Pando

Helpshift raises $3.25m to manage mobile-centric help desks

By Sarah Lacy , written on October 30, 2012

From The News Desk

Sure, the mobile Web is intuitive with all its swiping and touching and boiled down feature simplicity. But even the most intuitive app-- from the developer point of view-- can be totally confusing for users. And when things fail, an overly simple interface can be a hindrance. The first time I set up my Uber account I accidentally mis-typed a digit in my phone number and there was absolutely no way to change it in the app. I had to contact a friend at the company to fix it. That's clearly an unworkable solution for the masses.

A new company called Helpshift wants to change that. It's launching with a limited private beta today and a modest $3.25 million in funding from True Ventures and Nexus Venture Partners.

Helpshift's founder Abinash Tripathy has had a strange obsession with CRM since the mid-1990s when he was an intern at Oracle working on the company's then internal forecasting tools. What's driven CRM in the Web age was salesforce automation software-- the core of Salesforce.com-- but Tripathy argues that's starting to become obsolete in a Google and Apple world where products and apps are bought, not sold. I'd say obsolete is a bit strong, but it's certainly becoming less important as elephant hunters are a rarer and rarer species.

But the decline of sales people doesn't mean customers are all self-service all the time. Tripathy cited the example of an unnamed beta customer that has one of the top apps in the app store in the world. It has more than 100 million monthly active users and they generate some 20,000 support emails per day. The company-- like a lot of lean mobile developers-- has a tiny staff of just 30 people. One-third of them are dealing with all of these tickets and requests and 80% of the answers could have been found in the company's FAQ.

Helpshift looks to eliminate problems before they get to a support email in a few ways. It allows users to easily search FAQs from their phones, rather than scroll through all of the answers. The company has invested a lot of time and work in making sure that search actually works, unlike most search windows on the Web. It's hard to tell in a quick demo if that's really true, but it's clearly crucial for this approach to work. Users just won't read through FAQs on their phones. The work has to be done for them.

If that doesn't work users can send a note that will automatically attach your device details if you wish, so you don't have to type them out. That pulls up an in-chat text-message like session with a representative.

The on-boarding experience for an app to sign up for Helpshift is even smoother. Helpshift has already crawled all of the app stores so you enter your app's name and it autofills before you are done typing. In just a few minutes a developer is done and a help box pops up in his app immediately-- no push to Apple required. Tripathy and team have deeply thought through the user experience the same way the best mobile apps have, essentially treating developers like consumers.

Like a lot of entrepreneurs, Tripathy is pretty convinced he's come up with something a lot of developers need. Unlike a lot of entrepreneurs, he has already spent several years pivoting three times before raising money or launching to get the product right. "We're basically the anti-Color," he says.

I first met Tripathy in Pune, India back in 2010. Fun fact: He and his family nursed me back to health after some vile food poisoning. Meanwhile, I learned a bit about his story. He'd built the Indian operations for Zimbra-- which sold to Yahoo for some $350 million. (I originally met him through Zimbra founder and Redpoint Parnter Satish Dharmaraj.)

Tripathy knew he wanted to build something of his own, but he didn't quite know what and he didn't know if he could really do it from India or not. Much of the labor pool had a service mindset, not product or hacker one. He recruited a small team of co-founders and then spent a few years building and hacking and experimenting.

When he wanted to recruit more talent, he didn't put up a job listing. He'd tried that at Zimbra only to get flooded with thousands of unqualified resumes. Instead his team built a consumer financial product that had some novel features and embedded a wanted ad in the actual code. They assumed smart people with the mindset to reverse engineer what they'd built would see it and it would be a challenge. A few hackers found it-- and like a stealthy invitation to Fight Club-- they contacted the company. Earlier this year relocated to the US, to build out the business side of the company and raise money. But his core engineering team of motley hackers is still back in India.

Clearly, a lot of startups have failed building cross-boarder teams, but then again I've never quite seen anyone build it the way Tripathy has.

Likewise, CRM is one of the most crowded spaces in the software as a service world. Tripathy may have found a small chink of white space, but it won't last. Staying lean and nimble as it has to date could prove a formidable advantage.