Thu, 14 March 2019
Life in the Fast Lane
From washing cars, to selling them, to building businesses, Sendlane CEO Jimmy Kim credits focus as the key to his rise to the top.
Like many children of Asian-American immigrants, Jimmy Kim knew his parents had high expectations for him. When he was a child, his mom told him that he needed to become a doctor because that would make him the most money.
“I don’t wanna be a doctor,” the young Kim replied. “I’m gonna make more money than a doctor.”
Fast forward to 2018, and Kim is making good on that promise to his parents, as an entrepreneur working in online marketing.
He’s built and sold multiple companies, and now sits at the helm of the fast-growing email marketing software Sendlane. The bootstrapped company employs 25 full-time employees in its newly remodeled, 6,000-square-foot office in San Diego. As of May, Sendlane had already more than doubled its revenue over 2017 and was on track to triple or even quadruple that number by the end of the year.
How did he get here? Kim attributes his success to one thing: focus.
From Washing Cars to Building Businesses
At 15, Kim was entirely focused on one goal: saving up enough money to buy a car. He started working 10 hours a week making pizzas at a local shop. But earning $4 an hour made saving enough money difficult.
“When I turned 16 and I got my driver’s license,” Kim recalls, “I still couldn't afford a car because, well, I came from a middle-class, first-generation Asian family, and my dad's not going to buy me a car. I mean, it didn't matter what my grades were at that point.”
He figured the next best thing to owning a car was working with cars, so he got a job washing cars at a dealership.
“That was my solution,” he says. “That was my first mindset: ‘Okay, let me go at least get to drive cars.’”
Kim worked at the dealership until he went off to college. During summer break, he returned and asked for his old job back, but they said the positions had been filled. He felt defeated. But as he walked out of the office, one of the salespeople spotted him and asked him a question that would change the trajectory of his career: Why don’t you try selling cars?
Thanks to his excellent work ethic in the past, the manager hired him on the spot. During Kim’s first month, he sold 31 cars, made $14,000, and became salesman of the month, at the age of 19. Some brushed it off as beginner’s luck.
“That just fuels the fire in me,” Kim says. “That's how I am. I'm a competitive person.”
His second month, Kim made even more money and, again, was named salesman of the month. That’s when he decided to make the difficult decision to drop out of college.
“Now, as an Asian growing up in an Asian family, it was probably the hardest conversation that I ever had with my family,” Kim says. “My parents did not approve. They thought I was crazy. They thought I was wasting my life, ruining my life.”
As a compromise, he agreed that after a couple of years of making money, he’d go back to school and fund his own education.
After that conversation, Kim went full time at the dealership and was doing well, but being the ambitious kid that he was, he felt he could do even better. He noticed a finance position opened up at the dealership, and he was drawn to the challenge of selling intangible goods—life insurance, car insurance, paint protection, etc.
“I wanted to be that guy to sell that intangible because I thought it was really fun to take it to the next level.”
Excited by the possibility, he asked if he could take the finance position. The manager said he would need to speak with the general manager, and a couple days later, came back to Kim and said the position had already been filled.
“The anger inside of me actually grew at that point,” he says, “which, I'm not an angry guy at all, but for some reason, I just felt like he was lying.”
Infuriated, Kim marched up to the general manager’s office (“It's totally disrespectful. I should have never have done that.”), and told him he couldn’t stand the place and he was quitting.
A month later, he got a call from the owner of the company, inviting him to come back and talk it out. Kim shared his aspirations with the owner, and eventually, was sent to a finance class where he obtained his certifications and earned his coveted spot in the dealership’s finance department, where he eventually worked his way up to finance director.
At 25 years old, Kim became general manager of a Saturn dealership, and under his oversight, it became one of the top 10 Saturn dealerships in the nation.
The End of an Era, the Start of an Empire
In 2009, General Motors, which owned Saturn, filed for bankruptcy, forcing Kim to make his next move.
“It was kinda sad,” he recalls. “I remember that bittersweet moment that it was the end of that realm.”
With GM going under, some people wanted to reopen the Saturn dealerships as Kia stores instead. They asked Kim if he’d be interested in helping, and he agreed to help them get started, but set a hard date for when he would leave the auto industry.
“I realized that this isn't what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
Kim wasn’t entirely sure what he did want to do, but he had a friend, Anik Singal, who had an internet marketing company, and he’d always been curious about what he was doing. So he approached him and said, “Look, I don't know what's going on as far as what you actually do in business, but there's one thing I'm really good at—I can sell stuff and I'm really good at operations.”
The timing was perfect. At that point, Singal’s company had more than $1 million in debt and needed help. The two friends worked out an agreement. Kim would help the company get out of debt, but in exchange, Singal would teach Kim everything he knew. As soon as the company was out of debt, Kim would move on.
And just like that, Kim went from making around $250,000 to $300,000 a year at the dealership to about $80,000 a year at the internet marketing company. But remember, for Kim, it’s all about focus, and he had a plan.
By 2013, after delivering on his promise to get Singal’s company out of debt, Kim transitioned to the next phase of his career by starting his own internet marketing company, JK Marketing. In 2016, he estimates that business brought in $4.5 million in revenue.
From Side Hustle to Full-Fledged Business
While Kim was running his internet marketing company, he and his team developed an in-house solution to their email marketing woes: Sendlane.
“We never intended it to be anything else but for us,” he says. “That was the number one thing: We built it for us. It was a platform. It was ugly. It was purposeful. That was all we built it for.”
But by 2014, friends and clients alike began asking Kim where they could find out more about Sendlane. The problem was, they couldn't. All that existed was a login page for Kim’s company to use to access the app. So in 2015, he and his team decided to open the doors to the public and see what happened. They put up a simple webpage with a payment portal—and people started signing up. From 2015 to 2017, they ran it passively. In its first year, Sendlane reached $40,000 to $50,000 in monthly recurring revenue. By 2016, it climbed to $80,000 to $90,000 a month.
So there Kim was, juggling his internet marketing company, a growing side business, and on top of that, a clothing store in Las Vegas. But in August 2017, a life event changed everything for him. His daughter was born.
“The moment I saw her I realized that I needed to find more time in my life,” he says. “Yet I knew that I couldn't slow down business because I love business too much. So I had to find a good balance.”
To do that, Kim decided to sell most of his companies and revive his favorite tactic—focus. He would pour his energy into one company only, and it would be Sendlane.
“I took that hard look,” he says. “I looked at the companies and I was like, ‘You know, this is the company that I can see incredible legs, and I know we haven't focused on it, but look what we did without even focusing on it. What can we do by simply focusing on it?”
That was in August 2017. From September 2017 to May 2018, Sendlane grew an average of 10 percent, month over month.
Bootstrapping Versus Raising Capital
That age-old question. So far, Sendlane has been 100 percent bootstrapped, but Kim says he will be raising capital to the tune of $5 million later this fall.
“Bootstrapping is great and it's a way of life, of course, and I totally respect it, and I think that it's been a great journey for me.”
But as someone once explained it to Kim, you can own 33 percent of a $30 million bootstrapped company, or you can own 20 percent of a $100 million VC-funded company.
“Being bootstrapped, you're always going to slow yourself down because of revenue and money,” Kim explains. “But when you have a large infusion of money, it becomes a different mindset because now all you're focused on is growth and not the money.”
And what would Kim do with an infusion of $5 million? He says he plans to spend the majority of the funding on growth, such as media buying and salespeople, keeping a close eye on getting an ROI as fast as possible.
The One Thing Your Email Marketing Needs
While we had his attention, of course we had to ask Kim to share some of his email marketing knowledge. The first thing Kim wants people to know, though, is that you can’t use outdated tactics and expect awesome results.
“People are still trying to do what worked in email marketing in 2008, in 2018,” he says. “People don't recognize things have changed so dramatically. … People are just getting a heck of a lot more emails every day.”
In fact, a whopping 269 billion emails are sent each day, according to a 2017 report by research firm The Radicati Group. So how can you stand out in a crowded inbox? Kim recommends behavior-based automation.
Using your email marketing platform, create emails based on actions a user took (or didn’t take). Did they open your emails? Did they buy anything? What kinds of actions have they taken in the past?
For example, if a subscriber isn’t opening any of your emails, it may be time to get more aggressive. On the other hand, if a subscriber is opening all of your emails but hasn’t made a purchase, that tells you they’re highly engaged, but for whatever reason, they’re not buying. It may be time to move that subscriber into a separate email funnel that pushes them to make a purchase.
“Creating that personalized experience is, bar none, the best way to make people want to actually listen to you and want to open your emails,” Kim says. “That's email automation and that's the best way you can do it now, in 2018, and forward.”
This level of personalization can be achieved with email marketing software that allows tagging, revenue tracking, and “if this, then that” statements.
“Things like that you can do with email, you can do with Sendlane of course, but you can do it with most email platforms that are more advanced thinking.”
What’s Next for Sendlane and Jimmy Kim?
Aside from raising a round of funding later this year, Kim has an entire roadmap for Sendlane that he wants to continue to implement.
“I'm not going to tell you that I'm not going to ever sell the company,” he says, “because if someone offers me enough money, I'm going to sell the company, and I'm going to move on to the next project. But the coolest thing about that is, being the owner or founder, you don't have to worry about that if you just put your heart and soul into it.”
Kim also wants to put more time into sharing nearly a decade’s worth of his digital marketing knowledge. He plans to get more into vlogging; he’s already started a YouTube channel where he shares tips on anything from Facebook ads to affiliate marketing. And a recent project he’s particularly proud of is the Advanced Email Marketing course he put together in collaboration with Foundr.
“It's always been kind of a small passion of mine to share this information,” he says. “Whenever comes out, that's something you should be looking for.”
Kim’s 4 Tips for Founders
NEW COURSE ALERT: Want to learn advanced email marketing secrets from the cofounder of Sendlane? In our latest course, Jimmy Kim is sharing all the knowledge he’s learned to help you transform your email list into a money-making MACHINE.
In Advanced Email Marketing, you’ll learn:
To be the first to know when Advanced Email Marketing is open,