Building a Legacy One Simple Product at a Time

Hello! What's your background, and what are you working on?

I'm Ajay Goel, a software developer by trade, and I'm building GMass, an email marketing plugin for Gmail. GMass is used by entrepreneurs and salespeople to send email campaigns from inside their Gmail accounts. The email campaigns can range from promotional campaigns to existing customers, cold email campaigns to prospects, or announcements to a list of subscribers.

GMass is generating around $130K/month in revenue.

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What motivated you to get started with GMass?

GMass wasn’t my first foray into the email marketing space, I actually built and sold another email marketing platform called JangoMail in 2013. Afterward, I knew I wanted to build something else but wasn’t sure what that something would be, so I swam around for a while in limbo. Then in 2014, Google debuted their API for Gmail. This got me excited—out of any platform, I spend the most time in my Gmail account. At the time, I was working on a project for which I wanted to be able to send low-volume email campaigns (to 10 or 20 people) from my Gmail account. There were already tons of well-known plugins for Gmail like Boomerang, Yesware, and Grammarly, so I assumed that somebody had developed a good tool for email campaigns as well. I was genuinely surprised when I couldn’t find anything.

Having just sold JangoMail, I was hesitant to jump right back into the email marketing space. I was sure I would be doing something different next, but when I couldn’t find what I needed in the market, I knew I had to build it myself.

What went into building the initial product?

I built the first version of GMass with the help of a freelancer in about two weeks. I wrote the specifications for the front-end and the back-end. I developed the front-end as a Chrome extension, and the freelancer wrote the back-end in C# using SQL Server as the database. A well-known company in Silicon Valley called Streak had just released a front-end library for Gmail called Inbox SDK, so I built the GMass Chrome extension based on that.

My JavaScript skills weren't particularly strong at the time, and anybody that builds a plugin for Gmail must know JavaScript inside and out as they are essentially hacking the Gmail UI, so the availability of Inbox SDK gave me JavaScript superpowers that I otherwise wouldn't have had. I was so excited to have a working version to play with that I paid the freelancer $5,000 dollars to build the backend that I needed under the condition that he delivered his part within seven days, which he did.

All of this happened while I was living out of a hotel room in Oahu, Hawaii. My then-girlfriend was getting her yoga certification there, and the program lasted a month. By the time we left Hawaii, I had a working prototype of GMass.

Most successful businesses aren't based on revolutionary ideas, but rather improvements to the status quo.

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The first version of the product only did one thing: You paste a bunch of names and/or email addresses into the “To” field of the Gmail Compose window like you normally would, and then hit a button to send out individual, personalized emails to each recipient. So, if you put 10 addresses in, you would now see 10 emails in your Sent Mail folder. The sending took place in real-time, so the first sign of trouble came when someone wanted to send to 1,000 addresses. Because I had everything running in a simple loop, the Gmail interface would hang for minutes upon minutes while the emails sent. This was obviously a poor user experience, so modifying the architecture to handle sending asynchronously was one of the first big changes I made after the initial launch. Once that was done, I fleshed the product out by enabling users to schedule campaigns for the future, and, later, to track opens and clicks.

How have you attracted users and grown GMass?

I first announced GMass on the startups subreddit at the end of August 2015. At that time, you were allowed to name and give a link to what you were working on, but the rules have since changed. My reddit thread was the #1 thread on r/startups for about 24 hours, which drove some of the initial signups. Next, I launched GMass on Product Hunt in September 2015, which was a huge success. It drove a ton of traffic and user signups exploded, with a new account being created every three minutes. That felt really good. Then, as happens to many startups with a big launch, the traffic died down. Once the dust settled, we had about one new user an hour, most of whom didn't even send a test email.

Our listing on the Chrome Web Store also drove some signups. One of the search phrases that turns up GMass is "mail merge", and I wanted GMass to show up if you ran that search in the Chrome Web Store. At the time, the results only showed the top three relevant hits, and GMass was #4. But I noticed that one of the top three products was a defunct product that wasn't being supported anymore. I contacted the developer of that tool and gently asked if he would be so kind as to remove his product entirely, and explained why. Surprisingly, he said yes.

What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?

GMass makes money by charging a monthly subscription price for use. Plans range from about $7/month to $20/month. I started charging about a year after launch—prior to that, it was free for everyone. The main reason I started charging was to cut down on spammers using the system. As a free, unmonitored email marketing solution, GMass attracted the underbelly of the web. Before making the switch to payment plans, an FBI agent relayed to me that, "GMass has become the tool of choice for scammers."

I sent out a few email campaigns to my user base announcing the upcoming monetization, letting them know that after I flipped the switch, they would have to pay to send larger campaigns. Most of the feedback I got was negative. A lot of "f*** you" and whatnot, saying I had misled them or led them on. It didn't bother me, because I've always heard that people are much likelier to voice their opinion when they're mad than happy. I'm the same way when I write Yelp reviews. When I finally did flip the switch at midnight one day, I sat in front of my email, reloading and reloading, waiting for the first notification to arrive of a new subscriber.

One hour went by...nothing. Two hours went by...nothing. I could even see that users were getting the "Hey, sorry you can't send this campaign until you subscribe. Here's a link to subscribe" message, and clicking the link, but then not putting in their credit card. Was something wrong? I put my own credit card in to test. It worked. Another hour went by, and I was still the only subscriber. A wave of panic hit me at that point. Maybe people didn't think GMass was worth paying for. Maybe I priced it too high. Maybe I’d made a huge mistake. Tired of thinking about it, I went to bed and hoped for something better come morning time.

The first thing I did when I opened my eyes was reached for my phone and checked my email. Thankfully, in the eight hours that had passed while I was snoozing, a handful of people had subscribed. In retrospect, I flipped the switch at midnight, when the most active users are overseas in India and China. So it made sense that it didn't trigger a wave of new subscribers right away.

I chose Stripe as our payments provider, not for any profound reason other than I liked their API docs better than Braintree's, and Braintree was part of PayPal, and I found PayPal's entire ecosystem archaic. I ended up adding PayPal as an option later, though, after users from countries where credit cards aren't as prevalent asked for it. Running a SaaS company using PayPal's subscription payments platform is a pain. Their docs are terribly outdated and often incorrect. We continue to support our PayPal integration only because PayPal is so popular worldwide, but I wish it would die a quick death.

GMass is a pure software business. We don't do any paid ads right now, so my biggest expense is our Amazon AWS bill, which is around $8,000/month. The next biggest expenses are marketing and SEO related. I have one freelance marketer and two SEO firms working on GMass's behalf.

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What are your goals for the future

My main goal for GMass is to grow it to the point where it's fondly remembered beyond my lifetime. When I sold my first company, I became financially secure, so with this venture, I'm more focused on my legacy and less focused on making a profit.

In terms of metrics, my short-term goal for GMass is to have 10,000 active paying users. I'm pretty close to that right now. I'd also like my email list to be at 1M addresses. I'd feel pretty powerful knowing I can communicate any message I want to a million people with just a few clicks. Right now it's about 250,000. I'm hoping that by the end of 2019, GMass will be at a $3 million annual run rate. My strategy for accomplishing all this is to build more tools for our website in order to attract more traffic.

Don’t fall into the trap of focusing on the hottest trends. Build a solid product with a few happy users.

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We've been doing that slowly, but I'm going to get more aggressive in 2019. For example, we built this tool called Inbox, Spam, or Promotions? so that any email marketer, even if they're not using GMass, can see where their emails are landing. A couple weeks ago I launched a Domain Statistics Database so people can research a domain, see our delivery rates to that domain, and see what kinds of bounce codes that domain generates. I'm planning on adding a lot more data to this, like WHOIS data, and contact data for the organization's leadership, because I want this to become the standard source of information about domains, such that when you Google any domain, our page on that domain comes up.

One area that GMass has been lacking in has been integrations with CRM systems like Salesforce and Hubspot, so I'll be working on that next year also.

What are the biggest challenges you've faced and obstacles you've overcome? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?

One of the ongoing challenges of the software design approach we took is that we are hacking up the Gmail interface, and this isn't a method of programming sanctioned by Google. Google regularly updates Gmail's code, which results in GMass breaking, and it's a constant battle to keep up with the changes.

As a software developer whose skills are now mostly back-end based, I've never put much emphasis on design and user experience. Even today I get feedback from users saying "It looks like this was designed by a software developer for other software developers." They’re not wrong! If I could go back, I would have brought in a UX designer early on to help me get the flow right from campaign creation to sending.

About six months after launch, my lead developer emailed me to tell me he was quitting. This was a big deal because I hadn't kept my software development skills up to date. I knew classic ASP and VB6. I did not know how to program in .NET and C#, and that's what GMass had been built on. A wiser CEO would have hired a new developer to pick up where the old one left off, but the control freak in me decided that the best course of action was to learn the codebase and learn C# so that I could make my own changes and hopefully never be put in that precarious position again. I'm still the lead developer, though I probably shouldn't be. There are a lot of other things I should be focusing on.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Building GMass as a Chrome extension that worked inside the Gmail interface, rather than outside the Gmail interface was a critical decision that I believe has paid off. Because my competitors, of which there are now many, have built external interfaces that let you create and send campaigns. Our biggest differentiator and something that I think would be hard for anyone else to copy is that we work inside Gmail.

The luck of timing was also critical for GMass’s success. Even though I launched at a time when hundreds of email marketing services already existed, there were almost no tools in existence that did it inside of Gmail. The arrival of the Gmail API from Google and the Inbox SDK from Streak were critical to the creation of GMass.

Also, I sleep with a CPAP machine, and I've found that it's enabled me to get by with only five to six hours of sleep, allowing me to be productive during most of my waking hours. Before my CPAP, I was sleeping 9-10 hours a day just to feel normal. It's weird, but my CPAP machine has been the biggest contributor to my productivity gains in the last few years.

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What's your advice for indie hackers who are just starting out?

Most successful businesses aren't based on revolutionary ideas, but rather improvements to the status quo. The media tends to focus on the revolutionary ideas, so it's easy to think that an idea isn't worth pursuing if it's not groundbreaking. But in my case, email marketing had been around forever when I started GMass but I found an unfulfilled niche and built a business out of it.

I find that my entrepreneur friends often fall into the trap of focusing on the hottest trends rather than building a solid product with a few happy users. It's so easy to get caught up in figuring out how to launch an ICO (Initial Coin Offering) or setting up meetings with investors before you even have a solid product.

I know one entrepreneur building an app who's too focused on the security of his app. Unless the fundamental offering of your app is security, you don't need to be concerned about that until you have some actual users to secure.

My advice is to get something built that at least a handful of people are getting value out of before worrying about anything else.

Oh, and don't spend too much time designing the perfect logo that represents all of your core values and your mission in life. Nobody cares about your logo in the beginning.

Where can we go to learn more?

My email is ajay@wordzen.com, and the website for GMass is www.gmass.co. I'm @PartTimeSnob on Twitter. All of my writing about Gmail and email marketing is on my blog.

I'd love to answer any questions you have in the comments below.

AjayGoel , Founder of GMass

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