Don’t mix business and family. Or friends, if you can avoid it. Startups are incredibly hard in the first place. Trying to add in complexities of family or lifelong friends on top of it is too much.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adam Robinson.
Adam Robinson was born in Houston, Texas and graduated from Rice University in 2003 with a Bachelor’s degree in Economics.
In 2014, he launched Robly Email Marketing after working on Wall Street for ten years. The business grew to $5 million in revenue in the first two years and by 2017 was awarded #1 in Customer Satisfaction across the entire email marketing space. After proving Robly’s viability, Adam worked to scale the business. After testing and scrapping a few ideas, he and his team launched GetEmails in 2019.
In GetEmails first six months it’s grown to $2.5 million Annual Recurring Revenue.
Adam is now based in Austin, Texas where he lives with his girlfriend Helen and their two pet chickens.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path? Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Wewere building an email marketing application because we had found a bunch of email marketing customer information all over the internet (before the days of Builtwith and Datanyze). We had built everything except for the drag-and-drop editor. Then we hired a guy to build that, which he said would take three months.
At the end of three months it worked great … but when we went to send a test email to ourselves, it looked like absolute garbage. It turns out the guy had built an editor to make websites, not emails. We were about to launch, but we had to push the launch back another three months.
This was devastating for us. We had three non-devs sitting around (also a huge mistake) waiting for launch, and now we had to wait another 90 days before even the possibility of revenue existed.
We didn’t have a choice but to just put our heads down and wait. It was miserable.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
First and foremost, survival. My goal in being bootstrapped was to have a recurring revenue business with positive cash flow.
When things were their hardest, I was totally out of money, my partners weren’t taking salaries, and we could barely afford to pay our employees. But the math was working. We were acquiring customers very profitably on a unit economic basis who were sticking, so I knew we just had to plow forward.
Eventually, which was five years after I quit my finance job, we got to cash positive and I was able to pay myself a salary again.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Things are great now. Robly is a growing, seven-figure profit business that is managed entirely by a different team.
GetEmails, which we started in November, has been growing like crazy and just passed Robly’s revenue seven months in, with a huge upside. I’m having a blast and love the stuff we are working on.
There have been many failures along the way, none as stressful and severe as running out of money on that first business. But I have just kept trying because I love the game and I love starting things that end up working. Failure is a part of it.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I used to be a real estate CDS trader at Lehman Brothers (think “The Big Short”), and quit after the 2008 crisis to start a tech company. I tried a bunch of stuff that didn’t work and made a bunch of investments that went to zero, but somehow one of the things I started — Robly Email Marketing — actually worked.
We couldn’t afford an office, so I was bootstrapping a business out of my apartment. We were growing with outbound sales — basically a boiler room call center. Room by room, this slowly took over my entire space. At one point, we had 39 people coming to my apartment making dials.
I had two bathrooms, but everybody took breaks at the same time and they were almost all men. The bathroom line was a massive problem at break time.
In order to solve the problem, I was going to put a urinal in my laundry room. But when I had a plumber over he told me, verbatim, “the only difference between a urinal and that sink is $3000”. So, we put up a stool to stand on, a little soccer ball urinal toy to aim at, some hand sanitizer, and a lock on the door — and now there was a third bathroom.
But as we transitioned from a 100% outbound to 100% inbound operation and I had to let all of the sales guys go, my Glassdoor reviews were horrible… “Adam even made us pee in the sink”. What did I learn? I’m never going to start an f-ing business out of the apartment again.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
GetEmails uses video to establish a personal connection at scale in a way that no other startups are doing. We do weekly video ads like this and this which we promote on Facebook and Google. They’re short and funny and show the same two faces week after week — me and my girlfriend Helen, who’s also our head of PR. Our view is that we aren’t competing with software companies on these platforms, we’re competing with the rest of their news feed.
Six months in we have a following of people that leave hundreds of comments on our videos, and now we’ve created a storyline about our two characters that we are developing. It’s hilarious, Helen kicked me out of the company in this video two weeks ago, and made our product freemium. I then replaced her with our inbound sales girl Alice in the next video, and opened it up by saying “It’s Adam and Helen again”.
Our fans went nuts. I signed in three hours later to find over 50 comments saying “That’s not Helen”, “Bring Back Helen”, and somebody had even created a change.org petition demanding that Helen return to GetEmails marketing. Pretty amazing, considering these are ads that make us 5–10x ROAS.
We have a bunch of follow-up videos planned to really string this drama along. Helen is going to Aspen to look for new men, I’m trying to find a girl to replace Helen in the ads, etc.
Away from the ads, we are faces-forward across the entire funnel. We recorded a podcast that answers every possible question sales could get that looks like this, and we send custom videos to people after they complete step one of onboarding to try to establish a human connection. On Zoom calls we always leave our video on, even if the customer has video off. Many times they will turn it on, and even if they don’t, they are connecting with us by seeing our faces.
All of this is working fantastically well. Yes, our product is great and we have zero direct competitors, but this unusual style of presenting ourselves has tens of thousands of people feeling like they know us as people, even before they think about buying.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
It’s hard in the beginning, but try not to work too much. I found especially when I started out that the feeling of being “busy” made me feel like I was moving things forward. That’s just not the case. Try to only spend time on things that are very high value, and quit every day at a certain time. I start early, and stop at five every day.
I’ve been most satisfied when I had some other long term pursuit going on in my life outside of work. I took Spanish lessons four days a week for two years when I was spending a bunch of time in Argentina, and I’ve done the same with piano lessons upon moving back. If you can diversify your identity beyond your job, then a bad day at work won’t completely ruin your mood. Your life is sitting on several other building blocks. This helps a lot with burnout.
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?
When we first started Robly, our original plan was to go after the customers of a defunct company called RatePoint that my brother was using for Email Marketing and customer review management. I made a video called “If you liked Ratepoint, you’ll LOVE Robly!”, and the founder of Ratepoint, Neal Creighton, saw it and wrote me an email. He said “if you try what you’re about to try, you’ll fail. If you do what I’m about to tell you to do, you will 100% succeed.”
The guy showed us how to find customer information from a vendor who was carelessly leaving it all over the internet. That trick alone got us to a mid seven-figure/year business in 18 months.
Even with that massive lead pool he showed us, we almost didn’t make it. If Neal hadn’t shown us that one thing, I would probably still be on a trading desk in Manhattan. He’s definitely been the most transformational relationship I’ve had. All the success I’ve had from creating things from the money that Robly made was only because he showed us how to get Robly off the ground.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
When I first decided I was going to try to be a tech entrepreneur, I read “delivering happiness” by Tony Hsieh.
Having worked on Wall Street, I found it impossible to believe that people would work for any other reason than to make money and get rich. This guy had a team of people who thought they were saving lives, when all they were really doing was selling shoes.
I resolved then that I would figure out what it was about human psychology that made this possible, and any organization I created would be a place where people wanted to come every day. I wanted to create an environment that would be an incredibly positive force in my employees (and customers’) lives.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Try to start a high-subscription-price SaaS. I have one now and they are just so much easier to grow.
- Product is the most important, and product-market fit. Sales and marketing just accelerate something that is already great. Alone, they won’t cut it.
- Once you have a lifestyle business that allows you to work from anywhere and do whatever you want, if it’s not growing rapidly, you won’t be fulfilled. Y-Combinator says growth is basically a cure-all. I agree.
- Only hire the best possible people that you can get your hands on. I don’t know where I got this idea, but originally I was trying to make great systems so that I could put average people into them. What a dumb idea. The difference between a great person in every seat and an average person in every seat is inexplicable. Great people move things forward, while doing their job. Average people hold things back.
- Don’t mix business and family. Or friends, if you can avoid it. Startups are incredibly hard in the first place. Trying to add in complexities of family or lifelong friends on top of it is too much.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would try to add two subjects to K-12 education that I think are very important for living life:
- Mindfulness, emotional self-regulation, and navigating your internal psyche
- Personal finance — specifically, why you should avoid accumulating credit card and student debt, and how to do that
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Our companies are on twitter and Facebook — @usegetemails
I’m on Linkedin — https://www.linkedin.com/in/adam-robinson-64409348/