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How a Los Angeles Startup Built and Scaled a Santa Video Chat App in Three Months

Danny Schreiber
Danny Schreiber / December 24, 2013

What started with a boy’s curiosity this fall has become an app sensation this winter. Hello Santa, an app that offers live video calls with Santa Claus, has given thousands of kids around the world a chance to chat with Jolly Old Saint Nick. And it’s given the four-month-old, four-person startup behind the app, Make Believe Lab, a Christmas gift they’ll never forget: a popular first app.

The story behind Hello Santa’s speedy creation and adoption is a magical one. Fortunate for us, they’re a Zapier customer, so we were able to snatch some time from “Chief Elf” Dorian Collier during this busy Christmas week.

A Simple Question Starts It All

“Hey daddy, can I FaceTime with Santa?”

That’s what Dorian’s three-year old son asked him in August. So Dorian, a veteran software consultant, went looking for the app to do just that.

“I was like ‘of course, you can,’” Dorian said, confident that one of the App Store’s million-plus apps would fulfill his toddler’s wish. But his search for such an app ended without a promising result. “I found out that there was nobody really offering (video calls with Santa) at scale,” he said. He saw opportunity.

“So I talked to the partners and we jumped in with both feet. That’s how Make Believe Labs started.”

A Set of Questions Steers the Startup in the Right Direction

Make Believe LabsThree of Make Believe Labs’ four team members (from left: Dorian Collier , Jordan Lyall, and Rob McKinley) appear in a promotional video for their startup.

It was August, and though Christmas music wasn’t playing and stockings weren’t hung, the fast approaching holiday was all the Make Believe Labs had on its mind.

Could they create a product with mass appeal and have it in the app store in just weeks?

The development part they knew they could do—more on that later—but confidence in an app with mass appeal wasn’t a guarantee. So they began to ask questions of their friends and family.

“We weren’t sure if it was a good idea or not, so we went out and just started talking to people,” Dorian said. “We ran surveys, we talked to as many people as we could. Eventually, we talked to somewhere around 1,000 people before we wrote a signal line of code.

Using Amazon Mechanical Turk, they went beyond their personal networks to collect responses to a 50-question survey. The team used the paid service to expedite their market research. They wanted to learn who would use this service, how much they would pay for it and what kind of experience they expected from it.

“What it really told us was what was important in parent’s minds,” Dorian said. “The most important thing they said that they were looking for was a realistic, authentic looking Santa. Somebody that really represents the classic image of Santa.”

Make Believe Labs Learns How to Scale Santa

There can only be one, true Santa.

(Parental Warning: If you’ve chosen to read this Christmas story to your kids, skip this section.)

In Los Angeles, the home of Make Believe Labs, luckily there’s a surplus of individuals who look just like that Santa.

“We went and talked to a bunch of Santas—real-bearded Santas,” Dorian said about the startup’s next step in researching their idea.

We eventually found a guy named Ed Taylor who we recruited as our Chief Santa and he showed us the ropes in terms of how to get Santas on board, how to do these video calls, what Santa needs to say, what he can’t say, all those types of things,” Dorian said.

Below the Chief Santa are about 50 other Santas taking turns answering calls in a 12-hour window every day of the week. The technology behind the queuing system was built by Make Believe Labs, a system it constructed after they released a private beta of the app in October to further prove out their idea.

Even in a Time Crunch, Make Believe Labs Begins with a Beta Test

Beta Test
“Within two months we had a prototype and we were doing real calls betweens Santa and kids on a limited basis just to kind of test the model,” Dorian said.

From mid-October to early November, Make Believe Labs began giving kids the chance to make video calls with Santa, just as Dorian’s son thought was possible.

“(The app) didn’t have any payment, didn’t have much of anything,” Dorian said, describing just how nut and bolts they kept their beta test.

“Basically, you sign up for the app, you press ‘call,’ and it dials Santa. It was just super, super simple.”

The result: “Kids loved it. Parents were excited. Kids were excited,” Dorian said.

From that point forward, Dorian said the reception to their app has been “unbelievable.”

“We have some parents that literally cry, they get emotional when they see their kids just amazed by Santa,” he said. “And Santa encourages them and talks to them about things that maybe they’re having trouble with or whatever.”

Well Before Black Friday, Hello Santa Launches in the App Store

App Store

Knowing the app had mass appeal, now came time for Make Believe Labs to see their idea through to launch. It was almost November. The chaos of the Christmas season was weeks away. It was time to move at elf speed.

Over the next three weeks, Make Believe Labs gave the app a stylish design, added a queuing system for calls with Santa, a way for people to pay and the ability to give users a recording of their calls.

By mid-November, the team submitted Hello Santa to Apple.

On November 21, Hello Santa made its App Store debut.

Fast-Growing Hello Santa Automates Their Customer Service

Email

Within two weeks, Hello Santa earned its first press coverage—a write-up in TechCrunch. Soon, it was one of four apps featured in a Los Angeles Times holiday article.

The app quickly picked up momentum and calls to Santa rose right away. With that positive response, the small team faced an early obstacle shared by other fast-growing startups: supporting a fast-growing user base. And it was extra important for Hello Santa to do so because their users were rating their app, which can make or break an app’s chance in the App Store.

Noticing patterns in their incoming customer support, Make Believe Labs turned to Zapier to begin automating a proactive approach to support. Instead of waiting to hear for customers what needed to be addressed, the company began using Zapier to run queries on new lines in its SQL database, which houses their user sign-up information and app engagement, and then based on results output actions in Zendesk and Mandrill, MailChimp’s transactional email service.

“If somebody has a perfect call—the call connects perfectly, the customer rates the call good, Santa rates the call good, everything is perfect—that goes into Zapier and then an email is triggered to that customer asking them for a rating, because they had a great experience,” Dorian said. “If the call has any trouble whatsoever, then there's a different set of rules. All together, I think there's probably eight or nine different scenarios that a single call can fall into, trigger different set of actions.”

Here’s a peak at some of Hello Santa’s customer service automation via Zapier:

With Zapier, it saves us literally hundreds of house of development time,” Dorian said. “It's also highly configurable. For an email that goes to a customer, I don't have to tell the programmers if I want to re-word that email, or even if I want to tweak the rules slightly.” Instead, Dorian goes into Zapier, edits the SQL query and email template in the app’s editor, makes it live and instantly changes that particular automated customer support follow up.

“Instead of waiting 24 hours or longer for a programmer to make the changes and deploy, I can do it on the fly if I need to,” he said.

Hello Santa Starts Experimenting

As if it wasn’t ambitious enough to research, build, beta test, launch and then automate the customer support for Hello Santa, the Make Believe Labs team continues to improve the product through experimentation. Again, they relied on Zapier to make this possible.

"We have four weeks (to learn) what works best, run all our experiments, get customers, make money, all that stuff,” Dorian said.

Parents who want to let their child call Santa, download the app for free and then make an in-app purchase of $14.99 to make the call and receive the video download later. What if instead of including the video download, they thought, the app offered the call for cheap and then Make Believe Labs followed up with satisfied customers with an option to buy the video? They tried doing just that.

“We set up some automations in Zapier to offer the recorded videos for purchase after they finished the call,” Dorian said. “That's something that would have been really, really, really difficult to do as fast as we did it without Zapier."

Again, they automated the email using their SQL server, Mandrill and Zapier:

The experiment didn’t change their model, though they’re taking the results into consideration. “We might go that route completely next year, we're not sure," Dorian said.

Setting Up for Hello Santa 2014

In all, Hello Santa has used Zapier to automate actions between eight different apps. We’ve agreed to only reveal a few of the automations here—there is still magic behind this operation—and not to give away all the secrets to their growth. But one integration that will come in very handy in 2014 is their automatic addition of every new user to a MailChimp list. They did so using Zapier by connecting their SQL database with their MailChimp account.

Between post-Christmas in 2013 and when the holiday buzz begins in 2014, Make Believe Labs plans to put out two more apps, both featuring popular children’s characters that will be accessible through video calls. But besides those apps, they'll be heavily focused on Hello Santa.

“There's just massive potential there that we haven't really tapped into yet,” Dorian said.

A Christmas Wish Comes True

We can’t end this holiday post without sharing the reaction of Dorian’s three-year-boy little boy who started this whole story with a question. So how did he like video chatting with Santa?

“He loved it. He loves the entire experience,” Dorian said, noting that Santa also stops by his house for business meetings. “He's more popular at school now. He's got friends in high places, I guess."

If you want to try the app for yourself, Santa will be answering calls through Christmas day.

Images courtesy Make Believe Labs

Photo of Alex Minchin

“Zapier is the extra team member at our agency linking our systems together and managing the push and pull of data.”

Alex Minchin, Managing Partner at Zest

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