Interview with Isaac Saldana (SendGrid)
SendGrid is a cloud based transactional email service provider.
I interviewed Isaac Saldana, SendGrid founder to find out more. This is the hundred and ninety seventh in a series of DW startup interviews. Big thank you to Isaac!
How would you describe SendGrid in under 50 words?
SendGrid is built for developers, by developers. We aim to master email deliverability, so businesses can focus on their core product, not email.
How did you meet co-founders Tim Jenkins and Jose Lopez?
Tim, Jose, and I met at UC Riverside. While at school, I spent a lot of time at the computer science lab working on various projects. Tim worked there and was eager to have someone help him, so he offered me a job. While we worked there, we became fast friends with Jose, who was also a developer and a regular there. Actually, Jose ended up taking a job at the lab after Tim left.
So that lab at UC Riverside was the starting point of an almost decade-long friendship that has seen us collaborate on a bunch of different business ideas and startups.
How did the idea for SendGrid come about?
SendGrid started from me trying to solve a problem I was facing while working on some apps after college. The apps I was building all had email components and I became really frustrated that the emails I was generating from the apps weren’t being delivered. I talked to a bunch of my developer friends and realized that all of their projects needed email too. But, none of them were good at developing the email part, or they weren’t interested in doing it well.
So I decided that I would master email deliverability. At the time, I didn’t have any idea of how big the market was for this. I was really just trying to fix my own problem. I really encourage everyone to solve their own problems initially, because if you’re thinking about doing a startup, the worst-case scenario is if that startup doesn’t work, you can still end up using that product or service that you created while trying to fix your problem. In my case, it was one of those things where I started solving the problems that I had and it eventually ended up turning into the company that SendGrid is at this time.
How long did it take to put together the initial version of SendGrid?
Tim, Jose, and I originally developed the idea in March 2009. At the time, we named the company SMTPAPI.com. Not very catchy, but it got the point across. Things moved pretty quickly after that because in May, we were accepted into the TechStars accelerator program in Boulder. I had applied to TechStars before with a different idea, so it was very encouraging to be admitted for SMPTAPI.com, which we quickly renamed SendGrid.
TechStars was an incredible experience for us, especially because of the mentorship it provided. The mentorship we received there shaped a lot of the important decisions that we made when we first started, and still impacts our decision making today. TechStars also helped give us a better reputation—we got the passive benefits of being associated with such a reputable program.
You recently received over $21M in series B funding. What was this process like and how long did it compare to the seed and series A rounds?
We’ve looked at securing funding as an opportunity to both grow our network and to learn from our investors. We knew from the start that raising funding would be a valuable learning experience for us—one that we needed to better understand our product and the market.
We closed our seed round in November 2009. Series A followed in April 2010, and Series B in early 2012. We feel very fortunate to have received the funding that we have, and to be able to benefit from our investors’ mentorship and experience—our investors are an important part of our team. But, I want fellow entrepreneurs to know that it’s not an easy process. We definitely heard a lot of “nos” along the way. You always will. But, it’s important to not be afraid of failure—kind of like an athlete. You’re going to fall down, or miss a shot, but you have to keep trying.
Who do you see as your target audience? How are you reaching them?
SendGrid was built for developers, by developers. We strive to make developers’ lives easier, so we want to be everywhere that developers are—hackathons, summits, conferences, universities, etc. Our Developer Evangelist Team travels the globe to find out how people are using email and how we can help. We have a community forum on our site strictly for developers and we actively engage on Twitter. We always want to be a part of the conversation.
You send thousands of emails a second, have you had any difficulties in finding talented developers who can handle these scaling challenges?
Finding talented technical developers can definitely be a challenge, but we hope that by creating the right work culture, we can help combat these hiring challenges. If you create a strong culture, good talent will come.
When we started SendGrid, we kept asking ourselves, why did we want to start a company? Why did we want to change the world? And the answer was that we wanted to be happy. So, we’ve built SendGrid on some key principles that make us happy and make us love coming to work. We focus on professional development, encourage everyone to be open about making mistakes, so we can all learn from them, and believe that everyone should be the CEO of their own position. We also hire based on what we like to call the 4H’s: honesty, humility, happiness, and hunger. We feel that by setting these expectations, we’ll attract good people regardless of how challenging the market is.
As your customers grow your revenue increases, very helpful when you have clients such as Pinterest. Was this something you thought about early on?
Because we started with other like-minded startups in the TechStars program, we were an easy fit for organizations that were getting started just like us. There is always the “new cool application” and we have been lucky to call many of those, like foursquare, Pinterest and Spotify, customers.
You primarily focus on transactional emails, but have also built a newsletter offering, how did this come about?
Email is always changing. Transactional email has been the bulk of our business, but marketing email is also important. Marketers are using email now more than ever to attract and retain customers, so it’s important for us to have an offering that caters to them as well. We don’t want to just be good at one type of email; we want to master it all.
What is your primary focus in terms of new developments at the moment?
We’re always concentrating on a lot of different initiatives. We recently introduced a new internal effort, SendGrid Labs that is spinning out tools that have helped us scale, for other developers to use. Labs just launched loader.io, a free load testing app that allows developers to stress their apps with up to 50,000 concurrent connections.
We also just released a service that helps developers debug webhooks in real time. We never want to stop innovating, so you’ll see a lot more initiatives from us being rolled out in the near future.
What made you decide to bring in an outside CEO?
Initially, I was both a developer and the CEO and when the company got to over ten people, it was obvious that I needed to focus on one single thing. In my case, I really wanted to focus on coding. I relied on my mentors to help me make the decision—luckily, a lot of the mentors that I had were also a part of SendGrid’s board. One of the best decisions as CEO that I ever made was to bring in another CEO.
A lot of people ask me if it was hard to turn over the reins. It actually wasn’t difficult at all. I like to use an analogy to explain it—when you have a kid, by the time they turn five and they have to go to school, you have two options. You have the option to teach them yourself and home school them, or you send them to school if you don’t feel confident you’re going to be able to teach them the best. In my case, it was similar where I knew bringing in a new CEO was one of the best decisions I’d made. Initially, I was worried like you worry the first time you send your kid to school but at the end of the day you know that’s one of the best decisions.
How do you differentiate yourselves from your competitors?
We really focus on providing top-notch customer support. We value companies who provide incredible service, like Zappos and Rackspace, and aim to provide the same great service that they do. Our developer-minded focus also differentiates us. We go through the same issues that developers do, so we speak their language. And again, culture is really important, by creating an environment where people love to work, it shows through in everything that we do.
What advice would you offer to any soon to be startup founders out there?
Go for it. And when you do, look for mentorship. Your mentors will provide you with invaluable guidance. And don’t be afraid of failure. Expect it. It humbles you. Starting your own company isn’t easy, but the rewards you receive from the challenges you face while building it are priceless.
What are you most excited about at the moment?
Right now, I’m really excited about the Research and Development projects we have underway, especially at SendGrid Labs with Loader.io. As a company that is built for developers, by developers, it’s really satisfying to be able to eliminate pain points for them where we can.
Finished reading? Check out SendGrid!