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How Wiley Cerilli Used Customer Development in Building SinglePlatform

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Wiley Cerilli founded SinglePlatform in January of 2010 and led the company as CEO to it's acquisition by Constant Contact for $65 million plus incentives up to $100 million. Prior to SinglePlatform, Wiley was was EVP of Sales at Seamless. Seamless was acquired by Aramark. He currently serves as VP for Constant Contact and General Manager of SinglePlatform.

In my interview with Wiley he described how he used customer development in starting and growing SinglePlatform, shared advice on scaling a company, and more. Below is a summary of our conversation.

Using customer development to identify a problem and validate a solution

While at Seamless, Wiley worked closely with restaurants and other small to medium sized businesses. At the time, acquiring restaurants was very difficult because the restaurants didn't know how the web could help them. As time went on the restaurants learned and acquisition became easier. Eventually restaurants actually became overwhelmed by the amount of web tools and sites available.

Wiley began hearing complaints from restaurants about how hard it was to manage their web presence and all the sites they have information on. He wasn't sure what the exact solution was, but knew that the problem presented an opportunity.

Instead of building something and seeing if restaurants would want it, he start by getting feedback from customers and pre-selling.

Wiley began by going in to restaurants with a PowerPoint deck on an iPad describing a product that he thought they would want. In our conversation, he emphasized the importance of not simply asking "would you buy this" when delivering customer development interviews because people will generally feel uncomfortable saying no. Instead he described it to customers as his friend's product or would ask them to write a check if they said they liked it. When you ask someone to pay for something you start hearing information that you would not have heard otherwise because people would rather not be disagreeable.

Over a three month period of delivering customer development interviews, a lot of "no-s," and several iterations of the deck, Wiley came to 5 slides that resonated strongly. In fact, many were willing to write him a check, even knowing that he didn't know have a product built yet. He had identified a strong enough customer pain point and a product value proposition that resonated strongly enough, that customers were willing to prepay. Wiley knew he had a real opportunity on his hands at that point and began building the product and brought on a couple sales people to distribute it.

Pre-selling and running experiments to validate new features

The emphasis on validating customer needsa and avoiding spending time and money on something that customers don't actually want didn't stop after the product was built. SinglePlatform would consistently test, pre-sell, and run customer development interviews on new features.

For example, they knew if users provided feedback on menu data, they would have some incredibly valuable data, but if no one would click on their feedback buttons in the first place they had no value at all. So the company tested their riskiest assumption first by adding a "like" button to their platform that didn't actually have any functionality -- it was just to test clickthrough rates.

Leveraging partnerships and data to build a valuable network

At an industry event, Wiley learned that the number one thing people were looking for when searching for restaurants was menus. He then asked several restaurants about what people ask for when they call, and consistently heard that they were asking for menus.

As a result of this research, Wiley knew he could create value for both publishers who would store menu data and the restaurants that created it. He closed a partnership with Yellow Pages promising to deliver 150,000 menus within four months. The data partnership extended the time users spent on Yellow Pages' site significantly, and the company leveraged those results to get partnerships with many more publishers. The more publishers SinglePlatform had signed on, the more value they were delivering to their restaurant customers.

SinglePlatform acquired a lot of valuable data and began creating a "network" that gets exponentially more valuable as more restaurants and more publishers get added to it.

Recruiting, scaling a sales team, and the importance of company culture

After enough in-person conversation with customers and validation, SinglePlatform's product was distributed entirely through inside sales. Wiley attributed his successful recruiting and scaling efforts to hiring an amazing initial team, and creating a great company culture. A majority of SinglePlatform's hires came from inside referrals. "Great people know great people," Wiley Said. And if people like their job and the culture of the company, they will want to refer people they know.

"Building a company is strikes and gutters and you need the right team to make it through that. It was not all sun and roses at SinglePlatform. Having a great team and culture helped us tremendously."