Make sure your product is great, and the more differentiated, the better. Try to do things your competitors are not doing that provide value to whatever niche you’re going after.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Adam Robinson.
Adam 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 dollars 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 dollars Annual Recurring Revenue.
Adam is now based in Austin, Texas where he lives with his girlfriend Helen and their chiweenie, Bonnie Rosa.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I graduated from Rice University in 2003, then took a job in Manhattan trading real estate credit default swaps at the now-defunct Lehman Brothers. My first roommates were starting a company called Vimeo in the apartment I was living in. It planted the entrepreneurial seed, and I always wanted to do what they were doing. Starting a tech company seemed like a dream life.
After 2008 and the Lehman debacle, I lost everything, and decided that rather than try to go back into finance, I should try to get into tech.
Many years later, after trying and failing many times, I finally got something to work — Robly Email Marketing. That was my first startup. It’s a nice bootstrapped business, and it’s still running today by a group led by Sebastian Reingold. We have 5000 happy customers and have won #1 in customer satisfaction by G2 Crowd.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
The “a-ha” moment for my current company (GetEmails) came about when I was trying to grow my first company (Robly).
We came up with this identity resolution feature that we thought was going to be very well received by people in the email marketing world. We could identify anonymous visitors on your website, and sell you their email address, first and last name, and postal record. And these are email addresses the businesses didn’t already have. Everybody wants to grow their email list, and we discovered the cheapest way to do it with targeted and engaged contacts.
We built the feature inside of Robly, called it RoblyID, and eight weeks later we noticed that new customers were signing up for RoblyID and not using any other part of the application. Not only that, we were doing customer interviews and people were saying that it was a 10/10 product and they hadn’t seen anything this good on the internet in the last ten years.
The original plan was to get people to switch to Robly Email Marketing because we had a unique feature. It turns out that people were just using RoblyID, downloading the file, and uploading it into their Email Marketing application.
It clearly wasn’t a great product if we made people use Robly to get value from it. We thought it would be a great product if we made it a stand-alone, and connected it to everything through one-click integrations.
So we built the stand alone product in eight weeks, launched it on Nov 4, and by Dec 1 we had spent 5k on ads and had 10k in Monthly Recurring Revenue from them. We knew we were on to something.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
We were 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.
So, how are things going today? How did your 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 lessons or ‘take aways’ 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 funding 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 dollars”. 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.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?
We started GetEmails eight months ago. We currently have 500 paying customers that pay us an average of 425 dollars each. Subscription prices range from 29 dollars to 25,000 dollars/month. Approximately 2.5mm dollars ARR, bootstrapped, with five people working on it, growing by around 50% per month.
Our video ads, which I think are the most unique thing about us, have driven almost all of this success. Again, we’ve done one new video ad per week (we pay for the distribution) featuring me and my girlfriend Helen. Originally the videos just answered product questions, but we are now developing a storyline so it’s almost like a sitcom.
What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?
We have a freemium model. 95% of the market can use our product for free. But if you want integrations, or your website has over around 10,000 unique visitors/month, you have to pay.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app or a SaaS? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Make sure your product is great, and the more differentiated, the better. Try to do things your competitors are not doing that provide value to whatever niche you’re going after.
- Get things out as quickly as possible. Let people tell you what else they want after you throw something light out there.
- Try at all costs to sell something where you are making most of your money off subscriptions of thousands of dollars per month (instead of under 50 dollars average). I have companies that do both. It’s way easier to grow and accrue enterprise value if your subscription price is high.
- Do not hire salespeople before you have product/market fit. This is a very easy mistake to make. To learn what product/market fit is, read the y-combinator blog.
- I personally find SaaS that is profitable (rather than burning money) to be much less stressful than raising venture dough and always having to be on the lookout for more money. The problem is most of the time high growth businesses need venture. Every once in a while you can create something that grows extremely quickly and doesn’t need outside capital. Usually it’s in a space that isn’t competitive and it’s a relatively new market. That’s the dream.
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/