#28: Validating, Testing, & Pivoting with Adam Lane Robinson
Adam Robinson is the Co-Founder/CEO at GetEmails, an email-based retargeting software.
He’s also the Co-Founder and President of Robly, an Email Marketing firm.
What You Learn
- What made Adam want to become an entrepreneur
- How to validate your idea
- How to determine when to pivot
- How to come up with new ideas to test
- 3 great tools you can use to measure user behavior and test hypotheses
- And much more!
Guest Introduction (0:00)
Welcome back to another episode of the We Live to Build Podcast. Our guest today is Adam Lane Robinson, the cofounder and CEO at GetEmails, the world’s first ever email based retargeting software. He’s also the cofounder and president of Robly, an email marketing firm. This former Wall Street returned to entrepreneurship after several unique experiences made him realize that it’s what he was made for.
In this fascinating talk, you’ll hear about what made Adam wanted to become an entrepreneur, how to validate your idea, how to determine when to pivot, how to come up with new ideas to test, three great tools you can use to measure user behavior and test hypotheses, and much more. So, let’s give Adam a warm welcome.
Welcome to We Live to Build. My name is Sean Weisbrot and I’m an entrepreneur, investor, and advisor based in Asia for over twelve years. Join us every week to fast track your personal growth so you can meet the ever-increasing demands of the company or companies you are passionately building. Time waits for no one. So, let’s get started now.
Get to know Adam (1:40)
Thank you for taking the time to sit down with us today. I really appreciate it. I know it’s early morning for you. So, welcome to the show, Adam.
Thank you. You know, you wouldn’t know by the backgrounds that it was early morning for me and late night for you. It looks like we’re, like, next door to each other.
We’re in the same building.
So, before we get started, why don’t you tell everyone real fast who you are, what you do right now, and we’ll take it from there.
Sure. My name is Adam Robinson. I’m currently the founder and CEO of one company and the founder and president of another company. The company I’m operating right now is called Getemails.com. It’s currently January 4, 2021, and we started getting emails in November of 2019. So, it’s like 13 and a half months old.
My other company is called Robly Email Marketing. I have a CEO that runs that, and it’s an email marketing service like MailChimp. And I started that, launched the product in 2014, came up with the idea for it in the middle of 2012. And before that, I was a credit default swap trader at Lehman Brothers. And for those who are old enough to have been alive during the financial crisis, it’s the bank that defaulted because of what we were trading, more or less.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say I think everyone listening is probably old enough to remember the 2008 crisis.
I just say that because I’m surprised at the response from some people. They’re like sort of glazed over. I think if you were young enough and maybe it didn’t affect you in a way that was meaningful, it certainly affected me. I’m 40 though, I mean.
So, I’m 34, and…
Yeah, you were around for it.
I left in the summer of 2008, so it didn’t really touch me because I didn’t have any debt, I didn’t have any assets, I didn’t have stocks, I had nothing.
Well, more importantly, you weren’t looking for a job in America.
Well, so, I actually went to Asia because I wanted to experience something different. I’ve talked about this many times, so I won’t say it again here, but a lot of my friends that stayed ended up screwed hard. A lot of them had student loan debt before this happened. They couldn’t find work. They had to move back in with their parents. They ended up going to get a master’s degree, a lot of them, because what else was there to do? Like, “Oh, I’ve got debt, might as well have more debt.”
Oh my gosh, yes. It’s a sad thing that this country is doing that to our, you know. There’s a couple of really weird things about America. The student debt thing and the health care thing are just like it doesn’t make any sense. But there’s no logical solution either, right?
You’re preaching to the choir.
How Adam got into entrepreneurship (4:22)
So, did you get into entrepreneurship because of 2008 or were you already thinking of an exit before?
The real reason, the real because is I graduated from college in 2003. I went to Rice University in Houston, moved to New York, worked for Lehman Brothers, and I was living with these guys in my first apartment in New York who started Vimeo and College Humor in the apartment we were living in. So, like Vimeo, I don’t know, it was like a top ten website on the internet at one point. This is like a real thing these guys were doing. It wasn’t quite like starting Facebook, but these guys, they were working in this really cool apartment with really young people, and then, they moved to this amazing office in Union Square and it just looked so cool.
The job that I had was also awesome, but it was awesome because it was very smart and talented people that were doing it. But at the end of the day, it’s kind of like trading is like taking money out of the system for you. And, like, there’s no building. Like, I never interviewed anybody in ten years being there. I never managed anybody. I had a couple of trading assistants. It was entrepreneurial in a way, because you either succeeded or you got fired.
But there wasn’t this idea that, like, you’re slowly peeling back layers of the onion and you like, years go by and you look back on what you’ve accomplished and it’s like, “wow, that’s amazing.” I looked back and I was like, wow, I made a lot of money, way more than I thought, but like, that’s kind of where it ended. You buy things without money, it’s like, “wow, I have a cool car now.” But human psychology is very funny. Like, you get used to all that stuff in about 90 days.
The why is I wanted my life to be like these guys. It just seemed like they were getting much more out of their work than I was. So, I always had this ambition, and I think before when I was like in high school and early in college, I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. I was like reading books about it and stuff. And then, the whole Wall Street thing, it was just fixed income was like, when I graduated, it was like really big, young guys were doing really well, played basketball in college and they loved this college athlete thing. It was a similar environment to college sports.
So, one of my buddies had an internship at Goldman Sachs over the summer and he’s like, you got to come up here and do this stuff. So that’s how I started. I mean, now it’s like a lot easier for young people to just be like, I’m going to go start tech startups and be an entrepreneur. Like in 2003, that was not an option. Like nobody was, like Zuckerberg did it, but that was Zuckerberg, he’s pretty good. It was not an option to just be a startup person and go out there and raise money with zero experience, like 22 years old. If it was, I think I would have taken that path instead of the Wall Street path, but there was no straight arrow direction to doing that, you know what I mean?
Yeah. I’ve spoken to a lot of people who are in their forty’s and fifty’s who have gone through this entrepreneurial path. So, it’s been really interesting hearing about what business was like before the internet and how you did sales by going to people’s offices and just meeting them face to face and closing them. It’s been really cool to hear all these different stories.
I’m curious, is anyone from your family an entrepreneur meaning like, your father, mother, aunts, uncles, grandparents, anyone like that?
My mother’s side of the family, like her mother was a teacher, but her whole side of her family owned a bunch of newspapers in Oklahoma and we would go to family reunions with these people. I can’t even articulate what I thought was so interesting about it, but the newspaper to me seemed like the idea that somebody we knew was controlling that was just this crazy idea, you know what I mean? It seemed like such a Houston Chronicle. Like where I grew up, it just seems like, such a beast of a thing. It was just such an interesting idea that some puppet master was up there doing it all, right? That’s probably the closest person to an entrepreneur that I knew.
And then my brother, like, when I was still in college, he started a company and it grew a lot, and, like so I watched I kind of watched that as I was living with my friends. He’s only 15 months older than me, so when, like, I grew up with it, but, like, somehow, we both got infected with this idea that, like, this is what we wanted to do. We wanted to be our own bosses and all that stuff. I think being a trader was as close as you could get to being your own boss. I mean, these guys did not offer you any help or assistance or anything. It’s just, like, thrown into the fire. You sink or swim, and if you sink, you die.
That’s probably a pretty good lesson. So, I’ve talked to a lot of people in the past, guests on the show, and a lot of them have a father or a mother or a grandparent. So, it’s interesting that you didn’t really have that influence directly, because a lot of them will say, I worked in the business with them as a kid, and so that was, like, their inspiration.
I wish I had that. I know people that have that. I think it’s great. And now I think we’re talking about we both just got married. I don’t have kids yet. I’ve got a friend here whose family owns a coffee company. They own a bunch of commercial real estate in Austin, and he still works in this family business. And, like, that idea is cool. And a friend of mine, growing up, his dad bought them vending machines so that they could understand how money worked. I kind of wish I had an education like that. If God blesses us with kids, I would love to have something like that, because I think it’s helpful for the kids to understand how this stuff works right. In business on any level, like, slightly more sophisticated than the lemonade stand, I think.
I’ll do a side note here, because I haven’t said this on air yet, but yes, I did just get married in December, so it is exciting.
Thank you. So, putting that aside, now, if ever I say my wife, people won’t go, “wait a minute, you have a wife and a girlfriend?” Wait a minute. What?
Starting his company (10:00)
So, let’s get a little bit closer to the topic which is validating ideas and things like that. So, what gave you the idea for your first company?
So, I think this is probably, like, a really hard one for a lot of people that want to be entrepreneurs, because where do you even start? I had this massive problem and my solution, which didn’t end up being a good one, because I basically set aside a pile of money that I made, and I was like, instead of going to business school, I’m going to use this to try to educate myself in startups, invest in stuff, and get involved with people that I thought could help me move along this journey, like, buy my way into situations that ultimately, hopefully would end up being a tech entrepreneur from an investor.
My idea was, like and I had a guy sort of mentor that caused me to lose a lot of money, but sort of did this at Lehman Brothers while he was a sales guy, he was sort of actively involved in a portfolio of private equity venture investments. I thought that was, like, really cool. When you’re sitting there trading securities, that idea sounds like the coolest thing in the world. A diverse portfolio of businesses that you’re sort of owning, running, whatever.
I lost a ton of dough. I put money in, like, five things. Like, four of them went to zero. The annoying thing was the stuff that I passed on, like, they’re literally, like, billion dollar exit companies that I just got. I’m like, I’m going to invest in five things. It’s like the four that I did were, like, kind of donuts like, my company is fine, and then three out of the four that I passed on, it was like, Plaid got bought for $5 billion. I met with him, like, right out of Tech Stars, Bark Box, like, this guy, it’s worth over a billion. I’m so stupid. I’m such a bad investor.
So anyway, this was my idea and then stupidly, this is another asinine idea that I had because, like, I say that’s a bad idea because I really believe in focus. There’s nothing more powerful than you focusing on one thing and multiple things are distracting. The less you focus on, the more you can sort of make it happen. And then if you get many smart people focusing on one thing, razor sharp focus, you can build some pretty amazing stuff over the course of a lot of years.
The first thing that actually worked was this company called Robly Email Marketing. And where it came from is my brother was using a company called Rate Point for email marketing and customer reviews and they shut it down. This guy had raised $25 million and they just turned the lights off and he’s like, “You’re looking for something to do? Why don’t we try to build this software on the cheap and go find this guy’s customers?” Which sounded like a reasonable enough idea to me. He raised $25 million. He bought a bunch of customers. They no longer have a product to use. Let’s see if we can move quick, build a product, find them, and then see what’s next.
And this guy actually found the CEO of the company that shut down. He found a video that I made trying to go after his customers and emailed me. He was like, “Hey man, come to Boston. If you try to do what you’re doing, you’re going to fail. I can show you something that will for sure at least get you to like a small lifestyle business and then figure out what’s next.” Music to my ears. First time entrepreneur. “Okay, cool.” So, this guy’s like, I’m not going to say too much, but there’s a company up the road that does email marketing. They’re leaving a ton of customer information all over the internet. And this was like this predated built with and data-tized.
We built a per price and performance competitive product and we first started trying to direct mail these people to get them to get on our platform because we spoke to a marketing person who did a direct mail campaign with the other company. We were like, “Oh, this is going to be amazing. We’re going to send these mailers out; we’re going to convert them at 10%” like this woman said that we would. And we’re going to get 2000 customers in our 1st 60 days paying us $15. And like instead of 2000, it was, like, 15 like, which is another hilarious thing about starting SaaS startups, like your idea of how it’s going to go before you actually start and then how it actually goes.
I came up with this philosophy about starting companies during that first experience. It’s like, if I can’t afford for this to go 10% as well as I’m modeling, I’m not going to start it because it’s probably going to go 10% as well as I think in the beginning. And then once you get some product, market can’t increase. So, the direct mail thing didn’t work. And then we started cold calling this list of people because we were able to find the business name, zip code, and first and last name of the person who actually had the account.
And from there, we sent this list overseas. They popped it into Google, they sent us back a phone number. I was running this out of my apartment because, like, as I said before, I had this ambition. I wanted to create this company in this apartment like these guys. It just seemed so cool. At one point I had 39 smile and dial callers coming to my apartment. It was absurd. It was like rows of screens and people on headsets. And the problem with it was it was a finite strategy. Once I got through that list, there was nothing after it.
We thought we had another list. This was the worst thing that I’ve done as a leader. We tested this other list and it looked like it was going to work and it was like a million leads. We had like 200,000. I was like, “Oh great, it’s not going to be as good of a list, but we’ll at least double and get a little more on top of what we had.” And then, we got all these people and we were ramping, like, I hired this real recruiter. We had an intern program. You’re doing all this ridiculous stuff. You have to hire 5-10 people every month or something like that. Like you start trying to compete with all these other companies that are hiring these smile and dialers out of college or whatever in New York, get everybody on the list, people aren’t even pick up the phone. It’s so far from economic that literally had to call everybody into a room and be like, if you’re in this room, you’re fired. And went from like 39 to 6 in one day because there was no business. It just wasn’t even close to economic on a unit economic basis to continue doing what we’re doing there.
The nice thing was it was cash flow positive with 39 people. So, you go down to six and it’s a lot cash flow positive. But the problem is it’s not growing anymore because the growth was coming from all of those salespeople. So yeah, that’s the brief story of like year one through two and a half of Robly, which was that ended in 2016. That was like when that date was. And there was just a lot of messing with stuff to figure out how to get these people to buy it.
Less is sometimes better (17:09)
So, would you say that was the hardest thing you learned, was figuring out how to get people to buy it?
There were just so many lessons that came from that. If we’re talking about things that I will forever avoid in the future, like, the hardest thing that I ever had to do was fire all those people at once. After ramping up on a decision that I had made. Right. What lesson came from that? I don’t know.
I was probably, it’s very easy, and with this new company, I’m sure you will see, like, separating your emotion from this thing that’s growing in front of you is like, such a difficult thing, especially like, these people that you’re hiring. It’s a vanity metric. It’s horrible. It does not sign of a company doing well, right? But it does something to your soul when, over the course of six months, your company goes from six to 39 people. If the people are growing faster than the revenue even, it still makes you feel like the business is like, growing super-fast because it’s just in front of your eyes. It went from six to 39 people. It’s a totally different thing. That was probably a great lesson. My personal attitude towards it now is that less people and more revenue is the goal. Right. At that point, that was not necessarily the case. It was very exciting and fulfilling seeing this thing grow with head counts in front of my very eyes.
I heard someone say, like, “Yeah, we grew from 50 to 2,000 over the last three years.” I’m like, “Why do I ever want to have a company with 2,000 people if I could have the same company with 200?”
I don’t even want to have a company with 200. There are some situations in which I would accept that. I like where we’re at now. We started this company last November. We got to 3 million in revenue in twelve months. We have five full time employees. I think we’ll be able to double this year, at least, maybe a little bit more without hiring anybody. And that’s a really good business, and like, it will be valuable at the end of this year and somebody will buy that for some eight-figure number. It’s so pleasant.
Like, when you have a company with 40 people and you’re trying to hire ten people a month, you have to start doing things like, “Oh, if we had a book club and we’re in a kickball league and we had Kombucha on tap, then we’re going to be able to hire these people from Yelp and Yax.” Whereas if you have five people and they all have skin in the game and they’re all smart, that doesn’t even remotely enter the equation, right? And if you have to hire one other really key person, they’re interested in the fact that your company grew from zero to 3 million in twelve months and don’t give a shit about the Kombucha. They’re like, “Wow, we could really make this thing. We could create $100 million in value over the next couple of years, and I could be one of the six people who did that.”
One way to avoid all of that stuff is to just have a fully remote team, because you can’t have Kombucha if they don’t have an office.
Lehman brothers was 20,000 people, but I was on a 13-person team and we didn’t really even know the people next to us on that 13-person team. It was just this row of people, and we were a tight unit that doesn’t even count culturally, but it seemed like going from five to ten was some added complexity. If, like, you’re the one. Like, right now, I think between the two companies we have 20, but there’s a CEO of Robly handles 15 of them, so, like, I don’t consider that part of my headache anymore. I kind of have a headache of like a five-person organization with GetEmails, which is beautiful, ten, depending on how you set it up and how many people you’re speaking to directly.
Like, if you’re speaking to three people and that’s it, and ten is not too bad, but there becomes a point that’s like maybe above 30 where you’ve had to put all of the management layers in, that you would if you had like 100- or 200-person company, bureaucracy and politics enter this organization that just suck. You’re spending time on stuff that is not what you want to spend time on, but you kind of have to have it to grow in certain situations.
Other people are more ambitious than me. Like, I’m happy selling early and staying small in order to do that, to start a new one and do the same thing. I really love building in the early stage, like super early stages, finding original product market fit, testing it, getting to whatever, three, five, ten in revenue or something like that. And then just like getting rid of it, starting over. That’s what I think I’m interested in right now. Rather than like, “man, we got to make this thing a billion-dollar company. That’s what we’re doing. We’re going big, we’re going on raising VC.” This is just a different way to do it right? And that involves heads. There’s no way you’re getting around heads.
Validating and testing business ideas (21:59)
Let’s talk a little bit more about, you shared, about the process you went through in testing different ways to validate your market and get people to pay for your product for Robly. Why don’t we take a step back and talk about the thought process and the planning and the strategy for how to figure out what’s the first thing to do if it doesn’t work, what’s the next thing to do, et cetera, until you hit that fit?
There’s a great book called The Four Steps to the Epiphany that I would recommend anybody who’s starting a startup read. I just agree with this philosophy about building things. The philosophy is this, and I think a lot of startups that do really well. The guy has done this and he didn’t even realize that he was doing it, really.
A lot of people have heard of the Lean Startup. This book is like the academic version of the book that the Lean Startup sort of like, distilled into something that you could read in a day or whatever. But the idea is this the root human flaw that this guy is saying, we all have this wrong, is that your intuition is often a horrible indicator of market validity. So, instead of building something, thinking that there’s buyers for it, and then marketing it on this big launch, when you’re done building it, you need to find the buyer. You need to come up with a product hypothesis and then start building that product. And as you’re building it, you need a separate team going out there and making sure there’s actually demand for what you’re building.
And he’s got all these steps, and if you make it to a certain step and you’re not above a certain threshold, you have to stop and you have to pivot. You have to change your product hypothesis and start the whole process over again. And he’s a stickler about like, it’s not about adding features to this product hypothesis that you thought you had. Like, you can’t change anything until you stop and start over again. Anyway, I think that this is the way to do it.
In a way my Robley experienced was that, like I said before, a lot of people end up doing that without even knowing. Like, we had another guy who had done exactly what we did at Robly before we did it. We had a guy who found this list, used it, called these customers, got them to switch over with a half price product that did the same thing. There was just a ton, ton of evidence that that was true and that happened. There was a customer discovery before we started building. We didn’t actually do it, but somebody had done it. And he’s like, “I know this works because I literally just did it.”
Fast forwarding with GetEmails. It started off as a feature in Robly. Like, I couldn’t figure out how to compete with MailChimp because they spend a billion dollars a year in advertising, their brand’s amazing, and they sell a free product that people don’t realize isn’t free until they’ve been on it. Anyway, that’s the whole story in itself. GetEmails was meant to be a feature of Robly that actually got people to switch to Robly.
I’m like, “Okay, how do we do this customer discovery yet?” So, we started with our own customers, which was nice, but didn’t end up being the perfect buyer for this GetEmails’ thing. Tremendous evidence that there was demand for this, and how could there not be demand for more email addresses of people that were on your website, right? Intuitively, that’s a no brainer value proposition. I sent an email out to our customers, I’m like, “Hey, we’re going to have this in a month. Who’s interested?” And out of 4,000 paying customers, like 200 people said yes to an email. That’s a great sign. And then, we started sort of drilling down into why they thought they needed it, what they were willing to pay for it. The direct and indirect competitors to this product were that they were currently using.
The interesting thing was what we didn’t realize is for people that were not already using Robly, they didn’t want to switch to Robly. It was a deal break. They were signing up for Robly using this GetEmails product, downloading the file, putting it in their email marketing app. They still thought it was a great product, right?
So, what does that tell you? I should probably spin it out and connect it to everything, because if I did, then people might think it was a great product. Not just, I mean, they thought it was a good product, and they’re are willing to endure this horrible user experience, which typically is a good sign of product market fit, right? When somebody’s just like, “Oh man, this is awesome, even though you’re making me download a file and importing it and export and importing my other app every day.” All that is to say we were listening; we were talking to as many people as humanly possible. Trying to get indicators that people were interested in this stuff, observing very closely how people were using it, and then, just like making these tiny steps forward. That’s great. That worked.
I did two other things before that, which were large time and financial investments, trying to grow the core ESP business that did not work at all. Right, so, but I was trying to do the same thing. It’s just I got farther in the process. You know, there weren’t nearly as good of early indicators that there were demand for them. One, was I was basically, I was trying to do everything MailChimp wasn’t doing. I’m like, “what are they not doing, right?” Because they are doing some stuff and they’re not doing other stuff. What they’re doing, they’re doing unbelievably well. So, what are they not doing? And I thought that they maybe weren’t focused on larger customers, which was true. But the problem was they were like a bunch of other people that were already going after that business, which I found out nine months later after trying to build a whole other software.
And then, I tried to take over a partner program from a very large email marketing company that was like the pioneer MailChimp usurped after they got acquired and cut it. And after about nine months of doing that realized that that was just like a branding effort for them and on a unit economic basis, it didn’t work at all. And a company as small as I couldn’t afford to do something like that. So, that was the two years in between GetEmails and Robly flatlining.
Well, I think we’ve all had our failures and all that. I mean, I spent a year and a half with Sidekick building something that then I realized, while it’s great, I need a tremendous like, I was partially down the Fintech line and would need 30 or $50 million to become compliant in various jurisdictions because we were dealing with cryptocurrencies as well. And I said, no, there’s no way. I don’t have the desire to do that. I don’t want to deal with the compliance, so I’m just going to change.
So, you mentioned that you were observing the users. How exactly did you observe them in order to get those indicators of what you were doing was right or wrong? Because when you say to them something and they respond to you back saying something is different than doing something. From psychology, I know that people are very good at basically either lying to your face to make you feel good or not really understanding their own behavior in order to give you the correct information you need. And so, you have to observe their behavior in order to see what they actually want. So how did you observe
So, there’s a few tools to do this. Fortunately, we have someone who’s really good at product who ran Robly for me for a few years. The user of Robly makes you really good at product because they’re, like, a really unsophisticated person. So, like, you have to design things in a way where it’s impossible, impossible to misunderstand. There are tools that help great product people. Full Story is a great one. You can literally watch the sessions, right?
Full Story, write that down. And they have a startup program. It’s not cheap, but it’s not that expensive. It’s like a couple thousand bucks a year and you can watch video sessions of your users. So that is, man, when you’ve made your first cut at UI, it’s amazing to watch people explain to you through their clicks how bad you are. You know what I mean? So that’s a great one.
One thing that we have tried to employ a couple of times and never successfully, and I don’t know why, maybe it’s just because we never had a really mass-market product in the sense that we didn’t have enough people coming through to where I felt like the data coming out of it was statistically significant. But things like Mixpanel or Amplitude, these are meant for product people to observe, basically where people are getting hung up going through the activation and conversion process.
So, you send events to these softwares, and then, you create different funnels and you basically try to look through data. So, like, “78% people got to this point, 32% of people got to this point. Last week, it was 35%. What did you change?” Right? It’s like you’re trying to look at cohorts, so, of the people that started four weeks ago with this feature set versus the people that started eight weeks ago with that feature set, like, how are they moving through these funnels week by week and point by point differently? And that is supposed to make you able to iterate on feature sets in a product and over time, hopefully, improve it.
Another thing that I just try to do. It’s like, get the product people on the phone with customers as much as humanly possible. And you do have this problem where sometimes people lie to you and a lot of times the people who are willing to take time them to talk are not necessarily the people that you want to be talking to. They’re not your power user. In my opinion, you’re trying to do is you’re trying to get inside the brain of this person and figure out how they work or like what is B2B? If it’s B2C, it’s whatever you’re helping them within their life, but like how they’re actually doing whatever they’re doing that relates to the problem you’re trying to solve. So that I would say is how you observe, right?
One, is you literally watch them through Full Story. Two, if you can get good at this, like I said, we haven’t really been able to use something like Mixpanel and Amplitude, but that’s pretty advanced. It’s like further along. And then three, which is critically important in early stages, just talk to as many people as humanly possible.
So, do you think through using these kinds of services that it’s possible to get enough information to decide whether or not you should pivot or continue down the road?
The biggest motivation to pivot would be my tip top of the funnel. I just can’t even get people to care. Does that make sense? Like, whoever I’m trying to talk to about this, they are unenthusiastic and they are not willing to give me the time even to try my thing.
GetEmails, we had a little bit of like the other problem in the beginning. Like everybody was willing to try it and they were so excited for the first six weeks. But unless you were a really talented email marketer, a small business couldn’t make the emails convert. Very sophisticated email marketers can because the emails are cheap, but if you’re not good at converting on email, it’s never going to work. So, I would say however, you’re creating demand, even if it’s in the beginning, and you’re like literally manually finding your first ten customers, which if you read this Y combinator stuff like, that’s what you do. You find people by hand to like, who you think are your ideal people. However, you do it, you find them and it’s usually over format like this. It’s a video call now, right?
You can see in someone’s face if they care, which is why I love video calls, right? Over the phone, it’s more difficult. I’ll just quickly go back to, like I mentioned, I tried to create an enterprise email marketing application. We went to a trade show, I pulled this big stunt, and we’re going around talking to people about this and no one gave a shit. You know what I mean? It was so evident that these people did not care about what I was telling them that I was selling.
I didn’t even know how to do the GetEmails thing yet. I just knew that there was a possibility that I could. And I was like, “by the way, I can do this other thing.” And literally, eyes light up, ears perk up. “What did you say you could do? You could get me email addresses off of my website of people that didn’t fill out forms.” Like, “Yes, I am interested in that.” Call me when you have that.
And I kind of think, I don’t know if you agree with this or not. It’s like you give me top of funnel of a certain type of person that I know that I can reach and continue to get signing up for my free trial, I’ll figure out how to build something that moves them through this funnel, and then there’s like a retention problem at the end. But then again, it kind of all works hand in hand, right? Like, you need end result to tell people to get them to sign up for your thing in the first place. And that end result usually is a combination of features or whatever.
I’m typically pivoting when the core of what I’m doing, I can’t get people excited about it. Or I have evidence that with the partner program, it was like the evidence eventually surfaced that it just wasn’t going to work on a unit economic basis. They were all excited about doing it, but it was like, this doesn’t work for me. If you can’t go find the customers systematically, eventually, you got to stop building what you’re building and go come up with something else that you can build where you could find customers systematically. It’s how you’re going to do it, right?
I think you got pretty lucky that you had this other idea, even if you didn’t know how to do it yet, that you were like, “oh, by the way,” I think that’s really cool. But I think a lot of people probably don’t have that backup idea. So, if somebody is in a situation where they’re trying something and it doesn’t work and they realize they need to pivot, how can they very quickly figure out what that next thing might be?
By the way, this other idea, let me tell you how pie in the sky it was. And it just sounded amazing to me, and I had no idea how to do it. I didn’t know how to do this for two years. I wanted to do this and had no idea how to do it for two years. Had no idea any other vendors that sold it or whatever. This guy I know who has this company called Bounce Exchange, he called me up. They were looking to buy a company like Robly, but a different type of one, much more sophisticated, ecommerce focused email marketing application.
And he told me about this identity resolution stuff that he was doing. He acquired a company out of TechStars that had this, and he’s like, “Yeah, man, we can tell you who’s on your website and find email addresses for it.” It just got into my head, and I was like, “man, if I could do that, I could sell that to anybody,” but just, like, have no idea how. Just no clue. And it wasn’t like I went into that trade show thinking that it was a backup idea. It was just something that I thought sounded amazing. How couldn’t somebody want that, right?
And so, I got to this trade show. It was very depressing, like, extremely deflating, spending all this money on this food and all this crap, and no one cared. And it was just something that popped out of my mouth spontaneously. I was like, “Okay, these people don’t give a shit about investment or a big email market application.” Let me see if they care about this other thing that I think is cool and I’ve never heard of. All that, is to say, I would just encourage people to kind of keep their ears to the ground. You know, it’s like, you have conversations with a lot of people doing a lot of different stuff. Like, we’re talking right now. I’m learning from you, you’re learning from me, right? So, I would just always keep your ears open.
Even right now for me, I know that this GetEmails thing is not my end all at all. There’s a lot of reasons I don’t want to be in this business for, like, ten years. One, the legal aspect is very unclear. It’s only legal in the US. Like, I don’t know how long it will be. Maybe it will be forever, maybe to be for five years, maybe it will be for two years. Who knows, right? There’s a few other things that I don’t like about it. Like, right now I’m trying to figure out, I love the market that it’s in in general, not everybody knows it exists. It’s very cool, this identity resolution stuff in general.
It’s like trying to talk to as many people as possible about different things people are doing in this data world. Right? Because I believe that that is the new gold, you know. When I hear something that’s like, “wow, that sounds awesome,” it’s in the back of my mind and I’m kind of like, always talking to people about like, “oh, what about this? What about this?” And I think this is part of the way I’ve kind of beaten it into myself to do this customer discovery. I’m like constantly sort of bouncing ideas off of people to just learn.
And in a battle that we’re having right now, which I think is very similar, like, GetEmails what it was last year and got us to this point, we’re not doing it. We’re trying to sell a totally different thing to people this next year than we were to a different group of people. We sold to ecommerce companies last year. We’re trying to sell to people who use what’s called a customer data platform this year. And I don’t even know if this is going to work. So, if it doesn’t work, we’re going to try something else. Luckily, we have this cash cushion and we can afford to experiment, which I highly recommend if it’s possible, to other entrepreneurs to do.
So, the idea is we want to sell to bigger customers because the bigger they are, the better they are, the lower they’re going to churn. Like all this stuff. I have to figure out whether our hypothesis about this CDP and whether enriching this data for these people whose goal is to get as much data as possible, if that’s actually true, or if there’s something that I don’t know about their job that is making it impossible. Right. So, all of this is to say it’s not like it was even a real backup idea at that point. It was just something that was in my head that was like, “man, that sounds cool.” And I think as an entrepreneur, you should kind of always be trying to find that, like, “what’s cool out there, who’s doing stuff that’s making people’s lives better that I think is awesome.”
Important lessons Adam has learned (39:52)
What’s something I haven’t asked you, that you wish I would ask.
Here’s a good question. As a person who started being an entrepreneur eight years ago versus who you are now, what are some of the philosophical changes that have occurred in your psyche in that period of time? And I have some good answers. I have some good answers for this because my girlfriend started her own company last year. My wife started my own company last year. And I just find myself very subtly, like, telling her these anecdotes of things that I did that I’m sort of seeing her do, that I think a lot of people do.
Because, you know, your friends come and talk to you about stuff. So, a major one, I think, is if you can sort of get yourself to not do things that you know you have to do, but don’t do them until the last possible minute. And when I’m talking about things, it’s like you think you need an LLC. You don’t actually need an LLC unless your company is working. So, like, don’t go out there and spend time and money creating. It makes you feel good, because you have this thing that you own. Just wait.
Things that I did way too early. I hired someone six months before I should have. I hired someone for customer support before we had customers, just because I told her that she was going to start in October. But you’re a startup. You can’t forecast when that’s going to happen. You can’t stand up to somebody’s 60 grand a year salary when you don’t have a product just because you said that you could. Right. You’ll die. Luckily, I had saved a pile of money and I didn’t die, but I spent ten times more money than I should have. Right.
Other things that I did, I got a phone system. I spent money decorating this office. Like, why? You know what I mean? Why would I do that before I knew it was going to work? Right. I got an office in the first place, crazy. But that idea is insane, for you to get an office before you have a product that is making money. I think it’s less insane now, after COVID, but, like, that’s something that people feel like they have to do. And I have friends who I still have this conversation with, like, “bro, tell me why you think you need an office.” It’s like, “Well, I need to be able to recruit people.” It’s like, “I don’t have an office. I can recruit people just fine. You don’t need an office to recruit people.” Right?”
I read something. Tim Ferris, something like, “go out and give speeches and buy cameras and make yourself”, like, I bought two Canon cameras. Just like, buying things early and doing things early is not, like, wait as long as humanly possible. Because how this works in the beginning, in my opinion, is like, you are so unfamiliar with the territory that you’re navigating. And the analogy is you’re kind of blind, right. And what you think that you see, if you take, oftentimes, if you take like three steps forward, you’re like the fog. It’s like you’re looking at something totally different than when you were three steps back.
And also, there’s this idea that like cash in the beginning is this, like lifeline. It’s like life and death, right? So, you just need to conserve cash as much as humanly possible. That paradigm changes as you move along. But in the beginning especially man, no one knows how long it’s going to take to build what they’re building. No one knows how many times you’re going to take the pivot. The best guys take them forever. Palantir was shit for four years, this fucking thing, and now they’re worth $10 billion. But they had a nothing product for like four or five years.
Philosophically, number one is just like, put off everything as long as humanly possible. When you absolutely have to have it, do it. Number two is I had this crazy idea and I don’t know where I got it. My brother, maybe he was like his business salvaged refurbished electrical distribution equipment and he used the Internet to do it. He did great. But he had a warehouse full of guys that were like kind of minimum wage workers sorting through these circuit breakers. For that, he had this attitude, he’s like, “I’m going to make incredible systems so I can just kind of plug anybody into it and it will work.”
But I think for the kind of stuff that we do, like, and I had a philosophy, I was like, “I’m just going to have great systems. I mean great sale scripts, great CRM, all this crap. And then I won’t have to have great salespeople because they’ll just be able to say the words and it’ll be fine.” I couldn’t be more wrong. You want to have, and this is my opinion now, the best people you can possibly get, afford, whatever, to work with you. Until you’ve messed up on some of these hiring decisions and you’ve waited way too long to fire the person. It’s difficult to understand, someone, like, who is good not only does their job, but they’re pushing your organization forward with a ferocity that’s inexplicable. And they are unquantifiably better than a normal person who can barely do their job and everything slipping through the cracks.
And like, the person who’s pushing it forward at the same time, maybe you’re paying them 10% or 15% more than you would pay an average person. And they’re happy to do it because it’s just in their personality to do things like this, right? So, lesson number two is like and I think where people mess up, they hire their friends, and it’s usually your friend who doesn’t have a job. And there’s usually a reason why your friend who doesn’t have a job doesn’t have a job. They’re a great friend, but they’re not a great worker, right? So that’s where I see it the most over the years. It’s really easy to do that in the beginning because you love your friends, right? They’re your lifelong compatriots. But oftentimes it’s not what you want from a friend and what you want from a coworker, they’re very different things, often. Those are probably the two ways I change the most.
Follow up with Adam (45:32)
Well, I appreciate that. Those are two very fantastic answers. How can the audience follow up with you?
Email me at adam@GetEmails.com. I’m happy to chat with anybody. I kind of love talking about this stuff.
Very simple. I appreciate it. So, thank you for being incredibly generous with your time and your knowledge. I appreciate it. It’s been a fun conversation for me. Hopefully, it’s been intriguing for you. Entrepreneurship is a marathon, not a sprint, so take care of yourself every day.
If you like this episode, please leave a review on Apple podcasts or Spotify or anywhere that you listen to this podcast, because it really helps me to find more people like you and find great people like Adam to come and share his information, his knowledge, his experience, and his love, which is entrepreneurship. Thank you very much for your time.
Thank you. It was a pleasure.