Vivek Sharma – Co-Founder & CEO, Movable Ink

Vivek is leading the charge to make email a more dynamic and relevant communication channel for marketers and consumers. With a background in both sales and product development, Vivek brings a potent combination of engineering talent and business savvy to his role as Movable Ink’s CEO.

Prior to co-founding Movable Ink, Vivek headed Eastern North American and EMEA sales for Engine Yard. Earlier in his career, he held senior roles at Blue Martini and Cisco Systems. Vivek graduated with a BS in Computer Science from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Tell me about your early career.
I never grew up thinking I’d be an entrepreneur. I just wanted to build cool things. I had a childhood dream of being an astronaut and liked to tinker with things like electronic kits and computers. After the Challenge disaster in 1986, I even wrote Ronald Reagan a letter volunteering to be the first kid in space. President Reagan wrote me back, but sadly it wasn’t an invitation to the next lunar mission. He encouraged me to continue studying math and science to serve this nation.

I entered college thinking I was going to be an aerospace engineer. That desire only lasted about a year when I realized that I’d be up to my eyes in differential equations and physics and that engineering was bound by physical laws. A new boundless frontier was opening up: the web. In 1993, during my freshman year at college, I came across NCSA Mosaic, one of the first web browsers. I later switched over to become a computer science major. Over the next few years, all the exciting things seemed to be happening on the web in mythic, faraway lands like Sunnyvale, Mountain View, and Palo Alto. I graduated in 1997 and a consulting firm placed me at a little company called Cisco Systems to work on network monitoring applications.

Cisco was different, but an enormous company and made me feel like a drop in a bucket. I quit my job, much to my manager’s surprise, and landed at a little 20-person startup called Blue Martini Software. BMS was home to the engineers who built Netscape Commerce Server and the top sales reps from Oracle and Siebel. The atmosphere was electric. I jumped aboard the pre-revenue company and helped build and release the first six versions of its enterprise commerce suite. Three years later, the company was over 700 people, worth $5 billion, and had been the fastest-growing application software company, to date. Sadly, the company came to a slow demise after the dot-com bust and enterprise software washout in the early 2000s. It was one of the most rewarding, taxing, brain-expanding periods of my life and I have taken many of those lessons to heart.

How did the concept for Movable Ink come about?
Way back in 2010, Michael (my co-founder & CTO) and I were intrigued by the potential of email. It’s a ubiquitous communications platform, it is open and decentralized, and your inbox knows a lot about who you are. When we looked about the landscape, we noticed that all the ESPs (email service providers) seem to be focused on more of the infrastructure side of email marketing. They would manage lists, allow basic segmentation, and help you get your emails delivered to the inbox. Content was often an afterthought.

Content is at the heart of marketing experience, so we decided to focus squarely on it. We added a unique twist when we found a way to detect recipient context at the moment an email is opened. This meant that emails were no longer frozen when sent, but could adapt to the individual’s device, weather, location, time, and much, much more. We thought we were on to something and Michael immediately began working on a duct-taped prototype while I went out to market test the idea.

How was the first year in business?
Tough. We were enamored with our idea, but email marketers didn’t really understand the point of our “live content” innovation. This may have been compounded by us mostly talking to small- and mid-market businesses because they were easier to get meetings with. We spent a long year trying to close customers and had mixed success with customers sticking around. Twelve months after we had started, we had about $200 in monthly recurring revenue to show. My wife was pregnant and our first baby was due in just two months. If I didn’t figure something out soon, I’d have to go out and get a “real job.”

And right then, we struck gold. A few of the companies we had been talking to were larger enterprises and had taken to our product. We closed a $6,000 pilot with a cable company, quickly followed by a $12,000 deal with an electronic game maker out of Silicon Valley. Then, we were able to turn that pilot into a $72,000 deal. The mother load! Most important, it proved to us that there was a real market and that it was enterprise marketers who we should be going after. We immediately switched gears and spent all of our efforts chasing enterprise brands and that’s when the business started to take off like a rocket.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Once we had product-market fit, things started happening very quickly. We went from $12,000 in revenue that first year to $860,000 our second year to $4,800,000 our third year. That entire time is a bit of a blur as I had a newborn baby and we were just trying to keep up with the rapid pace of the business. Sales pushed the entire business forward and forced us to hire client services people to support those new accounts, engineers to build new features and handle scale, a controller to ensure we were tracking income and expenses, legal support, recruiting, and a whole lot more. It was a stressful time but energizing as well. We had built a product that really meant something to marketers and everyone had the feeling that Movable Ink was on an amazing trajectory.

What was your marketing strategy?
In B2B, early stage marketing is simply sales. You could track ten people on your website using Google Analytics and still not know what’s going on in the minds of those visitors. Sales conversations, on the other hand, are high on signal, especially when your pitch is still evolving. Who agreed to meet with you? Did she bring other people to the meeting? How much time have you been given? Where do they seem to be leaning forward and where are you losing them? Did you get the follow-up? What worked? What didn’t work? We’d take our learnings from a single meeting and refine the conversation with the following prospect. This was evolution at lightning speed.

What this allowed us to do was hone and battle test our messaging, and at the same time, build the right products. We were ultra-responsive to customer feedback even when we were pushing them to do more sophisticated things with their marketing. Eventually, the learnings from these meetings worked their way into collateral, articles we wrote, keynotes we gave, and the content on our website. However, all of this started by having a conversation, and most importantly, listening. Even today, we believe marketing content should adapt as fluidly as a real conversation. In fact, we use Movable Ink’s intelligent content in our own client email newsletters to adapt to our customers context.

How do you define success?
Success is four things to me:

1) Delivering to our customers – We exist to help deliver marketing experiences our customers love. It’s a thrill for me to get emails we powered get shared, tweeted, and talked about. People are supposed to hate marketing emails! It’s also rewarding to see our customers at our events elevate their profile and get recognized and promoted for their hard work and for taking a bet on us. We go to the ends of the earth for our customers.

2) Developing our employees – I still remember what I disliked about working at large corporations and the things I loved about being in a startup. I want to make sure every one of our employees feels like they can have a big impact and knows what part they play in the company’s success. I also want to enable every employee to 10x their skills at Movable Ink. We have former junior reps running sales in half of the US. We have people who came aboard as individual contributors running large client success teams. It’s a thrill to see early employees grow and realize their full potential over the years.

3) Rewarding our investors – I still remember the first two investors who took a leap and wrote $25,000 checks to two young founders with just an idea and no real traction to show. No one needs to feel sorry for investors but let’s admit that investors put their own hard-earned money at risk when they don’t have to. Venture investors provide fuel for innovators and rule-breakers and getting them a great return on their trust will be a true satisfaction.

4) Growing as a person – I’ve always wanted to have a big impact on the world. I feel fortunate that I’ve gotten to learn so much about my own ability to grow and understand things that I never could imagine. Maturity and wisdom only come from living outside one’s comfort zone. I find that each day I’m growing as a person.

What is the key to success?
I have an easy one here: follow your curiosity. Don’t plan a career. That’s it.

Your curiosity leads you to growth opportunities. Many years ago, I moved to Tokyo to help Blue Martini’s sales team. Only problem, I was an engineer who knew nothing about sales and didn’t speak any Japanese. This was really not a good career move. This eventually led me to learn how sales really functions and also to get a sense for how a company expands internationally. Most engineers never take leaps like this, out of their comfort zone. The combination of these experiences was unique and gave me a bigger picture on how a global business works, from code to customer.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Empathy. When I look back, I realize how self-centered my life really was. In retrospect, the world really didn’t owe me anything. Something flipped, when my boys were born. Maybe, it was that they needed us constantly, but around that moment, I started to really feel the needs of other people. Achievement is great, but empathy is what binds us all.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“When you draw or paint a tree, you do not imitate the tree; you do not copy it exactly as it is, which would be mere photography. To be free to paint a tree or a flower or a sunset, you have to feel what it conveys to you: the significance, the meaning of it.” – Jiddu Krishanamurti

“Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” – Bill Gates

Responding to why PayPal produced so many great founders:

“Most people’s experiences with startups fall into one of two categories. Many work for startups that fail and learn that startups are impossible so they never try. Others work for startups like Google or Facebook and learn that startups are easy so they quit when it gets hard. Paypal was ‘just hard enough.’ Early PayPal employees learned that startups are really hard, but it is still possible to succeed.” – Peter Thiel

What are some of your favorite books?
The Age of Spiritual Machines – Ray Kurzweil has a prescient view of the future and the accelerating pace of technological change. Ray had his critics saying that he’s a techno-utopian and that he is too optimistic about the pace of change. However, I read this book in 1998 and looking back now, 19 years later, it’s striking to me how much he got right and if he has been off, it has been more about the timing of these events. It’s a great read to provoke and inspire one’s own ideas about the future.

Guns, Germs, and Steel – A fascinating book by Jared Diamond about the rise of civilization and how different cultures rose and fell due to random circumstances, such as climate and geography. It’s interesting to understand the non-intuitive factors that drove the development of agrarian culture, religion, and written language. For someone running a business today, it does provoke thoughts about what geographic and cultural factors they operate within.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
I can’t forget the holiday season at the end of 2014. Gmail started proxying images through their servers before they were rendered in the inbox. The change was made with good intentions, but effectively broke intelligent content from any provider. Our team was already reeling when our ESP partners told us that ISPs like Gmail never make requested code changes, but Inkers don’t quit. After months of hunting, Alison from our client experience team, tracked down the product manager for Gmail and arranged a short call. Michael, our CTO, presented an elegant technical solution rather than a pitch. Over a month had passed, and I hopped on a plane to a technical conference where I knew the product manager would be attending. Five minutes in, the product manager told me Gmail’s engineering team agreed with us and they would be making the suggested code change. Victory! We learned a valuable lesson that day. Grit is the antidote to being told something is impossible.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Thinking about the alternate life. No matter how tough things get or what giant problem has to be tackled, think about the alternate life. I could be in a large corporation, doing mind-numbing work, and clocking off at a reasonable hour. The highs and the lows would be gone and that is utterly depressing.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
The best learning opportunity, right after college, is jumping into a startup that appears to be taking off. Make sure it has intimidatingly-smart people.

Why a fast-growing startup?

1) Your first lessons won’t be failure. There are a million ways to fail. It’s okay to fail, but you also need to experience what success looks like (even if its hard-won).

2) Working with brilliant people will hone you to an edge. There will be moments when you feel you don’t belong. Years later, you’ll look back and recognize that you were forged in a crucible.

3) Smart, motivated people are always hard to come by. Experience takes a back seat. Put yourself in a fast-growing startup and you’ll be in pole position to take on more responsibility when the opportunity arises.

4) Change will happen quickly in a high-growth startup, and if you’re the slightest bit curious, you’ll understand all the bits that come together to make successful companies happen. This is a lesson even senior people at large corporations don’t have access to. At larger companies, interesting inflection points and major decisions were made years in the past.

This interview was conducted for research purposes by Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.