It seemed like a simple enough idea when FixYa.com CEO and founderYaniv Bensadon sought a solution for consumers caught in the maze oftech support that encompassed nearly every piece of consumerelectronics equipment and household appliance on the market.
Why not offer acommunity-based service, not unlike Google Forums or eBay, so consumerscould find solutions for ailing equipment themselves — or pay areasonable fee for professional help?
From that idea, Bensadon formed a list of reasons to start FixYa.com. On the other hand, his why-not list presented a formidable set of problemsthat might have kept FixYa.com from being successful.
Given the global reach of the Internet, Bensadon did not thinkstarting up his fix-it-yourself-style consumer service from Israel in2005 would be a problem. After all, he recently relocated there afterliving in the U.S. for half of the 1990s. He already knew theEnglish-speaking marketplace from his previous entrepreneurialactivities.
However, he had trouble finding financing in his homeland. A lack of suitable answer experts in Israel became another problem. It tookmoving his business back to the the U.S. to solve both of thoseissues.
“Nobody wanted to invest in the Internet. Most of the venture capitalfirms were burned from the first bubble. Israel was a great hub fortelecommunications and semiconductors and maybe biotech companies; [but] they didn’t understand anything — and maybe still don’t — about consumerbusiness on the Internet,” Bensadon told the E-Commerce Times.
Realizing the Need
FixYa.com resulted from Bensadon’s own frustrations at getting hisarray of electronic gear to work after he brought the items to Israel.Trying to find adequate solutions to power conversions and other usageissues consumed too much of his time.
“I had a terrible time getting things converted. I spent a lot of timeon the phone late at night to vendor call centers seeking help,” hesaid.
That experience opened a door to what he saw as a great opportunityfor a better support model. However, getting from idea to launch — and thenactually getting customers — turned into yet another maze not unlike hisinitial tech support woes.
Yet user reaction and the Web site’s aggressive growth keptBensadon’s hopes alive. In a little over five months, his user-to-usertech support community grew to 13 million monthly visitors.
Attacking Tech Support
The business model for tech support was the real hurdle Bensadon had toovercome. The cost issues device makers face in sustaining call centers get in the wayof quality service to consumers, according to Bensadon. The callcenter is constantly challenged to reduce costs, forcingmanufacturers to migrate their tech support to outsourcing.
As a result, many vendors have gone offshore. Tech support workers areforced to work in an environment of constantly shrinking fees. Peoplehired for minimum wage — or close to it — are sometimes not knowledgeable about the products. Theirlevel of expertise often comes mostly from reading off templates, he said.
“Products today are more advanced. Consumers are left frustrated andhave to go through hoops to talk to someone because of all the elusivetechniques used,” said Bensadon.
Enter Plan B
Bensadon set out to end the tech support nightmare withFixYa.com. He envisioned a community-based Web site that maximized Web2.0 strategies to offer an alternative source of mostly free techsupport to consumers.
His goal was to create a place for dialog about very specific userproblems. The Web site connects an answer person who already solvedthe problem with a consumer struggling with the sameproblem.
“Another consumer is the best person to solve the same problem. Thehand-holding component adds [a] source of comfort for users. The answererkeeps the conversation to the issue and does not have to reviewgeneral background and past problems. They just stay focused on theask-and-answer process,” said Bensadon.
The vision was to combine those two things to create a Mecca foreverything consumers need following a purchase. On thevalue side, FixYa.com would be the place to find tech supportinformation on any consumer product. On the venture side, FixYa wouldemulate Amazon and eBay.
Filling a Void
The key to FixYa’s appeal, Bensadon reasoned, was the degree ofsatisfaction between the consumer and the answer provider. Thatexperience is much better than a script-reading tech support person.With that established, marketing concepts can leverage traffic.
He realized that from the vendor’s side, no one-stop post-purchase siteexisted. The existing sites were pre-sale. They all looked to be about pricecomparison, user reviews, etc.
Consumers, then, faced a void. Once they bought the product, they wereon their own to find their way through a massive sea of information tofind a remedy.
“We realized that the consumer has no place else to go after thepurchase to solve problems. The core of the growth engine is thecommunity of people willing to help and provide information about aproduct,” he said.
Choking Off Challenges
One of the main challenges FixYa.com faced was funding. However, Bensadontackled that issue with a very lean and aggressive business style.He was good at making the initial seed money last until he had real funding.
He built the basic infrastructure of FixYa.com and generated usertraction to the point where he had half a million users per month. For the first two years, hegrew that user base with a couple hundred thousand dollars.
“We had to be very scrappy, so we limited hiring to only who wasneeded. We were very efficient in challenges we defined and executedone at a time. We prioritized them,” he noted.
The company employs 30 people full-time, including about 10 engineersfor site growth. The business is not labor-intensive on his end, notedBensadon. The Web site is constantly changing with new features addedand old ones modified. Tech support comes from a global pool ofcommunity volunteers and fee-sharing experts.
Once Bensadon found funding, he had more difficulty finding people withthe skills he needed in Israel. So two years ago, he relocated to theU.S.
“Then I had to basically start from scratch as a foreigner in hiringthe right people who were going to work together. We overcame thischallenge by being very focused and determined. Through trial anderror, we [found the] people we needed,” he said.
Perhaps FixYa’s biggest challenge to survival was finding venturecapital stateside. Bensadon attended a few meetings with potentialfunding firms and left convinced that they did not understand his concept.
“They didn’t see the vision, and there was no way they were going tocut a check,” he worried.
At that point, Bensadon figured he had two options. One was to getto the point where his company broke even. The second was to initiate avery aggressive user growth rate so he could go toSilicon Valley to meet more appreciative investors.
Either way, growing a mostly free service business to either of thosegoals seemingly defied all odds. However, Bensadon’s round of trips toSilicon Valley was successful.
“On my first trip to the Valley, I met with a number of top-tierinvestors and left with a couple of term sheets. They were verysurprised to see my tight operation and how far I got with what Ihad,” he recounted.
Reinventing the Support Wheel
One of FixYa.com’s biggest accomplishments was based on setting up asuccessful new type of user support community. Previously, mostcommunity groups were based on a very narrow group of power users,according to Bensadon.
“We broke down the answering experienceand made it inviting enough so even the average user was encouraged toparticipate in the process,” he explained.
While most activity on FixYa.com takes place within its free services, themoney-making potential lies in satisfied consumers who return for paidhelp.
Pay as You Go
Consumers can initially go to the Web site to find product solutionsfrom the experience of another user. The consumer does not necessarily need to askfor help.
Consumers can look for solutions among the responses people alreadymade on the same product, or they can post new questions to people whohave expressed an interest in helping for free.
For those consumers who need a higher level of professional techsupport, a team of more savvy answerers invited into FixYa’s paid oraffiliate program are available. That service is packaged betweenUS$10 to $20 per incident, payable by credit card for service by live chator email.
Cue the Best
FixYa.com identifies the best of its volunteer answers based on arating system. To be declared a category expert, a community volunteeranswerer must be very active and answer hundreds of questions with aminimum of 80 percent questioner satisfaction. Those answerers who gainpaid professional status share the paid fee on a 50-50 basis, paidmonthly from FixYa.com.
“Instead of saying only product experts could qualify, we changed theparadigm so anybody could participate. We nurtured them and motivatedthem to excel … so it’s not just for novices. There is a path orprogram for people on the social side who wish to be collaborative.And there is a path for the professional who wants to be more savvy tothe point that some of them make [a great deal of] money with us,” said Bensadon.
The Web site’s staff schedules the paid answers so that experts ineach product category are always available. To remain eligible as anexpert, answerers have to maintain a high questioner rating.
The Web site caters most to English-speaking countries. Its userbase is 60 percent U.S. and 5 percent Canada, plus 15 percent UnitedKingdom and 5 percent Australia/New Zealand and South Africa.
“We service predominantly English-speaking countries. We started thesite in Israel with a focus on the U.S. market. My previousenterprises were with companies that played in the U.S. market,” saidBensadon.
Despite its innovative approach to tech support, FixYa.com runs a bigrisk that it will not be able to maintain a paid user base, according to Kurt Scherf, vice president and principal analyst forParks Associates. That isthe challenge faced today by many sites, including very large outfits like Google’s YouTube.
“If you give it away for free, why pay for it at all? The conversion,I suspect, would be extremely low going from free-based services tofee-based for this sort of model,” Scherf told the E-Commerce Times.
Only time will tell if FixYa.com’s method of qualifying experts willwork in the long run. What could make or break the deal is FixYa’s ability to create alarge database of problem solutions by product. Otherwise, some of theother services already on the Internet will have an advantage, Scherfadvised.
“This service seems different than some of the others. At its heart itis a social network for getting community-based support. It’s not likea paid service that somebody actually has to pay for, but you can,”said Scherf.
In theory, this is an excellent idea. When I purchased a mid-range computer from Gateway a few months ago, it was because of all the bells and whistles. Now when I access tech support about them, it’s either:
A. I don’t have sufficient knowledge for that level of support. Please contact our fee based support, or
B. Even though we did include that in our OEM, we do not support that issue.
Perhaps this is the sort of thing that will eventually find sustenance from manufacturers, who desperately need to find post sales consumer assistance.