Freshbooks’ Secret Sauce

By Joe Baz

Photo of Casey McKinnonCasey McKinnon: innovator, strategist, UX guru. At his current company, Freshbooks, they call him the Director of Product and Design, or, as he likes to say, “the Chief Idea Organizer.”

Casey and his team at Freshbooks exemplify a user-centric company. Focusing on customer relationships, they, learn about users’ needs, and use metrics to track even the smallest UX change – and we interviewed Casey to ask him about all this and more.

Joe: What does it mean to be a “user centric company”?

Casey: It means thinking about the real people that interact with your company every day, and considering their needs.  Its everything about how you interact with customers on twitter, your forums, over the phone, over email, or in-person.  As our CEO Mike likes to say, “we don’t need a social media strategy, we need a relationship strategy”.  Put yourself in any customer situation and ask yourself “What would I do for a good friend here?” You’ll be amazed by what happens.

Joe: How has this relationship strategy worked for Freshbooks?

Casey: First off, I attribute the waves of amazing new customers that join FreshBooks every day to this philosophy.  We may be more expensive than some competitors, and not always as feature-rich, but by keeping a specific group of users in mind as we’ve built our application, and designed our support experience, we’ve been able to grow our user base at amazing rates.  Word of mouth is our #1 driver of new customers, and this extends all the way to interview candidates who tell us that a friend told them FreshBooks was great and that they should work here. :-)

Joe: I can definitely relate to that; relationship marketing has been core to ATF’s success as well. Have you been able to quantify different aspects of the user experience?

Casey: We are becoming a very metrics-driven company (a bit of a cliché at the moment, I know) and are finding lots of ways to quantify the impact that our UX changes have on business.  By far, the best way to do this has been through A/B split testing.  We test every single UX improvement we make, and compare it against what we were doing before.  Sometimes we win, and sometimes we lose, and both are fine as long as we’re learning.  I’ve learned so much about how UX can impact business metrics over the past 14 months

Joe: Where do you see the execution of a UX vision originating? Executives? Grassroots? Somewhere else entirely?

Casey: It comes from a lot of places, and often feels like it just emerges organically.  That said, our CEO Mike is incredibly passionate about our user experience and is involved in every UX decision we make, regardless of the size.  He’s an incredible mentor to the team and is constantly teaching us how to think with users in mind.  Its safe to say he provides the “north star” for the company in terms of UX, and challenges everyone in the company to find their way north with his guidance.

All of our decisions are informed by customer feedback as well.  We’ve got an incredible Support team who ensures that any idea heard from a customer makes it through to my desk as the Product Manager.  At any moment I can see what trends people are talking about on the forums, via email, or on the phone, and make decisions based on this data.

Joe: We debate the catalyst of product success all the time: is a vision created in a vacuum or built upon the data in the field? In many cases it seems a combination of both. So how does one take a vision and transcend into user centered company?

Casey: First, your company culture has to be oriented towards truly caring for your customers as people.  Everyone has to come to work every day with the common purpose of making your customers more successful in what they love to do.  At FreshBooks, our purpose is to help people get paid painlessly, so they can focus on what they love to do.  By knowing that as the purpose of the company, it is easy to make everyday decisions about trade-offs and how we spend our time.  Beyond purpose, you also need to define what your company values in its employees.  One of our core values at FreshBooks is empathy, and practicing empathy with customers as well as each other is the root of being user centric.

Joe: That’s great! One last question – if you were a UX super hero, what would your powers be?


Casey: If I was a UX Superhero, my super-power would be “Feature-Vision.” That’s the ability to see through specific feature requests to get to the root of the real problem.  From there, I could devise something to really address their problem.  I love it when we come up with an even better feature as a result of better understanding the situations in which users are experiencing pain, rather than just blindly implementing the first or easiest solution.

Casey is the Head of Product and Design at FreshBooks, where he leads new product development for its online invoicing service.  Before FreshBooks he was a Program Manager at Microsoft for 7 years where he led the User Experience for Microsoft’s latest cloud offering- Office 365. His favourite colour is cobalt blue, and on weekends he plays Rockabilly music and takes his kids fishing. For more information, you can find Casey on Twitter.

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