Interview by Mike Sullivan
At the age of 16, TK built a telcom network for his family and business. He co-founded HipCal while in college and later sold to Plaxo. TK’s latest adventure is Tout, an email application ideal for touting your product or service.
How did you get your start as an entrepreneur?
Yeah, so basically I’ve always been an entrepreneur and really into technology. So I first started off at like age 15 for my first business. It was like an Amazon associates program and a search engine all at once for MFC programming, which like for the really geeky people out there, it’s like this Microsoft Framework that came out. That’s how I got my start. I used to get a check from Amazon every quarter. It was kind of cool. That’s when the bug hit me, the whole entrepreneurial thing.
My dad was an entrepreneur also. So that’s when I started going into the family business, around age 16 or so. We did telecom, pre-paid calling cards, and wholesale traffic. I did the network for all of that. So that’s how I really got into tech. Then I did my first startup in college with a couple of my fraternity brothers. We took over a room in our fraternity house. Clearly there wasn’t much going on, so we did a startup. We ended up selling that to a company called Plaxo, out in Silicon Valley, right as we were graduating college.
We sold the company, worked at Plaxo for a little while, and then I worked at a hedge fund. Then last year, I quit my finance job and decided to go back to doing my own thing. I’ve been experimenting with a bunch of different stuff in 2010, and in 2011, I’m working on my main startup, which is called Tout. That’s an email client for entrepreneurs, biz dev people, marketing, PR, anyone that tends to send the same emails over and over, can use Tout to send emails faster.
Where did you come up with the idea for Tout?
Basically, in all of the jobs that I’ve had and all the companies that I’ve started, there was one common thread that I’ve found. I was trying to promote something to as many people as possible. So whether it was influencers, bloggers, potential customers, existing customers, to find out what they were thinking, I was sending a ton of email, and every single time, it was kind of the same email over and over, with certain tidbits that were different to personalize it. It was a real pain, because I would find the older email and then I would copy it in to the new email, and then I would tweak it, and then I would hit send. Then I had to do the whole mental work flow of tracking. Like did they respond, did they view it, did they click on it, did it work? I’m spending all this time writing these emails. So that’s when it hit me that there has to be a better way, and that’s why I created Tout.
Tout lets you do all of those things. It first lets you create email templates for your most commonly sent emails. Once you create those templates, as you meet people or as you find influencers, you can just send it off in like three clicks. I can even actually send it off from my iPhone by sending a simple text message to Tout. So I can send a text message saying send, and the template and your email, right as I meet you. And by the time you go home, there’s already a personalized, fully fleshed out email, with a PDF attachment already in your inbox, about your product or your company, or whatever it is that you’re trying to Tout.
Tell us about the analytics feature within Tout.
Entrepreneurs, biz dev people, sales, and marketers, they all send the same emails, and they spend hours doing this. Once they send it, there’s no real good way to measure whether those emails were successful or whether they worked out.
With Tout, what we do is we help you track if the person viewed an email, and we help you track if they clicked on the little link on your email. We show this to you for every email you send out through the day. We have a little outbox view, where it shows you all the emails you’ve sent, and it shows you a little overview of where each of them are in that process. We also help you track if the email was successful. So if they respond back and you make the sale, or you get featured in the blog, that’s a success. So you can mark that email as successful.
Then what happens is, over time, we start to aggregate all those statistics into the templates that you are using. So you can start to see which template actually works better. That’s where it gets really interesting, because not only do you get to see right away if your individual emails are working, you can try two different hooks for your product, using two different templates. You use the first one 20 times and the second one 20 times, and you track the success. You get to see over time, which problem actually resonates better with the people you’re reaching out to. So it gives you a tremendous amount of insight that you can get from the emails you’re sending. Not only do you get to send it faster, it’s all automatic. So there’s no reason not to get that insight, not to do it through Tout.
How are you using Tout to promote your own business?
I use it for quite a few different things. The first thing I use it for is, as soon as I . . . I go to a lot of networking events. I’m trying to meet with a lot of marketers and PR people, just to get the word out. Whenever I meet them and I tell them what I do and they tell me what they do. They are like, “Oh, that’s really cool. I’m really interested.” I’m like, oh, okay. Then I take out my iPhone and I do, just give me your email, and I show them the product right there. So I type in their email, I send the little thing. I’m like, well, by the time you get home, you’ll have an overview of the product and you can sign up with the link. They are like, “Wow, I need that for my product.” That’s the first way I use it. It’s what I call I use Tout to tout Tout. It’s kind of, but that’s what I do.
The other thing I use it for is we’re huge believers in customer development. Every single person that signs up for Tout, whether it’s the free plan or the paid plan, I always follow up with them using Tout. I have a little template that says, “Hey I see that you signed up for Tout. I’m really interested in understanding how you’re using it, how we can make it better. Can we talk for 15 minutes on the phone?” And I use that to send out to every new customer, or almost every new customer that comes through, just so I can get in touch with them. Then there are more detailed stuff, like if they look at one of our paid plans and they don’t upgrade, then I send them an email also saying, “Hey were you looking for something that we didn’t have?” Those are some of the cases I use it for.
How did you go about launching Tout?
Tout started, I was working on a different idea. Like I said in 2010, I quit my job and I was trying different ideas just to see where things would go. Tout was something that I built just for solving my own problem, because I was trying to spread the idea about a different product I was working on. I was doing the same email over and over. So I just created Tout over a weekend.
Over the course of a weekend, I just created it and I put it out there. And then it was like, well I bet there are other people who need it. So I just did a little bit of marketing and I put a price tag on it for a premium version, just to see what would happen. And sure enough, within the first 30 days, we had over 300 users, over 10 paying customers, just from this thing I built over a weekend. That’s when it was kind of like oh, there’s something here. I kind of let it sit for a few months. I watched it. I saw what would happen, just from the work I did over the course of the weekend. I did some little tweaks here and there, based on what people were asking for, but it was very limited on my time.
Then at the end of last year, I took a step back and I looked at it. I tried a bunch of different things, and I saw that Tout was by far the one that was most popular, getting the most users. There was a lot more there. I mean the idea of templated emails is very simple, but there’s just so much reach. People are using it for applying for jobs right now. People are using it to invoice people for their consulting practices. There’s so much there. So basically, that’s when I kind of decided, well it’s a simple idea, but it has a wide reach, it has a wide audience, and people love it right now. So why not make it better?
I started talking to customers even more, figured out what was wrong with the current product, and then did Tout 2.0, towards the end of 2010. For the last three months, all of my time has been dedicated onto Tout and growing Tout and making Tout better.
What are some of the means you’ve used to promote your business?
I think one of the biggest ways that has been effective for me is just blogging about it. I have a blog myself about entrepreneurship. So just by blogging about my journey about being an entrepreneur and how I created Tout and how I’m using Tout to spread the word, that kind of stuff brought in the most traffic, if you look at the last year for Tout.
Blogging really pays. You’re writing about stuff that Tout’s target audience cares about, and so they come to the blog to read about it, and they say, “Oh, I can use this,” and they sign up. So that works really well.
The other thing we did is Tout actually integrates with a lot of the CRMs in the market. So if you use Highrise, Capsule CRM, Batchbook, any one of those CRMs where you really care about your relationships and your contacts and how you’re running your business with your customers, we integrated with those people because we knew that anyone that really cares about sending emails and a lot of emails and cares about staying in touch would be using a CRM. We figured if we integrate with CRMs, we can target that audience and then track that audience. That’s what was the second biggest driver for Tout, and slowly it’s taking over as the first biggest driver for Tout, for the past two months or so.
What has been the largest challenge for you as a business owner?
I think the biggest thing has been time, I would say. I know that everyone says time, but it’s even more important when you are a single founder, which is less common in the tech space right now. Usually there are co-founders or a couple of people working on it. For me, I think the biggest thing was around, well it’s just me, so I have to split up my time between doing product development, doing marketing, and doing business development, and then now there’s fundraising also. So making sure that I don’t spend too much time on one thing and let the other thing fall awry, that kind of thing. Just making sure that all the different things that need to happen for your business actually get done and you don’t spend too much time on one and not enough time on the other. That’s been the biggest challenge.
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