How AWeber’s Tom Kulzer Built A Top E-mail Marketing Provider That Has Over 120,000 Paying Customers

play audio How AWebers Tom Kulzer Built A Top E mail Marketing Provider That Has Over 120,000 Paying Customers

 How AWebers Tom Kulzer Built A Top E mail Marketing Provider That Has Over 120,000 Paying CustomersTom Kulzer walks us through how he went from a wireless modem salesman and Olive Garden busboy to an accidental email marketing guru. Tom started AWeber during his Sophmore year of college after figuring out a way to automate his follow-up emails to his wireless modem customers. Today, AWeber has amassed 105 team members and over 120,000 paid customers around the world.

  • Tom is a college drop-out whose 1-year off from college to focus on AWeber is still going 16 years later.
  • Has gotten in trouble with his wife for saying weekends and weekdays are equally fun and inspiring.

 

Key Takeaways:

  • Tom discusses how he realized an opportunity in email marketing when other salesmen wanted to use his email automation techniques and asked for help.
  • Wondered if he could earn some money with his idea and change his college-eating Ramen days forever.
  • How Tom got his first few hundred customers quickly by leveraging an online marketing newsletter he moderated for 3,000 subscribers.
  • Challenges faced without a payment processor in place to accept eager customer’s money.
  • Amassed his next 1,000 customers and beyond through word-of-mouth and exceptional service.
  • Why Tom thinks email marketing competition is a good thing and what he focuses on instead.
  • Get the dirt on the challenges Tom thinks business owners will face in email marketing in 2014 and the simple solution to help combat it.
  • Insights on why AWeber continues to behave as a start-up and the importance of staying agile in a growing marketplace.
  • How the dynamics of AWeber’s team has changed as it’s grown to 105 members.
  • Why an open-office layout and hiring the right team members is key to effective communication and growth.
  • Shares regrets on waiting too long to hire and the fear behind it.
  • Managing and balancing autonomy, team players, self-motivation and the challenges therein.
  • How it only takes one employee to take the whole team down, and how everyone at AWeber is responsible for keeping checks and balances in place.
  • Relates creating a job page and video with a company sales page to help promote the culture of AWeber to new hires.
  • What Tom tells new employees about self-motivation and success.
  • Hear surprising results behind motivating employees to refer talented hires with lucrative bonuses.
  • Shares AWeber’s signature core values and how it empowers employees to make informed decisions.
  • Discusses his waterline analogy for team members to consider when tackling issues.
  • Why AWeber houses two giant slides leading from the second to first floor and what employees are really doing to blow off steam.

Recommended Resources:

Email Marketing Tips from AWeber:

Transcript:

Eric: Hi everyone. Welcome to this week’s edition of Growth Everywhere where we interview entrepreneurs and bring you business and personal growth tips. I’m your host Eric Siu and today we have Tom Kulzer from AWeber which is an email marketing service that you ought to be trying if you’re a marketer or business owner. So, Tom how are you doing today?

Tom: Great. Thanks for having me Eric. 

Eric: Yeah. Thanks for being on the show. Why don’t you tell us a little about your background first and then we’ll go from there.

Tom: Sure. Background. Interesting. So I started off going to school for a mechanical engineering degree. Went to Penn State for a year. Decided mechanical engineering was not for me so I switched to finance and in the process of switching to finance I was bussing tables in Olive Garden on the side and also doing some computer stuff where I was selling wireless modems. One thing led to another and basically had automated a part of the sales process for selling those modems. In the process of leaving that to kind of focus on school a bunch of people that I was working with came to me and said, “Hey, I’d like that email automated follow up solution.”

So, when I was going from my sophomore to my junior year of school I left and I had all these people approaching me and I looked it as, hey, maybe instead of bussing tables, busting my rear really hard to work that, I figured I could make some money on the side with this automated email thing and ended up putting together a AWeber as kind of an experiment thing so we could make some money to get through college. Within a really short period of time I had a couple hundred customers and kind of decided to take the year off from school and see where it led. So, sixteen years later and hear we are. 

Eric: Wow! So, you never went back to school. That was it?

Tom: I’m one of those college dropouts everybody talks about in the tech industries.

Eric: Nice. So, you guys have something really, I think…Well, it’s more rare nowadays because everyone wants to get funding, everyone wants to be on TechCrunch, whatever, but my understanding is you guys are, you’re one hundred percent bootstrap. Is that right? 

Tom: Absolutely. I financed everything initially off of some savings that I had from working through high school and college, and then also a Penn State credit card. A credit card that I maxed out in the process of doing that. Now, I had supportive parents as far as they kind of helped me, they were paying for school and such at the time, some of my living costs with regards to that, but as far as the actual like get off ground part of the business I paid for all of that out of pocket. It was one of those things that…It grew over time. It wasn’t like you started out you needed eight million dollars to get off the ground. It was a couple hundred bucks here, a couple hundred bucks there, and it grows as your customer demand grows.

Eric:  So, when you built that…Building that automated sequence initially, was that you that built it or do you hire someone to do that? I’m trying to figure out how this all started.

Tom: I actually did most the initial programming. I’d say I probably did like ninety-eight percent of the initial programming to get us off the ground. The only thing that I really outsourced at the time was to the web-posting company that I was using. This was back in ’98 so I was having to install operating systems and other things. It wasn’t like you go to…You know, you don’t bowl into Amazon and ask their…or whatever else and just have a machine and have it just work, and have a control panel. It was literally like, you’ve got to shell login and just go. So, it was installing [inaudible] and those sort of things, and I had some other folks too, but that was all on a consulting basis. 

Eric: Got it. Wow! So, tell us a little about, you know, where AWeber is at today? I mean, how many employees and how many customers do you guys have? 

Tom: Sure. We’re at about a hundred-five, hundred-ten team members currently. We have about a hundred-twenty thousand customers around the world from many, many different countries. So, all over the world we have customers. 

Eric: This is a hundred-twenty thousand paying customers?

Tom: Yes. Yes.

Eric: Wow! Okay. Good numbers. And I always like to ask the question, how do you get the first hundred users and I’m going to have a follow up to that after. How did the first hundred come?

Tom: So, back in the day the…I was moderating a…I’d always been interested in the business aspect of running a business and so forth, you know, growing up I’d shovel driveways, mow lawns, that sort of thing, and raking leaves and all that kind of stuff. I was always out for whatever kind of thing that I could scratch up in my head. So, going through college I had started, basically, a moderated email list, an email newsletter essentially, that people would send in questions and I would kind of put the most interesting questions in an email and send it out to all the people that subscribed. And I would write articles about startup companies and marketing, and doing on-line marketing and stuff. Not so much about startup companies, but more about marketing and getting my name out there, because I was doing this wireless modem thing.

I was kind of learning as I was going along and when I found something that worked I’d tell other people about it. So I had gathered kind of a following of about three-thousand subscribers at the time that, you know, subscribed to get updates. It was marketing advice that was coming from other people as well. Ninety percent of it wasn’t coming from me. So, when I launched AWeber I had been working with a bunch of folks with this wireless modem company that were also using the automated follow-up system that I had made, because the more input I got the better I made the product. I was able to iterate it faster, get ideas, you know, I kind of always looked at it as, and I’ve heard this from many good friends since then; it’s a big pond out there and there’s a lot of revenue and a lot of customers to share and even though you might be selling the same product, everybody has their own approach for that.

But, so, when I initially launched AWeber to the public it was something to where I literally just told that mailing list that I was moderating, I just told them about it and they came, and a lot of them had already been beta testing. Like, I approached people that I was more personable with and told them, “Hey, I’ve got this product. I’d like you to check it out.” And they would beta test it for the six to nine months or so before it actually became public. But, yeah, that was really how the first hundred came. It’s funny…It’s kind of silly to think about today, but when I launched it initially…I have a secure server and so forth, but I had no merchant processor. The agreements, you know, you used to have to sign contracts and wait for the banks to set you up and all this kind of stuff, and none of that had come through yet. It was like thirty to sixty days off. I was ready to go. I was like, “Screw it, I’ll put it up. We’ll take the orders. We’ll take the credit cards and when we can charge them we’ll charge them, but until then, I’m just going to wing it.”

You know, “ I’ve got paying customers to collect money from so…” I encouraged heavily, sending checks at the time. Today, that sounds kind of ridiculous, but then people would actually send checks. So, it was cool. I got a couple hundred bucks right off the bat when you’re…When you’re a college student eating Ramen noodles, it’s like, “Are you still living?” It’s not a big departure. So, it was a really good time in my life to be able to take that risk. So, that was a rambling answer to how I got the first hundred customers, but they came really quickly.

Eric: That’s good. I think to distill it, I mean, to me it sounds like there was content marketing before content marketing became a word. And then there’s a sense of customer development as well, you know, team work. Yeah, I think those two things really stick out for me.

Tom: And actually I’d have to take back what I said. Like they didn’t come quickly. It was just what you said. There was a lot of things I did beforehand that kind of set it up for it to come quickly. Kind of like, everyone looks at different companies and say, “Oh, you’re an overnight success.”  It’s like, “Yeah, we spent the last sixteen years or so becoming an overnight success.” It’s all kind of relative. 

Eric: Yes. Totally. Okay. Cool. That segues into my next question. And so, the first hundred customers, I never actually asked this question, but how did you get the first thousand customers? 

Tom: The first thousand? We’ve always relied heavily on word of mouth. You know, I’m a big proponent of…If you do really well by your customers, they’re going to go out and tell other people, they’re going to tell their friends and associates, especially when you’re dealing with a small business community, which is our typical customer base, you know, very mom and pop business, so you know your online marketers. They tend to all hang out together. So, if you serve one of them really, really well, they’re going to tell all their friends, “Hey, these guys are awesome.” So, we’ve always generated a significant amount of our new customers just based on that word of mouth advertising. I remember the specific statistics of where all the other nine-hundred customers came after that first hundred, but going back from memory a big proportion of those was just word of mouth. 

Eric: Got it. Okay. Cool. Obviously in your space there’s a lot of juggernauts, there’s the MailChimps of the world, there’s the GetResponse of the world. What do you do to kind of continue to innovate in this space?

Tom: Sure. I would say…It’s interesting. I wouldn’t say there’s a…There’s definitely a lot of strong players out there. 

I think each one has its own differentiating points as far as features, as far as support, those sort of things, and really knowing what your strengths are, and knowing how you play against one another. At the same time competition is good. It makes everybody better. It is a big pot and it is a big world and we can all serve, and have a market, and be successful, and co-exist. I don’t look at it as… I don’t have a need to ruin somebody else for our own gain. It’s something where we can all co-exist and help customers in the way they can best connect…We connect with a certain set of sub-customers better than others and we’ll continue to do that for many years to come hopefully.

Eric: Got it. Cool. Great answer. So, obviously you’re tied to this massive email marketing company. You have to know some interesting email marketing stats. So, anything interesting you can share with the audience in 2014?

Tom: Interesting email marketing stats. That’s like a whole other interview, man [laughter]. There’s lots of…You know, I think the biggest…Well, let’s not…Stats are easy to come by. I think one of the things that’s currently out there is very topical. You may or may not have heard that Yahoo recently changed and it’s a little tacky, but Yahoo recently change some of their DMARC settings to basically…to get any mail that’s not sent directly from the Yahoo interface or through their SMTP servers, so basically through Yahoo’s mail servers. So from how that affects our customer base and affect other small business that may be using other email marketing services, if you’re using your Yahoo email address as a firm address in your campaigns, they’re not going to get delivered to anywhere that is abiding by the DMARC settings. So, basically what I’ve kind of been evangelizing over the last…We’ve actually recommended this for many, many years; make sure that as a small business that you’re using your domain name in your email marketing campaigns so that you can make sure that you’re messages are: 

Going to get delivered

That they’re helping to increase your brand.

Anytime that you send out an email out from a generic email account it’s not increasing your brand in any way, and even if it is, you know, SingleGrain@yahoo.com …It’s not something that…It’s just like if I said, “Hey, can you email me at TomKulzer@aol.com?”, and that’s the email address we use…everyone here used an AOL email inside of AWeber in order to communicate with customers, you know, you’re going to look at this and go, “Those guys don’t know what they’re doing”, kind of thing. You don’t give quite as much credibility to somebody that’s using a free email address like that. And I hear all kinds of things about, “Oh, it’s easier”, or “It’s more convenient”, or “It’s just what I’ve always used”, or “I don’t know how to get my own domain set up.” It’s worth the time invested from a branding experience as well from an actual deliverability component.

So, Yahoo, about two weeks ago, it was April 7th, it was a Friday, like literally Friday afternoon they broke mail  for any small business that was sending email from anywhere other than Yahoo itself, if they’re using Yahoo address. And then earlier this week AOL did the exact same thing. So, it’s something I see coming down the pike where a lot of other webmail providers could also potentially do. If you’re using a freebie email address, even if you pay, if it’s any generic domain provider, if it’s gmail, Yahoo, even like a Comcast, or Roadrunner, or anything that’s not your own domain name; get your own domain names set up and use that as a part of your email marketing campaign. It’s not the statistic that you’re looking for, but it will help people get…make their statistics better by having better deliverability and building their business long-term hopefully.

Eric: Good point. Anyone of you people that are subscribed on my list that are using generic emails, time to change it. Cool. So, I think there’s a…There’s one interesting point I like to touch upon, I mean…To you, what’s the difference with being in a kind of startup mode with ten to twenty employees verses you having a hundred employees today. 

Tom: I think that the…It’s interesting, like, to me if you’re not actively attempting to grow all the time, you know, you’re going in reverse, and there is definitely…There’s this interesting dynamic with that whole startup culture, and so forth, and to me, even at a hundred people I’ll still behave as if we are a startup. You still have to be agile and change quickly and move fast and continue to iterate on the things that are working and continue to iterate on the things that don’t work so you can hopefully find something that does work. But, you know, I think the biggest, some of the biggest differences that I’ve noticed over the years is just the communication with your internal team.

The dynamic that you have with your team when you are smaller, is much different when you are larger. And you can, in many ways get by with different personalities when you’re smaller that may not necessarily work as a company grows. So, when they’re less connected the kind of autonomy to be able go out and execute positively becomes harder. So, it’s interesting. The community…I think the biggest thing is the overall communication with the team changes. You know, how I have to talk to a team has changed over time. The things that I need to talk about with the team have changed over time. It’s an interesting dynamic to kind of get used to over the years. I’ve had to change over many years as well as a part of that process. 

Eric: Got it. Okay. You alluded to communication. How do you guys communicate internally on AWeber? 

Tom: Well, we don’t have an email newsletter. We have our own internal newsletter. We have internal Jabber, instant messaging chats, we use email extensively. We’re all in the same office. There’s only a handful of us that are off site. More than anything it’s just talk to one another. You know we have a very open office layout here. All of our desks…We’re two floors. Our CS team is downstairs with some of our other administrative areas and then our engineering and marketing team and design teams and so forth are on the second floor. And all of our second floor desks are on wheels. And the specific purpose around that is, “Hey, if I’m working with you today, I’m going to wheel my desk over to work with you for today, or this week, or however long that particular project goes.” So, you’re all in close proximity and it’s interesting when you kind of have the different disciplines; designers, URL specialists, front end coder, back end coder, and then maybe an operations for like system infra structural oriented things; you get all of those desks together and guys together…the problems are going to, hopefully, work themselves out faster because they have that proximity to be able to say, “Hey, you know, can you check out this code I just wrote? Is this cool? Is this going to work with the things you are working on?”

As those teams get larger the communication factor is just massive. And just being in that close proximity really helps speed that along better. But it comes down to individual people too. You have to have the type of person…you have to have the kind of personalities that aren’t going to be afraid to say, “Hey, there’s an issue here. I’m calling a flag on this. We need to look at this now. This is a priority issue.” And to be able to stand up and be able to move things forward. 

Eric: Yeah, that’s really cool. I think Valve does the rolling desk thing too. So, you’ll have to show me offline where you get these rolling desks from because I think we’re going to do the same thing too. I like that idea. 

Tom: There’re stand up desks too, you can crank them up and down so if you want to stand up and to it…

Eric: That’s insane. I was literally thinking when you said that I was thinking someone needs to invent a rolling standing desk.

Tom: They certainly exist. I’ll show you some pictures. 

Eric: Okay. Cool. So, if you go back and kind of change anything, what’s one thing that you would change? 

Tom: Only one thing? Hindsight’s always 20/20. I think early on, when we were growing initially I think I would hire faster. I ran everything myself for the first year and a half and would definitely have the cash flow to afford to do that earlier. I think the biggest reason that I didn’t is I was afraid and it was more about the…being afraid, but also that big question mark in your head, “I’m not going to hire someone, how does that work?” And I think that over the years I think that’s one of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned, of like, “Okay, you don’t know how to do that thing today, but there’s people out there that know how to do those things.” And you probably know someone already who knows how to do that, that you can probably call and they’d be more than happy to give you… Even five or ten minutes of advice is not a big stretch, it’s not like they will charge you a fortune. You probably already know people that can do these things. Just ask. Ask more questions.

But, I was initially afraid of hiring and having team members was this foreign weird concept. How do you deal with payroll? How do you deal with taxes? There’s services that you can do all those things through and it makes it really easy and you sign a few papers and you’re good to go. I think making sure you have a cash flow and the ability to, obviously, pay somebody long-term, that’s always been a major consideration for me, making sure…You know, we take care of our customers, but also we want to make sure that we’re taking care of all our team as well. And just the ability to be profitable year after year is something that affords us the ability to create a massive amount of value for our customers as well as a massive amount of value for our team members here in the environment that we’re able to create. 

But, going back, just those questions that you have in those things that you don’t know how to do, they’re not insurmountable. There’s always a solution, it’s just a matter of asking the right questions to the right people and just moving on.

Eric: You talked about trust a little bit. So, that’s something I struggle with sometimes. For me, I open up I let people do whatever they want, there’s a lot of autonomy, but then, what if they start fucking up so much, so many times, and it’s like the level of trust just goes back down again. Have you experienced that before? 

Tom: Sure, absolutely. And that comes in any type of team situation. You’re going to have people that are kicking ass and you’re going to have people that aren’t. And you have to have a process for helping…You know, when you’re smaller that could be like, “Hey Eric, you’re kind of slacking off this week. Like, what’s going on? Are you not sleeping? Are you playing too much “Call of Duty” at night? Is your daughter keeping you up? Like, what’s going on?” You know, all of those things, life can kind of impact those things and being conscious of those, being able to have a chat with somebody, but as you get bigger, you have to have systems in process and other people that are able to ask those same questions.

And also just the accountability from team member to team member of, “Hey…”…With literally a hundred of us in the building, and this one person screwing around over here, you know, it’s not my job, necessarily, to discover them screwing around, and not doing what they’re supposed to be doing. I expect that everybody is going to be pointing those things out and helping to escalate and raise everybody up. You know, if you’re goofing around today I hope the person sitting next to you is going to be like, “Hey, is everything alright? Can we focus and get this project moving along.” Because every individual’s actions have a, you know, an effect on everybody else. So, it only takes one person to drive a whole team down. So, being able to recognize those things and remediate those things and if you have to, you know, potentially change the people that are on the team. It’s not something you do lightly and you have to, you know, look at all the extenuating circumstances around it. Sometimes you have to do those things. 

Eric: Got it. That brings up a very interesting point. I think this would be interesting or pertinent to startups too. Let’s say you only have one person in a role, right? And, this person is not a fit. You need to fire this person, but at the same time you can’t fire this person because he’s the only person. What do you do in a scenario when you have a replacement coming in, but this person’s here and you need to fire him?

Tom: That’s awkward. It is what it is. I wish there was an easy simple solution for this. Sometimes you can bring somebody in earlier that you’re adding capacity, you’re adding the ability to do more. Sometimes you might have to let somebody…It all depends on what the scenario is and why you need let somebody go, as to how you bring in somebody else in. If they’re leaving, if they’re quitting, moving on to somewhere else, maybe get some notice and get somebody in to train beforehand. Sometimes you can hire consultants to fill those gaps temporarily. Sometimes, if somebody’s doing something so bad that you need to let them go now, even though it might be painful it’s better to do it now, then it is to do it later. Because the problems that are going to be caused by keeping that person around don’t overcompensate for the convenience of not having to do it earlier. It’s all a …It’s a give or take. It’s kind of a balance, given a specific scenario.

Eric: I like that. Cool. So, going back to AWeber’s early days, what were some early struggles that you guys faced? You talked about having to make big changes as the company grew, in one of your interviews. 

Tom: Sure. Every day is a new challenge. There’s always something new every day. You know, just in the last couple of weeks, it’s Yahoo and AOL changing up their whole policies on doing that and now we have to get customers to change email addresses and other things that they were using just fine for years. Challenges that we’ve seen along the way, you know, our growing office space. That could seem like a great problem to have, but it’s also a problem and it’s something that you have to plan for. I was actually just corresponding with a friend over the last week or two that is starting a company. He’s got seven people on the team right now and just hired a handful more and he’s trying to lease office space at the same time and he’s like, “Well, do I lease office space that will fit us now, or do I lease office space that’s going to fit us over the course of three or four years? And how big do I go?” And it’s like, I wish I had this grand wizard answer for him, but there’s so many variables there I can’t really answer that for you.

Being able to plan out how many people you need at different stages of your growth, one of the things that’s worked for us…you know, early on you kind of figure out a base line of how many team members you need in order to be able to help x number of customers, and trying to keep those ratios the same, and also looking at…So, our customer solutions team, you know, we kind of go based on the number of customers we have, on how many team members that we hire for that. And things over the years that we’ve done that change those as we’ve added to our educational marketing department. We have a new customer webinar series that we do where we have walk-throughs every week and sometimes multiple times a day even, where new customers can come on and learn as a group, and do that which has the affect of minimizing…you know, it reduces the number of support calls and so forth that we get. So, those things affect the ratio. So, being able to kind of figure out what things are going to move to those and what things are going to help your customers be more successful faster are different things that we’ve done that kind of change those ratios.

But having better documentation can massively affect the ratios of support team members that you need.  When customers can find the answers themselves, then the type of customer that wants to find the answer themselves, they can do that all the time. Meanwhile, your team can also be helping those people who would rather talk to somebody on the phone and get help. We have a significant number of small business customers that… you know, they’re mom and pop shops that they interact with their customers when they walk into the store. So, they like to have that one to one connection with someone that’s helping them here. And that’s one of our big differentiators as well, is the ability for us to be able to help customers over the phone that a number of other email marketing services don’t do. It all depends on whether you want to play.

Eric: Cool.

Tom: I don’t know if that answers your question. I went down a couple of different tangents there.

Eric: No, I think having multiple answers is definitely something the audience can definitely use, for sure. A few more questions from my end here. What are some effective tactics that you can share?

Tom: Effective hiring tactics. Having a great…having a site for advertising the roles that you have. It speaks to your culture, it speaks to the type of person that’s going to be successful. It really helps filter much in the same way that your sales pages or your actual service or product, or whatever it is you’re selling, are…you’re selling your wares. When you’re attempting to hire somebody, recruit somebody, you’re very much selling who you are as a company, who you are as a team and what that person is going to get out of it, as to the overall impact that they’re going to have on the world, how is their contribution going to make a difference in the world. You know, what are they going to learn from the team that’s there? Are they going to be able to come and work with other relatively smart individuals? What are the experiences of those other individuals? So, being able to kind of, you know, sell yourself on those pages is always something that is really beneficial.

Actually we just, this is really top of mine, because we just put up a new video on our recruiting site. If you go to AWeber.jobs and you can see that it’s kind of like two thirds down the way, and we just put that up and it very much kind of walks people through a day in the life of somebody that’s here at AWeber. And it is very…I always say, whenever I meet somebody new, that’s onboarding here, I don’t do one hundred percent of hiring anymore, which is a nice phase to be at, but whenever I meet somebody new that’s coming out I always tell them, “This is a very entrepreneurial organization. I started the company fifteen, sixteen years ago now. Your individual success is massively in your hands. If you’re going to be pro-active in pushing things forward, that success comes from you doing those things. We’re going to be here to help you and support you all the way, but at the end of the day, you’re responsible for your career and your own success and pushing yourself forward, and asking the questions, and not waiting for someone to come and say, ‘Hey, how can I help you?’ Its, ‘Hey I need this. I need this in order to be successful.’ And nine times out of ten or ninety-nine percent of the time you’re going to get whatever it is that you need to be able to move things forward and be successful.” 

But as far as the overall recruiting, one of the things…as we are got larger we systematized the overall recruiting process. We have two in-house recruiters that do a lot of our outbound recruiting as well as candidate filtering and qualifications and so forth. We use Resumator.com. We’re just a customer. I don’t have a particular association with them. And that’s been awesome for being able to get all the resumes and everything into one centralized spot to be able to categorize them and weigh their pluses and minuses and have a system of how we onboard folks into the company and how we sifted sort those. And that’s been great especially as we’ve grown and call multiple people. And different departments are responsible for hiring different folks, and kind of everybody using a similar process so there is that similar end goal with bringing folks on.

But just kind of systematize those sort of things, getting out there and…One of the other things have we done to hire; we have a recruiting bonus. We will give basically a referral bonus to internal team members that refer people to open positions that we have. You know, we have a couple of enterprising engineers here that…We pay five-thousand dollars for an engineering referral, and we have a couple of enterprising engineers here that have started their own technical meet-ups in order to expand their technical contact. And it’s like, “Hey, I referred this guy, you know, this person that I met at meet-up.” That sort of thing.” and it’s like, “Okay” And that’s great because you could say, like your gaming the referral system, but like, I don’t care because you’re hiring, you’re referring qualified talent to…You’re getting out there and networking with other technical folks in the community, so you’re learning from them and improving your skills, so it must makes a more…it’s just a more valuable experience for everybody all around, as well as just creating this community resource, which then AWeber is attached to in some sort of way, which is really cool. So, there’s a bunch of different ways to look at it.

When we first started we didn’t have that. We didn’t have the ability to pay something like that out. But now…It’s expensive to hire people even if you’re going out and doing Craig’s List ads or Monster Ads, or whatever, like there’s a time commitment, there’s time investment there, all those things have cost. The ability to be able to have someone to come and look through referrals is pretty awesome because they tend to be more qualified then somebody just randomly stopping by our recruiting site. 

Eric: Wow! I love all these processes. I think they’re all gold nugget. I especially love the speech that you gave. I might just take that snippet and put it into my phone. When a new hire comes in, you know, Boom! One last point on hiring. In one of your other interviews you talked about hiring for core value. What do you mean by that exactly?

Tom: Well there’s the…The overall set of guiding principles. It’s funny, I was just talking about this at lunch today with somebody that had just started last week. We have a set of core values and there…As we’ve grown over the years we’ve kind of dialed in what those core values are so that we’re able to make, so that any team member here is able to make decisions on the fly without having to have all the specific process or regulation or policies saying; if this, then that. They can always go back to our core values and say, “Okay, this particular scenario applies to this core value. I’m going to make this decision based on that.” So, there’s an analogy that I like to use with…  know the waterline. It’s a little bit of a tangent off the core values, but “know the water line” of the decisions that you can make that are…

So just basically I’ll draw a sailboat on a white board and if you get a hole in the sail, like, “Okay, that probably stinks, but you can patch it up but keep on sailing. If you get a hole in the hull and water might splash in through in a big wave or something like that, but you can make a decision and move on. But, if you get a hole and it’s below the water line, the water’s going to start gushing in and that can be a problem; that could sink the ship.” So, being able to always judge based on the core values and decisions that can be made and just move on, verses decisions that have a larger impact and could potentially sink the ship.

Those are the decisions that most places are needing to make on a daily basis are not ones that are going to sink the ship and can be executed on quickly and move things forward much faster when you have that kind of global core values set throughout your team. So, being able to have those, have everybody operate more autonomously without a whole lot of policy and procedure. Nobody likes that stuff. That’s icky and I don’t like it. I can’t remember them all anyway. It’s like, why have them if people aren’t going to remember them. It just feels corporate and nasty. We have over a hundred people, but we still very much operate on that startup mindset, that small business mindset. So, they’ve been really, really helpful for us over the years. 

Eric: Got it. What are your core values by the way?

Tom: I knew you were going to ask me that. The biggest one as far as…Make sure I do them in order…Biggest one is Create remarkable experiences and that kind of goes across the board as far as, whenever you’re making decisions, is this going to be a remarkable experience for a particular customer. Is, somebody having a problem and not calling you back, is that going to create a remarkable experience for the customer. Say you want to make sure you follow up with those folks…Somebody may be applying for a position here and they don’t hear anything back from us ever. Is that a remarkable experience? No. Do a lot of companies operate that sort of way? Absolutely. So, you can kind of see how just that one core value, you can apply that to a whole bunch of different areas of the business. Is planning a maintenance window adage in the middle of the day during our busiest time, is that going to create a remarkable experience for our customers? Not at all. So, you’ve got to create remarkable experiences.

Execute with passion, and that really comes down to “Let’s get stuff done. Move things forward.” If you’re looking at your position and your overall career to wake-up on a Monday morning and go, “Oh, I gotta go to work.” I don’t want anybody to ever think that, “I’m going to work.” Yeah, “I’m going to the office, but I’m going to build cool stuff for cool customers all around the world. I’m going to help them grow their business and I’m going to have an impact.” I got in hot water with my wife actually a week or two ago, I don’t remember how it all went down, but it was basically, I said something to the effect of, “I like the weekdays…” or, “I don’t like weekends any more than I like weekdays.” and it was sort of one of those…I have a four year old and a one year old, you know, beautiful wife and so forth, and I love the weekends. I also love the weekdays. It wasn’t any sort of ditch on family or ditch on work. It’s like, I love every day. Every day is awesome. Every day is a new day. Every day is an ability to go out and execute with passion, regardless of what it is. Family, personal stuff, business stuff, you know, you’ve got to take life by the horns and move it on. 

Foster respect and cooperation would be our third core value and that’s just work together as a team. That goes across our internal team. That goes across any vendors that we might be working with. That goes across just working with our customers. You want to continuously be building a relationship with all of those people regardless of who they are and moving things forward. That’s kind of the treat unto others as you would like to be treated. 

Listen to what people say about us and invite feedback. People are always going to be giving you feedback. Some feedback is feedback that you want to act on right away. Some feedback is just those nuggets you want to put in the back of your head so that when you are working on a particular feature you go, “Ah, you know, I was talking to Sally last week and she mentioned that she uses a particular feature like this. Maybe since we’re tweaking and we can maybe adjust for that use case.” Being able to understand how people are using things and taking their feedback. I like to use the analogy of the iPhone and Apple coming out with the iPhone. Most people were not telling somebody that, “Hey this is what I want my cellphone to look like.” So, they took feedback around how people didn’t like existing cellphone technologies and while you might say, “Hey, you need x feature.” They didn’t look at it as, “Hey we need to check all these boxes as far as features.”

It’s more about listening to the problems and what kind of end result that somebody’s looking to accomplish and being able to take that feedback and wrap it up like that. Especially running a software as a service, it’s not necessarily about the feature request. It’s about the problem that somebody’s trying to solve/win for us. And you, as kind of the insight…kind of behind the scenes might be able to take that point of feedback and solve the problem they’re having in a completely different way that’s massively more efficient than what that person might have originally requesting specifically. It’s, listen to the feedback, invite the feedback, we’re always open to feedback, we use UserVoice, another service that I love. I don’t have any connection to it. I like to get those things out of the way.

Eric: Affiliate link [Laughter]. 

Tom: Yeah. Here’s my virtual affiliate link. But, UserVoice is great, we use it internally to kind of catalog feature requests that come from our customers as well as from our internal product team. We use them across…But the product as well as business processes and other the things we’re doing here. It’s like, “Hey, we’re in conference room one hundred. The chairs are really uncomfortable, can we get new ones.” and it’s like, if you get a whole bunch of people plus one honing in on that, that’s like, “Oh, Okay, maybe it’s not just me. Maybe it is affecting other people and we can be more effective.” That’s kind of a foofooey example usage of it. You get what I’m saying. 

Learn, educate, innovate, is another core value. And that’s continuously be learning and that kind of goes back to that recruiting thing that I was talking about earlier about being able to learn from other folks. We have a Tuesday tutorial that we do with our engineering team. We actually also launched a rubber academy and it’s basically internal team members that are teaching different things. Like, one of the classes kicking off is a GIF tutorial, which is a virtual control tutorial on how to use that, for some of the folks on our CS team that have never touched any of the these things. We also have our basic web application development class that just kicked off the other day, that’s using some newer technologies that our engineering team uses, but other engineers that may not be involved in those particular processes haven’t used before and may not be familiar with.

So, it’s a great opportunity for them to get up to speed, but also for our CS team and marketing teams to be able to learn from those and learn about the process that goes into, “Hey you’ve got this application and this is what shows up in the screen, but here’s your opportunity to learn about all the stuff that goes on behind the scenes to make that stuff show up great. So, it’s kind of a cool…even if they’re not necessarily going to write a whole code, they get a lot more context for what goes into what everybody is doing differently and building. 

Eric: Is this actually required? 

Tom: No, they’re not recorded. And that goes back very much to the entrepreneurial aspect of; you’re in charge of your own career and pushing yourselves forward. I’m not going to tell you that you need to go and learn more, but I guarantee you that those are factors in performances bonuses, those are factors in your reviews and those sort of things. And that’s going to influence in how you move up through the company over the years. You know, It’s like, “Hey, all of these resources available, but Herb never shows up to any of the classes. He says he wants to learn these new things, but he’s not actually showing it by the actions that he’s doing it. “

Eric: Yeah [laugh].

Tom: It’s kind of; actions speak louder than words in many ways. Being able to move those things forward is important. 

And then obviously, Don’t take yourselves too seriously, have fun. We have two giant slides in our lobby which are pretty awesome. It’s a fast way to get from the second floor to the first floor. And it makes a pretty cool statement. We have two theater game rooms that are like sound proofed and so forth so you can go watch a movie or play Xbox during the day, during lunch, and blow off some steam. We’ve got foo’s ball, ping pong, some billiards table, a bunch of stuff to be able to blow off steam or what not. Today’s actually “Bring your Child to Work Day” so we have, I don’t know what it was, but there’s about ten kids here or so from various team members that…I don’t know, I talked to them this morning it was really cool to get their perspective on like, “Hey were you looking forward to doing this, or is this like a ,’Oh I gotta go to work with mom’ or ‘I gotta go to work with dad’.”

They were all super excited, they know that mom’s office has slides, dad’s office has a pool table all these sort of things that are cool, that’s what they gravitate to, but it’s also just a really fun environment overall. It’s like bright colors and that sort of stuff, but, you know as much as we like to work hard, we also like to goof around too when it’s appropriate. It’s not uncommon to get nerfed in the back of the head as you’re walking down the aisle by somebody. So, it happens and it’s fun when we have visitors come through. They all get ambushed by ten or fifteen engineers who will run up behind them and start shooting them with nerf darts and what not. If you walk along, it’s funny like any of our…some of the lights that hang down from the ceiling and you see all the nerf darts that go through them. Our facilities team has to go through periodically and pick of the nerf darts out of the lights, they melt to the light bulbs.

Eric: Cool. Sounds like your culture, I mean, you’ve got to have your core values in a culture as strong as yours. Cool. Is that all the core values from your end?

Tom: Yup.

Eric: Alright. Cool. I think we can talk about core values in a company all day.

Tom: We’ve got a couple of good blog posts that go into more detail about some of them too if you search for core values on our site. You’ll see how they’ve iterated over the years. Because we’ve tweaked them and changed them a little bit over the years.

Eric: Got it. Alright. Cool. Final question from my end. What’s one must read book for entrepreneurs?

Tom: Must read book. I think that “Tribal Leadership” is probably one of the best ones. I’d say, “Good to Great” is another really good one I kind of identified with. I’ve got the audio book for the “Tribal Leadership” one. I’ve listened to it I can’t even tell you how many times. Just being able to connect people and it’s not…You know when, you may or may not…someone may or may not heard of AWeber before, but if you have, you’ve probably not heard of me before. And that’s very much not by accident. AWeber is about our team and about the value that we’re creating for our customers. It’s not about any one particular individual. It’s about all of us doing awesome things for all those customers.

I think, especially a lot of entrepreneurs kind of get wrapped up in the business as their identity kind of thing. I mean it’s sort of …there’s a …especially out in Silicon Valley, there’s a sort of like your famous because you’re a gamer for such and such company. To me, that’s never been a goal …I could care less if somebody knows who I am personally. It’s all about whether or not somebody knows what AWeber is and how we’re helping hundreds of thousands of people around the world that we help on a daily basis. So I think that’s really important and “Tribal Leadership” kind of goes into kind of the depth that allows you to make the connections in your own team as well as the team outside to be able to move things forward.

Eric: Got it. Yeah, those are both really great books. “Tribal Leadership” is for free if you guys Google It. I think Apple offers it for free. I think it’s really admirable that it’s the companies brand first before your own. I think, like you said, not a lot of people are doing that. So, Tom Kulzer everyone. Thanks for joining. Definitely have to have you on the show again soon. There’s a lot more to talk about, I feel. Thank you again.

Tom: Yeah. Thanks for having me Eric. 

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  • PattiSluth

    Gotta love the freemasonic coded numbers – Tom says he has 105 people on the “team”, yet the article uses the coded “11″ – “nearly 110 members”… who talks like that… nearly 110 members.