This is a follow up story for GMass, Inc.. If you're interested in reading how they got started, published over 1 year ago, check it out here.
Hello again! Remind us who you are and what business you started.
I’m Ajay. I’m a software developer and I created GMass.
GMass is an extension for Gmail that makes it easy to send email campaigns using Gmail. Our customers range from cold emailers to traditional email marketers to moms and dads and teachers and church pastors. Anyone that needs to send a low-volume, highly-targeted email campaign makes a good fit for GMass.
GMass has had just shy of 1 million total user signups since launch. It’s one of the most popular Gmail Chrome extensions on the Chrome Web Store. Almost every major tech company you can think of has at one point been a GMass client, including Twitter, LinkedIn, Uber, Lyft, Salesforce.com, Indeed, and Snapchat. GMass has become so popular at some companies, with rogue employees signing up at will and paying for it themselves without company approval, that their corporate IT departments have banned GMass, deeming it a security risk since they haven’t vetted and approved it. We recently had a team of 50 at Google that wanted to use GMass. I was so excited! But for some reason, we just couldn’t get GMass to work on their company-assigned laptops. After days of pulling my hair out, I realized that Google has their employees’ browser settings on lockdown, and employees can’t just install any browser extension they want. I tried to get Google to whitelist GMass, but no avail. Companies like Colgate-Palmolive and Salesforce.com have unfortunately also banned GMass. I guess it drove so much new business for them that they couldn’t handle it.
Tell us about what you’ve been up to! Has the business been growing?
The last year has been interesting. When the pandemic first hit, GMass started growing like a weed. The number of new paid customers week to week doubled in the first few weeks. That lasted for a couple of months before leveling off, and then we saw a massive exodus of customers because they had either gone out of business or were suspending operations because of the pandemic. In the end, the net effect on growth was neutral. We gained a lot of new customers because of the pandemic, and we also lost a lot of old ones.
Focus on what most people want, and let the people complaining about the edge cases go somewhere else. That keeps you focused on your plan.
At the beginning of this year, I decided I wanted the business to be more predictable, rather than leaving its fate up to the wind, as it felt I did in 2020. I started the first two months of 2021 working on a growth strategy. That involved putting the right social media people in place and hiring some new writing and SEO talent. Since the beginning of March, I’ve been focused on improving the product. We just launched an API, we’re about to launch an A/B testing feature, and soon after that will be the industry’s first completely free “email warmup” solution.
For a while, I was writing a lot of blog content myself, detailed technical articles on niche techniques based on my own experiences building stuff as a software developer. That was time-consuming, and after analyzing years worth of articles that I wrote with the intent to teach, I’ve realized that there’s little ROI in doing so. In fact, I find that I often put a lot of effort into a project, thinking it will be revolutionary, only to find that it does nothing for the business. An example of that is our domain database, where we publish our open rates to every domain in existence. I thought this would be a great lead gen tool, but it’s a sad state of affairs whenever I pull up the Google Analytics referral data on this tool. Traffic started off strong but has been declining ever since launch.
As for keeping existing customers happy, we’re a pretty passive organization in that regard.
We only “bother” our users to announce new features. However, I’m thinking of changing that tactic. Our churn is intolerably high. It’s so high that we’re reaching a point where growth is a challenge. For the first 5 years of running this, I enjoyed month over month growth. Recently we’ve had some months where we didn’t grow, and that scares me.
Lastly, we’ve invested heavily in paid search over the last year. I’m now spending about $30K a month between Google, Facebook, and a couple of other places. I used to manage this myself when I first launched GMass, but I realized that this was just one of the many skills at which I suck. I was throwing money into the ether, hoping it would come back in the form of high-paying new customers, but that strategy didn’t pan out. I now have a professional managing this for me, and the ROI is finally worth it. Our paid search activities bring in a couple of hundred new customers per month.
What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?
1) I can’t do everything myself, even critical functions like leading software development.
I’m dangerously close to falling into old habits. GMass is at a fork in the road right now. It’s the same size as my LAST software company right before it went stagnant. I’ve tried hard to break the bad habits from that company so that this company doesn’t fall into the same trap. Along that vein, I’ve learned that to grow from here, I have to get the right team in place. I have to stop doing so much myself.
2) An un-incentivized employee is an average employee.
Over the years I’ve grappled with how to get the best performance out of my team. Whereas a traditional Silicon Valley tech company might offer stock options or big bonuses or lots of company perks, I’ve never been in a position to do that or have felt comfortable with that. I’ve started toying with incentive-driven approaches for performance, and so far, that seems to be the right approach.
3) Culture is important
I’ve heard and read over the years of the importance of “hiring for culture”, but I always dismissed it because I figured I’m different. I figured that my company is a tech company, and so I need to hire the best tech talent I can for a given role, casting aside whether someone is a cultural fit or mismatch. That approach will only get me so far. As I’ve learned more about entrepreneurship I’ve realized that having the right experience and the right culture fit together is an unbeatable combination in a team member. If I hire a superstar developer who’s a jerk, that’s not going to contribute to growth long-term. Conversely, if I hire a really nice person who embraces all of our values but stinks at their role, that’s no good either.
4) It’s okay to start something and then give up.
Earlier in the year I was jazzed about getting a YouTube channel going to strengthen both my personal brand and the company’s. I wrote down a list of ideas for videos, I started storyboarding them, and I made an intro video to launch my career as a YouTube star.
But then, other stuff kept getting in the way. New feature development, bugs, hiring, ad management, SEO, and everything else that goes along with running a software company always seemed to take priority over creating my next video.
5) Writing content that has nothing to do with the business will result in zero leads.
I get excited after researching a niche topic ad nauseum and then writing a detailed article about it, knowing I have a good chance at becoming the world’s foremost expert in that topic. For example, I wrote, and still sometimes update, this article about my negotiation with Stripe. It’s the #1 article when people Google how to negotiate with Stripe. BUT, despite its popularity, it’s brought in exactly 0 new users.
What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?
For the next year, I’m focusing on integrations and turning GMass into a searchable database of email outreach data. On the integration side, one area where GMass has lacked and its competitors have excelled is in integrations with other platforms, like Salesforce and Hubspot. GMass didn’t even have an API until last week, and we’ve never had a Zapier integration. That will all be corrected this year. In the first five years of our history, we were so focused on growth and features for the solopreneur that we were okay going after the “lower” market. Now, however, with as many big brands as there are using GMass, it’s time to move upmarket.
Additionally, GMass itself holds a vast treasure trove of data. Having sent over 2 billion emails, many of them cold outreach emails, there are secrets to be unlocked inside of our data. We launched a deliverability portal a few months ago where we made a lot of our users’ campaign data searchable and anonymous. For example, if you want to compare cold email response rates of campaigns using email verification versus NOT using email verification, you can do that in real-time with this tool. But our foray into providing data is just beginning. GMass isn’t the most popular cold email tool because we’ve never branded GMass as a cold email tool, but really, we send more cold email than any other platform. And now we’re going to use that to our advantage by mining our data and providing industry-specific insights based on the data we see.
The five-year plan is to be acquired. There are lots of companies in the email space significantly bigger than GMass and with the platform we’re building, we should make for an attractive play for one of several of these larger players. Will it be Google? Probably not, but it could be another player in the email space that you’ve probably heard of.
Have you read any good books in the last year?
I can’t say that I’ve completed a single book or podcast in the last year, except for when I listen to a podcast episode because I’m about to be on that podcast and I want to familiarize myself with the format and host. That’s not how I want to continue running the company though. If I can hire a few people, that would ease my workload, and then I can start acting like a real entrepreneur and working ON the business rather than IN the business.
I have, via audiobook, read about half of the Traction: Get a Grip on your Business. It’s a book that teaches you an “operating system” to use to run your business, and it’s a system that most entrepreneurs I know, tech and non-tech, use to run their companies. I’ve started to implement the learnings from the book into the business, and am hoping I’ll see the same growth results that I see others having.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?
I generally loathe advising people when I’m not an expert in their area, and I’m certainly no expert in entrepreneurship. I’d much rather tell stories about what I’ve done and what’s worked for me and what’s failed me and let you surmise your own conclusions from my experiences.
I see lots of startup entrepreneurs fall victim to striving for perfection and feature creep. I have a few friends right now with startups who have delayed the launch of their products endlessly because they don’t want to release them until it’s perfect. That’s usually the wrong approach. I like to release things when they’re about 80% working and refine over time.
I also see people tripping over themselves trying to build every feature that has ever been requested. That is also likely to impede growth rather than drive it. Focus on what most people want, and let the people complaining about the edge cases go somewhere else. That keeps you focused on your plan.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Yes, I’d love to hire three full-time positions: a growth manager, a lead developer, and a product manager. Right now I’m doing all 3 of these roles and it’s cramping my style! I’ve had a difficult time letting go and delegating for my entire 20-year entrepreneurial career, but I also know that it’s a must if GMass is to keep growing from this point onwards. I don’t have a formal job description written for these roles, but please get in touch if one of these piques your interest.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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