Entrepreneur Interview: John Thies, Founder of Email on Acid
Only Founders: John, tell us a little about how Email on Acid got started.
John Thies: About eight and a half years ago my sister and I were doing consulting work. We were both self-employed, and I had some clients that wanted us to do email for them. We said, “All right we can do that.”
We didn’t know all the details that went into (email) until we started deep diving. Those clients were using a company called ClickSquared, who was acquired by Zeta Interactive a few years ago (who we are now a partners with). They kept telling our mutual customers that the email we created would not render correctly in most email clients.
We knew that wasn’t the case because we thoroughly tested every email. We researched how we could validate to our client that HTML we used with their emails was supported. At the time, there was only one other company out there that did “previews.” We saw this as an opportunity as they only told us what it looked like and gave no indication as to WHY it rendered the way it did.
So, we created an algorithm that sent hundreds of emails to every email client. It checked to see what HTML rendered properly - all the HTML tags, attributes, CSS properties and CSS values that were supported. And then we built a tool and started building email previews on top of that. Our whole goal was to help developers understand more about why the emails displayed the way they did, and not just how.. It was kind of a deeper level then what was currently available.
Since I was self-employed, I would build the infrastructure at night and during the day I was doing my consulting stuff. Then slowly we released the product for free to see if there is a market fit? Will people like what we did? Then we released it for $9.95 a months later. I was the first full-time employee and then my sister followed not too long after that.
It’s been that way since. In the beginning we had servers in the house, and my wife was upset with how much time I spent in the office, but I guess that is the way you have to start!
OF: What year was that?
Thies: About 9 years ago: 2009.
OF: And what were you doing before you were doing freelance work?
Thies: I lived in San Diego and I had a couple of Skateboard companies. I was deep into the “concrete wave”. It was a really interesting industry because in order to be successful you needed to have a distributor. I was doing t-shirts and wheels, bearings and hardware. I did that for about 2 or 3 years, doing all the creative, designing the t-shirts and the skate boards and hats and stuff like that. But I didn’t want to live in San Diego forever, so I kind of dropped it,and a couple of months later- that’s when we started Email on Acid.
OF: How many employees are you up to now?
Thies: 25. Bootstrapped and no funding. You worry about not only yourself but the livelihood of 25 other people. You’re small and you think how am I going to do this, but you deal with some stressful times and some good times, roll with the punches and hopefully make the best decisions you can.
OF: Were you an art major in college?
Thies: No, I’m a programmer but my sister taught me, so I have some background with her on that one. I graduated from the business school (University of Colorado: Leeds School of Business) in Information Systems. I graduated in December of 1999..
OF: We recently published an article on the definition of an entrepreneur and how it differs from a small business owner. And the example we used was McDonalds. The point was that the McDonalds brothers were passionate about the product: making those hamburgers and milk shakes the best and most efficient way possible. And that for an entrepreneur, the product itself is irrelevant. It could be email, it could be skate boards. The fun is in the growing of the company.
Thies: I agree. The way I would look at an entrepreneur is you need to solve problems. There is not a day that goes by when I don’t think, oh wow, I wonder if I could solve that problem. Entrepreneurs try to figure out ways to make things better.
OF: So you didn’t go after any funding. Are you happy with that decision?
Thies: I’m a big fan of bootstrapping. I had a lot of conversations with Miki (Michelle Klann) about that. We like the ability to be nimble and not have jump through a lot of hoops to make a decision. And that is what it eventually came down to: you want to be agile; you want to be nimble to turn on a dime without having to get a whole bunch of approvals from the board. If you can create a company that is sustaining, that will pay the bills and have fun doing it…that is super fun and exciting.
It also depends on what you want to do. Do you want a quick exit? Then yeah, you might want to go get funding. But if you look at this as something that you want to do for a while and you are passionate about, then I think bootstrapping is the way to go.
OF: Tell me about the life of the Entrepreneur
Thies: Yeah…it is a lot of hard work, it’s not easy. I’ve had struggles in my personal life with my wife and my family…trying to create that balance. I get so passionate about what I’m doing, I don’t necessarily give all the attention I need to other areas of my life. That was the biggest part of finding that balance between life and the work.
I joined Vistage CEO Group about 18 months ago and it was the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s amazing. You meet with a group of other CEO’s. We meet once a month and at least my group is very engaged and vulnerable. You can go in there and talk about anything: “I’m having this problem at home…I’m having this problem at work.” It is a sounding board with your peers: with them saying, this is how I did it. And that has been instrumental to my life and my career. Helping me balance my family and my work-it is never easy. As an entrepreneur, it never quits, it is always there.
OF: Do you have anything you do to reduce stress?
Thies: Yoga and working out. I do yoga every morning and I work out 3 or 4 times a week. That puts me in balance…it relieves all the stress. Okay, there is the issue or this problem. How am I going to solve it? It comes easier with exercise.
OF: Do you think there is a common trait to all entrepreneurs?
Thies: I think it is tenacity. Being able to not let something get you down: never giving up.
OF: I think one of the traits is the need for freedom.
Thies: Yeah, I can see that. That is why I became a consultant because I wanted to have that freedom.. To make certain decisions or say, hey I don’t want to work today. Go skiing. It’s great.
OF: Tell me a bit about what Email on Acid does and where you see the company headed
Thies: We give email marketers and developers the ability to see what their emails look like in every email client before they send it. Every email client displays differently. And that’s where we got our name. Acid Test is the scientific term where you put something through filters to see the end result, pretty much what we are doing now. We played with different names around like Email in Acid but one day my sister suggested Email on Acid: we thought, Perfect! It fits our personalities and has double pun to it.
Where we want to go in the future? In the 1st Quarter of 2018 we’ll be releasing a new product that will remove the inherent fear of hitting the send button. That is our goal to do everything possible in order for marketers send great email.
OF: Tell me about hiring and finding the right team.
Thies: I’m going to be honest with you we’ve struggled with that in the past. But at this point, we know who we are and we bring people on who fit who we are. As long as you bring in people who are like minded, that understand your core values…you can have the smartest person in the room but if they don’t fit the core culture, it is going to bring the whole company down. We’ve had people who were incredibly smart, but they didn’t fit the organization, which brings everyone down. So I’d rather bring in someone who fits perfectly and train them, provide the necessary tools and resources to bring them up to the level that we need them to be at. Group dynamics are incredibly important.
OF: Last question. What would you tell someone who says they want to be an entrepreneur?
Thies: Make sure you are passionate about what you want to do. There will certainly be bumps in the road. But if you have that passion and that tenacity, you’ll get through it.
very interested in the comments on the advantages of bootstrapping. Our product is very nearly ready and I was thinking of beginning discussions with VCs - but perhaps bootstrapping might be better. Hummm.