Understand who you are building for and why. A lot of technical founders have a tendency to write code for issues they are immediately experiencing, but not thinking beyond themselves to a bigger picture. This means risking your time to make sure you have the right customers, and seeing what is actually going to be valuable for people.
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 George Deglin, Co-Founder & CEO of OneSignal.
George Deglin is Co-Founder & CEO of OneSignal, the most widely used mobile/web engagement platform. With over a decade of experience engineering software products, George was previously CTO for Uversity, a college social networking startup backed by Founders Fund and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
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?
Asan engineer by training, I was passionate about exploring different ideas to solve a range of problems. Growing up in the heart of Silicon Valley, I was always surrounded by interesting technology. Both of my parents had engineering careers which inspired me to study computer science at UC Berkeley. I ended up dropping out of school to start my first company Uversity at age 19, which I ran as CTO for 4 years with the other OneSignal founder Long Vo.
Uversity’s mission was to help connect students with classmates and peers online through roommate-matching, campus clubs, and social groups. It was interesting to build private social networks, which partnered with schools for the student body. The platform took on a lot of features Facebook was starting to downplay as it moved beyond the university user base. Being just out of college, I was building a product I wished I had as a student. Uversity raised $7 Million in venture financing from Founders Fund, Retro Venture Partners, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (their first venture investment) across 3 rounds. That was a blast and had great investors and a team, the company was acquired after I left.
Before founding OneSignal, my team and I were experimenting in the gaming space. We were working on a bunch of ideas and spent a lot of time building a mobile game studio, which became my second business venture, Hiptic games. Hiptic Games had titles like GoNinja (which got millions downloads), BravoMan (a license partnered with Bandai-Namco), and others that were successful. Building games was a really fun business but one of the challenges was user retention. The large portion of people who downloaded our game and only played once or twice posed a huge opportunity for us to create a user re-engagement solution.
Originally we built our push notifications for the team’s own needs, combining automation with analytics tools to avoid overwhelming users to the point where they delete an app. We then moved to solve the user retention issue. After analyzing different metrics, the service would schedule messages for in-game deals or events at times when players will be mostly likely to engage with them and come back to the game.
Through experience building games we realized what people really wanted and needed. OneSignal really took off faster than we could manage it, and the number of big apps and games was more than we could handle to scale at the time.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
As a game developer at Hiptic, I was frustrated with existing push notification tools that were not developer friendly. As game developers one issue was that we needed a good way to re-engage users to send personalized messages to bring them back to the game and re-engage, like if we released a new level. Turns out that was really difficult, there was nothing that made it easy for us, so we realized the opportunity to build the service ourselves. Hiptic’s service scheduled messages for in-game deals or events at times when players would most likely engage with them and come back to the game.
The more we struggled with the market gap the more we realized the opportunity in the space, and we could build an easy version for any size companies to build for their users. Before we knew it, 10,000 people were relying on these push notifications to game, and it’s what eventually became the OneSignal platform to solve roadblocks the developer community faced.
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?
My founders and I went through the dictionary definition of a startup, and at times it seemed like it would make more sense to give up during certain points in the journey. Before we renamed the company to OneSignal in 2011, there was a solid four year time window when we were trying to get business off the ground with no money, no real customer success yet, and a tiny team. I was living with my cofounder in his house and we were both going through rough times with no income and working nonstop on different projects.
Sometimes I felt kind of hopeless, and thought if we had what it takes to be successful? Do we have to go get jobs at companies? What held us together was that we were certain we were careful of building a successful business and knew it wouldn’t be easy. Working at startups and other founders you learn what makes other people successful is determination. Also, we really loved working together, so even though work hours were crazy and we really enjoyed each other’s company. The people we hired were really incredible as well. Ultimately lead us to OneSingal and now it’s great to see where we’ve come. Looking back it was well worth it.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Things are going great! Today we are nearly 50 people strong and we send 5 billion messages daily through our customers, and on a record day we sent 5.6 Billion.Last year we added over 250,000 new accounts, grew revenue 600%, and added to our leadership team. We’ve also broadened our business to support email channels, in-app messaging (like coupons), and are also looking into other channels like SMS.
At this point we are a very fast growing and growth stage business, the product has incredible market fit and solves a huge challenge for thousands of businesses out in the world, even at 50 people it feels big relative to where we were. Thankful every day for my team. Being in the position of trying a lot of ideas that didn’t work, being really scrappy, handling tough moments really well, those moments translated over to where the business is today. There’s no shortage of challenges or difficult decisions and hard work involved prior to startups.
We weren’t afraid to make mistakes when building our SDKs. There was a lot we had to do to get a very basic usable service, but we wanted to get out as quickly as possible. We weren’t sure we could pull it off, but we had a very focused team with focused goals. It’s just a matter of how fast you can move, and the communication needs to be streamlined, and sometimes you just have to take a few shortcuts.
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?
When we started building OneSignal we came from being a game studio, so we were thinking in terms of that mindset as a gamer. One decision was a naming scheme in our API, we decided to call new users a ‘player’ when they subscribed. To this day every subscriber is called a player rather than a user or subscriber, we didn’t think of that in hindsight and are looking to invest some time to change that now that our business is not focused on game developers. It’s a cool part of our history but seems awkward now, back then it would have been much easier to change than now.
Likewise the overall product in its early stages is something that we were a bit embarrassed by. I’m not a great front end developer! I bought a template to use but it was barely functional, but what we got out was enough to do the core things it needed to do and get a few early users and feedback. So really it was invaluable and you shouldn’t be afraid to make mistakes!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
A big part of our success is that we address the entire market, and most other companies offering solutions in our space are very enterprise-centric. What we build is very simple, easy to use, and acceptable for every company big and small and we can be tailored to any budget. In 15 minutes you can put our service into our app and website and start sending messages through your channel, which is a huge plus for non-technical marketers and even on the developer side, who are always strapped for time and resources.
One thing that always shines for us is that people are shocked how easy it is to use when trying out or evaluating our service for the first time. The reality is that the underlying pieces of the technology are very complex and difficult, and people who have used other products always have the impression that it’s really difficult and error-prone to integrate. We’ve invested years in making it as simple as possible, and that’s a big part in helping customers be successful. A part of our success is that we were also developers looking for easy solutions, and that’s what we built. Millions of other companies out there just like we were, so it’s helpful to have a ton of empathy for the types of challenges teams are facing.
A great example is how we’ve seen good success in entertainment and media companies, one of the industries using our notifications a lot. The features of our product work very well for delivering notifications quickly, which is important for sports media and sharing breaking news. Since we integrate really well with any CMS, we can attract the bigger customers in media for publishing articles offering in-house media notifications.
Of course we want to be marketer-centric and address those types of use cases, but we are proud of having developer-centric products and the background as developers, so seeing where we can expand more there. You can see in numbers, we have a million developers on our platform, and hundreds of millions of end users are receiving messages from our clients. Other companies try to build super-complex features and charge a lot of money, but we wanted to democratize what we offer.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Being a founder is a bit of a rollercoaster and there’s always moments of extreme difficulty and extreme success especially in early days. It’s important to understand that in the moment things aren’t as difficult as they seem, and it could be an indicator of an exciting opportunity on the horizon. The rollercoaster ride is just part of the environment as a founder.
One thing valuable for me thanks to Silicon Valley and places with other startups, building a good network of peers has been key. There’s half a dozen other founders that I have good relationships with that I can go to for advice, just as someone else who understands the experiences I have. That’s really key knowing there’s others that have done this and been through this to provide input. If you don’t have a strong network of people it can be challenging.
Also looking back I spent a lot of time in the early days just keeping servers running and answering support tickets, and while I enjoyed doing it the company (and myself) would have been better off if I hired people to take care of those things and scale the business better and had more time to focus on other tasks. Founders need to be better at automating certain tasks and letting go of the reigns a little more.
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?
No one certain person comes to mind, but overall my family has been very supportive. A lot of people’s parents I’m sure would give them a hard time about dropping out of school and going after the visions I had, but mine understood that this was something I was very passionate about and the right path for me to take.
Also as a general inspiration I really admire the two founders of Stripe. I’ve been really impressed by the quality of the product and they were both technical founders like me. The approach Stripe takes is really impressive to me, and they really nailed building an incredible company culture. It’s a challenging thing to do as a company scales to so many people, and they are being very thoughtful about it. It’s a journey I hope to follow myself as best as i can!
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 thousands of paid customers, one million developers, and hundreds of thousands of free users using our platform. OneSignal is used by 68% of the top one million websites that implement notifications and has more mobile SDK integrations than all other push platforms combined.
The main step is really within putting the time into building an easy to deploy, easy to use product whether or not you are a highly technical developer. In 15 minutes you can put our service into our app and website and start sending messages through your channel. Also we have a super user friendly dashboard for marketers.
It’s also in our approach to marketing our product, thinking of how to grow our engineering team and grow features or deploy faster. How do we help our customers send better quality notifications. We aim to focus on delivery and education, a small amount of tailoring messaging. Want to make sure each person using us has the right tool to make messages as effective as possible. It’s been our long-term vision and goal to have more intelligent messages for users, and we’ve never stopped innovating there.
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 offer a few pricing tiers, including Free, Starter, and Pro based on the opt-in subscriber number a company has, and varies by the features offered for each.
As a SaaS company we offer a very generous free tier because when we started we were a very small company and everything was very expensive. But of course, we aim to offer greater value through our paid version for larger companies that have higher needs for better analytics, deeper segmentation, templates, and tags. Our highest level version really helps push the customer engagement strategy with enterprise features & support for larger organizations sending to huge amounts of subscribers each month.
We’ve explored various monetization options since our company started, and decided we want to be the company that provides a lot of value, so even the free version has very high limits.
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. Understand who you are building for and why. A lot of technical founders have a tendency to write code for issues they are immediately experiencing, but not thinking beyond themselves to a bigger picture. This means risking your time to make sure you have the right customers, and seeing what is actually going to be valuable for people.
2. Go after a market that is large enough. A lot of people see a problem out in the world and look to solve it, but evaluate if the demand is enough out there to be valuable. You want to make sure you are solving a problem with a big enough need and people will be willing to pay for a solution.
3. As a company scales its key to spend your time hiring the right people to help you grow. The amount a founder can accomplish on their own becomes a big bottleneck for the business, but also you shouldn’t rush to fill a seat unless the candidate has buy-in the overall company vision and has the same long-term goals. People spend too much time trying to do it themselves instead of hiring the right people. Really developing that part of the business and sharing your vision, building the right network of people is key. Originally we had to focus on hiring more generalists on the technical side due to the amount of projects going on, we couldn’t just have someone working on one thing.
4. Be mindful of your own health and wellness and understand there’s a long road to success. Being aware of your own health is key, and taking time for your mental well-being.
5. Once you have customers, spend the time to talk to them to understand what makes your product valuable to them. The early customers were key at OneSIgnal and some features we offer now are built based directly on customer feedback. Because we were receptive and had those conversations that’s been really valuable and key to scaling from the first few customers into what we are today.
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.
It’s been fantastic to see large tech companies supporting early STEM education and emphasizing computer literacy and software development. I especially love what Google is doing to provide educational resources to teach people how to code, there’s also a lot of companies doing good work supporting minority groups and schools. It’s awesome to see to help the next-gen of engineers to give the opportunity to work in the software industry.
There’s a lot of under the radar developments that have helped engineers do more. One thing is looking at all the resources available ten years ago, it’s amazing to see what has happened since then. Today it’s exciting to see the quality of the tools that exist and improvements in how fast computers are, and the thought that goes into building strong teams and collaborating across organizations of all sizes. More people learning how to code is always a plus.
How can our readers follow you on social media?