Being different is better than being better. You do not need to have a better product; you just need to be different. For example, some people will identify with your method of delivery rather than make the decision based on the quality of the product. Groundhogg is not better than its SaaS competitors, but it’s the only accessible open source one in its league, and that makes it different.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adrian Tobey.
Adrian Tobey is the CEO and founder of Groundhogg Inc. An organization which helps small businesses launch their sales funnel, grow their email list, and scale their business with proven digital marketing tools and strategies. He is also the owner of FormLift.net and Co-Founder of MailHawk, two more tools which fill out a growing portfolio of software products aimed at making customer communication that much easier.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
Igrew up in a very entrepreneurial family. My parents started a digital marketing training company in the early 2000s after my dad’s music career went up in smoke after 9/11.
Under the new company, business owners would come to a 3-day seminar training and learn the basics of search engine optimization, search engine marketing, pay per click advertising, landing page design and more. My family would travel across Canada and the United States training 10–60 small businesses at a time in hotel conference rooms.
I would often sit in the back of the room and listen to my dad speak. My contribution to the operation was setting up and tearing down the booth, handing out workbooks, running microphones and collecting credit cards. People always got a kick out of handing a credit card to a pre-teen who would then process charges exceeding several thousand dollars. Since I sat in the back so often, I naturally became well versed in all the material and would offer support and guidance to members of the audience if they ran into roadblocks.
I worked hundreds of trade shows which is where a lot of our business was generated. I would go around to booths and hand out flyers, workbooks, and order forms. We would fill the training rooms one show at a time. I was incredibly involved in this part. I would often speak to business owners several multiples my age and explain the value of digital marketing to them, then have them fill out an order form. I was very good in sales, and they got a kick out of that too.
But change is inevitable, and as Google evolved, digital marketing became too complex for most business owners to be “hands on”. The business model of training small businesses to successfully rank and become searchable became less and less viable.
So, in 2015 the training company opened up another revenue vertical. The new agency offered done-for-you services at a premium. At this stage, I was becoming more immersed in the family business. While going to university I worked at the agency part time, creating websites, sales, writing copy, integrating CRM’s, building sales funnels, migrating clients from one server to another, etc.
In 2017, my parents lost a critical employee that managed our client’s CRM’s. I was already trained as an Infusionsoft Certified Partner and had the skill set to step in the role. Fully aware of how bad this situation was for my parents, I offered to take on the responsibility. I transitioned to school part time, to help my parents out full time. A year passed, and they were once again stable. By fall 2018, I had created my first software product, FormLift.net and was ready to move on to the next one.
You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
Having had the opportunity to work with hundreds of entrepreneurs in my parents business, I learned that most are flying by the seat of their pants. Even if they have a gifted product or service, rarely do you see an overnight success. Most business owners have a 10-year backstory of trial and tribulation that they went through first.
One of the realities for small business owners is that one must wear many “hats” until they hit a certain stage where they have employees or subcontractors to delegate to. A small business owner must be an influencer, a closer, a bookkeeper, a customer support specialist, a developer, an operations executive, a technology officer, a digital marketing expert, etc.
The biggest barrier to success I’ve personally witnessed being in the family business was the technology barrier and associated costs. When I thought of building Groundhogg, I thought that this doesn’t have to be so. If I could build an open source CRM/Marketing Automation product like an Active Campaign or Infusionsoft for WordPress, I could level the playing field for business owners around the world, regardless of economic, socio or geographical limitations they may be experiencing.
The problem was, if every small business must connect a CRM to the payment gateway and connect that to the website and launch marketing automation, why should this be a SaaS (Software as a Service) product that cost thousands of dollars?
What we did is build the solution for WordPress which is an open source and free solution on the web. It can be translated in any language, and the core plugin is 100% free to users world-wide. It was an innovative offering in the WordPress community, and democratized the way people thought about using marketing automation.
What I want to do with my products and training is remove financial and technical barriers. Groundhogg is making free and affordable marketing products for businesses and entrepreneurs so they can focus on building instead of focusing on paying exorbitant bills only seasoned businesses could afford.
Groundhogg for WordPress has leveled the playing field for small businesses. We also made Groundhogg Academy 100% free.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
While working in the digital marketing agency I had the privilege of working with 100s of businesses up close and personal from all different verticals. Gyms, dog food manufacturers, speakers, florists, you name it.
Our agency would implement a preferred list of digital marketing tools for their business, set it all up and press start, provide some offboarding training and collect our cheque. We did great work for them, but, if we were not hand holding, we’d eventually get an SOS phone call (Save our Ship).
Because those small businesses couldn’t afford us on retainers, many businesses would ignore the systems and processes we had installed for months. Eventually they’d fall apart after a few months. This is not because of anything we did wrong, but because most digital marketing is not, “set it and forget it,” it requires active monitoring and optimization and business owners simply do not have the time, or the wherewithal to do it themselves.
And even if they tried to learn, they either ran out of time to give it the love it needed, broke something, hired someone inferior who broke it, or any combination thereof. The client’s software bill alone would exceed several hundreds of dollars per month. In addition they had agency fees to pay. So, these were all massive pain points for small business owners we had to deal with.
I deeply empathized with these owners. I felt their frustrations. I thought long and hard about the best and most efficient ways to solve these pain points for my parents and our clients. The solution had to be more cost effective, easy to adopt, and sustainable for small business. I wanted to code a solution which was easier to implement and understand for cash strapped entrepreneurs. It had to make digital marketing, sales, email marketing, and reporting more accessible not only for North American budgets made equally for budgets in all continents around the world. It needed to be translatable in multiple languages. It needed to be open source.
This is how Groundhogg was inspired and later given birth in fall 2018.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
I was in my third year at the University of Toronto, I had just failed a math course, CSC263. It was the first failure in my academic life. I was only doing school part time and working at my parent’s agency full time. At my current speed of 3 courses per year, I would graduate in 2025 or something ridiculous like that.
As I was preparing my course selection for the fall of 2018, I recognized II had to choose whether I was going to go back to school and finish my degree (at great monetary investment) or if I was going to take a leap of faith.
I was already developing another software product at that point while working for the agency, FormLift.net. I spent more time working on it than I would studying. My focus on developing that product was part of the reason I failed my first course ever.
But FormLift.net was making money! People were paying to use it. I would wake up some mornings and see charges for $29 here and there. Waking up to see that I could earn money while I sleep was one of the greatest feelings. It gave me a sense of what was possible.
FormLift.net did not have the audience size to ever be more than a $30K product per year. As a niche product for the Infusionsoft community, the sample size of potential users was capped at 30,000 people. So leaving a great paying job to pursue it full time did not make sense.
I also did not want a career working in an agency. Trading dollars for hours was not something I wanted to do long term. While the agency had great earning power, my deep desire was to create products.
My inside advantage was because of my agency experience, I knew a lot about CRM, marketing automation and sales. I already had identified pain points in the industry. University had focused me on finding solutions to pain points. Many days at the agency, I’d be asking myself “ What if I built a software that made those things more accessible to small businesses?”
When It was time to decide whether I was going to enroll in a fourth year of University, I asked my parents if we could go out to dinner. I pitched them the concept and informed them it would require me to abandon University degree for now.
They gave me their full support under 2 conditions. 1. That I find my own start up money. 2. That I hire my own employees. With this agreement in mind, we brainstormed about the Corporate name and landed on Groundhogg — named after the family’s favorite movie Groundhog Day with Bill Murray. Simply because the premise of the movie is finding positive transformation, after trying the same thing over and over again. Once the character in the movie starts changing the way he looks at things, the things he looks at change. That is the transformation we wanted for small business owners. We added an extra “g” to Groundhog(g) to be able to Trademark the name.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
I most certainly did not know the steps to start an organization! Who does? I was 19. I was business savvy sure, but taxes, incorporation, human resources, etc. That stuff is hard!
I don’t think anyone really knows what they are doing in business. We’re all just muddling along, making our best guesses and seeing what happens, then reacting to that.
However, what I did know is that there are people out there in the world who have been in my shoes before. My parents, other software developers, agency clients, etc.
I just asked them questions! Never stop asking questions. Business owners love helping other business owners. Never feel like you can’t ask for help. I spent my first year in business just asking for help from others in the same field as me. Most of them were happy to help.
I am blessed to be surrounded by a legion of mentors and fellow business owners who I can call up and ask questions whenever I need a second opinion.
University and the traditional education system trains you that asking for help is, “cheating.” That asking for help is wrong. But in business that’s most certainly untrue. If you don’t want to ask for help, you can be sure that it will take you a lot longer to get to where you want to go.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
In September of 2019, someone had found a vulnerability in our core code base that could have damaging consequences if exploited. Instead of contacting us so we could release a patch securely, they decided to post it publicly on the web for anyone to see.
Our plugin was de-listed from WordPress.org almost immediately. We issued a patch within the hour and released it so that our customers could update and secure their sites.
This was incredibly scary. This kind of bad press could sink a new Software company like mine, I did not sleep that night.
We only had around 500 customers at that point in time anyway, so the target size for any attackers was small, but still.
Fortunately, we were quick to respond and we were re-listed the next day. We notified customers about the issue and the vast majority simply said they were grateful for being notified in a timely manner.
Of course, a few customers left, citing other grievances and this being, “the final straw.” And fair enough, I wasn’t going to try and convince them to stay.
If I were to take anything away from that experience, it would be the following. Things can and will go wrong, very wrong. No one said business would be easy! But those are defining moments. I stayed anchored in trust. I didn’t panic. I focused on the solution. As long as you remain committed to getting results for your customers even the darkest days will give way to sunshine.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
I’ve made so many mistakes. The great thing is now I have a bunch of great stories! I don’t know whether this is one of the funniest mistakes, but it’s certainly the one where I learned the most.
Part of my mission was to make digital marketing more accessible, both in implementation and in cost. So, in my first year, 2019, I made the monetary investment of my product many times cheaper than it was to invest in my closest competitors. Where a competitor might charge $199 a month, I would charge $199 for a whole year!
I thought this was an excellent strategy. Pay less for similar results! But sales were struggling. My breakeven point was elusive. I wasn’t really sure what the issue was.
I went to a conference for WordPress business owners on the recommendation of a mentor. It was an exclusive event, only ~60 people. Here you were able to have deep conversations with others like you and bounce ideas off each other.
I shared my problem openly. Remember, ask as many questions as you can. I asked, “Here’s what you get, here’s what I’m charging. It’s great value but no one is buying, why?”
Every single business owner I talked to said the same thing, and I’m pretty sure I talked to everyone. They said, “You’re not charging enough.”
Mind = blown. Turns out, just because you offer great value doesn’t make you attractive. The fact that I was not charging enough excluded me as a viable option for many established businesses out there. Because I don’t cost X means I can’t possibly solve a problem that costs Y. People actually expect to pay a certain amount to solve a problem they have, if you don’t cost enough, you’re out of the running.
This was a whole new way of thinking for me. When I got back from the conference, I changed all my pricing overnight to almost double what it was before and saw an instant increase in the number of sales.
I’m still running with the same pricing model that I switched to from that day, and I’m happy to report not only did we pass breakeven, but we are also well into the black.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
I’m very fortunate to have access to an outstanding pool of mentors. My parents, Chris Badgett, Cory Miller, Michael Short, Chris Lema, Jeff Meziere, Jonathan Denwood, and more.
I’ll speak of a recent experience. I co-hosted a podcast with Jonathan Denwood for the better part of a year, he invited me to co-host his show after doing an interview with him and knocking it out of the park. At the time, I was looking for more ways to get exposure for Groundhogg, so I agreed.
The show was a great way to meet a great number of interesting people and learn about many new ideas. Many of the people I met are listed above.
One of those people was a guy named Cory Miller, a WordPress heavyweight and the former CEO of a company called iThemes before he sold it for many multiples.
After meeting Cory, he invited me to join his mastermind group class, “Business Value Academy”, where I met another guy named Jeff Meziere, a finance expert.
At this point in time I was operating on cash-based finances and not really doing true SaaS revenue forecasting and reporting, because I didn’t know how. Jeff got on a call with me, on his own time at no charge, and explained the process step by step so I could have a better understanding of what I could spend each month while still putting money in the coffers.
This has changed the way I perceive month to month revenue and I’m much more comfortable making hiring and purchasing decisions as a result.
It is strange how one person leads you to another, leads you to another, leads you to another, each one able to help with a specific problem you’re facing at the right time. I’m looking forward to when I’m that person, and it’s my time to pay it forward.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
We have 71 five star reviews (as of writing this) and a number of testimonials from agencies, other WordPress product owners and colleagues. But none seem to stick with me as much as a recent experience that just happened last week as of writing this.
I was doing a support/sales call with someone (who shall remain anonymous) who has been a customer for around one year. I knew them and have interacted with them several times in the past. They teach people how to play the ukulele online through digital courses.
For Black Friday we offered existing customers the opportunity to pre-renew their license for three years at a massive discount, and this particular customer was having difficulty claiming the deal. So, I got on a Zoom call and walked them through it.
After I got them checked out, they said the following in passing out of the blue, “Wow, a three-year license. I hope this license doesn’t last longer then me. The doctor gave me two years to live. I’m actually at the clinic right now doing some tests so if my internet is spotty that’s why.”
I was floored. I didn’t even say anything because I was so shocked. Here was a person who has been given a finite amount of time left on this earth and here they are, using the time and money they have left to invest in my product that might outlast them….just so he can help as many people as possible learn the ukulele with the time he has left on this planet.
I admire his calmness and dedication in the face of that level of adversity. Finding purpose is so important. I’m humbled that I could help people fulfil their purpose and be part of their journey. I don’t know who was impacted more, me or him. What I do know is that conversation will stick with me for a long time.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Yes. Product creators like me, in the open source world, need to continue to mentor the next generation of open source programmers. We need great minds and creators to keep contributing to open source. This would help with product innovation and give new players a chance to get fast market penetration and financially survive.
Google was born in 1997. It is only 23 years old, very young. There are great things to come still, and we’ve only begun to explore what is possible. Currently, there are a few “key players” in the WordPress Open Source community that are consolidating products. This means that they own a large piece of the pie that is monetized. It also means small or new product players have a harder time penetrating the WordPress market. It would be a great thing if investors started looking at WordPress start-ups and investing in Open Source from around the world. Right now, investors are looking for larger product consolidators like Automattic. But if investors began to look at open source innovators, there is plenty of opportunity to create jobs, get an ROI on investment, and deploy even more innovative products.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Build your business around the customer, not the product. Product centric businesses tend to focus more on creating new features and have shiny object syndrome rather than focusing on getting their customers results. When businesses fail to create results for customers, they lose them. I struggled with this my first year, I was focused on making a better product versus listening to what my customers really wanted. When I shifted my focus to listening, things got much easier!
- Being different is better than being better. You do not need to have a better product; you just need to be different. For example, some people will identify with your method of delivery rather than make the decision based on the quality of the product. Groundhogg is not better than its SaaS competitors, but it’s the only accessible open source one in its league, and that makes it different.
- No one got rich and stayed rich by being the cheapest option. By being the cheapest you exclude an entire market of people who are willing to pay more for better service and quality. By being cheaper, you carry the connotation that your product isn’t as good. By increasing our prices, we actually saw more sales. Don’t stand in the way of your customers giving you money.
- Niche down early. Find a group of people who really benefit from your product and make it all about them. When you try to be all things to all people, you end up being able to help no one at all. It’s like the old adage, “When you sell to everyone, you’re selling to no one.”
- Do more sales calls. When starting out I was reluctant to do sales calls. I was, “too busy coding or too focused on the automation part (the system should close the sale).” That was an ego thing I had to get over. As soon as I started opening up to getting on calls, reluctantly, I would close and upsell 50% of the people I spoke with. I found many people just wanted permission to buy — a little nudge with comfort knowing that I was a real person. This was easily done by picking up the phone or hopping on a zoom call. Now I look forward to doing them. I keep them short, 15 minutes at most, but that’s long enough for them to make a buying decision. A nice side effect is you build your personal brand at the same time.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
There’s always room for one more! I must have at least fifty high profile competitors, even before I entered the CRM and marketing automation industry, and new ones are popping up every week. But I have my audience and niche and that’s enough to run a profitable and sustainable business.
Competition breeds innovation! Entering an existing industry with fresh ideas and a new way of doing things can cause a dramatic shift in consumer expectations, causing others to create better products and delivering better results for customers.
So if you’re thinking, “There’s not enough room for another idea like mine,” think again. You just have to find your niche and deliver results for them.
If you could tell other young people who are considering making a positive impact on our environment or society one thing, what would you tell them?
A lot of people plan, and plan, and strategize, and wait, and test, then plan, and plan some more, then test, then re-strategize, then test…
I think the biggest barrier to the launch of a brilliant idea is our own perfectionism. We test, and plan, and test some more because we want it to be perfect. When someone sees our work we want them to be able to find no faults in it.
I think we do this because we are afraid of, “constructive criticism,”. I know I was never fond of it in school. All the red ink or other people telling you your points don’t make any sense after you put so much thought and work into it.
So, to protect ourselves we strive for perfectionism so that there will be no criticism. Sadly we never reach it, and our opportunity passes by because we failed to act in time. And even if we did reach our idea of perfectionism it wouldn’t matter, because that expectation is over-rated. The world is full of naysayers, who will find fault where there is none.
Fortunately, those negative detractors are the minority! The vast majority of people actually want to see you succeed and excel, and will grow with you over time. They will purchase, test, use, and review lovingly your products long before they are “finished,” just because you were brave enough to share it with them.
But you, as a visionary must first give your vision the chance to grow, by sharing it with others and getting it out there.
Share it with family, friends, co-workers, bosses, classmates, professors, whoever! You’ll be surprised by how quickly your own enthusiasm and vision infects others, and they share it, and the people they share it with share it and so on.
Constructive criticism, or as I prefer is, “constructive feedback,” has its place, but don’t let it stop you from changing the world.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
There are some incredibly brilliant people out there who I’m sure I would benefit a lot from. I would love to have breakfast with Matt Mullenweg, the founder of WordPress and Automattic. I’d like to learn more about his vision for the WordPress Open Source community and what opportunities for growth he sees going forward.
Also, Pippin Williamson, the founder of Easy Digital Downloads among other WordPress products. I modeled my early pricing and products around his business model. He’s built a number of profitable niche businesses. There is some business intelligence there I’d like to have access to. Mainly around developing innovative products, building great teams, investing in new products, leadership, giving back, etc.
How can our readers follow you online?
You can find me at https://groundhogg.io, @Groundhoggwp on all social media, and @adriantobey on Twitter.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!