more than 100 employees. Mask describes them as “hanging on.”
As of 2007, when I first wrote about the company, it had just 900 customers. Their new goal is 100,000 on its way to a BHAG goal of millions. This would put it in the company of Intuit, another small business-focused company with a strong customer-centric culture.
Painting a path to growth
Brian Young of Home Painters Toronto is a good example of Infusionsoft’s target audience. He started and built his business making calls door-to-door for about 15 years. But business started to slide when customers shifted to the Internet to find house painters.
A business coach encouraged Young to invest in Internet-based marketing, and recommended Infusionsoft. Since implementing e-marketing (PPC, SEO, review sites) techniques to drive traffic, and Infusionsoft to follow-up on good leads, his business has rebounded and grown tremendously.
If you visit his website to request a quote, that will kick off an automated process to score the lead, with those selecting “quality” and a realistic budget getting top priority for followup. Young told me he likes that Infusionsoft keeps him organized and reduces the time required for follow-ups, appointment reminders, etc.
Product must evolve from Good to Great
If Infusionsoft’s culture is its greatest strength, then its product is a relative weakness. Functionally, it does the job well serving its target audience — entrepreneurs that want a (mostly) all-in-one solution to handle basic sales automation (CRM) and marketing automation. A solid partner ecosystem fills in gaps nicely.
But product functionality and ease-of-use don’t compare favorably with other companies active in the small business marketing automation space — like Act-on, Hubspot and Marketo. Although these are not apples-to-apples comparisons.
From discussions at the conference, “complexity” seemed to be the one common issue. Infusionsoft has initiatives in place to improve its product, including a huge upgrade to its email builder planned for later this year. According to product honcho Lindsay Bayuk, the firm uses a customer-centric design approach (“customers pick features”) with the goal of improving user confidence that they have picked the right email and campaign before hitting “send.”
The current version of Infusionsoft gets the job done, although it suffers from the same “programmer-itis” design that I’ve seen in many other marketing automation systems. The challenge is creating a solution that helps marketers easily implement what is inherently a complicated job — a marriage of right-brain creativity (email and landing page creative design) with left-brain process management (campaigns, lead scoring, follow-up actions).
Since I don’t have to create such a product, it’s easy enough to critique from bleachers. But still, I’ve seen personally enormous differences in usability with Mailchimp (a very affordable and powerful email system) vs. other systems that seemed designed for techies. I hope Infusionsoft goes in that direction.
There’s still a lot to learn to be successful with e-marketing, regardless of how easy or powerful the software becomes. That’s why I think it’s a smart move for Infusionsoft to require the $2000 “Kickstarter” service — a hefty investment for cash-strapped entrepreneurs. I’m sure it screens out not-so-serious prospects who hope they can solve all their problems with an easy/cheap solution. This is a good example of the company backing up rhetoric that “we help small businesses succeed” with the services required to actually help businesses, um, succeed.
Mission, Vision, and Values
Once again, ICON stands out for me because 90% of the content and messaging was around helping entrepreneurs succeed. The conference offered the most extensive set of keynotes and value-adding sessions I’ve ever seen, with “product” playing second fiddle.
Now, a person more cynical than me (and I have my moments) might say that it’s because there isn’t a lot to say about the product. It’s a good solid solution backed up with excellent services. Instead of trying to dazzle customers with new features each year, Clate Mask made it plain that that wasn’t the Infusionsoft way.
What’s driving all this is a set of values that management works hard to instill. Employees are in fact required to memorize them!
Infusionsoft is also unique in its “no frills” culture. VP of Talent Anita Grantham told me the culture was about “performance, passion, and the absence of perks.” This no doubt keeps employees better aligned with their customers — entrepreneurs that can’t afford the games and goodies offered by Silicon Valley tech firms. Refreshing.
I asked a number of other media/analyst types what they thought of Infusionsoft. Nearly everyone had the same opinion — the product is good, but the culture is what makes the company great.
Looking forward, I could envision a couple of scenarios. An acquisition from a company like Intuit would be one outcome that would enable the founders to maintain the culture. Perhaps more likely is an IPO, which will bring a different set of challenges. With the right Board, CEO Mask and his team should be able to keep their strategy intact, and give shareholders the same love that has been directed to customers thus far.
Disclosure: This post is part of my independent coverage of technology industry developments. No endorsement is implied for any companies mentioned in this post. Infusionsoft provided a free conference pass and paid my hotel expenses. Please visit our sponsor page for information about companies that have supported this community.