Eric Rea has a problem.
“I've been wanting to put up a fence in my yard for about six weeks,” he said on a late June afternoon at the offices of Podium, the firm he co-founded and runs in Lehi.
“Actually, my wife has, but I'm the one that's carrying it out. Every time I remember that I need to do that it's either on a weekend at night or in the morning, basically when I'm not at work, and guess what the hours of that business [are]?”
A visitor ventured, “Nine to five?”
“Exactly,” Rea answered. “So, for six weeks, I've been trying to get in touch with them, and all I can do is either call them, and if I leave a message, they don't get back to me, 'cause they have hundreds of people leaving messages all day, or I can fill out a contact form on their website, which basically goes to a black hole.”
If you can relate to this, raise your hand.
But Rea can do something else besides gripe: Podium offers a way for small businesses, such as the fencing company, to have customers reach them more easily. As a recent news release put it, via the firm’s software-as-a-service platform “businesses can boost online discovery, interact with customers via familiar channels, [such as] text messag[ing], and collect in-depth feedback and online reviews after a purchase is made.”
It’s not difficult to imagine such a service would appeal to businesses more accustomed to running off the back of an envelope than the back-end of a server farm. But regardless of size – one U.S. ‘big three’ automaker is a customer – the platform has its fans.
“I’ve been in the car business 17 years,” said Mark Winters, e-commerce director for the Tim Dahle group of dealerships, based in Murray, Utah. “Having the ability to increase our customer reviews online is very appealing for somebody like me,” he added.
Winters explained, “When I came in here about two years ago, had 200-300 reviews. I installed Podium in January of 2016, and we generated over 150 reviews per month after that.”
He said the various Dahle locations, including Nisan and Infiniti dealerships and the firm’s new Ford store in Spanish Fork, Utah, all use the platform.
“It’s a super-simple product,” Winters said. “The analytics on the back end is really great. See who is using it, how much they engage with it.”
He said the goal is to get salespeople and service writers to encourage customer to write reviews, always asking if they can send an email or text inviting the customer to do so.
“We don’t like to send it blind, ask customer for permission and facilitate getting it out to the customer,” Winters explained. Podium is “also a tool to help our people in the organization focus on the customer. … People want to come in, and they only want to work with that [sales]person. That’s where the buy-in comes in.”
Such ramped-up customer participation is what Rea is aiming for.
“Our product is all about helping you get closer to your customers, and actually have a relationship, but doing it without having to have an army of people on the phones or on the computer all day,” Rea said. “That's the whole point, is our product helps people get closer to their customers.”
Because of the way its platform was designed, Podium can meet the needs of a standalone business on up to a national network of dealerships.
Rea said, “Our product, luckily, was built in a way that works whether you have one location or 5,000. So, the goal of Podium, if I had to distill it into one thing, is we are providing personalized interaction at scale for any business.”
Nico Dato, Podium’s head of marketing, added, “That's who we want to help: The local economy, the local consumer trying to make contact with a local business, and everyone just bettering this entire ecosystem … and more effective communication, and things like that.”
Aiming at local economies apparently is paying off for Podium. According to Rea, “in the start of 2016, we had a couple hundred customers … [and] today, we have 11,000 locations that we work with, and by the end of the year, we will easily have 25,000 locations under our belt.”
During the same 2016-to-today period, the firm’s gone from 15 to 180 employees and expects to have “about 240 on board” by the end of the year. In the next five years, Rea said, the headcount should hit 400 people and the firm will build a new headquarters across from its current space adjoining I-15.
Podium has raised $32 million from VCs in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. And its investment in the community will bring the firm a post-performance Economic Development Tax Increment Finance (EDTIF) tax credit rebate from the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED), a Utah state agency.
Internally, the firm plans to add new products to its platform, Rea said, always keeping an eye on the end user.
“Our customer is typically really good at what they do,” he said. “So, they're really good at changing tires. They're really good at selling cars, or fixing teeth, or putting solar panels on roofs, the more we can help them focus on that, and the less they have to worry about these different parts of their business that they don't necessarily understand or want to deal with, the better, right? If we can continue to do that, then we're happy.”