This week I talk with Brandon Foo of Polymail! Brandon and I talk about how math has influenced him as a startup founder, about having a huge influx of new users thanks to being one of the top upvoted products on Product Hunt ever, balancing feedback from consumers when you’re building a business product and much more! Enjoy!
Josh Pigford: All right, thanks for joining us, Brandon, how’s it going?
Brandon Foo: It’s going great, Josh, thanks so much for having me.
Josh Pigford: Cool, thanks for hopping on. So, the way I like to kind of start most of these off is talking … I’m super interested in founders’ origin stories … I mean, not even the origin of their company, but the founder themselves, so I’d like to hear kind of about you as a kid and what you were into.
Brandon Foo: As, like, a kid?
Josh Pigford: Yeah.
Brandon Foo: Well, I grew up … I was born and raised in Minnesota, so that’s already a little different, I think, than a lot of other founders; and I lived there until I was 16. I actually grew up playing music, I studied violin, I played golf, interestingly enough, competitively in high school, I was pretty into gaming and kind of wanted to play games for a living at one point, which is now a thing, which is pretty cool. But I was also really into, I think, into music and wanting to start a band, which I think was kind of the origin of me wanting to create something and bring it into the world is kind of … I think a lot of analogies between musicians starting a band these days and starting a startup.
Josh Pigford: You mentioned, you know, want to start a band, and there’s golf, which isn’t totally a team sport, but I mean, it’s like you’re doing it with other people, right?
Brandon Foo: Right.
Josh Pigford: Gaming can kind of be … You know, depending on what game, a bit of a team thing. Do you feel like you’ve always been drawn to doing things with a group of people or no?
Brandon Foo: I think so, maybe. I was actually … I’m an only child, so maybe that’s part of the reason why, is I’ve always looked to work with other people on stuff that was cool, because I was mostly learning and doing stuff on my own, so that might have been part of the reason why.
Josh Pigford: Is there any sort of entrepreneurial … Or entrepreneurial tendencies in your history? Whether that’s parents, grandparents, anything like that?
Brandon Foo: Not in my family, I would say. My dad worked in finance, and he was a trader, and I was actually … Went I went to college, I was on the track to going into finance, as well; did a couple of internships, one in private-equity, one in wealth-management. So I would say it was actually pretty far from what’s … Is the entrepreneurial path, in that sense.
Josh Pigford: Sure. So you mentioned school, so you know, [inaudible 00:03:20] you finish high school, then you go to college and you studied finance?
Brandon Foo: I ended up studying math and economics, so along those lines, but in college … I went to school at UC Santa Barbara for two years, it’s actually where I met one of my co-founders, Brandon Shin, and then transferred two years later to UCLA. While I was in college, I actually started working on a number of side-projects; the first thing I did was actually an eCommerce fashion site, so I was kind of into fashion, too, I guess. It was called The Modern Age, and it was a really basic kind of … We were importing Asian fashions and trying to sell them to an American audience, and it didn’t get really far, I was just kind of figuring things out at that point, just experimenting with different stuff.
When I went to UCLA, I actually ended up starting a group called Bruin Entrepreneurs there, which is now one of the biggest, or actually the biggest entrepreneurship organization at UCLA. That’s where I met my other co-founder, Shahan, who’s our CTO, and through that process we worked on a bunch of projects, LA Hacks, which is this huge hackathon that brings thousands of kids to build software at UCLA, and I think through that experience understood a little bit more about what it was like to get something started and to work with people, and kind of that context, and I realized that that was something that I really wanted to do.
Josh Pigford: So, why did you pick math and economics? I mean, was that something you were interested in even in high school or did you just pick that kind of … You know, wasn’t sure what else to do, your dad was in finance?
Brandon Foo: It was kind of that, it was kind of the logical thing to do for finance, I think, at that time. But I also actually ended up really enjoying that, and not even the practical aspects of it, but just abstract math.
Josh Pigford: Yeah.
Brandon Foo: I found this to be really interesting, really fun; and I think studying that is a really useful way to learn how to take logical approach to problem-solving, which is useful in software development and engineering, which is what I ended up applying that in. But I think overall, studying math is just a really great way to learn about how to think about problems critically.
Josh Pigford: I agree, I mean, I think a lot of times it’s dangerous when colleges try to teach overly practical things. I mean, I think there’s a fine line between … Especially depending if you’re in the tech or computer fields of any sort, that stuff becomes dated so quick, and if instead, you can teach kids to just become really great problem-solvers, that stuff pays off longer, I think.
Brandon Foo: Yeah, that’s exactly what I think. I think it’s the most rewarding thing that I could have done at school, aside from doing the side-projects and working with people outside of class.
Josh Pigford: Sure. You mentioned you were into gaming, did that translate to being into computers, or was it just the gaming aspect was all you were really into?
Brandon Foo: I think so, yeah. I was pretty into computers, my dad … He did a little bit of programming, I think, when he worked in finance, as well, so while I was into gaming, you know, I did the thing where you build your own computer.
Josh Pigford: Yeah.
Brandon Foo: Which is kind of fun, learning how hardware works. And eventually from there, got a little bit into web in the MySpace era, when it was super-cool to personalize your MySpace page, kind of got into things, I think, from that direction, and that’s kind of where my interest in working with computers started.
Josh Pigford: So after you finished school, and then, did you jump into a job in finance?
Brandon Foo: No. So, I did two internships in school for finance that made it pretty clear to me that that wasn’t the thing that I wanted to do, so after that, I started picking up software development kind of on my own and with friends through hackathons and stuff, starting building iOS apps. When I graduated from school, I actually started a development agency with my now co-founders, and we were just basically us and a few other guys, working with other companies, designing and developing mostly iOS apps. We did that for about a year after we graduated, before starting Polymail, that’s how we transitioned into starting Polymail.
Josh Pigford: That’s a pretty quick transition from … You know, you’ve spent a number of years in school studying math, economics, finance, all that, and then pretty quickly got into just wanting to do tech stuff. What drew you to software development in general?
Brandon Foo: I think I’ve always been interested in building … I mentioned I started the kind of fashion company earlier on in school, and so, I’ve always been interested in starting something like that, and I think it became pretty evident that now is a better time than ever to start a software company, given the availability of resources, and you can pretty much learn to program on your own for free with the available resources and the internet.
Software is cheaper, software products are cheaper to build now than ever, so I think I saw a lot of signs pointing in the right direction, and I was like, “This is something that … It’s a good time, it makes sense,” and something that I was really interested in doing.
Josh Pigford: So, do you feel like … I mean, this is somewhat dating me, I think you finished college probably about ten years after I did, and when I was at school, I was very much entrepreneurial, like building stuff all the time in my dorm room and all that stuff, but I mean, that was atypical for most people back in the early 2000. But do you feel like there were a lot of other people pursuing entrepreneurial stuff or startups and all that stuff when you were in college?
Brandon Foo: Yeah.
Josh Pigford: Or was it like, kind of rare?
Brandon Foo: Yeah, no, I definitely wouldn’t say it’s typical, but I think there’s a lot more people who are thinking about it and a lot more people who are interested in it. You know, part of the reason why we started Bruin Entrepreneurs at UCLA is because we wanted to create a community where we could find other people who were similarly interested, we knew they were out there, there just wasn’t a great community to bring this together, so we wanted to kind of build that community and that organization, so that people who are interested in starting startups but maybe not really sure how to start a startup or what the first steps are, or just want to meet people they can work with, to kind of bring those people together.
Through doing that, I think we’ve found a number of other students at school who are thinking about startups, who are working on their own projects already, and that organization has only grown since then, and there’s actually a lot more students now, I think, than there was when I was at school, who are thinking about it, which is really cool to see.
Josh Pigford: Yeah, for sure. So, met your co-founders at school, and then eventually, you guys start Polymail what, two years ago?
Brandon Foo: Yeah, we started at the end of 2015.
Josh Pigford: Got you. And what was sort of the impetus of Polymail at all?
Brandon Foo: Yeah, so while we were working on our development agency, we actually started a co-working space at the same time. It’s a funny story, it’s called CTRL Collective, it’s here, in LA, in Playa Vista. And while working on those two companies, you know, we discovered that email was still a huge pain-point, especially for businesses. It seemed that millions of businesses, including ourselves, you know, we’re essentially using Gmail web-plugins, three or four of them even at one time, to kind of get the features and the tools that we needed to get business done. And this is work that was essential to our success as entrepreneurs, reaching out to customers, getting deals closed. And we felt like the solution out there wasn’t really well-designed for what we needed, and that no-one had really taken the steps of building a first-class experience for how businesses actually use email and the tools that they needed for getting their work done.
So, we saw a pretty clear opportunity for building a platform that could provide a great user-experience for these companies and these users using email every day, and that could integrate all of the tools in a way that could be collaborative and that could integrate well with other software that a company was using. It was pretty much from our own pain-points that we saw this opportunity and found that as we started building, other people were having the same problem, and it was something that really resonated with them.
Josh Pigford: Was the focus always on the business-applications of it, or did it sort of transform into that?
Brandon Foo: We always saw the, I think, biggest opportunity in building a communication-platform for businesses … A way we all like to look at it is, you know, what Slack has done for internal communication with chats, there’s no analog to that for external communication, for people who are in sales or in bizdev, who are living out of their inbox every day, there’s no platform designed for them that has that same kind of experience that’s collaborative, that integrates well with all the other software, and I think that was always our vision, and it still continues to be what we work towards today.
It happened to be that the path of getting there was, we had to build the email client first, it was kind of from the ground up, and the foundation for what would become that platform is something that we could start testing by … You know, anyone could basically use Polymail. And we could start collecting the feedback, that way we could start building from there. It allowed us to kind of get a pretty broad distribution, as far as taking a maybe more consumer-first approach when we first got started.
Josh Pigford: So, how do you keep from letting the consumer aspects, or the user-base, really … How do you keep them from skewing or sending the product maybe in a direction that you’re not so excited about?
Brandon Foo: Yeah. Well, I think it’s an important thing to balance. I think that the general trend in [inaudible 00:13:07], and I think with companies like Slack, of course, and Asana, and others are really designed to be consumer-products in the sense of … They’re designed for the end-user, as opposed to older enterprised software. So I think that’s something that’s true to our values and true to our product, and something … That we want to, above all else, deliver an exceptional experience for the end-user. So, I think, having the kind of consumer type feedback, and designing in a way such that it appeals to the end-user, it’s something that the end-user wants to use and it gets value from every day is something still that we hold very close to ourselves.
Josh Pigford: Got you. There’s lots of email apps out there, and it seems lesser now, but I feel like, for a while, new email apps were like to-do lists or writing apps, like, everybody’s like, “I’m working on an email app,” and none of them end up sticking around. What is it about Polymail that you feel like gives it some staying power?
Brandon Foo: Well, I think looking at some of those other email apps you might be referring to, I think Mailbox might be an example, that was actually one of … You know, a big inspiration for us, and we thought had really, really great ideas, and Sparrow might be another one, I think it got acquired by Google. I think what differentiates our approach is that we’re targeting businesses and that we’re solving business-problems, and so, from the start, we have a sustainable revenue strategy that allows us to remain independent, and not to rely on some type of exit or acquisition, which is, I think, what ended up being the case for a lot of these companies.
Josh Pigford: Yeah.
Brandon Foo: Yeah.
Josh Pigford: What’s sort of the end-game for you guys? Like, what would it take for Polymail to be considered a success for you, in your mind?
Brandon Foo: Well, I think we’re really focused, in the long term, on solving our vision of becoming an external-communication platform for these companies, and really solving their needs, in terms of making their email and their communication more efficient. Given that the number of companies using email today is still growing, and it’s millions of companies worldwide, I think we’ll continue to work until we get to that point. And I think in terms of the end-game, we’re not thinking too much about exits or acquisitions or anything like that, as I mentioned. We’re really focused on solving this problem for our customers and growing it, reaching as many customers as we can, so I would say that that’s our focus.
Josh Pigford: Got you. So, I know certainly for me and for probably most people that use email, one of the biggest issues with it is volume, right? I mean, you just get so much of it. And there’s been lots of different ways that companies try to sort of approach that, some sort of smart-inbox kind of thing, or some way to prioritize incoming emails. Is handling the volume problems something that you guys are trying to solve, or is it a different aspect that’s not really the part of the puzzle that you guys are trying to fix?
Brandon Foo: I don’t know. Handling the volume specifically is a main part of the problem that we’re solving, I think we do have a lot of features that make it easier for users to handle large volumes of email; for example, we have automation, to allow you to schedule messages to leave your inbox and come back at a time when you can address them, which helps our users a lot. There’s the easy feature in Polymail that allows you to unsubscribe from newsletters, one click, that our users have really liked in terms of cleaning out their inbox.
But I think there’s a more fundamental problem about solving how users communicate with people outside of their organization, and kind of get the data that they need, and connecting that to those conversations and kind of working with their team in those aspects that we’re looking to solve on more of a widespread approach.
Josh Pigford: Got you. So, has there been any singular inflection-point for you guys, where growth really changed or picked up?
Brandon Foo: Yeah, I think so. We launched on … A few months after we started the company, we launched our beta on ProductHunt, and that actually ended up becoming, I think, the number third most upvoted product of all-time.
Josh Pigford: Wow.
Brandon Foo: And got something like 4,000-something upvotes, we ended up winning the Mac App of the Year Award. So, we went pretty much from no one knowing about us to having thousands of people in the tech community and on ProductHunt who were asking and requesting invites to our beta, so it was definitely a fortuitous event, nothing that we really planned for or we thought that would go that way, but I would say that that was definitely a big inflection point for us.
Josh Pigford: Was that hard to deal with, I mean, going from, “Hey, we’ve been kind of hacking away on this thing,” and all of a sudden in one day having this massive influx, I mean, from either a technical standpoint or just emotionally, like, psychologically?
Brandon Foo: Yeah, well, no, it was definitely unexpected for us, and at the time, we were still in private-beta, so we definitely weren’t ready to let in the, I think eventually over 100,000 people who had signed up for the beta. So, we did have the problem of now, there was all of these people who were requesting access, and we weren’t ready to bring them all on at the same time, so we had to kind of stagger out our invites over the course of the next few weeks and kind of manage that process.
But I think ultimately, it really benefited us, getting a lot of people who were really excited about the product, who were ready to use and give feedback, at that stage, I think, was something that was really transformative and really helped to shape the product from an early point.
Josh Pigford: Was it stressful for you, I mean, as a CEO, having to just manage the expectations around that, or was it just really exciting?
Brandon Foo: I think from what I’ve learned, like most things in startups, it was both stressful and exciting in kind of the same ways. I think that’s just something that we had to learn along the way, which is kind of like everything, I think, in starting a company. We had to figure out how to deal with this process, and it was really cool that all of these people were really excited about the product, and we just had to kind of pick it up along the way and make sure we could produce the best experience possible for our users.
Josh Pigford: Sure. What’s been the hardest part about building Polymail?
Brandon Foo: I think that, you know, probably the product-development process, and developing a strong framework for building the product in the right direction of what your team envisions and what you envision, but also incorporating user-feedback into it in a way that’s scalable is something that we’ve worked a lot on trying to figure out. With a company with several tens of thousands of daily active users, user-feedback is coming in from all directions, and you want to do something to make your users happy, but you want to keep building the company that you want to build, and achieve the vision that you want to. And I think reconciling those things is something that we had to think a lot and spend a lot of time figuring out, and I think we’re still in the process of improving, but I would say that that was probably one of the bigger challenges.
Josh Pigford: So, how do you manage all that feedback? I mean, practically speaking.
Brandon Foo: Yeah, so the framework and the process that we use now, that we spent some time developing … All of the customer-feedback that we get, people who are making feature-requests or suggesting ideas will store into a repository right now, it’s on Asana, which is what we use. And we try to categorize all that feedback as quantitatively as possible, so we may mark the frequency with which this particular request was made, and then try and identify the types of users who are requesting it, and try and apply an engineering cost to it, if you can estimate that, try and estimate what the revenue opportunity that might be associated with that.
So at any given point in time we can go and look at this kind of system of record for all of our feature-requests and categorize, prioritize, you know, what we think would be the most impactful features based on our user-input and based on the kind of impact that we think it would have on the business, and try and make decisions with as much data backing and driving those decisions as possible.
Josh Pigford: Yeah, that makes sense. Was there a time … I mean, you guys so quickly, at least, had this big influx of users, but was there a time that you felt like Polymail might not get off the ground or some technical issue that made it feel like, “This may not work out”?
Brandon Foo: We definitely encountered some scaling issues along the way, I would say, building an email-syncing application is definitely not a trivial feat, and we had to learn the hard way, I think, while we were in beta, figuring out how to ensure the best possible performance and experience for our users. I’m pretty happy to say that we’ve gone to a really great place now, and that users have the best experience in Polymail that they’ve ever had. But it was definitely a lot of work and sweat that went into getting to that place early on, while we were in beta.
Josh Pigford: Got you. So, what’s the next year look like for you guys?
Brandon Foo: Yeah, so we’re focused on building out the team, we just launched a new product called Polymail Teams, which has additional features and functionality based around team collaboration, team outreach. And we’re looking on adding a number of new features in that direction, which we’re excited to announce soon. But users can expect a lot of really cool updates from us in the next few months to a year, and we’re excited to share them when they’re ready.
Josh Pigford: Right on, good deal. Well, thanks for hopping on the call, Brandon, I appreciate you kind of giving us some insight into Polymail, and good luck on the future.
Brandon Foo: Thanks so much for having me, Josh, really appreciate it.
Josh Pigford: For sure.