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One year later: Kleer reflects on launch of dental membership software while Ukraine-based employees fled war

Kleer’s global engineering team shares insights and lessons learned during a tumultuous software release.

Working at Kleer. (Courtesy Kleer)

This article is sponsored by Kleer and was reviewed before publication. Kleer is a Talent Pro client.

“It never goes exactly the way you think it will,” Doug McClure, vice president of product development at Kleer, said one year after the launch of the company’s Kleer Intelligence integration software.

Considering more than half of its tech team was located at the center of a massive international conflict, some might call that an understatement.

Advancing technology for the dental industry

Established in 2018, Kleer, based in Wayne, Pennsylvania, provides an affordable alternative to dental insurance by offering customizable, subscription-based dental care memberships for uninsured patients. In 2022, the platform got an update in the form of the company’s new, proprietary software called Kleer Intelligence, which integrates with an office’s internal practice management system (PMS) to automate time-consuming tasks such as inputting and updating patient data, posting payments and direct to patient marketing.

Building the integration software proved to be an ambitious undertaking, due to the wide range of practice management systems used in dental practices across the country, different internet speeds and how customers maintain their servers.

“After launch, we quickly learned that what we were building was not just about the tech, but how our customers were using it,” McClure said.

Doug McClure. (Courtesy Kleer)

One example was the highly anticipated payment posting feature. The team found multiple barriers to adoption, from whether a customer’s business practices allowed them to post payments to the fact that many dental practices — which still rely on physical servers in the office — were turning their servers off each night and over the weekends.

“What we learned from this was to just get a small product in front of your customers so that you can learn all of the conditions under which it can break,” McClure said. “Build less, deploy more often, listen to where you got it wrong and iterate — that will set you up for success.”

Opening the lines of communication

Another key learning was the importance of providing support and training for customers who lack the experience of installing and updating new technology.

“Every PMS is different, so the installation of our software was rarely standard,” said Paul Biancaniello, chief technical officer at Kleer. “As it turned out, it was better for us to participate in the installation vs. having them do it on their own.”

Paul Biancaniello. (Courtesy Kleer)

They now have a dedicated support team in place to walk each customer through the installation process or assist them in upgrading their servers. Over time, the team documented all common and edge use cases in order to assign protocols that would streamline the installation process.

Additionally, as issues with the first iteration of the product came to light, Biancaniello found that communication with Kleer’s new external partner, Sikka — the team that built the software Kleer installs on practices’ servers, which pulls data off the PMS and uploads it to the cloud for Kleer to access — was crucial in order to decide which team would handle which issues.

“In the beginning, a lot of the issues we faced had to do with installing and configuring Sikka’s software so that it worked properly,” Biancaniello said. “We had to form a tight communication chain with them in order to quickly address issues in the pipeline as they arose, because, early on, the source of the problem wasn’t always clear.”

A global partnership in crisis

Over the last six years, Kleer has worked closely with engineers at Stuzo, a software services company based in Philly with two offices in the Ukraine. While building the Kleer Intelligence software, war broke out in Ukraine when Russia invaded suddenly, putting the lives of Kleer’s Ukrainian partners in imminent danger. Stuzo provided refuge for its employees in Poland — of which 95% of the team took advantage — but leaving their homes took an emotional toll, nonetheless.

Sergey Panarin. (Courtesy Kleer)

Sergey Panarin, a backend developer at Stuzo who has worked with Kleer since its launch in 2018, left for Poland, and later Spain, as soon as he heard rumblings about Russia’s possible invasion. Chatting with colleagues who left at the last minute, he could hear bombs dropping via video calls.

“For the first few weeks, it was very intense,” Panarin said. “We were so worried about our families in Ukraine. It is complicated, emotionally, to not know when it will stop or what will happen next.”

Despite the war-torn conditions in his homeland, Panarin and his colleagues put their heads down and worked even harder to improve the Kleer Intelligence software, citing his gratitude for still being employed when many of his peers did not have the same luxury.

Moving forward

With his family safely relocated to Western Ukraine, Panarin continues to build the next iterations of Kleer Intelligence™, designing new features from scratch, fixing bugs and writing documentation in work he calls “challenging and very interesting.”

“Life continues,” he said. “We must continue somehow. Making our lives how we can.”

Taking learnings from customer feedback and the unfortunate situation in Ukraine, Phil Son, a Philadelphia-based backend developer who architected Kleer’s in-house data engineering solution, said a key element of product launch success is flexibility.

Phil Son. (Courtesy Kleer)

“Being open-minded and flexible is pretty important,” Son said. “Accommodate an unusual use case if it makes the customer’s life easier. Update your code for better workflow. Be humble enough to implement the changes yourself.”

Currently, the entire Kleer/Stuzo team is preparing for its next release to drive even greater value for its customers, including the third version of the payment posting feature, the first versions of an automated marketing feature and benefits feature, as well as seeing Son lean farther into the data analysis of Kleer customers’ accounts.

Lessons learned

To summarize what the Kleer/Stuzo team learned while building proprietary software from scratch, here are the key takeaways:

  • Understand your audience. Conduct customer interviews before you build. Dig deep. Speak with people directly to understand their exact pain points, offer a potential solution to get their reaction and validate it. Determine the essential issue you want to solve for, before you account for variations.
  • Start small and iterate. You don’t create a masterpiece on day one. Build an MVP (minimum viable product), test and break it with a small cohort of trusted customers. Gather feedback. Then, iterate and try again. Release new pieces every eight weeks.
  • Build a plan, but prepare for change. Determine what you want to build, but leave room for what you may learn from customer research, feedback and unexpected frictions that arise.
  • Pick the right partner. Hire a team that understands the problem you’re trying to solve. Then, define a process for who will own issues if features fail. Communicate frequently and clearly.
  • Help customers understand how to use your product. Provide product education and support for customers, while arming your team with the training and tools to support them.

Learn more about Kleer

Companies: Kleer / Stuzo

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