Matt Danna is the Co-Founder and CEO of Boulevard, which powers next-gen salons and spas. Its mission is to modernize the technology while improving the daily lives of professionals and the clients they serve.
Chad talks with Matt about discovering a problem and then making the jump to working on it, overcoming hurdles in terms of continued growth, and deciding to invest in building their own hardware by creating Boulevard Duo: a point of sale credit card reader.
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CHAD: This is the Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots Podcast, where we explore the design, development, and business of great products. I'm your host, Chad Pytel. And with me today is Matt Danna, the Co-Founder and CEO of Boulevard, which powers next-gen salons and spas. Matt, thank you so much for joining me.
MATT: Thanks so much for having me, Chad. Great to be here.
CHAD: One of the things that I was interested in learning about Boulevard is it's a large product that does a lot for salons and spas. And so, I'm interested in talking with you about the process of getting to where you are today. But why don't we get started by giving folks an overview of everything that Boulevard does for salons and spas?
MATT: Yeah, absolutely. So Boulevard offers what we think is the first and really only business management platform that's really focused around the client experience. We work with businesses that help all of us look and feel our best. And it's a really special industry to be powering where there's a really close sense of that human touch and that human element. We try to use technology to help automate and relieve the day-to-day operations as much as we can for these businesses so that they can focus on providing that world-class client experience and deepening relationships with their clients.
CHAD: And tactically, that's online booking, scheduling, payments, schedule management, all that kind of stuff that goes into running.
MATT: Yeah, absolutely. So it goes all the way from, like you said, scheduling to we are a fully integrated payments solution to even have time clock kind of commission reporting. And so it really goes from managing everything front of house all the way through back of house. And happy to share more about how we ended up building such a wide and deep product because it's definitely an interesting story.
CHAD: So you were not in the salon industry prior to Boulevard, is that right?
MATT: That's correct.
CHAD: So, how did you end up getting brought into this industry?
MATT: So the founding story...so my background is in software engineering, but I ended up turning much more into a designer over time. So I've been naturally drawn to building technology for creative individuals. And so, at my last startup, which was called Fullscreen, it was a startup here in LA. We were helping YouTube creators make better content online, helping them monetize on YouTube, understand their audience.
And this was in the days where YouTubers couldn't monetize directly. They needed to go through a network. And so, we created this proprietary technology offering that really helped them understand how to build their audience and further monetize.
So the original founding story was that I met my co-founder of Boulevard at Fullscreen. His name is Sean Stavropoulos. And I was the VP of Product. He was the VP of Engineering. And the kind of inception moment was that there was this week where Sean's hair was a complete disaster.
MATT: And as a great colleague, I was making fun of him [laughs] and telling him like, "Dude, you need to go get a haircut." And he said to me that he kept forgetting to call his salon during the day to make an appointment, and at night when he remembered to do those types of things, the salon is obviously closed.
And we were just thinking how much friction there was as a client of these businesses in the booking process and that we didn't understand why you had to do basically so much work in order to be a client. It just was incongruent with what was going on in other industries and kind of restaurants and everything going through this digital transformation.
Our hypothesis was that they must still be on pen and paper; they haven't adopted technology yet, and that's why you need to call to make an appointment. And we started thinking a lot about this problem and started obsessing over it. [laughs] And there was a weekend that we were hanging out, and we ended up walking into a few different salons and spas in a neighborhood that we were hanging out. And we did a bunch of research and asked them a lot of questions. We said we were UCLA students working on a research project.
MATT: Which was a pretty smart move because everyone loves talking to students, and we weren't trying to sell them anything. We were trying to learn more. And so, a good research tip is just to state you're always a student. And we ended up learning. And we were super surprised that they were all using technology. All the technology that these businesses were using were also capable of online booking. And so we were like, "Okay, none of this makes sense. Like, you're making your customers call you, but you have these capabilities."
We were like, "Do you need help embedding it into your website? Like, why don't you use online booking" And their answer would be, "We absolutely cannot use online booking, no way," which made us even more curious. And so what we ended up learning was that self-care businesses, you know, salons, spas, nail salons, you name it, they're generally running on pretty thin profit margins like in the 5% to 10% neighborhood because their labor costs are so high relative to their sales.
And the other important piece that we learned was that the front desk has outsized control over the revenue that the business makes simply by how they place appointments on the calendar. And so when you call to make an appointment, they're looking up to see if you have a client file, to see if you've been there before, what services did you get? Who were they with? How long exactly did they take?
They're also looking to see when they could fit you in. And they're doing double booking, triple booking whenever possible so that staff can be with multiple clients at once and double up. And then they're also making sure there are no gaps between appointments. And so they're doing basically this yield optimization, schedule optimization on the fly. And none of that was taken into account if customers self-booked using any of the solutions available on the market.
And so we thought that seems like a straight-up technology problem to solve that these businesses needed an online booking solution so customers can have that convenience and self-booking whenever they want. But it also needs to take into account some of that business logic that the front desk follows so that they don't get gaps in the day and have a really sub-optimal and inefficient calendar. And so that's where we thought we could provide some particular value that would be unique in the industry. And that was what we focused our MVP on, was that very thing, having an intelligent scheduling solution.
CHAD: It seems like it's a pretty big leap for the director of product and director of engineering at a startup to discover a problem like this and then actually make the jump to working on it [laughs] and making it real. Was there something in particular that happened? Why did you do that? [laughs]
MATT: Yeah, I mean, we had a, you know, being executives at the startup and really loving the team, loving what we were doing, our mission. But I think one of the motivators and catalysts was when we were doing this field research. And we ended up going out to a couple of hundred businesses over the course of several weekends to learn even more about this problem area. But one of the things that was so evident and clear was that all of the technology in the market that these customers, these businesses were using, they were negative NPS scores.
They were like, "Oh, we use, you know, X, Y, or Z solution, and we really don't like it. It's so hard to use." You would see the red in their eyes when they would talk about this technology." And we're like, "There's something very powerful here." And we weren't exactly sure at the time was it legacy technology not keeping up with modern needs of these businesses and the growing expectations from end consumers, or was it user error problems?
And we had come to the conclusion that it was really a lack of innovation in the market from existing vendors. And that got us particularly excited, and we formed a lot of conviction, so much conviction that we made the leap to start working on this. So we transitioned out of our full-time executive day jobs, and we ended up doing a little bit of consulting work while we were doing a lot of product discovery.
So for about six months, we were doing three days a week on Boulevard and a couple of days a week on consulting. So it was a nice little part-time way to keep paying the bills but also then be able to spend a significant amount of our brain space thinking about this opportunity and what problems we wanted to solve.
CHAD: So maybe I'm just off base here. And I'm not trying to get you to say that something was wrong at Fullscreen. But it strikes me there needed to be something going on, in my mind, maybe I'm off base, for you to even before deciding to make that leap, though, to spend your weekends going to salons and doing interviews.
MATT: Yeah, I think this is how most companies are started is by founders who are trying to solve a problem that they're exposed to. So everyone is always trying to build companies that are solutions for problems that they have. And we just, I think, got excited by this problem. And my background being in building technology for the creative individuals, like, I got really, really excited. And Sean took some convincing that this was worth it and that this could be a thing.
CHAD: Was it an aspiration for you to find something that you could use to found your own company?
MATT: No, no.
CHAD: And then why were you doing it? [laughs]
MATT: I think it felt like the right thing to do. I never considered myself an entrepreneur, and I really still don't. I think of myself as a builder, and I love building things. And this was in a way for us to think about, like, oh, let's build a company and turn this into a massive business. We saw that there was a particular pain point that was experienced from both consumers and businesses and that we could provide something special. It felt like it was something that only we saw, which I think made it feel even more compelling to work on.
And so we didn't know if we were crazy at first. We always had this question of like, why hasn't anyone figured this out? This seems so obvious. I still don't know why we're the only ones that have any type of kind of logic on top of the schedule in that sense. But we saw it as a unique opportunity to build something really special and provide a lot of value to consumers and businesses.
CHAD: Well, that's super interesting. So once you decided and you started working on Boulevard, how did you decide what to focus on first? And how did you set your market for what the first version was going to be or a target for what the first version was going to be?
MATT: So, we focused on the businesses that had a front desk. So those are generally the ones that really struggled with getting the most out of every minute possible in the day. And so we focused on what were typically mid to upper market single locations to start, and we got introduced to a salon owner through a mutual friend. They were based in New York, and it was just a two-person salon. And so, we built our MVP to be able to support their day-to-day functions.
And they were using some other system, so we kind of had to get to a place where there was general feature parity to support them. So we built up the features that we needed, and then we launched them, transitioned them off their previous solution. And then we did all this in person and then hung out with them for about a week or two after to babysit the system, make sure there weren't problems. We were iterating in real-time. Sean and I were releasing code. And from there, we got an intro to our second customer through another mutual friend.
CHAD: How long did it take you from when you started to when it was live in that first salon?
MATT: It took about nine months.
CHAD: And were you self-funding that based on the consulting that you mentioned?
MATT: Yeah, self-funding. And then, after we launched with the first business, Sean and I actually both liquidated our 401Ks. And we didn't have the time to continue to consult. So we bootstrapped the company and put our life savings into it once we had traction from our first couple of customers. And that's when we started to hire our first employees to help us continue to accelerate development and that kind of thing.
CHAD: So again, liquidating your 401k is a pretty big step.
CHAD: Did you try to do external fundraising before doing that?
MATT: No. At that point, not yet. We wanted to really validate the concept on our own dime. And then, when we had paying customers and a decent customer base, we did a friends and family round. And then, once we achieved a certain milestone, we joined an accelerator, which is based in Los Angeles called Luma Launch. And we were part of that accelerator for about six months.
And then we raised our series seed following that. We went from liquidating our savings, living like college students, ramen noodle budget-type to once we felt good about the value we were providing, had the case studies and the customer feedback, and had a pretty awesome MVP to show to investors; that's when we decided to fundraise.
CHAD: How nervous were the two of you?
MATT: Very nervous. [laughter] I mean, it's one of those both of us come from really, really humble families, and there was no safety net. And so we were all in. And I think often from when there's a lot of constraints; you have to find creativity. We were all in. We were working all the time on this, really gave it everything we had. And in hindsight, it was a good decision. But it could have easily been a terrible decision. [laughs]
CHAD: I mean, this is one of the things with founding stories is we talk to the people who are successful. [laughs] So, would you recommend this path to other people?
MATT: I think if it's something where you could see providing unique value to the world and that you have lots of validation from real people, not just your friends but from prospective customers...it was when we were talking to real businesses where they would say, "This is something we would use and pay for." And so, after hearing that dozens and dozens of times, that matched with the negative NPS scores with their current solutions.
That's where we were like, "This can be something pretty special." So I wouldn't recommend building in isolation and making that leap of faith without really doing your diligence on the opportunity. But yeah, I think everyone, at some point, if they have an idea or a problem they want to solve, should give it a go.
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CHAD: That first customer that you were building the replacement for, were you charging them?
MATT: No, we were not.
CHAD: Are they paying now?
MATT: They are, they are, very little.
CHAD: Okay. [chuckles]
MATT: They're a small business and have been staying super successful. And so, in the earliest days, the learnings and feedback matter a lot more than revenue, and so you optimize for that as opposed to the economics. And so for us going and working on location at these businesses and they're paying us essentially in the learnings and teachings of helping us understand and absorb ourselves in this industry, and working as front desk and doing the jobs that all these professionals have to do. And so that's where we were able to build and get to a place where our product is really, really authentic. And it was from that first direct observation.
CHAD: I've worked on products before where they're currently being done by people. They might have technology solutions in place, and they feel like there's no technology that will do this; we need to have a person being the one to do it. Because like you said, there's something special about a person doing it. And so sometimes those businesses, when they have a solution, even if they've properly solved it, there's a lot of resistance from customers who are very skeptical that the technology is going to be able to do it the right way. Have you encountered that?
CHAD: How do you combat that?
MATT: We iterated on, essentially, the objections. So the first objection was that "People can't book online because it's going to mess up my day." And so we created this what we call precision scheduling, where it does the optimization on the calendar.
And then the next issue was that we started seeing some no-shows coming because I think there's this mental analog of if you miss an OpenTable reservation not as big of a deal. But in our industry that we're serving, if you miss a two-hour appointment, that professional is out a significant amount of their income for the week. And so that's where we actually started dipping our toes in payments, and we started requiring a credit card at the time of booking just to authorize the card and to hold the appointment. And so that objection of no shows we solved there.
There was a lot of concern of like, "Hey, our customers are not going to know the right thing to book." And we have learned that customers actually are very savvy and that the clients deserve more credit than the professionals are giving them that if a woman gets a balayage, she knows it's a balayage. And so, usually, the way that we overcame that objection was we'd work with them and have best practices on menu design. But that they also then, when they're giving a service that they discuss what they actually did in that service so that the customer knows what to book next time if they want the same thing.
And so that was kind of the pattern is like, build something, learn, iterate, and do it on location with these businesses so that we could see it firsthand in an unbiased way. And so that's really how we were able to build such a product with this amount of scale and overcome some of those initial objections.
CHAD: Is it easier now that you have 2000-plus customers, some social capital out there? They can ask other people, "Is this working for you?" Is that easier now?
MATT: Absolutely. Absolutely. One of the ways...we didn't have a sales team for a long time in our company, and we were actually under the radar. We were stealth, didn't announce anything about ourselves for the first three or four years. And so we were just very much focused on product development and building something that was incredible. And then we were really fed off of referrals and that word of mouth. So it's I think when you get a product that people love, they're going to tell their friends about it. And for us, that really helped accelerate our growth.
CHAD: So yeah, so this was all taking place in what year?
MATT: So we transitioned out of our last company and started doing part-time work in summer of 2015. And then, we officially launched our first customer in spring of 2016.
CHAD: Cool. And I think that that is, you know, you didn't get to 2,000 customers overnight, right? You've been at this for a while.
MATT: Yeah, the barrier to entry is very high in the market, and VCs called our type of opportunity a brownfield opportunity where there are a lot of legacy solutions in the market. And we compete with some companies that were actually started before I was born.
MATT: And so they've had many decades to build functionality into their platform that we need to get to some level of feature parity with in order to seamlessly transition them off of their previous solution to our platform. And it did take a significant upfront investment with product in order to get to be able to pay the price of admission and to be able to actually compete in the market.
CHAD: So one of the things I'm curious about is, do you have a sense of what does the overall market looks like? I feel like there are probably lots of salons, spas, haircutting places. There are a lot of them all over the world.
MATT: There are, yeah. So we believe that there are about 500,000 self-care businesses in the United States.
CHAD: Just in the United States.
MATT: Yeah, just in the United States. And the employee base in the labor market is about two to two and a half million professionals across all those businesses.
CHAD: So, where do you think the hurdles in terms of continued growth are for you?
MATT: So one of the areas that we focus on is...so all of these self-care businesses are about 90% similar in how they operate. And so we started in the hair salon vertical and then have expanded into many adjacent verticals over the course of the past few years. We really tried to make sure that we had really, really strong product-market fit in the hair salons, which is the biggest self-care market, and before we expanded into, say, nail salons.
When expanding into adjacent verticals, there's some functionality that is unique to those verticals. And so, for example, one of our recent verticals that we expanded into is med spas. And the way that med spas charge for their services is generally based on the products that are used, and so if you buy 100 units of Botox, they charge a per-unit fee. And so that was something that was pretty unique to the medspa market that doesn't exist in other self-care markets.
And so vertical expansion is a vector of growth for us and then segment expansion. So we started with the single location, very small businesses. And then we have worked our way up to enterprise where we're powering chains and franchises of hundreds of locations. And then the other aspects kind of the third vector of growth is the different product sets and functionality that we are releasing to our customers. So continuing to develop the platform but also look at different opportunities where we can provide outsized value by developing it ourselves.
CHAD: So we could literally talk all day, and I could talk to you about scaling and product and everything. But one thing I'm interested in before we wrap up is I think it's really special to found a company with a designer, a product person, and an engineer. And I can tell even just by looking at the site and the product that you very highly value design and creating a product that people love to use.
CHAD: How does that lead you to creating Duo, which is a point of sale card reader?
MATT: One of the things that we saw in the market was this real importance in service design so what information is showing when to the users of our technology. So there's that aspect of what's the overall experience? Then there's the product design; how easy is it to use? And how quickly can new employees, new front desk staff, how quickly can they get ramped up and start using the system? Do they need two weeks of training? And for us, we try to make it as intuitive and as familiar as possible.
And then we look to see how else can we extend design? And one of the complaints that we always received from customers was that hardware options were always pretty ugly, that all of them look dated like the kind of hardware that you use at a supermarket. And they wanted something that was more sleek and that they weren't ashamed to have on their countertop for checkout.
And so that's where we decided to invest in building our own hardware. And that was particularly exciting for us. So it's been really, really well-received from our customers. And it was a really fun project to work on. Getting into the hardware space is always challenging. But as a designer, it was super cool to build something that became physical for the first time in my life.
CHAD: Does the logic that led to you creating Duo eventually lead you to creating an entire hardware point of sale system?
MATT: We're assessing all opportunities. There's this interesting moment happening in the payments space where like Apple, you know, announced that I think they're piloting now that you won't need hardware in order to accept credit card payments on the iPhone.
CHAD: You'll just be able to do it right against an iPad.
MATT: Exactly. So I think there's a real question as to what is the...and I'm sure this is something that folks like Square are thinking about, that have really best in class hardware is like what does the future of hardware look for fintech companies? And is it just going to fold into the actual devices, or will you continue to need standalone readers? That's something that we're constantly thinking about and keeping smart on the latest developments in that.
But our expertise and what we love is building incredible software. Hardware was that area that we saw that we could provide unique value, but our goal is to always be a software company. You generally don't make much money off of the hardware piece in this business.
CHAD: Now, how personally involved were you in the hardware project?
MATT: I was very involved, potentially too involved. [laughs]
CHAD: As a founder, when new projects come up like this that maybe you're interested in, how do you either hold yourself back or not hold yourself back from being involved in them?
MATT: I think when the company is venturing into new territory, entirely new like uncharted waters, that's when it's valuable for me or any founder to get really, really smart on what's the opportunity, what's the risks, all that kind of stuff. In this case, my experience working at our initial customers for the first couple of years of our business was really, really impactful.
And so our Duo captures...and the reason why it's called Duo is because it's a countertop, but also you can take the top off, and you can do an in chair checkout. So you could bring it over to the customer, and they can check out right while they're in the chair as an express checkout. And so those types of things I learned while being on location working at these businesses. And so I was providing a lot of the guidance and conceptualizing how we could think about what the hardware offering would be that would be unique to us, and collaborated with our head of design and then an industrial designer to get the proof of concept there.
CHAD: And you said, "Potentially too involved," so why did you say that? [laughs]
MATT: I think as a founder, you are always trying to figure out what altitude are you flying at. And there are some things that you will need to dive in and be very hands-on. And then there are other times just to guide and support and coach. And I think for this because it was a new project, I was particularly excited to be able to get into hardware because that was a first for me that I was involved in all aspects of it. But it was a lot of fun.
CHAD: Awesome. Well, Matt, thank you so much for stopping by and sharing with us. I really appreciate it. I'm sure the listeners do too. If folks want to find out more about Boulevard, about joining the team, about becoming a customer, or just to get in touch with you, where are all the different places that they can do that?
MATT: Yeah, absolutely. I think the best place is just on our website. We are hiring across all levels and all functions, especially on the product design and engineering side. And so our website is joinblvd.com, J-O-I-N-B-L-V-D.com. There's the about page, and it links out to my LinkedIn. So if anyone wants to connect and get acquainted, that's probably the easiest way to do it.
CHAD: Awesome. Well, thanks again for joining me. I really appreciate it.
MATT: Yeah, thanks so much. This was a pleasure.
CHAD: You can subscribe to the show and find notes along with links for everything that Matt just mentioned and including a complete transcript of the episode at giantrobots.fm. If you have questions or comments, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can find me on Twitter at @cpytel.
This podcast is brought to you by thoughtbot and produced and edited by Mandy Moore. Thanks for listening, and I'll see you next time.
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