On Starting A $160K/Month CRM & Automations Company After A US Air Force Career

Published: December 9th, 2019
Lars Helgeson
Founder, GreenRope
from Gig Harbor, WA, USA
started June 2008
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

My name is Lars Helgeson and I am the founder of GreenRope, a CRM and marketing automation platform. Our company started in 2000 as an email marketing SaaS and in 2008 decided to focus on the challenges that businesses face in managing sales, marketing, customer service, and operations.

GreenRope is an all-in-one Complete CRM, with sales and marketing automation, surveys, event management, project management, support ticketing, learning management, knowledge management, forms, websites, landing pages, advanced analytics, and much more, all within a single interface.

We made the decision at the outset to build the company organically, never taking outside investment, so we could focus on creating a positive, customer-centric culture without the pressure or sacrifices of having to repay investors.

GreenRope has over 1,000 customers in over 20 countries, ranging from startups to universities and municipalities.


What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

After being honorably discharged from the US Air Force, I struck out on my own to build a different kind of software company. One that focused on providing real, long-term value to customers. I taught myself how to write code and worked day and night for 3 years to build the first version of our email marketing software.

In 2008, I realized that we could better serve our customers by taking a broader, more holistic view of business management. We worked with hundreds of our customers to come up with solutions to real problems they were having every day and found out that most of those problems had to do with managing information. Most businesses have disparate departments, software, and data, and the integration of that data is often an afterthought. GreenRope solves this with a single, unified platform that sales, marketing, customer service, and operations staff log in to.

When we started with GreenRope, we focused on the core CRM, email, and website elements of running a business. Then, we expanded into project management, customer service, and a few other functions common to many businesses. The last part was building automation, scoring, and predictive analytics since we were able to gather data from all of the other parts of the business’s operations.

Think about who you’re selling to, and how you envision selling it. Take some time to map a high-level customer journey.

Our team grew slowly, but we have always been focused on providing the best customer service possible. We provide free videos, white papers, e-books, walk-throughs, cheat sheets, webinars, and more. If a more personal touch is needed, we offer free support by phone, email, live chat, web conference, and support ticket.

I believe the key to long term growth is about focusing on the customer. Products must solve problems reliably, and customers have to feel confident in the company and the platform. GreenRope’s mission and vision have always centered on that, and we are transparent about every element of our business.

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

GreenRope’s design is a combination of two platforms we built - MyTeamCaptain (a side project I worked on for my hockey team) and CoolerEmail (the original email marketing platform I started in 2000). When we started creating the architecture for the platform, we knew we were taking on something ambitious. It took 2 years of development before we had a minimum viable product (MVP).

From there, we released it to a small group of users, migrating them from CoolerEmail to GreenRope. We learned from their feedback, adapting the user interface to better suit their needs. With a platform as all-encompassing as GreenRope, our biggest challenge was providing the broad capability businesses needed without making the user feel overwhelmed.

The GreenRope of 2019 represents a gradual evolution of functionality and user experience over the 8 years since we officially launched. We have continually worked to improve the UI look and feel, as well as speed, while adding relevant features that our users have asked for.

One key part of our business model is that we have built a private labeled value-added reseller (VAR) program. Our website shows how we are able to launch a clone of our platform with custom domains and branding for a customer who wants to sell and market CRM to a channel. Our channel partners see rapid growth in their own businesses providing software that every business in their channel needs.


Describe the process of launching the business.

GreenRope’s official launch was relatively quiet. We had performed 18 months of testing and improving the initial MVP, so in November 2011, we were ready for release. We started initially with rolling it out to our existing customer base at CoolerEmail, and then a measured PPC campaign to attract small business customers.

The uptake was slow at first, as people generally don’t like changing the software so integral to their day-to-day operations. As we gained momentum, more and more of our users switched, and we began marketing GreenRope to the general public.

Our initial target was very small businesses and startups, and our price point reflected that. Our starter plan was just $25/month. That was good for them, but we found that the size of the company at that time simply wasn’t ready for all the features we had built into GreenRope.

After about a year of trying to make it work, our churn rates were too high and the cost per acquisition wasn’t paying off, so we increased prices and started targeting larger businesses. This has become much more fruitful for us, as businesses with over 5 employees typically have someone on staff with experience with CRM and/or marketing, and someone who has the responsibility and drive to make a CRM work. Our churn rates have gradually decreased since then, and our clients have steadily become larger businesses (although we still have many very small businesses as clients).

Development, marketing, and operations costs related to the startup and growth phases of GreenRope have come from revenues created by the company. We have never taken outside funding, although from time to time, we do have to leverage debt financing for significant investments.

Companies that don’t have payment tied to performance are going to underperform 99% of the time.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

As a privately-funded company, we have tried, tested, and proven a number of strategies to attract and retain our loyal customer base. At the top of the funnel, we typically rely on PPC, social advertising, SEO, and our blog. At first, we relied primarily on Google AdWords. As we have grown, both in our online presence and our customer base, we now heavily rely on organic searches, PPC, social, our website, and referrals to fill the top of our funnel. Other methods include review sites, trade shows, and industry events, and publicity. Our PPC represents about 50% of our lead gen, Organic results in about 25%, and additional marketing efforts bring in the remaining 25% of the leads.

Complete CRM is a concept that is pretty unique to our solution. Campaigns and blog posts that highlight how much users can save in total cost of ownership when investing in a platform like GreenRope tend to get a lot of traffic. We do not charge per user, which is different than most of our competitors. We also integrate so many different features that the user would have to rely on a third party for if they were to choose another software.

One thing that we have found is that our blog plays a large role in contributing to conversions, whether the lead initially came from PPC or another marketing effort. Our blog is not only fundamental in attracting leads, but also in retention. We create a plethora of content to help our users build their own successful businesses using integrated technology.

In terms of retention, our most effective strategies are the GreenRope blog, email marketing, webinars, and social media user groups. We use the GreenRope blog to share how-to’s and other important information about effective strategy both in business and using the software. We send out monthly newsletters that highlight new features, upcoming events, and webinars, and feature our newest blog articles.

We host four monthly webinars that cover both strategy and GreenRope features. Attendees can ask questions and actively engage with our support team. We also have a LinkedIn user group where users can connect with both the GreenRope team, other GreenRope users as well as our support staff to ask questions and learn more about the system and its features.

The last retention strategy that has worked really well for us is our 24/7 support access. Users can connect with our team via live chat, ticketing, phone, etc. to get the support they need when they need it. This is one of our most valuable assets for keeping our users happy!


How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

GreenRope is a steadily growing enterprise, helping more and more companies around the world with CRM, sales, marketing, customer service, and events with automation. The most important metric we measure is the conversion from trial to paid account. This number fluctuates between 40% and 55%, which is a strong indicator of how our software performs, both relative to our competitors and in the market in general.

The largest resistance to growth is finding companies that are ready to change the way they do business. GreenRope requires dedication and an investment by the client in defining the process and changing over to a single, unified platform.

Our long term goals center around steady, organic growth. We haven’t taken any investment to date, and we don’t intend to in the future. My vision is for us to continue to provide great software, with outstanding customer service, at a reasonable price. We have built a sustainable business this way and intend to continue to do so.

Database growth in one month period

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Many lessons have been learned along the way of starting and growing GreenRope, some personal and some more related to operating business.

One key lesson is to be careful about outsourcing development work. Good developers are hard to find, but finding quality companies that write software is even harder. Ultimately, it comes down to process and communication, and if the development team doesn’t do that, your project will at best be more expensive and take longer. At worst, you could end up with expensive, unusable code.

Another lesson is when working with public relations and other companies that don’t have payment tied to performance. If anyone claims to be someone who can help you, but won’t tie their payment to how well they do, 99% of the time, they’re going to underperform. I’ve been amazed at how hard people will work to sell you on what they can do, only to disappear once they’ve been given the business.

An expensive lesson I learned was to always have financial checks and balances in place. When my best friend of 20 years and CFO was caught embezzling money from my company, I wondered how something like that could happen. And then I learned that it happens all the time. The financial and emotional cost is staggering, but with financial controls in place, it makes stealing from the company harder and easier to find early on. Don’t blindly trust anyone in your company with control over money, no matter how close of friends you are with them.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

At GreenRope, we use our own platform for our CRM, sales and marketing automation, customer service ticketing, and more. Our team of 20 people supports our 600 direct clients, and our 20 resellers support their own client base (500 additional customers collectively).

In addition to using our own software, GreenRope, to manage sales, marketing, customer service, and operations, we also employ some additional tools for our marketing efforts.

We use Buffer for our social media scheduling, SEMRush for content, SEO, and analytics. We have in the past used some additional content syndication platforms, but have found that we have more success distributing our own content.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Most of the resources I have used have been informal. Over the years, I have learned from fellow entrepreneurs, occasional podcasts, and articles on LinkedIn, Quora, and other sites about CRM and related technology.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

The first piece of advice I have is to take a step back and think about how you will commercialize your product. Think about who you’re selling to, and how you envision selling it. Take some time to map a high-level customer journey. If you expect different kinds of interactions with leads based on demographics, interests, or behaviors, make sure you plan to have a way to collect and use that data.

From a business ownership perspective, be very cautious about sharing equity of your business, particularly with equity partners, early on. Get to know your partners before you get into business with them, and have clear, objective requirements for maintenance of equity shares. If a partner decides to not put any effort forth, make sure there’s a way to cleanly extricate that partner from the agreement and stock ownership.

If you do end up selling your company, be sure you are familiar with both methods of sales - stock and asset purchases each have very different tax implications.

When it comes to buying software for your business (and every business will need software) make sure you think about the integration of that software as part of the buying process. Take the total cost of ownership (TCO) into consideration, and involve your team. Start with requirements and make sure the software you choose can accomplish those requirements.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!