Clint Smith is the co-founder and CEO of Emma, a SaaS company out of Nashville, TN, that has created a new standard of success for bootstrapping businesses and hosting innovative, engaging conferences.
Smith and his co-founder conceived Emma’s email marketing platform in 2002 and took out a bank loan to fund their initial growth. By developing a healthy revenue model and focusing on customer acquisition from the start, they were able to break even on their cash flow only a year and a half later.
Fast forward a decade of continued growth, and the Emma team started hosting its annual Marketing United conference, which is open to all marketing professionals in addition to the company’s customers. Nearly 1,000 people attended the 2017 conference last month, allowing the team to establish deeper relationships with their customers and re-energize the larger marketing community.
In my interview with Smith, he shares the behind-the-scenes story of how he scaled Emma from an idea to an innovative email marketing company without investor funding. We also chat about how the Emma team is growing Marketing United into a leading conference for marketers between the coasts.
In this episode with Clint Smith, you’ll learn:
- Why hosting a conference can benefit your customers and employees
- Mistakes to avoid when hosting your conference
- How he bootstrapped Emma from idea to profitability
- Why a solid revenue model is key for a young business
- The importance of finding an outstanding advisor
- Emma’s strategies for keeping pace with innovation
Please enjoy this conversation with Clint Smith!
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Clint Smith Quotes from This Episode of Powderkeg:
“When employees get to see the energy, strength and size of the community they’re building and experience it up close, they get more fired-up than ever.” — Clint Smith
“It all boils down to good chemistry among highly-capable people, whether you’re talking about your whole team, your leadership team, your board or your investors.” — Clint Smith
“The lines separating life and business blur in a beautiful way when you do it right.” — Clint Smith
“When you think about the channels within digital marketing that matter most, every conversation starts with email.” — Clint Smith
Links and Resources Mentioned in this Episode:
Companies and Organizations:
Angel Investment Firms:
Clint Smith (LinkedIn)
Jay Baer (@jaybaer)
Jeff Middlesworth (LinkedIn)
Will Weaver (LinkedIn)
Peter McCormick (LinkedIn)
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What stood out most to you about what Clint shares in this podcast?
For me, it’s how he bootstrapped Emma from idea to profitability.
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I think the thing that we didn’t quite pull off was having the revenue model figured out early on. And the combination of that and having that outside investment, left us a little bit vulnerable. And so when the market turned a little bit, and banks got a little bit scared, there just wasn’t enough to convince them that this was something to continue investing. And we all took that lesson absolutely to heart.
That’s Clint Smith, sharing some of his experiences working at a tech startup in the late 90s, early 2000s, right around the time of the.com, boom and bust. So those very experiences shaped this tech leaders entrepreneurial journey, and the unconventional way that he’s building his company. Clint is the co founder and CEO of Emma, an email marketing software as a service company based in Nashville, Tennessee. And coming up on this episode of powderkeg. I talk with Clint about the lessons he’s learned as he grew Emma to more than 200 employees, and 20 million in annual revenue before raising outside venture capital. In this conversation with Clint, you’ll learn the unexpected way, Emma recently grew their product engagement, brand awareness and sales. Why Clint waited to raise outside venture capital until after Mr reached 20 million in annual revenue, and some of the unique approaches to relationships that have completely catapulted his business and career. I’m your host, Matt Hunckler. And you’re listening to Episode 29 of powderkeg igniting startups, a show for entrepreneurs, leaders and innovators who are building remarkable tech companies in areas decidedly outside of Silicon Valley. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately in Nashville, Tennessee, where there’s a lot more going on than bachelorette parties and Honky Tonk. See Music City has a vibrant startup and tech ecosystem, emerging from a number of industries, especially healthcare and of course, music technology. But as I met more of the tech leaders and investors in Nashville, one name kept coming up, Emma, that’s E M M A. And Emma, of course, is not a person, but rather a tech company. That’s absolutely killing it with offices in Nashville, and now Portland, Oregon and team members all over the country, I was lucky enough to connect with Emma’s co founder and CEO Clint Smith, who called me from Nashville to share what he’s learned while growing his company from outside Silicon Valley, in a competitive industry that’s just exploding. And one of the most compelling things that Emma has done to grow their customer base and brand reputation in this industry is host their own marketing conference. Here’s Clint. Clint, thank you so much for taking time to dial in. Where are you calling in from right now.
I’m calling it from scenic Nashville, Tennessee, Matt.
I love it. I love it. I’ve been spending a lot of time in Nashville recently, as you know, that is just a really, really cool city in terms of tech and the scene that you’ve got there, your company being a big piece of the ecosystem that’s built up in Nashville. I know you just coming off the heels now of your annual conference, which had de get this right, almost 1000 people there. That’s exactly
right, became a bit of a thing this year. This is our third year of hosting, marketing united. And the idea in the beginning, when we started this was to do something that was bigger than a user conference, although we love our customers. And that’s a big part of the three day event. We wanted to put up a bigger tent, and welcome marketers of all stripes and all types of organizations, whether they work with us today or not. And so we were we were very fortunate to host about 900, marketers to town just a few weeks ago down the hill from our offices at this beautiful facility at the Country Music Hall of Fame and just sort of filled with character and tremendous theater as sort of the centerpiece stage and just a phenomenal experience. And we brought in some speakers from around the country, attached to great brands like Netflix and Pixar and Nike, and, and just had three days of amazing learning and connecting and food and beverage and all that good stuff that happens at events and we wanted this to be the kind of conference that we would attend. So no stuffy ballrooms, no stale chicken plates. Just a really fun, warm, friendly experience.
That sounds like a blast and our friend Jay Baer, who’s been on the podcast before, I was following his Snapchat stories and Instagram Stories from down there, and I was having some serious FOMO I gotta tell you,
Jay has been with us all three years. What a great guy. And this year, I stepped up into the emcee role and did a phenomenal job. So he’s running out of room here. I don’t know what he graduates to next to market. But he’s he’s part of the team at this point. It’s great.
He’s the best me See, you could ask for I, I’m jealous. I’m jealous of, of the experience. But I will plan on getting there next year. It’s open to more than just customers. Talk to me about why you’re a software company, why would you host a conference, that’s not a user conference or something focused on just generating sales?
Well, the sales team will tell you having 50% of the attendees not be customers today is an amazing thing. There’s so there’s plenty of work left for them to do after the event. But we wanted to, we just wanted to do something bigger than ourselves, we love playing host, we certainly love welcoming a lot of them of customers into the mix. And in fact, the first day of the event is a a day long customer only pre conference event. So that is where we can sort of put the walls up and say, Okay, you’re all here as a customer as part of our community. Let’s do some workshops, let’s really deep dive on how you can make the most of the software and have the experience. And then we throw the doors a little bit wider for the next two days. And I think part of it was we we’d sort of waited a while to hope to host a conference. We’ve been in business, obviously a lot longer than just the last three years. And so by the time we got around to this idea, we said, well, let’s go big, we’ve got some pent up ambition around this. And we just liked the idea of, again, making it bigger than him and making it bigger than us and making it more about great marketing, and just a gathering place for marketers from all over the country, we have a few marketers from other countries as well. So there’s an international element to it. And we want to do something significant for not just Emma, but for Nashville. And for the southeast, there aren’t a lot of great marketing events in this part of the country, and in between the coast. And so we wanted to just plant a really big flag and make it a true community gathering more about marketing than whether or not you happen to use the product.
You mentioned that the sales team has some follow ups to do, I assume you’ll be closing business out of the conference, which is obviously a great reason to be putting the conference on. Can you talk to me about some of the other benefits of putting on a conference? You know, I imagine there’s a lot of founders that are contemplating the idea of doing some sort of a user conference or industry conference that could help position them. But obviously, there’s only so many things you can focus on. I’m curious, what what are the benefits? And why did you decide to go all in on this beyond just the sales?
Yeah, absolutely. Well, you know, obviously, it is, first and foremost a way to engage our customers. And so we certainly want to build around the existing customer base. And something really incredible happens when you take a large group of folks who you have relationships with largely over email, and largely over the phone, and you know them by name, but you haven’t really had a chance to see them, you know, in person, and to connect with them sort of live. And an amazing thing happens when you bring not just two or three or 10 of those folks, but hundreds of them into a single space and spend a few days with them. And it’s incredible. We’ve always hung our hat on providing a really good brand experience and taking really good care of people. And to have them show up in a room with us and largely go out of their way to shake our hands and Pat us on the back and say how thrilled they are to be part of the community. It’s just incredible. Of course, we’re just humbled by the whole thing and want to go out and be the first to shake their hands and tell them how much we appreciate them being part of this with us. And to ask them what we can do better. In fact, one of the several opt opportunities, we had to do that and get a little bit closer to customers and really figured out what’s on their minds was at the start of the that first day that was that was for customers only, we brought a select group of customers over to the to the AMA offices, and about 15 folks and had essentially what we call a customer advisory board session, where our head of product, Jack did a phenomenal job, walking them through our vision for the product roadmap for the next several quarters, and then said, Hey, so if this sounds interesting, we’ve brought in all of our product managers. They’re stationed around the room, they’ve got large scale printouts of some of the features and capabilities that we’re in the process of designing and building. Here’s 1000, ima bucks, 1000, fake dollars. And hundreds walk around, spend time with the product managers see what their vision is, see what they’re up to, and spend your money where you see the most value. And you can spend $1,000 in one place all on data and analytics, you can spread the love around and spend 500 there and 500 on team collaboration tools. You can go into cross channel, you can do whatever you want. And then they did that and they came back into as a group and talk through their choices and where they invested quote unquote, their their MO dollars and just what a fun way to engage with some really meaningful customers. That not only got a lot of great feedback, but I think sent them home with a good story. Wow, how cool was that that the AMA team pulled us into a room and allowed us to have fun for a couple of hours.
That’s a really cool idea and definitely much more fun way to do your classic focus group. I love that idea
that this stale sort of corporate room with with the drop ceilings and the and the two way mirror like Yeah, yeah, certain visuals. You forgot
the bowl of em and Is that no one touches? That’s right. Yeah, I might have to steal that idea from you. I love that that’s, that is really, really cool you almost putting them in this future state not only getting your customers excited about what’s coming, but getting that feedback loop of, hey, this is what our customers will actually spend money on, you know, not not just Emma bucks.
That’s exactly right. And it builds excitement for them, it builds a ton of excitement for us and our team. And again, imagine if you’re on the customer support team at Emma and 99% of your interactions with people happen over the phone or through email. And now all of a sudden, you get to stand next to somebody who you might have had 20 or 30 conversations with over the last couple of years. And here they are close. And it’s, it’s great. And we carry that momentum into the next 12 months, we’ve now you walk out of the event with a with customers fired up, right, which is, which is huge. So from a from an engagement standpoint, from a growth and retention standpoint, it’s pretty phenomenal, you walk away with content, right, that you could use over the next 12 months. So you’ve got great video content from all of the amazing speakers who show up. And you can kind of feed that out back out to the community and use that in a bunch of different ways from a content marketing standpoint. So that’s good. And then you further those relationships so that even if we didn’t have somebody into that specific customer advisory board group, or to dinner, because there’s so many opportunities to pull smaller groups from the bigger community out to just socialize and get to know each other better. You’ve established deeper relationships with so many people. And now this product managers know them, and they can call them in a few weeks and say, Hey, that thing that we talked about, we’re close to launching it, can I get some feedback from you. And so just at a relationship level alone, it’s, it’s it’s pretty tremendous. It is no small undertaking, right? As folks who are out there who’ve done this, no, events are an entirely different thing. And the first couple years, it takes a while to figure out how to do it, how much to invest in speakers versus ticket sales. So there’s a there’s a lot there. And our team has done a phenomenal job not to do that three years in a row. But it’s, we would certainly recommend it when you feel like you’ve got a little bit of a critical mass of community around you. Bringing people into a shared space is awesome. And if not, most of your customers are local, or that’s where you start. Even better. I think that’s one of the things that we learned was, we did wait a while. And in hindsight, I would have done that a little bit sooner and said, You know what, even if we can’t afford to bring in, you know, paid speakers right away, even if we can’t afford to, you know, can we can’t charge enough to sort of make it make it sort of pay off or we can’t, we aren’t comfortable enough sort of reaching out sort of nationally, first, let’s just grab our local customers and have them over for a mini event and a dinner and keep it super casual and on the cheap. And just get in the game. And I think that’s there are easy ways to step into this. Even now, we’re looking to fill the space between the big events and take the take him on the road a little bit and have many sort of learning sessions and social our slash dinners, do a little customer advisory board session with with the local customers in that city ahead of time, and just recreate smaller versions of this that ultimately don’t don’t take a ton of time or effort to put on but can accomplish some of the same goals.
Obviously, I’m a I’m a huge believer in the power of events, you know, we’ll host over 30 events this year, throughout the Virgin powderkeg network. And one of the things that we’ve been playing with is this idea of an annual conference. And it’s something we’ve done in the past. But now that we’ve got a bigger network geographically, the idea of bringing this back is really compelling. And I think you know, ultimately will happen. But I’m curious to know what you’ve learned in these past three years. We’ve done this three times now, you know, almost 1000 people at this last one, what were some of the mistakes that you made in year one and year two, that you’ve learned from and now implemented some some new solutions or different approach?
Yeah, you know, I think the the thing we got right from the start was we wanted to we wanted to make this again, a little bit unique. We wanted to be small scale, as big as it may may ultimately be over time. And we wanted it to be warm and friendly and fun. And we our team paid attention to a lot of details right from the start. Right? Whether it’s the space we chose to put it in the dinners sort of after after sort of the the day sessions and could we go somewhere fun for that? That the wrap party that happens at the end of all of it back up at our offices? And could we curate that with really good beer and and beverages really good food?
Is that a wrap? Is that a wrap party WR AP or AR se
Now there might have been karaoke involved in separate outing, but know that the final event did not have me or anyone else rapping was something something to add for next year. That’s That’s right. That’s one of the mistakes we’ve made. We didn’t have enough rapping at the final wrap party. So I think that’s the one thing we got right. A lot of the other things we absolutely learned along the way in the first couple of years. One the first year we had a slightly smaller group several 100 folks there, maybe three or 400. And you realize that the it’s one thing to have everybody in the theater for your keynotes. But if you, the minute you break those up into sessions, and you have two or three competing sessions at once, you’ve got to make sure that you can fill those rooms. And we didn’t have enough people in some cases, right, where all three carts, you know, breakout sessions would have full rooms. And if you don’t have a full room, it lessens the experience for the speaker, obviously, as well as the crowd, right? Because you’re looking around wondering, Well, gosh, you know, why isn’t why aren’t there more people here? Why isn’t this more compelling than it is? Maybe this isn’t compelling. So there’s, that’s one thing we learned, it’s just the numbers game matters a lot when you’re trying to create that sense of energy for the crowd, and for the person on stage. And so we tried to, you know, work on that the last couple years, some of the panels as well, some of the sessions we got wrong, and they just didn’t have a big enough draw. We had one, this last time, that was music industry focused, and you realize, if you’re gonna put that up against a broader, you know, digital marketing session, you’ve got to be really careful and make sure you’ve got enough folks in the audience who care. And not only that, when you pair a topic that might not be broadly appealing, with something like a fireside chat format, then I think that also tends to give people pause and say, gosh, is that really going to be a worthwhile conversation to watch, as opposed to a presentation from a thought leader where I feel like regardless, I’m going to walk away with some really, really good nuggets. So the the format of the sessions, we’ve tweaked the spacing of things, and what do you sort of, sort of almost sort of pitted against each other right in terms of those breakouts happening at the same time. Another thing that we’ve worked on is, how much of a presence for us to have. And I think we were a little bit sensitive to that the first couple of years didn’t want to, again, sort of make this so much about me that it was off putting to folks who were there for different reasons. This year, I think we hit a on a happy medium where we took a session for ourselves on the mainstage, about product roadmap and where we see not just me going but but email marketing and digital marketing a bit more broadly going. The best compliment we’ve gotten even with the occasional hiccup along the way is just how impressed people are by the friendliness of our team and everybody there who’s volunteering or helping out or speaking. And I think that goes a long way in terms of having people overlook the little gaps that they might experience.
It sounds like you guys did this all internally, and it didn’t hire an outside event coordinator. Is that correct?
It’s mostly correct. We the only outside firm we worked with we worked with, with a couple of outside speaker agencies, right. So when it came time to look for speakers and figure out kind of who people had access to in their rosters, we worked with some outside firms, they’re still managed by our team. And then we use it an outside firm for some of the logistics. So there’s a local group here that helps us with things like securing, negotiating the hotel room block deal, and then ultimately coordinating with the venue in this case, the Country Music Hall, on AV and other logistical details. So those are the folks who run deep on the details ahead of time. And then certainly the lot of the details over the course it’s three days. But in terms of putting the vent on in terms of selling tickets, in terms of the marketing in terms of building that speaker roster in terms of putting the whole thing on from start to finish that has that has largely been our team’s work.
Wow, huge undertaking, but probably pays off in dividends. When you talk about having a brand experience that truly communicates the culture of ama in everything that you do, even if your brand isn’t slapped on the front of it on at all times for every single thing. Just those interactions with employees probably is, is a great experience that as has and will continue to pay dividends for years.
You know, it really it really does. And you’re exactly right, that it’s partly about, you know, the customers and the attendees. Right. And the excitement it builds for them. It is also very much about our own employees, right when when they get to see the energy and the strength and size of the community that we’re building and and to really experience it up close. It is something that I think gets the more fired up than ever. It’s just it’s not it’s not unlike when we first advertised on NPR nationally, the first people who got fired up, we’re our own employees. Wow, we’re advertising nationally, this is fantastic. Like this is a big deal. So I think everybody walks away with with, with a lot of excitement. It’s great. And for us like that matters a ton because we say that marketing United this this one event a year, this one moment, is our brand experience come to life in a crazy unique way. That’s the experience that we want to bring to life every single day, all 12 months of the year, right not just the big moment where it all comes together like this. And so for us to be able to point to that and say those things we care about extra friendly with our customers really going the extra mile to take care of them, make sure they have what they need, make sure they’re feeling successful. All of that good stuff at a software level at a service and services level. It just makes tons of sense for us to host that kind of that to really put an exclamation point on it.
The fact that it continues to grow every year is gonna give you some reassurance as a CEO that this is something to continue to invest in, and something to continue to make core part of what you’re doing. To your point, it is something big. I mean, the last numbers I saw you guys have almost 200 employees and 20 million in annual revenue are north of 20 million, is that correct?
We are, we are in the Northern Territory of all that and growing nicely. And you’re right close to 200 people on staff, a lot of folks are here in the Nashville headquarters, just in in a part of downtown called Cerebro and a couple of renovated old brick warehouses, it’s just an awesome space as part of a development called the trolley barns here in Nashville, we have a small office in Portland, Oregon, where we have a customer service team, a small part of the bigger customer service effort. And we have some of our marketing team. And we have some of our engineering team, what a great place to, to find engineers, in addition to Nashville, and then we have folks a little bit scattered around the country from from there.
That’s really cool. And I really want to dive into how you decided to grow that way geographically. But one thing I think is most interesting to me is the way that you have bootstrapped this thing. And I know you’ve taken on some venture funding in the last couple of years, you know, somewhere around 5 million in venture the last couple of years, but prior to that, you pretty much bootstrapped this whole thing with your co founder, is that right?
That’s right. Well, and I started working on the Mr. Idea, back in 2002, and really didn’t exactly know what we were gonna do, we knew we were gonna do something. And when the idea finally struck to say, like, hey, let’s take these things that we care about, namely, really good product design, really good graphic design that can that brands can use quickly, smaller companies to really play up and look great in front of their audience. And then a holistic customer and brand experience that’s really standout. We started looking at the email marketing landscape felt like those things would stand out at that time, and, and started working on it. And we were coming off of another company. And, and so you know, what, we’re competent enough to launch out on our own, but maybe not confident enough to take other people’s money. Right, so, so let’s, let’s get really creative, let’s get really crafty. Let’s do some other project work right to help fund this thing. And that’s what we did for a while and, and then in Oh, three, when it reached a point where said, Okay, well, you know, this is kind of turning into something, we probably need a little bit of help, we need to hire a couple, a couple of employees to help out, we were fortunate enough to get a bank loan for that. And that became our, our startup capital. And that was enough to kind of power us through to the point where we were cashflow breakeven, about a year and a half later. And then from that point, we were, we were happily growing as an independent and profitable and largely debt free company for a good long while and really enjoyed that, that chapter of life. And then as you said a couple of years ago, so you know, that’s been great. But there’s a ton of opportunity out in the market, we’d love to accelerate beyond our own means and go a little bit faster. And if we’re going to do that probably means a little bit more capital than we have access to. And meanwhile, we’d always always had a number of investors in Nashville, eager to join us and be part of the story. And ultimately to be part of the MS success that we’re pulling for. And then ultimately, Nashville, I think, is pulling for us as a city as a community. And so we said, you know, what feels like a good time to take advantage of that. And let’s do that. So we worked with with a group called National Capital network that brings its own fund, and essentially a collection of angel investors who can invest individually on top of the fund, and did that and raised about three and a half million in the form of a convertible note. And then the other part of that five was just a move of our line of credit from a local bank to a bank called square one out of North Carolina. And we’ve we’ve loved working with those guys. And so that’s become the fresh round of capital to help us accelerate into this next chapter. And, you know, beef up the team and beef up sales and continue to invest heavily in product and do all the things that you typically do with a little bit of investment capital. So it’s been a lot of fun. And we now get to be cheered on in even more meaningful way by people scattered around the Nashville, you know, investor, community and technology community. And that’s been a lot of fun.
Well, and I want to dive into that in just a second. Because I think the fact that we’re able to raise that capital locally, but as well as getting some outside funding is interesting and unique. And I’d love to better understand how you did that. But first, I would love to ask you, you mentioned you had previously had some experience with some other companies. I know that Emma was not your your first rodeo in the online space. Can you talk to me a little bit about the experience? Or maybe one of the experiences that most informed your approach with during Emma?
Absolutely. My second job out of college was with a company called City Search and Citysearch at the time, this was in the sort of mid 90s was building out offices around the country and creating city guides, online city guides basically that was that were meant to be kind of the premier destination where you would go in that city and figure out what’s going on and get to know businesses and sort of find navigate your way through through that city online. And Nashville happened to be one of the early cities that City Search, you know created a credit officer that they went to tier two cities on purpose out of their their la slash Pasadena headquarters, and they came to Nashville. Phil and I lucked out and got a job with him was sort of on the sales side to start and then very quickly moved over into the editorial side of the house and ultimately became editor of the Nashville guide essentially. And it CitySearch was was great because these were the these were the early days right of the internet startups. And it was kind of that stereotypical West Coast company where there were no, no real offices. Everything was out in the open. The founders, exact leaders had desks just like everybody else. And all of the desks were made of old refurbished doors, plopped down on top of filing cabinets, very Jeff Bezos, right, exactly. And so it was my first exposure to and I had come from a healthcare company, my first job out of college. So yeah, old school healthcare companies, you can imagine the the culture shock and a great way of going from drop ceilings and cubicle farms to this crazy new world of wide open spaces, and high energy and collaboration and sort of flatness and, and all of that city search showed me a lot about how to design, not just a team, but also a space in which that team has a chance to thrive. And so I took a lot of cues away from from City Search. And then when I met at a startup here in Nashville called small business.com, and had about a two year run. But before we moved on to Emma, and whereas I’d had a chance to see CitySearch from a satellite office, with a little bit of time and home office, small business gave me a chance to be right in the heart of it, right and to see a company grow from nothing to a really good product and a team of 30 or 40 people doing really good stuff. And it sort of showed me a different flavor of the same kind of idea. But but more up close. And so I learned a ton from that experience. Well, and I both did. And I think without that experience without my experience at CitySearch, I don’t know that we would have felt comfortable striking out on our own. But we took a lot away from from those companies and those groups of people.
I want to dig in a little bit deeper and ask one more question before we take a quick break. What was the biggest failure that you experienced during those two ventures that really gave you one of your biggest insights and takeaways because I feel like so often a lot of podcasts focused on the successes and how you raise the money and how you got all the clients and customers. But I feel like there’s a lot of lessons to be learned in those failures. Can you think of one failure in particular, in those early ventures, that you kind of took those battle wounds and use them to your benefit?
Sure, you know, it CitySearch I was such a tiny cog in the system. I mean, I was this lowly little, you know, editorial person. And people in editorial companies will understand what I mean in general. But but but even within that world, like I was just a tiny little sort of speck on the radar. And so I probably didn’t see enough of it up close to really understand some of where it might have gone a bit differently there. When Ticketmaster bought City Search content, which had been king for a while, stopped being king analysis selling tickets was king, and so that that business sort of morphed and moved a little bit and a lot of the jobs ended up rolling up into regional hubs and, and out west. And so it was interesting to watch that happen, right. And to see a company eventually think a little bit differently about things that it had had wants taken very seriously. And so I’m sure that lesson lodged in my head somewhere with small business, obviously, I was a lot closer to it. And I think the thing that we didn’t quite pull off was having the revenue model figured out early on. And the combination of that and having that outside investment left us a little bit vulnerable. And so when the market turned a little bit, and banks got a little bit scared, there just wasn’t enough to convince them that this was something to continue investing. And we all took that lesson absolutely to heart. And so when we started AMA, we said, Gosh, you know, that was an amazing group of people with an incredible mission, and just doing amazing work and forces beyond our control. Ultimately, you know, pushing a very different direction. Let’s be very careful, you know, but us as first time entrepreneurs, people, you know, have never, we’ve never done this before we’ve seen it, and we’ve participated in it, but we’ve never done it ourselves. Let’s start out with a revenue plan in mind, let’s get there as quickly as possible. Let’s get customers not just telling us they like her idea, but paying us for it. And let’s make sure that we’re building if nothing else, a business that is real, that has customers that has revenue coming in the door, and can show us you know what the path is to sort of growth and success and ultimately profitability. And so that’s, that’s one of the reasons why we chose the path we did was we had, we were a product of our times, we saw what could happen, right? If everything hasn’t worked out, and most of the times it doesn’t, right for so many of us. And so we were we were super cognizant of that and very cautious. And so when we started Emily’s, right, let’s just let’s do this one step at a time. Let’s work quickly, right and act as if it’s going to work but let’s also gate it. And so every month we had sort of had that next little goal. Well, if we can get the concept prototyped out. That’s a good goal. Let’s do that if we feel good about it, and then let’s go and shop that around and get some really good feedback. Some people, and then let’s, you know, make it a working wireframe. And let’s build out a little bit more. And then let’s do a little bit more, all of that sort of one step at a time to just try to prove it out and make sure that this thing that we thought had potential, actually did. I love
that concept of of gating your goals. And I really appreciate you sharing those lessons learned because I’m sure that they were not easy lessons to learn at all. So when we come back, I would love to talk a little bit more about those gating goals and how you use some of that to help land the venture capital both locally in Nashville and from outside firms that invested into Emma and the growth you’re experiencing now. Thanks for listening to powderkeg igniting startups. I wanted to take a minute to make sure you know that this episode is powered by verge in network of local communities with global reach for tech entrepreneurs, investors and top talent outside of Silicon Valley. verge has hosted more than 1000 entrepreneurs to pitch their companies at our events around the world in cities like Indianapolis, Indiana, Kansas City, Missouri, and Nashville, Tennessee, those founders have gone on to raise more than $500 million in capital collectively, and are disrupting industries, creating wealth and changing the world. These are their stories. And if you haven’t subscribed to powderkeg yet, it’s not too late. You can subscribe wherever you listen to your podcasts. And you can find all of the links to subscribe as well as show notes and transcripts at our website. powderkeg.com. So that’s powderkeg all one word.com. And if you have an iTunes account, we created a handy link for you at powderkeg.com/itunes. That’s going to take you directly to our show where you can subscribe, leave a review and see all the awesome episodes from past guests like Brian Clark at Rainmaker, based in Boulder, Colorado, Karen Norton minute upfront ventures in Los Angeles, California, and Max Yoder at lessonly. In Indianapolis, Indiana. So again, that’s powderkeg.com/itunes, back to the show. And we’re back with Clint Smith, co founder of Emma, which has grown in Nashville, Tennessee and beyond. And one of the things we were talking about was the fact that you raised around $5 million in capital, both from local investors, as well as out of state investors there and Nashville, Tennessee. I’m curious, what were some of the things that you did, you and your co founder did to make sure that you are fundraise, ready? And how did you know it was time to pull the trigger and take on some outside capital?
You know, we’re such a weird story and that aspect, such an anomaly. You know, as we said earlier, we funded our initial chapter or two of growth with with a simple bank loan, the line of credit, and somehow just scraped every, you know, diamond, every penny out of that to power through and become a profitable company. And so that was typically right, where you would have made the move that we made, just really didn’t the past couple of years to bring in some capital and some smart folks that attached to it. So the fact that we bootstrap our way to around that 20 million mark, they are before we were really, really went out and raised is definitely a very unique thing. So that did a couple things, one of which is by the time we got to it, we’d had a fairly long history, right, we had a pretty good track record over over lots of years, we proven time over time that we could we could grow a business and we could run a business profitably, and really, really manage it. Well, I think. And we knew and perhaps more importantly, we, we knew ourselves, we knew what we wanted, we knew what we what we didn’t want. And we also were again fortunate enough by that point, to, to be a little bit choosy. Right in terms of when invited into the business to
help us out what did you know, you didn’t want? Ah, you know,
we knew we didn’t want jerks. I mean, that’s, that’s, that’s obviously a big, big part of it, you know, we knew our brand and our sort of our sort of chemistry and I’ve come to believe that really, it all boils down to good chemistry among highly capable people, whether you’re talking about your your whole team or the the leadership team within it, or your board or your investors, we were super cognizant of the people that we ultimately invited in. And again, the fact that, you know, NCM brought a really good group of folks sort of with that capital was was very appealing. I mean, it happened really quickly. I mean, the convertible notes are a really easy structure to work with. And so that’ll happen within about 45 days, it just it didn’t take that long which is which is great that it didn’t become a whole other process or distraction alongside running the business and then like I said, the other part was, was really just teaming up with square one and square one is kind of a it’s just a different model. Right? So those were our traditional banks, which had been great, but but really look to just simply make sure that you had good cash flow and could pay the interest on the loan every month. You know, square one takes a different approach and realizes that if you’re a recurring revenue business, you know, there might be times where you’re burning cash on purpose. As, and they look less to the bottom line in those moments than to the top line and say, Alright, as long as you’re holding steady or growing your MRR line, they’re great. And they’re more than comfortable giving you access to meaningful capital as a result. And so, and of course, they like to lean in with companies who have that other investor, right, so that they don’t all have the risk isn’t falling to them. And so it just worked out that we were able to tie those two events together, and use the one to secure the other. And so that’s been great. And you mentioned it already. One of the big moves we made around the same time was, was finding our way to Peter McCormick, one of the founders of an enormously successful company. They’re in your your backwoods called exec it, right, and Peter is phenomenal. And the way we found our way to Peter, and for everyone out there, who’s who, who gets fields, those calls from potential investors looking to just sort of, you know, suss things out and figure out whether they’re a viable, you know, investable story, you know, we have these conversations all the time. And at one point, I realized, you know, I need to ask for more in these calls, because I can, I can always hear the person frantically typing and collecting every bit of data on us, you know, in the course of a q&a. And we realized, right, let’s make these calls a little bit more worth our while, since we’re not really looking for investors most of the time, and, and these are smart people, and they watch the industry just like we do, and they know a lot of people. So I started instituting this practice of at the end of a call, when the smart folks will say like, what can I do to be helpful in this next interim before before we talk again, and I started answering and every time with what you can connect me with two or three really smart people who you think based on what you know, about us now could be helpful. One of those folks really took it to heart came back a week later, with three names, they were all fantastic people. They all happen to be in New York. So a colleague and I went up and met with all three of them and had lunch with Peter and somehow convinced him to sign on as an advisor. And, and really Peter’s the one who leaned in as a personal mentor for me and said, Okay, let’s figure out what our goals look like over the next few years, let’s figure out maybe were some gaps are in the business, maybe were some gaps or in the team, let’s let’s draw up that sort of design. I know some people might be able to fill in that in that new design. And let’s, let’s work through this together. And I think that move, apart from the capital, and maybe even more importantly, in the capital, was the game changer for us. And for me, teaming up with somebody who had truly seen ahead, several levels had seen around the next four corners, not the next one or two. And it’s just so open in terms of sharing his experience, his successes, his failures, or regrets. Just just phenomenal, the kind of person where the minute you meet him, Oh, my gosh, why didn’t I meet him four years earlier than I mean, before we started this whole thing, so that that kind of impact on us. So it’s been, it’s been a lot of fun.
Well, and I’d love to dig in even deeper on that relationship with Peter McCormick, because of course, his experience at ExactTarget brought a ton of value in terms of industry knowledge, and industry connections. But one of the things that comes through to me, Clint, as I’m talking to you is you’re very well spoken, you clearly care about your team and you care about becoming better as a leader. What are some of the things that you learned from Peter, and his advice as your mentor, as you’ve grown? Emma, these last couple of years,
with every bit of advice from Peter, you will, you know, I mentioned the fact that he said looking at, I think there’s some things that we could add to this team that would that would really propel us forward. Right. And just some things that we that we sort of haven’t quite gotten to yet. But with every bit of advice along those lines, he was always quick to say, but you know, what, we have to hold on to the essence of AMA, whatever changes we make, whatever new people we might bring in either as, as employees or advisors or what have you. He’s like, there’s something special in the heart of this. And ultimately, you know it better than me or anyone else, and we need to hold on to that. So if I’m ever giving you advice, that steers us off, off course in that way, or if anything we’re doing feels like it pulls us away from that, then then let’s stop and think for a minute because that is like if anything, I want to make sure that this remains, you know, the thing that you guys have created and maintains the the heart and sort of soul that you guys have spent so much time infusing it with. So I really took that to heart, but he’s someone I can turn to we talked actually a couple of hours ago. I can ask the strategic questions. I can ask people questions I can ask, What do you think about you know, communicating this part of the plan, or making sure that I’m staying close enough to my colleagues now that we’re nearing 200 people, so it’s a little bit of all of it. What makes Peter extra special is that he’s also lived a great life outside of work. And he’s lived abroad with his family, something that we aspire to, you know, down the road, and and he just, he sort of brings really a holistic sort of life. He’s almost a life coach more than just a business coach, which is incredibly powerful, right? Because it’s all kind of the same right? Particularly for, for entrepreneurs for founders, right You’re trying to balance this group of people they’re responsible for at work. And this other little group of people, they’re also kind of responsible for at home. And people sort of, you know, at work, you were also crossing the front lines in the best way possible. And it’s just there’s there’s a lot there. And so the lines blur in a beautiful way, when you do it, right. And Peter is able, I think, to help me look at it in that that respect to
that’s really cool that, that you were able to find him as a mentor and get as much out of that relationship, as you have. It clearly shows with the way that Emma is growing right now. You got a team of 200 plus people all over the country, what are some of the things you’re doing to keep pace at an innovation level? It’s such a crowded space right now. I mean, I know you guys have a good chunk of that space. But more, it seems like more and more entrants coming into the market bigger and bigger budgets behind some of the existing companies, how do you continue to innovate and gain traction as a company that comparatively hasn’t raised as much money as a lot of the other email companies out there?
That’s right, well, you know, and it’s a crowded space for a reason, you know, digital marketing is only going to go up from here and get bigger. And when you think about the channels within digital marketing that matter, most every conversation starts with email, right as the channel that’s proven year over year to to continue to be the most effective way, not just to reach your customers, but to get them to act. Right. And so we always have to start there and remind ourselves that it is a crowded space, because there’s so much value here for marketers and their teams and the brands behind them. And so it’s a thrilling space to be a part of, we said at one point along the way, so you know, if we’re gonna, if we’re going to be in this vibrant marketplace that’s fast moving, and challenging and exciting. And like you said, there are all sorts of competitors, all sorts of sizes, and all sorts of flavors, typically, when you fanned out across different verticals and industries, right, and three new people pop up on the map, right, light up. So it’s, it’s all nicely like that the the way we’re going to win, is if we’re a little bit agnostic about the pace of people around us, and we’re keeping pace ourselves. And we’re embracing that fast motion, right. And that pace of innovation, I’m really excited about about the changes that we’ve we started to make it at a product level, we brought in a lot of talented folks to the software, Team product and engineering together. And we’ve now gotten on a cadence because we’ve matured a lot as a software organization over the last few years, where we’re essentially on a monthly cadence of product release every 30 days, right now we are releasing a meaningful enhancement to the product offering. And it’s things like, so far this year, we’ve rolled out ad content testing. So subject line testing is a great place to start. What about the rest of the email campaign? And how can you test a few things and ultimately, let your audience tell you which one they prefer, we’ve rolled out a marketing calendar, right. So you can manage and schedule your email campaigns and over time, start to add other things to that marketing mix as well. And the calendar sounds like a small thing. But for marketers, I know it’s a huge thing. Every marketer has a calendar, on the wall, on the wall on the whiteboard, in, you know, Google docs in whatever it is, and probably some of all of those things, right? The calendar is the centerpiece of where the plans and the schedules come together. And it’s a really nice thing for our customers to use. And then we we don’t have to just stop an email because the more central we become, in terms of the product that we’re offering and experience there. And also the integrations that we offer. Beyond that, there’s more and more that can happen in that calendar. And in your account. An example of that is the is the product we released at marketing United first time, we’ve launched something in the middle of the conference. And it’s a landing pages product. Oh, wow, we step out of email into web a little bit so that we can continue that thought and get beyond the open and a click and get all the way to the visit to the form fill to the download, right and everything that spins off of that from your welcome email series that gets triggered to follow up email campaigns and all the rest of it, then you can use the same exact editor tools that you love to use with Emma for your email campaigns to create now there’s those web pages behind them. And so for marketing teams that you know, struggle to get the it team’s attention to crack open the big, big website and add a page or add a series of pages in a timely manner for that campaign. They’ve got a launch in the next week or two. Now we’re putting more tools squarely in the hands of the marketers themselves. And so we’re just on a really good cadence, and we’ve got some incredible things planned for summer and fall. We actually now when before we make a public release, we have what our marketing team calls a release rally. And we’ve got one coming up tomorrow where everybody inside the AMA walls and virtually comes together for an hour long celebration of their elite release. It’s about to happen. The ins and outs of everything and how it works. All the teams by that point had been trained on it. The sales folks know what to do with it. Customer Support knows folks know how to support it. And it’s just a chance to stop and celebrate for a minute before we turn the lights on for for our customer base.
That sounds like a really cool, really cool cultural sort of experience for the brand and the team there and I imagine gets everyone aligned around it pre launch? And are you doing Steve Jobs style product announcements now?
Well, you know, I do have the radio voice for it, not the black turtleneck, or the hipster glasses, or the IQ for that matter. So there’s some things we’re still working on over here, but, but I have some colleagues who, who, who might have the turtleneck in the wardrobe and do a really good job of that. And so I think you’re right, we’re increasingly attuned to making sure that by the time we put something out in the world, everyone here has been a part of it, right of designing it, of giving feedback on it, you know, building it, reviewing it, preparing the documentation for it, all that good stuff, and, and you’re right, it just serves to get everybody first and foremost aware, right, which is key. Because when you’re moving on a monthly cadence, right, that’s, that’s a lot of movement, right? over a short period of time. And so to make sure that all those moving pieces and parts are, are squared away, and every team feels, feels good, and comfortable, and confident ahead of time is huge. So that’s a huge benefit. And then you’re right, just on top of that, once that’s all done, then you can take a breath and just get really fired up. And when it rolls out to customers, you can you can be excited about the experience that they’re about to have. So it’s absolutely a big cultural thing for us. And, and again, to your earlier question, right? It’s just, it reminds us that we are innovating in a huge way, at a really fast pace. And if there’s something our customers want from us, and we don’t quite have it, well, it probably won’t be long before we do. And it just gives us a ton of confidence as we look out over the next year or two and think about what we have a chance to do to support this community and, and the kind of partnerships we’ll be able to create and, and all the things we’ll be able to help marketers accomplish together. So it’s, it’s been a it’s been a fun, it’s kind of monthly event to start to host internally Of course, you know, we’ve learned our snack lesson, so they’re always snack rally is going to be donuts and some other form of pastries. And in fact, we had a little bit of fun with the AB content release rally and, and we did our own little AB test and the marketing team set out doughnuts and bagels. And of course, you can probably imagine which of those ended up winning the ABX test will try to spruce up the bagels try next time a little bit more and and and see if we can give them a little bit more of an edge. But people love donuts.
It’s all about the cream cheese, man. It’s all about the cream cheese.
Maybe right? Yeah, maybe it’s the cream cheese platter. Yes, the gold platter that wasn’t quite up to snuff the first time. So
people just start putting cream cheese on their doughnuts though.
That’s true. Well, that’s living together. You never know what’s gonna happen in a release route.
That’s true, especially in Nashville. Well, I’m really looking forward to get getting back down to Nashville. And I hope I can come in and check out the magic that you’ve got going on there at ama maybe even grab a snack on there. In the meantime, where can people find you and connect with you online? Clint.
You can check our website email@example.com. And I’m just Clint CLI and firstname.lastname@example.org. And I would I would welcome anyone emailing and finishing the conversation or just continuing an online happy to do that.
Awesome. I appreciate you sharing that. Are you on Twitter or any other social platforms?
I’m lightly on Twitter, Facebook, so will the email is probably the best way to initiate something when
I hear emails not going anywhere. That’s That’s right. Well, cool. Thank you so much.
Matt has been great. Really, really appreciate it. Thanks.
Likewise. Hey, thanks for listening and hanging out with us through this whole interview. Make sure you check out another episode. That’s episode 13 of powderkeg igniting startups. And that’s what the serial entrepreneur and investor Jay Baer J helped connect me with Clint for this episode and has a wealth of information to share in his own interview. So check it out, I really think you’re gonna like it. And for more stories on entrepreneurs, leaders and top talent outside of Silicon Valley, subscribe to us on iTunes at powderkeg.com/itunes you want to subscribe because we have some great guests coming up, so don’t miss it. We’ve also got a helpful companion email@example.com You’re gonna find show notes there with all the links and contact information we mentioned in the episode, as well as some other useful articles and interviews in the powderkeg community. So thanks for listening and you’ll be hearing from us real soon.