Alex Bäcker had reached his limit with waiting in line and his impatience was about to spawn a revolutionary business concept that has the potential to change the world. The only question is, why did it take him so long to make a go at building a business around this universal human problem?
“I had come up with the basic idea behind FASTPASS years before Disney,” says Bäcker. “But at the time, I was a student, so I didn’t really do anything about it. I had not been actively thinking about it. But then the idea just struck me again while I was waiting in line, so I acted on it. I immediately filed for patent protection and started a company shortly thereafter.”
QLess was founded in February 2007 with a very simple mission: Eliminate waiting in line.
Change can be hard
It sounds like an idea without a down side. QLess uses mobile technology to allow a company’s customers to enter a queue and select a time to receive service rather than wait in line.
But Bäcker did face some resistance in getting his company off the ground.
“Convincing customers to change a paradigm like standing in line, a paradigm that is thousands of years old, that’s a challenge,” says Bäcker, the founder and CEO at QLess. “Some merchants see lines as a measure of their success. It’s only over time that you realize how much more success you’ll have and how much happier your customers are when you respect their time and free them from standing in line.”
Funding was also an issue, as it is for any new business.
“In general, investors like to find things that don’t need funding,” Bäcker says. “Showing predictable metrics around future earnings, revenue and value helps. Entrepreneurs are in the business of creating the future.
“Investors are in the business of predicting it. It’s a very different way you spend your time if you’re just trying to grow as fast as possible versus trying to predict how fast you are going to grow. If you want to raise money, you have to spend a little more time trying to predict the future.”
Bäcker, who was born and raised in Argentina, moved to the U.S. to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He later drove across the country to attend graduate school at the California Institute of Technology.
“Then I got the entrepreneurial bug, which is hard not to catch in California,” Bäcker says. “I’ve stayed here ever since. QLess was born out of my frustration standing in line at a Southern California theme park for the umpteenth time. I was telling myself, ‘There has to be a better way.’”
Taking a chance
Entrepreneurialism is a mix of jumping on an idea with both feet while also taking the time to think about how the world will respond to that idea in the future.
There are no guarantees, and as an entrepreneur you have to accept that.
“There are people we’ve all interacted with who like talking about things, but don’t like taking the next step to advance things,” Bäcker says. “They don’t want to make decisions. There are people who love to get the next step done and keep pushing it forward. That’s a key ingredient, that impatience. It’s the same impatience that led me to get tired of lines and think about QLess.”
Bäcker understood that he had to show people how his idea would work. It couldn’t just be a concept in his head or even something on paper. He needed to demonstrate how it solved the problem of eliminating the need to wait in line. One of his early customers was the Department of Motor Vehicles.
“One of the five most valuable companies in the world came to us asking for QLess for their stores,” Bäcker says. “They used it at a DMV and they thought it was the best customer experience they had ever seen. The same thing is true for investors. Showing them is a huge help. Showing them customer traction is great. When you have a great product, there is no better way to sell it than to show it to people.”
Today, QLess has clients in a dozen industries.
“We have millions of unique users in hundreds of cities on five continents,” Bäcker says. “There is no better way to improve customer experience than to give customers what is scarcest in their lives. Today’s, that’s time.”