Cool Start-up Interview Series: Zingtree

6 minutes
Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Bill Dettering, founder and CEO of Zingtree, a SaaS solution for building interactive decision trees, and Applian, a video downloader and screen recorder tool.
While Applian has been around for 20 years, Zingtree is a new SaaS start-up that caught our attention with a successful entry in our contest for a 2017 SIIA CODiE Awards nomination fee. We wanted to learn more about Zingtree, so I had a brief chat with Bill, who’s much more than just CEO for this promising Silicon Valley company.


  1. Please tell us a bit about Zingtree. When and how did the company get started?

Zingtree was first sprouted in late 2013 by Tom Mayes and myself, the founders of Applian Technologies. We were seeing a lot of inefficiency in supporting Applian’s software products, and as such the first Zingtree-like troubleshooters were hardcoded into the support path. After seeing a big reduction in support emails, we knew we had a winner, and so Zingtree was started.

Seven months later, the embedded troubleshooter concept was turned into a toolkit that anyone could use. With lots of testing and feedback, the Visual Designer and Content tools came to life, reporting was added, and Zingtree was ready to branch out to real customers.


Since the release, we’ve had a lot of interest from companies operating Call Centers, so we’ve gradually built more live support options into the product.


  1. Meeting a real business need you’ve experienced firsthand gives you a major advantage. What does Zingtree do differently from alternatives in the market?

Incredibly, there are very few alternatives in our space, especially when the need for a product like Zingtree is so obvious. Technically, we offer unique features like “subtrees”, which allow decision tree publishers to easily reuse content across multiple knowledge areas. Our customization options are advanced as well.

Our experience in operating a B2C company for 20 years gives us an advantage in making Zingtree – a B2B company – incredibly accessible – our site has numerous example trees, and a prospective customer can try all of the tools and use the trees without even having to sign up for an account. It’s interesting when we demo for large companies, and they ask about “training”. We chuckle and tell them this has never been necessary since Zingtree is designed to be easy to use.

“Our experience in operating a B2C company for 20 years gives us an advantage in making Zingtree – a B2B company – incredibly accessible.”

Our pricing model is also unique, in that it’s built around “pay for what you use”. Our confidence in Zingtree is really high, so we can offer this sort of value proposition to our customers and keep a profitable business model.


  1. You’re not just the CEO, but founder and CEO of two companies: Zingtree and Applian. How does that work for you? Which company gets more of your attention and what is your work-life balance like?

Applian has been around for 20 years, first as a Pocket PC software company, and then migrating to a desktop software business revolving around online media recording products. Unfortunately, desktop software is not growing nearly as rapidly as online offerings, and the Applian products are stable and mature. So Zingtree gets most of my attention now.

Zingtree is also interesting in that we get an inside peek into how other companies operate – especially in regards to support. Some of our Call center customers have confessed that they are still using paper scripts, and we even had one who sheepishly admitted they use an MS-DOS based system.

As an internet-based business with customers all over the world, we don’t work a “normal” 9 to 5 schedule, but are on periodically throughout the day’s waking hours. So this affords a few daytime breaks to go outside and exercise or spend time with our families.


  1. Zingtree is a spin-off from another company. How did those companies evolve differently in terms of company culture, growth path, major challenges and the benefits of having a “parent” company guiding your first steps?

Zingtree is a more mature version of the same processes we used with Applian. Our model is to find a need, build something, and then iterate as we get to talk to real customers and get feedback and ideas from them. Zingtree’s focus on Call Centers was not planned from the beginning, but once we started getting clients who expressed an interest in Agent Scripting, we were able to do a small pivot and focus resources on that market segment as well as end-user support.

“Our model is to find a need, build something, and then iterate as we get to talk to real customers and get feedback and ideas from them.”

We also run a small product development team. I’m not only CEO but the product manager and development lead. So the product foundation and vision stay tightly focused, and the centralization means that it’s easy to issue updates frequently without breaking anything or having disconnects between developers like occur with larger teams.


  1. Applian is downloadable software and Zingtree is Software as a Service, in the Cloud. Tell us also about the difference in the business models, including pluses, minuses, preferences?

Zingtree is our first real subscription-based business. The upside is obvious, in that once you get a customer you have a nice source of recurring revenue as long as you keep them happy. The downside of a B2B business is that customers often take a long time to evaluate the product, so the sales cycle can be months long – especially with bigger clients. Applian, being B2C, is actually more predictable in terms of monthly income. People don’t fret over spending $19 to $79 on a software product, so our daily revenues are remarkably consistent. And another upside of the B2C desktop model is selling product upgrades, which in most cases are a slam dunk (as long as we offer compelling value).

“The upside [of SaaS] is obvious, in that once you get a customer you have a nice source of recurring revenue as long as you keep them happy. […] We spend more time talking to customers […] It makes it more personal and satisfying.”

Zingtree is also different in that we spend more time talking to customers – particularly on chat or via in-person phone meetings. This isn’t really possible with a B2C product, since it doesn’t scale, but for Zingtree we’ve had some sort of conversation with almost all of our subscribers. It makes it more personal and satisfying.


  1. Zingtree started out with a general troubleshooter toolkit, then added specific tools for call centers. What’s next for the company?

We really aren’t looking to expand into new markets, as there is a lot of untapped potential for basic decision tree troubleshooters for support, call centers, and other verticals like medicine, insurance and government. We do get inquiries about making our technology work as a chatbot, but this space is really crowded and unproven, so we’re unlikely to go there. Our “to do” list has over 100 items in it, and while we think we have a really good toolkit in place right now, there are a lot of other small-to-medium effort capabilities we’d like to add to Zingtree. Our customers have been great about sharing ideas, and we think we’re good at recognizing what’s worth doing now, and what’s “back burner”. We also have some ideas of our own, since we know what our technology can do. You can expect some more cool Zingtree updates really soon!

Our customers have been great about sharing ideas.”


  1. Tell us about your partnership with Zendesk. How did that come about? What were some challenges and lessons from the integration? Tell us about the benefits, to your customers and Zingtree as a company.

Zendesk has been a nice source of leads for us, but not nearly as large as we had hoped. We have met periodically with some of their sales teams, and they occasionally bring us in when trying to help a customer solve a problem relating to call center scripting or support decision trees. Being in their app marketplace has been good, but we feel there is more they could be doing to help us. That being said, I’m sure every partner feels that way.

Overall, we’re quite happy with our relationship with Zendesk. Their tech team has been helpful, and it’s been fairly easy to get into their marketplace compared to the other larger partners we’ve pursued. I would rate our experience with Zendesk a 4 out of 5 stars.


Bill, thank you so much for this. Great insights and I’m sure useful for other start-ups as well.

Thanks again for taking the time to do this – it was fun to go through these great questions. It helped put what we are doing into a bigger context, which is always important.

Great! Good luck in the CODiEs and we hope to see you on the winners’ list.

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