The importance of a startup’s first customer can’t be overstated. While business plans and forecasts are great, an entrepreneur needs that first customer to really validate their product. That’s why we caught up with Kevin Wolf, President of Laney’s, and Ray Berry, President and CEO of OmniByte Technology, to talk about the power of the first customer.
Kevin Wolf, President of Laney’s
Why did you go with Omnibyte?
Laney’s had been using Great Plains financial software and Wennsoft service software for many years. Ray Berry was a former employee for the Wennsoft software company that we used to manage the service area of our company. Wennsoft had a mobile software program that our technicians would use when servicing our customers out in the field. However, this software was very cumbersome and we ended up being very disappointed in it. Meanwhile, Ray had left Wennsoft and started Omnibyte. Ray ended up reaching out to us because he knew we were a Wennsoft customer and that we were disappointed in their field software.
Ray set up a meeting with me and we got together and talked about it. He ended up throwing out the idea of Omnibyte writing their own field software and we talked about the possibility of Laney’s partnering with them in the development of this software. With my strong computer background and having been in this HVAC, Plumbing and Electrical industry for over 25 years, this concept really intrigued me. Omnibyte was local and I really felt that having the opportunity to be involved in a software project like this that could be beneficial to both Laney’s and Omnibyte was really exciting.
There were a lot of options for us out in the software market for this type of application but Ray and Omnibyte instilled the confidence from day one that together we could build a product that would not only fulfill our needs but also serve others in our industry. Therefore, we made the commitment to them.
What was the problem you needed to be solved?
Our challenge at the time was that we had rolled out Wennsoft’s field software for our technicians to use and we were experiencing all sorts of problems. Our technicians were becoming very disillusioned using the software out in the field when servicing customers. This led to them abandoning the desire to use it. We needed a different software package.
I’m sure there must have been numerous tech companies from all around the world you could have worked with. Was it important for you to work with a local company?
Yes, we had many options to choose from. The market for field software for technicians to use is large and growing. They all have their unique advantages. We decided to partner with Omnibtye for a couple of reasons. First, after our initial meeting, Ray really gave me a feeling of confidence that a mutual project could be done and that Omnibyte had all of the capabilities to complete the project. Second, the idea of sharing Laney’s knowledge of the industry with Omnibtye, another local Fargo company to develop a software program was really exciting to me. Being local, I knew that they would better understand our culture and the environment in which we conduct business.
Also, I personally come from a computer background and have written customer software myself and the idea of being a part of a software development opportunity like this was something that really intrigued me. Even with the risk of rolling out another failed software program to my technician team and losing their confidence, I felt that between our two companies, we could develop something very special and something that would service our company well. I probably wouldn’t have an opportunity like this had they not been local.
What advice would you give to other startups who are looking to close their first customer? As a business owner, is there something you’re looking for in a company?
I think that the fact that we were both located in Fargo played a large part in the success of our project. Their staff would be present at our site and were able to see firsthand how our company operated. We held regularly scheduled meetings that involved both their development staff and our management and field staff. They were able to hear directly from a technician that works in the field with customers what was important to them in a software program. They were also able to ride along with our technicians and visit our call center so they could better understand Laney’s process of serving customers. Also, our staff would visit Omnibyte’s site as well and see how their processes worked and were able to appreciate how a product like this gets developed.
My advice would be to find a local company that has common interests, goals and mission in relation to what you are selling or developing. Don’t view them as a customer but rather as a partner.
Ray mentioned that working with you has really helped your people. Can you elaborate on that? How did they help your people?
The key goal for Laney’s in this project was to end up with a software program that our company could use to better serve both our employees and our customers. TechPro has been just that. The software was very easy to implement. The learning curve was very short and that was important for our technicians, especially after experiencing a failed attempt at another software package.
It has also benefited our staff in that TechPro is a software program that our staff had a lot of input on in development. Options are intuitive and easy to understand and use.
TechPro has given our staff the feeling that Laney’s is on the cutting edge of our industry and that we are using a product that not only provides all of the information that we need to complete our jobs efficiently but also a tool that ensures a much better customer experience. And better yet, it was developed right here in Fargo!
It seems like you and Omnibyte have kept a good relationship over the years. Is there something special that Omnibyte has done to keep you happy?
I think the key to the success in our partnership has been the people. Omnibtye is blessed with a great group of employees, starting at the top with Ray. I am also blessed with great employees at Laney’s and I think that the fact that we were able to establish strong relationships and maintain open dialogue throughout the project between our companies has been key. We had very few stumbling blocks along the way but if we did encounter something, we were able to hit it head-on in a respectful and honest manner. I would call our partnership with Omnibtye more of a friendship than a business relationship.
I also think that both of our companies went through this project knowing that we both had to sacrifice things in order to make this work. This had to be a win-win situation and Laney’s couldn’t be happier than to have partnered with Omnibyte on this journey. Oh yeah – and they are big Bison fans and their micro-brewed beer at their office is really good too!
Ray Berry, President and CEO of OmniByte Technology
Talk about what it was like running your company before you had your first customer.
OmniByte Technology started in 2015, founded by Brian Gietzen and I, as a professional services technology company with the ultimate goal of building mobile software to improve the work lives and safety of field service personnel. We were fortunate to have more than one client prior to inception; generating revenue in the first week with positive cash flow and ending the year with a profit. Much of this had to do with the talent of my partner Brian, the professional relationships we had formed in the past and the programs in our state and locally that supported us as a startup and kept our costs to a minimum while allowing us to build.
Unlike Steve Jobs, we did not decide what cool mobile technology we wanted to build then sell. We simply listened to the market, our clients and trusted contacts in industry to what the problems are and which most needed to be solved. Those problems became our roadmap for product development. Every product OmniByte Technology has started had one client who partnered with us, put their trust in us to build something new and best met the needs of the field service user while improving operations. Kevin Wolf from Laney’s made the decision to put their business in our hands. It was also important for us to work with a company whose values align closely with ours.
Was there any sort of sales or marketing efforts you did that helped land Laney’s?
In any traditional sense, no. What I have learned as an entrepreneur is, more than anything, success is all about relationships. I was fortunate to have known Kevin from working with him before and probably more importantly as an NDSU Bison fan. For a few years, my wife Sonja and I sat a row in front of Kevin at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, TX. OmniByte had a vision of a simpler mobile work order solution that technicians would like to use. What we needed was a great partner company who would work with us and allow us access to their organization, team members and help provide real-time feedback/input from their team members both in the field and back-office. We felt Laney’s was the right partner because they had the right leadership, a company whose values align closely with ours and they were here in Fargo. We decided to share our vision for our product, which became TechPro.
Landing that first customer can oftentimes give startups the boost and validation they need to continue their mission. Was that the case for you?
Absolutely. Without our partnership with Laney’s in 2017, TechPro may not exist or gotten off the ground. Since the release of TechPro in 2018, we have sold into companies with 100s of technicians, including one in the top 12 for US revenue in HVAC. We recently had our first sale outside of North America. Our new Australian client is preparing to deploy TechPro to 400+ technicians in Australia and New Zealand in January 2020. Along with Kevin’s leadership and his product/industry expertise, we built a product, which is today helping many companies and thousands of technicians do their jobs better with our mobile technology built here in Fargo.
Talk about the day that you closed Laney’s as a customer. That must have been an exciting day for you and your team.
There were several exciting moments/milestones in our work with the Laney’s team. The opportunity to simply present our idea and vision to Kevin and his team was a very big day for us. Later, in January 2017, Kevin approached me at NDSU’s SHAC during a Bison basketball game. It was there that he shared he and his team had made a decision to proceed and was ready to move forward. While this was not necessarily a closed deal, it was one of the single most impactful moments I have had personally in my dream to build this product, which became TechPro. For us, the next exciting day was not the signed contract, the invoice, recognition of a product sale or a payment, it was when the first technicians were using our TechPro live in Fargo to serve Laney’s clients.
What was the problem you were hoping to solve for Laney’s?
I knew Laney’s had adopted other mobile technology with minimal success – in no way due to his staff or processes. They have a very strong brand and reputation because Laney’s employs some of the very best technicians in our region, yet the mobile technology used was challenging for the techs and therefore, adoption was limited with several technicians choosing to resort to paper, even after a significant investment in mobile. The answer simply was making the solution easier and better than paper. What we did was include technicians in our design review, listened to what their needs really are and sent our team members in the field to ride along with Laney’s team members. Together, our common goal was to build and deploy a tool, which will result in 100 percent adoption with low-cost implementation.
How have you kept Laney’s as a good customer over the years?
From the beginning, I believed OmniByte would need two important things to differentiate us from all the others. First, of course, would be our approach to design and execution of current technologies. Our mission to improve the work lives and safety of field service personnel is only accomplished through what we often say, “Simple, Relevant, Portable (SRP).”
Simple: to use, implement, buy. Relevant: technologies, interface and user experience. Portable: Multi-platform, multi-device. The second is the most important and client focus is one of our core values. Our only marketing in the 4.5 years in business is the word of the clients we serve and their success because they have chosen to partner with OmniByte. While software is never flawless, it’s critical companies provide the very best customer service, be accessible and be responsive. OmniByte has some of the very best people and they are very good at one simple thing, caring. I frequently say one thing when I refer to our drive to be the best we can in serving our clients: we care. If we always do the right thing, our clients will be successful and so will we.
What advice would you give to other startups who are looking to close their first customer?
Never ever give up. Be sure you are not selling your idea or your technology. This is said many times, yet many companies still build things that may not have a market/need. When you identify and solve hard problems other companies have been unable to – and there are industries who have those same problems – you can create a great company around this. Find your niche, identify who your customer really is, listen to their needs, understand the problems. What has worked for OmniByte is finding a trusted client to partner with and together you will come up with technology solutions to solve their real problems. When you release your minimum viable product, you start with a client, users and hopefully your first reference. Now, you just need to find the second customer.
First Customer Stories
First customer: The Arthur Companies and Minn-Kota Ag Products
We had two businesses become our “first customer” simultaneously. In 2017, The Arthur Companies and Minn-Kota Ag Products signed onto the Bushel platform. Both customers were willing to spend time with us in product development and the initial beta-launching process. Their patience as we navigated a first-to-market product was invaluable. Having those first customers who were aligned with our goals, understood the value of technology and were constructive with their feedback was paramount to our early success. Those early experiences were formative for us as we launched our platform to grain facilities nationwide. Arthur and Minn-Kota not only taught us how to approach the market with our platform but also how to build strong relationships with our customers. Today our platform operates in 1,000+ grain facilities across the U.S. and Canada with thousands of growers using Bushel-powered apps to do business with their local grain elevator.
- Ryan Raguse, Co-founder and Executive Chairman
Golden Path Solutions
First customer: Korber Medipak, formerly Fargo Automation
Why was it so important for you that they were their first customer?:
Kevin Biffert and Jessica Petrick were huge advocates of ours from the start. They shared our vision of what Golden Path could be, as they saw this as a way to help them develop a future workforce. Having that first customer provided validation that what we were doing mattered and that companies would be willing to pay for our services. It helped us show that our concept had real practical benefits to companies vs. just being a “good idea.” It allowed us to gain traction with more companies, more schools and even local and state governments, showing that we had a new, innovative way of bringing students and employers together more intentionally. Most of all, it allowed us to test our processes and make sure we were providing real value. It was the spark we needed to get going and we are still thankful for their early support!
- Patrick Mineer, CEO and Founder
Signs 4 Work
First customer: DogIDs
We wouldn’t have a company today if it wasn’t for a meeting in early 2014 with Clint Howitz, president and founder of DogIDs. Clint had a vision to bring manufacturing of a line of dog collars to Fargo so his team could be hands-on in prototyping and product development. I agreed to be that guy and DogIDs purchased my equipment and materials. I set up shop in my basement and was paid per collar with no overhead. While making dog collars, I ended up creating Shirts From Fargo, which was sold early this year and Signs 4 Work, now a seven-person operation in West Fargo. Last July, we launched Event Badger, which specializes in high-end event badges and today our future has never looked brighter. Being a business owner was something I would have never had the courage to pursue without the foundation Clint and DogIDs provided me.
- Justin Nelson, Founder
First customer: Eventide Senior Living
Our first senior living customer was Eventide Senior Living based in Moorhead. I had gotten an introduction to Jon, Eventide’s CEO, through an early customer of mine who was using WalkWise with his mother. I went to Jon’s office and after I had finished my pitch, he said something along the lines of, “I was worried this would just be another trinket, but I’m glad it’s not!” He has since been a huge champion for WalkWise and we’re currently working on expanding access to WalkWise at Eventide communities. Sure, we had challenges and setbacks with this early-stage technology, but the Eventide staff helped us learn about problems and asked for features that resulted in product innovation. Our community needs more business leaders who will work closely with startups, not because of altruism, but because technologies will better serve your needs when you have a hand in crafting the solution.
- Peter Chamberlain, Founder & CEO
First customer: A hip hop artist who hired us to create a music video for an original song.
The music video project was really the genesis of our entire company. It planted the seeds creatively and from an entrepreneurial perspective that became the building blocks for what we are today. We owe a lot to those first few customers who took a chance on some young guys with cameras.
- Dave Diebel, Producer/Co-Owner