If you’re working at an SMB that has yet to find that elusive CRM package that does everything you need it to do without the overkill, do you keep looking, or do you just give up and piece together the functionality you need from disparate software packages? If you’re like BeQuick Software, you give up looking, but you don’t throw in the towel. You build it yourself. And then you make it available to other SMBs.
BeQuick is a Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.-based supplier of back-office software for mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs)—cell phone service providers that don’t own their own networks. In November, BeQuick did a soft launch of FanHub, a CRM collaboration and helpdesk platform tailored for SMBs like itself; a full launch is slated for March. I recently spoke with BeQuick COO Steve McIntosh, who in 2002 cofounded the company with Sean Biganski, BeQuick’s CTO. McIntosh explained that FanHub was born out of the frustration caused by having to glob different systems together internally and that only later did the idea emerge to market it to other SMBs:
The original concept was something just for us, because we didn’t want to have to keep using separate systems. We had used Salesforce, and we had gone through several trouble ticketing systems—Parature was the last one we were on. We’re a software company that builds back-office systems for small phone companies. These systems do everything for them—CRM, trouble ticketing, ordering, provisioning, billing, taxation, payments—it’s an all-in-one system. So we grew up in this market where our customers on the telco side really like to have everything in one place. With that as our mindset, we wanted the same thing for ourselves. We wanted to have a single tool that we could run the entire company from—sales, service, admin, workflow—and there was just nothing out there. So we decided to make our own. Shortly after that, the thought came to us that we can’t be the only ones with this particular set of needs. So we crafted FanHub so it could be used by other companies, too.
I noted that certainly other CRM tools exist out there, like Zoho, for example, that are designed specifically for SMBs, and that appear to offer a lot of the functionality that FanHub does. McIntosh said what really distinguishes FanHub is the helpdesk element:
Sure, there are systems out there, but they don’t really do true trouble ticketing. FanHub is almost like a full-scale helpdesk. I would not put Zoho in that same group; I wouldn’t even put Salesforce in that same group. If you use Salesforce, you still need to go outside and get an actual helpdesk system. That’s what separates FanHub from other systems, like a Zoho.
A particularly interesting dimension of all of this is that BeQuick Software does not have, nor has it ever had, a CEO. That’s an outcome of the fact that BeQuick is a family-owned business—the wives of the two founders are sisters. Biganski’s wife, Gissela, is director of client relations. McIntosh’s wife, Christel, handles the financials, working from home while taking care of their two kids. The two couples run the company together. I asked McIntosh why there’s no CEO, and he said it’s because decisions are made by the four of them:
If there’s anything that big, the four of us need to be on board, and collectively come up with what the answer is. It’s a strategy that has worked for us. I think if there was a CEO who had the final say, that would make running a partnership very difficult. It would mean there would be situations where we’re not in collective agreement, and one of us, or someone else, is saying what we should do.
I asked McIntosh if he thinks this model will continue to work over time, as the company gets bigger and bigger. He said it’s hard to say:
I hope we can keep doing what we’re doing, and not have to go outside for external needs or capital. It’s just a lot easier—we can choose to do something tomorrow, and there aren’t a whole lot of folks we have to check with. We don’t have to come up with a budget, or projections. We just have to go with our gut. That works for us, and that’s something that I don’t want to change.
So when a software company with 45 employees is run by two guys and their wives, how do they guard against any perception of nepotism that might create a concern among the employees? McIntosh said it was a legitimate question. He noted that in 1996, at the age of 17, he founded World Choice Travel (WCT), an online booking service that was purchased by Travelocity in 2003. His parents were partners in that venture, so it also a family-owned business, and McIntosh noted that quite a few of the employees who worked at that company are now working at BeQuick. He had a great answer to the nepotism question:
The secret to running a family-owned operation, and avoiding the nepotism thing, is you’ve got to treat everybody like family. I think if you ask anybody here, they will answer that BeQuick is one big family. We treat them like we would any other family member. I don’t ask our employees to do something I would not do. We don’t like staying late, we don’t like working on weekends, and we don’t ask them to.
Getting back to FanHub, McIntosh said BeQuick started working on the system in 2009. He noted that being a family-owned company was, to a large extent, what made the creation of FanHub possible:
I think the biggest thing that makes us different is the fact that FanHub is not a true startup. It’s not an idea that we went out and got some venture backing for. It’s born of a real-world need. The fact that we’re a family-owned company, and we don’t have the influence of any outside directors, meant that we could do something as crazy as spending four years working on our own system, and going out to try to launch it to see if others want to use it, too. Our hope is the answer is ‘yes,’ and that FanHub is not just something that a bunch of crazy folks from Florida cooked up. It’s worked very well for us—we have an incredible customer retention rate on the telco side, something like 99 percent over 10 years. I give credit for that not just to our passion for customer service, but to the fact that we have the right tool to be able to communicate with our customers, and involve them in the process. It’s a small, niche market that we serve—we have about 60 customers. Quite a few of them have been with us now for 10-plus years. The way you do that is you treat them like you want them to be customers for life. We talk to our customers almost every day, and you have to have the right tool to make that work. That’s where FanHub came from.