Joe Casabona: Recently, Pat Flynn over at Smart Passive Income talked about the new hot marketing tool that isn’t new but is often forgotten, and that’s email. Today, our guest AJ Goel has built up a business around the fact that there are lots of people who haven’t forgotten email, and that there are scores of people who are remembering the importance of email in their marketing effort. AJ built GMass, a Gmail extension that allows you to send marketing campaigns right from the Gmail interface that we all know and love. In this episode, we got to talk marketing, development, and much more. I got to pick his brain about building a Chrome extension, which I thought was super interesting, and of course, AJ gives us lots of great and actionable advice. So, let’s get to it. But first, here is a word from our sponsors.
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Joe: Hey, everybody. Welcome to another episode of How I Built It, the podcast that asks, “How did you build that?” Today my guest is AJ Goel, the founder of GMass. AJ, how are you today?
Ajay Goel: I’m doing great. I’m excited to be here, Joe.
Joe: Thanks so much for coming on the show. You booked at a point right before I got sick, and then I traveled, and then I moved into a new house. I have you in Evernote like four times based on each show we’ve had to reschedule. So, I’m glad that we’re able to finally get together and do this.
Ajay: Yeah, and then I got sick eventually as well and had to reschedule. I think that makes for what is going to be an awesome episode because the wait has been so long.
Joe: Yes. We’ve been building it up, like waiting for the next Star Wars movie. Hopefully, the next Star Wars movie will be good so this ages well. So, why don’t we start off with who you are and what you do?
Ajay: I am a software developer by profession, and I’ve also been an entrepreneur for most of my career. GMass is my product and my business. GMass is a Chrome extension for Gmail that lets you send email marketing campaigns from directly inside your Gmail account.
Ajay: I live my life in Gmail all day and all night when I’m working, and I wanted an easy way to send the email campaigns without leaving that environment. A few years ago, when I first started working on this, I assumed that somebody had to have already built this because it seemed like such an obvious idea. It turned out that a couple of people had tried, but because Gmail has never done a good job of supporting developers that build on top of Gmail, they weren’t very well-designed products. So, I saw this opportunity.
Joe: Awesome. I love that. I don’t love the lack of support that Google provides to Gmail developers, but I love that you first were like, “For sure somebody wrote this.” And then you saw the opportunity. It’s like I feel like if you see a product that is just so-so, there’s two schools of thought, “I can make it better,” or “There’s a reason this developer is not making it better, and it’s probably not financially feasible, or it’s not worth it.” So, you took the more positive path here.
Ajay: Yeah, definitely. Email marketing has been on a growth trajectory as an industry ever since the early 2000s. I had another email marketing company that I built and sold prior to starting work on GMass. When I saw that there wasn’t already a good plugin for Gmail, and when I recognized that I’m already an email marketing expert, I decided that I have to be the person to build this.
Joe: Yeah, I love that. You’re absolutely right about email marketing because I think a lot of people– At least, let’s say the mindset two or three years ago was “Email is dead. Long live Twitter and Facebook as the best way to get to people.” But since I’ve started this show, more and more of my guests have said, “Email is so important.” It’s been their main driver of their business, and growing their email list is their number one goal to get an audience– A good, qualified audience. That’s what you’re looking for.
Ajay: Yeah. It’s interesting because I have a lot of entrepreneur friends, and to give you a counter-perspective to what you just said, and I have a couple of entrepreneur friends who are not in tech who have pretty much given up on email. They don’t use email as a medium anymore. However, the vast majority of entrepreneurs, especially tech entrepreneurs and people inside these organizations are using email more and more often. The biggest evidence I see of that because I’m always worried about the death of email because the death of email represents the death of my career or the death of my company. But the thing that I look for is anytime I send out a campaign to my own users, and it’s the most exciting thing for any marketer after sending out a campaign is watching those stats come in and seeing who’s opening your email and when they’re opening your email. Sending out an email campaign compared to any other communication channel, like posting a Facebook message or tweeting a tweet or posting on any social network, the time it takes for those opens to come in immediately after sending an email campaign– I’m talking seconds, emails get opened within seconds, minutes after sending a big email campaign out. That’s pretty good evidence of how tied people are to their email accounts.
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. Personally speaking, email is the first thing I check in the morning. Though I feel that’s unhealthy and I shouldn’t, I can’t help it. I pick up my phone, and I look at the time, and I’m like, “I wonder what emails came in overnight.” So, I fully believe that. I know that some people, like you, said, maybe people not in the tech space, like the influencer space is probably more like “Instagram or Instagram Stories is a good way to reach your audience.” But as far as in my experience and the people I’ve talked to like you said, those qualified leads and those people who are on your mailing list are the people that you’re most likely the most connected to. So you found that there were some extensions doing what you wanted to do, but they weren’t very good, what was your next step? Did you have a feature set in mind? Did you talk to other people about this idea?
Ajay: My next step was to scope out what I wanted my minimum viable product to be. I already knew that that didn’t take very long. Within five minutes I could write down what I wanted it to d and all I wanted it to do, and this is still the core essence of the product today, but all I wanted the plugin to do well was to make it so that a button sat next to the normal send button in Gmail. I wanted my button to act slightly differently from the normal Gmail send button, in that if I put 20 addresses in the to line and then put in a subject and put in a message, just like I would normally type in the email in Gmail and send, I hit the send button I know that that one email is going to go to all 20 people, and those 20 addresses in the “To” field will be visible to all 20 people that receive the email. What I wanted my button to do was to take those 20 addresses in that “To” field and send individual emails. So 20 individual emails with just one address showing up at the “To” field. So splitting the two field up into individual emails. That’s all I wanted the plugin to do initially.
Joe: That’s great. That’s you being a good internet citizen because I have been on newsletters where they forgot to either do the BCC field or something like you did and then I was privy to all of their responses because the other people decided to reply-all instead of just replying to the sender. This happened mostly in the higher-ed space. We used this one software product that emailed their entire customer base more than once, and then I got all the responses in my inbox, and those were terrible days.
Ajay: That’s poorly designed software. I’m flattered that you’re calling me a “Good internet citizen,” because most people when they learn what I do for a living and what GMass is, “Good internet citizen” are not the words that come to mind.
Joe: It’s taken me a few years to figure out the importance of email marketing. It works, obviously, it works, and if you do it in a good way, then you can connect to your user base. If you’re sending them an email every hour like, “Buy this new thing,” that’s being a bad internet citizen, but that’s also not email marketing. That’s just spamming people.
Ajay: Absolutely. We promote the ethical use of our tool and the ethical use of email to communicate with people, although we do have bad actors that are always trying to sneak around our filters.
Joe: Right, absolutely. Every piece of software will have that. There’s an ongoing, let’s say, I don’t know, “Debate” in the WordPress space and in the hosting space about various websites that are being hosted by people or various websites that are using WordPress, and whether they should be allowed to based on their message. I’m not sure where you’re based, I’m based in the United States.
Ajay: Me too. I’m in Milwaukee.
Joe: Cool, very cool. I figured as much, but I never want to assume. I think we’re on a similar time zone, and I think I noticed. But anyway, the First Amendment is a very important thing. So, who are the bad actors? Who are the–? That’s a little bit of a tangent, though. Because there is definitely bad email actors.
Ajay: We can get into the Constitution if you want.
Joe: I know, I don’t know if I’m ready for that. I don’t know if the listeners are ready for that. Maybe I’ll release that as a bonus later. OK, so you had your minimum viable product at this point. Were you using anything, like any, let’s say professional–? First of all, what’s the timeframe here? Like around what years?
Ajay: This is 2015.
Joe: OK, cool. So were you using any other mailing list service like Mailchimp or ConvertKit? I don’t know if ConvertKit was around then.
Ajay: I think it was, but I was not. I had built another email marketing platform called Django Mail, which was a lesser-known platform, not quite as popular as Mailchimp. I ran that for 10 years and then sold it. So if I was going to use another external platform, it was probably going to be that because I was most familiar with it because I had built it. But I’ve always been of the mindset that if I’m going to do anything in email, because email is where my expertise lies, I tend to play this mental game with myself where I tell myself that– Let’s say I want a particular email automation functionality or a particular email marketing feature, and let’s say there are other products that have it and I really need it. I play this game with myself, where I forbid myself from doing what I need to do until I build it inside my own product. So to answer your question, in a roundabout way, no. I was not using any other platform, and when I finally needed a platform because of the work that I was doing at the time, I decided I wasn’t going to send an email campaign until I had built my own product to do what I wanted. That’s what GMass was.
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Joe: Let’s get into the title question then. We’ve set this up, you found that there were tools, but you wanted to improve upon them. You had your MVP. How did you build it? How did you decide, “I’m going to make this a Chrome extension?” I guess that’s a pretty easy answer, but what was it? What were the pre-development considerations that you made?
Ajay: Sure. I had already built another Chrome extension that was another plugin for Gmail that did something entirely differently, it was a proofreading and editing plugin. So I’d become familiar with the world of Chrome extensions, and actually, it was an effort– I was going forward with that product that led me to this need of being able to communicate with 20 or 30 people at once, needing to send a personalized email. That’s the genesis of the idea, and then because I had already built this other Chrome extension that also added a button next to the send button, I had the fundamentals down. So I knew I could pretty quickly spec out in my head how the first version of GMass should work. Now, my skills were in using this library that this company in California called Streak had just introduced that made it possible to add all sorts of buttons and widgets to the Gmail interface. This company in California called Streak created this library called Inbox SDK just a few months prior to me launching the initial version of GMass, that made it easy to hack the Gmail interface. I mentioned earlier how Gmail has never really supported developers that have built stuff on top of Gmail, so this company came along and made the jobs of all these developers that had been trying for years to hack the Gmail interface with some success here and there– It made our jobs a lot easier. I jumped onto this library and built GMass on top of this library. Now, where I lacked skills was in the back end programming part, so this library allowed me to do the front end part which is adding the buttons into the Gmail interface and control how the user interacts with the product. But I didn’t know any back end programming, I used to when I built my prior company, but my skills were so outdated they were basically irrelevant at this point. So for that piece, I hired a friend of mine from high school who is a back end programmer to write that initial functionality that takes those addresses in the two fields, splits those up into individual addresses and basically in a software loop, loops through those addresses and kicks off those emails. So, he built that part, and I built the front end part, and within a week, I had a working version of GMass.
Joe: Wow. That’s interesting. First of all, is this library still around street? Streak, Inbox SDK, or both?
Ajay: Yeah. Streak is one of the most popular CRM systems in the Google ecosystem, and Inbox SDK is now used by thousands of developers.
Joe: Awesome. That’s interesting. Let me start here because I don’t know this. What language– In what language do you write a Chrome extension?
Joe: OK. That was probably an assumption I could have made.
Ajay: I should have said so.
Ajay: I haven’t heard anyone reference “Java” in a long time.
Joe: Yeah. I had to write Java or something like Java for my master’s thesis because it was being built on an Android phone. The first Android phone.
Ajay: I remember in college, Java was supposed to be the whole future of the world. “College,” I should I should put some context around that. This was twenty-two years ago, but I don’t know.
Ajay: Those good old applets.
Ajay: No, so that was C#. That’s where I didn’t have any skills at the time, so C# was a back end language, and SQL Server was the database platform.
Ajay: My entire career, the stuff I’ve built has generally been on the Microsoft platform. Which isn’t highly regarded in the startup tech community, but it’s what I’ve always known and been familiar with, and my dad was a software developer, and that’s what he used. So it’s been in the family for a long time.
Joe: Nice. That’s cool. I used C# for a little bit, and I liked it, but I know what you mean. Today especially, it’s like “Have you heard of Gatsby? You need to try Gatsby now.” I’m like, “Two months ago you were telling me to use React.” I want to use something for more than a month and a half.
Ajay: Shifting platforms is hard because there are so many little undocumented intricacies and–
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. You’re always going to have technical debt no matter what you do unless you never launch then you’ll never have any technical debt. But to want to switch platforms because this thing is newer creates a lot of other overhead and headache. I think if it’s the best tool for the job, use it, but don’t just use it because it’s new, is my personal philosophy.
Joe: If C# and SQL Server work best for you, and it– Is it still there?
Ajay: Yes, it still is. I don’t know why there are so many haters for the Microsoft platform.
Joe: Thank you.
Ajay: That’s what’s happening. So actually, in the very first version in that minimum viable product, let’s say I had 1,000 addresses in the “To” line and you hit that GMass button, you put in a subject and put in a message and hit that GMass button. In real-time, it loops through and is now sending one email at a time until it does all 1,000, and you might imagine that because that’s happening right in front of you on your screen, it basically freezes up your Chrome browser for the duration of the sending of that 1,000 emails. So, that was a problem. The first evolution of GMass after that first version was to make it happen asynchronously so that you hit the mass button, and you’re given an “All clear, good job, success, you did it” message. Then in the background without interfering with your current work, the emails start to send.
Ajay: Good question. Gmail had allowed that by the time I started working on GMass, so Gmail had just released an API about a year prior. An API for back end developers, so the entire set of GMass functionality is built on top of the Gmail API. The timing of building GMass was fortunate because just a year prior Gmail had released its API, and just a few months prior Streak had come out with Inbox SDK. I now had the library for the back end, and I now had the library for the front end.
Joe: Nice. So timing was really good for you.
Ajay: Timing was perfect.
Joe: Yeah, I think that’s important too like if I have this idea that’s ten years ahead of its time, it’s not going to be unfeasible, and if I have the idea probably 12 months after the tools are available I’m not going to have the first to market anymore.
Ajay: I think a lot of the famous tech companies that people know about, Instagram and Twitter, I think a lot of them are successful because of timing. I don’t think timing is talked about enough in the community of how to be a successful entrepreneur.
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s so true. Cool, so we’ve been talking for a while, but this is interesting to me. I don’t write enough code in my day to day anymore, so I have to live vicariously through other developers. It’s not anybody’s fault, I just started a business where I create online courses and do podcasts, so I need to find time to make coding my side hustle. So you said the first major evolution was making sure things happened asynchronously and that they were performant. What are some of the other evolutions that have happened? I think I’m most curious about this, Is because there are really popular mailing list tools, is there–? Or actually, let me rewind. You mentioned stats, so why don’t we talk about stats?
Ajay: Yeah. That was one of the key features that was added fairly quickly after launch, and I’m sure within a couple of months. The basic stats with any email campaign are open tracking and click tracking. From a technical perspective, how do you program those features? It’s pretty easy, so open tracking involves inserting a image tag into the email that is sent. If you’re sending a campaign to 100 people, we insert a unique image tag into all 100 emails, that’s what allows us to gather that open tracking data. From an interface perspective, it’s just a checkbox. The user just checks, “I want open tracking,” or “I don’t.”
Ajay: That came shortly after converting the sending process to an asynchronous process, then right after open tracking we added click tracking, and again it’s not a difficult technical thing to do. Adding click tracking to an email marketing product involves using some regular expressions to find the links in the campaign and then modifying those links so that they hit our server first and then redirect to the actual link so that we can capture the link and then generate the report in some readable, aesthetically pleasing way back to the user. Those two features, those two statistical features were added shortly after.
Joe: Gotcha, and that makes sense. That is actually how– From my understanding, that’s how most email marketing applications do that. They insert maybe a pixel, like a single-pixel image.
Ajay: That’s how everyone does it. There’s no other way to do that.
Joe: That’s super interesting to me, given that in 2019, you would think that there would be– It just shows how far behind email is. I guess email applications are.
Ajay: Yeah, it’s difficult to push email forward because email is so widely used. Anytime you have something that’s so widely used, if you want to introduce a change to the fundamental email protocol, which is called SMTP, you have to get everybody who makes email software to get on board and adapt to that change. That’s a really hard thing to do.
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. If we look at maybe like a sister technology, like HTML markup with the World Wide Consortium, W3C, they need to convince essentially ten or fewer browser makers to adopt these standards.
Joe: But going back to my experience in higher-ed, I had colleagues who still used command-line email, like still, three years ago.
Ajay: Like Elm. Elm I remember.
Joe: Yes, exactly. I’m like, “Why are you using–? We have graphical interface.” He goes, “I don’t want that. I want to read my email.” I’m like, “That’s wild.”
Ajay: That is wild.
Joe: So you’re absolutely right, you need to get Outlook and anybody who talks to Outlooks email servers, you need to get Google and Apple mail and anybody– There are dozens of email apps on the iOS store, on the Mac store, on the Windows store.
Ajay:, now that you mention that, you said how an HTML change only has to cater to maybe a dozen browsers. It is true that there are basically only two companies in the world that run the email ecosystems, and they’re Microsoft and Google. If you are a company and your company uses email, you’re either on the Microsoft Outlook platform, or you’re on the G Suite platform.
Joe: Right. Absolutely. I tried using other ones, and I was like, “Why am I not just paying $5 bucks a month for G Suite?”
Ajay: Right, and that’s what it costs. Generally affordable.
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve looked into Proton mail, I liked their privacy settings or whatever, but I know Gmail. Going back to now what my professor said, “I’m familiar with Gmail, but also everybody– You can assume if someone’s using Gmail, the email you get sent will be processed the way you assume it will be.”
Joe: But then that also goes back to talking about stats and how you do open tracking and click tracking, designing email is the same way. You still need to use HTML tables because you can’t assume the latest versions of HTML will work in every email client.
Ajay: Correct, yeah. There’s tons of information on the web about how to design an email so that it’s the most compatible across the most number of email clients. And yes, people do still use table tags in email where they would not use table tags in designing a web page because there’s easier ways in CSS to accomplish that.
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Joe: This is another good question for you, I use ConvertKit for my email marketing, and I don’t have any special templates. I’ve read just plain text works best anyway, so mine is just straight up text. Do you do any designing inside of Gmail, or is it mostly just–? OK, so how do you do that?
Ajay: You can.
Ajay: The Gmail compose window is a fully functional HTML editor, so let’s say you’re a Mailchimp user. You can literally copy and paste your Mailchimp template over from Mailchimp into the Gmail compose window and using a combination of a couple other plugins you can access the HTML source code and manipulate it, and it will render just fine in the Gmail compose window. In that sense, using a product like mine or even some of my competitors, you can send a rich text HTML campaign through Gmail. Now, from an email marketing trend perspective, it’s interesting because email campaigns have become more and more text-based over time. Because there has been this tendency to want the email to look as natural and as personal and as typed by a human being as possible. So if you’re interested in getting the highest reply rates, let’s say your goal is to get a reply rather than a click, you’re probably doing an outreach campaign maybe, “Here’s hoping to get some engagement, hoping to develop a relationship.” If your goal is to get a reply, you probably want to send just text. Our goal is to get a click like you’re an e-commerce retailer and you’re sending out a promotion, and you want people to click and go to your store and buy something, and then graphics are more appropriate.
Joe: This is a really good takeaway for the listeners and for me if you want a reply just text works best. I’ve noticed that lately as I’ve changed my own campaigns, like when somebody signs up for my clickbait and my “Opt-in” I always send them a follow-up question like, “What’s the number one question you have about podcasting?” And I get a lot of replies because it’s very– It’s just text. It looks like I wrote it myself. But when I send out my weekly newsletter that’s usually composed of links, it gets a decent click rate, but I’d like to raise those, and if your goal is to get a click you said images are best?
Ajay: Yeah. You don’t have to, but that’s where they can serve you well if used in moderation and the whole thing is still well-designed.
Joe: Yeah. That’s another really good point. If you still have a three-column multi-color thing, it just looks overwhelming and could look pretty bad inside of whatever email client you’re using.
Ajay: A great example is when Amazon.com sends you a product recommendation based on your purchase history. The Amazon.com email will contain a picture of the product because it should because it makes the email more valuable.
Joe: That’s a really good point. Cool. I love that piece of advice. As we are getting to the end of this interview, I do want to ask you, you’ve had some pretty good evolutions. You’ve added stats, and you added the performance enhancements. What’s maybe one other big feature that you’ve added since launching, and what are your plans for the future?
Ajay: Another big feature we’ve added is we have this tool called the “Inbox spam or promotions” tool, and it’s a button. If you hit this button within the GMass interface, we’ll send a copy of your email to about 20 internal addresses that we maintain and then we’ll almost instantly show you out of those 20 addresses which of them landed in the inbox, which of them landed in the spam folder and which landed in promotions. To build off of that, our next big feature launch which is going to be in a couple of weeks is going to be called the “Spam solver” tool. And that will be an evolution of the “Inbox spam or promotions” tool, where not only will we send your email out to test addresses and show you where it’s landing, but we’ll automatically vary elements of your email until your inbox rate is at some certain high threshold. So we might make your subject line all lower case, or we might eliminate the graphics in the body of your email, or we might route the email through a different server. We’re going to run all these variations for you automatically and then tell you, “OK, this is what you should change in your email because this is what’s proven to get a higher inbox placement.”
Joe: Wow, that’s cool. That’s cool because as far as I know, I’m not like a power user, but I have no idea when emails I send get sent to spam or not.
Ajay: Yeah. So there are other tools that do that, like the “Inbox spam or promotions” tool isn’t the only tool that does that. There’s a company called G Lock that’s probably the most well-known company in that space, but as long as email has been around no one has ever written a tool like what we’re about to launch, which we’re going to call the “Spam solver.” We’re hoping that’ll be a big deal for us.
Joe: Yeah, that’s super cool. We’ll certainly keep an eye on that, and I suspect by the time this episode comes out– I won’t say that I’ll check before the episode comes out and then in the intro, I will mention if it’s out or not, like a pre-show bumper. So that’s cool, I will certainly look forward to that because I think that’s, like you said, a very unique tool. As we wrap up, I do need to ask my favorite question, which is, do you have any trade secrets for us?
Ajay: GMass has been built upon many trade secrets, but one that I’m willing to share is the importance of reviews and asking customers for reviews. GMass is significantly bigger than it should be based on the size of the company and how much money we spend on sales and marketing, GMass is significantly bigger than it should be because we’ve mastered our review game. I’ll say whether you’re a restaurant on Yelp or a software app with a listing on Capterra or G2 Crowd or a Chrome extension on the Chrome Web store. Getting everybody you can to write a review is instrumental in visibility. The more reviews you have, the higher you jump in the rankings. Not necessarily on the Google search engine, but on the platform that’s important to you. If [inaudible] is your platform or the Chrome Web Store is your platform, or the iOS app store is your platform, reviews drive your visibility. We’ve done a good job at asking users for reviews.
Joe: That’s fantastic. I love that. I feel like that needs to be reinforced with me, I’ve been toying with my call to action at the end of the show, whether I say “Share it with a friend,” or “Give it a rating and review on Apple podcast.” That’s the platform that’s most important to me. But for a while when I was doing the call to action to leave a rating and a review, this show cracked the top 20 podcasts in tech for a little while. When I saw that go down, I was like “All right, I’ll get people to share it and then maybe for this season I’ll go back to asking for a rating and review.” I’m experimenting a bit, but I did notice a noticeable change in my downloads and my placement in the directory. So it’s fantastic advice there, definitely put a process in place to garner or elicit reviews from your customers.
Joe: Cool. Ajay, thanks so much for joining me today. Where can people find you?
Ajay: I’m on Twitter, @parttimesnob on Twitter. You can email me at Ajay@Gmass.co and if you want my phone number to call me, contact me through one of those other channels first, and I’ll give you my phone number.
Joe: Nice. Very nice. I will include both of those as well as a link to the Chrome extension for GMass in the show notes for this episode over at HowIBuilt.it. AJ, thanks so much for joining me today. I appreciate it.
Ajay: Thanks, Joe. It’s been great.
Joe: Thanks so much to AJ for joining me today. I enjoyed this conversation. I know I say that every week, but my guests this season have been absolutely incredible. I loved his trade secret, asking for reviews from customers. By the way, if you like this episode, please review it on iTunes or Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. I love that we got to talk development and marketing, two things that I’m very passionate about and one of those things which I’m better at. Thanks so much to our sponsors, those are Ahoy! Pantheon and Gusto. They make the show happen, so check them out as a thank-you. If you like this episode and this show be sure to subscribe, you can head over to HowIBuilt.it/Subscribe to get all of the subscription links. You can get all of the show notes over at HowIBuilt.it/139, and if you are interested in creating your own podcast, you can get my free workbook over at PodcastLiftoff.com. Thanks so much for listening, and until next time, get out there and build something.