The story of how Mike Klanac (BS ’04) started his company begins with a frozen pizza and a German knife.
Anticipating a quick and easy meal after a long day, Klanac took the pie out of the oven, set it on the counter and cut into it. Then … snap. The knife, supposedly of premium quality, broke in half. So began a two-month odyssey of navigating through the company’s customer service black hole to obtain a replacement.
“It was a nightmare,” Klanac says, “and it highlighted a problem a lot of people can identify with.” He thought there had to be a better way. Thus, GripeO was born.
GripeO is a website and mobile app that allows consumers who sign up for a free account to file a complaint against a company, whether for poor customer service or for a lackluster product. Klanac formed the company in 2012, bringing along several co-workers from a previous startup. It is housed in Z80 Labs, a Buffalo-based Internet startup incubator co-founded by UB alumnus Jordan Levy (BA ’77).
Here’s how GripeO works: When a grievance is lodged, the GripeO team notifies the business and gives it an opportunity to respond to the consumer. If the gripe goes unanswered after two weeks and three notifications, it moves into the “complaint marketplace,” where competitors can purchase the complaint and offer incentives to woo the aggrieved consumer.
Businesses are encouraged to sign up for a paid account, which provides access to a bunch of services along with their complaints. In addition to paid accounts, GripeO now has more than 10,000 users. The company also maintains a strong social media presence, with more than 170,000 followers on Twitter.
“Several major brands have responded to 100 percent of the complaints filed through GripeO,” says Klanac, who grew up in Buffalo but relocated to Houston to be closer to his wife’s family (he now splits his time between the two cities). “Most businesses don’t even know their customer service is that bad,” he adds. “I use the analogy, ‘Would you want someone to tell you if you have spinach in your teeth?’ For businesses, it’s ‘Would you rather ignore the problem, or know about it and be part of the conversation?’”
The company got a boost over the summer when it became one of seven startups—from a pool of 1,227 applicants—selected for Seed Sumo, a “100-day boot camp for startups” that takes place near Texas A&M University. In addition to $50,000 in financing, participants in the business accelerator program receive guidance from a network of more than 90 mentors. At the conclusion of the three-month program, Klanac pitched his company to potential investors during Seed Sumo Demo Day. “The program was very intense. They really questioned everything,” he says.
At this point, he can’t say whether he’ll get investors out of the program, but Seed Sumo did help the GripeO team develop one of the more promising features for the service: the ability for businesses to aggregate customer reviews from a range of sites like Google Places, Yelp and Foursquare. “It’s kind of like Mint for customer service,” Klanac says, referring to the Web-based tool that tracks all of a user’s financial transactions in one place.
GripeO staffers have compiled profiles on some 300 businesses, creating a directory that identifies each company’s customer service social media channels and other contact information. Users can submit their gripe, and include a photo, right from each company’s directory page. They can even create a meme to help draw further attention to the issue.
Though a businessman himself, Klanac feels no remorse for publicly shaming corporations that let their customers down. “Negative feedback provides companies an opportunity to learn and get better,” he says.