The TZ Startup Hot Seat continues with Alex Backer from Qless. Can he handle our questions, or will the Hot Seat get the best of him?
Give Us the Fast Pitch
Time is the ultimate currency. The time you waste will never be recovered, and yet the average American spends 2 years of her life waiting in line. That’s 55 billion hours per year in the US alone, 9% of the average work-life expectancy, & $1.2 trillion of the GDP lost yearly. Furthermore, and up to 49% of prospective customers leave during the wait for service. QLess fixes all of this. The QLess vision is a world without lines.
We eliminate lines by letting customers use their mobile phones to enter and hold their spots in line, freeing them to choose where and how they wait, then get called/texted when their turn arrives. Wait management is the entry point for a complete Mobile CRM & Mobile Marketing system. We provide solutions for a variety of industries including retail, healthcare, government, education, hospitality, gaming, theme parks, transportation and banking. QLess eliminates physical queues, phone queues (“your call is very important to us”) and online queues.
What made you decide to begin working on your company?
I was standing in line at Knotts Berry Farm, which bills itself as the world’s first theme park, and told myself there had to bea better way of assigning service times to customers than forcing customers to stand behind each other. People spend two years of their lives standing in line. Businesses lose up to half their prospective clientele during the wait. By the time I was called to the front of the line, the idea for QLess had dawned on me.
What is the market opportunity?
More than 20 billion dollars a year. A trillion dollars are wasted in lines every year just in the us. Restaurants, casinos, government, education, healthcare, retail, theme parks, tax offices, hotels, pharmacies, everywhere people wait.
How big is your team?
More than 30 and growing rapidly. We are hiring!
Are you Funded? How did your company get its initial funding? How much funding do you currently have?
We had angel funding from visionary entrepreneurs like Umesh Lalwani and Tom Mitchell as well as friends and family. We are now cash-flow positive and growing rapidly.
What made you want to start your own company?
I didn’t want to stand in line and nobody else was going to get that done for me as fast.
Have you ever needed to change direction/focus with your company? If so, what was that like?
Not in any major way. But we are always learning.
How do you deal with competitors? Do you keep up with other companies doing similar things?
Yes, we keep up with them. When we started, nobody was doing what we do. Four years into it, that’s still true. In the intervening four years, however, many start-ups have begun to imitate aspects of what we do. Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. But there is a big difference between sending a text messaging when a table is ready and building a scalable, automated, interactive, mobile wait management, marketing and CRM solution that works for every phone anywhere in the world via both SMS and voice calls, lets guests enter a virtual queue from their phone, keeps customers engaged during their wait, significantly reduces no-shows, gets 98% opt-in rate and has customers raving about it. We boast the most comprehensive solution in the market by far, as we are years and hundreds of releases ahead of anyone else, something that’s likely to remain the case at our speed of a hundred new releases per year. But that does not mean that there is not a valuable role for other companies with complementary expertise in marketing mobile wait management to specific industries or geographies, for those wishing to put the technology we invented into interesting new interfaces, or those wishing to build on out platform. Our vision is a world without lines, and we are happy to see that what was revolutionary when we started is slowly but surely entering the mainstream, with more and more Fortune 500 companies, governments and universities adopting mobile wait management. In fact, we are happy to support our competition to help make our vision come true. So we are happy to make our technology available to others who share our vision –we boast a web services API that allows others to use our engine and build their own user interfaces on top of them. I think entrepreneurs are among the most valuable people in the world in terms of their impact, and I’d hate to see an entrepreneur waste his or her talents by copying something someone has already done –so we give them access to our technology so they can start where we left off and take it further by enhancing our vision with theirs. Newton said that if he saw further, it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants. I think we should all aim to stand on others’ shoulders and provide our own shoulders to others in building this great human pyramid of science and technology.
What is the most difficult and best things about being an entrepreneur?
The most difficult thing is that it’s all ultimately up to you –there is no guaranteed paycheck: what you eat is what you kill. That’s also one of the best things –knowing that what you created would not have happened without you. Having a sense of having a small impact on the world. Another thing that’s both difficult and great is the constant roller-coasters: one day things fall apart, the next day there’s great news all around. There’s never a dull moment.
Describe your company’s culture.
Our team really believes in our vision. Some people think the vision of a world without lines is bold, but we’ve seen what it looks when you eliminate lines, and we know people love it, so we’re confident it’s just a matter of time for the whole world to go the same way. It’s very gratifying to be changing a wasteful custom that’s thousands of years old. Our team is entrepreneurial and self-motivated –those who come with a sense of entitlement don’t last. We are spontaneous, creative, inventive, we like fun, we’re casual, we like to move fast, we’re democratic, we listen to everybody’s ideas and work hard to make them a reality. For example, this week we launched Queue & A, a new way to eliminate lines behind microphones and raised hands at conferences and classrooms that lets people text their questions and remember, based on one of our team member’s ideas –and went from idea to launch in less than two weeks.
What’s one of your most successful decisions?
One of the controversial decisions that has proven to be successful was to launch globally. The conventional wisdom has traditionally been to launch locally –if possible in San Francisco :-) . As recently as this week, a well-known VC suggested the same. And yet I’ve always believed that we live in a globalized world, that it’s a small world, that the problem of lines is a global scourge, and that we should follow our customers wherever they may take us. This decision has proven correct, as we are now in three continents and our largest customers today are overseas. It has made our technology more robust, it’s made our brand a global one, it’s made us more fans, customers and money, and it’s way more fun.
Another of my most successful decisions was in choosing my co-founder.
Persistence is another hallmark of our success –if that can be called a decision. My mother gave me the poem Don’t Quit when I was a boy, and I still have it framed in my office. Our biggest successes took a lot of not taking no for an answer.
Believing in myself when everyone else doubted was also important.
Where have you struggled? What mistakes have you made that you believe other entrepreneurs could learn from?
I have a whole wiki of mistakes for other entrepreneurs to learn from: http://alexbacker.pbworks.com/w/page/1720909/Entrepreneurship
Trust your instincts, maintain control of your company, get rid of bad people fast. As Richard Branson wrote, always accept an invitation to speak to the press or any large audience, as leverage is what it’s all about. Don’t look at the direction you’ve been going in deciding what the best next step is –make hysteresis-free decisions. In other words, don’t let inertia get the best of you in an ever-changing world.
Who are your three most influential entrepreneurs?
Thomas Edison. Thomas Edison. Thomas Edison. With Steve Jobs a close fourth. Larry and Sergey, too. But frankly, I’m so busy I don’t spend as much time as I’d like getting influenced by other entrepreneurs.
You can imagine what a satisfaction it was, then, to receive this text message from one of our users describing QLess:
“AWESOME!!! greatest idea ever, it’s up there with electricity and running water :-)”
What does “failure” mean to you?
Failure is not trying to do what you really want to do
What does “success” mean to you?
Success means being happy. That comes in a lot of forms. This week, it came from spending time with my family, it came from a million-dollar-deal that one of our best people worked hard to get done, it came from getting a text late last night from someone who heard from someone that the QLess demo at Tech Zulu’s Spotlight L.A. had been great, it came from being congratulated by the co-founder I so much respect for a piece of hard work I did, it came from seeing adoption of our mobile queueing invention growing dramatically from year to year in some data I saw last night, and most of all, it comes in the form of recognition by happy customers –take this unsolicited testimonials that came in yesterday in the form of a recommendation from one highly successful restaurant owner to another:
Qless. Yes. I highly recommend it. Here’s why:
Customers actually think it’s fun, for one thing.:-) “That’s really cool” is heard around here frequently. They enjoy being able to wander freely in store, up the street or at home. They like being able to get updates on wait time without calling somebody or tracking down a hostess.
I have had large parties wait up to 3.5 hours – because they could do it from home.
The time it takes for tables to get to the hostess stand after they are summoned is just over a minute, on average. I can’t find people sitting at the bar that fast!
I have had several customers tell me that they come here now when they didn’t before because they can text in.
My hostesses love it now……..after the initial learning period ………and enjoy not being “stalked” by people waiting for their tables and checking the list every 5 minutes.
So, overall, Qless has enabled me to keep more people on a wait longer and keep them happy at the same time. It has gotten people here that wouldn’t be here – and kept people here that would have left. It has improved the experience and satisfaction of those waiting and freed up the hostesses to provide better service.
I recommend giving it a shot. It’s so easy to set up – there’s not much of a reason NOT to try it!
I have it up and running on all of my computers and at my call center so any person that answers a phone can quote a wait time and add a customer to the list if needed. I also have it attached to my web page. I am very happy with it.
What is coming up next? Your goals, new products, new direction? (Either for you as an entrepreneur or for the company as a whole)
QLess is launching a product next month at one of Las Vegas’ leading hotels, that eliminates the scourge of waiting to check in at hotels. Have you ever thought about why everybody has the same check-in time at hotels, when rooms get ready at different times and the last thing a hotel wants is to crowd their guests into the same congested time period to check in? It’s because there was simply no way to communicate personalized check-in times to individual guests. Well, QLess has changed that, and now guests can text into an automated line when they land at their destination city and receive a text message when their room is ready for check-in. No more waiting for your room if it’s ready, no more standing in line for check-in, and no more congested check-in times. Happier guests mean more successful hotels.
We’ve also recently launched in Australia, and have big plans for Down Under.
Did Alex survived the TZ Startup Hot Seat? Let us know in the comments. I am off to find another Startup to grill.