May 7th is EquipCalendar's 5th birthday! Woo-hoo right? That's a nice milestone for a startup, especially one that was created in my spare time. How did we get here? Well, let me tell you a little story.
I've always been the kind of person to ask questions. Most of the time, I'm asking others, but sometimes I talk to myself too. This happened shortly after renting a storage unit. You know the places I'm talking about? The drab and dreary places where we store all of the stuff we can no longer fit in our regular lives anymore. Ok, that's not a completely accurate representation.
Business owners use them too. Quite extensively, actually. I remember seeing a coffee business guy. I remember seeing a carpenter. There were also a number of equipment rental companies too. A bunch of colorful chairs, tables and fixtures stacked all nice and neat (in multiple units!). Suddenly, the question hit me: How does someone in equipment rental know for sure that they have 50 blue chairs available on a Saturday at 1pm two months from now while talking on the phone to a prospective customer? That's gotta be a tough one. It has to happen nearly every day. Can they meet the needs of the customer or the event planner? The answer is that I hope they use software for that, because otherwise, that would be a ton of paper to dig through just to get an answer.
I know how to build software. I do it every day, but usually for bigger businesses, i.e. 10-50 employees. The smaller rental business (1-5 employees, and most probably part time, I figure) must be in a real pickle when it comes to something simple and affordable for their needs. Surely, most business software today is far too complex and far too expensive for these kinds of businesses.
So then, I started to dwell on it. Especially every time I went to my storage unit. I started to become that creepy guy who would slow his car down to peer into your storage if the door was open. Are you a rental business too? If you are, can I ask you some questions? Actually, I am far too shy for that but I was terribly interested. I also start noticing all of the people renting bounce houses, and then I would see a guy rolling down the road with a small trailer of portable heaters or chairs/tables. None of these folks were big businesses with fancy new trucks and a big, colorful vehicle wrap.
Surely, a lot of these rental operators were spending a good amount of time on the road, juggling a phone and an appointment book at the same time. What if they could do it all from their phone or tablet? What if I could merge an inventory tool and a calendar into one amazing offspring of the two? What would it be worth to them? What sort of pain were they experiencing with this issue? Are they losing business by not having answers immediately for the out of the blue or time sensitive inquiries?
So then, I start to tinker a bit. Given my software background (a story too long to tell here), I know that this one feature, a calendar and some inventory (booked and available) displayed on it, is going to be the make or break feature. The meat and potatoes of this whole dish I'm thinking I can serve up. It's also going to be the most used, and most complicated, part of the whole effort. Again, with that software background, I know that I have to do that first and get it right.
Prototyping begins. Let me tell you, it was ugly. It wasn't even software at this point. It was either Excel or Visio that I was using, dragging and dropping things into different places to see how they might look. A real, or proper, designer would probably call this a wireframe. Once I had a feel for things using the wireframe prototype, I graduated these designs to an open source CSS framework called Bootstrap. This allowed me to add some color and consistency, to small templates, for each feature. Bootstrap allowed me to make things pretty but it still was not a real, walking and talking application.
This point in our story brings us to the actual software design, which I will make very brief, as I'm sure that almost no one is interested in that, and I'd like to get back to the actual story. There is some Microsoft thrown in there. There is a dash of Amazon Web Services. Finally, there is a sprinkle of Stripe for handling subscriptions and payments. When you add it up, that is a lot of meat and potatoes to this project, but that's another story.... back to the good stuff.
So now, I have something that I think will help people, but I have to market it and launch it. Bring my own customers in through the front door. This is, without a doubt, going to be a major challenge to me. I'm a good listener, and I know how to ask questions, but I'm not a good carnival barker and I certainly don't have major funding to hire a PR firm, or do some trade shows, etc.. So, back to software I go. I add some links to web directories, post some Craigslist ads and start to build a shoestring budget Google Adwords program. I'm pretty sure I also started writing a bunch of blog posts, a pipeline if you will, of content that I pray Google's search engine will love. Now, I'm ready to launch.
EquipCalendar is launched. I believe it was 3 days in, before we had our first trial signup, i.e. unpaid customer. Our 4th trial customer became our first paying customer, just two weeks later at the end of their trial. Needless to say, I was very happy. Being a numbers person, this meant that I was on track to convert 25% of all trials into paying customers! Of course, it didn't work out that way, most software-as-a-service businesses convert about 1% of free or trial customers into paying ones, but I'm still very happy with the launch.
So that's most of the story, from even before our first anniversary, let alone the start of our 5th year. Where do we stand today? Well, we have customers all over the world. I have confirmed that there are a ton of small businesses (and a few big ones), renting all kinds of stuff I never imagined, who like, and sometimes love, the little tool I built. That gives me great satisfaction. It's a bit of a dirty little secret, but most people in software really just want to help people and make things easier. I always say that if you don't ask, how am I ever going to help? To that end, every one of the great features, and ideas, have mostly come from our customers and trial users. Where are going in the future? I'm not sure I could tell you, at least not until another customer asks for it. So far, all of our success, has come from keeping things simple and listening to our customers. I think those traits will keep us in business for many more birthdays.