How these Founders Pivoted from a Failing Startup at the Last Minute and Created a Million-Dollar Business

“Make better decisions with feedback from real people.”

This mission lies at the core of User Interviews, a startup in Cambridge, Massachusetts that gives consumers a platform to voice their opinions on new and innovative products–while getting paid for their time.

User Interviews isn’t the first company to recruit participants for market research studies, but believe their differentiation is in their technology-based approach and commitment to a world-class user experience. The website makes it easy for consumers to connect with companies running research studies that they’re interested in.

“We started this company because we saw that the most successful products are built by companies that deeply understand their customers,” said Dennis Meng, one of the co-founders of User Interviews. “We wanted to make that easier to do.”

Meng and his co-founders, Basel Fakhoury and Bob Saris, realized the importance of getting feedback from customers from their experiences working on on their first startup together. They were building a mobile app that would give travelers 24/7 access to upscale hotel concierge service. After spending a year developing the app, they launched it and were horrified to realize that nobody cared to use it. In a desperate effort to salvage the app, they started gathering as much user feedback as they could. At one point, the trio even resorted to buying refundable plane tickets just so they could go through airport security to sit and talk to travelers. After talking to hundreds of travelers, the three founders finally came to terms with the fact that their app would never take off. “If we had talked to them earlier, we would have known much sooner that our app wasn’t going to be successful.”  Luckily, based on the difficulties they encountered, the team realized there might be a huge untapped opportunity to help companies connect with consumers to gather feedback.

From the ashes of the mobile app business rose User Interviews, one of the first automated platforms for recruiting and scheduling participants for market research studies and product tests. Though User Interviews initially targeted other startups as potential clients, discussions with product managers and marketers at larger firms helped the team realize that conducting consumer studies was just as much of a struggle for well-established companies.

“I once heard someone describe running a startup as riding a bike while building it,” said Meng. “That description couldn’t have been more accurate for us. Before we even had a website, we had companies trying to pay us for our services. We had dozens of paying clients before the first version of our technology platform was complete.”

Fast forward to today – the company now counts hundreds of companies as clients, including the likes of Pinterest, DirecTV, Colgate, Yahoo, and Pandora. They’ve also paid out over $ 1 million in incentives to the consumers who have participated in their clients’ studies. However, when asked, Meng says that the most surprising thing he’s learned is that people care as much about improving the products they’re reviewing as they do about the money. “People like the money, but even more than that – they like having a voice.”

From this simple concept has grown a burgeoning industry giant, and the last few months have been exciting ones for User Interviews. They recently raised $ 1 million in a seed round led by Accomplice Ventures, which they’ve already used to hire several new employees. Over the next few years, Meng, Fakhoury, and Saris plan to introduce User Interviews to thousands of companies and millions of consumers across the country.


5 Lessons from a Superstar Sales Rep

You know those new salespeople who roll onto the scene, make big waves, and have the old-timers scratching their heads asking, “Where did they come from?” Stephen Higgins is one of those salespeople.

Although Higgins only began working on the consulting side of sales when he joined in-bound marketing titan HubSpot in 2015, he hit over 200 percent of his goals in that first year alone–and he’s crushed his sales goals every month since. When I heard about Higgins’ rapid success at HubSpot, I knew I had to sit down with him to hear exactly how he does it. Here are 5 lessons I learned from this superstar sales rep:

1. Don’t start with selling.

When Higgins first sits down with prospects, selling isn’t his number one goal. “In essence, I actually do very little selling,” Higgins explains. Instead, he commits to a deep-dive discovery process to understand his prospects’ businesses, what they hope to achieve, their deepest frustrations, their growth goals, and what they’ve tried so far. Only after he fully understands his prospects’ needs does he speak to how his product or service can help.

The result? Since Higgins focuses on getting to know his prospects up front, he’s ultimately able to present offers that actually make sense to them. “I listen to what people’s problems are, I understand exactly where they want to go–and then I say, this is what you need to do, and this is how we at HubSpot can help you to achieve that,” Higgins says. Then, he closes the sale.

2. Admit when it’s not a fit.

Higgins knows that in order to close more sales, salespeople must earn the trust of their prospects. “One of the most important things to do in the discovery process is to be really honest with your prospects,” Higgins advises. That starts with admitting when it’s not a good fit. If, during the discovery process, it becomes clear that a business isn’t ready for his solution, Higgins simply says, “Look, guys, this is not a fit for you right now. You need to focus first on priorities one, two, and three.”

His honesty surprises prospects and presents him as an expert, while at the same time showing them that he cares more about their success than closing a sale. Then, when six months go by and they’re finally ready to address the problems he can help them solve, prospects are far more likely to turn to him as a partner they know they can trust.

3. Befriend the marketing department.

If you see your work in sales as separate from work being done in the marketing department, you’re missing out on a big opportunity to get qualified leads and close more sales. “Far too many companies have marketing doing their own thing, and sales doing their own thing, and the two of them are at odds all the time,” Higgins notes.

Instead of putting his head down and only doing what’s on his desk, Higgins seeks to collaborate with the men and women in his marketing department. He shares what he’s looking for in a qualified lead, his insights on what type of content might interest them, and the results he’s seeing from their different marketing initiatives. By working closely with marketing to better understand and serve his ideal client, he knows he’ll receive more qualified leads and close way more sales than he would otherwise.

4. Surround yourself with like-minded people.

There are two types of salespeople: Those who are eager to grow and succeed, and those who just want to get through the work day so they can clock out and head home. If you surround yourself with the latter, you’ll only stunt your own growth–no matter how talented you are. “Talent is great, but what you really need is the environment,” Higgins explains. “Whether socially or professionally, you’re the sum total of the people you spend the most time around.”

To that end, Higgins surrounds himself with coworkers who believe in what HubSpot has to offer, constantly chase down new leads, and consistently close sales. Their energy is contagious and allows him to enter his own meetings with confidence, so he stands out from the crowd and forms genuine connections with his prospects.

5. Set daily goals.

Lofty annual goals have their place, but they can also be overwhelming. Higgins stays on track by sticking to a daily goal. More specifically, “The minimum I allow for myself is two new opportunities per day,” Higgins says. “That’s the absolute minimum, so I work backwards from there.” He starts with the leads that come from the marketing department, but when those run out, he reaches out to people who are using the free version of his company’s product.

This not only allows him to get their feedback on the product, but also to learn about the problems these prospects are facing to see if he can help solve them. Every day, no matter what, “I will never, ever miss my two opportunities,” Higgins insists. As he sticks to that daily goal, he can’t help but crush his bigger goals along the way.

Which of these superstar sales tips will you implement in your own approach? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


Tax Reform Proposal Gets Mixed Reviews From Small Business Owners

The Republican-backed tax proposal announced last week addresses concerns of some small business groups but also raises questions that it could create a tax loophole for wealthy people.

The proposal would change the way some company owners — sole proprietors, partners and owners of what are called S corporations — are taxed. They report business income on their individual 1040 forms and under current law, can be taxed at a rate up to 39.6 percent. Many small business advocates have long objected to the fact that some of these owners pay a higher tax rate than corporations whose rates currently top out at 35 percent.

Under the GOP proposal, the tax rate on the businesses known as pass-throughs would be 25 percent. The corporate rate would be 20 percent.

Small business advocates were split over the plan. The National Federation of Independent Business welcomed it, but others objected.

“The current proposal leaves a disparity by offering pass-through entities a 25 percent tax on business income while dropping the corporate rate to 20 percent,” said Todd McCracken, CEO of the National Small Business Association. “We hope to work with tax writers to find ways to close that gap.”

The pass-through provision has already encountered criticism among Democrats who say it would enable wealthy Americans to structure their finances in a way that would dramatically lower their tax bills. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said it would allow hedge funds to “to convert ordinary income into low-rate pass-through income.”

The NSBA was happy with some other proposals, including an end to the estate tax, which can force the heirs of company owners to sell a business or place it in debt in order to pay the government.

The Small Business Majority said the plan would not help most small companies.

“The current top rate is paid by less than 2 percent of pass-through business owners. Nearly 9 in 10 businesses that pass through their income already pay at the 25 percent rate or less,” said the group’s CEO, John Arensmeyer.

The plan would simplify business taxes, encourage business investment and increase owners’ confidence, the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council said.

“High confidence will drive investment, risk-taking, bigger economic growth and wage growth,” said Karen Kerrigan, the group’s CEO.

The overall tax proposal faces an uncertain path through Congress although it has the backing of GOP leaders and President Donald Trump. Another provision in the overall plan that is being criticized is a proposal to eliminate the deduction for state and local taxes.


Small and mid-sized U.S. businesses that export their goods and services generally anticipate healthy growth in their overseas sales in the next five years. That’s the finding of a survey of 501 exporters released Monday by American Express.

Seventy-seven percent of the exporters who took part in the survey expect revenue from overseas sales to increase in the next five years, on average by nearly 30 percent. International trade is a significant part of their business — on average 36 percent of annual revenue comes from other countries.

Global economics and politics are a concern to these companies, with nearly 80 percent saying changing economics is a significant challenge. Thirty percent said Britain’s planned exit from the European Community will make them more cautious about international trade.

The survey, which questioned companies with total annual revenue between $ 250,000 to under $ 1 billion, was conducted in August.


Rhode Island has become the eighth state to require employers to give their staffers paid time off when they’re sick. Gov. Gina Raimondo signed a bill Thursday giving staffers at businesses with at least 18 employees three days of paid sick leave in 2018, four in 2019 and five in 2020. Workers can also use the time to care for ill relatives.

A growing number of states and cities have enacted laws that give workers paid sick leave, which is not required under federal law. Rhode Island’s neighbors, Connecticut and Massachusetts, also have sick leave laws, as do Vermont, California, Oregon, Arizona and Washington state.

–The Associated Press


Lady Gaga Collaborator Jonas Akerlund Expects ‘Great’ Things From Her

‘She can probably do anything she wants,’ ‘Paparazzi’ and ‘Telephone’ director tells us at SXSW.
By Kara Warner

<P>After the mostly positive reviews of <a href=””>Lady Gaga</a>’s first music-video directorial effort on <a href=”/news/articles/1675270/lady-gaga-marry-the-night-music-video.jhtml”>”Marry the Night”</a>. It’s fair to assume that we fans can expect more Gaga-directed clips in the near future. </P><P> </P><P>When MTV News caught up with her “Paparazzi” and “Telephone” <a href=”/news/articles/1633818/the-man-behind-lady-gagas-telephone-video-jonas-akerlund.jhtml”>director Jonas &#197;kerlund</a> recently during his SXSW appearance for his new ensemble dark comedy “Small Apartments,” we asked him for his thoughts on Gaga’s future as a director, should she choose to direct all of her videos from here on out. </P><P> </P><P><center><embed src=”″ width=”460″ height=”260″ type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” allowFullScreen=”true” allowScriptAccess=”always” base=”.”></embed></center> </P><P> </P><P>”She can probably do anything she wants,” he said. “So that’s probably going to be great.” </P><P> </P><P>And would &#197;kerlund make himself available for advice, should Gaga ever be in need of it? </P><P> </P><P>”Of course. I would never turn her down,” he said, at which point his “Apartments” star and funnyman Matt Lucas (“Bridesmaids”) asked a question of his own. </P><P> </P><P>”Is her real name Lady Gaga?” </P><P> </P><P>”Yes,” &#197;kerlund answered with a smile. </P><P> </P><P>”Wow,” Lucas responded with astonishment. “There’s a fact for you MTV fans.” </P><P> </P><P>Although &#197;kerlund didn’t mention any more work with Gaga at this time, the busy director is still fully in the mix of the world of music videos. </P><P> </P><P>”I may do a couple music videos and I’ve done quite a few since ‘Small Apartments,’ actually. The last one I did was a Duran Duran video, but there’s a few coming up too.” </P><P> </P><P>”Are you going to do the Osmonds video?” Lucas asked cheekily. “That’s what they’re asking.” </P><P> </P><P>”Maybe,” &#197;kerlund responded, playing along with Lucas’ joke. “I’m hoping to.” </P><P> </P><P>For her part, Gaga has said that she’s always been heavily involved in the creative processes behind all her work, including the direction of her music videos. </P><P> </P><P>”I know it’s my directorial debut, but I’ve really created everything I’ve ever done in my career,” she said. “I really didn’t do anything differently on this video that I didn’t do on the ‘Telephone’ video or the ‘Paparazzi’ video or the ‘Bad Romance’ video. I hope my fans will take from this the progression that you have to trust yourself to make mistakes.”</p>

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IDG Contributor Network: From Infrastructure-as-a-Service to Workforce-as-a-Service

Cloud computing was originally devised as an alternative to deploying racks of servers in company-owned (or shared) data centers. However, the technology services that have grown on top of the concept — to finally become quintessential to the concept — have changed the game.

The cloud stack: IaaS, PaaS, SaaS

Cloud technology is typically segmented into three layers, or service models:

  • Infrastructure as a service (IaaS) provides infrastructure like physical computing resources, location, data partitioning, scaling, security, backup etc.
  • Platform as a service (PaaS) offers a development and deployment environment to application developers.
  • Software as a service (SaaS), sometimes referred to as on-demand software, provides access to application software for end-users.

While IaaS remains primarily a way for IT infrastructure to scale and adapt to changing requirements, the latter two (PaaS and SaaS) have become the key for companies to quickly build and deploy applications (and also complex business processes) that are easily and instantly accessible by users.

To read this article in full or to leave a comment, please click here

InfoWorld Cloud Computing

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