Al Bsharah Takes On The Elevate 10

December 04, 2016

ELEVATE: What’s the origin story of Email Copilot. What were you doing before launching and what made you decide to go for it?

AL BSHARAH: My Dad was an entrepreneur so I kind of always knew I’d do my own thing. But I grew up in Detroit, and when you’re there you pretty much work in the auto industry. After graduating from college as an electrical engineer, I quickly realized working at GM and Chrysler just wasn’t my speed. I moved out to San Diego, became the second employee at a startup, helped grow that company to 50 people and exited a few years later. In the middle of that I ran my own e-commerce company for 3 years with varied levels of success before shutting it down. I consulted for a while, worked at a couple other companies, but eventually I got bit by the startup bug again. If you’re an entrepreneur at heart, you kind of get it. You see problems in the world and you want them to be fixed. So, you go fix them. I met my co-founder Bryan Hall at The Founder Institute along the way, a couple years later we went through Techstars, and not long after that Email Copilot came to life.

ELEVATE: So what’s the most challenging thing about being a founder?

AL BSHARAH: The most challenging thing is that EVERYTHING is challenging! Nothing is easy, no matter how simple it seems on the surface. Just to get started you have to dig in, talk to potential customers, feel and understand their pain at the core. Then you have to figure out how to solve their problems, build the product, realize you got a lot of things wrong, iterate, iterate some more, then if you’re lucky you now have to scale that to tons of customers, figure out how to grow and manage your version of a company, hire the right people, and on, and on!

ELEVATE: What’s the most rewarding?

AL BSHARAH:  As an entrepreneur your work is different every single day. You’ve got one pile of problems to deal with today and a whole new pile tomorrow. Even when you reach certain levels of success, you’ve climbed this huge mountain of adversity and feel great, only to realize there’s just a bigger mountain behind it. For an entrepreneur, that’s exhilarating! It’s that never-ending challenge that drives us…for me, that’s incredibly rewarding.

ELEVATE: How’s your experience been being based at The Vine San Diego? What made you choose The Vine vs. all of your options?

AL BSHARAH:  I don’t know if you know this or not but myself and 2 other founders actually approached Irvine Company to build us a space. My co-founder and I had just come back from TechStars, where you’re in a huge office space with 10 other ridiculously amazing companies. It’s fast-paced, open, and collaborative and that’s what we wanted to replicate that when we came back to San Diego. Irvine eventually agreed to build out the space where we helped select the companies that were coming in, and Irvine managed the leases and the space itself. Eventually they took over the whole thing, branded it The Vine, and are running with it. Ultimately, it’s great because we’re surrounded with companies that are at the same stage as us and have many of the same challenges we do. We’re not just collaborating with our own team in an open environment, we’re collaborating with other CEOs and co-founders and team members of other companies who are passionate about helping each other solve problems.

ELEVATE: What’s one piece of advice you would share with all budding entrepreneurs?

AL BSHARAH:  Companies don’t really fail because of bad ideas. They don’t fail because an entrepreneur is too green or doesn’t know what he’s doing. They fail because they run out of time to figure all of these things out. It’s super rare that a start up has the perfect plan, let alone the skills to execute on it. Even when founders think they do, odds are heavily against them that they don’t. It’s very tough to achieve (and recognize) true product-market-fit, and we’ve been just as guilty. We pivoted 4 times to hone in on the value proposition of Email Copilot. You have to be really careful to give yourself enough time. For example, Bryan and I consulted part-time while we were working on what ultimately become Email Copilot and raised money. That consulting gave us the necessary time to really figure out what we were going to do. Without enough time, it doesn’t matter if your product and team are perfect. You’re dead if you run out of it.

ELEVATE: What’s one piece of advice would advise budding entrepreneurs to ignore?

AL BSHARAH:  I wouldn’t say to ignore advice. It’s all valuable, even if it’s wrong for your business. What I think you should ignore is that voice in your head telling you that you’ve got it figured out. That you’ve got strong customer signal. Reality? You don’t, and you just don’t recognize what strong signal is yet because you haven’t truly seen it. If it doesn’t knock you on your ass, bowl you over, and keep punching you while you’re down…you haven’t found strong signal yet!

ELEVATE: Anything you would do differently if you could go back and launch Email Copilot again?

AL BSHARAH:  I think it’s always easy to look back in hindsight and say what we should have done, but I feel that actually going through and feeling that pain is what probably opens your eyes and sets you on the right path. For us, we thought that we had product market fit and we were wrong. We put a lot of resources (money + people) and it too soon. BUT, I don’t know if we would have figured that out any quicker without actually going through that mistake.

ELEVATE: What do your customers LOVE about Email Copilot?

AL BSHARAH: Email marketers have this stress and anxiety over clicking the send button. Our customers are sending millions and millions of emails each month and they worry about 2 things:

Is everything set up correctly before I hit the send button?

What the heck is going on after I hit the send button?

With Email Copilot they pretty much can kick back and relax about all the unknowns surrounding that send button. When problems arise we let them know what’s happening, why they have these problems and what they need to do to fix them. All in real time.

ELEVATE: What do YOU love about Email Copilot?

AL BSHARAH:  What I love about the business is that we’re using huge amounts of data to make decisions in real-time about email programs, while a lot of the industry has been throwing humans at billions of rows of data…and sometimes taking days to resolve problems. For marketers that make money off their email program, speed to resolution is huge. Really, it’s just exciting to bring a new way of thinking about a problem to market.

ELEVATE: What do you look for in a stellar team member across functions?

AL BSHARAH:  Hire people that you trust implicitly. For me, I try to hire entrepreneurs. Especially at the early stage because these first employees will make or break your business and you can’t have them bound by traditional “roles and responsibilities“ or anything like that. You need people with the drive to just dive in and figure things out!

ELEVATE: Thank you so much for your insight Al. This has truly been a fascinating conversation. We like to end with a window into how our founders get work done. What are the 3 productivity tools that you personally cannot live without?

AL BSHARAH:

  1. Email, not-so ironically!
  2. Slack
  3. Communication: Funny, those top 2 tools were both communication tools. Really though, it’s not so much the tools but the ability to actually communicate well that’s most important. If you can’t verbally communicate the vision of your company, the goals of your company, your customer’s pain points and problems, your solutions, and everything else required to build the business…not to mention the ability to listen along the way…all the tools in the world won’t make a difference. If you can’t communicate, then I can’t imagine how you’ll be able to build a productive company.
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