The following is an edited transcript from our interview for our ‘In the Ring’ podcast on Nov 11, 2020, with George Hartley, Co-founder, and CEO of SmartrMail, a marketing tool for eCommerce stores to send personalized shopping emails to get more sales.

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John Suder: Welcome to ‘In the Ring’. Today on the show, we have George Hartley. He is the co-founder and CEO of SmartrMail. SmartrMail is a marketing tool for eCommerce stores to send personalized shopping emails to get more sales. Welcome, George. Where’s the podcast on you today?

George Hartley: Thanks, John. Yeah, dialing in here from Melbourne, Australia. So it’s great to chat with you.

John: I see that there’s daylight there. It’s pitch darkness here. So we’re on the opposite sides of the world. Why don’t we start off by talking a little bit about you, maybe give me your origin story and how you started? 

George: So SmartrMail is not the first company that my co-founder and I started, we’ve been in eCommerce since 2012. Back then, we actually started an online art marketplace called Bluefin, he wanted to do something in wine, and I wanted to do something music as a musician. And so you know, we landed on something that we knew nothing about, which was that. 

But I did have artist  friends who had been struggling to sort of run their careers online, and every other type of creative industry was blazing away with platforms. So we decided to build an app marketplace. We fumbled our way forward, I would say that we learned doing every mistake you can make. But eventually, one way or another, we did grow it. And so we grew that now to Australia’s largest online art marketplace, over the last eight years, a bit along the way, we were trying to build a better email system while we’re doing it. 

The problem in art is, it’s really specific- as a buyer, what you like is very much your own tastes. And it’s hard to just segment. You ask ‘is this what I needed?’  Because not all did, and it was an email system for attention that used actual individual user data to send them out. That’s kind of where we started. And we built this quite effective retention system. And then in 2015, we said, well, this is working for us, why not spin this into its own company? And so that was the genesis of SmartrMail.

John: I didn’t have the URL, but what was the name of the art site? If you don’t mind? 

Is it a blue thumb? 

George: Yeah we started the largest art marketplace. It’s been growing really well through COVID. My brother runs it. So that’s great.

John: So it’s blue thumb.com.au? 

George: Yes. 

John: So basically, you solved your own problems instead of solving someone else’s problem, which is kind of a classic entrepreneur scenario there. That’s really great. So for those who may not be familiar with the SmartrMail product, why don’t you give us a quick rundown of it and what it can do for eCommerce merchants?

George: As an eCommerce merchant, it lets you use your customer data to send better automated emails. So you might be familiar with sort of newsletters or abandoned carts, these sorts of things. SmartrMail actually lets you take all of the individual data you have about your store and turn on automations, recommended products for you that scale. So say you have 50,000 customers on your email list, you can turn on a regular email that goes out to them or a specific segment of them, that says you bought this T-shirt with us a month ago, you’re probably interested in these other ones. So, it lets you as a merchant, go one step further with your automations. And I guess the difference with SmartrMail to what existed is you could do this stuff, but you did need a sophisticated team behind me to set it up. And the whole point of SmartrMail is you should be able to do this stuff out of the box. So you plug it into your store, it starts ingesting data and gives you a whole bunch of default drafts that are kind of best in best practice. And you can choose which ones you turn on and edit.

John: That’s great. When you talk about the term would be prefilled out emails are also different style templates, or is there a customization that happens after that?

George: Yeah, there’s a ton of different templates, we have what’s called a magic designer. So when you add the app to your store, we actually scrape the store, pull in your fonts and colors, your logo, your footer, your social links, all that stuff is prefilled in all of these templates, and then there’s different designs within it. You can edit it, there’s a wizard, we get it to use custom HTML if you want. But yeah, the whole point is, I knew when I was running an eCommerce company, our biggest constraint was actually time there weren’t there wasn’t enough time for us to send all these emails and you know that they’re important but you just run out of time and get squeezed. So we’ve actually designed SmartrMail to be very, very quick to set up quick to edit quick to compose it should, it should save you time.

John: So one thing I was going to hit on is eCommerce merchants are looking for solutions like this, how do you solve time and money problems. Meaning, if I’d like to try your product, but I cannot devote the time or I cannot devote the resources to it. How do you wrangle someone into using SmartrMail?

George: So there’s two facets to that the resources are money, emails and effective marketing channels. So our average customer makes 41 times in sales, what they pay us. So that that’s pretty easy so you only want access. And that’s what we wanted.

John: Okay, that’s a good return.

George: So emails are very effective marketing channel in general. And you’ll find if you’re sending customers customized content at scale, their revenue per email goes up. And you can track that you can see that on your dashboard.

John: So it actually has all the tracks and clicks opens/not opens. Do you do a ‘resend’ thing? Do you have schedules for that, because I know a lot of people struggle with that type of thing. Even using a simple thing like MailChimp or any other kind of system. They don’t know when it should be reset, if it should be recent, or if they should just give up and move on to the next one.

George: So we have the dashboard, we have a send boost, which does exactly that resend for you just to the segment of engaged people who didn’t open that email. But the key thing on our dashboard, and what we’re super focused on, is how much revenue is coming from email versus the rest of your store. So we give you that percentage, front and center at the top that says, your store currently makes 18% of your revenue from email. Because once you start tracking that you realize you can test, implement new things and try and increase that number. And increasing that percentage of revenue from email will increase your total enough your store because you’re improving retention. So yeah, we’re very focused on that number. 

And the timelines and saving time is the key thing for usability is a fast process, like fast composing. What we do is we just because we’re completely focused on e commerce, we don’t have all the other stuff that general email platform would offer if you’re running a blog, or if you’re  just running an influencer type marketing, we don’t offer that. And so it’s not sort of there, which means that the steps to compose are compressed and it’s a faster process.

John: So it’s more of a focused app, as opposed to one of those landing pages, and all these other things that you probably generally wouldn’t use, especially if you’re just trying to focus on your email marketing. So what kind of integrations do you offer? If someone’s getting started with SmartrMail? What are the kind of integrations and how does that work? 

George: because we’re only eCommerce, we only work if you are on an eCommerce platform. So we’re on the key bigger ones, which is Shopify, big commerce, WooCommerce, Neato. PrestaShop. We’re adding a couple more in 2021. But we only exist if it’s an easy setup. So we sit in those marketplaces, you find us and add us as an app. And you don’t have to copy and paste scripts, you don’t have to sort of work with API’s. It’s very much a plug and play type thing. And then we offer tons of integrations to other sort of complimentary topics, like,, there’s pop up apps, there’s, SMS apps, there’s apps like that.

John: So if someone is getting started with SmartrMail, do you offer any kind of coaching or instruction or any kind of content that helps them grow within the app?

George: We’ve got a pretty robust doc section, we have a YouTube channel with a whole bunch of videos as well. And we have a customer service team sort of that runs 24/5 So, we’re dotted around the world we offer in our chat. So we’re pretty responsive. If you open our chat thing, it is under 15 minutes. So yeah, we try and do as best we can with some white glove onboarding. And yeah, we produce a bunch of content as well for our partners. We literally today launched an email marketing series on Shopify itself. So if you go to Shopify Compass and look at how you set up email marketing for eCommerce, you’ll see my mug talking for like 20 minutes.

John: I’m gonna check that out. So once someone gets on-boarded, we’ll use Shopify as an example. It pulls down all your data and then what happens? What is onboarding like? I know some of that stuff can be running rather intimidating in terms of step A through Zed. It’s like, how, where do you go first? What’s the baby step? Let’s just pretend we’re dealing with a smaller eCommerce store. And he’s just dipping his toe in email marketing, how he getting through the system? 

George: So we have an onboarding guide, which you’ll see if you install the app. Let’s assume that you are on big commerce and you add the app, you open into the comments, you’ll see, there’s an automatic sync process. So you’ll see your customer data, your previous sales history, all the segments, and those customer segments. The most valuable or invaluable, not engaged, all those things will be starting to fill out. And there’s just an onboarding wizard within the app, there’s videos we try and optimize for that first experience, because I understand the hard time for you when you just want something to work. 

So we really do try and optimize the first experience. And the other key thing that we add  is constantly adding to is the drafts and the default setups. So you’ll see draft flows or here are the two abandoned cart flows would recommend. One is for a customer who’s never bought anything, and one is for turning customer, and the different content and different triggers on those drop on those flows. Obviously it’s a generalization, and you can go and change it at whatever. But we do try and provide as much default stuff there for you. So it can be very quick to get going if you want it to be.

John: Now that’s a great answer. I asked that question, because I’ve been on both sides of the coin designing these types of things. I also tried running my own Shopify store, and I’ve done a few eCommerce experiments. And also using just any type of software in general, where it’s that they don’t put enough care and craft into the education of what you’re getting here, you’re more likely to drop off and go away. So it’s good to hear that you guys are doing that. So a lot of eCommerce merchants have a lot of options for marketing. And we’re seeing a lot of buzz now about SMS marketing. In fact, we have a guest coming up who’s a specialist in that. Can you talk on that? Do you offer that service? Where do you stand in that field?

George: Yeah, we don’t offer SMS. It’s a natural fit in a way because we offer sort of complex deep flows, especially for segments and retention segments of, you know, for customs. So in a way, it is a natural fit, especially if you’re thinking about abandoned carts or in that series, we integrate with other SMS apps out there that are the big ones that you’ll see on Shopify. Personally, I’m still a little bit hesitant about how much bulk SMS- it’s effective. But, is it a good user experience as a customer? So, it’s not as severe as said, chatbot, which, when you’re talking to a chatbot, I just get angry. 

John: ‘Have a nice day!’ It’s like, no, we’re not having a nice day.

George: So I’m not sure it’s an incredibly effective marketing channel. But are you building the right relationship with your customer? If you’re sending in bulk SMS? That’s the question. I’m not sure it’s been answered for me. So yeah, it’s certainly like it’s on our backlog to build, because it makes so much sense for say, abandoned carts, things like that. However, the reason I haven’t prioritized building it this year, for example, is that personally, I’m not sure about how, how much brand building it does for SMS versus how much the noise your customers hear?,

John: I tend to agree with you. I think the jury’s still out on that. I think SMS would appeal to a certain type of consumer and I yet don’t see who exactly that is. And I think it does work in some instances. How do eCommerce merchants decide where to go all in on their marketing, if they are doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that? What do you say to them? Do you say, come in all in with us or half? Is there any guidance you give in terms of a marketing budget?

George: I think more about time and focus around it. I don’t tend to think of marketing, about budgets in dollars, I think about what I’m saying.

John: That’s actually a better way to put it. So go ahead.

George: My advice is sort of based on what worked for us and that was to focus on say, three key changes. Or whatever key channels are bringing in 80 to 90%. And that’s normally three channels, maybe two channels for focus on them. And almost always, email will be part of that mix. Unless you’re marketing to a segment who just does not engage with email. There are some segments like that, but in the Western world, that’s not that prevalent. Focus on those, Instagram, email, paid search or, or partnerships, or SEO, whatever it is, double down on those channels that are bringing you that 80 to 90% of your customers and revenue, and test one other channel at a time. For small teams, you only have so much time and focus. 

John: Yes, double down on the things that are working. Great answers. That’s fantastic advice there. Are there any other features that you’d like to tell our audience about SmartrMail that we haven’t discussed?

George: Yeah, we’ve been working all year on a visual Flow Builder. So we had these like big flows that you can do and set up. But we’ve actually launched a drag and drop, like a visual Flow Builder, we can literally draw out all these deep flows. It’s super exciting. It only went live maybe a month ago. Yes. So I just want to give a shout out to the team on that. We know one of those one year projects. It’s finally live. And we’re getting great feedback. And yeah, it’s great to see.

John: See, that’s where you had me because I’m a visual person. And when I see visual flows like that I get excited, because I could see where things are going. I work in a more visual capacity. That’s great.

John: We’re going to talk about the company itself. We’ve seen eCommerce explode in the last six to eight months, obviously, due to COVID around the world. How’s the company fairing? Now, some people ask that question, they say, ‘oh, we’re doing terrible’, but others are going through the string of explosive growth? Where were you guys in that ratio?

George: Well, COVID was really great for our growth, like most people in eCommerce unless you’re selling, holidays or something like that. So in general, it’s been a strong year for us in 2020. Our user growth is up maybe three X on a year ago. We’ve added a few members to the team over the last few months as well, just because more growth means let’s get bigger. So that’s something great, where we’re a distributed team. I’m here in Melbourne, my co-founders in another city, our tech leads in the in Europe, we’re sort of spread everywhere. It’s been really hard, personally, and for the team, obviously, for the whole world. But, yeah, we’re in that new normal, and the company is going really well.

John: Have you always been a distributed company? Or did you have an office?

George: Yeah, we’ve always been spread out. I’m in the office here in Melbourne, we have a little office, we’ve got an office in in Lisbon, and another one in Australia. A few people in Portugal, Lithuania, Australia, and a few more dotted around.

John: It’s funny, that business model is going to be the new normal. So you’re ahead of the curve. I worked for myself for a number of years, and then working for SUMO Heavy, and I’ve always worked independently. I tell everyone, I’ve been training my whole life for this working at home. Alright, let’s talk about the company. Your company is private, correct? Are you looking for investment? Are you just put everything back in the business right now?

George: We’re not actively looking for investment. We took some angel investment the end of 2016 into 2017. And we went through an accelerator here in Australia called StopMate. And that actually has got a really turbocharged trajectory. And since then, we haven’t done another big round or anything. As we grow revenue, we put it back into the company. So effectively running at around breakeven for the last few years.

John: Besides COVID and dealing with the challenges there, what are the biggest pain points you guys are facing right now? Is it just growth or are some things on the horizon that worry you? What do you think?

George: The space changes so damn rapidly that the threats I feel today will not be the threat in January. So we launched on Shopify early 2016, maybe and there was a handful of marketing apps, like there was a couple of email apps and you’d scroll through a few pages and you’re done. And there’d be 80,000 apps now. Hundreds of apps in our exact space. So it’s certainly much more competitive, it’s much harder. 

So again, we launched with, Shopify, I think there were 80,000 or 60,000 merchants on Shopify, when we launched and there’s 1.1 million now. So that rising tide of eCommerce has lifted our boat as well, which is awesome for us. But it also means it’s just the space piling in with competitors. Every month I see someone well funded come in and, and try to do something like we’re doing so I definitely feel the competitive tension. We’ve never been too focused on what other people are doing, we kind of figure if you keep solving the right problem for our customer base, we’ll get more customers. But sometimes, you see someone raise 100 million bucks and launch an app similar to yours, you get a bit worried.

John: How do you fight against that? How do you break through? Let’s go specifically to the Shopify app store? How do you break through the clutter in there? What’s your point of difference? Is it just luck that someone says, ‘Okay, I’m going to try SmartrMail’? Or is there some sort of point of difference or offering that that’s going to make you rise above the rest of these meters?

George: The most important signal in the Shopify App Store is your writing on there, and cadence of rating. So how often you’re getting good ratings. So everyone focuses on making sure customers are happy. And then if they’re happy, asking them to keep your review, that’s by far the most important thing in the App Store. That’s what we do. In a way, it’s a bit annoying, because it’s a black box, and you can affect it more. But also, it’s good, because you can’t game that system, really. So it does mean that if you build a good product that solves their problem, you will naturally get more customers. So that’s the way I think about it, we just keep focused on building the right thing for our customers and know that the growth will be there over the long term.

John: So what has got you excited for the rest of 2020 and beyond into 2021.

George: So we are about to launch like this epic, amazing pop up builder. It’s a key feature for stores you know, pop ups email collection, we’ve tended to focus on the email automation side of things and let other people solve that, ‘how do I grow my list?’ question. But we decided to double down and make a better way for people to grow their list as well. So that comes live in the next few weeks, which is pretty exciting. And then 2021, like the backlog is epic. It’s one of those things where, okay, we’ve got everything we want to do. What are the three things that we’re actually doing? 

John: Do you see an influx in your business in the fourth quarter? Do you see merchants that are panicking, because they didn’t really plan? How do you handle a merchant like that? Who comes in in October and says, ‘I want to do my fourth quarter planning now?’ How does that work?

George: It’s funny, and it’s true, we get this monstrous spike in October and November, it sort of leads up to Black Friday. And then Christmas sales. The classic one we see and I’m sure other people in email space see is people who have got this dusty old list of 100,000 people who gave me their email about four years ago, they’ve never emailed them, but now they want to email them five times in the lead up to Black Friday, because they’re gonna make so much money. The first thing I have to say is if the customer even remembers who you are, if you email them five times, they’re just going to mark you as spam. You’re going to cook your deliverability, it’s not a good idea. Just take that list out back and burn it. 

That’s the big one that happens to us. The ‘I haven’t emailed these people in a year, I want to email them 10 times.’ We deal with that. We focus a lot on strategies for Black Friday, email marketing, and Christmas sales. Now we try to educate people on what worked last year, what we’re seeing, and what’s working now.

John: Excellent, great answer. Okay, we’re gonna get towards the end here. Being an entrepreneur is challenging work, especially now managing your time and energy especially during these quote unquote challenging times. Any tips or experiences you’d like to share, like time savers or hacks or anything that you do in business that helps get a step ahead of everyone else.

George: Personally, I meditate in the morning for a little bit- that I’ve found is a really big productivity gain for me. I’m not one of these ultimate productivity guys. But I do have a list of stuff I want to get done that week or that day. And I noticed that the days I meditate, I just get more of that list done. Otherwise, yeah, I’m probably not really qualified to answer that. 

John: I will second the meditation and making space for yourself in the morning is very important. I do meditation and journaling, and I try to tell others to do that. I think it puts that little space in your day before you get into the craziness. So you being an entrepreneur, what is the one piece of advice that you give to a startup right now? Someone who’s struggling to move their idea forward? Like you had done with your various ventures? 

George: The key thing is persistence. It’s hard when you’re two years in, and you’ve got a tiny bit of traction, and you’re way behind where you thought you were, it’s so hard to persist. But that is literally all there is. If you persist long enough, you do make your own luck. And obviously, you have to be smart and make turns, we need to make turns and reassess. But, I did that accelerator, and I mentor TechStars and SmartrMail. And so I see batches of startups coming through year after year. And the absolute common denominator, and the ones that keep going and grow is just grit and persistence.

John: I would second the mentor mentorship. I always look back and think one thing that I could have done differently is I would have asked for some mentorship in my life, I always tried to do things myself, and I think my crazy business ideas probably would have gotten a step further. So really only you mentor other startups.

George: So just on that, and Blue Thumb, we went for three years, just growing a little bit not really knowing what we’re doing. And we raised a bit of seed money from two entrepreneurs herend Adam shrub and Jeremy Sane came on as mentors. That was the absolute ultimate thing that changed our trajectory on that business from like this thing that was slowly growing to just up. And that they were just a few years ahead of us in the journey, and they made, 19 of the 20 mistakes we were about to make. So it was just an absolute game changer. And I realized how important it was to have someone who’d done it, who was only a couple years ahead of you to help. I’m doing that now.

John: Yeah, that’s great when the light comes on experience is the best teacher. Alright, one more personal question, what would you do if you weren’t doing this?

George: I’m a failed musician. So maybe I’d be making bad electronic music. Sorry, my thoughts are crazy. I would do another company. I like doing it. I think I’ve got a few more in me at least.

John: Yeah, I’ve asked this question 100 times, and I usually get the same response. It’s like, Oh, I go out and do art. And I would do something. And then we’d come back and start another company. Because once you have that, once you have that bug, it doesn’t leave you. One final question. What’s the last thing you bought online?

George: So last night, I was looking for dog life jackets. But I didn’t buy one. The last thing I actually bought was this beer called Heaps Normal that’s launched in Australia. It’s non- alcoholic beer that actually tastes pretty good.,

John: I’m sure we can’t get in the States. I’m going to look.

George: I don’t think so,  it’s at least Australian, but I tried some. And  actually you wouldn’t know it’s nonalcoholic.

John: That’s a rare thing. So we skimmed over the part that you’re buying your dog a life jacket or a boat, or is your dog an avid swimmer? Or what’s the story?

George: Yeah, she’s not an avid swimmer she would sink. So hence the life jacket. I’m near the water. And yeah, looking at getting one of those stand up paddleboards. And I thought, you know, maybe the dog could use one. 

John:  Well, this has been a great interview, George. It is time for your shameless plug. You can plug anything you like if you’d like to drop your email or just a URL or whatever you’d like to plug.

George: So if people especially in eCommerce, if you’re interested in better email marketing, check out SmartrMail.com, level up your email marketing.

John: All right. Very good. George. Thank you. You have a great day in Australia. We’re closing the evening out here. So we’ll catch you later. Thanks for being on the show.

George: Yeah, thanks, John. All right.

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