The Leap of Destiny

Today is my last day as a Bronto. I suppose it is fitting then that I spend my last minutes at my desk detailing my last official act of business on behalf of Bronto Software.

Our downtown Durham office at The American Tobacco Historic District has a "river" that runs through the middle of our courtyard. After we moved our offices here in 2004, the mystery and intrigue of said river brought about countless "meaning of life" type questions, including:

  • How does the water get from the bottom of the river back to the top?

  • Why are those poor guys cleaning the river every single day?

  • Do you think any dead bodies have been dumped in the American Tobacco river?

  • Would I get arrested if I skinny dipped in the river on a 90 degree Friday afternoon?

  • Do you think that I could make the jump across?

Today - after some encouragement trash talk from Carolyn - I put the latter question to rest. Here are the videos to prove it:

'Twas truly my proudest moment with the company. The legend of the leap will live long in Bronto lore.

My First Phone Call As A Bronto

Back in the day, Bronto wasn't very good with new employee orientations. Most of the hires came on board during the salad days recieved the "Here's your laptop, here's your phone, bathroom's down the hall, sodas are in the fridge, let's make it happen." orientation - especially the new employees that worked with or for me.

(Nowadays, we actually have an orientation program that eases our noobs into the organization through a series of planned activities. Yes - this makes me a little jealous.)

I don't recall the specifics of my orientation to the company, except that I started on a Monday and Chaz declared that I would be on the phone trying to do deals that Friday morning. So I spent my first week learning our product, shadowing both Joe and Chaz, and doing my best to not look like an idiot.

When Friday came around, I was feeling pretty good. I had watched Joe and Chaz make calls and felt like I could replicate what they were doing. Plus, I knew that I would start out by calling through a massive list of companies that have already said that they didn't want to buy Bronto, so I didn't really have anything to lose.

That Friday morning, I milled around for a bit trying to find reasons to not make that dreaded first cold call, just like countless sales professionals before me. After piddling around for a while to identify my first target - which ended up being a local golf course - I finally manned up and made the call. It went down as follows:
Golf Course - (Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring.) Hello - you have reached Blah Blah Golf Course, blah blah...

Eric - (Sweet! I'll just leave a message.)

Golf course - ....after the beep. (Beep!)

Eric - Hello. This is Eric Boggs, calling from BrontoMail - a local email marketing software company. Blah blah blah. You can return my phone call at... ...

(Covers mouthpiece)

Joe! What's our phone number?!

(Joe looks at me like I'm an idiot, smiles, and writes our phone number on the whiteboard.)

Our number is 919.806.4421. Thanks.

(Hangs up.)

Obviously - they didn't call me back and I got better with time.

Finding Bronto

I REALLY wanted to work for Red Hat when I was a starry-eyed, job-searching senior at UNC in 2001/2002. I recall thinking that the company seemed "cool" and appreciating how it had built a business around the open source concept. (How does a company sell free software?!?)

After submitting my resume through the UNC career services office and, I presume, passing the initial resume screen, I interviewed with the company in February 2002. I was interviewed by a newly-minted Kenan-Flagler MBA, Chaz Felix. I don't remember much about the interview, other than feeling really nervous and Chaz asking me a question about Red Hat's competition:
2001 Chaz - Which of the following do you think competes with Red Hat - HP, Compaq, or IBM?

2001 Eric - Uhhh. IBM?

2001 Chaz - Why?

2001 Eric - Uhhh. Because they are a services-based company? They compete with Red Hat for large scale enterprise implementations?

2001 Chaz - Exactly. At Red Hat, we blah blah blah...

2001 Eric - (Sweet Jesus. I can't believe I was right...)

I managed to muddle my way through the conversation such that I felt pretty good leaving the interview. Per my Kenan-Flagler undergraduate brainwashing training, I emailed a "thank-you for the interview" note to Chaz after the interview. His reply:

Email from Red Hat Chaz

(Yes - this and the others are screenshots of the actual emails.)

Unfortunately, I didn't hear from the company after a few weeks, so I emailed Martha in HR. (Not sure why I didn't email Chaz.) She replied saying that Red Hat has decided against hiring for their MBA Associate Rotational Program. I remember thinking that it was not a good sign that they weren't hiring MBAs - surely they weren't hiring undegrads either. I replied saying that I wasn't an MBA student and that I was interested in the Analyst Rotational program. Sure enough, I got my ding.

(Based on the ~350% increase in share price between then and now, I should have just sunk my life savings in the company and left it at that. But I digress...)

Through a pretty funny set a circumstances that I'll perhaps detail later and (mostly) good luck, I ended up getting a gig working full-time for the Kenan-Flagler IT department as a Computer Consultant. However, I never gave up on my Red Hat ambitions.

After emailing a few folks in Red Hat HR and keeping tabs on their website, I got word of a career fair. I didn't qualify for any of the positions that they were trying to fill, but that didn't matter to me - I had an "in" with my "relationship" with Chaz Felix. So I took a half-day and rode over to Red Hat HQ in Raleigh to make something happen.

Unfortunately, it turned out that the career fair wasn't one of the "show up and work the room" type. They had a gatekeeper that screened your resume and asked you a few questions at the door. If you were legit, you made it in. If you weren't, you made the walk of shame back out the door.

Obviously, this was sub-optimal - my resume was a joke. (It actually listed that I was proficient in MS Office, among numerous other pedestrian software applications.) So I gave it my best shot:
2002 Eric - Hi. I'm Eric.

Red Hat Guy - Hi, Eric. Do you have a copy of your resume?

2002 Eric - (Clears throat.) I'm here to see Chaz Felix.

Red Hat Guy - (Smiles while scanning my resume.) Chaz doesn't work here any more.

2002 Eric - ...

Red Hat Guy - Thanks for your interest.

So that was pretty embarrassing, not to mention a waste of a half-day.

Once I figured out that I would be there for a while, it didn't take long for me to realize that I hated working at Kenan-Flagler. I loved my co-workers, but hated the job and the "state employee" mentality. So, I trolled the career listings daily in search of my escape.

One fateful afternoon in the Spring of 2003, I came upon a "Sales and Marketing Associate" position for BrontoMail, Inc. The hiring manager was none other than Chaz Felix. My email exchange with Chaz:

Eric Emails Chaz

I interviewed with BrontoMail that Friday. I showed up at their "offices" in Meridian Parkway and waited around until "they" showed up - I didn't know what to expect. After I had milled around in the lobby for a few minutes, Joe and Chaz popped out of the elevator - Chaz in shorts and a t-shirt and Joe in his trademark white-button down, jeans, black belt, black socks, and black shoes. (Some things never change...) Chaz says "Hey - there he is!" and away we went.

The interview went down at BrontoMail's "Headquarters", which was actually an over-sized utility closet. Seriously - it was an interior room with no windows and a few small desks. The first thing I remember thinking to myself was "Where am I going to sit?"

I don't remember very much from the interview. I recall trying to focus the conversation around my efforts to start Aerea Consulting, a home/small business technology "consulting" (read: home wireless router installation) company a few friends and I were trying to get off the ground. I quickly realized that extreme "start-up-iness" at BrontoMail, so I figured they would appreciate the experience. Plus, talking my way into after-hours home tech support gigs with Kenan-Flagler faculty and staff comprised the extent of my sales experience, so I had to let it ride.

It seemed to work. Later that day, I had the gig:

Bronto Hires Eric

We met that Monday and I joined the team. A few thoughts/memories:

- I knew I would accept the position when they offered to meet at Pepper's Pizza on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. Either we connected subconsciously such that they mysteriously knew that I loved Pepper's or they picked up a hint I must of dropped in the interview. Regardless, any friend of Pepper's was/is a friend of mine.

- They quick turnaround was a mistake on their part. For one, it scared me. "Are they desperate? Do they know what they're doing? Is this a real business? Am I going to get paid?" For two, it gave me a (small) sense of leverage in the "negotiation". Thus, I felt validated asking that they at least match my Kenan-Flagler salary - which they didn't at first, but did by the end of the first slice. Though the difference was only a few grand, it meant a lot to me because Kelly and I were going to married a few months later and had already booked a fairly pricey honeymoon in St. John, U.S.V.I.

- After a single interview, I had an offer to take a position for which I had very little relevant experience. I was lucky because Bronto doesn't hire like this any more. Having made a few (hilariously bad) mistakes with shake and bake hires in the past, Bronto now requires that applicants. interview with at least 3 or 4 people at least 3 times before we will even considering offering them a job.

- Deciding to work at Bronto turned out to be one of the smartest decisions I've ever made.

More about my time at Bronto later this week.

Sales Punishment

I spent my first ~2.5 years at Bronto as the company's only salesperson. I hawked our email marketing snake oil medicine to every marketing agency, law firm, health club, and university on the east coast - (at least it seemed like it at the time) - and learned a lot in the process, including how to motivate a sales team.

Bronto, unlike typical sales organizations, often set a sales "punishment" in addition to our sales goal and stretch goal. Obviously, the punishment kicked in if we didn't hit our number and was meant to spur us on to victory. As far as I remember, we only punished ourselves twice:

The first time, we met at Meridian Parkway corporate park in the middle of the night and swam our 9ft tall inflatable Bronto mascot across the disgusting office park pond.

From left - Joe, Chaz, Britney, and Eric swim Big Bronto across the pond. (Not pictured - Caroline)

The fun continued as we convened in the parking lot for a beer after the swim. As I recall, Meridian Parkway security showed up and we proceeded to have an awkward exchange in which we explained why we were wet and he essentially told us to never swim in the pond again. (The details are a little fuzzy on this one...)

The 2nd punishment we endured was more of the public humiliation type. Essentially, we set up shop at the front door of our office building - who's tenants included numerous stodgy business types - and accosted those entering and exiting the building with something like the following:

Hi - we're Bronto Software, a local technology start-up. We didn't hit our sales goal and would like for you to dole out the punishment by pelting us with water balloons or squirting us with a water gun. You can either roll the dice to punish a random victim or you can just pick the department you think blew it this month.

Don't you think it was the sales team's fault?

As you can tell from the photo below, it ended up being everyone's fault...but mostly mine:

Front row, from left - Brandon, Chaz, Eric, and Jack.
Back row, from left - Danielle, Brad, Joe, and Oliver.

Looking back, the punishments were just as fun - if not more so - than the rewards. That said, I'm glad that we avoided the following "punishments" as crafted by Chaz:

- November Halloween. All Brontos would have been required to dress up in outlandish Halloween costumes...on November 1.

- Carolina Wolfpack. The plan was to don the most obnoxious NC State gear we could find and then eat lunch at the UNC cafeteria.

Behind the Scenes at Bronto

As many of my loyal readers know, I only have a couple weeks left at Bronto Software before I embark upon The Summer of Eric (more on this later) and then 2 years of business school at UNC Kenan-Flagler.

Considering my impending departure and my distinguished tenure with the company, the next few weeks at the Boggs Blog will carry a "Behind the Scenes at Bronto" theme. I'll reflect on some of the memorable moments and people from Bronto days past and, if the mood strikes, perhaps convey a portion of the immense admiration and gratitude I have for the company and the people with which I work.

For now, on with the comedy.


At Bronto, we fancy ourselves as a company with a soul. (The fact that we're named after a dinosaur should make it pretty obvious that we're not your typical software company.)

Our website showcases our quirkiness. For example, the copy on our site includes the following gems:
We ensure that the infrastructure remains incredibly secure (think Superman “Fortress of Solitude” secure) and performs at expected levels.

The Bronto team members are some of the finest individuals around (at least we think so). We're each like a snowflake - unique and beautiful. But when we marshal our efforts, we transform into an email marketing juggernaut the likes of which the world has never seen. However, we put our pants on just like everyone else - one leg at a time. Except, once our pants are on, we make and support the best email marketing software out there.

In particular, we take great pride in our employee bios on the web site, all of which are penned by Boggs Blog patron and UNC PhD candidate Ben Rogerson.

Here is a bio that Ben wrote for former Bronto Jon Norris:
Jon Norris
Web Designer

Jon Norris handles Bronto's custom template design program, designs
instructive demos for clients, and shares his wisdom on all things email
marketing design. Prior to joining the Bronto team, Jon worked as a web designer for Dialog. Jon received his BA in Spanish from Mississippi College.

Throughout the mid 1990s, Jon smuggled medical supplies, appliances, and used clothing south of the border to help churches, orphanages, and dental clinics. Considering his dashing good looks and devil-may-care attitude, "Che" Norris does not for one second regret his subversive past. He harnesses this same zestful iconoclasm to design outstanding email marketing messages.

And here is an honest-to-goodness, absolutely true, and absolutely hilarious email we received from a customer regarding Jon's bio:
Subject: Who is he? John Norris?

Dear Danielle,

This is confidential!!!

NO Disrespect, but, this man sounds
like a CRIMINAL from the description
you provide on line..

If his major is in SPANISH, that explains alot of why the new Website is so backwards.

What are you all thinking? Is this BRONTO's idea of Humor?

THis is my business...this is not a game.

Please pass my message on discretely.


More comedy from Bronto (and my old emails) coming soon...


How to Build a Customer Advisory Board

I've spent a fair amount of time over the past few weeks prepping for and following up on my April call with Bronto's Customer Advisory Board. We call it the "BCAB" for short.

While prepping for this call and previous calls with the board, I did a number web searches in an effort to learn more about building and managing a customer advisory board. (Bronto has never had one and I don't have any experience with this sort of thing.)

Though the Googles yielded some helpful resources, most of the results were press releases from companies announcing the formation of their customer advisory board, re-affirming their commitment to building a customer-focused business, blah, blah, blah.

So I did what I've done many times over during my Bronto career - I gave it my best shot and learned some lessons in the process. Hence, the following end-all, be-all post about building and managing Bronto's customer advisory board.

(I'm going to skip the "what"and "why" for customer advisory boards and jump right into the "how".)

What are you trying to do?

During our initial planning phase, we wrote a brief description of what we intend our board to become:

- An opportunity for Bronto customers to provide feedback and advice on the direction of our company and our product.
- A mechanism to ensure that our product direction aligns with customer needs as well as their current and future email marketing plans.
- A venue for customers and Bronto leadership to exchange ideas on the state and direction of the email marketing industry.
- An opportunity for board members to leverage the collective experience of Bronto and their fellow board members in an effort to further their email marketing initiatives.

It was important for us that the BCAB be a win/win, for Bronto and our board members. We knew what we wanted out of the program and quickly came to the conclusion that we were more likely to get the desired outcome if we made the experience worthwhile for our participants.

With these objectives in mind, we planned our first call. Prior to the call, we sent brief surveys to all of our members that asked our members a few simple questions:

- What would make the BCAB experience successful?
- List 3 driving forces that contribute to your success with Bronto.
- List 3 restraining forces that contribute to your success with Bronto.

(I got the driving/restraining forces questions from Pragmatic Marketing.)

The survey framed not only our first call, but subsequent calls as well. I spent a lot of time processing the results and then presented them to our board members in the first call. I felt like this was an effective means to get everyone "on the same page" and to set the tone for future meetings. Plus, our board members appreciated the opportunity to hear the email marketing perspectives and challenges of their fellow members.

Choose members carefully.

We recruited a fairly diverse set of board members. They range from CEOs to Marketing Specialists, E-Commerce sites to Non-Profits, high-power users to somewhat lessor power users. It is important to note that all are Top 50 customers in terms of annualized value to Bronto - so they all have a significant stake in email marketing and, more importantly, Bronto.

Also, most of the members already knew me very well, so gaining their trust and soliciting their honest opinions proved pretty easy.

The "all kinds of customers" approach was helpful initially. We were able to get a broad perspective of "what our customers are thinking" in very short order. However, it has since been somewhat of a limiting factor. We're not able to dig in on special topics as much as I would like precisely because our membership is so diverse.

I plan to recruit a few more members and form a couple "sub-committees" to rectify this problem. We'll have more sub-committee calls and fewer "all hands" calls. I suspect that we'll get better feedback and our board members will enjoy a richer experience.

We have 10 members and have thus far conducted all of our activities via phone and web conference. It has been challenging to keep 10 participants engaged on a call, but doable. 5 to 7 make for a better phone call - hence the "sub-committees" idea.

Don't talk. Just listen.

I would be lying if I didn't say that this is the hardest part.

While it was a strong start, Bronto's first customer summit devolved into a sales/entertainment event. (This is the risk you take when you put me in front of an audience.) We (read: I) have since gotten much better at asking the right questions and then listening for the answers.

Other articles I've read about CABs suggest hiring a facilitator. I suppose this would be a pretty good idea, though I think that we've done pretty well without one. As long as you can keep listening - and keep your cool! - when your members are brutally honest and as long as you're not afraid to walk right into situations in which you know that your members will be brutally honest, then you should be fine without one.

Extend the involvement.

For me, the most valuable asset of my board is knowing that I can call any of them out of the blue to bounce around an idea or to ask for an opinion on a very specific topic.

Though you'd have to ask them to be sure, I suspect that the members enjoy the high-touch approach and the satisfaction of knowing that they play a significant role in our product development process.

Make it happen.

It goes without saying that you can't talk the talk without walking the walk. Our board needs to know that their input drives change at Bronto. Thus, we make sure to discuss only the topics that we're honestly willing to change. We then take the appropriate action based on customer feedback and our best judgment.

I like to start our board calls with a quick rundown of our recent product initiatives - particularly those that involve BCAB feedback - in order to illustrate the board's impact.

So that's a lot. Hope it helps.


A Glimpse Into My Future?

The Kenan-Flagler Entrepreneurship Club stopped by Bronto this afternoon as a part of a day-long tour of Triangle-based entrepreneurial-type businesses. Matt coordinated the visit, but was kind enough to let me participate. I must admit it was a little odd co-presenting to a roomful of overdressed MBAs - and not just because I had on jeans, a t-shirt, and a SF Giants baseball cap.

The majority of the people in the group were first-year students. If I attend KFBS, then those folks are likely to be my friends and mentors. (I'll certainly be involved in the entrepreneurship club whereever I end up.) It was cool that so many of them offered up a business card, an invitation to lunch, or a reason that I should attend Kenan-Flagler. I especially appreciated that one student jokingly sought to confirm that I was not considering a Duke MBA...which I most certainly never have.

The experience also brought reality to my impending matriculation. Granted, I've visited schools (KFBS, Darden, Wharton), talked to alums, sat in on classes, scoured web sites, read blogs, the whole 9 yards. However, each of these have been in the context of an applicant completely unsure of how things will pan out. Experiencing a club event as an admitted student was completely different...and much more exciting. Without question, I'll be an overdressed MBA tron that visits a start-up next winter and eagerly soaks up the knowledge like a sponge.

Farmer's Market Wisdom

Thanks to Seth Godin for writing about the farmer's market. I've started many a blog post about lesson's learned at the farmer's market, but, for some reason, never published my thoughts. Now I feel empowered!

My wife and I go to the North Carolina Farmer's Market in Raleigh just about every weekend. We buy fruits, veggies, and plants and spend our weekend eating well and tending to our gardens.

Thing is - we have both a produce stand and a nursery within one mile of our home. The people there are nice, the prices are reasonable, and they sell more or less the same produce that we buy in Raleigh. So why do we drive 20 miles down the interstate for our green beans and coreopsis?

Because of the lovely farmers from Johnston County that sell me their corn, peaches, strawberries, and whatever else. (Spoken in my best Southern accent - "Ya'll want some corn? Hand-pulled this morning from Johnston County!")

There is something elemental and timeless about buying corn from the farmer that sowed it in his fields, cultivated it, harvested it, and then loaded it into his truck and drove it to the market in Raleigh.

Yes - the produce is fresh, delicious, and usually pretty cheap. For Kelly and me, however, it is the authenticity of the exchange that attracts us to Raleigh every weekend. No slick sales pitches. No elaborate distribution channels. Just real people trying to make a buck.

I share an odd sense of similarity with these folks because of my sales experience at Bronto. I was with the company early enough to feel as though I had helped cultivate the fields, harvest the crop, and take it to market.

Like the Johnston County farmers, we had a home grown "product", a handful of customers, and a few employees. Given the size of our operation and my familiarity with everything that was going on around me, it was easy to convey authenticity with a sales pitch strangely similar to those that we hear in Raleigh on Saturdays:

  • "home grown"

  • "organically grown"

  • "Tell your friends about us!"

  • "We added this new feature today! We're adding this feature tomorrow!"

  • "Ya'll come back!" (Yes - sometimes I'd pull out the Gaston County charm if I thought the angle would help me hook a fellow Southerner.)

Simpler times, of course. Now were a larger company - still an "organic" company with a home grown application, but with many more customers and employees.

Do we carry the same authenticity of the past? Of course - even though it gets harder to do as our company and customer list grows.

How do we insure that this authenticity continues? By insuring that everyone has an intimate understanding of and a personal investment in the product that they're selling, supporting, developing, or marketing. Everyone needs to harvest the corn from time to time.

Fun Time Focus Group!

Fellow Brontos and I recently hosted our first ever focus group/user group/customer summit/whatever you want to call it. (We've been calling it Bronto Summit 0.1.)

My only previous focus group experience stems from the IBM hardware focus groups I used to attend. I'd get $100 cash and free dinner in exchange for spending 3 hours in a dingy IBM meeting room hemming and hawing the finer points of desktop PC ergonomics. (What fun!)

Our recent focus group - although a bit non-traditional - was a much more rewarding experience. Here are a few thoughts after the fact:

  • We're on point with the new release. The vast majority of the "we would like to have" feature suggestions are already in the release. If not in the release, they're on the 6 month roadmap. So - we're definitely keyed into what our customers (and future customers) want.

  • Thad - Bronto Director of Engineering - added a number of tasks to his to-do list. Our customers have interesting ideas and we're listening.

  • It was amazing how our customers talked to each other about how they use Bronto, their thoughts on email marketing, and how their experiences and businesses shape their strategies. (Fellow Brontos and I merely facilitated much of the conversation.) Personally, I found it very rewarding to hear customers tell how Bronto helps them solve their business problems.

  • The meeting manifested the beginnings of the Bronto "community" - customers with shared experience using a product that helps them meet their goals and that they love to use. As such - I'm sure that we'll do more of these in the future - locally and elsewhere.

What's the point?

I spent some time on the phone with a customer today. We rapped about their email marketing program and how Bronto can help. Here's the (paraphrased) exchange:

Customer - For us, it (email marketing) isn't worth it unless we can track email activities back to sales.

Me - Agreed. How do you guys track the sales impact of your email efforts?

Customer - You know. We really don't.

OK - so that is a bit unfair. This customer is actually quite savvy. However, the comment highlights a common problem - that is not seeing the forest for the trees.

So many folks are quite good at executing on their email program, yet they don't put the right processes in place to track the overall purpose of their effort - sales, donations, education, retention, brand value, whatever.  Or they get so used to making newsletters and looking at the reports that the practice becomes a habit and they lose the initial idea in the shuffle.

Case in point, the Bronto Bulletin has been a bit blah of late. Everything seemed to be OK the way I found it, thus I haven't made any striking changes since I took it over. However, the newsletter began to get especially blah when I first started asking customers if they read it, what they think of it, is it useful, etc.

Most reponses have been tepid at best.

If our email communications are supposed to educate our customers and our customers don't react one way or the other when I ask about it, then what's the point?

So - we changed the look, (someone else's seemingly telepathic idea...), changed the subject line structure and are working to change the timing and improve the overall content. We'll see how it pays off...

Ask yourself before you send your next message - "What's the point?" What a great exercise to make sure you have the right impact measurements in place, to filter weak content, and to challenge you to rethink things every once in a while.