Reviewbox, a Knoxville, Tennessee-based SaaS startup, launched in March 2016 but is already making a profit for founder James Horey. How he did it may be more of a reflection about his life spent making decisions by listening.
Horey’s journey to a startup life in Knoxville is a winding one. “I grew up in many places (stepdad was in the Army) but spent a good deal of my youth in Maryland near Baltimore. I went to college at Hendrix College near Little Rock, Arkansas, and majored in Computer Science,” recalls Horey. “My girlfriend at that time (now my wife) wanted to attend graduate school so not having any other plans, I decided graduate school didn’t sound too bad.”
After studying parallel computing and sensor networks in New Mexico to earn his Ph.D. in computer science, he continued on to postgraduate work in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. But when the Great Recession of 2008 hit, Horey and his wife made a decision: move to East Tennessee for research positions at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “My wife and I started our family here and we enjoy the scenic beauty of this region,” Horey says.
Horey had been curious about the startup world for sometime, and after five years at ORNL, he made a decision to explore other things outside of research. “I kind of knew I wanted to be a part of that,” Horey says. He joined the local startup Cirruspath as VP of data analytics, but after 18 months, he left to venture on his own. But to what? He listened some more.
“After leaving Cirruspath I started talking to a few folks about interesting problems they were facing and eventually had a great conversation with Brett Johnson at Radio Systems (makers of Petsafe and Invisible Fence),” Horey recalls. “They had major challenges around managing their Amazon reviews. They wanted to do things like export the data, analyze the data for quality issues, and for their customer care team to be notified when a negative review popped up. There wasn’t really a great solution for them (or apparently any major manufacturer) so I decided to develop one.”
Reviewbox, the vendor monitoring platform, solves a couple major pain points all around a seller’s desire to listen to the customers. Companies are notified when a customer provides negative feedback on the products so that they can initiate a course of action. “By providing feedback, it lets customers know that the company cares and values their business,” Horey says. “This is really critical for online sales where reviews play a disproportionate role in determining whether a customer chooses to purchase your product or not.”
The other pain point that Reviewbox solves is in the organization of such data. “Being able to aggregate and organize all of your reviews lets the company do things like analyze their reviews for identifying product quality issues and helps them understand why customers like their products (or not). Reviewbox automates all of this, so that customers no longer need spend hours every day or week compiling this information manually.
Reviewbox’s first customer was Radio Systems, the very group that gave him the initial idea. But the road to profitability was paved with persistent work. While Horey had some idea that the idea customer could be similar to his first customer, he wasn’t completely sure. Nearly every customer afterwards came through a laborious process of calling, emailing, and researching on LinkedIn. Reviewbox has over ten customers now, but Horey says that the process is still not easy.
But from acquiring multiple customers, he does know that his current customers are primarily in the consumer manufacturing space. CPG companies (i.e., make and sell snacks, coffee/tea, etc.), businesses that make professional tools, sporting goods, and lots of other interesting things that one would never guess would be sold on Amazon are all part of Reviewbox’s customer base. And while his startup is in Knoxville, these companies are based all over the United States.
So, how did Reviewbox become profitable in just eight months? Horey states the following: “You can become profitable if you don’t spend any money. Reviewbox is a B2B SaaS so that meant 1) I could start charging companies right away 2) development costs were low. I did all the development myself until recently. I still do all the sales, support, marketing, etc. So I guess the end lesson is: stay lean and listen to your customers.”
Horey also learned about something else as he succeeded in building his company: loneliness. “I think running a startup is a lonely business regardless of where you are, even in a crowded place like the Bay area,” Horey says. “You have to make all the hard decisions yourself and it’s hard to get other people to relate. Networking with other founders and startup CEOs helps, but ultimately you have to take direct responsibility for the business growing or dying.”