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13 Things Every Entrepreneur Can Learn from the CEO of HopStop

11/2/10

Here are the highlights from my interview with Joe Meyer, CEO of HopStop, one of my favorite online utilities.  I got in touch with Joe after he sent an email to me and thousands of NYC-based users apologizing for a recent change to the site that ended up needing to be adjusted after user feedback.  (A shorter post will appear on FastCompany.com at some point soon).

1. Sometimes the founder needs help

“I’m actually not the founder; I’m the CEO who took over for the founder [18 months ago]. Often times in successful startups, the founder steps aside after a certain point and the company matures and grows to a certain level where you need a different type of leader or CEO to take the company to the next level and beyond. I came from Silicon Valley where I spent around a decade working for highly successful companies such as eBay, ,  and as a result I’ve seen this play out many times before. HopStop is no different.  I’m personally responsible for taking a very good service, a very strong brand, a good vision and putting a business around it and making the company more successful and the user experience even better.“

2. Having a large competitor is a good thing

“One of the things among many that intrigued me about HopStop when I was first approached with the opportunity was the fact that we compete directly with Google, and as a result Google is our only true competitor in terms of offering  an analogous service and that’s a nice place to be in. For some companies, it’s intimidating and scary. But I’ve seen this play out before; Google not only validates markets but it leaves a lot of crumbs on the table. If you can focus in on those vertical areas that Google pays attention to and spends resources on (but doesn’t focus all its business on) and if you focus on it much more than they do and you create a better user experience, then that leads to opportunities.”

3. Stay focused

We were the original pedestrian navigation service and we still consider ourselves to be the best.  Navigation is all we do. We come to work every day with one ambition and that’s to provide the best user experience possible. We’ve identified many ways to  further impress our users, but we’ve resisted the temptation to build them because we’re still trying to accomplish the core objective of having the best routing experience possible.  Without that, none of those other opportunities will matter.  Our primary job is to get someone from point A to point B in the most efficient way possible. Once we’re able to do this better than anyone else, then we’ll look at additional bells-and-whistles but  you need people using your core service en-masse to do those other things.”

4. Be a “must-have” service versus a “nice-to-have” service

“People need to know how to get to-and-from where they need to go. It’s part of your everyday life when you’re going to interviews and meetings and social gatherings and visiting relatives and friends. If you screw that experience up, then people get mad. But if you get it right, then you have a loyal user. Often times we get compared to companies like Foursquare because they are another location-based service and as great of a service as they offer, I don’t consider that a must-have. It’s kind of nice to have. You know, do I check in when I get to the bank or not – maybe, but first tell me how to get to-and-from the bank. That’s useful.”

5. It’s not just about the size of your budget

“Probably the most impressive thing is that HopStop had built a strong brand, a strong following, a great user experience, competing against  great companies all on a shoestring budget. We’ve raised very little outside capital to date and I was very impressed with how much the company could accomplish so much with so little in terms of outside funding. We’re very judicious with our time and money, and we spend both very wisely.?

6. Revel in direct user feedback and admit your mistakes

“Sometimes we don’t get it right, but I think that’s another thing that differentiates HopStop versus the Goliaths that are out there. We highly value user feedback. Speaking of, you saw my note to HopStop users. That was a note that I sent to hundreds of thousands of users and needless to say, you aren’t the only person that replied. I’m replying to every single one of those emails and we invite and encourage this sort of feedback. The users tell us what they like, what they dislike, what’s working, what’s not. They find bugs for us that we fix and prioritize and, you know, we use that feedback (of the people using our service everyday) to improve our service, because  there’s not enough of us here at HopStop to identify these issues. Millions of users have to bang away at it 24/7 and tell us if we’re doing a good job or not.”

7. Think about providing a genuine service, not marketing hype

“We’re kind of anti-marketing, anti-PR. Some of it is intentional; some of it is unintentional. Unintentional because whatever resources we have we devote to the core business and to engineering, and intentionally because, again, I came from Silicon Valley where every start up is trying to differentiate themselves and trying to get buzz and send out press releases every week and most of the time I think it’s just noise. I mean if people find you interesting enough to write about, they’ll write about you, and they’ll come find you. You’re a user right? And you find it interesting what we do, and therefore that will make for a much better story than it would if it were being written off of a press release. I realized this dynamic when I was a GM at eBay. Many of the best stories that were ever written about eBay were those written by avid eBay users who just so happened to be professional writers as well. HopStop is no different.”

8. Leverage partnerships to create a win, win, win

“We forged a very strategic, integrated partnership with Connect by Hertz, which is the largest competitor to Zipcar, almost a year ago. It’s a multi-prong partnership where if HopStop users realize they don’t want to take a trip via mass transit, they can rent a car for an hour or two or three. We brought-in the reservation functionality from Hertz directly into our user experience and then HopStop brought its direction/routing functionality directly into Connect by Hertz’s site so that we can route you to any one of their parking lots (based on where you’re coming from). It’s a very interesting, value-added partnership for both companies, but most importantly,  it directly benefits the users of each service.”

9. Being mobile means more than just having an iPhone App

“We have a top ten iPhone app within the navigation category of iTunes, which is the most popular app category on iTunes so we’re right there against AT&T Navigator, MapQuest, among others. That’s very impressive for a small company like ours. As a result, we’ve seen tremendous growth in our iPhone app usage and downloads. We also have a very popular and widely utilized mobile site, which is m.HopStop.com (or HopStop.mobi). We’ll also have an Android app launched by the end of the year, and again our users are telling us what they want. We also have very advanced text messaging capabilities  and can power direction via SMS. So if you’re a MyHopStop user and you text us a message in which you list a starting address and a destination address, we’re fire-off a route to your cell phone within seconds. So mobile is a very large opportunity for us. Our growth on the mobile side is several hundred percent year-over-year. “

10. You know you’re in a good spot, when you’re brand becomes a verb

“Our founder was recently speaking with a news editor from The Wall Street Journal and she was talking about her first time using HopStop and someone in her social circle said, ‘You should HopStop it.’  While HopStop is not quite like Kleenex, our users do use the word HopStop as a verb – ‘You should HopStop it.’  Considering that HopStop is still a start-up, the use of HopStop as a verb is quite amazing and very complimentary, and it goes to show how we were the first-mover in this market and how people equate pedestrian navigation with us. You can’t buy that endorsement. No marketing in the world can replicate that power of word-of-mouth and a positive personal referral. At the end of the day, it’s still a job for us, but it’s certainly nice to know the service you’re providing and improving is helping millions upon millions of people.

11. Look for the hidden goldmines

“I think where an opportunity lies for us is we’re sitting on a ton of data. We’re sitting on a ton of transit data, which makes our routing possible, but also we know where millions upon millions of people are traveling to and from everyday.  We currently utilize that information from a geo-targeting ad-serving perspective (to help us monetize our traffic and bring-in dollars to pay for employees and pay for engineers), but I think there’s a realistic opportunity for us to highlight and promote the trends that are bubbling up from those millions upon millions of searches.”

12. Find your unique SEO opportunities

“We get a good amount of our traffic from SEO. We do SEO a little bit differently than other digital media companies. We don’t have traditional content? We’re not putting out articles. The directions are our articles, are our content. We SEO those to the hilt.”

13. You can be a social brand without expending resources on social media

“We’re not a social media platform. We don’t have the big “wow” that social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have. That said, we have incredibly passionate users and they’re users that voice their opinions and use our service as if we were a social media platform. Very passionate, very vocal, very engaged, very willing to share their opinions about good and bad. People are using HopStop to do inherently social things. People are using HopStop to go meet other people. They’re using HopStop to go figure out how to get to that restaurant, to go to that business meeting, to go out to the Hamptons or come back from the shore, or to meet their friends in the park, or to go to the summer concert series, or go to that rooftop bar. They’re doing it to be social in the real world, not behind a computer.  As a result, HopStop is a means to an end in that we help enable people to get to those popular locations at which they plan to interact and be social with one another.”

“That said, there are definitely distinct opportunities for us to become more social within our core user experience, to engage with our community more on the site itself and to infuse social media elements into our experience, whether it be Facebook Connect or the Facebook Like button or Twitter Places or potentially Foursquare check-ins. So we will likely do that, but we need to be very smart about it because, again, people come to our site to get directions and we have to nail that user experience and we’re still   in the process of perfecting that.”

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