FreshBooks as a Social Media Case Study

April 21, 2009

I was recently interviewed by Dharmesh Shah, co-founder of Hubspot and author of for his upcoming book: Inbound Marketing: Get Found in Google, Social Media and Blogs. Here are my replies to some of the case study questions.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and FreshBooks.

My name is Mike McDerment and I’m the co-founder and CEO of FreshBooks. FreshBooks is the leader in online invoicing. What we do is help professionals and their contractors save time, look professional and get paid faster when they invoice their clients and each other. In January 2003, after being frustrated creating an invoice using Microsoft Word, I’d had it and I built FreshBooks to invoice my clients. We quickly realized that there were other client service professionals who were frustrated using Word or Excel for invoicing, and who did not want the burden of accounting software, so we turned FreshBooks into a publicly available service and launched it in May 2004. There are now over 800,000 people using FreshBooks to send, receive, print and pay invoices.

How large is the FreshBooks community? Do you think of this as a “customer community” or “user community” or something else?

There are over 800,000 people worldwide who use FreshBooks to send, receive, print and pay their invoices, and thousands more who are big fans of FreshBooks the company and our culture, but have no need for FreshBooks. So the answer is “Yes”, it is a customer community, a user community and something else. What is that something else? I’d say it’s our guiding light. At FreshBooks we believe ourselves to be a service, not a technology, and we service our community around the clock and have for years. The community in turn inspires and directs us with their feedback for which we are eternally grateful.

Other than building a fantastic product and being fanatical about customer experience — what did you do to build your community? What tools and tactics worked? What didn’t work?

That’s like saying “Hey Tiger Woods…other than having the best mental focus in the game, a rigorous practice ethic and raw natural ability…what makes you such a good player?” 🙂

First and foremost, we try to make sure we know what business we are in. While we are the leader in online invoicing, we are actually in the experience delivery business. I think business people often forget this. To remind us and guide us, we have a concept known as 4E which stands for “Execute on Extraordinary Experiences Everyday”. Let me break 4E down with some examples.

“Execute” underscores the importance of getting things done. FreshBooks is an idea factory. Everyone here is creative and full of ideas about how to continually improve the business (for ourselves, for our customers, and for our partners). Ideas are great, but execution is everything.

“Extraordinary” means exceeding expectations, and this can be more easily achieved than you might think. For example, you don’t “expect” to get a live person on the phone when you call a website – therefore it’s extraordinary when you call us and speak with a real live person. How about getting a call from the CEO of your invoicing service to go out for dinner – were you expecting that? Probably not.

As I mentioned, “Experience” delivery is the business we are in at FreshBooks. You thought we were in invoicing? We earn money because we provide extraordinary experiences to the people who use our service. This manifests itself in our application design, and the overall user experience when people interact with the FreshBooks team (both online and off). It also applies to how we treat people we work with, and the sorts of people we hire. Why? Because if your workday is an extraordinary experience, that will rub off on your work and the customers you serve.

“Everyday” is a cautionary reminder to ensure that every experience our customers enjoy is extraordinarily executed, and that means doing it every day. If someone calls us and encounters impatience when they need customer care – that shatters their extraordinary experience. When they encounter a bug in the application, again – experience shattered. Therefore, we strive for unrelenting execution, everyday.
“4E” describes the approach we take to everything here at FB, and I think it’s a great philosophy for any service oriented business.

Some great specific examples are:
1) We take our customers to dinner.

2) We sent Triscuits to a user in Fiji

3) We sent flowers to a girl who was stood up

4) We reinvented the trade show booth:

5) We drove an RV through the southern USA for one 5 days to have 12 meals with and meet hundreds of customers.

On top of all that, and this is very very important…I’d say we’ve just kept our feet moving. We’ve been at this for more than 6 years now and we hope to become known as one of the great overnight success stories…that was actually years in the making. In my experience, that’s usually the truth behind overnight success stories.

FreshBooks seems to have really jumped into the twittersphere. How did you first start using Twitter as a company — what have you learned since then?

We started using Twitter because we saw that people were talking about us there – in fact it freaked people out at first when they’d hear from us! We have forums, a blog, we do a lot of email and events, and we answer the phone. We just want to make it easy for people to communicate with us. Users choose the medium they like and we make it easy to connect. So when people started Twittering about FreshBooks, we started Twittering too.

While we answer questions and do support and hold contests on Twitter, we really just see Twitter as another way to deepen relationships with our customers. The truth is, while we collect dollars for the service that we offer, the currency of our business is relationships. Twitter, our blog and our forums all help us share our culture with the world and learn more about our customers themselves and we like that.
You know something really cool about our Twittering? Now people are helping us do the support and question answering – it’s amazing! So now what we are learning to do is to pick our spots and make sure the experience of encountering FreshBooks on Twitter is just right…and many times that means we just listen and let others do the talking.

How do you balance the personal online profiles of various Freshbooks employees and the “business” profile for FreshBooks? Do you have any rules, policies or guidelines in place in terms of who posts to the business account and what can be said?

The best strategy we’ve found to balance “profiles” is to hire really smart passionate people. Seriously. Since we hire people who are a good fit and love what they do, often the people we hire already have their own network developed. We don’t want people to put on their “work” face, we just want them to be themselves. So we try to stay out of the way of our team for the most part. Many of our customers are brought in through the personal relationships of our team members – people we meet at events, customers, friends, networks and folks tend to use their personal profiles when participating where there are personal relationships.

That said, the business profile for something like our @freshbooks twitter account is managed by a smaller team within FreshBooks to ensure the tone is consistent. We have some style guidelines like each post “must” be fun, playful, professional, and may “never” include swearing. Our blog has editors, so while everyone writes on it, there are people who are responsible for ensuring the content is relevant to our audience.

Now that you have this massive community built, what do you to nurture it? How has the community helped you grow your business?

To nuture our community, we’ll do more of the same.

How it’s helped us grow: see above – it’s our guiding light.

Does social media work for most businesses — or only specific kinds of businesses?

Will social media work for every business? With the right strategy, potentially. If your customers participate in social media or they listen to people who do, I suppose it can work. But it doesn’t work on its own – it’s a switch, but you are the power – so just because you turn it on doesn’t mean that it’s gonna do anything…that’s up to you.

What words of advice do you have to businesses just getting started with social media and trying to build their communities?

1. Tell your story – that’s what people respond to.
2. Participate – follow up quickly to comments. Always remember you are setting the tone for your community.
3. Be open and treat people like you would like to be treated. It will build trust and that’s the foundation of any great relationship…and social media is all about building relationships.
4. Listen – the greatest thing about communities is that they serve as a living breathing focus group. If you listen right you can probably learn everything you need to know about your business.
5. Finally, it’s a long road and a long term way of doing business – it’s not a campaign. It needs long term funding, support and organizational commitment. The results will not be easy to tie to direct outcomes (read: sales), but the impact of a community that is well nurtured grows exponentially.

about the author

Co-Founder & CEO, FreshBooks Mike is the co-founder and CEO of FreshBooks, the world’s #1 cloud accounting software for self-employed professionals. Built in 2003 after he accidentally saved over an invoice, Mike spent 3.5 years growing FreshBooks from his parents’ basement. Since then, over 10 million people have used FreshBooks to save time billing, and collect billions of dollars. A lover of the outdoors, Mike has been bitten so many times it’s rumored he’s the first human to have developed immunity to mosquitoes.