179: Targeting Users Through Email Marketing With Adam Robinson
In the world and in business, sometimes the small ideas are the ones that make a huge impact and truly change the world. In this episode, host Mitch Russo interviews Adam Robinson about his hit email-based retargeting software called GetEmails. Adam is a leading innovator in the email marketing space. Today, he opens up about how and why he got GetEmails started, and shares some insightful tips to improving your sales and marketing.
Targeting Users Through Email Marketing With Adam Robinson
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Now, onto my guest and his incredible story. Back in 2011, bootstrapping a company was not easy. In fact, it was a few years after a major market crash which took most of the dotcoms down the tubes. No one believed tech would ever come back. Yet, my guest decided that it was his time to break away from Wall Street and start his first venture. Knowing from that very moment, he will build a completely virtual company even before people like me wrote books about it. By the way, my book is called The Invisible Organization. He identified his niche and got to work. His niche was email marketing. That’s the beginning of the story. Through difficult times when money was scarce, my guest believes strongly in his idea. He pursued them vigorously. A few years later, he has over 5,000 paying subscribers to his service. That’s when things got interesting and he never looked back from there. I’ll let him fill in the details about how he created an email marketing powerhouse and where that’s leading him to in the future. Welcome, Adam Robinson, to the show.
It is great to have you as a guest and I am delighted you are here. Adam, let’s start from the beginning. How did this all get started for you?
I’m going to rewind it back to 2003. I graduated from Rice University. I got a job at an investment bank called Lehman Brothers. I’m trading real estate credit default swaps. If this all sounds eerily familiar, it’s because in 2015, Hollywood made a movie about it called The Big Short, which was surprisingly accurate. The whole portrayal of the culture and the people and everything else. Even more interesting is when I showed up at this apartment that I was living in, drove up to New York, the guys in my apartment were working on a video sharing and discovery social network. It’s Vimeo. I watched Vimeo go from wireframe to one of the top ten websites on the internet in terms of traffic. I caught this entrepreneurial bug. I thought it was the coolest thing. We moved into with these guys. They’d already started this company called College Humor. They had a little bit of money and they moved into this big loft in Tribeca. I moved in with them. I had the smallest bedroom. It was a five-bedroom. I was putting my suit and tie on every day going to this office in Midtown Manhattan. It was fun. Everybody’s doing the job I was doing. I was making a lot of money for young guys, but I had this dream of doing the same thing they were doing.
It looked cool. They were working with all these young people. They seem to be getting much more out of their professional life than I was. That’s where I had my heart set on, then the financial crisis came in 2008. My employer went bankrupt. I lost everything. It was a difficult time for a lot of people. I hung around for a couple more years and finally, I had my chance. My brother found 250,000 Constant Contact customer records on the outside of their website that they didn’t know there. It’s unbelievable. What was incredible about it was we were poking around in there. I deduced that they were creating a public-facing community page for anyone that gave them a credit card. That public-facing community page had the first name, last name, business name and zip code.
The amazing thing about this was in the URL of this community page, there was a six-digit number that was unencrypted. My business partner figured out that if you scaled that number up to one, it was a dead page, but if you scale it up two, it was the next customer. It’s unbelievable. To be starting a business from this position is indescribably lucky. We almost didn’t make it with that. What happened to me at least, I’m the only person that I can speak for truth, how my psychology was, but I have observed in other people that when people have a successful career on Wall Street, especially when they’re young, you’re making much more money than everyone that has a normal job. The value system on Wall Street is centered around how much money everybody is making distracting from the system. You have this level of confidence in your ability to do things immediately.
I have a lot of confidence now about my ability to learn things over the years, but I thought that I could quit and do something, but I don’t know how to do it. I had zero transferable skills. I had never interviewed a person, hired a person, managed a person, and being managed. I sat there in front of these screens and pumped it around derivatives all day, which is fine, but you have no understanding. One thing that I love to say is I traded these home building companies. There was this home builder called Hovnanian that was bad. Their debt trade is bad like it’s going to die tomorrow. What you don’t realize when you’re in that seat is that Hovnanian is one of the most successful companies in the history of America to have debt in the public markets that get traded.Politicians have a lot more negative traffic than a single product retailer would, and that's something to be mindful and careful of. Click To Tweet
Why was their debt worthless if they are a substantial company?
The whole reason the financial system exploded was that there was this housing issue. The housing issue was caused by floating-rate mortgages, resetting to much higher rates that were given to people that could not afford them when the fed was hiking rates. Those were the people buying these homes that these home builders were making. The homeowners had debt that was maturing and their revenue was going down. There’s no way they’re going to be able to pay it back. That was essentially why they were becoming insolvent. They still had assets, but the whole thing stops. It’s hard to describe. I don’t know if that psychology is still this way nowadays or not. The last time I’d been there was 2011. You’re sitting there and you’re listening to your friends who aren’t entrepreneurs, but they have this idea for this website that does video resumes or whatever. You see a deck and you think it’s the coolest thing in the world. We could all be billionaires before you get in the game. The hard lessons of learning about product-market fit and hiring and putting the right people in the right roles and getting the wrong people out of the wrong roles, marketing and sales, the whole culture, all that stuff, you have to learn it the hard way.
I don’t know any other way. I certainly did. The job that I had, the life that I had did not prepare me for it. Thankfully, I had saved a chunk of money. My brother had sold half of his company, had a chunk of money. We were going to fund this thing ourselves and we ended up being able to, but it was a long road because Constant Contact’s average subscription price at that time was $40 a month. Our original value proposition was 50% more opens for half the price. We were selling subscriptions over the phone to this unbelievably targeted list, which was amazing. Selling or making phone sales at $15 to $20 a month, that is not easy, but it was working. It’s this situation where we got the machine working to where we could put $1 in and know $4 were coming out. At that point, you’re paying rent. You’re paying everything else. You need to put as many dollars in as you can and hope that you can get to cashflow positive or have a good enough story that someone else can get you to cashflow positive who can raise some money or something like that. That was how it happened. With these things, when you are looking at that machine and you are looking at the cash that’s available to you, the only choice is to keep going until your last dollar is in there. At least, that’s how I see. I wish I hadn’t had as much money as I had because I would’ve done it much more efficiently.
When I quit finance, people get this whole dream. It was a common subject of conversation that the only reason people were there was to make their $10 million and then go sit on the beach for the rest of your life, which is like a dream when you’re going into this office every day with a tie-on and doing the same thing over and over again. I quit. The first thing I did was basically traveled for however long. After 3 to 6 months, it gets indescribably boring with no aim. My mentor was like, “I think you’ve got too much money. You need to go invest some of it. It doesn’t even matter if it goes to zero, shorten your perceived horizon for how long you can behave like this.”
That’s a great way of putting it. I was in the same position. I sold my company and I was retired effectively at the age of 44. That lasted six weeks. That’s all I can take.
I was better than you retiring, but not by much. It’s hard to explain to somebody that was still in that mindset. They don’t want that because it’s like getting the experience of an entrepreneur. You have to feel that. You have to go through it to realize it.
You talk about the lessons and you talk about going through a process where you had to learn everything, but thinking you knew it all. This is a common story. Everyone will probably have a similar story, except they didn’t start with a boatload of money. They started with nothing. They had an advantage over you because they had to create an economical way to scale and you didn’t. You probably made a lot of expensive mistakes, whereas, the rest of us made cheap but stupid mistakes. I certainly did. What happened after that? Did that evolve into what you do now?
Robly is a great business. We’ve got to mid seven figures of revenue with that original acquisition strategy. The tragedy of Robly hurts me to talk about. There was that one place we were getting leads from. There was another part of their site where it was less. There were lower quality leads. We knew they were, but it was a similar thing. We were getting business names and nothing else. We didn’t know if there were customers or not. Probably, a business name with a brand like that. It’s like Bob’s Coffee Shop. I was like, “There are probably 30 of them in America. You don’t know.” I thought I had a million leads. I put our best guys on them. It looked like they were converting. Maybe not the old back of the envelope payback in a year, but maybe 1.5 years. We’ve got all our salespeople on this list and it was not even close. No one was picking up the phones. I don’t know if the data are correct. We did the test wrong. I don’t know what happened, but it very clear a couple of weeks after we started calling that list that we were burning money. We weren’t going to grow revenue anymore and we had way too much overhead since that’s the case.
Adam, let’s roll this back a bit here. First of all, you found this list on the internet. Who knows how and I’m not going to venture into that direction. It was crazy. Were you in some way breaking the law by doing this? Was it simply just there?
It was on the outside of their website. They figured out what we were doing eventually and changed their terms of service. They said no robots. They then removed the information off that page that made it valuable. They removed the names and the zip code, but at the time what would have made it illegal is if I would have in some way used a crude essential to get inside of it. It was like going to one of their pricing pages. You hit the community and you were there. I knew it wasn’t illegal. They see some assistant couple of times, but you can see some people for anything. They weren’t assisting us with the data. They were saying that we were misleading with the voicemails we were leaving because we’d say like, “We’re calling in regards to the Constant Contact account.” You then start investigating what verdicts have happened with phone fraud. People get in trouble calling some grandma in Florida and say that they’re Microsoft and take $1,000 right then. They are trying to get somebody to call you back. It’s not ethical, but that is not something that a court of law would ever say. No one bought anything. The thing is as long as someone is aware of what they’re buying by the time they buy it, you’re fine.
I’ve heard some brilliant stories and I don’t want to act like I am. This is going to have people questioning my ethics here, but there was this other business in New York that I was fascinated by. It’s called SinglePlatform. Constant Contact bought them. These guys were cold calling restaurants and they had a business development deal with TripAdvisor, but they were providing menus to TripAdvisor. They were calling small businesses up saying, “TripAdvisor has tasked us with publicizing one Mexican restaurant in the Lower Eastside. We’re calling you and these other two people.” The business owner would agree to it. They call it and their demo rate was unbelievable. They get people on these calls and turn it into their product. They were unbelievably successful that they sold the business for $100 million in eighteen months.
It’s an amazing idea. He had done the same thing at Seamless as well. He had this philosophy. What he did in Seamless, he’s a first sales guy and he was calling restaurants saying, “Please sign up for my platform so that you can have people buy food from you.” It wasn’t working at all. He started going, “I represent Goldman Sachs. I’d like to open up a corporate account.” All of a sudden, every restaurant was completely okay with it. He sent them the Seamless link and they’d sign the restaurant up. He grew his entire restaurant base like that. I dream of someday being able to come up with something like that. Sales are all about psychology and if people think that you’re buying from them, they’re going to let their guard down in a way that they would never otherwise do.
Let’s fast forward this a little bit here because what I want to do is get to the meat of the story. When was it that you felt you hit upon the one thing that was going to take you forward and finally make this venture fly?
The nice thing about subscription businesses is email marketing, in particular, the revenue’s sticky. We got to the point where we were profitable with 40 employees. You always knew in the back of your mind, they were all salespeople effectively. The CTO is the only developer. We had a couple of customer service people, but we always knew that we could shut the marketing off and it would be this amazing profitable business. What I was about to say was we had these people calling these million leads. All of a sudden, it wasn’t hitting. I had to bring everybody into a room with 35 people and say, “If it was the worst day of my life, if you’re listening to me and you talk right now, you’re fired.” I made this horrible mistake. This was a terrible moment for me, for us. It was soul-crushing in many different ways. We thought we were on our way to $15 million to $20 million of revenue. I was pumping everybody up with how fast we were growing and everything, and then it stopped. It’s funny because for me psychologically, it’s all about my perception of what the future is rather than in what direction. I would rather be going up from zero than down from a million living day-to-day.
Adam, you had this crazy experience, but you came through it. Now, you’ve got a super successful deal going on. I’d like for you to explain if you can as simply as possible what your company gets emails is all about because we have people reading this blog who I think could benefit from your service. Tell us about what it is.With email, less is more. Click To Tweet
It’s possible. GetEmails is an identification product. You can put our script on your site and we identify by up to 35% of the anonymous traffic that has not filled out a form that you do not have on your email list. We can send you customer records of them and you are legally allowed to market to them in the United States of America over email.
Without getting into the technicality of that, because I know that there’s quite a bit behind it. Let’s say I’m a customer and I get a weekly dump of email addresses up to 35%. What is the likelihood that people who came to my site are interested in me, my product, my services versus competitors, junk mailers and all of the riff-raff kind of traffic?
It varies by use case by the business. For instance, politicians have a lot more negative traffic than a single product retailer would. That’s something to be mindful and careful of. At the end of the day, it’s all about what you’re trying to do with these records. If you’re a publisher for instance and you’re looking to reach, this is fantastic because you’re probably not going to find interested people anywhere close to this price. If you are an eCommerce company, it’s a bit more challenging because the value’s not as immediate. You need to be able to take the record that I’m giving you and mathematically convert it for the same or less than the price of your other acquisition channels. That takes time because this is traffic that’s much higher up the funnel than traditional email marketing traffic. The burden is on us to prove to you that the data is good in that case. We’ve seen that it is, but it takes time.
How does it feel to receive an email that says, “We know that you visited our site. We figured we’d check in with you and see if you want to set up a time to chat about our services.” Does that feel creepy to you?
This is an interesting conversation. We’ve had a couple of hundred people use this product. The only complaint probably we had at all is with two separate people, one was a beauty company and one was a politician. They waited longer than a week to email these people. Our advice is to set the integration up. We give you data once a day, hit them immediately with some warmup series. It doesn’t even have to be any different than your existing welcome series, but hit them because at least what I’m telling myself and what the data are telling me is that email right now, you’re not going to say, “I know you were on my website.” That’s not the right thing to do. Assuming that it’s a welcome email, the attitude towards email has changed in some ways. As long as people remember that they were on your site, most people are not infuriated by that anymore. There are all sorts of stuff going on. There are cameras in Analytica. Amazon is emailing you nine ways to send it. It’s not a crazy thing in nowadays’ world that you would be browsing around someone’s website and receive an email from them. You may have opted in, you may have not, it’s not insane.
It’s pretty sad to say that you’re right. I think most of us have forgone the idea of privacy completely. “Somebody is watching what I do and sending me an email. I don’t expect to have privacy anymore.” That’s what it’s come to but at the same time, let’s go to the business case. It makes sense. I like what you’re doing. I’m going to try your service personally because I would like to see what happens. Readers, there’s going to be a way for you to try it too. I’m not going to reveal that yet. I’m going to let Adam talk about that in the future. Adam, let’s get into the nuts and bolts of why and how successful emailers make money. If you will, give us a little bit of a class or lesson. What can we do as small business people to be better effective at our email?
Number one, the best way to get more people to open and read your email, we developed an automation tool that did this. It’s to send a recent to this same campaign. Send it first like how you normally send it, then go back a day later. Look for people that didn’t open the first time, send it again with a different subject line. It doesn’t adversely affect your deliverability, you get 50% more opens. This was a feature that we did well with the Constant Contact audience because they were trained to evaluate the success of their email on opens. We were selling 50% more opens for half the price and the whole 50% opens was this open gen feature.
I like it. That makes a lot of sense. That’s actionable. Evidently, emails like that we can use to increase our open rate or even our conversion rate potentially.
We have another feature that’s good. It doesn’t work quite as well as that. We call it Robly AI. A bunch of people sell, send-time optimization, but there are only a couple of people that do it like this and it works. If you have a vendor that does something like this, what it does is across our entire system, we have a billion email addresses. We’re watching when each of these email addresses opens any email across our entire system. We get a good understanding of when people are in their actual inbox. If you turn this thing on, it will send each of your emails individually to each of these people on your list in the fifteen-minute window that they’re most likely to be in their inbox. That increases rates by another 10% or 15%. That’s good.
In general with email, I advise less is more, but there are some cases where that’s not the case. Like newsletters, people want to read it in the morning on the train, on the way to work. They want all the texts for what they don’t want to read it off of the blog page. It’s all about the newsletter. An important thing is not to be overly promotional. I think 20% promotional content versus 80% non-promotional. If you’re a small business, I understand that you may not necessarily have the bandwidth to do that. I didn’t know that until later but to grow a community, there’s much free value out there that you need to provide a different type of free value.
Let me see if we can clear up what I think of as a common misconception promoted by people for years is that you have to provide content and maybe the sixth or seventh email you can sell. I happen to have a disagreement with that theory because I know that I have gotten emails from the same person filled with content for weeks with never any idea of what the heck they’re offering. I started to ignore them because I got bored of reading their content and not knowing what the hell that they’re trying to sell me. I started to send great content to the people on my list, but I invite them at the bottom of every message to click on this link to learn more about what I do. It’s a simple one-sentence link. That turned out to be one of the best promotions I’ve ever done. It doesn’t mean that they’re going to click on the 1st one they get or even the 2nd or 3rd one. Eventually, they’re going to click on that link because they’re going to ask the same thing, “Why is this guy emailing me? What does he have to sell? Maybe I’m interested. Let’s check it out.” That to me has worked well. What do you think about that?
I love that. You’re building thought leadership and a huge amount of credibility with these people. By the time they click that link, that’s a fantastic strategy. In fact, if you interviewed me again in a week, I would tell people to do that. I’m also a big believer in the soft sell with this type of thing. If you’re providing interesting value, you will content to people. The soft sell is great. You said you did a great interview with the AWeber CEO. I can go and read that and five more of them right in a row. This is like I’m traveling. This is a thing that’s a realistic possibility. By the end of it, I like this guy. He sounds smart. He’s asking good questions. He probably knows what he’s doing. I love that strategy.
By all means, R&D this idea, do you know what that stands for?
Research and development.
Rip-off and Deploy. Take this and make it yours. No problem at all.
That’s perfect. I will.Creating a positive aura is very possible. It takes work, but you get so much more back than you put in. Click To Tweet
Here’s the bottom line here for our readers. They are sitting there waiting for the golden nugget, the thing that’s going to generate the most revenue possible from either your wisdom and knowledge or possibly even your service. What should the average people do next that is actionable, that they could do to increase or grow their email and make it more responsive or have a higher open rate?
The one thing is the thing that I started off with. That open gen is fantastic. We were talking about the pricing of getting emails. I said, “It is up to 5,000 records. That is $1,250 a month.” You said, “My audience is X, Y, Z. What are they going to have to pay?” If you go to the website, it says, “Get 25 emails for free.” We’re going to have either 25 or 50 leads for free in perpetuity soon. That’s true for me and plan as the option. I would say that having the email addresses of people that were on your website and growing your list that way is never going to hurt you.
Adam, at this point in the show, I’m going to ask you a question. This is a question I ask all of my guests and it’s a great way for us to get to know you a little bit better. It exposes a different element of your personality. The question is, who in all space and time, would you like to have one hour to enjoy a walk in the park, a quick lunch or an intense conversation with?
A lot of CEOs say this. I’m enamored by what Elon Musk is doing. I would love to talk to that guy.
You are not alone. I would love to talk to him as well.
It’s pathetic. I wish I was more original than that.
I’ve had people say Elon Musk. I’ve had people say religious leaders. The bottom line is why? What is it that you would like to get from Elon?
I think his understanding of how human beings work. His ability to create a vision and inspire people. The bold vision possible in humanity two times. It’s going to fix the environment and make humanity a multi-planetary species and call the most talented people to give everything they have to these missions. I want to be around and be inspired by it.
Here’s what it comes down to and this is my personal belief. If he had not succeeded at the scale that he had, he would be a lunatic. The only thing that gives him any credibility is the fact that he’s done it.
I know it was the most incredible thing. Even when it was all going on in 2008, his friends were there were telling him, “You’ve lost your mind. What are you doing?”
“Rockets, cars, solar panels. Are you nuts?”
You sold a business for $250 million. We need to spend almost all of it.
In fact, more than almost all of it. First of all, I invited Elon onto my show. He turned me down, but I don’t take no lightly. I’ll ask him again until I get him on the show. When I do, Adam, I’m going to see if I could set up that lunch for you, then we’ll go together. How’s that?
Adam, here’s the grand finale, the change the world question. This is what this is all about. What is it that you are doing or would like to do that truly has the potential to change the world literally?
This was an introspective moment for me because I’m examining what I’m giving all of my energy to. I’m a focused person and it’s all going to get an email thing and like, “Is this changing in the world?” I think I would have said, “Have we not talked about Elon Musk immediately before that question?” I would’ve said, “It’s making the lives of entrepreneurs better. Bringing them money to grow their businesses is 100% doing that.” I’m not sending people to Mars, am I?When designing things, make it so that the goal is to make somebody smile when they're using it. Click To Tweet
Everybody can change the world in their own little way. I’ve spoken to powerful smart people. Their way of changing the world does not mean massive shifts in humanity. It may be something simple of making sure that some people have a tool that they could work with that makes their life easier, makes their business more profitable. It might be curing world hunger or something like that. Honestly, my own goals are not to cure world hunger. My own goals are to work individually with entrepreneurs and make them more successful. Help them shortcut the path that you and I have thought dealy to get down. Any way you choose to change the world is not only valid but important. Don’t think of yourself as you’ve got to be Elon Musk to do it. You’ve got to be you. What is it, Adam? What are you going to do?
Now that we had that discussion, it’s always been after working in the environment that I did at Lehman Brothers. It wasn’t bad by any means, but I left there thinking that I wanted to create an environment that people wanted to go to every day. How much nicer would that be if people didn’t either hate or act like they hated being at work all day? It makes your life better. I’m a big believer in this. Creating a positive aura is possible. It takes work but you get much more back than you put it in. I put a ton of energy into that in my company, with my friends and family and that is what I would say that I am doing. I’m trying to be a dealer of joy in life.
I’m pounding it into everybody who’s working on the good emails product that I want this to be joyful products because at some point, we’re not in software anymore. What is Uber? Is it a software? Is it a driving service? Is it AI? It’s probably all of that. It’s an experience. I want with this getting emails thing, I want you to experience it. If you sign up and you get your first file of emails and you open it up and there are ten people on there, the data’s rich. You have already got this feeling of, “I can’t believe these people were on my website.” Until you’ve felt it, it’s hard to describe. I thought we were starting and from there, we can build a joyful experience. When we’re designing stuff, make it that the goal is to make somebody smile when they’re using it. It’s the same thing when you’re answering the support tickets. This is important to me and I think it has an immeasurable impact. It’s never going to be something that people say, “Let’s put all our energy into doing it.” I notice the results in people’s lives around me. It inspires me to have that orientation.
That is changing the world. You’re not turning, you’re not creating a multi-planet humanity type of an environment, but everything you said is something that I want. I bet everybody reading this blog wants it too. Thank you, Adam. You are changing the world and that was a great answer.
Thank you for setting me up for that because I was feeling inadequate before that.
Who wouldn’t next to Elon or Steve Jobs or some of the other incredible people that people mentioned when I asked that question? The bottom line is you’re doing the part that I like most about everything you said. The product sounds cool and I’m going to try it. The part that I like most is you talk about the feeling you get, the culture that you want to build around your company and around your products. That to me is the true key to success. When I work with my clients, we build certification programs together. One of the key things I work intensely with them is creating the culture first. Before we even admit one person into the community, with that mindset, your odds of success are so much higher because you set the rules and people follow them. When they do, that’s the equivalent of total freedom. Adam, that’s what you’re doing.
Thank you. It is eloquently put. It doesn’t feel like that sometimes.
It never does until you look back and see it. You keep doing what you’re doing. I’m now a fan of your product and a view. I’m sure they are too. Let’s stay in touch. I absolutely can’t wait until we get a chance to talk again soon.
I’m looking forward to it.
Resources Mentioned in This Episode:
- Virtual Entrepreneurs Association
- The Invisible Organization
- Adam Robinson
- Interview – past episode
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