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“Stay involved as much as you can” with Mitch Russo & Joe Sinkwitz

Stay as involved with support as you possibly can. We have 10 people today and with that it means several people dedicated to being the first line of support for most cases, but we as founders cannot shut ourselves off to the world. I purposefully answer all my own email so I can get a […]

Stay as involved with support as you possibly can. We have 10 people today and with that it means several people dedicated to being the first line of support for most cases, but we as founders cannot shut ourselves off to the world. I purposefully answer all my own email so I can get a firsthand look at issues that might be arising, and can provide warm introductions to the person that ultimately solves their problem.


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 Joe Sinkwitz. Joe has over 20 years of experience in SEO, leading several successful marketing companies and providing expert consultation. Joe recently published The Ultimate Guide to Using Influencer Marketing, available in print or ebook. He is presently co-founder and CEO of influencer marketing network, Intellifluence.


Thank you so much for joining us Joe! 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?

Absolutely. I have a bit of a hodgepodge background, having started my journey in SEO in 1997 while I was still working on my degrees in information systems and operations management. While I was hooked on the future of digital marketing, I still wanted to build product, which I ended up doing for a period of time at KPMG — let me tell you, state and local tax software is as dry as it gets. After that experience, I’ve been more or less in the digital marketing world ever since, running top grossing organic search websites in the finance industry for several years, as CRO for CopyPress, and then as a CMO for a stealth CPG company. It was at this CPG company that I was able to see how all the pieces fit together in digital marketing, necessitating a new way of marketing. It was so compelling that I left the well-paying position to build Intellifluence.

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 biggest “aha moment” actually was a matter of repetition. At the CPG company we were prohibited from using Google Adwords or Facebook Ads due to the nature of the product…I went so far as to discuss with Facebook’s counsel and they refused to budge, so I started looking at alternative methods of scaling up attention for the products I was trying to market. We had SEO of course, but knew that would be a long term play. However, we could immediately get in front of influencers…except we couldn’t. At the time, the niche influencers we needed were primarily represented by agencies, which required large monthly minimums, took a 20% cut, and ultimately were just unnecessary friction. It was encountering this friction repeatedly that made me realize there had to be a better way of engaging with this market. After some research I realized as well that those large monthly minimums were preventing at least half of the ecommerce market from testing out influencer marketing, but also that by only focusing on large influencers, well over half of all purchasable influence was being ignored. Thus, with Terry Godier we set out to address the forgotten market.

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 terrible about knowing when to give up, so the grind to continue has never really being a difficulty — stoicism has its advantages. However, our first version of Intellifluence flopped enormously; our assumption was that we would allow brands to join the network and recruit their own influencers, but the flaw was thinking people would pay for the privilege of doing work on our behalf in terms of growing the network. The management tools on our end just weren’t sophisticated enough to justify that type of action.

Immediately iterating into a more conventional marketplace philosophy pushed us into chicken and egg problems, wherein you constantly need to be growing both sides of the platform in order to keep everyone satisfied. Having millions of influencers wouldn’t matter if no brands are available to keep them busy and the churn rate on hundreds of thousands of brands would be enormous if there’s no influencers to satisfy them.

I’m a believer in continuous improvement, which is what our 5 year roadmap is primarily centered upon, not some mythical overnight success. Add a few thousand influencers, add a few hundred brands, improve pitch-to-transaction completion rates, improve influencer engagement rates, improve support response times…it all adds up cumulatively to success. Perhaps the biggest driver though is having had success previously in a previous venture, knowing that if the team has been able to become a dominant player in SEO we can just as well become a dominant player in influencer marketing.

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

I’m proud to say that as of this interview, Intellifluence is the largest warm contact influencer network, meaning everyone we highlight has actually signed up to work with us.

Your question on grit and resilience is important here, because it would have been very easy to slap a scraped database into our network like our competitors were doing; instead, we took the longer path of building 70,000+ relationships in a way that is not going to be easily replicable, with email after email, demo after demo. We have product market fit and are now in the process of scaling brands.

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 think being completely off in our initial assumption was pretty funny. Really the biggest take away was that while we did a significant amount of research on the market as a whole, we didn’t do any one-on-one calls with brands to determine if what we were building was what they wanted…we managed to solve a problem no one had. From that point on I tried to speak with everyone we possibly could: influencers, brands, agencies, competitors, upset customers of competitors, you name it. That really allowed me to sit down and graph out what we were able to do on day one and what was going to take several years, and then plan around it.

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

Being the largest warm contact influencer network really allows us to stand out. It comes up all the times on demos, where in the course of discussion we might be asked “but how do I know if the influencer would be interested in this type of work?” which we can laugh off because everyone in our network has already self-vetted themselves as wanting to do exactly that. In a cold contact list, most people don’t even know they are on the list, which means a lot of negative responses — when a brand is handling a pitch via warm contact the responses are much higher and the overall transaction time that much quicker.

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

The overall trend of the industry is up and to the right, so simply by surviving my peers’ companies should have some degree of success. When we started we knew of 50 maybe 100 quasi competitors; within 2 years that number was easily over 600, and it hasn’t slowed down. There’s been significant consolidation, which is another point of optimism for my peers, but we are all attempting to solve the influence demand in different ways, with some really novel concepts.

I believe in this industry so much that I’ve bootstrapped the team of 10 for the last 3.5 years; if others can buy into that belief as well, I know it’ll be an extremely important channel and earn marketing mix dollars from the CMO suites.

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’d be a man trying to sell a broken product without my team. With all possible sincerity, they have made it possible — we have a much larger warm network than even most of our competitors have cold networks, and we managed to do it with a team of 10, without external funding. Compare that to some peers’ companies working with a team of 100, series B under their belts, and we’re still bigger. It’s all because of the team.

When we raise series A later this year, it’s my silent hope that in doubling team size I can luck out enough to just clone the people we already have. I can aim no higher than that for the quality of people we have.

As for a person that’s helped me, that’s easy: Eric Kaufman. Eric has been my business partner throughout my career, from when we worked together developing tax software, to dominating search with our financial leadgen sites, to now at Intellifluence as he leads our product. I really look forward to being able to pay those hours back in the form of large dividend checks.

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 70,000 influencer subscribers and just shy of 3,000 brand subscribers, working on (as of this moment) 1,200 active campaigns.

The biggest steps we’ve undertaken is to understand what the growth levers are for our business and press them as hard as possible.

  1. Constant outreach to influencers. We are actively sifting through trending hashtags on every major social network, finding profiles that appear to be run by real human beings, and inviting those individuals to work with us to both grow their social presence as well make side-income as influencers.
  2. Constant outreach to brands. I have a bit of a reputation in the digital marketing community for being prolific, so I’m constantly attempting to stay top of mind via LinkedIn outreach, email nurturing, and getting on a demo with anyone remotely interested in influencer marketing.
  3. Running a conference. One of my other business ventures is as one of the owners of the Advanced Search Summit, held in lovely Napa, California. By hosting a conference, we’re giving a consistent credibility boost, and can apply that authoritative influence to recommend our product to senior digital marketers. Running a conference is difficult and expensive, so I am enjoying the moat we’ve been creating having done so.

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?

Our monetization model is very straightforward, which is probably partially why we’re having the success we do. We offer a simple monthly SaaS subscription to brands, which tiers based on their usage needs; if a brand needs a free trial to test it out, our support team is authorized to provide it without question. If the brand wishes to compensate influencers monetarily, we created a payments product with dual-sized fraud protection that allows them to pay an influencer without risk of that money not being used as intended; a 10% fee exists on those payments to cover the transactional costs we incur.

Early on we did test out freemium, but were attracting too many scammers; likewise, we considered eliminating subscriptions altogether and charging a heftier transaction fee, but with test we noticed too many people attempting to circumvent the system. Thus, what we ended with is the current model which reduces brand friction to the point where it’s not worth the hassle to attempt to circumvent us, and is priced affordably enough that most can whether a long subscription length.

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. Find out exactly what it is that your potential buyers need to have solved; the problem you believe you’re solving might be incorrect. Don’t forget to look at secondary effects as you may be able to provide a lateral solution in a novel way that allows you to disrupt entrenched players.
  2. Great marketing cannot overcome a poor product. Invest heavily into making the product supremely usable, to the point where your buyer feels they cannot do their job without it.
  3. After your product is at a sufficient level, layer on flywheels of asking for referrals. In our case as a dual-sized platform we can ask both brands and influencers; done well, this type of marketing can become a not insignificant source of new business.
  4. Stay as involved with support as you possibly can. We have 10 people today and with that it means several people dedicated to being the first line of support for most cases, but we as founders cannot shut ourselves off to the world. I purposefully answer all my own email so I can get a firsthand look at issues that might be arising, and can provide warm introductions to the person that ultimately solves their problem.
  5. Test every conceivable marketing channel, but don’t discount low-hanging fruit. If you believe in what you’re building, ask for your friends to purchase if they’re the right user. If you believe in what you’re building, write about it as frequently as you can. If you believe in what you’re building, get out of the office, go on stage, and tell the world about it.

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’d like to fully democratize the social media side hustle. My dream is to ultimately create a solution wherein anyone can purchase the influence of anyone else, based on deep machine learning, desire, and demand. It’s the movement that Intellifluence will one day solve.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/CygnusSEO and LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/jsinkwitz/.

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

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