Drink your own champagne: 7 Chicago companies on why they use their own tech

Written by Michael Hines
Published on Feb. 07, 2018
Drink your own champagne: 7 Chicago companies on why they use their own tech
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Eat your own dog food. Drink your own champagne.

Whatever phrase you prefer, the idea is the same: Nothing shows a company’s confidence in its product like using it in-house. This is especially important in tech where companies are often asked what separates their app or software from a laundry list of competitors. To learn more about the benefits of “dogfooding,” which is totally a real term, we spoke to employees at seven Chicago tech companies who are avid users of the software and apps they build.


Reverb Chicago music startup

Reverb’s office is filled with musicians, which makes sense given that the company operates a marketplace for instruments, musical equipment and records. Junior iOS developer Jen Kelley shared a unique part of the company’s onboarding process called “The Contest,” which puts new hires in the shoes of the site’s power users.


How does using Reverb inform your work?

When I joined the Reverb team, I was a beginner drummer, so I was already browsing the website’s articles, videos and more for weekly inspiration and tips on how to take my drumming to the next level. Coincidentally, I was also fairly new to programming, so I was discovering both passions side by side.

I use Reverb to get a good deal on a new cymbal, to watch famous drummers share their techniques and more. That makes me a better developer because I can truly see things from the customer’s perspective. It allows me to view our platform more objectively because its performance impacts not only our customers, but my own experience as well.  


Has your experience as a user led to any new features or enhancements?

All new employees participate in “The Contest,” a five-week competition to buy and sell as many guitar pedals as possible on Reverb. The main goal is to encourage team members to experience the ins and outs of the platform firsthand. The intense use of the platform during The Contest also helps us find bugs and come up with new services and features.

“Flipping” gear like we do in The Contest is something that our users do every day. Guitarists are always trying different pedals to get different sounds, so they may buy a pedal, use it for two weeks, flip it and buy a new one. During one of The Contest's rounds we realized it was a pain to refill all the info for the piece of gear you were flipping, especially on a phone. Now, when you sell something that you purchased on the site, we auto-populate the main information for you. I’m proud that I was able to introduce something that fixed a pain point that I, and likely many other users, had.


Does using your own product have an effect on company culture?

Since nearly 85 percent of our employees are musicians — and musicians are constantly buying and selling gear — using the product is inherently ingrained in our culture. It impacts how often we build new features and refine new tools, and how quickly we bring those updates to the platform since we’re feeling the need or pain firsthand. Since employees double as customers, every team member feels empowered to propose new ideas. It creates a culture that is constantly working to better itself.


Vivid Seats Chicago online ticket marketplace

Vivid Seats is an online marketplace that connects fans of sports, concerts and the theatre to the tickets they crave. Of the 20,000 people who find tickets on the platform every day, at least a handful of them are the company’s own employees, like director of product Todd Bradley.


How does using Vivid Seats inform your work?

Most product management professionals would agree that wearing the “customer hat” yourself is no replacement for talking to your customers or being a customer yourself. On average, I attend three events a month, which allow me to constantly identify opportunities to optimize the full customer journey. I use a wide range of applications (including competitors!) so that I can find every opportunity to simplify the experience for fellow event goers.


Has your experience as a user led to any new features or enhancements?

One of the main reasons customers download our apps is so they can easily access their tickets. It’s a crucial part of our app, so we’ve recently spent time redesigning the experience. One feature I was determined to add was the ability for users to easily share tickets with friends. At some point, everyone has had the stressful experience of trying to get a group of people to an event on time. While a ticket-sharing feature wasn’t directly requested by our customers in volume, it was something that resonated in our user testing.


Does using your own product have an effect on company culture?

Like myself, the entire app team is here because of a passion for live events. As a team, we logged over 100 live events combined in 2017. Regardless of whether your job title has the word “product” or “designer” in it, everyone’s experiences and insights are valued from ideation through delivery in order to ensure we’re providing the best customer experience.


Keeper Security Chicago cybersecurity startup

Keeper Security is a cybersecurity company that helps people and companies keep their passwords and documents safe. As a former technical support representative and current Keeper user, technical product manager Aaron Gonzalez knows firsthand the impact user feedback has on product development.


How does using Keeper inform your work?

Using our products allows me to relate to the needs of our customers and make impactful product improvements. Keeper’s recent product release was months in the making and included new features that greatly increased user efficiency, which in turn increased my workplace effectiveness. A feature in our password manager product that makes a significant impact in my work day is our browser extension. I rely on it to quickly log into websites, change passwords when required, share data confidently and safely store a lot of data. Using Keeper helps me to inspire other product improvements that will in turn enhance the experience for our customers.


Has your experience as a user led to any new features or enhancements?

Before being promoted to product management I was in tech support, which put me in direct contact with our users. The tech support team are heavy users of our products and can easily relate to our customers. Their interaction with customers and product influences new ideas and enhancements. One of my favorite aspects of working at Keeper is knowing how much value we put on customer and employee feedback. Our opinions and suggestions are constantly being solicited, listened to and incorporated. This creates an immense sense of ownership and is one of the reasons I am so proud to be a part of this company.  


Does using your own product have an effect on company culture?

One of our guiding principles is respect. Our opinions and suggestions about features regularly make their way into production. It’s proof my input is respected and that feels great. Another one of our guiding principles is loyalty. As a product user and employee, it’s easy for me to live this principle out because of the difference Keeper makes in my personal life and here at work.


SpotHero Chicago parking startup

For some, parking is the worst part of driving. SpotHero doesn’t think that needs to be the case. The company’s tech makes finding and booking a parking spot as easy as using an app or talking to a smart home device. As a senior product manager, Angela Vitzthum takes a different approach to incorporating her own user feedback into her work.


How does using SpotHero inform your work?

Being a user has had an interesting effect on how I approach my work. It’s certainly helpful to use the product consistently and give firsthand insights on what’s working and what’s not. That said, it’s very different to approach my role as that of the user versus that of an empathetic product manager. I need to be careful not to make assumptions based on my singular experiences and take myself out of the user role to ensure I’m doing my job to support all use cases.


Has your experience as a user led to any new features or enhancements?

I’ve definitely used my experience as a user to modify features I’ve worked on here. I think the best way to describe it isn’t that I as a user have changed a feature internally. Rather, I’ve formed a hypothesis based on an experience I’ve had within the product and then dug into the data to see if I can support the change.


Does using your own product have an effect on company culture?

What’s great about SpotHero is that anyone internally has the ability to impact the culture. We’re always looking to improve our product and ensure we have channels to get feedback from everyone and not just those in the product organization. User feedback from anyone in the organization is just as valuable as mine. I’m just lucky enough to work a bit closer to those managing the roadmap.


SilkRoad Chicago HR startup

SilkRoad’s employee onboarding and talent management software helps companies keep employees engaged and focused on meaningful goals. Unsurprisingly, the company uses its own software when onboarding new employees. According to VP of onboarding solutions Lilith Christiansen, her experience as a user helped lead to the development of a new feature.


How does using SilkRoad inform your work?

When I joined SilkRoad last fall I immediately began using our product. This allowed me to experience it the same way the employees of our customers do. Being a user enables me to have a better view of our product’s strengths along with the opportunities for enhancements. Best of all, it provides more substantial use cases to take back to the product development team.


Has your experience as a user led to any new features or enhancements?

Yes. We are currently in the process of developing new features based on feedback given by myself and other recent hires. When we evaluated the feedback, we identified the new hire’s manager as the person most impacting their onboarding experience. Our managers do an amazing job, but the process wasn’t standardized. We are now developing a manager toolkit so that the process isn’t recreated from scratch every time.


Does using your own product have an effect on company culture?

Like many organizations, we are evolving the way we deliver feedback and performance reviews. While we are still reliant on an annual performance review as the formal mechanism for feedback, we are moving toward increased transparency and more frequent, in-the-moment feedback.


Peapod Chicago internet grocer

Before e-commerce was even a word, there was Peapod. Founded in 1989, the company is a pioneer in the internet grocery space and is active in 24 markets across the Midwest and eastern United States. According to VP of product management Cat de Merode, many Peapod employees are also Peapod users, which helps the company quickly squash bugs and surface ideas for new features.


How does using Peapod inform your work?

For one, I get all the same benefits our other customers get which is great. I'm rarely in a grocery store and always know what we're cooking for dinner this week! It's always helpful to find bugs and opportunities in our technology in the context of real-world scenarios. I do have to remind myself that I don't represent every single one of our customers, but being able to explain why I was trying to do something brings much more value to the conversation.


Has your experience as a user led to any new features or enhancements?

While cooking one of our meal kits, I discovered a bug in our app that led me to a dead end. I had to quit the app and reopen it which is a pretty embarrassing solution for a technologist. It might have been an uncommon path that I took there, but it was a painful result, so we prioritized it.

My favorite example of this comes from our founder and CTO. He got really into coconut chips at some point, but they arrived past their prime on two straight occasions. He called up the local warehouse manager and asked where they were being stored, got to the root of the problem, and fixed it right away in all of our facilities nationwide. Turns out there's not a lot you can store next to green peppers!


Does using your own product have an effect on company culture?

The celebrations when a new feature hits the site are not just because we're celebrating the work, but because we're all eager to use it. Literally every idea that comes up has legs because they’re derived from real-world contexts. It's not just for our technologies, either! We order snacks and supplies just like our B2B customers, so any product gaps get noticed really quickly.

But perhaps the biggest way it impacts our culture is to drive our data-based decisioning. When you surface an issue or opportunity, the first question is, "How many people aside from yourself could this affect?" When you answer that question first, you create a culture that's mercilessly dedicated to delivering as much value for your customers as quickly as possible.


higi chicago health startup

As a maker of technology that helps people stay on top of their health, higi takes user feedback seriously. The company’s health stations measure a user’s weight, BMI, pulse and blood pressure. Design director Carl Beien’s experience with higi’s health stations led to a redesign that significantly cut the time it takes for users to log in.


How does using higi inform your work?

It impacts how I talk about our product internally. Many higi users are actively managing medical conditions like high blood pressure, but many of our colleagues do not. So, using our product for me isn’t so much about looking out for features I would like, but making sure I have the vocabulary to articulate the difference between what I would like and what our users would like.


Has your experience as a user led to any new features or enhancements?

Yes. We recently developed a super fast feature for logging into any of our 11,000 stations using the higi app. This was in direct response to logging into the station frequently and just wishing there was a better way.


Does using your own product have an effect on company culture?

I like to attribute our relatively relaxed company culture with the fact that our main product measures blood pressure. The links are pretty straightforward. Since we all use the product, we all see when our blood pressure is running high. Since our CTO is also a doctor, we are all well aware of how much damage high blood pressure can do over time. So, that’s lots of pressure to keep your blood pressure down, which means lots of pressure to relax!


Photos via featured companies. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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