happytables exits beta, wants restaurant websites to quit sucking

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happytables, formerly known as Theme Force, has exited public beta and relaunched with new branding. Noel Tock and his partners, Tom and Joe of Human Made Limited, decided the Theme Force name was more appropriate for selling WordPress themes, and as they’re not doing that any more, the change was due.

I’ve had an opportunity to discuss many of the changes with Tock as they’ve transitioned the new site and I’ve even beta tested the new interface of happytables. Having used both the beta interface and the new one, it’s obvious the guys have been busy improving much more than the name and public facing website.

Lessons learned from beta and changes made

What they’ve realized with their early adopters is that not many customers (as in almost no customers) read the documentation. They just start playing around, which is exactly what I did when I tested as well. In the previous version, you could get around pretty well if you are already familiar with WordPress, but they quickly realized that wasn’t good enough. The average happytables customer is hardly familiar with computers, much less the WordPress backend.

Much of the new happytables interface looks much like the front end of the website. Pretty much anywhere you go there are visual guides to tell you what to do and how to do it. The traditional WordPress dashboard and post editor interface are almost unrecognizable in the happytables interface for menus and events. In fact, you never even leave what we call the “quick edit” screen, and why should you? They’ve forced themselves to view the experience from a total beginner’s point of view, and I think it has paid off for them in the experience.

Screenshots of the new interface

Front end editing experience

The front end editing experience has changed as well. Formerly, changing things was very similar to many commercial WordPress themes – extensive backend options panels. But they noticed customers just weren’t changing anything. They were still overwhelmed. So happytables has moved nearly all of the front end editing options to the front end itself. You can select custom background patterns, link, background, and text colors, all from the front facing website and see instant updates via jQuery and ajax. You can also choose from available presets and customize from there.

You can see the site I created in about 15 minutes here as an example of what can be done with just the default theme. They still have three base themes to choose from – the default, a fine dining theme, and a theme for pubs and taverns. They’re the same themes they offered from Theme Force, and Tock tells me that more are on the way.

Indirect marketing

One thing I’ve found interesting about how happytables is reaching out is in their indirect marketing. Tock created better-restaurant-websites.com as an informational tool to help restaurant owners understand why pdf menus and flash animations, etc., are such a bad idea. The site has received a good bit of attention from the likes of well-known front end developers Chris Coyier and Lea Verou, Mozilla’s Christian Helimann and Mailchimp’s Aarron Walter.

Their goal with the site is for it to be informative to restaurant owners that just don’t know better, with only a slight nudge toward their solution to help those owners not have such terrible websites for an affordable price.

Pricing

The kicker in most services is the age old one – price. happytables can be the best idea ever, and restaurant owners can agree, but they’ll never do it unless it’s in their budget. And I can help assure you, too many restaurant owners are nickel pinchers and have a hard time seeing the value of a decent website.

happytables is offering an introductory rate of $29 per month with a promise that those who take the deal will always keep that price. But even those that don’t get in on the deal will be able to use happytables for (in my opinion) a very affordable $39 per month. Considering the flexibility in design choices, it’s a great deal for restaurant owners.

Having 10 customers at $39 per month isn’t going to make anyone rich, or allow happytables to keep a sustainable business. However, as they grow to a hundred, a thousand, and even ten thousand customers they’ll have quite the little business on their hands. And this is why they were looking to get out of theme sales – to leave the business of one-time transactions for the opportunities that exist with recurring revenue.

WordPress and SaaS

I’m excited to see happytables grow. Not just because I consider myself “internet friends” (insert your jokes here) with Noel Tock, but also because I think happytables is forging a path that many, many others will follow. As much as Tock hates when I call happytables a “hosted WordPress” solution – as he sees WordPress as the tool for his, simply, “hosted” solution – it is built on top of WordPress. And that’s great, because WordPress offers a hell of a starting point. But it’s just that – a starting point.

If I were in the business of predictions – which I am, so here goes – I would predict that we’ll see quite a few hosted WordPress services pop up in 2012. Of course, WordPress.com is currently the best example. And there are other sites that do essentially what WordPress.com does for blogging, but that’s not what I think we’ll see more of. I think we’ll see people using the power of WordPress to build highly niche networks for all sorts of industries.

Interestingly, happytables already has competition of sorts. Brian Casel, whom you may know as co-host of the Freelance Jam podcast or owner of CasJam themes, has also started a service for hosted restaurant websites called RestaurantEngine. However, they are in early beta and not yet as far along as happytables. They are also marketing themselves more as a WordPress centric solution and not doing as significant of changes to the native publishing experience as happytables. I joked with Brian and Noel via Twitter about entering the same market when there are so many wide open ones, and they (and I) agree that the sea is big enough for many fish. Also, Brian wasn’t aware of happytables until RestaurantEngine was well along in development.

What are your thoughts?

I took this opportunity of happytables’ launch to talk about using WordPress to create software as a service (Saas). happytables and the inevitable companies to follow are falling into a niche not quite defined yet. There are more generic solutions like WordPress.com and managed hosting options like Page.ly, Zippy Kid, and WPEngine. But this is somewhere in-between generic managed hosting and selling niche themes, and I’m excited to see how it matures.

What do you think about happytables relaunch and this new arena in general?

15 thoughts on “happytables exits beta, wants restaurant websites to quit sucking

  1. I think with markets that have a more straightforward setup, a fully hosted and packaged solution is a no-brainer. However, what about the more complex markets? What about those folks that decide they want to take their data and move it somewhere else? Are we taking one step closer to making a more proprietary product?

    For more companies that need a more complex infrastructure, or already uses a multitude of plugins to make WordPress work for them, will a nicely packaged and hosted solution water down their perception of what WordPress can do for them?

    I know one of the reasons I encourage clients to use a WordPress solution over, say, a hosted solution that like Intuit offers isn’t necessarily because their product is a nightmaric pile of feces to work with (ok, maybe that’s a pretty big reason), but more because when they host their own content on their own server, it becomes much easier to take with them if they choose to go in a different direction.

    [I feel like I’m playing devil’s advocate here more than I should, but meh. Sometimes I need a distraction. :)]

    • You’re right: data transfer makes a lot of sense but it would be nearly impossible with this system.

      I think this is one of the big reasons why most developers stay away from HappyTables’ business model and choose to create plugins (or as a poorer choice for this functionality, themes) instead.

      Obviously, recurring revenue is nice, but this business model also means that ThemeForce is going to probably need a sales team and pitch to restauranteurs directly–an act I don’t envy.

      I’ve pitched to lots of different clients in the last three years, including five or six restaurants, and I’ve never once had a restaurant owner follow up on any emails, phone calls or sit-down meetings. Restaurant owners just can’t wrap their heads around the importance of marketing. This is likely why so many restaurants are prone to having such awful websites, as well as why they’d choose to open a business with one of the largest overheads and subsequently, the highest rates of failure.

      Again, though, I could see this system rolled into a white-label multisite plugin (or theme) that developers could use to allow clients to customize their sites–whether they be restaurants or with a little bit of customization, something different, like a dentist office.

      • You just have to find the right restaurants to give you street cred in the neighborhood. Many mom-n-pops need reassurance that you are a legitimate professional. They are rarely able to spot a legitimate web developer or designer and usually can’t see the value in it. It’s real easy to become chummy with the owners of small restaurants that you frequent, but finding ones that are willing to go into business with you takes a little more than just saying thank you for a delicious bowl of soup. 🙂

  2. Restaurant websites almost always suck!
    My biggest pet peeve online is PDF menus. WTF!

    I’m happy for HappyTables, and I’m psyched on the UI features they customized to the Admin screen.

    I wish these guys the best of luck. Thanks for helping restaurants online. They totally need it.

  3. happytables is a really good name and that is way more important than most people realize – seriously, if you don’t have a good name and the matching .COM you should probably think twice about investing your time in any project like this.

    The restaurant business is tough, erratic, often flaky and usually badly managed … but, then again, there are a lot of restaurants everywhere. I would make this a straight $50 per month and give half of that, ongoing, to a local agent in each city. I would write an agent’s “bible” explaining how to sell the idea, how to deal with certain common requests and how to maintain casual contact with the restaurant owner in order to retain their custom over the years.

    I would advertise for agents internationally, pushing the benefits of running your own business based upon happytables and laying out the potential for it to gain momentum as restaurants in your city start coming to you as they see their competitors switching. I would repeatedly emphasize that the agent needs no technical skills, just an iPad, a set of fingers and the ability to get up off their arse.

    I would in no way expect restaurant owners to discover happytables, no matter how good it is, without heavily-incentivized local feet on the ground pushing it relentlessly.

    I would, from time to time, approach restaurant owners to see how they were getting on with the product but I would make damn sure that there was no way for them to contact me, looking for support. I would keep the product as simple as possible to minimise support needs and point all queries to the local agent but I would also encourage the agents to jettison any owners who are congenitally unhappy or who require too much hand-holding – it is simply too little money to even pretend to offer a full-service model.

    • Donnacha, thanks a lot for taking the time to look at it all. You couldn’t have described the restaurant market any better, it’s certainly erratic or random at best. Owners come from all walks of life; everything from true culinary masters to, “if my 3 year old loves it, the world will too”. Sort of like American Idol or X-Factor auditions. Given the broad range and the increasing “peer pressure” to build online communities (FB, Foursquare, Twitter, etc.), a number of restaurants are finding themselves online. I think our efforts to grow organically will provide a nice foundation, but ultimately we’ll need to reach out and involve other players. The last thing we want to lose at the moment however, is the direct contact to restaurant owners or their employees. If we did a 50/50 split (or any split for that sake) right off the bat with hyperlocal partners, we’d certainly dilute interesting vertical opportunities, and be in a similar spot with selling themes again (where middle men act as gatekeepers). That being said, cash flow is king and we’ll certainly need to be flexible with how we tackle customer acquisition.

      I think in the long-run and in response to your support comment, it’s the goal of all of us to be able to just kick back and receive dividend (the start-up dream so to speak), but right now (or yesterday for example, I e-mailed 20+ of new trials personally) the insight and feedback restaurant owners provide is invaluable. It’s thus important to me, that we can solve their *problems* first, before we build a wall and have “agents” or “partners” try and feed us their idea of *solutions*.

      • Ha, I was not imagining you kicking back and enjoying your dividends but, rather, moving on to your next innovation 🙂

        I guess it does make sense, from a product development angle, to have that direct link to the customer, I would just hate to see you locked into something that will soak up your time on an ongoing basis. Innovative WordPress developers are still surprisingly scarce and it is always a shame to see them get weighed down by responsibilities unrelated to innovation, it seems to happen a lot.

        It is too easy to end up with pricing models that later turn out to be viable only if sales and support are factored in as something you deal with yourself but there is not enough margin to be able to safely scale the business up to more employees or spread it out to independent local agents or to make it attractive to a buyer once the business is mature.

        That would be my argument for integrating local agents into your model from the start because, ultimately, if you want a scaleable business you can walk away from, you have to learn as much about the agents as you do about the restaurant owners.

        With regard to vertical opportunities, most franchise/agent agreements protect precisely that sort of potential. I would argue that a relatively generous cut on the initial product is what gets them onboard but the cut on ancillary products can be a lot less – no agent is going to turn down the opportunity to make, say, 20% on an attractive new add-on service that will be relatively easy to sell to his existing base of customers.

        Of course, this is all just theorizing, you are the person who is best placed to sense what model suits your business and I will watch your progress with great interest. It would be wonderful if you would be willing to share your experiences with us.

  4. Congratulations Noel and the rest of the team 🙂
    Well done guys. I’ve been following your news for so long and I knew it’s gonna work eventually.

    Now, everybody, what other niches can be tackled with WordPress SaaS?
    Cheers!

  5. It’s a tricky bet by Noel and his team. In this case scenario, they can leverage WordPress as a tool, but not the community and its benefits.

    Restaurant owners don’t know WordPress or it benefits. They certainly don’t Google: “wordpress restaurant themes” or “plugins”. They’ll type instead: “create a restaurant website”.

    Try it and see the results. Tough to get at the top of that! But as 500px and instagram prove it, the big boys (ie,Flickr) can be challenged.

    We’re merely the WP community watching a startup who happens to use WP and, well, it makes us proud.

    The traditional buyers of WP services are devs, consultants, designers, agencies are completely out of this loop. They are the ones with the bucks purchasing themes, premium plugins, etc. In this case, happytables can’t leverage that power at all. Maybe a bit of SEO juice, from WPCandy, etc.

    Happytables are on their own now, outside our community and into a new one. In the meantime, we watch in awe, hoping that WP gives them the extra edge to be successful. May the force be with you!

  6. Please, restaurants in So California, read this post. I am so tired of your awful sites. No more confusing structure, no more cheesy layouts. It doesn’t cost that much, please spare us the frustration and do something with your sites… and happytables looks like an easy enough solution.

  7. I think it’s great. I’ve even seen a lot of posts on ThemeForest’s forums of people begging developers/designers to create more restaurant but of a high standard too. Let’s be honest, some restaurant themes/templates suck big time!

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