Austin has a thriving tech startup community, and there is perhaps no better representative of its unique entrepreneurial culture than Bazaarvoice — and we love our hometown heroes. The day I read on the Bootstrap Austin mailing list that Bazaarvoice had landed Walmart as a customer, I beamed briefly with that sort of "hey-I-know-those-guys!" pride.
At first glance, Bazaarvoice's offering could easily be misconstrued as nothing extraordinary. They have three core products: Ratings & Reviews, Ask & Answer (Q&A), and Stories, a tool for customers to share their experiences about a brand. Are they even an application? Or just a couple of features in an application? There have numerous competitors offering similar products. There are even dozens of open source applications that, at first glance, can add those features to a website. If I had heard their elevator pitch in 2005 I probably would've told them they were nuts to try to make a business out of that.
And yet, business is booming at Bazaarvoice. They now have over 600 employees worldwide (a 60 percent increase in the past year) and have worked with more than 850 organizations, including some of the world's best-known brands, across a wide variety of industries. They're the global market leader, and only five years old.
So how did they take such a simple idea that was already being done by so many others, and turn it into one of the most successful tech startups of the past few years in Austin or anywhere else? As the saying goes, it's not what they do, but how they do it.
Bazaarvoice attributes their success to five key factors:
1. The new era of commerce
Simply put, the timing is right. Bazaarvoice addresses and accelerates one of the largest transformations in the history of commerce: the growth of online customer-to-customer interactions. Beyond simply making these conversations possible, they help costumers connect in ways that greatly benefit the brands they work with.
With 100 people in R&D, Bazaarvoice is able to focus on the future like few organizations can. They adhere strictly to an eight-week development cycle, and their software as a service (SaaS) model allows them to simultaneously roll out innovations to all 800+ customers, six times a year. While the core product team focuses on incorporating their clients' feedback, a separate group, Bazaarvoice Labs, looks beyond the eight-week cycle, experimenting with cutting-edge technologies that may define the future of social commerce.
When you're offering a commodity product, service has to be your competitive differentiator. Ryan Cush, VP of Client Success, North America, explains: "We think of ourselves more as strategic advisers than a technology vendor. Bazaarvoice is in the unique position of serving more of the world's leading brands, large and small, than any other provider. This gives us both the scale and the industry perspective to provide unique, industry-leading, data-driven insights and recommendations to our clients. We take a holistic approach to helping our clients listen and respond to their customers' voices, making best practices, dedicated support and constant innovation central to our service."
4. Obsessed with measurement
Bazaarvoice loves numbers, both internally and for their customers. Industry analyst Jeremiah Owyang once said of them, "I take about 300-400 briefings a year. Very few can give me hard ROI numbers. Bazaarvoice does — that's truly social commerce." It helps that founder and CEO Brett Hurt was also a co-founder of Coremetrics, the leading marketing analytics solution for the e-commerce industry, now owned by IBM.
Gerardo Dada, Senior Director of Product Management, explains the company's focus on metrics: "Everyone is trying to measure social media ROI, but the problem is that social media is not a company objective or a business process: it is a set of tools that can support a business strategy. At Bazaarvoice, we have a track record of helping our customers drive real results for sales and marketing: customer conversations increasing sales, reducing return, and providing actionable product feedback. The key is in making enabling conversations to happen in a way that is relevant to both consumers and the brand and in a way that helps consumers with their objectives."
5. Culture is king
And everyone in Austin knows it. Bazaarvoice has been named one of the Best Places to Work by the Austin Business Journal for the past three years. They prominently share their culture, vision and values on their website, starting with No. 1: People are people, not "resources."
CEO Hurt loves talking about Bazaarvoice's unique culture: "There's nothing more important than culture in driving performance. And it affects everything from how we hire to the fact that every candidate here is tested to make sure that they have the passion for this job and the audacity to change the world with us. Take our vacation policy, for example, which is based on radical trust and respect — the policy is literally 'you take as much as you need.' We even factor in the extent to which employees are living our cultural values into their formal performance measurements, and managers being rated by staff on whether or not they, too, are living our values. I'm honored to work with the people here. They put their heart into this place, and as a result our company is 500 percent larger than what we had projected we'd be at this time. Our culture is every bit as disruptive as our product line, and this is by design."
He also raves about Austin, saying that he couldn't have built the same company anywhere else: "Austin is a very unique place. The people in Austin are much more balanced than other places I've lived. At this company, we have musicians, artists, well-known bloggers and tons of others with amazing skills outside of my own focus on technology. I think that's a reflection of Austin's eclectic community, and companies like ours, those that embrace and cultivate employee passion — even if it's outside of the company's official wheelhouse — come out on top in general, and Austin is the place where this fact is most clearly showcased."
Scott “Social Media” Allen is a 25-year veteran technology entrepreneur, executive and consultant. He’s coauthor of The Virtual Handshake: Opening Doors and Closing Deals Online, the first book on the business use of social media, and The Emergence of The Relationship Economy. His latest venture, NFN8 Media, maintains a growing portfolio of niche content and community sites. He enjoys working with entrepreneurs and serves on the advisory board of several startups.