Mike McDerment, CEO and co-founder of Freshbooks, an online invoicing, time and expense application, admits to a lot of mistakes in building his business, but says the biggest one was the original branding of the company.
"We started out in 2004 with a completely different company name - 2ndSite - a terrible name," Mr. McDerment says. "The thing about a name like 2ndSite is that there are about 10 ways to spell it, you can't really tell what it means, it's generic and it's utterly forgettable."
They hadn't really thought much about it until one of their advisers suggested a name change back in 2006. They soon recognized the obvious need for something new and so went through the process of rebranding. Since switching to the name Freshbooks, the company has experienced extraordinary growth and currently has more than 600,000 users.
"Changing our name was a massive turning point because we also rebranded our outward look and changed our mindset," Mr. McDerment says. "Our old colours were navy and grey, usually associated with trust and banks. We had this conservative, uptight style because we thought that's what people expected. First of all, we quickly realized, 'Hey, we're wearing shorts.' We are who we are and we are not that brand. Since rebranding, we've become much more open with how we communicate on our site. The openness and transparency that have gone along with it have been incredibly well received."
The company's biggest challenge has been to let people know the service exists. Word-of-mouth is the biggest driver and that includes a strong social media outreach to get the word out. While the company is on Twitter daily with news and contests, has a blog and a forum, Mr. McDerment says they are equally active on the telephone and e-mail.
"Our strategy is to serve the customer and social media helps us do that," Mr. McDerment says. "We use Twitter as a way to share some of our culture and give people a window into our world. It's also a great place to listen, to find out what people are interested in and how we can serve them better."
Mr. McDerment says Freshbooks' tech-savvy staff fully supports the company's active social media element. Their comfort level with being online and dealing with people in an open way has made it easier than in some organizations where social media mechanisms aren't well understood.
"You have to look at who your customers are and what you want to achieve, because it's not for everybody," Mr. McDerment says. "But if you're a consumer brand, go heavily."
Another way Freshbooks builds customer relationships is through participation in conferences such as the MESH Web conference in Toronto, which Mr. McDerment helps host, and local events. Mr. McDerment also frequently invites customers out to dinner simply by calling people at random to arrange parties of eight or more. He says he's been doing it for years.
"I think that's in the DNA of our organization," Mr. McDerment says. "You've got your online world over here, but relationships are usually forged offline. All those things are not substitutes for real interaction; they're there to augment."
With 33 employees, Mr. McDerment says it can be difficult to maintain a perfectly consistent message across all the different customer experiences. He believes the key is in hiring the right people for the team, even if it takes longer to fill a role.
"Everyone who works at Freshbooks is an ambassador," Mr. McDerment says. "I'm building a culture and how you preserve that is getting people who share your values. There's a whole range of personalities, but we share the same values around customer orientation, getting things done and being the best."