Brian Gruber found himself in a room full of fans during an early October gathering of developers and visionaries at the Kauffman Foundation's 1 Million Cups. The founder of Lucky Orange was explaining his startup, which provides a suite of tools for real-time Web analytics, when a couple of his clients professed their love of Lucky Orange and pledged to pay more for the service.
"That keeps happening," Gruber, 29, says of clients publicly singing his praises. "I did a webinar yesterday, and I was very shocked by how many people in the chat room were like, 'We love Lucky Orange. It's awesome.' I didn't expect that."
Driving his clients' enthusiasm is an informational mother lode that Lucky Orange provides website owners, allowing them to see almost everything visitors do on their sites.
Every Lucky Orange client gets an online dashboard that looks as if it came from the NORAD command center. The top-right corner of the screen shows the number of current visitors. A map indicates where in the world they are. A continuously updated list shows incoming visitors, how they were directed to the site and how long they've been on it. Clients can switch to heat-map images of their sites that show where visitors are clicking and moving the mouse. Website owners can also record mouse movements, chat with visitors and send them polls. The goal: Help website owners design better pages based on how visitors interact with their sites.
Wearing a faded Royals hat and a winter coat inside his drafty Overland Park office, Florida native Gruber says he built websites for a living for several years. But he grew weary of his clients valuing how the site looked over how it worked.
"Building other people's websites means you have many different bosses," Gruber says. "And each time you build a new site, you have another boss. And I think I got tired of that."
So four years ago, Gruber switched professions. He trained violent and bite-prone dogs and built websites as a hobby. Two years ago, he launched Lucky Orange. He has been running it full time for about a year and a half, and he says his business's growth has largely been due to its enthusiastic customers.
"I think the tool just got so interesting that it was worth talking about," Gruber says. "When somebody sees how it works, then they get it. They're like, 'Wow, it does that? That's ridiculous.' "
Using only word-of-mouth marketing, Gruber has amassed about 6,000 users, including some major corporations.
"I remember, in the beginning, I had a customer call in [needing help]," he says. "I said, 'OK, what's the URL of your website?' And they said, 'Samsclub.com.' It was the Web team for Sam's Club trying it on a few pages."
A not-uncommon challenge for Gruber and startups: finding the time to get everything done.
"At a lot of startups, they work around the clock. They never stop," he says. But Gruber won't let work consume him. He carves out time for his wife and son, who is almost 3. Plus, his faith — he's a modern Orthodox Jew — mandates that he step away from the grind from Friday evening until Saturday night.
"I have a family, he says. "I can't work forever. I need to come home."
Gruber isn't marketing Lucky Orange, and he doesn't have to. The word of mouth brings him from 10 to 20 new sites a day. Business is so good that he's looking to hire his first employee. This also means that investment-capital firms are trying to buy Lucky Orange. But Gruber isn't interested in selling out.
"I don't know exactly if it's a greedy thing or a fear thing or a wise thing," Gruber says. "I don't know what the motivation is, but I've yet to convince myself that, 'OK, I want to go get capital.' "
Gruber says he might take an investor later on, but he doesn't sound committed to the idea.
"Maybe this is it," he says, "I don't like bosses."