Gaining customers and building a user base depends on creating a product customers want and listening to what they have to say

DevDraft employees (from left) Sasha Matison, Tiffany Defarbus, Michael Afrides, and Eugene Yarovoi. Photos by Julia Sumpter

DevDraft employees (from left) Sasha Matison, Tiffany Defarbus, Michael Afrides, and Eugene Yarovoi. Photos by Julia Sumpter

When Paul Stavropoulos introduced Ripple, his social sharing network, to New Tech Eastside attendees in February, the response he received took him by surprise.

“When I saw people’s eyes light up a little bit, it felt great,” Stavropoulos said. “These people at New Tech Eastside were not your stereotypical college student or recent college grads who are early adopters. That’s who we thought our user base would be. We had some great feedback from that session.”

Stavropoulos expected Ripple’s user base to be active on Twitter, since the two sharing platforms have a lot in common and can be used in tandem. Unexpectedly, it turns out that Ripple’s early adopters are avid users of Instagram and “decent Facebookers,” Stavropoulos said. Now, Ripple is working to define its core user groups, one of which consists of amateur photographers, among its 2,500 users. This will enable the company to better understand how to engage those users and develop a more solid relationship.

During the New Tech Eastside meetup, audience members consistently were asking other presenters about their strategies for attracting users, a pivotal question for any startup. Without users, there will be no funding, no market traction, and, eventually, no company.

Sasha Matison, cofounder of Bellevue’s DevDraft, said standing out in the marketplace and attracting customers is all in the company’s “secret sauce.” Matison developed DevDraft to test developers’ coding skills and rank them for potential employers. Because each developer has his or her own flair in product coding and developing, each coder leaves personal markers in the code, such as critical thinking and attention to details. DevDraft automatically mines the code for these markers and presents candidate ratings to potential employers.

Matison said he first recognized a need in the recruiting market when he trained new employees at Amazon. He frequently came across developers who were a good fit for the company culture, but whose skills were subpar. Instead of conducting further résumé searches and mining LinkedIn for people who were compatible with the company culture, and then testing coding skills afterward, Matison wanted to flip the model.

“It’s not that culture fit is less important — it’s critical — but this way you’re using a more effective process to get people that are talented, optimizing your time, and focusing on those who have a high probability of being successful for your business,” Matison said.

DevDraft’s three coding challenges have yielded 3,000 developers in the database, waiting to be viewed by potential employers. The company recently partnered with Microsoft to provide candidates for the Microsoft Partner Network. Having the stamp of approval from Microsoft gained DevDraft some attention from companies around the country, broadening the platform’s reach outside the Puget Sound.

Tiffany Defarbus, who runs sales and operations for DevDraft, said the company has been most successful in gaining customers through face-to-face meetings.

“The Microsoft plug has been a huge win for us, but how did that plug happen? It was a one-on-one personal connection,” Defarbus said. “It all starts with business being personal, and we’ve been able to create really great relationships with clients that way. I don’t refuse a conversation with anybody, because you never know where it’s going to lead.”

Swatee Surve, CEO of Litesprite

Swatee Surve, CEO of Litesprite

Matison said that after the product launched last year, the company received a lot of feedback from customers regarding how much candidate information they were able to see.

“We wanted to keep developers anonymous, but companies want to know a little bit more about people before they connect. Companies have old habits that carry through,” Matison said.

Because DevDraft wanted candidates’ skills and completed challenges to shine, the decision to make more personal information viewable was a hard one, Defarbus said. “How much do we want to conform to the current way of doing things? We came up with a happy medium, which is a mini résumé where you see highlights but you don’t see the full experience or all of their education.”

Companies that have already paved the way in the market have a slightly easier time offering a new product or twist on a familiar product. It would be impossible to be the Uber of your category if there were no Uber.

In October 2014, Swatee Surve, CEO of Bellevue-based Litesprite, launched her beta program into a market that didn’t have a predecessor. Litesprite combines medical treatment with games, offering an experience that can be both enjoyable for the user and provide helpful data for the clinician. In Litesprite’s first release, Sinasprite, users follow Socks the Fox through a series of tasks that help track and manage stress.

“A lot of times, as a company, and especially if you’re doing something innovative, changing that consumer behavior or getting that consumer receptivity or overcoming that initial skepticism, is always really hard,” Surve said. “I’ve been involved in a lot of consumer product development and it was surprising to not see that level of skepticism.”

Face-to-face meetings are another method Litesprite has been employing in order to acquire customers. However, this only was after receiving early media attention and accolades, which attracted the initial users.

“We would get a lot of exposure and that would drive people to sign up,” Surve said. “Then we went to clinicians themselves and asked if they would refer patients for the beta testing, and now recently, we started using Facebook as a way to advertise that we’re looking for users to help with product testing and running betas.”

The company has even worked out a partnership with Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma.

Know’n’act CEO Srivats Srinivasan said that when it comes to developing a product that better attracts consumers, listening to feedback from existing customers is key. Know’n’act, a Bellevue-based company, is a feedback-and-response platform that provides metrics and enables real-time conversations.

“I’m a huge believer in listen, listen, listen really hard to what your customers are telling you and build based on that,” Srinivasan said.

In his own work, Srinivasan took a close look at features offered by current feedback platforms and made adjustments from what he learned. “For us, it’s become much more important to ask how to enable the customer to have real-time conversation with customers, where feedback is only the beginning. That led to us to rethink how we wanted to approach the market and decide if we were going to be just another feedback platform, and are we really enriching the customer’s engagement capabilities.”

Any way a business slices the pie, building a solid customer base always begins with creating a product that customers want. Then comes the process of listening to the responses and the never-ending cycle of build, test, interpret feedback, repeat.