“Don’t give up!”, with Mitch Russo & Cooper Harris

To build a solid Software as a Service (SaaS) company, make sure your idea solves a problem that is ongoing. Meaning, if you have a brilliant idea to offer tech-enabled house-building (if this existed), you’d be hard-pressed to have people pay for this every month; I.E. once they’ve paid for the service, and their house […]

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To build a solid Software as a Service (SaaS) company, make sure your idea solves a problem that is ongoing. Meaning, if you have a brilliant idea to offer tech-enabled house-building (if this existed), you’d be hard-pressed to have people pay for this every month; I.E. once they’ve paid for the service, and their house is built, it’ll likely be a while before they need another. As another example, if you’re creating a mattress brand, it’s going to be hard to charge on a subscription basis — people don’t need a new mattress every month. Instead, create a platform or tech that solves an issue on an ongoing basis, or that you can charge for monthly.

As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App or SaaS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Cooper Harris. Cooper is a California-based entrepreneur and the founder and CEO of Klickly, a data-driven impulse-payments platform that powers headless commerce. Emerging as a pivotal figure in the west coast tech scene, Cooper has been nominated for Google’s “Young Innovator” award, L’Oreal’s “Digital Woman of the Year,” won InformationAge’s Women in I.T. “Entrepreneur of the Year” and named by Adobe as a “Top Thought-Leader” at Cannes Lions. Cooper is a contributor to Forbes and HuffPost and has been featured in Inc., Entrepreneur, Mashable, and Women2.0 and more.

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?

Before I decided to become an entrepreneur, I was a successful working actress in NY and LA. Yes, I actually have 30-some credits on IMDB. I had a blast acting, but after a few years, I didn’t find it as fulfilling. I started sneaking off on the weekends to compete in a number of Hackathons. I just fell in love with technology — I really feel tech is the storytelling medium of the future. This led me to build my first company while still on a TV show. I started Klickly shortly after that, as a way to let people buy within ads, but it’s become so much more.

Since founding Klickly, I’ve fully embraced my role as a CEO in technology. And it’s going really well. From our launch of Klickly, we have been consistently growing and now have over 1,500 eCommerce customers. We have investors ranging from top Silicon Valley VCs to execs at Google, Stripe, Apple, Visa, etc. and we’ve grown 400% over the last 12 months.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

It’s kind of a funny story — the idea of Klickly was born from a frustrating online shopping experience. I was trying to buy a cute pair of shoes I saw in an ad. I clicked on the ad and was forced through page after page. I ultimately got annoyed and gave up on the transaction. My first thought after this experience was, “Why would they make it so hard for me to give them money?” I thought, “What if we didn’t have to go through this headache? What if I could, essentially, “impulse-buy” this pair of shoes directly within the ad itself.”

Now, Klickly is a SaaS platform with well over a thousand of the top DTC (direct to consumer) brands, offering a “commission-based” platform where brands ONLY pay when they make a sale. This business model couples nicely with our “buyable” impulse-payments tech.

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?

I noticed two big challenges in our early days. First, we were cash constrained — like any early-stage startup — so this made it tricky to hire and grow. The second challenge: raising funding.

We overcame the first challenge with scrappy, iterative tactics like building inexpensive prototypes and getting impressive LOIs from prospective clients. Early on, I also may have paid my own salary by renting my front bedroom (more on this later 🙂 Again, we were very scrappy!

As for the second challenge of raising money, that took time and building credibility and traction. Given that I was not your stereotypical “tech” entrepreneur, I perhaps had a slightly more difficult time conforming to the startup founder mold and getting funding early on. Nevertheless, I remain adamant that every founder faces unique obstacles and, whereas some actually are unfair, they tend to make you craftier and more resourceful! I learned to be iterative, focus on the areas of ROI, and actually make money early.

Fast forward to last year when we discovered it’s not a bad thing to be break-even raising a 3rd round of VC funding — it gives you a lot more flexibility on what terms you want to take. Overall, things are very different now. Plus, some nice awards and accolades have also helped us establish credibility and traction far beyond what we expected.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

Over the past 3 years we’ve seen tremendous growth in Klickly. Through hard work, a great team, and a killer product, we’ve grown over 400% since last year — and have added some of the fastest-growing digitally-native brands to our client base

Though it was tough at first, my philosophy is just put one foot in front of the other. By staying focused (and avoiding shiny object syndrome — the kryptonite of all startups) we’ve been able to iterate, raise, hire, and scale to a place where we now have a high-functioning business.

Our determination and hard work has also provided us with some amazing investors and advisors including top-tier VCs alongside folks like Visa’s former Head of Global Product, Apple’s former Global Head of Retail Payments, folks from Google who built their A.I. platform (Tensorflow), and even NBA All-Star, Baron Davis. Our amazing backers allow us to stay at the forefront of technological innovation and we have some huge plans for the future.

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?

Yeah, I think one of the funniest mistakes — well, maybe not funny, but a testimate to grit — would have to be very early on. We were operating on a small amount of funding to build a prototype of the product. We used all our funds on it and I thought, “How can I keep this going? I don’t want to build a product and have no means to get it out there!” I thought, “Well, do I want to shut it down?” But, to me, I was like, I can’t — that wasn’t an option.

So I rented out one of my rooms on Airbnb and when that worked, I got another apartment, rented that out too. And then I got another! Yes, I may have been cordially invited to “not renew by lease” at that apartment complex, but we boot-strapped back to a point where I could get a larger team, raise another small round, and actually rent a real office.

The takeaway from this is if you believe in your product, don’t give up on it. There’s always some hacky way that you can make it through (as long as you don’t mind well-meaning, random travelers in your house).

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

The first thing that comes to mind when I get asked this question is how “brand-friendly” our platform is. When we built it, we looked at the industry as a whole and noticed some key pain-points that some, if not all, brands experience. We understand the difficulties of advertising and growing online sales — especially when it comes to how brands are paying for it.

I heard so many complaints like, “I spent a ton of money on ads, got a bunch of clicks, but only a few sales“ or “Ads worked great, but my CPC is through the roof!” and of course “My ads get people to my site, but the drop-off rate is crazy high!” So, we took into consideration the problems that brands were facing, and we created a platform that actually addressed them.

With our platform, we combat these difficulties with 3 rules.

  1. Our customers only pay when the ads drive sales
  2. Our customers get to lock-in their ROI by selecting their own commission
  3. We use the best cutting-edge technology to make online sales happen as quickly and efficiently as possible

We stand out because we have unique, new technology that allows us to turn advertising into eCommerce AND we only charge when it works

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

No matter what comes, you always have to have grit — a stick-to-itiveness. You have to dig deep and find perseverance and passion to achieve your long-term goals. Today’s business world is filled with uncertainty; and uncertainty creates distractions, stress, and obstacles. Having the “grittiness” to thrive in the face of adversity is necessary to be successful long-term.

When it gets tough, one thing that has always worked for me is to create a solid strategy or plan, vet it by people smarter than you, then just put one foot in front of the other and execute. Don’t get stymied by the enormity of the situation or challenge. If your plan is right, you’ll get there. (Also see: how do you eat an elephant. Answer: one small bite at a time. It’s kinda gross imagery, but probably very accurate).

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?

I come from a family of dedicated innovators: my grandmother was one of the first female computer programmers in the US.

She was recruited at age 17 during WWII to join the Signal Intelligence Corps. She was selected from the 20 women then attending NC State University where she was studying radio engineering. Once in DC, my grandmother was put on a top-secret mission to help break the German code. She was taught to manipulate electrical cables which made up the multi-room-large crude computer the government then used.

Growing up hearing that story, I couldn’t help but be inspired. Add to that, my father, who was a serial entrepreneur in renewables and recycling, and my brother who’s a computer genius — I think innovation is just in my blood. So that’s where I get a lot of my entrepreneurial drive. It was instilled upon me from an early age. Surrounded by inspiration, I’d always pondered “what can I do that has a real, tangible impact?”

Gradually, with my work in Hackathons, I began to utilize that mentality, eventually working with some notable people like Adrian Grenier, Fabian Cousteau and even the rapper, Wakka Flakka to create various social impact apps.

Klickly was just the natural emergence from there.

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 went through a period of proof of concept prior to launching anything (including surveys, feedback, and gathering LOIs). This allowed us a solid start while we were in Beta — we figured we might have 40 beta testers. We ended up with 400!. No longer in beta, we’ve now onboarded well over a thousand eCommerce merchants (and growing rapidly) over the past 1.5 years.

We’ve really done this by building an infrastructure that includes:

  1. A solid outreach process and sales team — You have to have a well-thought-out and tested process in place with attainable, yet aggressive goals. Ideally your sales team uses tools and processes that adhere to the “predictable profits” model for software platforms. Part of that process includes a good foundation of partnerships with apps, technology, and agency partners. When there’s a fit between what you and another platform does, you’d be surprised at what you can accomplish to help grow each other’s businesses.
  2. A strong internal network (and ability to use it) — Tap into your network. For us it was VCs, investors, and friends.
  3. A product/service people love — Nothing will ever beat quality of the product. User experience and good old-fashioned word of mouth is key for the longevity of your business. Create something people love, and they will stick around.

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?

One of the biggest issues in the traditional advertising industry is that even though you’re paying upfront, you really have no way to guarantee any results. What we’ve done is really get people thinking about how they’re paying for old-school advertising and whether they should be pushing the envelope a bit more. . We are the first and only platform that offers commission-based, buyable advertising across millions of websites and channels

We initially contemplated going the typical “year-long contract” route. But that’s pretty outmoded these days; most customers in our space — especially the attractive, successful DTC brands — expect modern, “product-first” platforms that are so good they can offer month-to-month plans.

Thus, we currently are incredibly simple with our model — we charge on commission when we drive a sale; no hidden fees and no upfront spend. Many brands, and even investors, said we were crazy! Of course, there are definitely other areas we could monetize, but right now we’ve created an algorithm that’s both a win-win for us and our brands. And this strategy is what makes eCommerce brands super excited to do business with us.

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.

  1. If you plan to raise VC money, test the market — just because you have an idea doesn’t mean the market is there. Make sure the data backs up the pain point you found. Ideally the market is in the double-digit billions or larger. VCs won’t fund small market ideas.
  2. To build a solid Software as a Service (SaaS) company, make sure your idea solves a problem that is ongoing. Meaning, if you have a brilliant idea to offer tech-enabled house-building (if this existed), you’d be hard-pressed to have people pay for this every month; I.E. once they’ve paid for the service, and their house is built, it’ll likely be a while before they need another. As another example, if you’re creating a mattress brand, it’s going to be hard to charge on a subscription basis — people don’t need a new mattress every month. Instead, create a platform or tech that solves an issue on an ongoing basis, or that you can charge for monthly.
  3. Beta customers to test and prove your product are critical. You wouldn’t go to a black tie event without looking in the mirror before you leave; why would you send your product out into the world without testing it?
  4. Make your platform or product simple. Founders often are tempted to create platforms that are really complicated and offer too many features. Streamline what you’re offering. One of my favorite sayings is, “You can’t boil the ocean.” So don’t try.
  5. Deliver value to your customers. Everything is irrelevant unless you deliver value. For example, once we put money into our customer’s pockets, our job was done.

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. 🙂

An issue I’m loving digging into is poverty and its effects. According to Rutger Bregman’s TED talk last year, being poor decreases your IQ by 14 points. How crazy is that?! That’s essentially like taking you from a nice “superior intelligence” range to almost the bottom of the “normal” range. Or taking you from “average” range down to what the Stanford-Binet scale calls “Borderline impaired or delayed.”

People are not poor because they’re less intelligent. Rather they’re less intelligent due to poverty.

Bregman proposes an interesting idea (one that’s been talked about for a while, and successfully executed a number of times). Think about raising the IQ of the entire population by 14 points … what would it mean? More innovation, better decision-making, less crime, and less strain on our welfare and healthcares systems. It would save us a lot of money (it costs a lot to have a large poor population).

Enter the idea of guaranteed basic income. People tend to react very strongly for, or against, this idea. But after some research, it does stand out as a very interesting — and not altogether implausible — idea. I really have no idea how you’d go about it, but the research and science backing it up is truly surprising.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow me on

Instagram @CooperHarris

Facebook Cooper Harris

Twitter @CooperHarris

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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