This guy built a $1 million business on top of the Gmail API

Ajay Goel. Source: Twitter

Every year we get new articles questioning whether “email is dead.” With the proliferation of social media and messaging apps, it seems only natural to ask what will replace a decades-old electronic messaging system that really hasn’t changed much in all the years we’ve used it.

But email has remained resilient, and it’s even experienced a renaissance of sorts lately. In the wake of Facebook’s algorithm changes that are designed to hurt content providers, more and more publishers are launching new email newsletter products. It’s impossible these days to fire up a podcast or watch a YouTube video without encountering an ad for Mailchimp.

And of all the email providers, Gmail is king. The Google-operated service has over 1 billion users and is one of the few major email platforms that are actually continuing to innovate. In 2014, it opened up its API to developers, allowing them to build new products that Gmail users can install.

It was around this time that Ajay Goel was on the lookout for an opportunity to launch a new business. It was while he was looking around for a tool that would send mass emails that he came up with the idea for Gmass, an add-on that allows users to schedule and send mass emails directly from their Gmail accounts.

I interviewed Goel about his long career of building email-based tools and why he doesn’t think email’s going away anytime soon.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player, or you can play the YouTube video below. If you scroll down you’ll also find a transcript of the interview.

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A transcript is below.

Simon Owens: Hey Ajay, thanks for joining us.

Ajay Goel: Hey Simon, I’m glad to be here.

The reason I brought you on is so we can talk about the surprising resilience of email, despite all these headlines we’ve seen over the years about how email is dying. I was looking at your LinkedIn profile, and it looks like you’ve been running email-based startups going all the way back to 2000. How did you first get into building email products?

I started off as a web developer right out of college. So in my last couple years of university, there was this growing movement to get on the internet for the first time, set up a home page. Learning HTML was a hot, trendy thing to do. I fell into that and really liked it.

So right out of the gate after I graduated from university, I started making websites for friends of my dad, who owned small businesses in the Ohio area. I did that for a few years, and one of the projects that I got was for a Chicago-based mutual fund. They needed a way to allow people to register on their website, but then they wanted a convenient way to send an email campaign to those people that were registered on their website. At the time, there was really no elegant solution to do that without forcing them to export data out of some other database system and import their data into some desktop email platform. I decided to build a more automated way for them to do it. That was the genesis of my email software career.

It’s amazing how many startups start that way. They’re building custom products, noticing clients want something, and basically taking that and turning it into an automated, standalone product. I did an article a year ago about people who created this really automated way of growing email lists by building quizzes, and then in order to get the results of your quiz, you had to input your email address. It was just something that clients were asking them to do, and they just decided to make a product out of it. It’s interesting how that’s often the case.

I found that most web-based products are a result of one of two things. It was the company solving a problem that they had themselves, and then automating that solution. Or they started out as a custom web development shop like I did and built something for a client or themselves that they then turned into a product and stopped developing websites. Mailchimp, which is one of the most well-known email marketing platforms on earth, that company started out like me, as a web development company.

You also fell in sideways to your current company, GMass, right? I think I was reading something that you working on another product and you accidentally stumbled into your main feature project.

I was in a lull period of my life trying to figure out what to do. I had sold my prior company, and I had stumbled upon this idea of wanting to correct people’s emails for them, and that’s what the Wordzen product is. And then in operating that product, I needed a way to send a low-volume campaign to a handful of clients, or a handful of employees, or a handful of my editors. I tend to live inside my Gmail account, and I had just assumed that there was some plugin that someone had already written that would allow me to do that, to send an easy, personalized email to like 15 people.

There wasn’t. I started thinking, wow, maybe there’s an opportunity here, because there was just beginning to be this momentum around building extensions and plugins for Gmail. And the fact that nobody had written a mass email system for Gmail set me into motion, and I wanted to do it.

So it’s a system for sending automated emails, but sending to such a low number of people that it wouldn’t make sense to get a Mailchimp or a Constant Contact.

Yeah, that’s the way Gmass started, a way to send out a couple hundred emails, maybe a couple thousand emails. Most people don’t know this, but if you have a Gmail account, you’re allowed to send 500 emails a day from your Gmail account. And if you have a G-Suite account, which is your business domain that’s hosted by Gmail, then you’re allowed to send 2,000 emails a day.

So with Gmass, you can send up to those limits. And actually now you can send over those limits because we’ve built out the product so that not all of your emails have to go through your Gmail account

So you built this on top of Gmail’s API, correct?

Correct. The timing was in my favor because Gmail released its API in June of 2014, and that was the time that I was beginning to think about building new products. Without the API, none of this would be possible.

Is it a SaaS-based product? What’s the monetization?

GMass is a SaaS-based product. It’s based on monthly subscription fees. For Gmass, the price is anywhere from $7 a month to $20 a month, just based on a couple different feature offerings.

So I saw you grew this to a $1 million a year business?

Yeah, I just crossed the $1 million a year threshold a couple months ago. We got some press around that. It was a milestone achievement. For such a low cost product where our growth is dependent on a high volume of users and constant growth. And I’ve always managed to run my startups in a fairly lean fashion.

How many employees do you have?

There’s only two full-time people. Myself, and I have a colleague. And I have a few part time contractors that help out here and there.

So the overhead right now is pretty low, I’m guessing.

Yeah, the most money I’m spending every month right now is on Facebook ads. There’s probably some more optimization I could do around that. A lot of that is probably wasted money right now.

But then we have an Amazon AWS bill. A little bit of a payroll just based on employees and contractors. And then some development costs. I think where a lot of companies have a lot of support costs — a lot of SaaS companies and email marketing platforms have high support costs, we’ve managed to keep our support costs really low. We have this model where we tell our customers that we are relying on them to mainly support themselves. We’re here for them if they can’t figure out a problem on their own. But GMass is targeted towards the somewhat sophisticated user that generally doesn’t need a lot of email marketing support.

That’s pretty amazing. Is it mainly through Facebook that you’ve generated the user base? How did it get such wide adoption?

Our biggest source of signups is the content we’ve written. I’ve written a lot of detailed technical content about how to do various things in Gmail. For instance, one of our most popular blog posts is how to send a mass email to all of your Gmail contacts. Another popular post is how to break Gmail’s sending limits.

I’ve written a ton of Gmail-related content that ties in your Gmail account and the email marketing concept, and that content ranks fairly well from an SEO perspective. That’s our biggest source of leads.

So people land on the article, they read it, but you have calls to action to try to get them to convert into subscribers of your product.

Yeah, exactly. On every blog post, the main call to action is to install and sign up for Gmass. Once that’s done, then they have a free GMass account. They can use it to send up to 50 emails a day. That’s how the plan works. And then we hope that, at some point, they need to send more than 50 emails a day, and that’s when we hope they’ll turn into a paying subscriber.

[LIKE THIS ARTICLE SO FAR? THEN YOU’LL REALLY WANT TO SIGN UP FOR MY NEWSLETTER. IT’S DELIVERED ONCE A WEEK AND PACKED WITH MY TECH AND MEDIA ANALYSIS, STUFF YOU WON’T FIND ANYWHERE ELSE ON THE WEB. SUBSCRIBE OVER HERE]

It’s interesting how you did the content how there wasn’t a lot of competition on the how-to articles. I did an article about this guy who was an accountant, and he basically was a wizard at Excel, but then he started getting into Google Spreadsheets. This was back when Google Spreadsheets was considered an amateur product. But as it became more robust, he started writing all kinds of how-to blog posts about it. And because the Excel how-to content space was really crowded, but nobody was writing about how to do these complicated things with Google Spreadsheets. So he basically just dominated search results. Just on selling online courses around building Google tables, he was making $4,000 a month in passive income. Not including the consulting income from people hiring him to create custom stuff. It’s just really interesting how if you start creating content around a product that’s relatively new or under utilized, and then it becomes more popular, you can basically dominate that content niche within Google search results.

There’s tons of opportunity to write niche content that people actually need and seek out, that can drive traffic. Most content on company blogs sucks. And the reason it sucks is because there’s this whole world of content that’s being written by writers who are hired specifically for SEO purposes.

Writers that write for SEO purposes tend to write generic content that’s stuffed with keywords and phrases that they hope people are searching for. But that’s not the content that actually drives value for readers. When you write content that actually teaches your readers something, that’s the content that actually drives leads and conversions.

I didn’t write my content with the intent of ranking. I wrote my content with the intent of teaching, and then over time, the content ranked well.

Coders who write up very specific answers to technical queries, they do really well with search results. I had a CRM company as a client, and their technical posts on how to use Microsoft Dynamics CRM — they were just a small company, and yet they were getting 15,000 unique hits to their website a month just because so many people were Googling solutions to these very technical problems. It’s harder content to create because it requires a very technical skillset, and you can’t just hire a freelance writer to do it for you, but it pays off a lot.

Exactly. There’s the rub. The best content has to be written by the practitioner himself and can’t be outsourced. And what you just described is an example of that.

So you built this product on top of Gmail. Am I wrong in saying they’re one of the only email clients that are trying hard to innovate, to try and even transform what we expect out of an email platform?

I agree wholeheartedly with that. In the business world, there are basically two email platforms that dominate. There’s G-Suite, which is Gmail’s product. And then there’s Outlook, which is Microsoft’s offering. From what I’ve understood, Outlook has opened up their platform a little more to developers recently, but they have a lot of catching up to do before they make their platform has extensive as Gmail is.

Google has done a couple innovative things to make Gmail a better product. One, Gmail just went through an entirely fresh user interface redesign. If you have a Gmail account and you have not been converted over to the new look yet, you probably will over the next few weeks. They’re doing it in slots. Gmail has over 1.4 billion users, and I think they’re rolling it out slowly over time.

A second offering that Google has made to enhance Gmail, is they’ve added an add-on system, which is a way for developers to write third-party tools that show up on the right side of your Gmail account. They can do things and interact with your messages as you’re reading them. It’s a way to add more functionality as you’re adding to your Gmail account.

I was reading recently that they’re bringing AMP to Gmail and that you can basically launch websites within an email.

The idea for AMP — accelerated mobile pages — the idea is to allow you to do more within a Gmail message that you would, in the past, have to click a link to, and go to another website, to interact with. So the idea is to keep the user engaged with the user message, and allow them to complete actions within the email, keeping the experience within the Gmail app, rather than taking you to an outside website.

So for an example, you get a notification that your flight tomorrow is coming up, and here’s a link to check in. Traditionally you would click a link, and the link would take you to the airline’s website, and you’d log in from there and check in. AMP would allow you to check in right from within the email message.

And if that same message is sent to someone with a Hotmail or Outlook account, does that just render into a link or something?

AMP is an open standard that any email platform can support. I just think Gmail is one of the first that will support it. Certainly Outlook can support it as well. As an email marketing designer, I will have to design my email marketing campaign to look good and work in an optimal fashion for both AMP-based clients and non-AMP based clients. So I would design my campaign so that the links would work just fine if someone was using a non-AMP based tool.

So is there a burgeoning developer community around Gmail the same way there’s one around Android and iOS and all kinds of other platforms?

Totally. Similarly to how Apple launched the App Store for the iPhone when iPhone 1.0 came out, Gmail just launched an app store for Gmail about six months ago. It’s called the Gmail Add-on Store. And right now there’s about 30 apps in the add-on store. I expect that to grow.

For a long time, Google didn’t really recognize third-party developers that were building on top of Gmail. But just recently they’ve started to interact with us and communicate with us and let us know what’s going on behind the scenes so we can prepare for changes to Gmail. It’s a growing community. I’m one of many developers who are building functionality for Gmail right now.

Is it just me, or has email really made a comeback in recent years? You’re seeing fewer email is dying headlines. Publishers are taking their email campaigns a lot more seriously. Why do you think that is?

I wouldn’t even say that email is making a comeback. I would argue that email was never on a decline to begin with. It’s easy to publisher an article about how email is dying, because there tends to be a fatigue, or a dislike associated with email, because it can take up a lot of time. And so, I think a lot of people would like to have email die and have it replaced with something else. But the truth of the matter is that the reason it’s around is because it’s such an efficient form of communication. Email could be replaced with something else, but you’re still going to have to communicate with people as part of your living and your job. The number of people you communicate with, or the substance of your message, is going to drive how much time you spend on it.

The metrics have always shown an increase in the use of email year to year. A couple of those metrics, you could take a look at Mailchimp, the behemoth in the email marketing space. Every year they publish a report, and if you look at their reports, every year the volume of email they send out goes up. You can also take a look at other public data, like SendGrid, which is one of the largest players in the transactional email space. SendGrid became a public company less than a year ago. So they have a lot of publicly available data, and their data suggests they send more and more email on behalf of their clients as well.

And then, in the general email world, there’s all this development to make the email experience better. All this stuff we talked about with Gmail and developers, but also all this stuff to help you respond to email in a more efficient manner, or store chunks of text that you use frequently in emails and can insert into email just by pointing and clicking. There’s so much development and activity going on around it to make it a better experience, I haven’t seen any data-based indicators that email is dying, or being used less.

I focus on content and media. One thing I’ve noticed is while every publisher always had an email newsletter, it was always just a list of links, whereas now, a lot more publishers are launching newsletters with a lot more original content, that aren’t just links that are linking to their content. They’re doing more ambitious stuff with email. For instance, Vox has a healthcare newsletter that they send three times a week, and they basically send an entire exclusive column within the newsletter itself. You’re seeing more email-based publications like The Hustle or TheSkimm launch. It seems like newsletters as a business model — while email never decreased in terms of size, it seems like people are doing more ambitious stuff with email now.

I would agree with that. I’ve seen a couple trends. People are linking to the outside world less and putting more content into the actual email message. I found, and I think other people found, that that drives a better sense of engagement. Just the idea of having to click a link to read the rest of an article that you’ve started in the email message, it creates what we in the computer science world call context switching. You’ve left one experience, your email experience, to go to a webpage. There’s a gap there, an obstacle you have to overcome. To have more content within the email message provides a happier, more seamless experience for the user.

And the other trend I’ve noticed is that way back in the day when people started sending email campaigns, they would stuff their emails with links, but also big images. And it would look very campaignish. But recently, there’s been a trend towards making your email campaign just look like a regular email from a regular person. More text-based campaigns that are just text broken out into paragraphs with your actual email signature at the bottom. And then maybe an unsubscribe link under that. But people want their campaign emails to look like regular campaign emails.

I also wonder if it has to do with this backlash against Facebook. Brands and publishers have been frustrated for years that they’ve been relegated to less and less organic reach. They’ve been putting all this investment into Facebook, and now it’s getting really hard to reach the people who subscribe to them. Whereas email is an agnostic platform that isn’t controlled by a single company. They’re taking things back into their own hands. With email they feel like they have more control, and their subscribers are actually seeing the content they’re creating. This is them realizing the folly of putting so much investment in Facebook, and putting it instead in a platform where they can reach their consumers.

Yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head. I’ve found, and I think if you talk to any person who advertises a lot on Facebook in order to grow an audience, that one of Facebook’s biggest problems that was hardly touched upon by the Cambridge Analytica, is that of click fraud. It’s a very difficult problem to keep an eye on, because it’s sometimes hard to know that the clicks you’re paying for are real or legitimate, but there’s definitely a click fraud problem that reduces the return on investment when you’re paying for Facebook ads.

Who’s doing the click fraud? I’ve money into all sorts of social media advertising, and I’ve found Facebook to be the least reliable in terms of ROI. Twitter and LinkedIn ads have been so much better for me. And it’s because, no matter how narrow the parameters I have on Facebook for who I’m targeting, my content will start getting tons of likes on the page, but no click-through to the actual content itself. And then I click on the profiles of the people liking the content, and there doesn’t seem to be any indication that they fit the parameters of the people I wanted to target. And it’s just like random people. It’ll be some person who works in Ohio as a cashier at Burger King, even though I specified that they had this certain degree and worked with this certain job title. Who is actually perpetrating the click fraud itself?

It’s interesting you say that, because I found the exact same thing with my ad campaigns, and I’ve done the exact same thing. I’ll take a look at the people who are liking and sharing my ad, because I’m curious. And they don’t fit my target demographic and the people who are liking and sharing my stuff are liking tons and tons and tons of stuff. Every few minutes. It’s almost like it’s an automated fashion.

I haven’t done enough research to figure out who’s doing it and why it’s happening. I know I feel like I’m wasting a lot of money.

I think I read a few years ago that possibly these are people being paid to like pages, basically click farms, but in order to avoid detection, that they’re all coalescing around a certain brand who’s paid for those likes, they just likes everything that comes through their feed so it confuses the Facebook algorithm and makes it harder to identify them as a click farm.

Yeah, that fits in the realm of possibility.

Originally you were talking about email in comparison to people who are frustrated with Facebook ads. And so, anytime I’ve done a campaign where I try to reach my users, either via direct email and comparing to how I reach them on Facebook — the ease of the experience, and the return and engagement I get from sending an email campaign is just dramatically better. The measurement available, with open rates and clicks and conversions — you can track from the time someone read your email to the time someone converts — is so easy to set up nowadays, it’s the most direct way to get a message to somebody. There’s no better way to reach someone.

Speaking of organic reach, what are your thoughts on Gmail’s attempts to prioritize email into separate tabs. That seemed to upset a lot of email marketers who suddenly found their emails relegated to the promotions tab. Do you think there’s some nervousness within the community that Gmail’s turning into a Facebook, and that they’re eventually going to start algorithmically sorting your inbox in a way where it tries to predict what you want to read?

I don’t think Google would ever make the move where they attempt to algorithmically sort your inbox. That would destroy the experience that people are used to, which is seeing the most recent messages at the top and their older messages at the bottom. People are really comfortable with that order, and anything that would change that would be really frustrating.

Obviously, Facebook’s algorithm, or what shows up on your newsfeed, is constantly evolving. And that’s not a sequential newsfeed, so you can see items that are out of order, just based on how well connected you are to that Facebook friend. And Facebook organizes them based on things that are beneficial to them, and beneficial to the user.

So I don’t see Google messing with the order of your messaging. But as you said, they do have features to help you see certain messages in your priority inbox tab, as opposed to your promotions tab. I think at first it was a very daunting and scary scenario for email marketers because they suddenly realized that nobody is going to read my email if it ends up in the promotions tab, but what the data has shown, and what I’ve seen talking to colleagues in the industry, is that people actually do scan through their promotions tab and open up emails in their promotions tab if they are from companies they do business with regularly. That’s the whole idea with being successful with email marketing, providing content and offers that make your readers want to engage with you. The promotions tab is fairly ubiquitous now, where it’s almost like a second inbox, and I would venture to say that most email users are going through the emails in their promotions tab. So where people might have feared it was the death of email marketing because it was the inbox and promotions split, that’s been around for a while, and email marketing has also grown.

I’ve also seen data that it drove down open rates. I wonder if it’s this paradigm where if you’re the kind of person who opts in to subscriptions, you’re more likely to check the promotions tab, so you’re not going to see as much of a dip, but for the lots of companies that put you on their email list just because you used their product once, that don’t have a strong opt-in option, then those are the ones who were seeing declines because they weren’t checking their promotions tab.

There was a major law passed in the EU called GDPR, and GDPR makes it so if you’re doing business in the EU, when it comes to consent and making someone sign up for your list, one of the things that GDPR does not allow is to have a pre-filled check box saying I want to receive your newsletter. It requires active consent. So the checkbox needs to be blank.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

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