Wed, 27 March 2019
When Kim Perell landed a job at a hot new internet startup in 1998, she thought she had hit the jackpot.
She loved her job and learned a lot, but when the dot-com bubble burst, the startup went bankrupt. What was once a dream company that she recruited many friends to join had become a nightmare when she had to lay off those friends, and then lose her own job too.
“In an instant, someone pushed delete on my life, and my future, my identity,” she says. “My multimillion-dollar stock went up in flames and was worth nothing.”
Perell turned to the one person she thought might give her a loan to start over: her grandmother. And sure enough, even though Nanny didn’t know what the internet was, she loaned her granddaughter $10,000, which Perell spent on a computer, a GoDaddy account for a website, and a one-way ticket to Hawaii to live with her boyfriend rent-free.
Perell launched Frontline Direct, a digital marketing company pairing brands with online advertising. Scarred from the bankruptcy, she was eager to work for herself and get back to basics, which meant focusing on profitability and growth. In 2008, Frontline Direct was acquired for $30 million, and again by Amobee, where Perell now serves as CEO.
Through all the ups and downs, Perell has learned many lessons, which she passes on to fellow entrepreneurs in her latest book, The Execution Factor: The One Skill That Drives Success. After investing in over 70 startups, she noticed one thing stood out in particular for those who succeeded: they focused on execution more than anyone else did.
For her, writing The Execution Factor was a way to pay it forward.
“If I could shortcut the system and share, based on my own experiences, what is important as an entrepreneur, that was really meaningful to me,” Perell says. “And I just felt like my grandma made a bet on me, and I was going to pay that back.”
In addition to the book, she established The Execution Factor Fund to provide seed stage funding to execution-driven startups. One hundred percent of the proceeds from her book are contributed to this fund.
(And in case you were wondering: Perell paid back the loan to her grandma.)
Thu, 21 March 2019
Tony Fernandes has worn many hats over the course of his decades-long career. And if the Group CEO of AirAsia (and former host of The Apprentice Asia) ever finds himself dissatisfied with a signature look, he’ll just invent a new one.
“You have to keep renewing yourself,” Fernandes says. “You’re only as good as tomorrow.”
That philosophy undergirds Fernandes’s entire career trajectory. Before starting what is now one of the world’s most successful budget airlines, Fernandes was an accountant, working briefly for the likes of Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Communications. He then reinvented himself within the music business, where he served as a Warner Music executive in Malaysia.
Fernandes’s latest reinvention is his biggest, and most complex. He’s the co-founder and Chairman of Tune Group, a conglomerate of hotel, automotive, financial services, education, media, and telecommunications industries subsidiaries. And he sits at the helm of AirAsia, a budget, no-frills airline that has revolutionized travel in Southeast Asia. After purchasing the then-bankrupt airline for a shocking 24 U.S. cents, Fernandes has grown the brand to a net worth of more than $1.5 billion. AirAsia is now the fourth-largest airline in Asia, behind only the big Chinese carriers (in 2017, AirAsia flew over 90 million passengers), and it recently embarked on an ambitious program that will see the airline transform itself into a travel technology company.
To hear Fernandes tell it, two primary factors differentiate AirAsia from other companies. For starters, the company has always embraced digitization. And secondly, the organization is built on inclusivity and creating a fantastic work culture. Here’s how Fernandes has leveraged those strengths to build a company that no one thought possible.
Pursuing a Childhood Dream
In 2001, during Fernandes’s more than decade-long stint in the music business, digital advancements began to threaten deeply entrenched industry norms. Fernandes spotted an opportunity, but his colleagues weren’t so keen on the digital revolution.
“Napster had come along and Spotify was just starting, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is super exciting for the music industry,’” Fernandes says. “But I was a lone voice.”
No one at Warner Music or Time Warner Inc. (where Fernandes was working at the time) thought it was a good idea. “They thought the internet would destroy music,” Fernandes says. “My premise was that we can’t hold technology back and that this was a fantastic distribution model to create more revenue.”
But his vision didn’t gain traction, and when Time Warner merged with AOL, he decided to bid adieu to his music industry career.
He was sitting in a bar in London, trying to figure out what to do next with his life, when he saw mention of the budget airline easyJet on the pub’s TV. Fernandes instantly recalled his childhood love of planes.
“Always from a very young age, I’d told my dad, ‘I’m gonna own an airline one day,’” he says. “That’s one of those things you say, but you’re not entirely sure you’re gonna do. But I always said it. And so I thought, ‘Well, this could be the time.’”
It might seem like a bold move for a music industry exec to presume he could run an airline, but Fernandes was motivated by one simple premise: YOLO.
“I thought… ‘You only live once,’” he says. “If I fail, I fail. It’s okay. I’ll go get a job doing something else. But I don’t want to sit there at 55 and say, ‘I wish I did it.’”
Fernandes’s idea gained further traction after he started studying the models of low-cost airlines such as RyanAir. (RyanAir’s then-Director of Group Operations would later become a shareholder of Fernandes’s airline.) Inspired by what he refers to as an “amazing concept,” Fernandes gathered up some partners and returned to Malaysia for a meeting with the Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister agreed to let Fernandes and his partners into the airline industry, but only if they purchased an existing airline. As a result of some devastating circumstances, there were a lot of opportunities. Fernandes was looking to purchase an airline around the time of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which had sent the industry reeling. He ended up purchasing AirAsia, a Malaysian government-owned airline that was $11 million in debt, for a grand total of 24 U.S. cents.
After purchasing AirAsia, Fernandes knew he had to move fast. “It was very clear to me once we started moving that…I was going to put the foot to the accelerator because there were some big around me,” Fernandes says. “When you have something, scaling up is important.”
Luckily, Fernandes spotted multiple avenues for growth.
For starters, he knew that at the time he acquired AirAsia, only 6 percent of Malaysians flew. If he could capture even a portion of the other 94 percent, he’d be in business. What’s more, he was willing to fly to places that most airlines didn’t go. “A lot of our growth has come from destinations that no one did before,” he says.
But perhaps AirAsia’s biggest differentiator was its use of the internet at a time when, globally, many still weren’t online. “Back in 2001, most people didn’t even have internet yet,” Fernandes says. “But I said, ‘Trust me, when I put a fare at 2 dollars, people are going to find their way to the internet.’” Since then, AirAsia has been religious about tracking and keeping data. So when huge brands started to embrace digitization many years later, they were already ahead of the game.
Still, Fernandes knew he was at a disadvantage, due to his lack of industry knowledge, so he accelerated his learning to ensure he could continue AirAsia’s rapid growth. He sat down with engineers, pilots, simulators, and cabin crews; learned how to change a wheel; and generally threw himself into understanding the intricate workings of planes and airlines. “I was a sponge,” Fernandes says. “I took everything in.”
A strong focus on innovation, learning, and growth helped Fernandes and his team make up for what they lacked in capital.
“Let’s be real, three guys from the music business coming in to start an airline is not the most convincing business ,” Fernandes says. “No bank gave me a cup of coffee. Did we want capital? Of course. But we didn’t have it. But again…we built a massive airline with very little capital.”
In fact, AirAsia only raised one round—$30 million around year three—before launching its initial public offering (IPO). “I’m old-fashioned in that aspect,” Fernandes says. “I believe in cash. I believe in making some profit. If you have a model where you can make money, make money. And of course reinvest some of that money, which we did.”
Much of that money went into flying to new places. “The product was going places that no one else wanted to go,” Fernandes says. “We couldn’t stand still… kept adding routes and new destinations.”
While the airline continues to add new destinations, today it’s equally focused on developing a multi-pronged digital strategy. The organization is digitizing all of its processes to enhance efficiency and the customer experience. It’s also attempting to create a comprehensive travel ecosystem that will enable users to book train tickets, purchase concert or other event tickets, use financial services, and so on, all from one central hub.
“We’re using and building platforms that will provide more value to my customers…and it’s an exciting vision,” Fernandes says. “There’s a huge potential if we can execute well.”
That execution hinges on a top-notch team working cohesively and effectively. Luckily, Fernandes has been building that since day one.
Building a Dynamite Culture
“Culture is, I think, the most important thing in the success of AirAsia,” Fernandes says.
Fundamental to that culture is a bedrock of transparency and trust—even among 24,000 staff. “It is by complete choice that we’re open plan,” Fernandes says. “When you have an office, you have all these invisible walls. … So one day I just came in and smashed all the offices. I brought a contractor in and just tore them all down. And we’ve been open-plan ever since.”
In keeping with the open office concept, AirAsia also employs a fairly flat organizational structure. “I like to think we utilize everyone’s brain,” Fernandes says. “We put everyone…in the same building. Everyone eats in the same place, everyone goes to the same gym. I want people who believe they can do a lot more and grow in this company.”
This spirit of inclusivity extends to diversity. “We embrace diversity,” Fernandes says. “We don’t care what race, creed, color, sexual orientation you are. And I think that’s a strength. Because that gives us a huge diversity in our workplace, and a huge ability to attract great talent and great ideas. … I wanna have a fantastic, multi-ethnic, diverse company, and I think we’re not far from that.”
Of course, when you’re dealing with a team of 24,000 people, it’s easy for bureaucracy to rear its ugly head. “We got big, and politics and bureaucracy creep in,” Fernandes says. “But it’s not something I’m gonna run away from. I confront it because bureaucracy and politics is the cancer of any organization”
One strategy the team uses to confront bureaucracy is simply having fun. “I think too many business leaders take life too seriously,” Fernandes says. “Too many entrepreneurs get too stressed. Have a balance. You don’t have to work 18 hours a day. Make sure you give time to your family and your kids and your friends.”
In Fernandes’s view, this juggling act is worth it in pursuit of building a great team. “You’ve gotta surround yourself with good people, and you’ve gotta be prepared to listen,” he says. “Too many founder CEOs think they know it all. … You can have all the ideas you want in the world, but the execution is what it’s about, and you need a good team.”
Luckily, developing a great team has always been fundamental to Fernandes’s vision for AirAsia.
“My vision was to create a great place to work—a fair place to work, where it didn’t matter whether you…had money or a great education, but if you had a great brain and you had the will and belief, you could achieve anything in this airline,” he says. “To turn a raw diamond into a diamond—and we have so many of those. … If you really push me, it’s allowing a lot of my staff to live their dreams—that would be something I’d be most proud about.”
That spirit of affirmation and inclusivity extends from AirAsia’s team members to its customers. In spite of the many ways that Fernandes and his airline have reinvented themselves over the years, the company’s slogan has remained the same since Fernandes first developed his vision all those years ago: Now everyone can fly.
5 Mini-Lessons in Entrepreneurship from Tony Fernandes
“Great ideas are great ideas…only people know about them,” Fernandes says. “Too many businesses don’t spend enough on branding and marketing. Keep a budget for that.”
“The world is littered with products that didn’t reinvent themselves,” Fernandes says. For example, he references Nokia. “Who believe a world without Nokia phones? They were it.” Today, of course, the phone landscape is very different.
“You have to live within your means and live within your resources,” Fernandes concedes. “But you also can’t stand still. It’s a balance. But life is a balance. Everything you do is a balance.”
“Failure doesn’t worry me, because I’d rather fail than not try at all,” Fernandes says. “Many people are too worried about failing, so they don’t do anything. I’ve had many failures… I don’t have any regrets, because if I didn’t try I didn’t know.”
“You can do all the marketing research you want,” Fernandes says. “You just gotta go with your heart sometimes and do it.”
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,
Wed, 6 March 2019
240: How to Use Excellent Customer Support to Stand Out in a Crowded Market, With Ross Paquette of Maropost
When Ross Andrew Paquette founded email service provider Maropost in 2011, he never expected it to take off.
“The plan was to have 10 customers and maybe sit by the pool a little more often than not,” he says with a laugh.
But since then, he’s scaled the company to nine figures, with an impressive customer list that includes DigitalMarketer, Livestrong, and The New York Post. And beyond email marketing, Maropost has expanded into customer acquisition and ecommerce solutions.
These are extremely crowded markets, but at the core of the company’s success is its strong commitment to excellent customer service, with heavy emphasis on a 24-hour in-app live chat and five-minute support response times.
We chatted with Paquette to learn the strategies he used to so impressively grow his SaaS company in a short amount of time.