First and foremost, I’m honored and humbled to be a part of a journey that’s given me the best five years of my life. Within these past five years, I’ve met my wife, started SendGrid, went through the Boulder TechStars program, and met some of the most amazing people in my life. I sincerely enjoy going to work every day.
SendGrid’s grown tremendously over these last five years, and our future looks very bright. We’ve built a base of over 180,000 customers, we’ve successfully delivered over 250 billion emails since, and we’re on track to send over 13 billion emails this month. Our customers include some of the hottest names in tech today, including Uber, Pinterest, Spotify, Pandora, as well as many successful companies in a variety of industries including Commissions, Inc. and DonorsChoose.org.
My passion lies with technology and building awesome new things, but so far I haven’t shared my insights on what it took to get where I am today. Below, I’ve shared a few things I’ve learned over these past five years and what’s worked for me. I’d hate for people to repeat my mistakes, so I hope you find these pointers helpful.
Light at the end of the tunnel
I know you’ve read everywhere online that most startups won’t succeed, or even that 90% will eventually fail. You need to be patient. After every unsucessful startup, you will learn something you can apply to every subsequent opportunity. Be optimistic. Mental grit is part of the battle, when you have a million things to do, be confident in your abilities and know that you can do it.
After college, I began working at startups, and it took three years of work before tasting success. I don’t regret that time because that hard work helped solidify the foundation for SendGrid.
There aren’t a lot of people attempting to start companies. You are not the norm, and you should be proud of that.
Work hard, work fast, work smart
Every company starts from almost nothing, and you have to build it out. Eventually, there’ll be an ‘a-ha’ moment when you realize how much work is really involved.
Focus on functionality and the top three things your customers will use or do with your product. Trying to perfect every feature will make you fall behind and get crushed by the workload.
Instead of an MVP (Minimum Viable Product), have a BMVP (Bare Minimum Viable Product). Why? You will not finish your product. There is no such thing as a finished product in startups.
For SendGrid, I focused on the sign-up process, stats, and billing. While building these out, I received invaluable feedback from customers and mentors at Techstars. Most of the tests written revolved around those three areas. When customers were content with pieces, I considered them done and moved on.
It’s up to you how you act on the feedback provided, but your actions in the beginning will dictate where the company will head for years to come.
Document the ride
Document how your startup evolves.Logo changes, website redesigns, memorable trips, and personnel changes provide great memories when looking back. Nostalgia makes you appreciate every step of the way. I regret not doing this enough and I wishing I did in previous startups. Tim Falls has an amazing blog post about it.
Support your customers
Feedback from customers is critical, and so is their happiness. For SendGrid, money was tight, and customer happiness was one of our go-to strategies to spur organic growth. Fixing the product and talking to customers directly was within our power, so we made it happen.
The worst thing to do when starting out is ignore the customer. We spent extra hours each day trying to fix their needs. We wanted to make sure customers were happy. We still strive for this to this day.
All early customers are beta testers. They are taking a risk with your unpolished product, you should make sure they are taken care of.
Work life balance
When we started SendGrid, there was no balance because it was all work. SendGrid was fortunate enough to work within the Techstars office for our first three months, and to this day I am extremely thankful for that opportunity. It was the right move, and I have zero regrets, but it’s difficult to have any kind of life with so much to do.
For those first months, the only time I communicated with the outside world was at night before going to bed. As harsh as that sounds, I believe this was the reason we were able to push so much out in so little time.
One of my favorite memories is enjoying deep dish pizzas with the other founders at Old Chicago in Downtown Boulder on Fridays. This became a tradition for us because we worked hard, and sitting there enjoying pizza was our way of rewarding ourselves.
Working with founders you can trust is essential. What worked with us was that we were all able to divvy up the work three ways and not fight about it: Tim worked on the email sending infrastructure, Isaac spoke with investors and handled the pitch, and I worked on the website. There were no arguments to be had because we all knew what needed to be done and executed.
I was fortunate to start a company with two great individuals. We share the same passion of getting things done and being as productive as possible.
It’s no secret that hiring the right people for your company is as critical as selecting your founders. I think SendGrid is a product of that idea. Since we were so selective in the hiring process, we’ve developed an amazing culture that rivals other well-established, culture-focused companies.
The adage “Happy Wife, Happy Life” works just the same on how your company treats employees, “Happy Employee, Happy Company.”
Success is a side-effect of hard work. I don’t consider myself an amazing individual with superpowers that created a company with little effort. Anyone can do what I did, even the person reading this.
Appreciate your significant other, appreciate your parents, appreciate your friends, appreciate your mentors. I believe it’s as simple as that.
With the first five years come and gone, I’m genuinely excited with what the next five years will bring. With a lot of new products, feature sets, and more time-saving tools for developers coming down the pipeline, one can only feel excited with what SendGrid will deliver.