Apr 012009

Senders No More

Senders No More

February marked the official end of Return Path being in the email sending business, even a little bit. Of course we still have corporate email servers, and we still have basic retention email marketing programs for our customers and prospects (with explicit permission of course!), but after a 9 1/2 year run, we no longer have direct consumer email-based relationships.

As we announced last fall, we recently divested all of our businesses other than our deliverability and whitelisting business — Postmaster Direct (list rental), Authentic Response/MyView.com (surveys), and ECOA (change of address). Those were great businesses, but they increasingly diverged over the years from each other and from our core deliverability business, so it made sense for them to belong to different companies in the end.

Besides diverging from each other, being a bulk sender of email had both advantages and disadvantages for us as a company. On the one hand, it was good for us to see firsthand what some of the issues are that impact our clients. We were, in fact, our own clients, one business unit to another. But on the other hand, being a bulk sender carried a real business risk of compromising our position as a trusted intermediary between senders and receivers. It was always a fine line to walk, and while we never got in trouble for it, we were always concerned — to the point where for a long time we didn’t allow our other business units to apply for our whitelist, Sender Score Certified, even at “arm’s length.” At least we weren’t an ESP!

But now that risk is gone. We are senders no more. Be sure to read our CTO’s description of what it was like to send a transactional privacy policy notification to 20mm addresses, most of which hadn’t been mailed in months or years.

Nov 032008

No Separation Anxiety

No Separation Anxiety

 

When we announced last week that we were selling our Email Change of Address (ECOA) business unit to our competitor Fresh Address as part of our corporate restructuring that allows us to focus exclusively on our flagship deliverability and whitelisting business, a bunch of people asked if me if that decision was emotional or difficult.  As ECOA was Return Path’s initial business — you know, the one that was going to be $100 million in revenues within 5 years — shouldn’t I be sad to see it go?

 

In the end, it wasn’t a difficult decision to sell the business.  Times have changed.  While it still works well as a product and generates profitable revenue, our company has been completely transformed over the years, first into a broad-based provider of multiple email-marketing and market research services; and more recently into a pure play in email deliverability and whitelisting.  I think the reason the decision wasn’t difficult has more to do with the fact that we haven’t done much to update the product or think about it or invest in it in almost five years.  So selling it was sort of like going to a funeral of a beloved relative who has suffered a long bout of Alzheimer’s Disease — the end is sad, but you really had to say goodbye to the loved one and come to terms with the situation many years before.

 

While my cofounders George and Jack and I all believe that ECOA could still be a big business some day, it’s clearly not in our critical path to build it out.  We wish our friends at Fresh Address good luck and ask them to take good care of our baby — and our clients!

 

But as this transaction does give one a moment to reflect, and as I am always a fan of remembering one’s roots and honoring one’s history, I will note that were it not for ECOA, Return Path wouldn’t be here today.  The initial team and first few years of the business were wonderful “startup” years, and that foundation we built from 1999-2002 around expertise in email, a deep commitment to consumer privacy and choice, and a fantastic client base, serve us well to this day.

 

So on that note, I thought I’d end this note with a big thank you to the original Return Path team from 1999-2000 who got the company started.  Our early senior team included Jack Sinclair, Karl Florida, Mary Lynn McGrath, Dave Paulus, John Ventura, and Vince Sabio.  We were joined when we merged with Veripost in 2001 by founding execs George Bilbrey, Eric Kirby, Kevin O’Connell, and Andy Sautins.  Other early employees still with the company today are Chad Malchow, Patty Mah, Sophie Miller Audette, Paul Buster, and Tammy Somsky Shimp.  Other early employees now counted as alumni are Jennifer St. Onge Wilson, Andrew Wilson, Jennifer Roller, Alexis Katzowitz, Beth Feresten, Rebecca Thomas, Amy Leymaster, Tim Dolan, John Darrah, Chris Wade, Rachel Moore, Doug Campell, Brent Wagner, Matt Spielman, Michael Doherty, Steve Gorman, Linda Ryan, Rory Carr Alison Murdock, Edwin Castillo, Austin Kenny, Julia Knowlton, Topher McGibbon, Kevin King, Brendon Kearney, Kate Kuckro, Suzanne Halbeisen, Neil Cohen, Jon Pierce, Aaron Couts, Nick Nicholas, Michael Zhang, and Melanie Danchisko.  And finally, I’ll extend the thank you to Jeremy Dean and Dan Diekhoff, who while not early employees, have largely assumed the operational burden for running and maintaining ECOA these last few years.

Aug 132006

It’s a Sad Day When the Lawyers Take Over

It’s a Sad Day When the Lawyers Take Over

With all due respect to lawyers, of course, Google’s recent decision to start making a legal fuss when people in the media use the word “Google” as a verb is NUTS.  Someone, get Marketing on Line 1 — and make it snappy.  Steve Rubel wrote about it, as did Jeff Jarvis, and the source material is here.

For the record, anyone who wants to use any of the following words or phrases as a verb, noun, or any other part of speech, may do so at any time:  Return Path, Sender Score, Authentic Response, Postmaster Direct.  Oh, and then there’s ECOA, the service we pioneered in 2000 that *is* occasionally (in some very small circles) used as a verb!

Feb 222006

Memory Lane or Dark Alley?

Memory Lane or Dark Alley?

We had an interesting meeting today.  A small group of the old-timers at Return Path, including one of our founders who doesn’t work at the company any longer, convened a summit to brainstorm ways to reinvent our original, original business, Email Change of Address (ECOA).

For those of you who don’t know what it is, ECOA is a very simple idea — that people who change email addresses need help updating their personal and business contacts, and also their most trusted commercial email newsletter relationships.  It’s a free service for consumers, and a paid service for opt-in email marketers and publishers who use our service to reacquire their customers with renewed permission and a shiny new email address.

When we created ECOA in 1999, we were sure it was the proverbial $100 million idea (what idea wasn’t in 1999?).  More than six years later, the product is a success and profitable, but it never took off with that explosive growth we all imagined early on.  Return Path has grown a lot since then, both organically and through M&A, and since about 2002 or early 2003, we basically put the ECOA business on “auto-pilot,” tending to it as needed and making sure it still worked well for consumers and clients and was adequately competitive in the market, but no longer investing meaningfully in its growth.

Now that we’re much larger and have the time and resources to put into it, we decided earlier this year to pay some attention to our neglected first child and see what we could do with it.  Today’s meeting was the first step, and boy was it interesting.

So I can’t decide whether the process of preparing for and going through this meeting was like a pleasant walk down Memory Lane…or a scary run through a Dark Alley late at night.  It was fun having a conversation about a part of the business that was so important to us at one time in our lives (it was all we had!), and the group of us were literally reminiscing in the meeting about all the different thoughts and ideas we had for the business over time, as well as about different former colleagues who worked with us on the business.  At the same time, it was pretty painful to look at some of our original projections for market size and of course business size — not to mention some of the marketing efforts, Powerpoint templates, logos, and names that fell by the wayside.

The good news is, either way, we do have lots of great ideas for how to move the ECOA business forward con gusto…so look for more news on this front as the year unfolds.

Filed under: Email, Entrepreneurship

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Dec 202004

The Gift of Insight

The Gift of Insight

Jonathan Schwartz has a great post entitled “Every Customer Visit is a Lesson.” It’s so true…if you want to give yourself a gift this holiday season, give yourself the gift of insight and spend some time in the market with a few of your top customers or prospects.  I’ve always found that to be one of the most valuable ways to shape the business, both strategically and operationally.

One of the most vivid memories I have to illustrate this concept is a meeting that I had with Crate and Barrel, a prospect, in the very early days of Return Path, back in 2000 or 2001.  I went in with my colleague Sophie Miller, and with a number of product sales specialists from our reseller, DoubleClick, for an all-day session with C&B’s online marketing team.  We collectively were pitching everything, possibly including the kitchen sink — ad serving through DART, buying online media through the DoubleClick Network, using Abacus to expand the reach of their catalog, sending email through DARTMail, renting email lists through DoubleClick’s email list business, oh yes, and using Return Path’s ECOA service to keep their email database clean.

The meeting was a mess, and as far as I can tell, it didn’t really lead to any meaningful business, either for us or for DoubleClick.  I learned two things in this call the hard way, but both were incredibly valuable lessons that continue to shape our business today.

First, we created massive confusion by bringing multiple sales people in to each present a specific product to the customer, rather than sending in one senior, consultative sales person to present a holistic digital marketing solution.  Picture yourself as the head of e-commerce for a major retailer, expecting an insightful day with the leading vendor in the space…then walking into the meeting and seeing that vendor’s SEVEN different sales people introducing themselves to each other!  It was a mess.  Since then, we have tried hard (and I think DoubleClick has as well) to run with a single sales force organized around the customer, not organized around our own products.

Second, we discovered that the original version of our flagship ECOA product (which was still in beta at the time) had a couple of flaws in the business model that were probably going to make it a non-starter in the retail/catalog vertical.  We also learned, happily, that the client loved the concept, but there were some details in the original product that had to be fixed if we were ever going to get traction with key customers in that key segment.  We fixed these problems and were able to successfully re-launch ECOA later that year, but more important, we now stay much closer to our customers as we develop new products and features so we make sure concepts are more firmly market tested before they head into development.

There are many more examples of this Gift of Insight, which I’ll share in future posts.  Happy Holidays!

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