Massimo Arrigoni grew up in Milan, Italy, and moved to California 27 years ago to create software products and start a family, eventually moving to the San Francisco area in Silicon Valley. While leading product at the software company MailUp, a popular Italian email marketing software, his team built and tested a better visual editor for creating email templates and website landing pages. The free software tool called BEE (“Best Email Editor”) became popular and a new product line was born.
BEE end users love the modern and easy-to-use no-code editor which doesn’t require email or credit card to use the product for free. The company also sells to SaaS developers who want to embed the BEE builder into their own apps instead of building their own visual editors. BEE is growing with no paid advertising or marketing spend. New users find their free template library and start to use the product instantly with a frictionless experience.
Businesses now pay for the BEE Pro solution making up about half of company revenue and embedded plug-in makes up the rest. BEE is now a standalone company owned by parent Growens with 80 employees and over $10M in annual recurring revenues. The BEE visual editor is used by 400,000 users in over 8 million monthly sessions to design millions of emails and web pages every month, including BEE Pro and the embedded BEE plug-in.
Best quote from Massimo:
“One of the biggest PLG lessons is a mistake that we still make. You fall in love with a solution that you have in mind, this new shiny thing, instead of really first falling in love with the problem. In PLG, in product-led growth, the problem focus is even more crucial because the product alone has to lead to acquisition and conversion.
“When you experience the problem yourself, where you can explain that frustration immediately because you know it so well, then you’re so much more likely to address something that’s real. It’s a status quo that’s really wrong. There’s something wrong here. I’m going to address it.
“So that’s where being the first heavy user of the thing, not just because you want to be, but because you are the first one that experiences that very problem typically leads to a more successful outcome.”
In this episode, Massimo explains:
- Why the BEE builder is used by both end users to create marketing campaigns and by developers to embed the BEE builder into their apps
- How they leveraged their knowledge of what end users wanted while adding the features that developers required
- How they are evolving their visual page builder with collaboration and brand integration features for larger companies
- How the parent company in Italy supported the BEE startup “skunkworks” with a small team until it was sustainably breakeven in a new US-based company
- What principles of product-led growth (PLG) were most powerful in their product design and go-to-market growth
- Why most of their employees are directly involved with researching, designing, and building the product
- The most common challenges and misconceptions of product-led growth
Edited transcript of the Practical Founders podcast interview with Massimo Arrigoni, CEO and cofounder of BEE.
Greg Head: And we’re live with Massimo Arrigoni of BEE Software, beefree.io, and the BEE Content Editor. Welcome to the Practical Founders Podcast, Massimo.
Massimo Arrigoni: Thanks, Greg. Great to be here.
Greg: Yeah, it’s a really interesting story of a very popular and very cool tool, but it spun out of a larger software company and we don’t see that very often. Usually, people get an idea and go create their own companies. You gestated this inside an Italian software company. And you’re Italian yourself here. Massimo, before we get started with the software, tell us a little bit about yourself. You’re in Silicon Valley, but you didn’t grow up there.
Massimo: I did not. I grew up in Milan, a great city in the north of Italy. I always recommend people visit it. Don’t just fly into Malpensa and then run away. It’s actually worth spending a couple of days; it’s a great city. A great place where I grew up and then during my college years, in my third year, I studied at UCLA. I’m a basketball fan, that’s really the reason why I picked that college. It was the time that the Lakers were an incredible team; that’s why I ended up at UCLA. I had a great time, and then I met my wife. So, that’s ultimately how I ended up in California, and I’ve been here now for 27 years or so.
Greg: And you aren’t a sales and marketing executive. You’ve done a lot of things and you aren’t a crazy technical coder founder, you’re a product leader, of the modern, mature, product management, and product design.
Massimo: I love great products. Products that look good and are fun to use. So, there’s probably an element there for sure.
Greg: Let’s start with the BEE, B-E-E, which stands, I think, for the Best Email Editor. It’s a visual email editor, now a landing page builder, and it could be used for other things here. Tell us about the BEE product and the BEE business these days, and then we’ll go back to how it started.
Massimo: BEE is, like you said, it’s a visual builder to build emails, landing pages and other assets. And the fundamental reason why it exists today is the same reason why we started developing the product many years ago. A lot of people are frustrated with creating these assets in a way that’s no-code, easy, accessible, etc. And it’s one of those needs that you would think by now, isn’t that resolved? And no, actually. Especially when you go into collaboration, etc., etc., it’s one of those jobs to be done that everybody has. And so the pie is really, really large. And there are still plenty of applications where that user experience is not ideal.
Massimo: And by the way, it makes sense because a lot of those applications are not in that business, right? If you’re a webinar application, you’re not in the business of making the webinar email built within the webinar platform in a super-friendly no-code editor. That’s not why the webinar application exists. And so you find a lot of applications where that user experience is not there just because it’s not their core. So where do you do it? You do it somewhere else. Sure, you could do it in MailChimp and then find a way to get that into your webinar application. But we built a platform that’s focused on that so it becomes a centralized place where you design emails and pages.
Massimo: We also found that, again, because there are many applications where those assets are used, but it’s not their core, some of those applications actually want to embed that experience. So they say, “Yeah, actually you know what? It makes sense for me to have that kind of visual building experience in my app. And no, I don’t want to spend a ton of resources on it. Let me embed something.” And so that’s why we have these two sides of our business. One, a web product where you just go and design and then another product for developers that allows those application developers to create a visual building experience in their software.
Greg: Right. So you would think that this isn’t sending an email like Gmail or Outlook. This is sending a beautiful marketing email from whatever service delivers the email. But most of those email editors suck. They’re either 10 years old or don’t have real features. You have the most modern, most full-featured, most beautiful with an elegant interface that allows you to design and create and use that without coding it from scratch like people did 20 years ago. To make a fancy email, you had to code it manually.
Massimo: Yeah. So, there are a bunch of integrations from the web product at beefree.io too. A lot of platforms like MailChimp. We have literally thousands of MailChimp users that design with BEE, collaborate with BEE and then push to MailChimp to run the campaign.
Massimo: But it’s interesting, you said Gmail. Interestingly, we have tons of people that use it with Gmail. There is an integration with Gmail. And why? Because you could be a CEO that’s sending an email to the employees and wants a more visual email, maybe with some charts or something. So, tons of actual use cases where the sending platform is Gmail. In fact, we even created a plugin for Gmail that’s had over half a million downloads that allows you to create something directly in Gmail using some of our templates.
Massimo: You know, collectively we send over 300 billion emails a day in the world. So, it’s just that the pie is so enormous that the use cases are incredible. They’re across the board. And so, we service some of those use cases.
Greg: How big is the BEE business now? In employees and customers and revenues? It’s not a small business anymore, it’s not just a startup.
Massimo: Yeah, it’s scaled up to around 80 people now. We passed $10 million in ARR last year and we’re still growing fast double digits. So, it’s a healthy business. And both sides, by the way. Both sides are still growing pretty much at a strong pace because there’s a need in both aspects of what I was saying earlier, both in the embeddable side.
Greg: And are they about half the business? The selling to end users and then selling to software companies who embed your software for their end users?
Massimo: Yeah, they’re roughly the same. I wouldn’t have said that when we started many years ago, that after all these years they are still kind of the same. And sometimes one accelerates and the other one slows down and then the other one accelerates. But yeah, it’s pretty much down the middle still after all these years.
Greg: So you have 80 people, and you’re in the Silicon Valley area in Santa Cruz. Is everybody in Silicon Valley or the U.S.? Do you still have Italian team members that were part of the original team there?
Massimo: It’s a remote team and it kind of started by chance. It wasn’t a plan where we sat down and said, “Oh, this is going to be a remote company.” It started kind of by chance. Again, it was a project within a larger organization, as you said. And maybe we can go into more details on that. The team is spread out. I think we are in 13 U.S. states now. And then Italy, U.K., Denmark, and a few other countries in Europe. A lot of people in Italy, which is where our parent company is located. And also, Italy is a fantastic place for product and engineering talent. You may not think that way, but there are tons of great universities that produce a lot of good engineering talent. And so, we’re continuing to hire and develop software there and it’s been going great for us.
Greg: Well, Massimo, you’re the CEO of this growing software business. But it wasn’t like you had the idea and then you got a friend to coat it and you started selling it, you know, the bootstrapped kind of story. You were the head of product for this larger Italian software company. It had multiple portfolios of products, and this was one of the experiments, the tools that were built inside. How did this all start? It’s a different track for a software company to do it without outside funding.
Massimo: It started in the way that I believe is the best way to start new things. It started with frustration with the status quo. The company back then was called MailUp. It was basically the MailChimp of Italy with thousands of users and a similar company. We’re talking about 10 years ago or so, we were looking at the visual editing experience that back then was, if you remember, a lot of the editors looked like Microsoft Word. Not a great experience. And so we decided, “Hey, let’s build something new.”
Massimo: And we built a first version of a new visual builder kind of as a side project. And by the way, the first version was really bad. We had to throw it out the window and start again. It’s one of those cases where you know the problem really intimately and you start developing and you make mistakes and you iterate. And at some point, we created a visual builder for MailUp that we were pretty happy about.
Greg: So it was a feature of the product, right? You needed a new feature, showed up on the roadmap and staffed it with the team. You did the design and…
Massimo: Exactly right. And at some point, as part of a growth strategy for MailUp, we said, “What if we take the visual builder, throw it up on the web, and people will start using it and then we’ll convert them into MailUp users?”
Greg: I see.
Massimo: And so that’s what we did. And the internal name for the project was BEE because we said we’re going to build the best email editor, right? And then literally, we were in a conference room looking for domain names and randomly we came across this beefree idea because it’s going to be free, it’s the BEE editor but free. So, that’s how beefree.io was born. And it ended up being a really nice name that people love. And then there’s the whole concept of the bees, these incredible insects that keep us all alive that work together. So, there are so many aspects to it.
Massimo: So, we threw it up and we got lucky that there were a couple of writeups in the Hacker News and Product Hunt. These were the original days of Product Hunt. People loved the fact that there was this very basic visual builder, drag and drop builder, but it was completely… Not only free, but it was also kind of the precursor of a true PLG strategy. We didn’t call it that way back then, of course. But there was zero friction. Literally no sign up, no email to enter. You would click and get into the visual builder. And by the way, eight years later, it’s still like that today. So we never changed that. If you go to beefree.io, you click on Start Designing, two clicks, you’re in the visual builder with no questions asked.
Greg: Right. And you mentioned PLG, that’s product lead growth. The term for all this free trial, freemium software, free software, and software first. It’s the marketing, it’s the sales. Just put out the product out there and have them use it. You put it out there to attract customers to the MailUp product, just to see what it was. And it created a little sensation. You said, “Oh, there’s something more here.”
Massimo: Yeah. And that initial strategy of “OK, this is going to be a growth engine for MailUp,” just failed miserably. Like, it didn’t work at all. Nobody signed up. Nobody signed up for MailUp, but people were really happy about the visual builder that was available. But they started saying, “I don’t need MailUp. I actually already have another software to send my emails. And so thank you, MailUp looks great, but no thank you. I already have something else. But yes to the builder. I like that builder.”
Massimo: And so, people were using the builder, not converting to MailUp. That was kind of an “aha moment” to say, “Okay, what do we do here then? Do we just scrap this growth hacking project or did actually luck onto something different? Maybe there’s something here that’s a standalone application.”
Greg: Most companies would say, “That didn’t work to get us leads, kill it.” But you guys said, “Maybe there’s a product here.”
Massimo: Exactly. And a product that satisfies what was a clear need. People that were frustrated with the status quo. “I have an application, whatever that application might be where I don’t have the visual building experience to create emails, etc., that I would like. Thank you for providing that online.” And so, we took that and we started iterating on that idea. And very quickly it became clear that it was really a separate product. It needed attention as a separate entity compared to MailUp.
Massimo: And honestly, we got lucky, that yes, I was the head of product at MailUp at that point, but geographically the team was mostly in Italy and I was in California. I was geographically separated, which created also some organic separation in the way we’re looking at this thing. “OK, Massimo is over there. He’s spending some time on this thing that’s separate.” And I was physically separate. Probably again, luckily put us into a frame of mind of, “This is not just a side project that we do when we have time. This is actually a separate thing that we need to start looking at.”
Massimo: And the other thing that we lucked into was the fact that I was in San Francisco, because very clearly we understood that… The reason why we had built that product was that MailUp needed it. And so, yes, we threw it up on the web. There are end users that are clearly like this, but let’s not forget why we built it. We as a software company built it because we needed it. What if there are other software companies that need it?
Massimo: So, immediately we realized that there was probably something there. And I was in San Francisco, where clearly tons of startups are created all the time, especially 10 years ago. And so, I started just inviting people to lunch or coffee. I remember sitting down, for example, with the founders of Iterable at The Creamery, a great coffee place that unfortunately closed down recently. Being in San Francisco was a great place to just talk to people about, “Hey, we’ve got this thing that we’ve built. We think that it can be an embeddable visual builder for another application. Do you care? Like, would you use it?”
Massimo: So, that kind of investigation that you do with an MVP at the beginning was very helpful because immediately it resonated. When people said, “Yeah, actually, if you let me embed that thing, as long as I can customize it, etc., I could probably use it. Or at least I can have my developers take a look at it.” And so, the first product that we monetized was actually the embeddable builder. So the free builder on the web at beefree.io remained a completely free application that people were just playing with. At that point, there were no integrations. They would just download the HTML and go use it wherever they wanted.
Greg: Yeah, I could design something, take the HTML, go plunk it into my email system, and thank you very much.
Massimo: Yeah. And we weren’t sure whether there was any monetization possible there. We weren’t really explored that yet. But it was clear and the path to monetization was a lot more clear on the embeddable visual builder.
Greg: You were using it inside of MailUp, right? You were the customer number one. The DNA was to plug inside an application, connect up to the rest of the application. But when you talked to somebody else, they had their different UI design, they had different ways of plugging in. You had to build a new infrastructure to kind of take this feature out of your software and allow others to build it into their software.
Massimo: Yes, exactly right. I remember, for example, having lunch with Anthony Smith, the CEO of Insightly, a CRM. So that also was a light bulb. You know, “Oh, a CRM is interested in this thing. So, it’s not just email platforms. There are probably many applications out there where emails are sent for whatever reason. So there might be a bigger opportunity than we thought.”
Massimo: Again, like I was saying at the beginning, I’m a big believer in having that intimate knowledge of the problem. We knew the problem at MailUp. You just interviewed, a few months ago, Craig Letton at MRM Global. I love that interview because it’s so clear in his understanding of his business where it’s a custom printed material for…
Greg: The beverage and drinks industry. Started in Europe and now headed towards the States, yeah.
Massimo: Yeah. And in that interview, it’s one of those cases where you feel, you feel how close he was to the problem. Like, that intimate knowledge of, “Okay, I see it. I see the frustration in my customers and I’m so close to it that likely I will come up with something that makes sense, at least to some people.” So, we were in the same place where we knew the problem as a software company.
Greg: Well, this two-sided thing. Usually, as companies grow, you kind of have to pick which is your main customer segment that you’re focused on because you can’t serve two masters. But this is dual-sided, the software companies and the end users, and you were playing with both sides, right? Those two sides had to go. If you just did one, you wouldn’t have solved the problem.
Massimo: Totally. And it created also that fantastic feedback loop where we knew what the end user needed. So the person, the non-technical person that’s designing the email or the landing page. So clarity on that. And then at the same time, we knew what the developer needed to create that user experience. And so when you put the two together, you’re constantly feeding this loop where you’re creating a product that makes sense for both.
Massimo: Then, over time, this also became our strategy long-term in that if we create a visual building experience that gets adopted more and more… We now have around 1,000 applications of which around 600 are paying SaaS companies that have embedded BEE. So, our visual builder is literally everywhere. There are some quadrants by Forrester and Gartner where we almost have all the companies in the quadrant. Just again, the product makes sense, right?
Greg: You built it yourself, right? If you have all this knowledge and all this R&D, it would take you two years with a whole team designing it, and you’d probably get it wrong, to build a full-featured modern email landing page builder. Easily.
Massimo: Exactly. And so, the reason why then we continue to invest both on the embeddable product and the web design suite is that if this product is everywhere, then it starts to become a standard. And so, our vision long-term is you design in a central place, which is beefree.io, where your designers will live, especially if you’re a larger company. So your designers will live there, will create things that are on-brand. And there are things that you can do on beefree.io where you control the colors, the fonts, etc. You create a design system so you go faster, always on brand. And then, the people that actually create the content often work at the periphery, meaning in the webinar application, in the HR application, in the billing platform.
Massimo: Now, if in the end there is the same product in both, so you design with BEE and then you push to the periphery, and there’s still BEE at the periphery, now you’ve got this incredible experience where you can control that brand, for example. The designer said, “You can only use these colors.” And then I push to the application of the periphery, and those colors are enforced at the periphery. Then you’ve got this great situation where you have people, the HR person, whatever, they can freely edit this email, this page, whatever, without messing up, potentially, the brand. So that’s our long-term vision. We have that working with some applications, for example, with Veeva. Again, I would have never thought that this would be highly adopted in the pharma industry.
Greg: Vertical CRM for pharmaceutical companies, is huge. A massive company.
Massimo: Yeah, exactly. Had you asked me years ago, “Hey, is your email editor going to be popular in pharma?” I would have said, “No, I don’t think so.” But it’s actually super popular because those issues, for example, become very present in the pharma industry where you need to lock things because the footer, for example, contains maybe legal language that should not be edited. So, you create templates that need to be bulletproof. And then those templates are used at the periphery, in this case, the Veeva CRM, by salespeople that send emails to doctors, et cetera. They just select what they need to send, they send it out. It has to be very controlled, content that’s sent out.
Massimo: So, if we’re going to become a lot more successful than we are today, it’s because this idea of, on one side I design and I control the brand, on the other side, I enable the people that actually send out or create the final content. It could be an HR newsletter, a sales email to a doctor. If the entire experience is seamless and on-brand, there’s something there.
Greg: You discovered this deed for a better builder and you took that into other software companies and you started to grow. Did you kind of quit your job as the VP of Product and all the other responsibilities you had and say, “I’ll be the leader of this little startup group that’s building this thing. We need to go skunkworks,” or whatever you would say inside a big company? “We need to go offsite and go build this thing, disconnect from the mothership.” How did you guys get this up and running?
Massimo: Yeah, you’re exactly right. That is what happened. And again, I think in part we were lucky to be in a situation where I was already geographically separated from the rest of the team, which made it easier to create sort of a new team around this. Certainly, the parent company was helpful in that they sort of financed the beginning phases of this startup. So as a startup, we didn’t need to do a friends and family round or that kind of initial seed financing. It was never a situation where the parent company wrote a big check.
Greg: Yeah, yeah.
Massimo: It was more of debt financing. And a limited amount of debt financing because for them, it wasn’t clear whether this was going to be something…
Greg: But it was just people on the payroll, is that what it was? Or did you create a separate company and start to transfer some money over to finance the people?
Massimo: We already had a corporation in the U.S. just basically as a commercial entity to sell MailUp, and then that was turned into BEE. We did that at some point, not at the very beginning. I think that was a decision that was made a couple of years into it where we said, “Okay, you know what? Let’s actually really make that corporation this new startup,” and, you know, transferring the intellectual property and all that stuff.
Massimo: So this parent company provided sort of debt financing. Literally, it was a line of credit at the beginning. And we started dedicating people to this project. But because we monetized the embeddable editor very early on… So, we launched the free builder in 2014 and we had the first sale of the embeddable editor in the fall of 2015. We started generating money fairly quickly.
Greg: Kind of had a B2C product, end users using it, but you had a B2B monetization, selling it to companies. When did you feel like this is going to be a company? SaaS founders say, “Well, I got to a million ARR, and I finally had a sales person who could sell it, and people showed up who didn’t know us. Kind of had some independence.” What was a milestone for you when you said, “This is a real independent company?” Was it when you didn’t need checks from the home office anymore? What was it?
Massimo: It was the time, I think, when we got to 20, 30 applications that embedded the platform. It was so clear that the make versus buy equation was such simple math for them. Obviously, we needed to demonstrate that we were a reliable partner and so a lot of work on peace of mind, etc., but it was very clear that we were onto something. And so, even before we really started monetizing the web product, the web design suite, it felt like this is actually… It’s just a matter of executing correctly, but we’re onto something, so let’s just go. And so, that’s where really where we started to step on it and staff the team with more people and accelerate.
Greg: Were you profitable? Did you achieve financial independence from the larger company, from the MailUp company?
Massimo: We went back and forth a little bit. So a couple of years ago, we were sort of at breakeven. Last year, we went back in the red. Not a lot of red, but some. And it’s more like a matter of acceleration. Again, think of the parent company as sort of like a line of credit. And not a big line of credit, just some debt financing. They definitely helped with financing acceleration. It was never millions of dollars of red, again. We’re talking about smaller amounts. So, we kind of went up and down that way. And this year, we should be close to breakeven.
Greg: And this wasn’t a heavily sales and marketing-oriented growth strategy. This is getting users, tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of people to use your editor and try it out. So that’s good exposure out there, product-led growth. And reaching out to software companies who had email builders inside their products and see if they wanted to switch it out. Was it pretty efficient growth, would you say, looking at it as an independent company? Or did it take some funding fuel to get the flywheel going?
Massimo: What I love about the product-led approach is the idea that you believe that you have something valuable. Therefore you decide to remove as much friction as you can to put that valuable thing in the hands of the people that you believe will find that value. You very quickly figure out whether that’s true or not. So, if I give you something for free and you start saying, “Yeah, actually I see some value here.” And you see it in usage, you see in their reaction, et cetera. So, that also creates word of mouth. And that’s at the core of the PLG growth strategy. So, reduce friction, put value in the hands of likely users of that thing, see if they actually use it. If they do, then at some point there will be some of them that are willing to pay for something else, for more of that value.
Massimo: And we did that on both products. So even today, both the embeddable editor and the web design suite start with a completely free product. Even the embeddable editor, because we wanted to reduce friction even for developers. They didn’t need to start a subscription to just kick the tires and see if this thing made sense. So we did that on both products, which allowed us to have the cost per acquisition very low.
Massimo: Another thing that we did, and this is more on the web design suite side, is we invested on the first step of the design process. In any design process, the first step is, “Okay, let me think about what I want to do. Give me some inspiration, show me some ideas.” And you can see it in Canva, et cetera. So, we have one of the largest template catalogs in the world of emails and landing pages, and that generates a ton of traffic, so people just find us organically.
Massimo: We created a network of designers from around the world that work with us, that create templates for us. They make some money. We give them visibility, by the way, on our website. You see their profile. So, they actually make money then as freelancers. It’s not really a marketplace because we don’t sell the templates, they are completely free. But these designers see it as publicity because people just contact them for design work. But for us, it’s a fantastic growth engine and people just find us and they just play around with the templates. Again, like I said, even today you can edit any of those templates within two clicks with no questions asked.
Massimo: And so, that very frictionless user experience at the top of the funnel has created a ton of traffic with very, very little in terms of acquisition costs. In fact, most of the marketing… To this day, we spend basically $0 in paid advertising, by the way. Most of the marketing, we spend on the embeddable editor side. And the reason is that, there companies want peace of mind. And so us investing at some of the conferences where you have spoken, Greg, etc., you know, the SaaS conferences… We invest in those conferences, we are sponsors there, because that creates credibility, which is ultimately peace of mind in other software companies that go, “Oh, okay, if you sponsor a SaaS Talk or SaaStr, etc., it means that you’re credible enough for me to take a look at what you’ve built.
Greg: And presumably, there’s a little sales process in there too. The developer can plug it in and try it for themselves without talking to anybody. They hate friction, but eventually somebody needs to call and say, “All right, we want to plug this in and get rid of our old email builder or add this feature and sign a contract and so forth.” Is there a little sales process or can they sign up for the embeddable product without talking to anybody?
Massimo: They can. But you’re absolutely right that on the embeddable product side, which is a more complex product and where peace of mind plays such a big role, sales comes in immediately. So the top of the funnel, if you’d like it, is PLG, but then it goes to sales almost immediately. Because they want to talk to somebody, they want to feel comfortable with the solution, and they also sometimes have just very, very technical questions about implementing our embeddable builder in their software. So that becomes a sales conversation very, very quickly.
Massimo: And by the way, sometimes the cycle there is long because kicking the tires for their product team, development team could take months. On the other side, the contract value is typically higher. Churn is very low because once you’ve embedded the product, typically you can keep using it for many years. Very different story for our web design suite, where again, the top of the funnel is PLG and then sales comes in much later and many times doesn’t even come in. You have thousands of users that never talk to anybody because it’s a simple design suite where they just use the product. Some convert, some stay on the free product. At some point though, in that case similar to, again, a Canva model or Slack or many others, you do raise your hand and say, “I want to talk to sales,” when the adoption within the organization becomes larger. And so, there is a sales motion too.
Greg: And you want to control the brand and do all those “enterprise features.”
Massimo: Yes, correct.
Greg: That’s amazing. And in the beginning, for product-focused companies competing on “you have a problem and this is way better than everything else,” presumably you were investing in the product. Making the most amazing, intuitive, powerful, the best email builder that becomes your best marketing, where people say, “This is amazing,” and they tell their friends and want to use it forever. Did you spend a lot? What percentage of your 80 employees are on the product team as the main engine of product-led growth?
Massimo: You’re absolutely right. At the beginning, it was almost 100%. Now it’s still well over 50% product and dev. It’s all our research; it’s all our product research. We invest a ton for the still small company that we are with around 80 people. We have a lot of resources that go into researching the user experience, both through interviews and just through data. We spend a lot of time in product analytics, et cetera. And that’s very crucial to any PLG strategy, because again, if the product leads the way, clearly the user experience has to be among the very best. And for example, right now we’re investing in adding an AI assistant to the visual builder.
Greg: Isn’t everybody?
Massimo: Right, everybody is looking at that. But when you think about the experience of creating content, there are so many things where an assistant can help you. Not just the copyrighting. For sure, copyrighting is one of the natural things, totally. Or, I’m writing the first paragraph of my webinar invitation email, and I can quickly look up statistics on why collaborating leads to better results, or whatever it is. There’s that part where the assistant can be useful.
Massimo: But there are also a lot of other things that we’re looking into where it can actually help you with the design portion. “Be careful doing this versus that because of, maybe, accessibility matters.” “That button is not visible to a colorblind person.” Or many, many aspects of just the design experience that potentially, over time, will become a better experience because of some technology that can assist you in your work.
Massimo: That’s not just because of hype. That’s because of research that we continue to do. And you hear people and you hear what their frustrations are. The frustrations are no longer help me drag and drop things. That’s there. There are other things that they need help with. And so, we do invest a ton in that.
Greg: You’ve obviously succeeded with product-led growth. I can’t even imagine the number of emails that have been created in your platform, in the millions right? And so many people using it. From the beginning, the DNA was building a great product, designing it, and it led the way for product-led growth. I’m sure you talk to founders all the time. What is your advice for somebody that says, “I have this software, I want to make it free. I’ll get users. Free trial, freemium, product-led growth.” What is the biggest misconception that SaaS startup founders have about product-led growth?
Massimo: Yeah, so a couple of lessons. One mistake that we still make all the time too. You immediately fall in love with a solution that you have in mind, like, this new shiny thing, instead of really first falling in love with the problem. In PLG, in product-led growth, that’s even more crucial because really, if you’re saying, “Here is the product,” and that has to lead to acquisition, conversion, etc…
Greg: The lifecycle. The customer experience, yeah.
Massimo: Yes. It has to solve a problem that is felt by the target audience that you’re talking to in a way that goes beyond just, “Yeah, that’s nice.” I’m a big believer in the Jobs to be Done theory. The core of Jobs to be Done is the idea that not only the status quo has to be wrong, it has to be wrong enough that you’re open to a new solution to whatever it is that you’re doing. You’re going to hire something new to get the job done if you’re unhappy with the status quo. Nobody bought the Amazon phone, despite the incredible machine that Amazon is, because nobody was unhappy with their iPhone. Ultimately, it’s that simple, and yet we tend to forget. We forget that “Are you sure?”
Massimo: So, what I tell founders all the time is to really focus on that part. Are you sure that the status quo that you’re addressing is fundamentally wrong? Not only wrong, but wrong to the point that people are frustrated enough to listen to you and to kick the tires and to change. Because otherwise…
Greg: And to buy something and change their behavior, which is amazing. I mean, just think of all the things we’ve changed as individuals in the last few weeks. There’s a handful of things that I did differently than I did all those years before. It’s very few that I’m willing to change. And you’re right, that barrier to change and for attention and investment and change my habits and so forth. Is that something that you encourage them to just have their hypothesis and then test it with a free product? Because when you put out a free product, usually nothing happens, right?
Massimo: Yeah, I go back to what we were talking about earlier where when you are the first one experiencing that frustration… Or again, the interview that you had with Craig about the beverage industry. When you’re that close to the problem, the closer you are to the problem, where you can explain that frustration immediately because you know it so well, then you’re so much more likely to address something that’s real. It’s a status quo that’s really wrong. There’s something wrong here. I’m going to address it. So, that’s where being the first heavy user of the thing, not just because you want to be, but because you are the first one that experiences that very problem, you have that problem, that typically leads to a more successful outcome.
Massimo: So for example, I’m hesitant when a founder comes to me for advice and they have a great idea, but actually they don’t really have experience of the problem that they’re addressing. They’re just seeing market potential. Like, market potential is a necessity to monetize, but it’s not…
Massimo: Right. Not sufficient. Not sufficient for success. And we have, again, tremendous examples of things like that across many, many companies, even companies with tons of marketing and sales budgets.
Massimo: The other thing that I learned through the years… My first company was an e-commerce company. We built a good shopping cart system. It started in 2001, so it was the early days of e-commerce. And the product was good and there was clearly a problem to be solved, especially back then, but then getting to experience the value, there was friction. Back then, you actually had to download the software, install the software on your server. I mean, getting the shopping cart system up and running was a pain in the neck. And you can see how when Shopify and those applications came around and the explosion of SaaS and you no longer had to install anything and you had the store up and running in no time… And we by the way, we missed that train. We didn’t see how fundamentally the existence of friction in our model played a big role. So in the end, our company was a successful company and we sold it, but we didn’t hit it out of the park. Obviously, nowhere near a Shopify.
Massimo: So that remained ingrained in my brain because the product was a good product. So actually, we knew the problem, we had built a product that solved the problem, but experiencing the value took too long. And that’s the other element that’s fundamental in a product-led growth strategy. So you found a problem, the status quo is wrong. You found the solution to fix the status quo. But how quickly can people experience that value, experience that new solution? How frictionless is that experience? And that’s where the product-led growth framework helps you. Make that path as short as possible. Do whatever you can so that the path to people saying, “Hey, there’s something here,” is very quick. And then you build on top of that.
Greg: That’s great. So, you had this embedded product you sold to SaaS companies and you had this free thing on the web, but now you have a pro version. You finally monetized your end user product and it’s now half the revenues of your business, roughly. What was that like? Did you just kind of inch into that and charge a little bit and start to learn and then charge more as you added more features? Or was there one big day you flipped the switch and said, “It’s all working?”
Massimo: The web design suite, we started monetizing that in 2016. So, over six years. And in all honesty, we’re still figuring it out. Because, it’s one of those cases where the audience is really, really broad. We get signups from all kinds of industries. We do over 15,000 new signups a month of our web design suite, again, with virtually no marketing spend. It’s just people that find us organically. So you’d say, “Wow, that’s fantastic,” right? But they come to us with a job to be done, they get it done, and in many cases they’re like, “Thank you, that was so great. And, see ya.”
Greg: Yeah, it was done once. “I just need a fancy template. Thank you. Bye.” Yeah.
Massimo: Makes perfect sense. And so, how do you monetize that? Obviously, you need to make them experience more value, that there’s more value. So, one of the things that we’ve done over the years, paradoxically, is adding more and more value to the free plan. To then monetize the ones that go, “Okay, I’ve experienced more of this. It wasn’t just a one-shot thing because you showed me that, oh, there’s also a collaboration feature. Maybe next time I’ll try to invite my colleagues and we’ll see if this actually improves my workflow.” If we convince them that it’s not just a cute little design tool, now you’re improving your workflow, like your approval workflow. Or, “Oh, there’s something here that’s more.”
Massimo: And that’s a process. Honestly, we have almost 40,000 monthly users of the design suite, of which around 10,000 are paying customers. But if you ask me, “Is that a done deal? You’ve figured it out?” No, I would tell you we’re still at the beginning of actually figuring out where people over time will find more and more value. Is it collaboration? Is it brand control? Is it many other things? You could say yes to all of them.
Massimo: That’s another piece of advice that I give to founders. Sometimes it really takes time. Even if you invest in user research, it takes time to really figure out where people will see the biggest amount of value. And it’s okay as long as you’ve created an engine where the value that they’ve found so far creates enough revenue. And so, then you have time. Then you have time to test. Will it be AI-assisted content design? I don’t know. I’ll tell you in a few months. We’re developing that. You know, that might be it, and they will say, “Okay, there’s tons of value there.”
Greg: That’s interesting. So for the free product, you actually have to add more to the free product to get the value up to get them to come back and say, “Wow, this is a bigger thing.” It isn’t just you get halfway up the hill with the features then you want to go all the way up the hill then you start paying, which we see. That’s kind of interesting that you’ve done that.
Massimo: Yeah, that goes back to, again, the core to product-led growth is I want to put the thing in your hands, right? And that doesn’t apply just to the product, it applies to new things that you do. So whenever we create a new feature… For example, one of the questions that we always ask ourselves is, “Should this be on the free plan?” In most cases, we want to answer yes, because it goes back to the core of PLG. They should be able to experience at least a piece of the value, frictionless. And then if they want more, then they will say it. And then hopefully we figure out a smart way to monetize that. So, it’s kind of a muscle that you need to train. And every time that you’re increasing the depth of the product, you want to have at least a piece of this new thing that you build available without friction so that people get a sense of what it is and where you’re going, where this product could help them more.
Greg: And you don’t need salespeople to do that. They can get in and see it for themselves and approve it. So now you’ve got this large company and it’s getting larger. Massimo, I don’t know if you can say this, but how much do you think was invested by the parent company to get this SaaS business up and running? And you described it as debt. Did you pay them back? Was this millions of dollars, tens of millions, a little bit less? Did you pay back the debt, the debt facility or whatever you called it?
Massimo: Yeah, we did. And again, as I was saying earlier, because some years we were using more capital than other years to accelerate, maybe development, etc., it kind of went up and down. But over these eight years of developing BEE into a SaaS scale-up, it’s a few million dollars overall.
Greg: That’s pretty efficient. Most people would look back and say, “That’s amazing.” And now the parent company sees this growth growing, strategic accelerating, the flywheel’s getting bigger and bigger. Is it worth more than the parent company now? At what point do you think it could be worth more than the parent company?
Massimo: The parent company Growens definitely sees a ton of potential in what we’re building at BEE. And therefore, very recently actually, they decided to sell some of the really core assets in the group including this MailUp product, which is a kind of a historic application in Italy, kind of with the brand that MailChimp would have here. And they decided to to sell it because there was a great opportunity. Very similar, by the way, to what happened here in the U.S., where Intuit bought MailChimp. Kind of the same thing happened in Italy where, basically, the Intuit of Italy, so an accounting system for small businesses, bought this marketing platform for small businesses. So, a similar deal.
Massimo: So, it was a great deal. But also, they decided to do it to generate capital that can then be invested into making BEE an even bigger opportunity because we believe that in terms of content design and content creation, we are at a place that’s super interesting and that could be one of those dramatic changes in the way work gets done.
Massimo: So imagine our application, especially if you’re a more sophisticated customer where you’ve built a design system, so we know your styles, right? And now let’s say you’re an HR team and you tell us, “I want to do a new employee onboarding campaign.” We kind of know structurally how that campaign should be done. We know your style. We can generate content through AI. We could generate four or five emails for you for this new employee onboarding campaign within seconds. And then you add in what you have…
Greg: The content problem. Not just the design problem, the content problem.
Greg: The next massive problem out there, yeah.
Massimo: Both of them. And you need both, right? So, we see a huge opportunity there. And we believe we’re in a good position to capitalize on that.
Greg: Yeah. So, Massimo, you’ve been part of this since the beginning. You’re the CEO of this growing SaaS company, an independent SaaS company. Do you feel like the founder? You know, people use the founder word all the time. Do you feel like a founder?
Massimo: Yeah, I do, totally. Totally. And co-founder, co-founder, because there are other people in the business that have been with me from the very beginning and they’ve been great co-founders. Although, they were employees, right? We weren’t co-founders, meaning that we just met at a coffee shop and each put in a thousand bucks. So, you start in a different way, but ultimately it is the same thing. It’s a few people that started together.
Massimo: And right now, it’s still part of a group that’s publicly traded in Italy. And it’s fine; it might it might stay that way. Or it might change in the future. Who knows? Honestly, it doesn’t really matter when you’re just focusing on building a good product. And as long as you have enough money to go after the goals that you’re after, to me, it doesn’t matter that much whether it’s an independent company or part of a group. We’ve been able to set it up so that it’s been running as an independent entity with very little of a, let’s say, bigger company bureaucracy, et cetera.
Greg: Do the co-founders and you, do you have enough economic interest in the equity of the company like founders who create their own companies and see the potential? Or is that different in this scenario?
Massimo: So it’s a little bit different. And we’re working on that, honestly. It is one of the things that because the parent company was already publicly traded in Italy, the cap table was a little bit different. And providing equity just in that business unit gets a little tricky when the share is actually shares of the group. So, there’s that. But we are working on that. That is one of the goals for the near future.
Greg: Is there still a parent company or do you talk to them only at your board meetings now? Are you that independent?
Massimo: No, no. First of all, they’re friends of mine. We’ve known each other for a long, long time. And we collaborate a lot. In fact, next week we’re in New York for a strategy meeting. New York, because it’s kind of halfway between California and Italy. We collaborate a lot in terms of like the strategies and brainstorming and putting together also the resources that are needed to go after those strategies.
Greg: That’s awesome. Well, what an exciting journey. You know, a little different approach than to go quit your job and start something and bootstrap it into revenues and get it going. You did it inside another company and have fantastic results. Could this be $100 million revenue business if you keep growing, steady growth, and do it at your own pace?
Massimo: Yeah, I believe so, because again, content creation is one of those things that every single company basically does in one way or another. So, the pie is huge. And when you put together a design and the content aspect, the images, text, etc., I do feel like we are in a point where processes that have been similar for the last 20 years where you design in Photoshop and cut it out and then you create an HTML piece of content… Like, those are dramatically changing. And you see it also in the growth of something like Canva, right? Over a billion dollars in ARR. They’ve done an incredible job.
Massimo: In terms of like, vision, our vision is a little bit different in that, again, we have been able to get our product embedded in all these applications at the periphery. With Canva, basically, you do all the design in Canva. And it makes sense. It makes sense for what it is. If we become a very successful company, it’s because we’ve been able to connect the design component to the fact that you have all these other functions in the company that are actually in other applications. Again, HR, billing, marketing, et cetera. Connecting the two, if we’re good at it, and if we create a fantastic content creation experience, then I think that’s a much bigger company than we are today.
Greg: Yeah, it’s kind of like it was this feature in the corner, on the periphery, and now you’re heading into the center of the experience for people creating content, right? And then all the other apps and other things move back. That’s a big vision.
Greg: Massimo, any final thoughts for practical founders out there who are changing the world and doing it without outside funding? Maybe those thinking about the product-led growth approach. You shared some thoughts already, but do you have any other final thoughts for practical founders?
Massimo: You know, I love these interviews. I’ve listened to many of the interviews that you’ve done precisely for the reason that I was talking about earlier. You can hear in their voices how close they are to the very problem that they decided to solve. And so ultimately, that’s such a fundamental aspect of creating good products. And not the initial product, by the way. That’s something that needs to happen every time you decide to do something new, a new feature and evolving an existing piece of functionality. So, listening to that kind of content, it just reminds you that’s where you’ve got to go. You’ve got to go there every time. And so, thank you for doing these interviews. I think they’re super helpful.
Greg: Well, thank you for sharing your knowledge here. A passionate founder that I’ve worked with creating two companies that got millions of users and, you know, one went public. And one we sold to Symantec and had 4 million users, ACT, and SalesLogix. Pat Sullivan used to say, “Great products are created by fanatics.” And not just passionate people, but fanatics. People who don’t care about anything other than solving the problem for this user in the most amazing way possible. It’s kind of a freakish talent and, you know, it’s not easy. So, thanks for sharing your fanatic approach to the BEE software company and changing the world. Thanks for being on the Practical Founders Podcast, Massimo.
Massimo: Well, thank you, Greg. Great to be here.
BEE Company Facts
- Founded: 2014
- Description: BEE provides no-code design tools that empower everyone to design emails, landing pages, one-page sites, and more. BEE has millions of monthly users in over 20 languages in over 150 countries. BEE’s design tools are available online at beefree.io and embedded in 600+ SaaS applications.
- Funding: Funded as an internal project and then debt by the Italian parent company MailUp, now owned by Growens
- Parent Company: BEE Digital Content Design is 1 of 5 business units owned by Growens
- Headquarters: San Francisco with an office in Milan, Italy and remote employees in the US and Europe
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