“Hi, My Name is Zerista and I’d like to blow a golden opportunity”

I spent much of the past week at the excellent Defrag Conference. I honestly don’t know another conference where you’ll find meaningful discussion of traveling to space, solving big data problems and why rooms in Vegas have mirrors on the ceiling (Esther Dyson, Jeff Jonas and Jeff Ma respectively).

The conference is attended by some very smart and influential people (present company excluded), from senior execs to talented developers, press and VCs.

Defrag is organized by the talented Eric Norlin and his equally talented wife Kim. Eric gets startups and every year I’ve attended Defrag (3 now) he does one thing that I think is great: he gives a startup a shot at the brass ring.

How to connect with people at a conference when you don’t know them but have common interests is a poorly solved problem. This year, Eric gave Zerista a shot at solving it.

And boy, did they suck. There’s a big suck and then a bunch of smaller quibbly sucks that you could argue may just be me. But the big one is a doozy.

I arrived in Denver on Tuesday night (November 16th) and got an email asking me to sign up for Zerista:

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So I signed up and started creating my profile. When I tried to add a photo, the system belched. I tried a few more times and got nowhere. I’m running a Mac and Chrome browser. Its not exactly an unusual combination but I have seen problems on some sites, so I fired up Firefox. Different error message but the same end result: no ability to upload a photo. On a scale of 1 to 10, being able to have an easy way to recognize someone you’ve never met (like a photo) ranks at least a 12, so I was keen to solve this.

Investigative hat on, I took a look at the Zerista site and they mention that “Zerista Pro is a Mobile and Desktop Event Planner that turns your event into an interactive mobile experience for all stakeholders”.

Aha! Perhaps I can use their mobile app.

Err no. Neither my Nexus One nor my Galaxy tablet can see anything other than a hobbled mobile UI that doesn’t let you edit information at all.

But it’s not as though attendees at Defrag would have smartphones and want to edit things from them

<sigh>

But then another idea hits me. This is a startup. This conference is a big deal for them. They are probably all working 24/7. Yes, it’s 11pm at night (Colorado time) but why not send an email to their support team! I’d never bother with a mainstream product because we all know how that works out, but good startups (and Eric knows what those look like) are all over customer support.

So I did. Short and simple as you see below. I used to run a Customer Support department, so I tried to provide at least a minimum amount of useful information and a clear subject.

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After sending that, I went to bed. Defrag started at 8am on the 17th and I was on East Coast time, so I was up early.

I checked my email, but there was no response. Not even an autoresponder saying “We got your email”.

Hmm.

The 17th came and went. I checked the mobile app a few times, but it seemed no one was really using it and the vast majority of attendees didn’t have a completed profile or profile picture. The 18th came and went too. Defrag is only a two day conference, so by 5pm or so on the 18th it was over.

Still no email.

I got up early on Friday, 11/19, to take my flight home. Still no email.

Caught up with my email late last night when I finally got home.

Still nothing.

This morning (Saturday) I got up late to see not one but two emails:

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Uhhh, what? I already registered. I logged in several times during the conference. Why are you sending me this now? As I look at this more closely, it seems Redmine is perhaps their support ticket system, so this is perhaps a login for problem tracking, not my account login?

Way to go, clarity.

This email was followed by an even more splendid one:

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So yes, I got a message that simply regurgitated the email I had sent 3+ days earlier. You’ll also see the heartwarming “NON BILLABLE” notice in the subject line.

Now I already had the impression that they didn’t give a shit about my business, but at least now I know it’s because I’ve been identified as some kind of freeloader by their system.

You’ll also see that it shows the issue as “New”, which after 3+ days I would argue with, and the priority as “Normal”. Since the conference ended two days ago, I’d recommend they change that to “Low”, or “Ooops”, or “My Bad”.

Seriously? WTF! I couldn’t help but respond, since no-one else seems to be updating my case:

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Let me be clear: this is in no way a criticism of Eric. This is 100% a criticism of Zerista and their management team.

If you can’t handle simple tasks like responding to urgent support emails, you don’t deserve anyone’s business, let alone mine.

1 comment for ““Hi, My Name is Zerista and I’d like to blow a golden opportunity”

  1. November 20, 2010 at 11:38 pm

    Nick,

    I'm sorry that Zerista didn't give you a good experience, although I'm thankful that you've laid the blame on product execution rather than the product category. There's something like 14 competitors in this space now, and generally the feedback we hear on all of them is that when they work, they make a very big difference in the social experience for attendees.

    I have a company in this space, CrowdVine. We were the first to launch and have the most conferences under our belt. I like to think we're the best, but I just mention those two brags as evidence that I've spent a lot of time thinking about and testing ideas in this space.

    One thing I've seen this year is the venture backed companies in this space struggling. EventVue, who Defrag used last year, pivoted twice before running out of funding. Zerista launched a "mobile Ning" at DEMO and then really deemphasized their conference product. Others have started to lay off sales. In comparison, the boot-strapped (i.e. real business) companies are doing extremely well this year.

    I think there's two reasons. One, while the event industry is huge, it's also extremely fragmented and slow to adopt. Conceivably, a good sales and marketing team could brute force adoption. However, this is reason number two, we launched first and set the price point too low to support sales (a rule of thumb that products that require sales cycles should be priced above $15k). There was a company called SpotMe that used to give everyone blackberry like devices for networking and charge $50-100k. That's not possible anymore.

    Anyway, Defrag seems committed to trying solutions in this space. Hopefully, they'll have a better one next year.

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