By Ellie Cachette (Founder, ConsumerBell) Back in October of 2009, I had the idea of creating a site that collected people’s complaints. Not in the back-end kind of way but in a crowdsourcing way where people could vote if they had the same issue, which I then could contact the company to work out some kind of deal. Today, ConsumerBell helps companies track and manage product recalls online. They work with consumers and parent bloggers to spread information about product safety.
My main goal from the beginning was to minimize class action lawsuits and find a faster way to resolving product complaints by consumers (which stems from my father getting infected with HIV from a spoiled product in the eighties. Read more here). At the time I had a male CTO and two female interns who worked with me for four months trying to find juicy leads and work with companies but we had absolutely no success and for a lack of better count, essentially zero internet traffic.
I realized we needed to find a different way to solve the problem and re-brand. I especially wanted a blog so we could have a conversation with our consumers and users so we could learn more about the process and issues that can happen from a customer service side.
“A blog is a stupid idea,” my-then CTO told me. “What’s the point of a blog if you have no traffic? Besides we’ll never get funded unless it’s because someone thinks you are hot.” That was an eyeopener. I decided at that very moment that whoever I worked with in the future needed to have full faith in our vision. I killed the project, terminated any ties with that CTO and built the very first version of ConsumerBell myself using Weebly which was, for the most part, ugly and as ghetto as possible -- but it worked.
With a new name, brand, blog and mission we (my now CCO, Stephanie Haller and original “intern” with the first failure) had dozens of consumers interacting with us the first day we were live. “This is great!” she said as our Twitter follower count slowly increased and emails poured in from all over the country. We had little to no technology and no idea of what product we were going to be but we were blogging and knew that a lot of consumers were angry and recklessly tweeting about their struggles and dying to know more about what was going wrong with their products.
Then, we got lucky.
Stephanie happened to find photos on her Facebook feed about a upset mom with moldy Capri Sun juice so we broke the story, did a blog post and tried to see if there were other moms with the same situation and there were! Within 24 hours, The Consumerist picked up our story, traffic was coming our way and our little Weebly site was starting to break at capacity.
While I met with every entrepreneur and founder that would give me 10 minutes of advice, Stephanie re-built our site in Wordpress at night while holding various day jobs. I struggled each month to make rent, getting used to the eviction notices and angry debt collectors. I knew we were onto something but I just wasn’t sure what that looked like yet. But we were learning a lot, on a daily basis.
I then thought, “Maybe we could try a similar thing where people could create their own groups so that others with the same issue could “join” that group and add social media widgets!” Yes, widgets! With no CTO and repeatedly being told I was unfundable, I hired contractors to build this widget portion thing we wanted on our wordpress blog. I knew it wasn’t optimal but it was worth a shot to see if people would rally behind a product.
By this time we had learned some interesting things:
- Consumers don’t want to deal with the company directly; they already feel inconvenienced.
- Consumers want immediate resolution.
- Companies initiated recalls as much as regulators did.
- Children’s products are most affected by recalls.
- Recalls, as a market, is a multi-billion dollar industry annually.
- Most recalls are handled via 800 numbers with call centers.
At this point I had been doing ConsumerBell full-time for six months. I still felt compelled to solve this issue of product satisfaction -- there’s no reason why, with Twitter and Facebook why small or even fatal issues were turning into large class actions that drain the court system, upset consumers more and almost always make the company look even worse even when they were trying to do the right thing.
Two months later and a now unstable website with a widget, we saw some success but not enough to warrant continuing. Already we started to get a huge mom following though, mom bloggers, concerned parents, and consumers we had small successes with. NBC even finally picked up our story about moldy juice and interviewed me about how social media could change consumer awareness.
“But are you pro-consumer or pro-corporation?” Jesse Engle, founder of CoTweet, once asked me. I responded, “We’re pro-everyone by helping the overall experience become more seamless.”
“Doesn’t work,” he said. “You have to pick a side.”
This was tough because consumers had taught us so much about how difficult things could be but in order to make long-term progress, we needed to work with the corporations -- not against them. Besides as I have always believed most companies are not interested in treating their customers poorly, on the contrary they want to optimize experience for return business.
After brainstorming with one of our Advisors who has experience with Class Actions, I realized that consumers were not unforgiving. They understand issues happen with quality control but they like transparency and especially for moms, who are the most time deprived but often the ones in charge of returning goods, they needed a easier way to get info besides calling an 800 number for an hour only to be told to fax info to some call center in Ohio and maybe in two months they’d get a refund or a new item. They needed their baby stroller fixed. NOW. For manufacturers, they had no idea how to market and get the word out besides maybe a PR release on newswire with the 800 number or a blog post on their site that had low SEO and most likely not user-friendly or rather not designed with a mom in mind who has maybe one minute of dedicated attention.
We were already working with moms who trusted us as a brand. Now we just needed to build what the companies could use.
Some early feedback on our business and its solutions:
- You are competitors with Consumerist -- They featured us in a story
- You are competitors with Channel 7 -- We hired their Research Manager
- You should partner with Ecomom -- Brought on their CEO as an Advisor
- Isn't that what the FDA does? -- Got official voting rights with FDA (February 2011)
- Isn't that what the CPSC does? -- Got login access to preview new database
- You are competitiors with ExpertRecalls? -- Contacted them, might work together in future
- Have you talked to Esther Dyson? -- Brought her on as an investor (February 2011)
In the meantime I signed on my dream CTO, Wing Lian, a close friend of mine and talented engineer with a background in social gaming. We spent our weekends together and lived down the street from one another in Marin so after the contractors successfully built (and destroyed other parts of our WordPress site) I FINALLY convinced him to come to work with me, for only equity. His wife was due with their first child in a month. He built his vision of what the site could be and we presented at SF NewTech.
“But how are you going to make money?” people kept asking.
I was and never have been worried as we are solving a huge multi-industry problem.
We kept learning and growing. Emails from bloggers coming in with questions about our next product. I knew now in my head what we needed to build but Wing was a new dad and needed some help coding. I had no money and a boyfriend constantly bothering me that I wasn’t “supportive enough” of his endeavors and poor Stephanie, recently married, asking when a paycheck was possible. I tried to raise money again with our 500th version of our pitch deck to no avail. We did however make finalists for TheFunded which, quite frankly, shocked me. I leveraged being a finalist for TheFunded with a few angels but they wanted more traction. Then one night I applied for TechStars Boston as if it was my lotto ticket. I had a feeling that the West Coast wasn’t going to understand what we were doing because all the manufacturers and brands were on the East Coast - plus I was old news to San Francisco as the “little girl trying to save the world.” Shortly after I got the email: Congratulations, you are finalists for TechStars! The odds were so low I didn’t think we would make it.
I rallied Wing and Stephanie and explained we might have to go to Boston for 3 months. Wing had an infant and Stephanie a husband, but Stephanie could swing it.
At the same time, Esther Dyson finally emailed back that she could meet with me on my next trip to New York. Meanwhile for development all of us were exchanging wireframes throughout the night staying up to 4am working out logic kinks and what buttons to put where. Wing needed more engineers, Steph needed money. I hadn’t paid rent yet but we were finalists for TechStars Boston and I was starting to feel pretty confident about our position. While a friend of mine who runs a successful development company called Koombea had previously offered engineers (for free or minimum as a favor to me) one of their projects, Badgeville received incredible recognition for TechCrunch Disrupt 2011 and serendipitously had resources available.
Excited for our news about TechStars, he assigned a project manager and a few engineers to help Wing and quickly we were moving from wireframes to mockups.
Who needs money, I have engineers!
While in New York I started weighing which city would be best for our product: Boston or New York? Boston or New York? Boston had an ample supply of engineers and New York branding agencies. After a week of meetings, I decided in a ballsy move not to fly back to San Francisco, to stay and keep hammering away on our product while around our potential clients. TechStars didn’t work out but the feeling was mutual -- our main points couldn’t be addressed by them and the slot was more deserving of a start-up would could greatly benefit from an incubator. We kept blogging, keeping our relationship with consumers strong while tweaking wireframes. As we setup the system, we realized that every product was different and to ensure no fraud, we would need to have fields changeable so we started parallel building the corporate login portion of our site.
Weeks before we launched I met with a few New York Angels who were confused, they liked the idea more than the West Coast Angels but were perplexed why it had taken me a year, I think some even thought we were a failure for not launching but our latest idea was nearly my sketches on a napkin months before and we were doing dev deployments nightly.
On April 15th, our marketplace finally went live for the world and soon after, ahead of schedule, the corporate logins. That’s not to say it was easy. My previous experience before ConsumerBell was as a technical project manager. I had launched huge corporate campaigns for Macy's and spent two years once designing and managing what is now Kaiser Permanente’s Small Group quoting system on Brokernet but in each case I had a huge budget and enormous tech teams. For ConsumerBell I had borrowed resources and two teammates running on fumes, but we did it. Our new marketplace went live as Wing and I hacked from Mom 2.0 Summit in New Orleans where Johnson & Johnson picked me to interview about Using Social Media for Social Good and recently named a Marketing to Women Success Story. Weeks before I was on a boat for Summit at Sea with no wifi or wireless access at all. Completely surreal.
Prior to launch, Canaan Partners dropped off beer to our office and a writer for INC Magazine came by with champagne. We hired our first New York employee a month ago and surprisingly, despite all our ups and downs, Stephanie and her husband are making arrangements to move to New York.
Whenever we go out together as a team, Stephanie will say “Without Ellie, ConsumerBell wouldn’t exist.” But the truth is without everyone around who let me pay a bill late or gave me feedback on our deck, ConsumerBell wouldn’t exist.
Now our product fit issues are different. It’s not if our idea will work, or how it will work - its how to scale. How to recruit and how to maximize the product that we have built. Corporations tend to move slow and consumers are inpatient so optimizing the on-boarding process is top priority. We are still raising money, but the terms and conversations are completely different. Now its not a “if” we can get money, it’s finding the perfect amount to our next milestone, whatever that is.
I recently checked our corporate documents and they are signed 5-26-10.
We now have a team of 5 people and an office space on Park Ave in New York. We are a wholly East Coast company and instead of hearing that my idea is stupid, I now hear, “Why did it take you so long?”
Keep at it and trust your gut.
About the guest blogger: Ellie Cachette is the founder of ConsumerBell, which helps consumers collaborate together for the purpose of faster corporate complaint resolution. Recognized by the California State Senate as an "Outstanding Educator" in AIDS and Public health in 1997, Ellie has been an active supporter in the campaign to cure AIDS and promote healthy living. Ellie is a strong advocate of Women 2.0, a Silicon Valley organization dedicated to empowering female entrepreneurs and a product safety junkie.