Interview by Kevin Ohashi of Ohashi Media
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Tom Kulzer is the Founder and CEO of AWeber Communications. Tom originally wrote some email software while working his previous job at a hardware company in the sales department. He found that automating emails to check-in and follow up with customers increased his sales dramatically. Once he quit this company, a lot of colleagues asked to buy the software from him. So he created AWeber.
AWeber is an email marketing software company founded in August 1998. AWeber focus on opt-in newsletters and auto-responders. AWeber has also built a suite of tools around the core function of delivering emails to subscribers. Customized sign-up forms, performance tracking, segmentation and blog integration are just a handful of the tools they provide to help make email more effective. AWeber has been profitable since 4 months after its launch.
I am a current AWeber customer and appreciate email marketing, but I honestly don’t use it as much or as effectively as I should. How do I (and others) really take advantage of email marketing? What are some of the easiest ways to get into it and see results?
So many businesses don’t even get the basics down, and yet it’s so easy to do. The two biggest mistakes I see are probably not giving visitors to your website enough opportunities to sign up to your list, and not sending any content to them quickly enough after they do sign up.
Many businesses put a signup form on their homepages, but forget that not everyone starts out on your homepage – they can arrive at your site through a Google search or a link that takes them deeper into your site, and they might never go to your homepage from there. So it’s important to have a clearly visible opportunity to join your email list on every page of your site.
When someone does sign up, you need to immediately send them a welcome email that thanks them for signing up and sets expectations about what they can expect to receive from you. Let’s say all you do is send out a monthly newsletter. Without a welcome email, a month might pass between when I sign up to your site and when I get an email from you. By that point I probably won’t remember who you are and I’m either going to unsubscribe or mark your email as spam. Sending a welcome email, and more content via follow up emails, helps retain subscribers as well as increase your sales in the short and long term.
Email marketing has arguably lost a lot of the limelight to newer forms of marketing such as social media marketing, at least in the press. Do you see social media as a threat to email? What sort of changes are taking place in the way email is used?
Social media and email marketing aren’t in competition with each other for attention. For one thing, it’s been shown by Nielsen and others that the more someone consumes social media, the more they use email as well. The reasons and ways consumers use email and social media are different, and the businesses who answered our survey on email marketing and social media earlier this year reinforced this when they told us that email has both a higher and more quickly realized ROI than social media does.
If anything, social media and email marketing are complementary mediums that businesses can use to expand their reach and bring more prospects into their funnel. Many of our customers use their Facebook fan pages and other social media profiles to drive people to their email signup forms, where they can then market to them on a more 1-to-1 basis. At the same time, our customers can post their email content to Twitter and Facebook accounts to expose more potential customers to their content. And others are adding social sharing links to emails so that their subscribers can spread the word to other people who don’t even know about their businesses yet.
You started AWeber ages ago in internet time. You clearly focused on earnings right from the start and delivered a product that people paid for. You make it sound like you started this because people wanted to pay you to do it. Did you consider yourself an entrepreneur at the time? Was starting your own company part of ‘the plan’ or did it just happen?
Looking back on how AWeber started, it just happened. Every entrepreneur would like to be able to say that they had a brilliant idea, knew its full potential and drove a business plan from the start that would see the company to success. When I originally started I knew that following up with prospects over a period of time in an automated fashion dramatically increased sales and reduced labor costs. However, when I launched there wasn’t much of a plan other than to offer a solution to people’s problems. Development of a more extensive plan happened much later in the process.
Your previous experience was in sales, where did you learn the rest of the business skills necessary to start and run your business?
The “School of Life” has a great program which I’ve learned a tremendous amount from. The biggest key that I’ve found to be successful is test and try many different things to see what works, but be prepared to fail fast and move on to the next idea or methodology. So many entrepreneurs get locked into a single way of doing things which will eventually drag you down. Over the past 12 years of AWeber’s growth we’ve gone through many phases which required big changes in the way we do things to continue to grow successfully.
How did you find and sell to customers beyond the people that had already used it at your previous company? What sort of challenges were you faced with while selling to people completely new to your system?
Word of mouth marketing is an amazingly powerful and underutilized tool in most companies’ toolboxes. If you over deliver value and repeatedly exceed expectations in all that you do customers are hard pressed to not talk about you to others. As a customer base grows over time organically that network effect of word of mouth marketing grows and grows. It was one of our largest sources of new customers years ago and it continues to be today. PPC, affiliate marketing, sponsorships, and other advertising methods continue to also be strong customer acquisition methods.
In our business, the biggest problem selling to new people is that many of them want to use email marketing in ways that are unethical or downright illegal. We spend a tremendous amount of resources to educate potential customers as well as current customers on the best ways to use email marketing properly inside their business.
You’ve built a company that sends huge amounts of email. I am sure you’ve faced scaling in both technical areas and human areas. How do you handle scaling? What sort of trade-offs have you faced along the way?
Sending the email is the easy part when it comes to scaling, it’s the internal systems to manage, and compute all the incoming data where the value lies. Those metrics are what allow you to manage a very large customer base and make sure they are following email marketing best practices to in turn allow you to achieve extremely high inbox email deliverability. Scaling the technology overall has been far easier than scaling in the human areas.
Team growth needs to be managed closely to ensure that new team members contribute to your company culture and don’t dilute it in a sea of “new”. Hiring for company values and culture have to be as high on your priority list as a new applicant’s raw skills. Be prepared to not hire someone simply because they don’t fit the company culture because down the road they will flounder. We’ve learned that the hard way in several cases and try to be diligent to not repeat the same mistake.
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