Mark Thompson is the co-founder of PayKickstart.com — a SaaS that is reinventing the modern-day shopping cart and affiliate management, helping thousands of businesses and entrepreneurs sell more, maximize customer lifetime value and automate subscription commerce. Mark has spent over a decade in the world of marketing and software, selling over $20+ million dollars of his flagship training programs and software.
Thank you so much for joining us Mark! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thank you for having me! I was born in Buffalo, New York where I spent the first 22 years of my life.
For the first year or two out of college, I took a few odd jobs, just to save up enough money so I could get an apartment — moving down to Raleigh, North Carolina. For the next five years, I worked at 2 of the larger marketing agencies in town — helping SMBs with their marketing strategies. On the job training was great for someone “green” like me — learning foundational online marketing skills like SEO, PPC, Email Marketing, Social Media and more.
Around 2008, I realized that I didn’t like working for someone else, so I took my experience and took my first crack at being an Entrepreneur — managing my own clients. I did that for about 1–2 years, when I realized something else — it was extremely difficult to scale, unless I wanted to hire employees to help manage these clients. It’s the reason I started looking into creating digital products that I could sell 24/7 online.
For the last decade, I used all of my years of online marketing experience, as stepping stones to what I found to be my true passion — becoming a serial software Entrepreneur.
In the beginning, we relied heavily on affiliate partners to promote our products, earning a commission for each sale they refer. This is why having a shopping cart with affiliate tracking was so crucial. However, as the internet and how we sell online has evolved rapidly, it was obvious that many of the selling platforms I used, simply didn’t keep up with the times. Archaic. Overpriced. Terrible support.
Nowadays, maximizing the value of every customer that you acquire is so important.
My business partner and I finally decided that in order to meet our needs and the needs of our customers, we would build it ourselves.
At first, we built the platform as an internal tool to sell our products and manage affiliates. However, colleagues and business partners started to take notice of our seamless checkout and some of the amazing conversion stats we were sharing with them.
Even though the first version was very basic, without a proper user-interface, people were asking if they could use our platform for their business. This was our “ah ha” moment, when we realized that it wasn’t just us, but so many other Entrepreneurs and online businesses, who were having the same challenges that we were facing.
This is when we decided to start to pivot away from our other products we were selling and focus on turning this internal tool, into a real SaaS business.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
In the beginning, we started with a small beta group that were eager to try out the platform.
The “slow launch” approach was extremely beneficial, as it helped us squash bugs and improve the core functionality.
The biggest challenge we faced in the early days was adoption.
Given the fact that we were dealing with business’ money, you can imagine the hurdle we had to overcome to build enough trust where companies would switch from whatever shopping cart they were using. Over the next 12–18 months, our vendors could see just how serious we were — pushing regular updates, feature enhancements and providing superior 24/7 support.
While trust didn’t come over night, it was a step in the right direction. We knew our long-term success would be more of the same.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
As I just mentioned, I think the most important thing was persistence. The ability to overcome daily challenges and keep an eye on providing value to your customers.
It was a combination of product maturity, to compete with the more established competitors; building brand awareness and providing over-the-top customer service. Focusing on our customers first was one of the biggest factors that has led to our success.
From a product standpoint, we started to add new functionality to make it easy for customers to switch to PayKickstart.
Importing Subscriptions — We’ve created a system which takes around 30 seconds to complete where a vendor would integrate their previously used payment gateway and import their existing subscriptions.
API — We added a robust API that would allow all different types of businesses be able to have the flexibility to build any custom integrations or checkout experiences.
From a brand awareness standpoint, we implemented a number of different marketing and outreach strategies.
Blog Contributions — As part of our long-term marketing strategy, we started writing 3–4 blog posts per week — focused on long tail keywords so we could generate some top of the funnel leads via search engines. We also started connecting with popular publications to contribute as a guest, with a goal of contributing to 2–3 sites per month.
Quora Contributions — We found questions on Quora.com where people were asking about payment gateways, shopping carts, affiliate management, increasing conversions, minimizing retention and more — answering them and providing great value.
Podcasts — We reached out to a number of popular marketing-related podcasts, with a goal of being a guest on 2–3 podcasts per month.
Cold Email Outreach — Reverse engineering our competitors and running cold email outreach sequences has helped to generate around 10–20 new leads per week.
Webinars — Leveraging our existing email list and partnering with affiliates, we ran a number of webinars where we introduced the platform and pitched a special discount for those who locked in one year of service.
From a customer service standpoint, we added a bunch of resources and tools to ensure their success.
Live 24/7 Chat — We added live chat support to help new vendors with a pleasant onboarding experience while knowing that they could get help at any step of the process.
Customer-centric Approach — We added a feature request area, where customers could request new features and enhancements. Through one-on-one communication and our feature request area we learned so much about where PayKickstart stood and the direction we needed to go. We also did whatever it took to build incredible loyalty from our initial customer base by offering private sales demos, one-on-one help with setting up their campaigns, countless support phone calls and so much more to ensure their success.
I believe that what has led to our success is learning how to mitigate risk wherever possible and understanding that nobody is perfect. I understood the importance of finding smart, talented, like-minded people to surround myself with. By leveraging other’s strengths where I felt weak, I was able to remove the daily burden and stress.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”?
#1. Mentally Prepare to Overcome Challenges
Nobody said that creating a thriving business is easy. If it was, everyone would do it. I wish someone taught me how to mentally handle challenges and problems that come my way. Legal issues, product issues, financial issues, employee issues, issues that can transfer into your personal life…the list goes on.
A good example of this was before we created PayKickstart. We realized that we never had a system in place to deal with failed recurring payments, resulting in almost one million dollars in lost revenue between 2013–2015. While that was a massive blow to the business and our bottom line, we made it a major focus in PayKickstart not never allow that to happen to use or any vendor using our platform. It’s why we have features like Dunning, rebill reminders and cart abandonment sequences in place.
#2. Recognize Opportunity, But Be OK with Saying “No”
As you start to grow, new opportunities will present themselves in all different directions. Remember to always stay true to who you are and what your business mission is all about. A good example was we had someone reach out to us and offer to pay us multiple six-figures to take our platform and customize it for their particular needs. While it would have been nice to cash that check, if we would have said yes, it would have derailed our focus and long-term vision for the company. Remember, it’s OK to say “No” to an opportunity, but when an opportunity comes that is aligned with your goals and values, pounce on it!
#3. Focus on Customer Success
For so many years we looked at our customers as just numbers, focused solely on our bottom line. We never took the time to realize that each customer has a unique story, unique experience, unique reason they are using your product or service. Getting into their mind and having a better understanding your customers and how they use your product, touches literally every aspect of your business.
Over the past two years, we have implemented a number of different ways to listen to our customers.
- Implementing 24/7 live chat support
- Tweaking our customer success SOP to be attentive for questions customers are asking that could be a candidate for a new knowledgebase article
- Sending out quarterly NPS surveys and follow-up to those who give a poor rating
- Adding a feature request area
#4. Balance Short-Term Revenue vs Long-Term Vision
Especially for startups who are bootstrapped and don’t have the luxury of millions in VC funding to play with, it’s important to stress short-term revenue — or else there won’t be a long-term. Figure out your short-term MVP (minimum viable product) that you can bring to market and confirm there is product market fit. Have a long-term vision that is fluid — meaning, the ability to pivot. I don’t think it’s necessary to try and plan out in great detail what’s going to happen in your business 3 years or 5 years from now — have a general idea. As you start to receive customer feedback, changes to the industry, and new opportunities arise, be OK with pivoting your long-term plan.
That is similar to what happened when we built PayKickstart as a tool we planned on using for internal use only. Once people were knocking on our door to use it, it was hard to ignore.
#5. Obsess Over Churn, Not More Traffic
Too many businesses think they have a traffic problem, when actually they have a churn problem. What’s the point of wasting money, time and energy on driving more traffic if you are driving the wrong type of traffic or a high percentage of your customers are leaving after a few months? Once you can minimize churn, it unlocks the door to hyper-growth and ability to scale.
When we first released PayKickstart to the general public, our churn rate was around 20%. Part of the reason it was so high was the lack of product maturity — which we understand was going to correct itself over time. However, the other problem we had was we never addressed why new vendors were not getting to “first value” quickly. First value for us was our vendors needed to get at least one product in their account and that they made at least one sale. We quickly cut our churn in half just by implementing an onboarding wizard where we hold their hand through the 3 key things a new vendor needs to do to get up and running (i.e. get to first value).
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
It is important to learn to take calculated risks, especially early on. Risks that, if implemented correctly, will have a positive impact on your business, however if it doesn’t work out, it won’t leave you or your business crippled.
Don’t be afraid of failure. Instead, stand up — change your model, adapt and try again. Building a successful company is not a sprint, but a marathon. Endurance and perseverance will get you there.
Always ask questions. If there is something you do not know, ask around, find people who would know the answers. We live in an age where online communications have become the norm, and finding like-minded people does not have to be a struggle. Hit the forums, Facebook groups, find communities which can help you grow, provide knowledge that you have and obtain knowledge from others.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There have been a number of people who have helped me at different stages in my Entrepreneurial journey.
- Thousands of affiliate partners that promoted my products and helped to build a seed list of leads and customers.
- Matt Callen, my business partner and co-founder of PayKickstart
- Dan Martell, for helping us take PayKickstart to the next level
- Dozens of authors, speakers, coaches that I have either met or connected with virtually
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
From a personal standpoint, I am fortunate enough to have fulfilled the majority of my goals. I have a beautiful wife and daughter. I have an amazing group of family and friends. I have the ability to enjoy the things that I love to do outside of work. I love to travel, so I would say I have a goal of continuing to explore the world and meet new people.
From a professional standpoint, PayKickstart has recently hit $1M ARR and our next milestone is to get to $5M ARR by 2022.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I know it sounds cliché, but my hope is to leave the world a better place than I found it. That through the software and online businesses I have created, that I’m able to help as many Entrepreneurs and business owners reach their ultimate goals in life and in business. Even if I can contribute just a fraction of that, that is good enough for me. The legacy I wish to leave for my family and friends is to be humble, work hard for what you believe and want out of life.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
I would love to start a movement that teaches our youth about the skills of Entrepreneurship. Unfortunately I was never exposed to the mindset of starting your own business, compared to society’s norm of working for someone else.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
There are a few ways they can follow me…