Dave Cayem spent 15 years at Delphi Forums, surviving multiple acquisitions and eventually leaving as vice president and chief community officer, before moving on to senior community and customer service roles at CustomMade and Booster. Dave shares stories from his time at Delphi Forums, plus:
- Introducing a freemium model when people are already used to free
- How Dave addressed a community that was “not too pleased” when he joined CustomMade
- The similarities between community and customer service that he didn’t fully appreciate until switching from one to the other
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“One of the features [we tried, when adding a paid membership level at Delphi Forums, was that you could] create a forum that only [premium] members can participate in, so you’re not going to have to worry about flame wars and trolls coming in. It’s going to be a clean, well-lighted, gated community, and we’re going to keep the rest locked out. That didn’t take off at all. Nobody was interested in that. Being able to have an elaborate signature or the kind of things that allowed you to express yourself, those are the things that really took off.” -@davecayem
“[When I joined CustomMade,] there was no code of conduct, in terms of how to act on the platform. Rather than send them down from the mountain top, I created a process where the makers themselves created those rules. There were some emails. There were some surveys. Some of the more experienced makers, I spoke with them on the phone personally. We basically got feedback on what we thought should be part of that code of conduct. It came from them, not from us.” -@davecayem
About Dave Cayem
Dave Cayem has worked in tech startups for more than 15 years, most of that time working with online communities. Until 2013, he was running day-to-day operations for Delphi Forums, which is a network of member-created, member-managed enthusiast communities. Dave’s responsibilities included everything from product roadmap to revenue to resolving disputes. He left Delphi Forums to become director of community and support at CustomMade, which connects consumers looking for custom made goods with the craftspeople that can make those things. There, he managed the community of makers and ran the customer service operation. Dave later joined Booster, which is a crowdfunding site, managing the team that helped the community of fundraisers get the most out of the platform.
- Sponsor: Higher Logic, the community platform for community managers
- Dave’s website
- Delphi Forums, where Dave spent 15 years, leaving as vice president and chief community officer
- Wikipedia page for Delphi, the online service that, in its earliest form, was founded in 1981
- CustomMade, a market place for custom made goods, where Dave was director of customer engagement and community
- Custom Ink Fundraising, previously Booster, was Dave was senior director of customer operations
- “Patrick O’Keefe On His Book ‘Monetizing Online Forums'” by Dave, that Patrick forgot when considering whether or not he had spoken to Dave before, vocally
- “Monetizing Online Forums,” a free ebook by Patrick
- Steve Case, co-founder of AOL
- “News Corp. Buys Online Network” by Lawrence M. Fisher for The Ne wYork Times, about News Corp.’s purchase of Delphi
- Lycos, Alta Vista and HotBot, early search engines
- “Delphi Forums Timeline,” a timeline of Delphi Forums’ acquisition history
- Community Signal episode with Steve Brock, who worked at Prospero Technologies while the company owned Delphi Forums
- Mzinga, former owner of Delphi Forums
- “Delphi and Prospero Acquired by Mzinga” (press release)
- “New Ownership,” a forum post at DelphiForums, announcing that Dan Bruns, former Delphi executive, had acquired the company
- Discourse, an open source community platform
- XenForo, a community platform
- ProBoards, a long-running forum hosting service
- Wikipedia page for Usenet, a worldwide distributed discussion system
- “Community Preserved, Lessons Learned” by Dave, about removing a forum administrator from their forum, during his time at Delphi Forums
- phpBB, an open source community platform
- Zendesk, a customer service software provider
- Help Scout, a customer service software provider
[00:00:04] Voiceover: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Higher Logic, the community platform for community managers. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[00:00:24] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello. Thank you for listening to Community Signal. Dave Cayem, who spent 15 years at long running community platform Delphi Forums, is my guest on this episode where we discuss corporate changes, moving from an ad supported model to a freemium model and making the switch from community to customer support. If you enjoy Community Signal we would be grateful for your support on Patreon at communitysignal.com/innercircle. Special thanks to Rachel Medanic, Joseph Ranallo and Serena Snoad for their belief in the program.
Dave Cayem has worked in tech startups for more than 15 years. Most of that time working with online communities. Until 2013, he was running day-to-day operations for Delphi Forums which is network of member created, member managed, enthusiast communities. Dave’s responsibilities included everything from product road map, to revenue, to resolving disputes. He left Delphi Forums to become director of community and support at CustomMade which connects consumers looking for custom made goods with the crafts people that can make those things.
There he managed a community of makers and ran the customer service operation. Dave later joined Booster which is a crowd funding site. Managing the team that helped the community of fundraisers get the most out of the platform. Dave, welcome to the program.
[00:01:28] Dave Cayem: Thank you for having me.
[00:01:29] Patrick O’Keefe: One of the things I love about this show is that it has given me a reason to talk to people I guess verbally, vocally that I’ve known for a while. That I’ve talked to via email, texts, blog posts, blog post round ups which you’ve done a lot of over the years. Then actually hear their voice and talk like this. I really appreciate the opportunity.
[00:01:48] Dave Cayem: Well you might not remember but you and I have spoken on the phone before. I interviewed you for my blog. If you recall, the recording didn’t record the first time and I had to interview you a second time.
[00:01:59] Patrick O’Keefe: You’re shaming me right now.
[00:02:01] Dave Cayem: About one of your e-books. I think it was Monetizing Online Forums. Does that sound right?
[00:02:06] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes.
[00:02:06] Dave Cayem: Hopefully you’ll do better than I did.
[00:02:08] Patrick O’Keefe: Oh man. You’re totally shaming me. I do remember that now that you mention it. Thanks for having me on your blog. Thanks for all the trackbacks over the years and for all the blog round up mentions.
[00:02:16] Dave Cayem: I’m glad we could circle back around and do this.
[00:02:19] Patrick O’Keefe: You got your start in community at what was then called Delphi Forums in 1999. Delphi Forums is and has been for a long time a provider of online forums where people sign up, and create a forum and have it hosted for free or pay extra for premium features. But, when you joined them they were still at least partially operating as a text based online service, right?
[00:02:40] Dave Cayem: That’s right. The text based service was still operational. I would use it to check email, sometimes. There was kind of a crowd that was still clinging on to that service. For a little history for those who don’t know, Delphi started out as one of the early, early online services. In fact Steve Case of AOL consulted Dan Bruns who was my former boss at Delphi Forums, so the story goes, to understand billing and operations and stuff with him. Then Delphi was acquired by Rupert Murdoch.
I don’t remember whether it was News Corp or FOX, but basically long story short, the online service never got a chance to go graphical before AOL and others stepped in with graphical user interfaces they were more user friendly. Took that business, left Delphi too small to continue as an online service with the business they were getting in. That online service did still exist when I had joined by the company was already in the process of making the transition to the web. The one thing the online service that everybody agreed was valuable with all these communities that it developed. The idea was to take the communities, import them over to a web based service.
[00:03:44] Patrick O’Keefe: Now were you a Delphi customer or community user prior to joining them?
[00:03:48] Dave Cayem: No. What happened was I was actually at another company where I had worked with somebody who eventually went on to work at Delphi. I asked him for a reference for a job at — I’m dating myself here, but remember Lycos?
[00:04:01] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes. Definitely the black dog right? The black lab.
[00:04:04] Dave Cayem: The dog. They were in the Boston area. I didn’t think I had the offer at that point. I said to this guy, “I’d worked with who is now at Delphi. Do you think you could give me a reference?” He said, “I didn’t know you were looking for a job. What about here?” I interviewed with them and found that to be much more interesting opportunity. Then, told Lycos thanks but no thanks. Ended up going to Delphi.
[00:04:28] Dave Cayem: Right. Alta Vista, the interesting thing. The woman that had run Alta Vista ended up coming and working with individual and the news companies I had worked for later on but that’s another story.
[00:04:39] Patrick O’Keefe: Back when we had multiple search options. Multiple seemingly legitimate search options that maybe weren’t all that great but they were equally not great for the most part until someone stepped up and sort of crushed everybody.
[00:04:50] Dave Cayem: Well also, Google figured out how to make money from it more than any other search. There were more the content portal model, right? That’s another interesting conversation but probably not the topic we’re going to talk about today
[00:05:00] Patrick O’Keefe: Delphi now, you kind of talked about some of the acquisitions that went on before you got there but you were at that company for a long time in one form or another; 15 years. During that time the company went through mergers, acquisitions, reacquisitions, and I sat and looked at the timeline and it’s actually pretty incredible. I wanted to ask you if you can even remember all of them to kind of walk through. I guess what those changes meant for you and your role being responsible for the community and for moderation and for interacting with the community owners. How did that impact your work from when you arrived to when you left?
[00:05:35] Dave Cayem: The biggest impact was that when I joined, Delphi Forums was Delphi Forums. That was the business. Is this consumer-focused thing where people came on and used it and that by the time I left, it was a small part of a much larger company. Basically, I was running it myself or I and Dan Bruns were running it ourselves. That was the biggest change. When I go there like I said, they were phasing out the old text service. They’d already lost at that point the web service and I was brought in as, I forget the exact title.
Something like editorial producer or something like that. The idea was that I had some online experience and I had a background in radio because my first career was in radio news. And the analogy was being made between talk radio and the forums. They saw that there is a match there and I was brought in for those talents. Again, I wasn’t running anything when I joined. I was a member of the team and then the first change that happened was that enterprises approached Delphi and said, “Hey, that’s pretty cool, can you build that platform for us?”
That became a bigger, bigger part of the business where various media companies would come and say we need an online community for our TV show or a magazine or a newspaper or whatever. Can we do that on your platform? The proprietary platform that is been used for those communities that have been imported over from the online service. That software was now being used to support other white labeled communities as well. That became a bigger and bigger, bigger part of the business and eventually became a majority of the business, was this outsourced community hosting thing.
Delphi eventually became the consumer-focused proprietary community platform. Became the smaller part of the business and eventually, I was running that part of the business. Then as the acquisitions and things continued, it became a smaller and smaller part of a bigger and bigger company until at the end, Dan Bruns bought it out and then was running it independently with some help from me.
[00:07:24] Patrick O’Keefe: Ironically, when you look at that timeline, you mention the changes to enterprise, but it seems like what’s really left is the Delphi Forums, is the communities of people have been building, sort of the enduring product and the enduring legacy of Delphi.
[00:07:39] Dave Cayem: Yes, absolutely. I mean it’s what comes around goes around. This company started with, “We’re going to take these communities and put them on the web,” and then what’s there now, you’ve got Delphi Forums. Delphi Forums are still going strong and it’s the same idea. You’re absolutely right, it’s gone back to the future, I guess.
[00:07:53] Patrick O’Keefe: You highlighted a couple of things but I just wanted to walk this timeline myself and just to explain to people how much happened in that time you were there. What I found is in looking — and what I love about forums and what I love about this is that I found this timeline on Delphi Forums. It’s an old post from 2000 and something that someone has updated and kept updated, that remains. It’s online so people can look it up and see “Okay, these things happened,” and it’s got it’s sources, and it links to press releases and it’s got the timeline of Delphi on delphiforums.com.
So much data goes away, communities close, companies make bad choices and remove communities and meaningful communities from the internet and UGC from the internet. For the most part, the content you would post on forums does stay online. We can read it and learn from it and look back at it, which is always fun. What I found was: 2000, WellEngaged and Delphi Forums merged to form Prospero Technologies and that name’s familiar because I had Steve Brock on the show once upon a time.
2001, a rather notorious businessman named Rob Brazell buys Delphi Forums and merges it with eHow and Idea Exchange to form Blue Frogg Enterprises and sells Prospero to Inforonics. 2002, Prospero reacquires Delphi Forums and combines it with Talk City, another legendary early community name as far as the public consumer internet. 2008, Mzinga acquires Prospero including Delphi Forums and Talk City. 2011, Mzinga sells Delphi Forums and Talk City, as you said, to Dan Bruns who was a Mzinga VP and former Delphi executive.
There’s just so much change in that period of time, but the communities are still there, they’re still enduring. I asked you about how it impacted your work. How do you think it impacted the communities? And you were involved long enough where you could see that gestation period, if you will, of how mergers and acquisitions and shifting of resources from and to and back and forth impacts communities. What was the impact like on the communities themselves?
[00:09:45] Dave Cayem: Well, I think that the biggest impact was the resources that were available. Like I said, during the company, that was the business. You had a team of developers, that’s all they worked on. Then Delphi became a smaller and smaller piece of a bigger and bigger company, as is true in any scenario like that. It’s kind of harder and harder to get resources so there were no dedicated engineers. There is a portion of dedicated engineers, sometimes they’re contract engineers and there are less and less resources. A lot of it was DIY where we had to figure things out ourselves and do things ourselves.
In a more traditional organization, you’d have people who would be handling those pieces. A lot of it was making do with what you got but I think in terms of the communities themselves and the participants of the communities in those communities, there’s a lot of cynicism in those groups. Because you’d have people that had been with Delphi since the text days and they would see the various comings and goings of the company. The chicken little crowd would say, “All right this is it Delphi’s closing”.
It happened like more times than I care to admit where they’d be a group of people — You’ve seen this I’m sure. Rumors get started in online communities and it’s in writing so it must be true. Things can get out of hand and people were, “This is it. Delphi going to shut down. You better get your data, they’re going to shut down next week.” People would insist they knew what was happening. This happened at least a dozen times where there would be somebody who said they had inside information and Delphi was going to be shutting down and try to warn everybody.
Everybody believed them, well not everybody literally, but a lot of people believed them and of course, to this day the forums are still there. Then there’s other groups of people who didn’t care, all they cared about was their community or their forum within Delphi and all this other stuff was just background. They didn’t care. They just wanted to interact with the people they wanted to interact with and discuss the things they wanted to discuss.
It was an interesting dichotomy, there are people that would be in our face all the time with, “How can you do this, or how dare you do this, or don’t you realize that’s going to ruin the company?” Then other people who were like, “Who are you people? Who is Delphi? I just know my forum.” There’s a lot of that.
[00:11:42] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, it’s one of those things where something can seem like such a catastrophic problem because there are people who care so much but when you step back and look at the larger picture, really most people don’t care about a lot of things that go on in the world. There’s always a percentage of people who care and that’s not to say those people don’t matter. Sometimes they matter a whole lot. Sometimes they might be the backbone of the business, but it’s a funny point.
[00:12:05] Dave Cayem: Then there is this group of people we start calling the usual suspects. We did our customer service, and still to this day I presume, they still do customer service through the forums so that there’s these forums where these long-time members would be and there are a lot of people that — Everything we’re doing was bad. They knew our business better than us and there was to be things that we really needed to be doing and it was quite obvious to anyone who was looking at it that we need to be doing it. How come we’re not doing it?
Of course, they didn’t know anything because they didn’t know the inside workings of either the company or the business or the technology. They would say they’re basically doomsday sayers but they would be there for 15, 20 or longer years after saying that we’re killing the company. They’d stick around because I guess they wanted to be there to tell us what a lousy job we were doing, but you’re right. There’s a lot of people that as long as the forums were there, “We don’t really care about all this other stuff. We just want to connect with other people.” Those are your best users.
[00:12:54] Patrick O’Keefe: We talk about history of community type stuff and where we are at right now, which is a mix of platforms. You have enterprise, super expensive platforms. You have that open source or lower budget applications, either free or low cost. Things like Discourse, XenForum, etc. and obviously, this cloud movement that has — It’s not a new thing but in community software, it’s part of the product offering.
When you think about things like Delphi Forums or ProBoards even or some other ones that had this large swath of online communities, where back when software was either difficult or expensive to host. Platforms like this powered a substantial portion of online communities and really they’re the early, I don’t if earliest or early, cloud community hosting companies, right?
[00:13:48] Dave Cayem: Right. Well, unless you count Usenet as a cloud-hosted community. Yes, that’s absolutely true and the interesting part of that was that, you’re absolutely right, today, there’s lots of free versions and lots of free and you get any even low cost $5 a month PHP LAMP web hosting, it comes with a ready to go software package it’ll handle forums. Obviously, that didn’t exist when Delphi Forums is starting out. You needed a company or you needed a service to handle that.
That went away pretty quickly and then we actually lost some forums because there was somebody that’s technically inclined and then they thought they’d do the forum on their own web host. Those people did do that and migrated and never came back. A fair number did come back, because they realized that it’s not that easy and that there are other things that go into making sure the forums run well and making sure that the data is backed up and all that they were getting from the DIY solution. There’s a mix of both.
[00:14:38] Patrick O’Keefe: Let’s take a moment to talk about our great sponsor Higher Logic.
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Speaking of shifting models during your time at Delphi, you spearheaded the service’s move from being strictly ad-supported. which as someone who ran websites in the early 2000s and mid 2000s, used to be a much better business for a lot of people, into a freemium model. What did you take away from that experience?
[00:15:32] Dave Cayem: A little bit of history and background of that, that’s actually right. When I joined the company, it was an ad-supported model and like many web properties at that time people realized that that’s not a viable business. There was a lot of talk about, “We have to charge people to use this service or we have to charge people to start a forum.” My view was always like, “Those are the people that are creating your content, those are the reasons people come to use Delphi.”
You essentially put up a gate that people have to get out their credit cards to cross, you’re going to essentially be shooting yourself in the foot because it’s going to be harder for that content to be created and for people to get into it and get interested. You don’t come to the gate and say, “You want my money? Here is my money.” You have to come in, you have to kind of, “All right, I see the value in this” and, “Oh, I get what the value is of paying for whatever service.” Then you maybe reluctantly but eventually pull out the credit card and pay for it and that’s your business.
What I proposed and what we eventually implemented was this notion that everything that’s free today will continue to be free. What we’re going to do is we’re going to create new features that we’re going to build for the power users that they will get value from, and we’re going to charge for those things. Nothing that was free when we started became a cost thing. Maybe there are some small things that I — it’s been a while now I don’t recall exactly but by and large the idea was, I think Delphi Plus was stuff that you couldn’t currently do and you paid for that.
There’s that piece of it. The other piece of it was now that we’ve established that what are those features going to be, right? There are some easy ones. No ads, that was an easy one. As we’ve already discussed, the ads weren’t bringing in a ton of money. Losing a few ads where people are going to actually pay us cash out of their pockets was a no-brainer. The rest of it was a little tricky. There are some things that we predicted would be attractive that never took off and there are other things that really did take off.
I think that oversimplification, or a shorthand of it would be the things that allowed people to express their individuality, those are the things that worked. Because as you know in forums people love to have crazy avatars or elaborate signatures or whatever, because it’s a natural human desire to want to set yourself apart or show why you’re different or special. It was those things that were the things that really were attractive. One of the features was that if you are a member of Delphi Plus, you can create a forum that only Delphi Plus members can participate in so you’re not going to have to worry about flame wars and trolls coming in.
It’s going to be a clean, well-lighted, gated community and we’re going to keep the rest locked out. That didn’t take off at all. Nobody was interested in that. The things like being able to have elaborate signature or the different kind of things that allowed you to express yourself, those are the things, or allow you to customize your forum if you’re a forum host, those are the things that really took off.
[00:18:05] Patrick O’Keefe: A few years ago on your blog you shared a story about removing the admin of a more than 15-year-old community and appointing new leadership for that community. Someone made a community and you separated them from it. Now, this might actually be an example of why not to host your community in someone else’s sandbox but I want to hear the story. What happened?
[00:18:24] Dave Cayem: Sure. This actually goes back a way. This forum was a forum that dealt with stamp collecting. The person who ran that forum, who is actually somebody who I knew, I had met him personally and known him. Before I came to Delphi, I’d known of him. Super good guy, smart guy, a lot of working forum knew his stuff. Couldn’t say enough about him. He was approached by an entrepreneur and said, “Hey, take your forum and your members over to my thing and eventually I’ll make it worth your while.” We didn’t learn about this until we started seeing the box scraping all the content.
That obviously drew up red flags for us and we said, “You can’t do that. You can’t take people’s stuff without their permission and you can’t copy the stuff.” Obviously lots of reasons why it’s not good. They were basically trying to steal the forum. I basically had to say to the forum host that, “You can’t do that and if you’re going to facilitate that, you’re violating our terms of service and I’m afraid we’ll have no choice but to lock you out of the forum.” That’s what we did. It was a very hard decision for a lot of reasons. Like I said there was zero personal against this person.
I thought nothing but good things about him. It was business. The friction was with this entrepreneur and with this host of the forum. At that point, we had a decision to make, right? We had this forum and this forum was tons of useful historic information you talked about preserving that delete important data. Do we make it the read only and kill it? Do we close it down? Do we let it keep going? What do we do?
The solution I came up with was stamp collecting is already subcultured. Maybe the wrong word but there’s definitely a community and there are norms in that community and there’s conventions. There is really a culture and kind of expectations around that community. I tried to keep that forum going based on what I was learning about the expectations of that community. One of those expectations was stamp collection pre-internet days. Younger listeners might not understand that but there was a pre-internet. They’d have stamp clubs.
Then you’d actually go to a physical place. There would be a president and a vice president, a secretary and all that. Those stamp clubs still exist today but earlier on that was where everything happened. There were elections. It was a very kind of regimented system of who’s the leader and what they’re expected to do. That’s how I handled this particular forum. Explained to everybody “Look. We never do this but I work at Delphi. I help run the company. Unfortunately we’ve had to take over the forum.”
At that point people of the forum knew what was going on because they had been asked to go to this other forum and so forth. We didn’t like doing it but we did. We want to keep this forum going because we know how important it is to all of you. Essentially we’re going to this like we would do an election for president of the stamp club. We asked people to tell us basically who wanted to run, we held an election. We held what we now call an AMA that you see all the time on Reddit.
It was basically like a public forum where the candidates started a thread, they would answer any questions anybody had. Then, we had an election. People voted for the person that was going to lead the forum. That person became the moderator forum. We handed that person the keys and let them at it. Then, the forum continued to live. In retrospect it worked. To be honest I haven’t been back to that forum in quite some time. I hope it’s still running strong but I’m guessing it is.
[00:21:30] Patrick O’Keefe: You mentioned Reddit, now when you look at that situation is it safe to say that while either you or Delphi Forums corporate, however you want to term that, viewed the Delphi individual communities. People come and create a community more as subreddit’s in a sense than as their own independent communities.
[00:21:49] Dave Cayem: We actually looked at them as their communities. We are very sensitive to and cognizant of the fact that they built those communities up. They quite naturally kind of felt some ownership of them. We stayed out of the way as much as possible. We would never go to a forum and say, “You’ve got to do it this way or that way.” Unless it was something that was — I’m sure you’ve dealt with things like this, if it’s like a threat to somebody’s health or safety or somebody is threatening to do somebody of harm or things like that.
By in large we would stay out of the way because as a practical matter when I was there one of the biggest, if not the biggest forum in Delphi Forums, was a forum about auto racing. It was not a forum about just auto racing, it was a forum about auto racing on dirt tracks in the upper Midwest. That was the biggest forum. Because, that was the place for that little niche audience that was the place to go, was this forum. What do I know about that stuff? I’ve never been to a car race. Let alone, a dirt track car race, let alone one in the upper Midwest.
I don’t know anything about that culture. I’m not going to be useful in that scenario. My job was to make sure that the people that did know that, and the people who had connections in that community, had the best tools, had everything they needed to make the community successful and that we figured out a way to monetize it.
To a great extent we basically let the people that ran those communities, run those communities.
[00:23:02] Patrick O’Keefe: My follow up to that is that clearly this was viewed as a TOS violation more than anything else? A violation of our terms? You can’t scrape the content. Maybe some regard for the copyright of the members in the individual community and their choice of where they want to be. Should Delphi have had an export of data? If that is the case that you’re looking at individual community owner as their community, versus a subreddit in your sandbox so to speak. That’s just not a thing that was done at the time.
It’s really a hindsight thing like ProBoards, you’d be locked into ProBoards. People would try get off ProBoards by scraping it more or less. We’re in a different era now. Obviously data portability is a phrase. It’s a term people have now. I mean I guess looking back, if that’s the view, then ideally you would have a data export, right or not? I mean I understand there’s some kind of corporate consideration. It’s not necessarily your call. Still just as someone who managed communities, we want to take that data with us.
[00:23:52] Dave Cayem: Yes. I think that my answer to that would be there’s a bunch of people that created that content, right? Like if you have a forum you didn’t create all that content yourself, the individuals did. Then if you’re going to take their content and then put it someplace else. They may or may not be okay with then there’s an issue with that. I think the other issue is just a business one. If we’re building this platform and you’re basically saying, “We want you to come and use a platform. You’re going to benefit because you’re going to have this platform. We’re going to benefit because we’re going to monetize it.”
Then, you’re kind of breaking that social contract by saying, “Well, you know what? All that stuff you helped me build, I’m going to take that some place else. You’re not going to benefit from it anymore.” That was a consideration. That’s the way we approached it. I think that, bear in mind this was all done in the dead of night. Nobody had approached us. They were basically like writing scripts to run against our stuff.
It was basically sneaky. Not so sneaky that we couldn’t figure it out but it wasn’t like they were like, “Hey, we want to move this stuff to another platform. Can you help us? What’s the cost to get some professional service.” It was none of that. Obviously the business and technology of today is different. Would it be handled the same way? I can’t say. I think at the time, and given the scenario at the time. I think it was the right decision.
[00:24:58] Patrick O’Keefe: To that point. I assume that you had people who started a community on Delphi who said, “You know what? I don’t want to use Delphi anymore.” They went to another platform but didn’t try to take the content with them. In those cases you didn’t separate them from their communities.
[00:25:10] Dave Cayem: No. I mean we had one our biggest communities was that college in North Carolina, Appalachian State University.
[00:25:15] Patrick O’Keefe: My home state. [laughs]
[00:25:17] Dave Cayem: There you go. Their basically sports boosters forum was on Delphi. It was one of our biggest forums. I think it was our biggest forum for a time. They decided they wanted to go off on their own platform. That was a big blow to us. The people that ran it were very nice people. I said “Look, is there anything we can do?” They were like “Well, no. We kind of have this platform.” I think they used our phpBB or something like that. They went off and did it on their own. Obviously, we can’t control that.
I think the only thing that we tried to do was not let them use Delphi to advertise the fact they were taking all these users away from Delphi. Also bear in mind that the Reddit analogy made, while we kind of viewed it as these individual forums, your Delphi membership can get you at any forum, right? You could register once and then go to any forum with it. There was this kind of notion of cross platform portability. For a lot forums, if the forum you only ever went to was the Appalachian State booster forum, then you didn’t care about that.
You’re just going to create an account some place else. For some forums on Delphi where they were popular with people that would use, go to more than one forum. That was a bigger deal. In those cases, as long as people weren’t like blatantly using our platform to steal people to go someplace else, there wasn’t a whole lot we could do.
[00:26:26] Patrick O’Keefe: After being VP and chief community officer at Delphi Forums, you moved over to CustomMade as director of community and support. In a LinkedIn recommendation that CustomMade co-founder and former CEO Michael Salguero posted, he said that, “Dave joined CustomMade at a time where our maker base was not too pleased with a number of choices we had made. Dave came in and calmed the makers. While forging deep, meaningful relationships with a handful of our top performers.” I’d like to talk to you about that. When you came in what was the source of hostility?
[00:26:55] Dave Cayem: Just a little bit of background. CustomMade, which is still going strong, is a two sided platform market place for people that want, as you might guess by the name, custom made goods, right? If you need a special kind of table made for your living room or whatever or you’re getting married and you want to customize special ring made for your fiance, things like that, we’ll connect with this network of small business. Basically artisans and crafts people. They do those things.
When I was hired, I had two hats. One was running the customer service arm for the consumers but the other one was running this community of these makers, these artisans and craftsman who have incredible skills that I can’t even start to approach with my limited abilities with my hands.
[00:27:36] Patrick O’Keefe: Well you’re a community artisan so let’s not put ourselves down too far here, Dave. [laughs]
[00:27:40] Dave Cayem: That’s kind of like saying I’m a sandwich artist, right? It’s not really a super high level to be at but there was no community platform. The community was basically the people and how we communicated with those people. When I got there one of the things I found was that there was some friction between the people that use the platform, the businesses that use the platform and the company for kind of the way that the company approached some issues around the business. Then I came in and saw were not really to my mind, wise decisions or wise approaches to it.
When I got there I basically sent out an email to everybody saying, “Look, I’m Dave. I’m new here. Here’s my job. I kind of see myself as advocate for you. There’s too many of you to kind of check in with individually, but it would really help me a lot if you could take this quickie survey so I could kind of get a quick reading on what the issues that are important to you are.” Those concerns about the way that the business was being run, was the thing that came back, was they felt like the fact they were business people, not just users of the platform, and so forth, and were not being respected.
It was a valid concern. Basically I went about trying to change the behaviors that led to that resentment, but also, if you can imagine, you’re running a business where these makers, they have direct interaction with the customers. As you might imagine, hundreds of people. Some work great with customers. Some work not so great with customers. Luckily most of them were pretty good with customers but there’s some that weren’t. The business imperative there is to get those people to act in a way that’s good for the business as a whole, that being CustomMade.
One of the things we did, directly this point, was there was no code of conduct, or rules of engagement in terms of how to act on the platform. Rather than send them down to the mountain top, I created a process where the makers themselves created those rules. There were some emails. There were some surveys we did. Some of the more experienced makers, I spoke with them on the phone personally. We basically got feedback on what we thought the things that should be part of that code of conduct ought to be.
It came from them, not from us. They were things like, if you get a customer, respond to them. Courteously respond to them within a certain amount of time. All these different things, but it came from them. Then, we created a maker hand book. It had those quote, unquote rules in them. It had quotes from some of the experienced successful makers that participated in that process to like tips from people that had succeeded on the platform and we said, “Hey, here’s the thing, you have to redo. It didn’t come from us, this came from your fellow makers and we’re not going to be looking over your shoulder, but if you keep straying from this guidelines that your fellow makers have created, we’re going to have to talk to you about it.” That really helped turn things around and helped turn around that view of the company from those makers.
[00:30:23] Patrick O’Keefe: In those cases, do you think being a new guy helps a lot? I tend to think that it does but I’m curious of your experience.
[00:30:29] Dave Cayem: Yes, definitely, I think that it’s easier to say, “I know mistakes were made,” right? Use that third person on purpose to not blame anybody, but come in and say, “Look, I know things aren’t great, I’m here to turn things around. I’m here to help you.” I think that it’s just natural human instinct to say, the same person that’s been part of that problem says, “We’re here to help you,” you’re less likely to respond to it than somebody new who comes in and says, “I’m here to turn things around.” Yes, it definitely did help.
[00:30:53] Patrick O’Keefe: You told me before the show that at CustomMade, while you oversaw that customer support team, which was six people strong, that resolved 2,000 requests weekly, you were also able to cut the support payroll by 40% using technology and by reorganizing the head count all while maintaining NPS scores in the mid 80s. What was the tech? Walk me through that a little bit.
[00:31:13] Dave Cayem: Sure. Some of it was creating better self service options so that people had less questions. Some of it was some of those things that made the community of makers angry that we we’re investing time and resources in, we backed off from, so we could spend time with resources creating better tools and systems for them. Some of it was just simple process improvements, some of it was new and different tools. For example, the chat vendor and the chat platform, they were using. A lot of the support was done through chat and so we did some of that.
The vendor didn’t have a way to have pre-written responses for those things that you get questions about all the time and I remember certainly we were talking about questions from the makers, the community but also end users and they would ask all the time, “How does CustomMade work?” Yes, you can keep writing things over and over again, but it sure would be nice if you had something pre-written and you can just edit and then make sure it makes sense in the context of the conversation.
I spent a lot of time looking at other chat vendors and other chat platforms and one that integrated with Zendesk, which I think most people are familiar with, which is one of the platforms we used to handle tickets and went with a different vendor and now we’re great. Integrated smoothly with Zendesk. It created tickets every time we had a chat interaction. We could have these pre-written responses for the basic questions and a lot would be more efficient. A lot of things like that.
[00:32:31] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s interesting how things like that don’t get looked at until you have someone there to actually focus on them, sometimes customer support, more often community honestly gets shuffled aside as the company scales and grows and so it’s just how it was. Well we started answering emails? Okay, I guess we’ll keep answering emails. [chuckles]
I don’t know what it takes. Well, maybe we should look at something like a Zendesk. Like a Help Scout or maybe we should write this hand book and a series of saved replies of pre-written messages until someone actually gets there and does the work and then you get this increase in efficiency. While previously you were just throwing bodies at it.
[00:33:12] Dave Cayem: Right. I have this saying about startups and I think it’s true every where. The first thing startups try to do is to get things done and it takes a while for a startup to get up on it’s legs and then figure out how to get things done well. Before I joined CustomMade, early on being on CustomMade, there was one guy and a Gmail account. [chuckles] That’s how they did all their, answer all these responses and obviously that no business of any consequence can do that for very long because you’re not capturing insights, keeping track of who’s been responded to and who’s not, see what your turn around times are, all those things that customer service leaders need to do. Yes, I think that’s true.
I’ve worked in startups for a long time. I know you’ve been around that environment as well and beginning with a startup it’s basically all hands on deck. We’re going to just figure out a way to get stuff done and it takes a while before you get your head above water and say, “Okay, now that we’re doing things, let’s figure out how to do them well and go back and create those inefficiencies and make sure the customers are being taken care of the right way,” and all that.
[00:34:01] Patrick O’Keefe: Another thing you said to me was that you didn’t fully appreciate the similarities between community and customer service and support until you made the switch from one to the other, how so?
[00:34:12] Dave Cayem: It’s interesting. When I made a decision to look at other opportunities when I was at Delphi Forums, I saw this job listing at this place CustomMade and the title was director of community and support. I was like, “I’m this community guy, that’s what I do and I like to think of myself as somebody who knows something about that. The customer support stuff, that I didn’t know about. I guess I can figure out as I go along, but let’s give this a shot.” What I realized is that this was a very short sighted view on my part because I had been doing customer service for a long time.
I just happened to be doing it through online forums and there are a lot of similarities and you’ve lived this too, right? There’s people that say, “I got this problem with your forum or this isn’t working right.” If you have some kind of paid plan, “I’m not getting what I paid for or whatever.” You’re basically, you might be doing interactions through an online community but you’re still doing the same thing, so one of the things that I always talk about in online communities is the importance of language and the words that we use.
You know better than I, Patrick, that those things are vitally important because if you’re not getting the context for the human conversation and if you’re coming down as the admin or the head, what you say in certain way can be viewed as kind of aggressive, or unfair, if you don’t use the right words or the right language. The very same thing happens with customer service because nine times out of ten people come to customer service because they had a problem.
They are coming into it with a negative view to begin with. You need to use the opportunity to try to ratchet down those feelings and try to make them feel better about it by using language that acknowledges what their concerns are and how you’re going to help them. I’m sure you’ve experienced the same thing in online communities, is that if you use that approach in online communities, you’re going to kind of diffuse the situation instead of exacerbate it.
[00:35:41] Patrick O’Keefe: Dave, it’s been a pleasure to have you on the show. Thanks so much for making time.
[00:35:44] Dave Cayem: Well, thank you. It’s been a delight to do this with you. I’m glad I got the opportunity.
[00:35:48] Patrick O’Keefe: We’ve been talking with Dave Cayem, formerly of Booster, CustomMade and Delphi Forums. Connect with Dave at cayem.com. That’s C-A-Y-E-M. For the transcript from this episode, plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Thank you to Serena Snoad for her input into this episode. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad. Have a great day.
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