A Q&A with Front Desk co-founder and CEO Jon Zimmerman. The Seattle-based startup, which has developed a cloud-based service business management platform optimized for mobile devices, completed a $3.2 million Seed funding round at the start of this month. Investors include Second Avenue Partners, Venture One Ventures, and Expedia founder and Zillow co-founder Rich Barton. It was founded in 2011.
SUB: Please describe Front Desk and your primary innovation
Zimmerman: Front Desk provides mobile-first, cloud-based management tools for the personal services economy. Personal service businesses, which include fitness and yoga studios, dance and music schools, physical therapists, acupuncturists, adventure guides, tutors, teachers, and other businesses and franchises, are inherently mobile. Our Software-as-a-Service [SaaS] platform is optimized to work on smartphones and tablets as well as on the desktop. Front Desk gives them the ability to run their businesses from anywhere, at any time.
SUB: Who are your target markets and users?
Zimmerman: Our target market is the businesses—which range from CrossFit gyms to massage therapists to dog walkers and piano teachers—that form the personal services economy. These businesses, of which there are three-to-five million in the U.S. alone, typically sell their time and skill in the form of appointments, classes, workshops, and courses. This includes both independent businesses and enterprises, for which Front Desk also provides a unique solution. For example, franchises like Fit4Mom—formerly Stroller Strides—and multi-location businesses like D1 Sports Training are both using Front Desk. Through our platform, the franchisor is able to better manage and even track, in real-time, performance at each location.
SUB: Who do you consider to be your competition, and what differentiates Front Desk from the competition?
Zimmerman: Our competition comes in two forms. The first is what we refer to as ‘paper and pencil.’ In some cases it actually is paper and pencil, and in others it is a combination of tools like Google Calendar and Excel that the business owner has assembled to manage their business.
The second are older services that target the personal services economy, but have built for the desktop first. These companies are trying to adapt as the personal services economy goes mobile. The companies that provide these services are playing catch-up and lack the ability to support every aspect of their solution, from set-up to analytics and reporting, on any device, as we do at Front Desk. So, in many ways, we are the only mobile-first platform in this space, which we believe given the nature of these businesses, is invaluable.
SUB: When was the company founded, and what were the first steps you took in establishing it?
Zimmerman: Front Desk was founded by myself, along with Nicki Violetti, Steve Brewer, Travis Isaacs, Ben Vandenbos, and Andrew Coldham. Through our CrossFit gyms, Nicki and I were intimately familiar with the administrative pain points of running a personal-service based business. We partnered with Steve, Travis, Ben and Andrew, with whom I had worked at Expedia and other startups, to create Front Desk.
Our goal was to solve the problem that Nicki and I faced and heard from many fellow business owners. In fact, listening to small business owners and helping them get back to the business of helping others is now a key part of Front Desk’s ethos. Front Desk started by solving some critical pain points around scheduling, billing, and client relationship management, and we have continued to add new functionality, based on the feedback from customers.
SUB: What was the inspiration behind the idea for Front Desk? Was there an ‘aha’ moment, or was the idea more gradual in developing?
Zimmerman: It all goes back to being small business owners ourselves. Nicki and I were incredibly frustrated by the lack of software, particularly mobile tools, available to the owners, staff, and clients of personal services businesses. We felt that the market was neglected and underserved, and ultimately decided to solve the problem ourselves.
SUB: How did you come up with the name? What is the story or meaning behind it?
Zimmerman: The name Front Desk really captures what we hope to be for these businesses—a virtual front desk. In some cases, like boot camps, the business lacks a physical front desk, and in other cases, we are metaphorically removing the barriers of a ‘traditional’ front desk. With Front Desk, business owners and staff can create a customized and branded client-facing experience through which they can manage client relationships, automate billing, securely process credit cards, schedule classes and appointments, track attendance, and automate email marketing anytime from anywhere.
SUB: You just announced that you’ve raised $3.2 million in Seed funding. Why was this a particularly good time to raise funding?
Zimmerman: Front Desk has grown really fast since we launched in beta six months ago, primarily through word-of-mouth. This Seed funding will be an important accelerant and will enable us to continue on our current trajectory.
SUB: How do you plan to use the funds?
Zimmerman: Front Desk expects to use the additional capital to expand product development and marketing, and streamline operations. We’ve also had a lot of early interest from international markets and plan to increase our presence around the globe.
SUB: Do you have plans to seek additional outside funding in the near future?
Zimmerman: We are sufficiently funded in the near term to support our continued growth, and will evaluate capital needs over time.
SUB: What have the most significant challenges been so far to building the company?
Zimmerman: Keeping up with demand. We’re finding that once Front Desk is adopted in a particular vertical—e.g. CrossFit, celebrity personal trainers, Fit4Mom, mountain guides, etc.—word-of-mouth gets out to their colleagues, and we get a slew of phone calls from other business owners who want to sign up or switch over to Front Desk. We’ve been incredibly humbled by this word of mouth, and one challenge has simply been onboarding interested businesses quickly enough.
In addition, we are finding that there are an unending number of ways that we can further help business owners. While all use the core platform of Front Desk to manage client relationships, automate billing, securely process credit cards, schedule classes and appointments, and track attendance, there are features we want to add for the different types of business to make the product even better. We get so many great ideas, we just need to continue to innovate as fast as we can.
SUB: How do you generate revenue or plan to generate revenue?
Zimmerman: Front Desk is priced affordably for small businesses. There is no set-up cost, and monthly fees are based on revenue, so we grow as our clients’ revenue grows. Our revenue comes directly from the monthly fee businesses pay for Front Desk software, which starts as low as $45.
SUB: What are your goals for Front Desk over the next year or so?
Zimmerman: As I noted earlier, a big priority is simply keeping up with demand. Right now we are seeing consistent 30 percent month-over-month growth in clients and revenue, and want to continue on that path. Our goal is to become the most ubiquitous mobile software for the growing personal services economy—both in the U.S. and internationally. We are already well on our way.
Front Desk – www.frontdeskhq.com