By the time Italian entrepreneurs Luca Micheli, Daniele Ratti, and Matteo Martinelli built their award-winning SaaS, Customerly, they’d already run two massively-popular SaaS businesses.
Luca’s application, QuizPatente!, helped Italians prepare for their driver’s license exam and helped driving schools find students. Over twelve million people downloaded it. Daniele’s app, Fatture in Cloud, was the first Italian SaaS for managing invoices (and is still number one today). Both were later acquired for six and seven figures respectively.
While building these two apps, Daniele and Luca noticed they encountered the same problems: Customers would complete actions like registration and submitting information out of order, causing them to bounce. They were also communicating with customers on too many channels.
To solve these problems, they created a chat system that adaptively guides customers through the UX of any SaaS. Clients loved it so much that the trio sold their startups and made the chat app into its own business.
Today, Customerly is not just a new take on chatbots – it’s an all-in-one AI-powered customer service tool and CRM for B2C SaaS businesses. Despite less than $5,000 in investment and competition from hordes of VC-backed apps, it earns its founders $200,000 in ARR and serves over 10 million customers.
Here’s how they built their app and navigated the rising startup scene in their home country of Italy.
Same Problem, Different SaaS
Luca and Daniele first met in 2012, while completing MBAs in entrepreneurship at MIP Politecnico di Milano in Milan. By the time he began attending classes at MIP, Luca was already rising to the top of the Italian startup world (despite not fully understanding what a startup was). QuizPatente! was generating thousands of euros per day in revenue and Wired had even listed Luca as one of the ten most brilliant developers in Italy.
While Luca was a rising star in Italy’s tech world, Daniele was a star in the making with a prodigious output of thirty to forty SaaS businesses per year. He had laid the groundwork for Fatture in Cloud in 2012 and offered the service to his friends in 2013.
The two founders hit it off quickly and became inseparable while studying at MIP. They worked together on their projects most nights and weekends after classes – a practice they continued after graduation.
Though Quizpatente! and Fatture in Cloud served different industries, their customers frequently faced the same issues: They did things in the wrong order or incorrectly. For example, they might try to take a quiz out of order or submit documents before creating an account. The apps in turn had no single channel for customer support or system for gathering feedback.
“I wanted the ability to reach out to only the segment of customers that didn’t complete certain important steps in the SaaS instead of every customer at once,” says Luca.
Despite drastically different apps, both Daniele and Luca decided they needed the same feature. Instead of shopping around for a solution, they invested $1,500 out of their pockets to create Customerly in 2015. Customerly would work on any SaaS platform, using AI to learn its user flow and reactively guide customers to an optimal experience.
“We decided to aggregate all of the data for how our customers used our apps,” says Luca. “Then we tweaked all customer communications to work through our app.”
That year, Daniele also brought in his close friend, Matteo Martinelli, another student at MIP, to work on Customerly full-time. “I have the pleasure to work with the best teammates I’ve ever worked with in my life,” says Luca. “Matteo created all the tech you see behind Customerly.”
Using two different apps as test subjects, Luca and his partners could create a swiss-army-knife of a customer service tool. In 2016, after just one year, they released the first beta version of Customerly. By 2017, they would have businesses lining up to use it.
Domino Effect Marketing
More often than not, the best way to learn is by doing. In the spirit of bootstrapping, the Customerly team never invested a single euro into marketing their app. Instead, they tested a buggy beta version on a selection of their inner circle – Luca dubs these businesses their “beta testers at scale.” Some ran SaaS businesses with over 200,000 customers.
After hammering out the dents, Customerly became so useful it sold itself. Luca and Daniele’s customers from their previous apps immediately saw their customer experience improve and asked why. The same thing happened to the clients who had white-labeled Customerly. By 2017, businesses of all sizes clamored for a subscription.
For the next two years, Luca, Matteo, and Daniele ran Customerly as their third project. It became the main business in 2019 after Luca and Daniele sold their applications and Daniele went on to become full-time CEO of Fatture in Cloud. He remains a consultant for Customerly. Luca and Matteo continue working on Customerly as CEO and CTO respectively.
I saw so much churn that I was seriously depressed. I decided to turn it into a fire within me.
The app grew smoothly through 2019 until the first wave of Covid in 2020. All of a sudden subscriptions dropped by the dozen every week. “I saw so much churn that I was seriously depressed,” Luca says. “I decided to turn it into a fire within me.”
To solve the problem, the Customerly team decided to up the ante on customer chat, adding a video live chat feature. It not only fixed churn but also increased MRR by 300 percent in one month.
“Video chat was a huge success,” Luca continues. “We tapped into the market at a time when many people were about to start new businesses. Businesses needed new ways to communicate with customers stuck at home.”
Why Customerly Isn’t Like Other Chat Bots
Luca believes Customerly’s behavior-tracking features make it a shining star in a sea of copycats. And while other platforms may come close to Customerly for onboarding and messaging, they aren’t nearly as good at gathering feedback.
“Competitors are good at passively gathering inbound customer feedback,” he says. “They aren’t so good at outbound. We’ve deployed surveys within chat so you can collect feedback from your customers without needing to export data to another platform.”
Another strength (and perhaps a weakness) of Customerly, in Luca’s opinion, is the sheer number and diversity of businesses they have as clients.
“Now we have many different clients from solopreneurs to enterprises,” says Luca. “Each has its problems. Every time we build the next feature we need to decide which customer type is more important. On the other hand, we’re fortunate that we get to speak to people in so many industries.”
Time to Move
Building a great business is now more accessible than ever. However, location still plays a huge role in incorporation.
Despite being the European Union’s fourth-largest economy, Italy is ranked twelfth in the EU for startup activity¹. Large Italian startups like Depop (acquired by Etsy in 2021) tend to shift headquarters to more startup-friendly environments like Ireland when they hope to get acquired.
Back in 2014, Daniele and Luca won a scholarship for a “mini MBA” in San Francisco from an innovation advisory firm called Mind The Bridge. They jetted off to the Bay Area for one month of coaching and mentorship for their startups. Mentors had the same advice for their businesses as they did for Depop: leave Italy.
“The people at Mind The Bridge said if we want to build and sell successful businesses, we needed an Incorporated Business (INC) in the US or a Limited Company (LTD) in Ireland. We chose Ireland,” says Luca.
Because of this meeting, in 2017 Luca packed his bags and incorporated Customerly in Ireland. Luca says clients always react positively when they hear their location. “When I say we’re in Ireland, people trust us. All the big companies are here.”
Helping One Billion People
Since weathering COVID, Customerly has only continued to grow and the world is noticing. In 2022, Capterra listed Customerly² as one of the top live chats in the world out of 504 competitors – including household names like Hubspot and Whatsapp. Luca believes this is the first accolade of many.
By 2023, he hopes to have one of the top three best live chat apps in the world and serve one billion SaaS customers. With their current volume of 10 million customers per day, they’re not far off. “I strongly believe Customerly is my vehicle to change the world,” says Luca. “I’m going to focus on delivering the best product on the market to our customers.”
Since their initial $1,500 investments, the Customerly founding team stayed true to bootstrapping, refusing multiple offers for VC funding.
“We like being bootstrapped and want to stay that way,” says Luca. “We have hundreds of competitors and they have huge amounts of money to create ads and dominate the internet, but we don’t mind. I like the freedom we have to build and release the product. We can focus on pleasing customers first, not investors.”
Be patient, play with your business every day, and have fun.
Luca says he’s gained much more insight into what other founders are doing today by becoming active on Twitter. His advice to others he sees online: don’t quit.
“I’ve noticed on Twitter lots of founders quit after one month with no traction. You need to stake more than one month into what you’re doing. Be patient, play with your business every day, and have fun. There’s a lot of work and background you don’t see. You need to take the stairs.”
¹Where is Italy at for startups and investment? | Dealroom.co
²Best Live Chat Software 2022 | Reviews of the Most Popular Tools & Systems (capterra.com)
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