Kevin Hale: ‘Build software people want to have a relationship with’

Big Omaha 2012 definitely benefited from Kevin Hale's gracious agreement to join the lineup at the last minute. He spoke at KANEKO for almost an hour Friday afternoon on "designing for relationships," or "how to design a company, a team, an organization so that it fosters really strong relationships with users and customers that help

Kevin Hale, a late addition to the Big Omaha lineup, focused on relationships in his Friday afternoon talk. 

Big Omaha 2012 definitely benefited from Kevin Hale‘s gracious agreement to join the lineup at the last minute. He spoke at KANEKO for almost an hour Friday afternoon on “designing for relationships,” or “how to design a company, a team, an organization so that it fosters really strong relationships with users and customers that help you grow.” 

Hale is the founder of Wufoo, an internet application for building online forms. “All you need to know about it is it’s a database application at its core, but it looks like it’s designed by Fisher Price.”  

Oh, and that it was acquired last year by SurveyMonkey, giving its investors (who contributed a total of $118,000) a 29,561-percent return.  

“What worked for us had to do with how we decided to start the company,” Hale said. Human beings are social creatures, and “we wanted to build software that people wanted to have a relationship with.”

Focus on first impressions

“We approached all of our new users as if we were trying to date them, and all of our existing customers as if we were trying to create a successful long-term relationship,” Hale said. 

For new users, “it’s startling how much” first impressions make a difference. If someone picks their nose on a first date, they probably won’t make it to a second. But if you’ve been married for 20 years, nose-picking doesn’t send you to a divorce lawyer.   

Hale shared examples from Cork’d, Flickr and Hurl, and he recommended Little Big Details for more.  

For Wufoo examples, Hale mentioned the announcement of the company’s 2011 acquisition, which featured a throwback to vintage video game Rampage, with the Wufoo dinosaur and the SurveyMonkey hugging. 

He also mentioned a programming contest that featured a real, custom-forged battle axe as first prize. “Here, in modern times, if you can actually use programming skills to get a medieval weapon, that’s some serious bragging rights,” he said. 

Everyone fights; focus on resolving those conflicts

“Software engineers are often divorced from the consequences of their actions,” Hale said.  “All you have to do is make everyone do customer support. That’s it.” 

Hale paraphrased Kayak co-founder Paul English, who is known for installing a customer support line directly in the engineering room: “After the third or fourth call of answering a problem from a customer, they’ll stop what they’re doing, and they’ll fix it. And then we won’t have that problem anymore.” 

At Wufoo, Hale and company added a “Emotional State” drop-down menu to their customer support form. They were surprised when 75.8 percent of customers filled it in (compared to 78.1 percent who completed the “Browser Type” field).  

“We didn’t realize that just by adding a drop-down, we let people know there are things about you that we want to know that don’t necessarily come across over the internet,” he said, “and we care.” 

Relationships atrophy

You have to keep the romance alive, or else the relationship falls apart, Hale said.  

To make sure the new features they design for their customers get noticed and get used, the Wufoo team designed features that highlight what’s new since the particular customer logged in last.  

They also instituted a practice of sending customers personal thank-you notes; each employee hand-writes about five per week. 

“If all this emotional, touchy-feely stuff is not convincing you, I’ll leave you with this point,” Hale said.  

According to research he attributed to the Harvard Business Review, there are only three ways to achieve market dominance in any field: offering the best price, the best product or the best overall solution.  

“Regardless of the size of your company,” he said, focusing on giving your customers the best overall solution “is always accessible to you.”

For real-time coverage of Big Omaha on Thursday and Friday, including a live stream of all 14 speakers, visit


Credits: Photo by Malone & Company / Big Omaha

Silicon Prairie News’ coverage of Big Omaha 2012 is presented by CoSentry. For more than a decade, CoSentry has provided startups, web-based enterprises and larger organizations a safe, secure, affordable network of computing and data storage facilities.

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