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I gave one of the free ad slots to Tick, an online time tracking tool. I was very impressed with how the app functioned along with the professionalism from Kevin, one of the Tick partners. So we chatted it up and below is the transcript. I really like his answer regarding advice for people who want to start a business. I hope you learn something about his app and his tips for business.
Allen: Can you provide a brief background about yourself?
Kevin Finn: Partner at Molehill: My passion for the web started in '96 as I sat in front of a top of the line G3 at a small ad agency in Gainesville, FL. Like many agencies at the time, our customers began asking for web sites and somehow I was given the "web guy" title. It didn't take long for me to realize that the web had a bright future and I wanted to be a part of it. In '99 I took a job with Tom and we began to build more sophisticated web applications for clients. Through the years we began to develop our own product ideas and built a few internal applications for our own use. Little did we know that we were laying the groundwork for what would years later become Tick. In May of '06 we established Molehill together and shortly thereafter officially released Tick.
Allen: What is Tick?
Kevin: Tick is an online time tracking application focused on helping people and teams hit their budgets. As I said above, we have been building web applications for years and the majority of that work was for clients. We know what it's like to deal with evolving requirements, tight deadlines, fickle customers and "estimates" that might as well be a fixed price. In the service industry time is your inventory, and a project can go from black to red in the blink of an eye. We found that the biggest reason for projects slipping over budget was that team members weren't well informed of the project status. Of course we tracked our time, and the project managers had the ability to run reports comparing actual vs. estimated…but that system broke down when that information wasn't consistently and reliably relayed to the entire team. Tick solves that problem. The second time is entered to a project or task within Tick, the total and remaining budgets are shown and displayed on a graph. That same information can be pushed to your Basecamp account, or sent to you via email at specific project milestones. With Tick, there is never an excuse for not knowing that the project is about to go over budget, and it's amazing how people will respond to that kind of good information. Work can be re-allocated, customers can be contacted and plans can be made to keep the project profitable. Tick makes tracking your time worth your time.
Allen: Where did the name come from?
Kevin: I guess I could tell you how relevant and significant the name is…but the truth is there isn't much of a story here. We all came up with a few suggestions and did a little research to make sure we weren't going to run into any trademark issues. Then, one afternoon, we had a team meeting to review the short list and made a decision. In the end we really liked it and we found a solid domain; what more can you ask for?
Allen: Is there a team at Tick? If so, what is the makeup?
Kevin: Kevin Finn and Tom Rossi are the founders and partners of Molehill. For the development of Tick, Shaun Andrews and Mike Gowen were and continue to be significant members of our team. I should also mention Hampton Catlin, who helped with some server configuration and all around product feedback.
Allen: Can you share some information about your users?
Kevin: Sure… Since Tick was built from our own experience with custom development work, it's perfect for web shops. We're really happy with that niche, but at the same time have been blown away with number of accountants, lawyers, students, realtors, architects, etc. that have subscribed. Basically anyone who sells time can find value in the service. Tick is one of those products that you either get right away or you probably never will. It's for companies and individuals that have struggled with hitting budgets and know that pain. When they find Tick they are so grateful. It's always fun to exchange a few emails with new subscribers.
Allen: Who did the design of the app and web site? It plain rocks!
Kevin: Thanks! The credit for the look and feel of Tick goes to Mike Gowen, who has a wonderful talent for designing interfaces that make you feel comfortable the second you see them. The entire team however was heavily involved with the overall design. For us, the look and feel is only one aspect of a successful design. We spend significantly more time planning and brainstorming than we do designing. One thing that was goes seemingly unnoticed within Tick is that it has no help section. Of course that may change down the road, but so far it seems the interface and product itself are intuitive enough to stand on their own. We get very few customers writing in with "how do I" questions. We're really proud of this and it's really pushed us to continue to improve Tick. Now when we do get a "how do I" email, we improve the product instead of adding another FAQ.
Allen: Are people picking up the paid plans? What's the customer feedback been like so far?
Kevin: Going into the beta and launch we really had no idea how fast the word would spread, but we're really happy (even a bit surprised) with the subscription rate. We knew we were not alone in our pursuit of a better way to track time and budgets but we did underestimate how quickly the news would spread. By the end our 2nd week in beta we had thousands of users and were sending out invitations every couple of days. Tick was 100% free during the beta period (about 2 months) and when we officially opened the doors it was well confirmed that people who are budget conscious are looking for and willing to pay for a well designed application like Tick.
The feedback from our customers has been encouraging as well. We have received many kindly worded emails and a lot of great ideas. Tom and I personally handle all the support, which keeps us in tune with the needs of our customers. Since launch, all the updates to Tick have been customer driven. Of course we've come across a few people who don't see the value and honestly that's good for us to hear as well. We knew going into this that Tick wasn't going to be for everyone. Tick is a perfect fit many, but not all. That's been the plan all along and it's not changing any time soon.
Allen: Who are your competitors?
Kevin: That's a tough one. A simple Google search will show you that there are a lot of time trackers out there; in fact the space is getting a bit crowded. But as crazy as it sounds, we don't really look at Tick as a time tracker. When we first decided to create tick, it had much less to do with time tracking than it did with hitting budgets. If we're honest, tracking your time is simple. You can do it in your head, on a legal pad, Excel, Quickbooks or in some other homegrown application that you decided to build. And if we're REALLY honest, tracking time is a waste of time….if the end goal is simply tracking time to track time. But budgets (time budgets) are rarely simple, and not always easy to track or hit. Tick encourages and empowers team members by disseminating the critical information to the entire team. It's not tracking time simply for the sake of tracking it. It's tracking time with the end goal of nailing your budget. It allows people to know exactly where they stand, where they can lend a hand or when they need to work faster. As far as we know, Tick is the only application specifically built with those goals in mind.
Allen: How do you compare yourself to another startup, Toggl?
Kevin: Well Toggl seems to fit better into the category of general time trackers that I discussed above. I'm really not that familiar with their product so I won't say much beyond that, but I'm pretty sure our products were designed with different goals in mind.
Allen: What about comparisons to MS Project?
Kevin: MS Project is pretty much the exact opposite of what we set out to accomplish with Tick. MS Project is packed with so many features and functions that it dwarfs the simple goal of tracking time against budgets. We're not trying to knock their product, just point out that our user base is interested in a simple solution to help them spend less time tracking their work and more time doing their work.
Allen: Is Tick funded? Looking for funding?
Kevin: Tick is completely self funded and we're not seeking investors at this time.
Allen: What's coming in the next 6-9 months for Tick?
Kevin: Oh if we only knew… In all seriousness we don't really discuss future update or enhancements in any detail. We try out a lot of different ideas and if they prove useful we roll them out, if not we kill em.
Allen: What's your marketing plan been like? I saw your initial review by Rafe at Cnet (great guy btw!) and am wondering what other marketing you have done, if any?
Kevin: Well that interview with Rafe sure did kick things off in a hurry. He really got the ball rolling for Tick and we've been riding the wave ever since. From time to time we speak at small events and run an ads here and there. We follow the blogs and do our best to drop comments when we have something to contribute. Overall though, we're still very focused on the development of Tick and future products. We're fortunate to be in the position we're in. We don't have investors, we're able to pay the bills, we work with great people and we love building useful web apps. Not to downplay the marketing plan, but our target audience is pretty technical and spend a lot of time online so they are fairly easy to reach. Blog marketing has been extremely effective for us.
Allen: What tips can you share on managing your time? Do you do anything that is really a must-have for a startup or freelancer?
Kevin: We made the decision early on that we were not going to waste time fixing problems that we didn't have yet. It's very easy to dream up "what if scenarios" and spend a lot of time designing and coding solutions that may never be needed. Instead we set out to build a scalable product with a flexible interface and now make adjustments as needed. It allowed us to bring our product to market faster and kept the team motivated.
Allen: What do you believe are the most important things that a startup must have to be successful?
Kevin: Have a clear vision for your product and constantly weigh all decisions against it. I'll share a quick story… There was a time during the development of Tick that we got way off track. It's not that what we were doing was bad, but the features didn't do a thing to help people hit their budgets. We spent a lot of time going down this road of complicated functionality that really had very little real-world application until one morning we agreed to scrap the whole section. That was by far the smartest decision we made. Tick would not be the product it is today if we continued down that road, in fact we would probably still be in development. The hardest decisions to make are what to leave out and it'll never happen unless you're clear on your vision. If you're working with a team sharing that vision early and often will offer increased accountability, and we're big fans of accountability at the Molehill.
Allen: What is the greatest business lesson you have learned in your career?
Kevin: There is more to life than business. We love what we do but when you run your own business it can consume as much time as you give it, no matter how much time you give it.
Allen: What advice do you have for someone who wants to start a business?
Kevin: Go for it. There are always a million reasons why it's not the right time to start a business…but if you keep waiting for the conditions to perfect themselves, years can slip away and your dreams along with them. Starting a business is risky, embrace that and enjoy it. Oh yea, and you'll want to subscribe to Tick to help keep you on budget!
Allen: Which new RSS feeds are you reading these days?
Kevin: iTunes Top 25 Songs, SimpleBits (Not new but I have to list it)