Morgo Stories: Aaron Ward of AskNicely
Aaron Ward, co-founder and CEO of AskNicely, has headed to the States to progress the company’s ambitions to build the global standard in customer feedback. He reflects on the journey so far. Having worked for corporates and in start-ups, Aaron was frustrated with how businesses ignored feedback from customers … so he set out to break every convention of old fashioned surveys.
After beginning his professional life in finance, Aaron quickly moved into strategic marketing while working for mobile network operator, Orange UK. He enjoyed connecting brand with the bottom line, but soon realised the traditional approach of using market research to listen to customers created massive disconnect for businesses. The long surveys, periodic delivery and lengthy reports weren’t working to support customer-oriented strategic planning.
“I was frustrated with the disconnect between customer feedback and the front-line teams responsible for delivering the actual experience. Senior execs would sit around a board table getting all strokey-beardy about charts on a big screen but then nothing would happen for the customer,” recalls Aaron.
There was clearly an opportunity to do things differently, and in a way that genuinely supported commercial decision-making.
A few basic philosophies underpinned Aaron’s early thinking and have continued through into product development. He intended to focus on action rather than analysis by providing real time insights that would be integrated into the tools used by frontline teams. AskNicely uses the simplest market research tool ever created – Net Promoter Score (NPS) – but it’s the lightweight dashboard reporting and user interface that enables exceptional impact.
Aaron had worked with John Ballinger at another start-up and knew this was the right tech guy to help build this new company.
“Every tech start-up needs a hacker and a hustler – that was exactly how John and I fit together”
...says Aaron. He took the lead on business development, while John built the product and now leads the development and support teams.
In the beginning, the pair maintained a laser-like focus by sticking a one-page business plan to the fridge - a deliberate strategy to avoid longwinded corporate planning documentation. The company looked to Uber as a model: focus on delivering a superior experience to every customer, every time. AskNicely’s survey goes to every customer – that’s mission critical.
They had their first NZ customer within a month of beginning product development and quickly found strong demand in the US, Canada, Europe and Australia. Soon after hearing about the product, their first big customer signed on: Jetstar.
The company has completed three over-subscribed funding rounds. Aaron first approached Ice Angels in November 2014 in the hope of accessing funding before the end of the year so he and John could finalise product development and market release. They were given the opportunity to present at the network’s Christmas dinner function, and caught the eye of John O’Hara (now Chairman of the Angel Association) who made an investment almost immediately, and became very hands-on as Chairman of the Board.
The most recent funding round, led by Australian venture capital firm Blackbird Ventures, raised $6.7 million. Aaron says they decided to seek further investment on the other side of the Tasman because of the more favourable terms offered and because of the greater SaaS expertise there. Additionally, with the company intending to push harder into the States, it made sense to gain international experience.
With a focus of winning in the US market, an office was established in Portland, Oregon at the start of 2016. This now houses a team of 24, including Aaron, who recently relocated with his family. Now over two-thirds of their revenue is generated there.
AskNicely expects to break even by the end of 2018, but they’re following the example provided by Xero in focusing on growth before profit and reinvesting all their earnings into the business for growth. A series B funding round is planned for the US later in 2018; indications from the market suggest there will be strong interest.
Aaron says from Day One, he and John had intended to go global. The US is AskNicely’s natural home because of their service culture, and because NPS is such a crucial ingredient in investors’ decision-making, especially for start-ups. The company’s success to date backs up the founders’ key philosophy:
Rule #1 for challenger brands is to understand every rule in the category and then break as many of them as possible.