Meet Alison Alvarez and Tomer Borenstein, the founders of BlastPoint.
Before starting BlastPoint, Alison had a career in building big data tools for large Fortune 1000 companies. Through her work, she came to realize two things:
- When it comes to big data systems, everyone asks for the same subset of features.
- Only really large companies can afford to hire data scientists.
She believed that by building technology that met the ~90% of data needs, she could make data science tools accessible and affordable to businesses of all types and sizes. Alison pitched her idea at a CMU entrepreneurship event and met Tomer, an experienced software engineer and recent Computer Science Masters graduate. In 2016 they launched BlastPoint, with the mission to make big data accessible, usable, and affordable to all types of businesses. They have been making headlines ever since, and most recently won the 2017 UpPrize social venture competition.
In my interview with Alison and Tomer, we discuss how conducting user interviews right from the beginning helped shape their ideas for BlastPoint. We talk about how they continuously gather user feedback through their User Advisory Board. And we talk about how good user experience is at the core of what they offer customers.
Where did the idea for BlastPoint come from? What user-pain were you trying to solve?
I came up with the idea from some of the experiences I had at my last job. I was working at a job where I was building really big data science systems for really big companies. Sometimes I was building things for researchers, and they were really particular about what they wanted. But really my main customers were sales people. And when you build things for people who don’t think of numbers as their friends, then you build things a little bit differently.
So I was building those systems thinking about who my customer was, and I looked down-market and realized, there is just nothing like this for the 69 million small-to-medium sized businesses and non-profits in the United States. Yet everyone, all of my clients, were asking for basically the same things. And when people do that you realize there is a story, a common need, and potential to go retail. I thought there was potential to build something that meets most of people’s needs. I might not hit the edge cases, but I can sell something affordable and help virtually everybody.
I then pitched this idea at a CONNECTS Workshop at CMU, and Tomer was there. It was the very first CONNECTS Workshop and one of the professors there, Dave Mawhinney, who runs the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship, knew he could sort of pick on me. So he made me pitch first. And I guess Tomer heard my pitch and liked it.
He came up to me and told me he liked the idea. We met a few more times, and then we formed a team for the McGinnis Competition.
We thought, “how can we build tools that look like nothing that is already out there?” We wanted to build something that addressed this aspect of data, and that was efficient, and meets most people’s needs. And we thought maps was the way to go.
I had an expertise in geospatial data. And really, with a lot of the stuff that’s out there, you need a GIS degree to operate it. So our thought was to try to hit that fat part of the curve, maybe not the tail-ends, and see if we could build something that can do the most basic things that people want out of geospatial data.
Then we spent a lot of time interviewing people.
Oh yea? Who did you talk to and what did you interview them about?
Yea. We started out as a tool for restaurants. That was our pitch at the McGinnis competition.
Yea and honestly I thought it was going to be real estate. I interviewed 30 different real estate agents and owners and developers.
Yea, and they were not fans.
Well, no one was discouraging. They were supportive and nice. But there is a million miles between “this is nice” and “please take my money.”
What happened in those interviews that made you realize that restaurants and real estate are not you target customers?
Real estate is interesting. We might get into real estate eventually but it was definitely not going to be our first market. So first thing we realized is that real estate agents actually have a lot of access to data. But when I would talk to them they wouldn’t even remember their passwords to those systems. And one of the things that one of the agents said to me that was really memorable was, “buyers are liars.” It’s this idea that people who are buying houses don’t actually know what they want.
Also, if you are a real estate agent, you aren’t invested in making this process easier. You are a relationship manager. You are basically someone’s therapist around buying a home or a new place for your business. And so if it’s easy, then why would someone want to pay their commission? Whereas if it’s hard, they provide a lot more value.
So we might get into real estate eventually. But from the interviews I realized it was just going to be an uphill battle.
For restaurants, it’s not like they couldn’t use our product or they weren’t interested. It’s just that, for BlastPoint, we want people who would be repeat customers. The problem is with restaurants is that they would either use it once before they set-up and chose their location, or they have their location and they just want to learn more about their neighborhood. But it takes a really particular restaurant owner to even go that far into looking at data.
So it sounds like you had to find new target customers.
Yes. So after that, we started to look for users that would either have a small number of locations but wanted data that updates frequently, or users who don’t care about how frequently the data updates but they have new locations that keep opening up. So people like franchisers or economic development organizations.
Franchisers are looking for new locations to put their business. And the big goal of economic development organizations is to attract and retain jobs and economic activity in their area. For example, the Charleston Area Alliance is trying to attract a big manufacturer to Charleston to bring more jobs to the area.
One thing our tool can help these organizations do really well is build the message of, “yes, bring your business here,” but also the message of, “no, don’t go over there.” So the Charleston Area Alliance will want a lot of data about the Charleston area, but lets say they are competing with another town like Chattanooga Tennessee. They can pull up data for Chattanooga and see how they compare. So our tool helps them build their pitches to manufacturers and businesses they want to bring to Charleston.
So you had your initial ideas about BlastPoint and who the customer would be. Then the interviews helped you discover that your target customers should be someone different. Has that realization circled back and made you reconsider what BlastPoint should be as a product?
I think the core idea stayed the same. But the vision around the company definitely evolved. It’s not just about interviewing and learning about what users want, it’s also that once you spend a lot of time in this space you suddenly get new ideas.
One thing that we do is the User Advisory Board. All of our initial customers are a part of what we call our User Advisory Board. It’s a way for us to know why and how people use our product. It’s a way for us to develop these deep relationships with our early customers. It’s also a way for them to influence the design of the product around them. But one of our rules is to only build features that we hear a need for 3 or 4 times.
Their feedback has definitely changed the features and priorities on our road map. For example, in the next release of BlastPoint you will be able to see data on drive time estimates. That was a feature that became important after feedback from our advisory board.
How do you incorporate that feedback into your process?
It’s kind of interesting in how you talk to customers about new features, because if you just ask, “Do you want this?” Their answer is always yes. So you can’t ask questions like that. You kind of have to read between the lines in the conversation to discover what the needs really are.
I think that’s where you win in software development. Because I’ve made the mistake of building things exactly to user specification before, and it’s awful. Either they forget to ask something, or I misinterpret something. Or they think they know what they want but when they actually have it they realize it’s a completely different experience than what they imagined.
So we incorporate a lot of feedback into what we do. But we also realize that once they have it in their hands they might start feeling differently, so you need to be prepared for that.
Yes, we did probably over 100 usability tests for this first version.
We even had my then 5 year old daughter, Ada, use BlastPoint. And the point where she really struggled was dragging things across the screen. And that’s exactly where other, adult users of the product got hung-up too.
To me, I was like “drag and drop, what can be easier than drag and drop?” But everyone hates the dragging. Not just Ada, everyone hates the dragging. So there is definitely no dragging in the new version!
For a startup, you seem to be doing way more user research and user testing then I would say the average bear does.
You know, it’s one of our selling points. So we should make that a big part of the company.
So for the user advisory board, how is that set up? What’s the communication there like?
Well, right now, everyone can call us or email us if they have trouble. For our customers we’ll do anything. But every quarter I typically will give a presentation on our road map to the user advisory board. I try to get opinions on where we are going ahead of time.
Also, I’ll do what I call “office hours” where we are just on the phone hanging out and will talk to anyone about anything. I feel like customer support is such a critical part of what you need to do early on in a company. But at the same time it is hard to do good customer support when you are a small team. And users hate filing tickets. They just won’t do it. So a couple times a week I’ll just set-up a go-to-meeting call and anyone can join in at any time. You can also just join and listen to what other people are asking about. And every time I’ve done office hours I’ve always learned something interesting.
In the office hours, do they also talk to each other?
Yes, and that’s half the perk of participating. If you are working with an industry where competitors aren’t trying to stab each other in the back, then it’s a great way to build community. People like to hear about what worked well for other people and get ideas. Our users like to meet with other users and we get a lot of value out of that.
Having the office hours is a great tool. Its great from a sales perspective, great from a customer happiness and retention perspective, and great from a product development perspective. And it’s a relatively low investment to make it happen.
That seems way more personal and engaging than just a ticket reporting system.
Yes, definitely. And I’d rather have a mad customer willing to get on the phone with me than an angry yet silent customer that’s just not going to buy my software again. If they’re on the phone with me telling me why their angry then that’s an opportunity for me to make something work and keep that customer.
As you grow, do you think office hours is scalable?
Yes, especially if you have product managers that embrace the idea. Then you’d have some way of dividing up product areas or features and specify which features you are talking about in the office hours. I think sometimes as companies get larger they start to lose touch with their customers. When that happens that is when you lose your edge and your relevance. So as you grow you need to build in customer contact, things like office hours, into the way you do business.