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“Know who you’re selling to.” With Mitch Russo & Lars Helgeson

I would suggest every business owner take the time to model and understand their customer journeys. See the entire process, from initial awareness of your brand to purchase and beyond. This will help put into context all of your decisions, so you know how they impact how people buy from you. Become familiar with the […]

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I would suggest every business owner take the time to model and understand their customer journeys. See the entire process, from initial awareness of your brand to purchase and beyond. This will help put into context all of your decisions, so you know how they impact how people buy from you. Become familiar with the entire customer lifecycle, and you will be able to influence that lifecycle.


As a 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 Lars Helgeson. Lars started in the Internet Marketing space in 2000, when he co-founded one of the world’s first email service providers, CoolerEmail. As a pioneer in responsible email marketing, he grew CoolerEmail into a global software company specializing in marketing communication with over 1,500 clients. In 2010, after spending several years designing and implementing a more comprehensive way to meet the needs of small and mid-sized businesses, he launched GreenRope, a cloud-based platform that simplifies and consolidates a company’s sales, marketing, and operations. GreenRope currently provides technology solutions to over 3,000 companies worldwide. In 2017, he authored, CRM For Dummies, part of the globally acclaimed “For Dummies” series of books. In the book, he covers strategies and tactics that help businesses design and implement a successful CRM strategy. Lars has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, an MBA from the University of New Mexico, and served as an officer in the United States Air Force. His favorite CRM-related mantra is, “If it isn’t in the CRM, it didn’t happen.”


Thank you for joining us Lars. 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?

When I left the Air Force in 1999, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I knew that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. Working in the government was secure, but frustrating. Bureaucracy was crushing my spirit, and I knew I had to strike out on my own. It was scary, but I knew if I could own my successes and failures, I would be happier.

In 2000, I moved from New Mexico to San Diego, and lived off my savings from working in the government. I didn’t have a concept for a business yet, but managed to supplement my income by teaching at the University of Phoenix and doing contract software development while I developed an idea that would find traction.

My first business, CoolerEmail, was a partnership with someone I met while getting my MBA. We were one of the first email marketing service providers at the time, but decided that rather than getting funding, we would grow the company organically, without funding. After giving the product away to some friends for a few months to test and perfect it, we launched it in 2002.

Over the next several years, CoolerEmail grew gradually. With growth came wisdom and experience in seeing how businesses adopted email as a way to communicate with leads, clients, and vendors. Experience taught me that the crux of the problems that businesses face with managing communication is the organization of the data that was being generated.

In 2008, I started work on a separate project to create a new platform. This new platform would be designed from the ground up with the CRM at the heart. Other communications and management functions would automatically connect to it. My business partner in CoolerEmail did not share my vision and did not want to be involved, so in 2011, I separated from my business partner and launched GreenRope, my vision of an all-in-one, Complete CRM.

The vision of Complete CRM is a bold one. There are few companies that offer software that natively combine CRM with marketing. Complete CRM takes that vision further, combining marketing automation with email, SMS, voice, social, web analytics, video, customer service, and more. The platform is powerful and flexible, yet is focused on providing an easy-to-manage, intuitive interface with tight data security controls and state-of-the-art features to help companies scale and operate efficiently.

GreenRope was built and has grown organically. We have never received external funding. This comes with its own set of challenges, but we felt it was the best way to serve our customers over the long term.

When GreenRope launched, we focused on function over form, and learned what we could from our small base of users. We simultaneously improved our product, and invested in marketing to bring customers to us. To date, GreenRope now has over 1,000 customers in 21 countries, and is growing every day. We are still a small, virtual business (we never had offices, which when the coronavirus pandemic hit, did not impact us at all). Our focus is on providing the best customer experience and the best Complete CRM for our clients on the market.

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

GreenRope was a gradual learning experience. We kept hearing the same thing from our customers. “How do we get this email data to the people in the business who can really use it?” Understanding the impact of email marketing extends beyond just looking for read and click rates. After working with companies that actively engage in email marketing, it’s apparent that the real problem is much larger.

All businesses suffer from information management challenges. Different software packages store data in a way that is useful for that software, but not built to share that data easily. How do you efficiently get those reads and clicks in the hands of a salesperson who is about to call on a lead? How do you provide a complete history of the company-client relationship to a customer service representative so the conversation stays relevant? How do you provide sales data to marketers, so they can easily close the loop on their campaigns and develop newer, better messaging?

These questions are nearly impossible to answer in the traditional world of CRM. Integrations are expensive, complicated, and dominated by software that is clunky and slow. I knew there was an opportunity to build something better. GreenRope typically saves a company over 90% total cost of ownership and is able to get implemented in 1/10th the time (or faster) than traditional CRM platforms.

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’m not good at failure, so I never accepted it as an option. I knew if I hit a wall, I would have to find a way around it. That attitude has served me my whole life, and continues to serve me now. Business isn’t easy, and there are always peaks and valleys, but perseverance is a constant force that gets you through all of it.

In 2016, my CFO and very close friend was caught embezzling money from my company. It was heartbreaking and ended up costing us a lot of money to investigate and fix. The stress on the team was incalculable and morale took a big hit, but we fought through it. I knew we had hundreds of customers relying on us, and I wasn’t about to let our small team get taken out by one self-serving, destructive individual. It took a year, but in the end, we emerged a better company.

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

A key decision we made at the very beginning was to never have an office. We chose to save money on rent, provide flexibility to everyone on the team, and use our own software to run our business. The recent pandemic has affected a lot of businesses, but the impact to us has been minimal. We have been able to provide the same high level of customer service, and have continued to roll out improvements to our platform, including a system-wide upgrade to our user interface.

It is this consistent dedication to providing excellent service to our customers and continuous improvement to our platform that has helped us grow to the company we are today. Our team is unified and focused, while still enjoying a good quality of life and enjoyment in helping our customers succeed.

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?

The first roll-out of our email marketing software was in 2002. One of those initial testers was an acquaintance who had, unbeknownst to me, purchased a big list of email addresses. He uploaded 100,000 contacts into our system and sent them all a really spammy email.

To put things in context, back in those days, I had my home phone number on our website as the main line. The day that this email blast went out, I had just come back from working out at the gym and pressed the “Play” button on my answering machine (it was 2002, after all). Much to my surprise, I heard a guy yell into my answering machine that I was a terrorist and that I should be shot for sending him that email.

There was a huge lesson to be learned from this one experience. We could not assume that not all users were responsible. So I made some changes, including making sure that every account has a threshold that will prevent someone from adding a large list or sending a large number of emails out without first getting approval from someone on our team. This one decision has protected us from countless attempts by spammers (particularly affiliate marketers) who have come to GreenRope, uploaded a list, and then been caught and blocked before they ever got to send their messages.

Your reputation is everything, especially when it comes to sending email. Our strong stance against spam has been a core value for us since the beginning. Our team is well trained to spot spammers and keep email a useful, productive tool for all of us.

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

The concept of Complete CRM has been embraced by several companies in the SaaS world. The idea that most everything a business needs in terms of sales, marketing, customer service, and events in one place is rooted in sharing knowledge meaningfully and leveraging software automation for growth. With your entire team using one platform, any businesses, non-profit, or government organization can run more efficiently and gain insights they could never find from traditional CRM.

The first time we compared our Complete CRM against an enterprise level traditional CRM, we were shocked by the difference in cost and schedule for the implementation. We were up against Salesforce, which had provided a bid to a 25-person company that was going to take over 2 years to implement and would cost over $200,000. Not knowing anything about their proposal, our bid was 5 weeks and $5,000. Needless to say, we won the contract and implemented everything they needed for a fraction of the cost and time of a traditional CRM.

Similar stories have played out in commercial, NPO, and government sectors. The simplicity and power of a unified platform is an eye-opening experience for companies that haven’t used a Complete CRM before.

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

One important tip is obvious — take time for yourself away from the computer, where your mind is totally focused on that other activity. Surfing and playing ice hockey are those things for me, and the time I spend there is absolutely critical for my spiritual well-being. This in turn helps me think clearly through complex issues and stimulates creativity.

Another tip is to hire people who are self-sufficient and take initiative to solve problems. The value of knowing a job will be done right without you having to check on it is immensely important, particularly when it comes to dealing with customers. When you are confident your customers will be well taken care of, your mind can focus on more important things like strategy.

I would suggest every business owner take the time to model and understand their customer journeys. See the entire process, from initial awareness of your brand to purchase and beyond. This will help put into context all of your decisions, so you know how they impact how people buy from you. Become familiar with the entire customer lifecycle, and you will be able to influence that lifecycle.

Finally, get a CRM that your entire business uses. Hold you managers accountable for performance. Don’t let the inmates run the asylum — as a leader, it is up to you to set the tone for how you operate. Once you establish a data-driven culture, and one where everyone understands how they impact the entire company, you’ll see the difference in your entire organization.

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?

Early on, both in CoolerEmail and in GreenRope, there were a lot of nay-sayers. People who said that what I was trying to build was impossible. That I would never make money at it. The person who always stood by and listened and supported was my Mom. I would talk to her about what I was working on, and even though she didn’t understand the software part of it, she would always offer moral support and love.

Sadly, in 2012, my Mom passed away. This experience was the subject of a TED talk that I presented in 2018. I felt the support and lessons she had imparted on me over the years could inspire others and help give an appreciation for those who are always there supporting us. Giving that talk was the hardest thing I ever did. In spite of years of practice speaking at conferences, the emotional element of speaking about the support she unconditionally gave was almost overwhelming.

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 currently have over 15,000 users, from over 1,000 clients in over 20 countries. We also have a network of 25 private labeled value added resellers, who use our software and sell it to their channels.

Our community has been built by acquiring customers through a mix of referral, pay-per-click, organic search, content marketing, trade shows, and social media. We host weekly webinars, send monthly newsletters, and continually write new blogs, e-books, and whitepapers. We are active on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. We connect all of this to our GreenRope account, so we can track where every lead comes from, their path to conversion, time to convert, progress through stages, and costs associated with each lead and conversion. We rely heavily on GreenRope’s automation, lead scoring, and predictive tools to nurture our leads.

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?

GreenRope has a very simple pricing model that is based on the number of contacts added to the platform. We do not charge for users, sending email, building automations, forms, or any of the built-in features of the software. There are some incremental costs involved with sending messages and telephony through our technology partners, but those are passed along to the user.

Many CRM platforms charge per-user, and also charge for use of their API, which we do not. We believe this makes for a simpler business case for our customers. It also saves them a lot of money, which we are happy to do.

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. Know who you’re selling to. Understanding your target market is absolutely critical. Create buyer personas for each of your market segments, so you can establish an emotional connection to them. When messaging resonates with a recipient, addressing a need or desire, they are much more likely to engage with you. One story of why this matters relates to our own understanding of our target markets. Early on, we realized that oftentimes we have to sell to someone in the IT department as part of the team of who is going to be involved in the CRM implementation. We call that persona “IT Eddy”, and he can often derail a CRM if he doesn’t feel comfortable that the CRM provides the security and data management tools that he needs. We realized that our language was focused on selling to sales managers and marketers, and we didn’t have any content focused on selling to a more technical audience. Now we have published policies and SOC reports available for IT professionals so they can easily access the information they need to be comfortable with bringing GreenRope into their organization.
  2. Build a process map. For each market segment, build a flow of how the sales process works. Start with marketing, at the very top of the funnel, creating awareness. Work through your leads’ decision-making processes, and find places where you can help them move through your funnel. Get in touch with an emotional element at each stage of the process. Set up funnels with gates that you can use to define when leads move from stage to stage. Find ways to automate communication with your leads using personalized email, SMS, voice, or video. Make sure you think about how to convert customers into advocates. What kind of special service can you provide after the sale to help them spread the word about you? We realized that modeling this can be a difficult process, so we built a tool that we offer for free to anyone who wants to use it called JourneyFlow (www.journeyflow.com). It’s an easy-to-use drag-and-drop process flow chart program you can use to help define your buyer journeys.
  3. Build a data model. This is an important part of the process. As you complete steps 1 and 2 above, you will learn what information to collect about your leads and customers. If you are going to personalize content, you need to know what you will be personalizing. Is it just a name? Or will you send different messages based on income, gender, or geographic location? A couple years ago, we transitioned a company off of another marketing automation platform that had a massive amount of data. Hundreds of options for fields, searchable and displayed with complex rules. We spent a week optimizing our database structure and tools so it would make sense for them and wouldn’t overload our servers trying to process that data. In the end, their requirements drove us to improve the design of our entire platform.
  4. Don’t obsess about a business plan. Yes, it’s important to have a plan, but don’t spend months or years writing a document that is going to sit in a drawer. We built GreenRope off of a whiteboard and a couple pieces of paper, which then we transitioned into our own project management system (another built-in element of our platform). As long as everyone is on the same page with your vision, you can get on the same page using your website, internal wiki, task management, all of which are tools we include in GreenRope.
  5. Use CRM to unify, consolidate, and simplify your business processes. Make sure everyone is on the same page. If you don’t use a Complete CRM, plan to invest heavily in making API connections between the various elements of your sales, marketing, customer service, and operations teams. We hear stories constantly of companies where people hate and/or don’t use their CRM. It’s natural for people to not want to feel like someone is looking over their shoulder, so as a business leader, you have to make it worth their while. Providing them tools to help them do their job better is the best way to do that. Sharing data between teams in your company will foster an environment of teamwork and accountability, while leveraging automation to make everything more efficient. What’s more, with all your data integrated, you’ll have insight into performance of your business in ways you never thought possible.

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. 🙂

We have decided to make our Complete CRM platform free for registered 501c3 non-profits. It is a big step for us, as it represents a potential heavy load on our system, but I believe times like this really call for NPOs to make the difference. When people are stressed, they tend to not give as much, and those who are less fortunate suffer. By offering GreenRope for free to NPOs, we can help them save money and reach more people.

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