Thursday, March 17, 2011

Impact Dialing's Lean Startup Model

[This post is part of the Lean Startup Challenge. Post a comment wishing us luck!]

I didn't want to start Impact Dialing at first. I had been looking for a predictive dialer to help Equality California call voters about same-sex marriage, and I couldn't find anything I liked. All the dialers were expensive, difficult-to-use, and not scalable. I once even suggested to the CEO of one of my now-competitors that he look into technologies like cloud computing, which provides computing power on demand, and voice over IP, which can be used to provide telephone lines on demand. He brushed me off. Finally, an acquaintance said to me, "There's a market out there. Why don't you just build it yourself?" 

I didn't have a lot of savings to invest, so I knew that Impact Dialing needed to make money as quickly as possible. I had heard of a company called Twilio that makes it simple to build web applications that interact with phone lines. This would help us build our dialer quickly. Twilio's pay-as-you-go pricing was appealing, too: we wouldn't have minimums or up-front costs, so Impact Dialing could cover its phone bills by requiring customers to pay in advance, and then using that money to pay Twilio. 

Likewise, we chose to run our software on Amazon Web Services. Amazon lets you "rent" virtual servers on-demand, so we could seamlessly grow our capacity as our volume increased. Services like Twilio and Amazon have made it possible for people like me to start companies with minimal funding. 

My business partner, Brian, who does our programming, decided that to program with Ruby on Rails, an application framework that makes it incredibly fast to build web applications. We also used a pre-built CSS template, which defines how a web page looks, so that we wouldn't have to spend time building our own look and feel (which can take a lot of time!). 

With the technologies picked out that would allow us to start quickly and at minimal cost, now I had to define our product. Once again, I was focused on getting to market as fast as possible. I made a list of all the features I would like to have, and then crossed out everything that wasn't absolutely necessary. We would build the minimum viable product, start selling it, and then build new features as we went and as our clients and leads requested them. 

In less than five weeks of writing our first line of code we launched Impact Dialing and started selling it to political campaigns. We released new features and bug fixes on an almost daily basis. A couple times, someone was interested in using our product but really needed a feature we didn't have, so we built the feature and released it within a day or two. And by the time the November elections were finished, we were already profitable!

We've continued to work hard improving Impact Dialing, building new features and making the system more robust. We've enjoyed keeping the company small - it's still just me and Brian - but we've started to think about bringing on investors to help us grow more quickly than we can on our own. I would love to go to more trade shows and events to promote Impact Dialing, but we've got a tight budget that forces us make hard choices (which can be a good thing, too!). And both Brian and I have other jobs that help us pay the bills, though we'd love to work on Impact Dialing full-time. 

Recently, I heard about a contest called the Lean Startup Challenge that offers funding to lean startups, and given how lean Impact Dialing is, I figured we'd be a pretty good fit. Wish us luck!