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Five Questions for FreshBooks

Saul Colt is the Head of Magic at FreshBooks. FreshBooks is an online invoicing, time tracking and expense tracking service designed for creative based professionals and freelance consultants. Saul describes his role as “Supplying the Ah-Ha moments by just being me”.

One of those moments came recently when FreshBooks took to the road and drove from the Future of Web Applications Conference in Miami Beach, Florida to Austin, Texas for SXSW in an effort to meet customers and spread the word about online invoicing. Oh and they did it in an RV!

One Degree: Where did the idea of spending almost two weeks on the road in an RV come from and what were the goals of the trip?

The idea for the FreshBooks RoadBurn trip came up in our regular weekly marketing meeting. We were speaking at two conferences about a week apart and instead of flying to Florida and then home for a few days and then flying out to Texas, we saw an opportunity to do something fun and a little different. We rented an RV and used it as a way to build buzz for our appearance at the SXSW Interactive festival by stopping twice a day to have lunch or dinner (and sometimes breakfast) with as many customers along the route as we could.

The buzz came from the fact that we met with some people as many as three times on our trip. That sort of effort gets people talking. We were first introduced to one of our customers in Miami at FOWA, then he joined us for lunch in his home town along our route and then we had dinner with him one night in Austin at SXSW. Creating real bonds with customers is something that people enjoy and talk about!   

Our goals for the trip were pretty simple. We wanted to meet as many customers as we could and create a real world relationship with the amazing customers who use our online service. Because we were meeting existing users, we did not look at this as a sales trip but rather an opportunity to listen. By meeting with and listening to our customers, we could not only refer them to other FreshBooks customers but we also learned a great deal about what it is they like (or LOVE) about FreshBooks and what they would like to see in future updates. I can’t put into words how much this helps us.

One Degree: You made some videos from the road. What was the idea behind the videos?

Before we left we set up a micro-site to document our trip and decided to fill it with as much video content as we could.  We chose to do a micro-site so people who wanted to follow us could and for the people who follow the main FreshBooks blog for the more targeted content would not bombarded with the more relaxed content from the trip. The idea was to show a different side of FreshBooks and showcase some of the personality of the company and the people who work at FreshBooks.

Our videos were not about FreshBooks (the service) but highlighted the people and what we were doing along our trip. One of my favourite videos came from a stop we made at the Burt Reynolds Museum  because it shows us as we really are and gives a funny behind the curtain look at the people who make up FreshBooks.

We love getting to know our customers and we want them to know us as well. Real relationships are never a one way thing…and my mom loves to see me on her computer.

One Degree: Were there any challenges in putting the RoadBurn trip together?

Anyone who tells you that putting together a project of this scale is problem-free is probably not giving you the whole story. While we consider RoadBurn an enormous success and we accomplished most if not all of the goals we set for ourselves, planning dinners from 2000km away can be an adventure in itself.

One stop along the way, we took 20 FreshBooks users to a restaurant that was less than nice and I am sure it sent a strange message about what we thought of those people…but when you’re planning from so far away, that stuff is going to happen sometimes.

Oh and then there was the time we were two hours late for our own dinner. Once we saw what traffic was going to be like we called all the beautiful people meeting us for dinner and explained that we were going to be late and asked them to join us later. Some did and some didn’t but everyone appreciated the effort.

One Degree: Would you do this again?

Normally I would say no because we have an embarrassing wealth of ideas that we want to get to but the FreshBooks RoadBurn trip was successful for us on so many levels that we are already playing around with the idea of doing this again along the west coast in August. So to answer your question I would say YES! It gave us an amazing opportunity to connect with customers, thank them for using our service and the concept of the trip gave them a new and fresh talking point about FreshBooks so that they can evangelize for us to their friends and customers.

Another outcome was that we were able to track people’s interest on our trip by the large amount of chatter on blogs and most importantly Twitter. Using tools like (the now departed) Terraminds, we followed all the comments about us and engaged in the conversation with these folks. As a result, even more people followed us and chatted about our trip!

One of our main goals at FreshBooks is to be inspiring and exceptional. I believe this trip met all our goals and gave the blogosphere and traditional media a reason to watch us and follow us during the trip and into the future. Heck, it even gave us talking points like exclusively using photos from flickr (not taken by us) for our blog posts.

Finally, if we do this again we would certainly…and this is important…empty the RV bathroom tank a whole lot more often.

One Degree: Did you learn anything from this experience?

Customers are always more than customers. They are people. Sure you can read that and think it’s buzz speak or a cliché – but once you have shared a meal with someone and had a chat about stuff not revolving around work, you look at them differently and want to give them more then you already are. This isn’t something I just learned on this trip, but the trip reconfirmed my belief of this.

Real world relationships in a Web 2.0 world (and a superior product) are the absolute best way to build a happy and loyal community. The days of faceless companies with no outward facing personality no longer work with savvy people. With so much more of people’s communications happening through a keyboard, some people want to be a part of something and feel some love from the companies they deal with. The companies that can do this genuinely, and not in a forced fashion, will have customers and fans.

And if I may say, I think we do it pretty well…because that is our magic.

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