Customers are not Numbers: For years, I always looked at my customers as numbers. Conversion rates, churn rates, sales, revenue, EPCs, CLTV, transaction value…I could go on and on. What I realized is that behind those numbers was a treasure trove of information. Information that would help to not only build your business, but steer it in the direction for great success. As Entrepreneurs, I think we all have a bit of a chip on our shoulders, assuming we know everything and what’s right. However, in actuality, the only thing that matters is what your customer thinks. That’s why we’ve implemented a number of ways that we communicate with our customers to give them a voice, a platform on how we are doing, where we need to go and how we can be better. That mentality is ingrained into our DNA.
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Thompson. Mark is the co-founder of PayKickstart.com , a SaaS that is reinventing the modern-day shopping cart and affiliate management, helping thousands of businesses and entrepreneurs sell more, maximize customer lifetime value and automate subscription commerce. Mark has spent over a decade in the world of marketing and software, selling over $20+ million dollars of his flagship training programs and software.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
Sure. I grew up in the frigid tundra of Buffalo, New York, where for around four months of the year, we never saw grass because of the lake effect snow that came off Lake Erie. As most kids that grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, we didn’t have technology to keep us occupied, so I found myself playing sports. Baseball, basketball, volleyball, street hockey — you name it, I played it. Fortunately, I was good enough at baseball, that I received a D-I scholarship to LeMoyne College, just down the road in Syracuse. There, I decided to major in Business Administration with a concentration in Marketing. At the time, I had literally no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I figured a business degree would be general enough that it would apply to whatever job I would take after I graduated. What’s crazy to think is that the vast majority of what I learned was not even applicable to what I do now — nor would I have ever really discovered my true passion in college.
In 2001, the internet was still in its infancy. We used AOL instant messenger to communicate with each other. I still remember my sophomore year, when Facebook opened its doors to our school, and we were able to sign-up using our college email address.
After graduating from college, I took a few random jobs just to save up enough money to rent an apartment and move down to Raleigh, North Carolina. Thank God — no more snow! It wasn’t until my second year in Raleigh, that I came across a Marketing Assistant job opening for a DaaS (data-as-a-service) company. I had no idea what DaaS even meant at the time, but at least it was a job that matched my degree. Luckily, I received the job and on day one, they asked me to learn everything I could about Google Adwords so I could manage a $60,000 per month ad budget. This was the start of finding my true passion and five years later, turning it into a business.
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?
Adwords was the start of something much bigger for me. It opened the doors to learning about this whole world of Internet Marketing. Things like SEO, Pay-Per-Click, Email Marketing, Social Media and how it all can help businesses generate more leads and sales.
After learning everything I could about Adwords, it became a hobby of mine to learn everything I could about marketing online. I started a personal blog sharing my experiences for how I was driving traffic, ranking for keywords in Google, building an email list, etc…
For the next five years I worked for two different Marketing agencies, helping SMBs market their businesses online. It was great because I was able to start making money (in the form of a salary), basically playing around on the web. It didn’t even feel like a job to me. Little did I realize at the time, but I was honing my craft and developing skills and experience in what would ultimately lead me to building the business I started.
Then my “ah ha” moment. I got fired from my job.
I know, I know — you are probably thinking, “how is getting fired from your job your ‘ah ha’ moment?”
At the time, it certainly didn’t feel like my “ah ha” moment. I had just bought a brand-new car two days prior. I had a wife, a mortgage, and bills to pay. In retrospect, it gave me the drive, determination and will to become my own boss. For the next year I found a handful of clients to help me pay my bills, while at the same time to discover a new side of the Internet that I never really knew about — product creation.
Instead of trading time for money, I could create a product online and sell it 24/7 while I slept. To make a long story short, over the next 1–2 years, I learned everything I could about software — how to go from ideation to market. I felt confident in the marketing/sales side of things, but knowing how to manage developers and designers — I had no idea.
After launching my first piece of software, I realized that while “Internet Marketing” was my passion and hobby, running a software company was what I was BORN to do.
While I developed over 10 different applications, it ultimately led me to creating PayKickstart — my true, long-term passion project.
There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
As I mentioned prior, I developed a bunch of different applications over the years. I’m sure you can relate, as an Entrepreneur we have so many ideas flowing around in our head, and we want to act on them all. That’s what I did for about four years. I realized that after building almost a dozen apps, that I wasn’t actually creating a real business. I was creating a way to make money — selling these apps at a one-time investment. Over the years, I’ve had to learn the hard way — that in order to build a long-term, sustainable business, you need to focus on being the best in your market at ONE thing. This is the main reason we decided to pause development of other applications and solely focus on growing and scaling PayKickstart. We knew that in order to become a real business, we needed to focus solely on that single business.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
When I first started in the software world, I was reluctant because it was something new to me, but I knew deep down how strong my passion was for it. I never gave up my dayjob of servicing my marketing clients, which provided me a steady income stream and allowed me to explore this new area of online Entrepreneurship. I took baby steps over a few years, slowly transitioning from client work, to building a sustainable software business.
So, my advice is this…
- Mitigate risk.
- Take calculated chances.
- Take imperfect action.
- Build a network of like minded people that have similar passions and interests.
- Have a plan for short term revenue, while still thinking about the big picture.
- Don’t try to do everything yourself.
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
The way I look at it is if you are passionate about what you do, and you love what you do, you can wake up every morning, and it doesn’t feel like a job. I know for me; I can’t wait to start the day and see what challenges come my way. I treat each challenge as an opportunity to learn and grow.
Being an Entrepreneur puts yourself in the unique position to oversee all aspects of your business — allowing you to focus more on the areas that you love most.
Early on, I found a business partner that shared the same core values as I do. However, in terms of our skill sets, we are completely different. This allows each of us to excel at what we do best, compensating for where we lack.
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
I think what I enjoy most about running my business is the ability to work on my terms. Back when I had a 9–5 job, there were plenty of days or times throughout the day that I felt uninspired and lacked motivation. However, I still had to be at “work”.
Being your own boss, allows you to thrive off of the times where and when you work best. If I need inspiration, sometimes I’ll go on a trip or relax at the spa — coming back refreshed and motivated.
On the other hand, as the boss, everything starts and stops with you. Your company’s success is reliant on your overall business plan and how well you execute on that plan. You typically have the last say in important decisions that need to be made on a regular basis. If you are running a small team of under 25, many of the issues and problems that arise get pushed up the chain to yourself. So how you deal with and resolve problems is a key trait in the success of your company.
Luckily as we started to grow, I was able to hire smart, talented people around me. For example, we have a CTO who is integral into the technical development of our SaaS platform — so we put a lot of faith and responsibility on his plate because we trust he will make the best decisions that impact the business and the customers we serve.
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I think the biggest difference between my actual job and how I thought the job would be, has to be the wide range of challenges I would have to face. We are not a massive Fortune 500 company with limitless resources, so I’ve had to learn how to make quick, yet educated decisions on everything from marketing, sales, operations, accounting, legal and more.
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?
Absolutely. For one reason or another, I feel that serious issues or problems come in sequences of three. When it rains it pours, right? Early in my career, I was not the best at dealing with confrontation or the various hurtles that arise each day. I’ve read a lot of books over the years on how to deal with problems (both personally and professionally) and ways to overcome them. As I mentioned before, I think it’s important to have a mindset of: “There is no problem or challenge too big that “we” as a company cannot overcome. Problems are not stop signs; they are guidelines. The best way to overcome challenges is to confront them head-on, instead of dodging them.”
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
For the very first software I created, I sought out the best development firm I could find. I reverse engineered a popular application that I used and found who developed it. Of course, when I told them I had an idea for a new software project I was eager to develop, they wanted to jump all over it — of course for a hefty $40,000 price tag. Me not knowing any better, said “sure let’s do it”. At the time, that was the majority of my savings.
Looking back on it, it’s funny to think that I actually hired the first development firm I interviewed, without negotiating or laying out a development road map with key milestones. In fact, if I knew what I know now, I probably could have developed the application for ¼ of what I paid. But hey — you live in learn, right? At the end of the day, I eventually made a return on my investment — and was a lesson that taught me a lot about the development process.
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
I have a number of mentors who I follow religiously — some in my market and others in completely different spaces.
For example, I have a huge amount of respect for Warren Buffet. I love his humility and honesty. Warren is one of the riches people in the world, yet he lives in the same house that he bought for $31k back in 1958. His life represents that money is not everything and how to maximize the value of everything around you.
On the flip side, there are many high-profile marketers that I follow and respect. Guys like Russell Brunson, Neil Patel, Tony Robbins, and various executives of top SaaS brands. It’s almost like an aspiring basketball player, studying the great NBA players of each generation and trying to take different aspects of each player’s game. That’s what I try to do in business.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I believe I have. Between the different applications and training programs I have created since 2010, I have been able to help over 100,000 business owners, marketers and Entrepreneurs — in some capacity. Even if a fraction of those learned something from me or used our software to help change their life, I’m humbled to be a part of it.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- The Power of Relationships: I always knew about the popular phrase “it’s all about who you know”, but I never really connected the dots when it came to running an online business. I felt it was an antiquated quote that applied to the old school rules of business. Little did I know that networking, building relationships and connections would have such a profound impact on my business.
- That Creating a Product/Service is Just the Beginning: When I first started to create products, I always felt that once the product was done, that was it. In fact, it was just the beginning. There is so much more that goes into a business. Everything from sales, marketing, on-boarding, user-experience, optimization, customer service, product improvements, etc…
- The Ability to Overcome Challenges: Starting a business is hard. That’s why most people work for someone else or start a business that fails within the first two years. I’ve come to realize that the people and companies that succeed are the ones who can learn to overcome the daily challenges that come their way. If there were never any roadblocks standing in your way to building a successful company, everyone would do it.
- Customers are not Numbers: For years, I always looked at my customers as numbers. Conversion rates, churn rates, sales, revenue, EPCs, CLTV, transaction value…I could go on and on.
What I realized is that behind those numbers was a treasure trove of information. Information that would help to not only build your business, but steer it in the direction for great success. As Entrepreneurs, I think we all have a bit of a chip on our shoulders, assuming we know everything and what’s right. However, in actuality, the only thing that matters is what your customer thinks. That’s why we’ve implemented a number of ways that we communicate with our customers to give them a voice, a platform on how we are doing, where we need to go and how we can be better. That mentality is ingrained into our DNA.
- Identifying Areas of Lost Profit: One of the reasons we created PayKickstart in the first place, was we realized that many of the other shopping carts and affiliate management platforms we tried in the past were leaking massive amounts of lost profit in our business. This personally affected our ability to grow from 2013–2015.
Everything from paying unnecessary per-transaction fees, not having a dunning sequence in place to recapture failed transactions/re-bills, not leveraging 1-click up-sells to increase conversion rates and average order value, not integrating with 3rd party apps we use to power our business and many other things that added up. Once we resolved these areas of lost profit, it added an additional “0” to our bottom line.
What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I think if I could inspire a movement it would have to be surrounding the education system, which I feel is broken and outdated. The point of a formal education is to prepare you for the real world.
Maybe it’s just me, but I felt that 90% of what I learned in my college classes could not be applied to much of what I have done as a business professional.
If they only taught me…
• The DNA and habits of successful Entrepreneurs
• Studying the lives of the most successful Entrepreneurs
• Work-life balance as an Entrepreneur
• Understanding product-market fit
• Solving ONE product for ONE niche can make you amazingly successful
• Learning MVP and Go-to-market Strategies
• Analyzing competitors and finding your advantages
• Creating a culture that breeds innovation and forward-thinking
…as you can imagine I could go on forever, but I think you get the point. This is the type of movement and change I could get behind.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If plan A doesn’t work, the alphabet has 25 more letters — 204 if you’re in Japan.”
I love this quote as I think any Entrepreneur can relate. How often does everything go exactly to plan? Usually never, right? As you can probably see, there is a common theme with my answers. They speak to having a well-researched plan in place, but never being afraid to adapt and roll with the punches.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would have to say Warren Buffet. While in a different industry, it’s so refreshing to see a man as wealthy as him, be so humble, modest and such a great role model.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this
About the author:
Phil La Duke is a popular speaker & writer with more than 400 works in print. He has contributed to Entrepreneur, Monster, Thrust Global and is published on all inhabited continents. His most recent book is Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention listed as #16 on Pretty Progressive magazine’s list of 49 books that powerful women study in detail. Follow Phil on Twitter @philladuke or read his weekly blog www.philladuke.wordpress.com