Welcome to episode fifteen of the SaaS Backwards podcast, where we interview CEOs and CMOs of fast-growing SaaS firms to reveal what they are doing that's working, and lessons learned from things that didn't work as planned.
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Refersion CEO on Affiliate/Influencer Marketing Programs and their Effects on Successful Liquidity Event
Alex Markov, CEO, Refersion
Edited for clarity and readability
Host, Ken Lempit:
Welcome everyone to SaaS Backwards. The podcast that helps SaaS CEOs and CMOs to accelerate growth and enhance profitability. We take a look at what's working for growing SaaS companies, leadership decision-making, what did and didn't work and why.
Our guest today is Alex Markov. He's CEO of Refersion. It's a SaaS that helps its users to manage and track ambassador, influencer, and affiliate marketing programs. Hey Alex, welcome to the podcast.
Thank you for having me. Glad to be here.
Happy to have you. Alex, before we dig into the Refersion story, maybe you could just tell us a little bit about yourself, how you got to be a founder of a SaaS and just a little bit about the company itself.
I started Refersion approximately seven years ago. Prior to that, I have worked in primarily digital marketing, paid search, and SEO firms. Another interesting tidbit about me is I've been a developer since I was a kid before it became as powerful as it is today. I've always been interested in technology, which is part of the reason why I started a SaaS company to work in the space that I knew in marketing, but also to use my skills as a developer.
That is interesting because the past few CEOs and CMOs that I've interviewed have come at it from the business side, not the technology side. So, maybe give me some insight into how you chose this space from the vantage point of being a digital marketer and technologist, how did you decide upon affiliate influencer marketing?
That's a good question. I actually worked in the space, these days we use the word influencer marketing a lot, back when I started my career we didn't have that term. People often called it affiliate marketing, and I learned a lot from the inside of how those firms operate, what the important KPIs are and I grew my career through it.
Towards the end, there was a rise of the influencer, so I saw changes happening and I saw that the market needed something that didn't exist, but also the technology did exist, it just needed to be reimagined in some ways. So, part of the reason I built Refersion was to take the things that were being done well in the industry (I kept those) but the things that were not, I decided to see if I could innovate on those things.
Interesting—the affiliate marketing space was well defined, but the influencer component of transacting online was not being addressed by the existing solutions. Is that correct?
I think that there were several challenges that I saw.
A simple example is when merchants want to just create an affiliate or influencer program for their store, the ramp-up onboarding took months and that's because of around that time, the e-commerce platforms were really enterprisey, required engineering teams and it made it really hard to get into the door.
At the same time, one of the things that was happening probably six, seven years ago was companies like Shopify and BigCommerce and the like we're making... it's much easier for anybody to sell online. I saw a lot of growth there and the thing that I really thought needed to be solved is the ability for brands to just click a button and get going quickly. And that was one of the major pieces that was missing.
So, you had a developer mindset, but really there's a deep understanding of some specific pain points that needed to be addressed. I think that's really consistent among a lot of the startup founders is that there's something not being handled in an optimal way. So here we had big implementations takes too long, too complicated, so hard to get going.
My insertion wasn't to build a developer product, it was for brands to have a new channel for their own marketing. I just wanted to use my own engineering skillset to figure out a way to remove that from them, which I found interesting personally. But again, I wanted to build a product that marketing teams could use.
Let's turn to the early days of the company and this key decision. And we've addressed this a few times on the podcast, the bootstrapping versus VC funding. I'd love to hear for our listeners, what it means to you as the CEO, in terms of your ability to make the firm into the thing you want it to be. So the control points on the culture and how you made the stress because it was an intentional life.
It wasn't intentional from day one--it was something that I wrestled with a lot. The challenge with bootstrapping is that you have to go slower, you have to hire people slower, and you have to be more mindful of spend.
But I think in my opinion, the perks are so much bigger.
It allowed us to rule our own destiny and be mindful about what the important metrics (KPIs) are for our business. And luckily it worked out for us.
My intention was always to build an amazing product and I thought revenue would come eventually.
My thinking was, if we were going to focus on the product, move slowly, make the right decisions, and learn, bootstrapping was the right course.
I guess there's a couple of questions I have on that, which is you had to have some funding to start. So it'd be interesting to know where the initial capital came from to build. And then what's it like trying to sell a product when you're not venture fueled. Those early customer gains. Is there some learning there for other CEOs (or want to be CEOs) to take the minimum viable product to market? That's really what we're talking about here.
In hindsight, I think what made our business work is that we used the skills that we had and doubled down on those.
I didn't have that much funding. When I started Refersion, I was working nights. I slept four or five hours a day for a period of six months. I don't recommend that, but that's how I got around it. I was able to live, but it probably wasn’t the best way.
But that's how I built my business.
Technically, I started it with $500. I just kept grinding until I figured out how I could pay my rent, which wasn't too much money for me at that time luckily.
I was single and didn’t have children, so that also helped.
So, I grinded until I minimized my risk and until I was comfortable with that risk.
I looked at my worst-case scenario, which was that I would just go back to work, but even then would be better off because of what I learned about business that I did not have a chance to learn prior.
That's really an awesome story. The idea that you're moonlighting became your business and that you were able to follow that through. I managed to rock band by night and worked for IBM by day in my early career. So I know that burning the candle at both ends. It's not easy.
You would do the same thing over again. It sounds like you were having fun. I was enjoying building a product. Sounds like you were enjoying the rock and roll lifestyle.
It was awesome. I think there's some real truisms in something you said--I learned a lot about the real world of business--to sell something and to productize something that was loosely formed--some 20 something kids that knew how to play their instruments but didn't have a product yet. Over the course of a few years it became a business. So it sounds like there's a theme here. What was it like getting those first few customers? Is there any learnings as you look back on that that might be worth sharing with folks? How did you get the first few to say, yeah, I'll give it a run?
I don't know if this terminology is still like followed or used. I did the lean startup approach. And by that I mean, I actually figured out a way to test the need for this product before having it.
I set up a landing page, which was a one-page website with a form or emails. So it just went through like a MailChimp list.
Based on my small market research, I realized what customers needed. It was four or five main features like commission payments, tracking, and integration.
I put up page with those four or five bullet points of what we did, and I went on a couple of forums and I asked people to put in their email if they want something like this.
I think within a couple of days, I had over 200 registrations. So that was my first like light bulb moment where I realized this can work. I don't know if I'm necessarily the one to solve it, but there's a need. So I felt like I should try to see if I could be that person. I think the first time I felt that way where I've made small projects and just thinkers on other small ideas in the past, but this was the most glaring moment I had as far as, that I had a chance of success.
You used the tools of the digital marketer to do your own research and give you some confidence that you were thinking the right way.
I don't think I've thought of it that way, but I suppose so. I just built a landing page, optimized it and saw who it resonated with.
A lot of times the training and the instincts we have get deployed, and then we looked back and I was like, “Oh yeah--that's part of the larger frame of reference I already had. It's how I see that story.” You already were a digital marketer, right? So now you're just using those tools to figure out what might resonate with your potential clients.
Are there other teachable moments from the early days in your bootstrap life?
I think if we're talking about a bootstrap versus VC, I think one of the things I realized is that I wasn't good at raising money--I wasn't the raising money type of person. It requires a certain skillset. I think it requires you to concentrate on your investor story 24/7 while I was concentrating on my product feature set 24/7.
I think when you’re a sole founder (like I was at the time) you must decide whether to build your product or raise money. Both paths are good, but I realized that each of those things is the full-time job. And you can certainly do both, but it's very hard to do them both as a sole founder.
Raising money, and then serving that boss is a very different path. When we did our call before the podcast, you were talking about making decisions based on the longer term and some things you have to put off like hiring. Is there some insight you want to share about how you decided to make those initial hires and when you knew you were ready?
Hiring early on was terrifying as a bootstrap company. I'll always admit to that.
When you're a bootstrapped, you're looking at your bank balance probably more than you should to ensure that you have enough money to invest. Every dollar counts, and hiring is expensive, especially if you want to hire more senior people.
It was terrifying.
But I remember my first hire was on the customer success side of the house. And my thought there was that I just found myself spending a lot of time on support when I needed to spend more time on figuring how do I make the product easier to use. And I thought that if I don't invest in that, I could potentially die under my own weight.
I had to bite that bullet and go with it.
But secondly, I would also say that hiring is very hard to find the right person. It takes a few go arounds. And as you grow, the people that you need for every stage of your business changes.
So customer success was an early focus on hiring. We have a past podcast about a bootstrapped firm called Lemlist. It's a sales enablement platform based in France. The CEO talks about his job almost entirely has been customer success. Do you think that's an important part of what got you to where you are today, that focus on the customer?
I think so.
What I tell customers is even to this day, the thing that differentiates our company from its competitors, is the fact that we invest in our customer support team. When our customers call us, the chances are that someone they know by name is going to pick up.
I always wanted to make sure that our support team and account management team become friends with our customers, and that there's someone that they can rely on.
And even if we don't have a feature that maybe our competitor has, they feel comfortable with our product because they know the people working within our company.
I think that focus on the customer, especially if it's your first go in a SaaS from, it's not always obvious that the focus on the customer is maybe as or were more important than the focus on features and benefits. You need a core feature set so people can use the product, but they have to have a good experience with you or they won't last. And under investing there is real critical mistake.
Let’s talk about how you've scaled up the business. So relatively small company, even today, but growing really well. And you found a channel to market that maybe wasn't being exploited by your competition. As you alluded to it early on in terms of the ecosystem you were plugging into, but I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about that.
Yeah. One of the things that we did early on is we made it very easy to integrate into platforms. And not only platforms, but we also kept an eye on how people are finding us and what their actual integration is beyond Refersion.
One example of one learning that we saw it as we're a traditional SaaS business, the obvious customer acquisition flow is someone goes to their website, sign stuff, puts it on a credit card, and then they have a monthly fee charged.
Another side of our business that we've slowly built out is how we work with partners like agencies. We've noticed that sometimes merchants will engage with an agency, people who build their website or people who integrate their systems to craft their e-commerce experience, and companies like us, platforms and other partners will often actually be brought in by the agency.
The actual merchant doesn't go looking for us all the time. They may engage with an agency so that they can tell them who's best to solve their need. So we spent a lot of time and especially earlier on, we wanted to make sure that we create the right materials, can teach agencies about our offering so that when the customers asked for it, that we're able to be the solution provider.
Our job is to make the agency look good so that they can provide added value to their customers through our service. And we just want to make sure that we also provide support for the people who actually do the work and technology build outs.
So there's an amplification effect. You're not just doing your own sales. You're not trying to do the SDR phone and email outreach--you have partners who are driving business results for their clients and incorporating you in their solutions. That's like the agency model.
You also mentioned that you're connected with things like Shopify. I assume there's some overlap there?
There are Shopify implementation agencies—it’s a whole ecosystem.
In fact, I think that's where I met one of your colleagues--at a Shopify event. That's how we met your firm a couple of years ago.
But is that integration with platforms like Shopify what allowed you to not to have that traditional go-to market?
It's like the venture field go-to market is SDRs and AEs with a lot of outbound pressure. And here what we have is we built something that we were confident was fit for purpose, now we're looking for partners to help us get in front of opportunity.
How important was the software ecosystem to that versus the people ecosystem?
I think we were one of the first apps in the Shopify App Store. I can't thank them enough. (Shopify and others.)
They invest heavily in their partner ecosystem, and one of the things that we've spent a lot of time on is making sure that we plug in the right way and make it really easy for merchants to connect with us with our system.
We have a partnerships team and we have a customer success team, and we often connect if a customer calls us and says, “I need help with integrating this from this that technical,” we'll loop in a partnerships person and connect them to an agency that we think can help them.
We want to be the connection point because we know that will create value, but it has to be at the right time and it has to be with the right team in place.
Really interesting. You benefit by helping folks, even if it's going to take some time for that benefit to come.
I don't think we're always the best solution if a merchant is just starting out. We want to plug in when there's the right plan in place and the right marketing that ideally the merchants have researched the right influencers for themselves. And I think that's when we'll provide the most value.
So I want to shift gears with you to where we are today, which is you recently actually sold the business or much of the business--that total change in direction. I think it'd be interesting to just unpack a bit how you decided it was time and who you looked for as a partner in the process. What was the decision process?
Well, I wouldn't say it's a complete shift, to be honest. And secondly, we weren't out in the market asking people to buy us.
I knew that as all companies grow up, they go through stages and they will be some sort of event that we would need for us to grow faster. We're at that point where I think the market is changing very quickly and we want to be ready.
We're still a small company, but we're thinking at the end of this year, we'll be around 70 people. So we can't always be as nimble as we once were, which is a couple people in a room. So, we needed to align ourselves with the right people.
For us, that company was Assembly, which we're part of now.
And the reason why I said it's not a complete shift is because I think we have now like the best of both worlds where we can run the business in a way that we have been, but it's on steroids.
If we need to find a key hire or key executive, the Assembly will connect us with amazing recruiters or contractors. Problems are solved faster.
We were in a weird place before where weren’t big enough to create processes and mature, but we weren't small enough where we could like maneuver quickly enough without having some debt or tech in place.
Assembly gives us the right team.
There are also other companies under the Assembly umbrella that we’re excited to work with.
We're able to create a one-plus-one-equals-three solution that we can present to our customers when it makes sense with other offerings in Assembly family.
We can often get insight faster through other learnings that their cousin companies have.
It’s a really exciting time and I'm glad we chose the company that allows us to still be Refersion, but make sure that we do not lose out in the changing space that's happening.
Everybody's money is green, but not everybody's money is good. There are investors who are good partners and are additive to the business, and then there are those that just present difficulties really in the end. How did you figure out who folks were? How did you discern they were the right partner?
Well, part of it is the leap of faith. We were lucky and we had conversations with several people.
There were companies that had smart people and nice people, but they just didn't align with our culture and couldn’t align with it. I thought was a bit of a red flag.
Our culture has always been tinkerers and builders and curious people. And I thought, if that did not persist, that the company would be something else, and I didn’t think that our employees would appreciate that.
My number one goal is to make sure that Refersion exists way into the future, and that our employees are happy and that they love working and they feel something for the company in a positive way. And I thought our culture was what would do it. So far I've been right.
That's terrific. Can you give us a little insight into what's next for Refersion? You have greater resources. What does that mean for the near term future?
When we were acquired, we had 20 people. At the end of this year we're hoping to be at 70. So we're at almost 3X growth.
So I think right now a lot of my focus is on hiring. We align ourselves with the right team members. We're also investing in other sides of our business that we could not have before. For example, partnerships, which I talked about before. We just hired a couple of people for that team and we'll continue to hire.
We're also working on a couple of key projects that I'm really excited for. One is actually in the payment side. So we'll help facilitate the payments for influencers one way or another. So I'm really excited about that.
I don't want us to say too much just because it's the work in progress, but I think that'll be interesting. And another thing we're thinking about is how we become a more remote company. We have right now two offices, one in New York City and one in Miami, Florida, but now we're hiring more remote people and the changing state of the world is how we engage with people who are not sitting next to us.
That's an exciting time and new world also. Trying to figure things out about making a remote organization that still reflects our culture. Motivating and managing people remotely is a very different world than when we're all in one place.
How can people learn more about Refersion?
Just refersion.com. An easy way to remember is it's referral and conversion. You can also email me it's email@example.com. If I can help in any way, I'm happy to do it.
Our guest has been Alex Markov, CEO and founder of Refersion. And folks who want to reach me, I'm on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/kenlempit, and I'm at firstname.lastname@example.org. And I'm going to be checking out that agency partner program, just might come in handy for one or two of my clients, so we might be talking again soon.
Happy to help. I appreciate the opportunity to do this, and hopefully I've provided some ideas for the listeners.
Thanks for listening to the SaaS Backwards podcast brought to you by Austin Lawrence Group. We are a growth marketing agency that helps SaaS firms reduce churn, accelerate sales, and generate demand. Learn more about us at www.austinlawrence.com. You can email Ken Lempit at email@example.com about any SaaS marketing or customer retention subject. We hope you'll subscribe, and thanks again for listening.