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The Rise of Unbounce: A Conversation with CEO Rick Perreault

Unbounce's Montreal team strategizing with head office colleagues in Vancouver.
Unbounce’s Montreal team strategizing with head office colleagues in Vancouver.

A day after chatting on the phone with Unbounce CEO Rick Perreault in his office in Vancouver, I dropped by the company’s newly opened Montreal office to find Unbounce marketing director Georgiana Laudi gesturing towards two air conditioning units still sitting on the floor, not even removed from their boxes, immediately in advance of a sweltering Canada Day weekend (otherwise known as “moving day” in Montreal).

Back in May, she was on the phone with her Vancouver colleagues trying to stress the importance of air conditioning for the new office’s day-to-day functionality. “I said ‘It’s hot. I know you guys don’t think it’s hot in Vancouver, but it’s really hot here. We’ve got to start worrying about A/C.’ Rick told me ‘I want to hear about projections. I want to hear about what campaigns you guys are working on. Not about how the A/C installation is going.’ Agreed, I want to be doing marketing right now.

Between worrying about the installation of blinds on the windows and art on the walls and air-conditioning units, Unbounce’s main problem seems to be that it outgrows office space too quickly for its employees to hang a picture.

“We’ll fill this space pretty fast,” says Georgiana. “We have the option of taking over next door, as well. That’s flexible space right now. So we can grow into the space a bit. We need some art. That’s what we need. We have very white, stark walls in here right now.”

In the world of marketing, candor is a vanishingly rare and refreshing quality. In stark contrast to most content marketing specialists, Unbounce has made a virtue of ruthless honesty and employing unforgiving metrics for proving which techniques are borderline worthless and which are effective. They’ve been rewarded for this candor with explosive growth in their customer base and a reputation as thought leaders in their field.

Which is especially refreshing when you consider how SEO and content marketing gurus, who only three years ago were everywhere selling techniques for how to game the system, have basically fallen off the face of the earth. Who knew that focusing on quality content and telling people the truth would eventually pay?

“It’s a long-term play,” says Rick Perreault. “We’re not looking for quick wins. We’re looking to build something long-term.” When I ask him to provide the rationale for opening an office in Montreal rather than Toronto, Rick bluntly replies, “Because everyone else wants to open an office in Toronto. No one says they’re going to open a Montreal office, so I thought, ‘Let’s zig when everybody else zags.’”

Despite that reply, Unbounce’s strategy is not simply based on being contrary or appearing counterintuitive for no reason. It’s more an insistence on seeing the big picture through the details.

We’re already thinking about where the second and third and fourth satellite office will be. Once we get to the second one, nobody will be wondering why we opened in Montreal anymore.

“Even our blog, all of our content really, is not really about the how,” says Georgiana. “It’s not about all landing pages, it’s about conversion marketing as a whole. We just launched an e-book yesterday about webinar marketing. You don’t think of landing pages when you think of webinar marketing, but they are tied. On our blog, we write on a bunch of topics surrounding campaign marketing, optimizing campaigns and getting the best results possible. Any sort of subject that surrounds that, like e-mail marketing, social media marketing, conversion rate optimization, A/B testing, landing pages, design, copy writing and content are all big, big topics for us. The conference will cover all of those topics too.”

With their Call to Action conference planned for September 12 in Vancouver, and some fairly gonzo content marketing in the form of its Page Fights competition, Unbounce has suddenly emerged as ringmasters for a small but influential group of content marketing experts. But Unbounce’s seemingly overnight reputation as go-to experts on formerly esoteric marketing strategies such as conversion rate optimization (CRO) and A/B testing and post-click conversion is the flowering of a few seeds carefully planted five years ago.

Founded in August 2009, Unbounce didn’t end up launching a product until summer of 2010. For more than six months, the company consisted mainly of a blog written mostly by Oli Gardner, while Rick built out the business end.

In December 2012, Unbounce raised $850,000, a group investment led by Real Ventures and Mark MacLeod, with assists from Boris Wertz and Mike Edwards, among others.

In contrast to some of the high-flying investments in Canadian tech over the past two years, I suggest to Rick that raising less than $1 million seems more like moral support than a serious financial investment. But growing the company through revenue, rather than large cash injections from investors, seems built in to the Unbounce ethos. “Some people say, ‘Rick, raise some money and have a billion-dollar company,’ and I go, ‘I think we’re on that track anyway.’”

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The Noob Guide to Online Marketing, one of the pieces of content that established Unbounce’s position as content marketing leaders.

Since 2012, Unbounce has been unusually candid not only about exposing the secrets of conversion rate optimization and content marketing, but also its own internal workings on the Inside Unbounce blog. Not many companies would consider it a good idea to provide detailed information about the day-to-day running of the company on a blog for the world to see. “Yeah, it’s pretty all out there,” says Georgiana. “There’s not much we don’t tell people, particularly Rick. He set the stage for that. Every employee knows how much money we have in the bank. We all know all of it.”

With the upcoming conference and the opening of its second office in Montreal, Unbounce would seem to have its hands full. But getting back to the issue of zigging where others zag, Georgiana admits that the decision to select Montreal puzzled a few of her colleagues. “Yeah, a lot of people in Vancouver were confused as to why we would open a satellite office, but we’re already thinking about where the second and third and fourth satellite office will be. Once we get to the second one, nobody will be wondering why we opened in Montreal anymore.”

For Georgiana, the Montreal decision was a no-brainer. “Originally being from here, I always knew I wanted to come back to Montreal. But we were in a hiring spree and could not hire fast enough. We were basically at a point in Vancouver where not enough people knew who we were. We were quite under the radar there. So, when it came to hiring, we were actually having a really hard time. We put out a $10,000 bounty on developers and all that stuff. But in marketing, too, I was having a really hard time hiring fast enough. And I came out here and started thinking, ‘I know people out here. I have a network out here I can hire much easier than in Vancouver.’ So I basically threw the idea to Rick and he went away and thought about it for a bit. This was last summer. And then by August, we basically made the decision that, yeah, there’s a ton of tech talent in Montreal. I have a built-in network for hiring in marketing and CS. CS will be the next department that we’ll hire out here. In July, our director of Customer Success is going to come with his support manager, and they’re going to hire, and probably fill that room.”

In the meantime, Unbounce informally plans where its next office will be. “South America and Australia and Europe are very big markets for us, so they feel like natural places to go,” says Laudi. “They might not necessarily get full-blown offices, but at least a presence.”

I began my conversation with Unbounce co-founder and CEO Rick Perreault, asking what exactly in his past triggered the decision to focus on landing pages.

Unbounce co-founder and CEO Rick Perreault: "It’s a long-term play. We’re not looking for quick wins. We’re looking to build something long-term."
Unbounce co-founder and CEO Rick Perreault: “It’s a long-term play. We’re not looking for quick wins. We’re looking to build something long-term.”

Rick: I had the opportunity to work with some really smart marketers who were basically doing landing pages, and developing landing experiences that matched the advertising that we were doing, and what we saw was higher conversions. Back in those days, marketers cared about ad impressions and clicks. No one really talked about what happened after an ad was clicked. So we started using analytics tools and started measuring our performance and set up a test. Which ads are actually generating conversions and which ones aren’t? We realized early on that, “Geez, our homepage is not where we want to be sending targeted traffic. Let’s build unique experiences.” I’m not even sure we called them landing pages. We called them something. We just needed a new web page that matches the ad. But time and time again, trying to bring those practices to other companies, I realized we just couldn’t get them done. They were a huge bottleneck, because the web component was still something owned by the IT department. No matter if you were a huge, big company or a small marketing team with a one-person web developer IT department. It was still that piece that they hung on to. And what I learned over time, I remember when I started my career, IT ran the analytics, IT ran a banner server, IT ran our email marketing. We would have to go to the IT department, “This is the email I want to send.” And they would make it happen. But all that disappeared. DoubleClick came along, all the hosted email marketing tools out there came along. But the landing page, the web piece, was still something that IT hung onto. So I started looking around, “There’s got to be a solution.” We could contract work out, but that was expensive and took a long time. And hiring somebody on our team really wasn’t the alternative or the answer, because the web was the domain of the IT department. So basically, I just looked around, seeing what other marketers were doing, and they all said kind of the same thing. “Well, we know we should be using landing pages, but we can’t get them done because IT’s busy.” And there just wasn’t really anything out there. And I guess that’s when the light bulb went off. I said to someone, “All I need is this interface, like PowerPoint, where I can drag and drop some images and write my call-to-action and publish it live without talking to anybody. How hard can that be?” And that was it.

Back in those days, marketers cared about ad impressions and clicks. No one really talked about what happened after an ad was clicked.

So, it was creating a solution for something that, you looked around and saw it didn’t exist.

Yeah. It existed in the enterprise market. Marketing automation, enterprise CMS, there were components of what I needed, but it’s the kind of thing, they’ll fly a sales team down to interview you. Figure out how much this was all going to cost, and that was just way out of the question. We needed something self-serve. I needed something as easy as MailChimp.

I’m quite confident that a lot of people reading this, perfectly intelligent, post-secondary educated people, still believe that a landing page is essentially a homepage, or just a page that you happen to land on. In layman’s terms, what’s a landing page?

A landing page is developed for a unique advertising campaign. Someone called it recently, “a page with a purpose.” It is designed specifically to convert the traffic coming from a specific ad. That’s what a landing page is.

From the very beginning of Unbounce, you and Oli Gardner focused on blogging as much as on running your business. Why did you make that decision, to put so much content out there? What was the business rationale around giving away so many of your insights for free?

Primarily because, when I looked to the future I said, “When we launch, how are people going to find us? It’s not like we’re entering a market that already exists, with a better, faster, cheaper product or whatever. We’re creating a market. This market’s not there yet. So how are people going to find us?” And I figured that the only way that people were going to find us was finding good content, and sharing good content, and having thought leaders sharing that content and speaking about that content. And I thought that content was something we could develop. And if you found the content and were interested in the content, then Unbounce as a solution might be for you, and then expose Unbounce to that audience. Because no one was searching, in 2009, for “landing page builder”. That just wasn’t happening.

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So that even before you launched your product, you already had by this point a substantial following, and also a Twitter following and social media engagement, who regarded you as experts.

Yeah, we started blogging the same day we started coding.

I think this should be emphasized here, almost a good year in advance of you actually having a product available.

That’s correct. Yeah, in fact, like I said, we started off with marketing. We were tweeting, we were sharing other people’s content, we were developing our own, all of it in the space related to what Unbounce would do as a product. But we never blogged about Unbounce the product. We blogged about A/B testing and landing page best practices, so by the time we actually had a product, or even a beta, we actually had a list of potential customers.

In contrast to the various SEO gurus that seemed so prevalent a few years ago, you guys seemed to proceed from an absolutely organic approach, with an emphasis on getting noticed by providing quality content.

It’s a long-term play. We’re not looking for quick wins. We’re looking to build something long-term.

Last December, Unbounce had about 4,700 paying customers. Where does that stand now?

As of this morning, we’re almost 6,300 paying customers. And then on top of that, there’s probably several hundred that are using Unbounce for free. At any one time, there are 500-600 start-ups that we give free accounts to, especially start-ups in Y Combinator and tech start-ups and stuff. But as for companies right now, paying us, generating monthly recurring revenue, it’s 6,300 and growing fast.

Yeah, that’s quite an increase. And yet, in contrast with some of the larger venture capital injections into start-ups recently, Unbounce hasn’t exactly raised any kind of high-profile funds. You’ve raised less than $1 million, a round led by Real Ventures and Mark McLeod, with a previous assist from Dan Martell of Clarity, among other people. It almost feels more like moral support or something, like you’re gathering your comrades around you, rather than putting together a war chest. Have you felt that that’s the way to go, building things organically and growing through revenue, instead of large cash injections?

I’d think that’s the way you’d always want to grow a business. Someone said something to me recently, and it clicked. He said, “You raise money when you think you have a huge opportunity, and when you look into the future you won’t succeed without financial help.” And that’s when you raise venture capital. And that’s coming from someone who’s done it 10 times. Because that’s something we wrestle with. Should we go raise $30 or $40 or $50 million? That’s the question I had for him, a CEO. Some people say, “Rick, raise some money and have a billion-dollar company,” and I go, “I think we’re on that track anyway.” So I’ve sought out advice from other CEOs, and that’s what one of them recently told me. That’s not to say we never will. But right now, when we look into the future, we see 100% growth year over year. We’re growing really well, at a really healthy pace. We’ve got a solid foundation and really good business, and things are growing at a really good pace. In the future, we might get to a point where we go, “Wait a minute. If we only did this, we could… The market’s changing. Now let’s go out and raise $40 or $50 million, because we’re going to need that money to make this thing happen.” But we’re not there yet.

Although your focus is really specifically on landing pages, it’s obvious from the way you talk about your product that you’ve extracted some insight into marketing in general. What have you learned from perfecting landing pages that every marketer should know?

That no one landing page is perfect, and you need to test it, no matter how good you think your ideas are. We encounter that all the time, even ourselves. Oli’s seen more landing pages than probably anybody else alive, and he still gets it wrong if he was just to go on gut feeling. He’ll test something and go, “Wow, you know what? That crazy idea worked. Who knew?” And tools now today are so inexpensive, tools you can use for testing. There’s no reason why people shouldn’t be testing. And most marketers still don’t. So that’s the message that we’re really trying to push.

I still find a surprising amount of “Go with your gut” philosophy out there. It’s almost like gambling. “Are you feeling lucky?” type stuff. I’m floored every time I see it.

That’s a great analogy. I’ll just give you a little stat. I remember when we first launched, I’d say it was in our first year, only about 20% of the pages that we had in the system were actually being A/B tested. And that, over time, has changed. So early on, a lot of people who were using Unbounce were just using it to put a simple page up. But that’s changed, where actually the majority are now testing. So there is some momentum there, but it is still not mainstream.

I guess that’s when the light bulb went off. I said to someone, “All I need is this interface, like PowerPoint, where I can drag and drop some images and write my call-to-action and publish it live without talking to anybody. How hard can that be?”

Unbounce famously has no sales team. Do you sense any kind of paradigm shift, where quality advertises itself by word of mouth, rather than through old-school PR?

I hope so. I mean, our marketing is really cost-effective and allows us to use capital for perfecting our product and building a design team that’s focused on making the product super easy to use. I’d rather do that than invest in sales. We call it “self-serve SaaS”. That’s what we’re really trying to do. And, yeah, I think if you focus on a good experience, and actually focusing really on solving a real pain that a market that you can define actually has, then sales is really a secondary consideration. I talk to entrepreneurs all the time, and when I hear, “Yeah, we’re going to build this really cool thing. I have this great idea. Then we’re going to hire a sales team to go out and sell it,” I go, “Oh, no, you don’t want to do that! Go out and build something customers want to buy.” But it’s changing, because some of my peers that I talk to have very similar models, like Rand Fishkin’s Moz. The very same, self-serve SaaS, no sales team, very successful business. One of the products we use, Xero, it’s our online accounting, they do all our back office, all that. They’re a big international business, also have apparently done this whole thing with no sales team. And so you’re seeing that more and more. Sales, for us, actually, it’s interesting, we do have some sales-like functions. Our Success Team actually helps customers become successful with the product. But they’re not actually rewarded for making a sale. Their performance is measured on the amount of customers that are passing a certain success threshold every month. Because we know, over time, if they’re successful, they’ll be happy customers who pay us for a long time and we don’t have to sell them, we just have to help them through.

For a lot of people who are adjusting to the new reality of marketing, engagement, etc., making sense of stuff like analytics and Big Data, A/B testing, heat mapping and stuff like that, it’s kind of overwhelming when you’re just trying to run a business. The speakers that you have lined up for your Call to Action conference in September talk about it almost like, “Well, it’s almost like being a Zen master.” It’s easy enough to say, but you’re looking at what for most people would be a fairly overwhelming data set and a fairly strange methodology, and then making sense of it. What advice do you have for the average small to medium size enterprise owner, going into this world without drowning in a sea of data and meaningless jargon?

Just start with one thing. Start small and learn that, and then move into the next thing. You can grab the hot 10 tools and try to master them all at once, 10 different things to try to improve your conversion rate. Or grab one, learn it, get used to the concept, and then just grow from there. Baby steps. If you try to do everything at once, you will be overwhelmed. You won’t do anything well. Focus on one thing. As a business owner, pick a KPI that you want to improve and then pick some sort of conversion strategy that will help address that. It might be A/B testing at the post-click landing page level, it might be some sort of user testing that you might want to do for retention. But find a KPI that you want to improve and just focus on that.

Staging a conference is yet another form essentially of content marketing, establishing yourselves as the voice, or the go-to experts, in this particular field. What can people look forward to at the Call to Action conference in September?

I go to marketing conferences, and so many times I walk away going, “Okay, I’m kind of inspired, but there’s nothing tangible I can take back to my team right now and say, ‘We need to try this.’” Something really tangible, actionable. And this is something that I felt is missing from marketing conferences. That and the fact that Vancouver doesn’t really have a reputation as a marketing hotspot, and this is an opportunity to actually take some of these techniques that we do, and that all of the speakers we’ve got lined up do, and show the attendees how to. So, a lot of how-to. No high-level inspirational, but very focused on how to improve your business through some simple techniques and improve your marketing. There’s no keynote. Every session, it’s like, “How do you improve your copy writing? How do you improve your A/B testing?” From basics to some more advanced stuff. Very actionable. And design, too, for a non-technical audience. So if you’re a marketer, but you’re not technical. Avoid the jargon and the real technical things. We’ll keep it, hopefully, very user friendly.

When you decided to open a second office, why did you select Montreal? Why did you choose not to open an office in Toronto?

Because everyone else wants to open an office in Toronto. The reason for doing this, in part, there’s a bit of a talent crunch here in Vancouver. And a lot of these start-ups, us and Clio and Mobify and Hootsuite, we’re all competing for the same talent. And when we talk to them, it’s like, “Yeah, we’re going to open a Toronto office.” No one says they’re going to open a Montreal office, so I thought, “Let’s zig when everybody else zags.” That said, there were some other influencing factors. Our director of marketing is from Montreal, has a huge network there, well entrenched into the start-up community and the marketing community. We can take advantage of that. We wanted something on the east coast, something in the Eastern time zone. And my understanding, from what I’ve seen, there’s a huge entrepreneurial community and there’s none of the kind of competitive pressures that, say, Toronto and/or Vancouver are starting to have for talent. Toronto, there’s a lot of people there, but there’s also a lot of really great tech companies hiring up all the talent. And we’re starting to see that here in Vancouver. Montreal doesn’t have those same pressures. So for us, it’s an awesome opportunity.

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