When Kelly first brought us the idea to invest in attending the Best Friend’s Conference in mid-July, we were really nervous about the possibility, let alone the reality of having to prepare and plan for it.
As a small team bootstrapping to “save rescuers from bad technology” with easy to learn and use rescue management software, the investment in a conference was pretty much most of what we had left in the bank. Not to mention that preparing for it would be a big chunk of our time; not always easy when all of us here also work full-time day jobs (Kelly as a social worker, Dave as a software engineer, and Rachel as a client success manager).
But Kelly was passionate (if not adamant!) that the conversations we’d be able to have with rescuers - and the insights we would gain at the conference - were going to help us make our product even better. Knowing that in just three days we’d likely be able to gather as much research and feedback as we had over the past 12 months, that outcome alone seemed worthwhile, even if we might not generate any immediate sales. It also didn’t hurt that Kelly had offered to lead everything, from designing and ordering our banner and swag materials, to flying up to set up the booth and man it.
So with that in mind, we took the plunge, sent in our application and deposit, and got to work.
Kelly arrived at the conference on Thursday, July 13th, around 4pm, just in time to complete booth set up. Rachel (who works in NYC) wasn’t able to drive down that night, and we didn’t have the budget to fly Dave up (like Kelly, he also works in North Carolina)...so Kelly was on her own.
Thinking that opening night might be slow, we were shocked when the night ended and Kelly messaged Rachel and Dave telling them she had a line of people waiting to speak with her! Not only was our brand strong and standing out at the conference, but the product itself, when demo’d, made rescuers’ eyes light up.
Over Friday and Saturday, momentum didn’t stop. Kelly and Rachel continued to demo Sparkie, answer rescuers’ general questions about software and technology, and meeting rescuers from all different backgrounds: those who have professional careers as chemical and computer engineers for large Fortune 500 companies, to recently graduated veterinarian technicians who are just starting to become involved in rescue, to stay-at-home moms looking to give back to their local animal welfare community.
In addition to promoting Sparkie, and in keeping with our belief that we must bring value to rescuers beyond only building software, we offered rescuers attending the event free social audits of their websites and social platforms. We delivered these audits to several rescues that had signed up, and consulted with them in person about how to optimize their social presence.
But, ever mindful of our conference goal, to learn from and listen to rescuers, we made sure to ask lots of questions about how they operate their organizations today and what problems they are trying to solve, whether it seems to relate to technology or not (who knows how Sparkie might be able to solve those problems in the future?)
So what did we learn?
We saw that rescuers are craving knowledge, innovation, and new ideas. While they admit that there must be a better way to manage their organization, especially the data they have to track, and they want to find what that is, they just don’t have the time. The most frequently asked question we received about Sparkie was, “how long does it take to learn?” All were relieved to hear our answer (< 5 minutes) and after being shown Sparkie, were able to believe it. But this feedback reinforced the importance of staying simple and streamlined for rescuers.
We validated our business model (license-based SaaS) with rescuers appreciating its transparency: simply pay a monthly license fee, no strings attached. We couldn’t believe how many rescuers openly told us “I hate Competitor X’s product...even though it's ‘free’”. And Competitor X was literally less than 20 feet away from our booth! Rescuers recognize the value of good software and the time and energy that can be saved if they use it … and they’re willing to invest in it.
We realized the importance of continuing to add in features and capability to Sparkie that can reduce the time rescuers spend in other tools, like social media integrations (to cut down on all the time spent cross-posting on platforms) and printable reports to share with adopters, fosters and grant foundations. Animal rescuers are never going to want to spend more time behind a computer, no matter how awesome and fun to use Sparkie is.
We were impressed by how much rescuers were willing to share with us, both at the conference and in follow up conversations. Even those who had no intention of ever using our product were more than willing to speak with us, give us feedback, and tell us how to approach other rescuers. Some groups we spoke to had even read our blog posts and were putting the advice we had written into action! It hit home the importance of continued collaboration in this space, not only between those in rescue, but between those outside of the industry (like us) who can bring valuable knowledge to bear.
We've said this before but we'll say it again - sometimes after 50+ hours ‘day-job’ weeks, we don’t always have as much pep as we would like to, to work on Sparkie (though we manage to find a way).
But the renewed energy we gained at the conference - and in post-conference calls and discussions with rescuers and animal welfare experts - has affirmed what we have always known deep down in our heart. That we are on the right track, that our work is recognized and appreciated, and that our team has something unique in what we can offer to rescuers. How that evolves over time is what we are most excited to see unfold. Until the next conference...