By Josh Ledgard
Acompli is an amazing email application available on Android and iOS… this is their story of starting as a KickoffLabs customer, going well beyond that being recently acquired for $200 million dollars by Microsoft.
It was interesting because when I saw the news stories coming across as the acquisition, I had to go back and say “wait a minute… think I remember a customer by that name”.
So I dug through our customer list and sure enough, saw that they got their start as a launch page and API using our product!
Joining us to share their story is Kevin Henrikson. He currently leads engineering for Outlook mobile at Microsoft.
Prior to that he was a co-founder and head of engineering at Acompli…
I grew up in California, have lived here all my life. Went to school in Los Angeles. Started studying to become a mechanical engineer and then realized that the internet was happening.
I graduated school in like ‘99 or ‘00, so the internet made a lot more sense than building cars and airplanes, even though that – as a kid growing up – was more what I expected to be doing.
I’ve been working at software companies since about ‘99.
Around 2001, after the first startup where I was working went bankrupt, I moved up to the Bay Area and joined a company called Openwave, which was focused on carrier email. So I’ve been doing email of email related software for the last 15 years.
Then worked for a company called Zimbra, focused on enterprise email.
And now Acompli, which is like taking it to the modern age asking: “How do we make people more productive with email, specifically on their mobile phones?”.
I think there are 2 pieces to that:
The background for that, over the last years… up until the last year or two there’s been lots of new people “re-inventing” email.
You think about Sparrow being the kind of first original, very popular Gmail client.
And then Mailbox had went through their really crazy, wild launch where they had a huge waiting list, and a million people trying it. And then Dropbox acquiring them for $85 or $100 million.
That was about the same time I was starting to look at new ideas and talk to lots of founders.
Javier Soltero, my co-founder and I were having this conversation saying “all of the things that folks have done around email, today even, have been really focused around the consumer”.
So they’re building something on top of Gmail which, is possible but it’s not as technically hard because there’s lots of free code to connect to IMAP servers.
As we started thinking through that, we knew, with Zimbra coming from the trying to sell email servers against Exchange (it was just the dominant force, particularly in enterprise – where the global 2000 all used Exchange).
We knew that if we were going to build an email client – sitting on Exchange for work, and Gmail for our personal mail – having an email client that can combine all of that and having a modern UI was something we thought would be interesting.
So we started to tear that apart at business meetings and asking: “why don’t you use a lot of email on your mobile phone?”.
It was this constant back and forth, and we asked “how can we make somebody’s workflow easier, and do that on a mobile phone?”. Where an average app session is 24 seconds, we asked “what can people do in 24 seconds to go and be very productive with email?”.
I have to admit that I came from a Microsoft background, so when I left Microsoft I really missed using Outlook. Because on a Mac desktop, the Email and Calendar apps being separate is just such a pain.
Then my first time using your app on the iPhone was the first time I experienced that on the phone where it was like “wow, certain things like email and calendar just makes sense to be together”.
You guys executed brilliantly on that basic idea. The rest of it is great too, it’s just that was the magic part that hit me that I really loved.
So, you have this idea and you talked a little bit about following the money. Everybody is focusing on the consumer and you’re focused on the enterprise.
Even though you’re focused on the business side of things, lets talk a little bit about the concept of putting up a launch page.
** **What made you want to put up a launch page before you had an app, before you had customers? Because you weren’t targeting the consumer side, you were targeting business customers.
We think of everybody as a consumer.
The notion that people are only a business user or only a consumer has been destroyed with the app store.
Whether you’re a consumer or a business person in enterprise, everybody has a job or at least everyone has email these days.
And so the fact that you’re kind of both, there’s these things that you choose for your personal productivity and there’s things that your job or company provides that you don’t choose.
Our view is that the world is going to move to a place where consumers have more power, and even consumers inside of the enterprise will have more power to choose. That’s where we came up with the idea of how do we connect those two.
The idea of a launch page was simple: Validate the idea with more people outside of our own scope.
The very first launch page is a much less pretty version that I literally built with my engineering skills, not my design skills…
… the idea was that we could start talking about this with friends and family whenever they asked what we were working on.
The page didn’t even mention email, just a vague launching soon landing page.
We had hundreds, probably in the low thousands of users before we announced the company and launched the first official launch landing page.
That basically led us to say we’re doing email and we knew iOS would be first, with the goal of reinventing email on the iPhone.
We had a really cool launch video and set up the launch landing page. At that point, with the help of press articles, it exploded the number of users that signed up.
Then we slowly started sending out invites.
At this point we really started to accelerate that and use some of the viral features built into KickoffLabs to say “hey, tell your friends”.
We would send an email to our list saying that the top referring people would get more invites. Instantly we would see people trying to game the system by posting on Reddit or writing blog posts trying to promote it, which is awesome! That was what we were trying to create.
That definitely seemed to give you a boost. I won’t give away your numbers, but I can see that you benefited from people sharing their KickoffLabs unique social referral links.
It was basically my family that would sign up when they asked what I was working on, then they would tell their friends.
We were tweeting about doing Acompli saying very vague things, we wouldn’t say we were working on email, we would say that we were doing something cool for the iPhone.
It was literally hustling; tweeting people directly, asking people at cafes to try the app… very much guerrilla marketing, getting people one-by-one to signup.
I want to ask about the page itself, as it was pretty minimal. And that’s a mistake I see a lot of people make: try and throw as many things on the page as they can.
But you used everything to kind of amplify itself; with the background image, the video option, etc…
Yes, we did. Our CMO is awesome, he was the VP of Marketing at Flurry, Peter Farago. He came up with a ton of crazy taglines, where we tested some with Facebook and Google Adwords.
We also had another domain, which was like something, something email app dot com… it was very long and generic yet very specific keyword spammy looking domain. And we setup the same webpage on that as a secondary domain inside of KickoffLabs. We used that to kind of test and bought traffic against it to see what would convert… among testing a few other things.
Most of the tests were to test the tagline that we ended up putting on our main launch landing page.
So before you really focused on the page, you actually did the simple thing of testing headlines with ads trying to see which one gets more people to click?
Yup, exactly. And it’s super cheap to test ads on Facebook for even $10 dollars. It’s pretty inexpensive.
Yeah, I tell people all the time. It’s an easy win for people when they are just starting out.
So you had a video on the page that you highlighted…
In terms of the exact percentage, I’m not too sure. But it was definitely higher than average early on, because we kind of forced it front and center as the hero video; having this whole narrative of the app making you awesome at work.
It wasn’t cheap to make a video like that, but I think it was something that made a big difference. Especially now that iTunes and Google let’s you upload video as part of the app store.
Leading up to the launch, the video was helpful in telling our story in a visual way. Because as you know, some people are visual learners, some just want to read about it, some don’t care and just sign up for anything new.
We literally tried everything to try and get as many users as we could. What we needed them for was testing. In reality, we were creating our QA team.
With the app world as it is, it’s very hard to test something as complex as an email and calendaring app with all the different ways that people do it.
You started talking a little about the marketing of the launch and you talked about starting with just the really simple page with friends and family, Facebook ads, etc.
Once you were really ready with this page…
We also found all the places that you can launch an app, a company, or a startup. So we came up with a list of about a hundred different sites, where we tested about 75 of them.
Some of them were paid, like Betalist where we bought an ad for a few hundred bucks. Some of them were just free by submitting your site.
Many of those drove conversions. Betalist by far worked the best in terms of being able to attract a large number of users at a low cost.
More importantly, whenever I would share a link with one of these… I would post a KickoffLabs link with a referral code and so then you can track who was bringing them back based on which source. It was pretty easy to see that Betalist drove a lot of pre-registrations.
So you literally went out and did the thing of finding all the places you can possibly register cheaply and did that to start doing the promotion.
Yeah, at this point it was either me just walking down the street telling people, “hey, what do you use for email? You should try this cool app”.
Or finding places on the web and throwing up a link to see if we can get a few more users. Because at the size we were at, we knew that every user helped.
Every time we would get one person to sign up, we would use the viral features to potentially have them share it and get into the beta earlier.
One of our attendees sent in an interesting question asking:
For sure… Acompli, the app itself was free but what we were selling to businesses was millions of dollars.
The way we license our software was very expensive. But that 1 free app user that then converted into a very large enterprise sale
The way Acompli made money was by offering a free app, but then as a business or as an IT person you could buy additional services and acquire a paid plan with dedicated hosting, tenants and stuff on the backend.
What we were actually selling was a very high value product. True that the frontend of it was a free app.
Having something that is low-cost or no-cost, obviously it’s a lot easier to collect somebody’s email address. That’s just kind of basic marketing.
The way I’ve marketed other very high-cost things in the past is by offering free ebooks, free webinars, etc… get people to sign up for things.
Give people something whether it’s information or some kind of service that you’re offering at a very low-cost or no-cost to start that conversation. And then you can go deeper.
Clearly more expensive things are going to take longer to convert.
We’re not going to talk about exact numbers, but…
We had on the order of tens of thousands prior to launching in the app store.
Prior to launching the company we had single digit thousands, so less than 10,000 users.
That leads into measuring where the hits are coming from and using the referral codes or campaign links for each.
Raw numbers trying to drive as much traffic as humanly possible? Looking for a high conversion rate?
The conversion rate obviously varied across channels; Twitter, Facebook, Betalist, our friends, a popular person that writes a blog post because they heard about or know us.
We don’t really have a relationship with press people, but people picked it up after they saw the launch and wrote about it.
We’ve built companies before and have friends in the Bay Area, but it’s nobody superfamous.
Anybody that we could convince that had a blog, we would try to get them to write about it.
Peter, who was our CMO had a great relationship with the press. So we did a ton of outreach and pitched our story to them.
We did have a PR firm that helped with some of the introductions, but at the end of the day you have to have a great story.
The best stories and the articles were ones where we sat down with those reporters, demoed the app, walked through the app, told a story and was able to demonstrate value.
However, the goal was really signups… how many unique email addresses can we collect to start that conversation? From there it was… how do we get people into our app?
As we were marketing an iPhone app, we knew that eventually we would get to Android… so we were collecting and segmenting those people, letting them opt-in to which one they wanted.
We started by filtering out competitors, which was pretty obvious when they signed up with their name.
And then we started ranking by who’d referred the most people, people who seemed active on social media, or had some kind of activity inside of it… so we granted access in waves.
Every time you make a big change to your onboarding or your signup flow, you really can’t test the old users… you have to use new users. So we purposely launched in patches to walk through that at a slow pace. Making sure that we always had fresh users every week to add to the cycle. Testing the quality of that funnel and how accurate we were.
We were very active on Twitter and through email talking to our beta users.
We used a program called HelpShift, which is in-app customer support. That was super instrumental in helping us have a conversation with our beta users privately.
Inside of the app they were able to just tap a button, load up a chat and talk back and forth.
That was helpful for us talking to people about features, bugs, etc. This allowed us to augment that close relationship.
You guys are fanatical about 2 things; 1) figuring out what the customers wanted as a group, not just the minority. & 2) focusing on the quality during the beta.
Yeah, we use another service called HockeyApp which is pretty popular… Microsoft acquired them shortly after they acquired us, which allows you to collect crash reporting and details around that.
So we use that as a first-line of defense, because if the app is crashing people get frustrated.
Then we ran a weekly report of the support tickets and categorized them into groups. We obviously dealt with users individually, but for our future roadmap we looked at it as a whole.
The third is the critical piece of innovation. Where we constantly have to think about improving the general workflow and productivity of our users.
I think what sums it up, is that your team is focused on customer happiness :-)
If you had to pick one metric in the mobile world, it’s retention.
If you can’t keep users, no matter how many users you buy or you get… you’re going to lose them.
Are users staying and at a high percentage?
From our point of view, we discovered that users who only use a single personal email address retained at one rate, while people with different business accounts retained at another.
So in addition to all the other stuff, you were focused on measuring retention? Seeing people stick with the app, using it day in and day out.
One thing I saw that Acompli did was trying to leverage people who were influencers (people who are big fans of the app) after you launched.
You created a landing page off of your site, called #RockTheDock Twitter contest.
There you asked people to take a screenshot of their dock with Acompli installed and tweet it.
Yeah, our CMO came up with idea of people getting people to “rock their dock” with our app. We wanted to see if we could get to replace the email client that lives in somebody’s dock.
Generally, as we started to talk to more people, we realized that was the ultimate signup commitment. If you had moved this dock into your app, we just started putting that in the tagline of our email marketing and built the landing page to promote it event more.
We would retweet and comment with people, give them badges and be kind of cute on Twitter talking to people… just some kind of virtual award for posting their dock.
It worked well, because you started to see more and more Twitter famous people say “hey, this is something that I’m using and I like it”. Then they’d tweet it and that would pick up more.
We had some really good bursts of user pickup from the #RockTheDock campaign.
That was interesting market research for Acompli too, right?
Yes, because we got to see what other apps people were using… It was really insightful seeing who the users were, but also more importantly their email app use behaviour.
Did you measure any of that and have your team go through the images? Or did you see them as they came in?
We never got super data-driven around the exact makeup of the various homescreens that were tweeted, but we did look at a lot of those.
The ones we did see, we were categorizing between them thinking about potential inter-linkings and partnerships.
I love when a campaign is able to take something that helps you and also do the marketing.
One of the reasons that at KickoffLabs we do regular landing page reviews, where we ask people to submit their pages and then we’ll take a look at them publicly (if they’re willing the stand up to the scrutiny).
Selfishly that really helps us do market research, because we get to see all kinds of campaigns and landing pages. A majority of the pages submitted aren’t even on our platform yet, so A) we get to pitch them or B) if nothing else, we’re able to help them.
So I love hearing about stories when it’s a marketing campaign, but it’s dual-purposed as market research.
We never intended to sell the company. Great companies are bought, not sold.
Our goal was to build a company that we liked working for, with people we like, while doing something we thought was meaningful and interesting.
That was the path we were on… yeah, we were getting great press & reviews, and the user base was growing well beyond our expectations. So at that point we were looking to license our software to some enterprise customers and some ISPs. We really wanted to get Acompli everywhere.
One of the discussions we had with Microsoft was about licensing our software as a potential client to use for their various email platforms.
That was how that conversation started and then escalated to the ultimate acquisition. But we never went out and tried to reach out to companies to buy us.
We had great software that a lot of people were using and loved, so the discussion centered around that.
We can’t talk specifically about what the Microsoft Outlook roadmap is, but the mission that Acompli was on to make users more productive with email and calendar on their device is only just beginning.
We’d only been in the app store for like 6 months. We really had just gotten our first version, we didn’t even have time to rollout our version 2 yet. It was really early.
We still feel that way. What we produced is great and people love it. But we have lots of new things to do to continue the theme.
Yeah, I was really impressed with the acquisition at how quickly you guys turned around. It spoke both about the quality of your team and also that Microsoft was interested in letting you keep that.
We used the KickoffLabs API to connect our custom landing page to the KickoffLabs platform.
Initially we had the landing page hosted for free on KickoffLabs, then moved to the API and continued to use that until we were well into our public beta.
We were using KickoffLabs to drive all our leads to the beta because we could allow people to promote and share with their friends.
We also integrated with Mailchimp to push leads from KickoffLabs into a list, then we would market to them directly with the Mailchimp tools.
Happy to hear it!
I was thrilled when I looked back – when I heard about the acquisition – to see that you had created 2 more campaigns after you had launched 2 different ones for the beta.
It’s our intention to help with long-term marketing, not just launches.
It was a lot of fun, thank you!
Thanks, Josh! Thanks for having me.
We want to help you get your own success so you can come back and tell an amazing tale, like Kevin just did!