Aly Saxe had already founded and grown a successful PR firm when, with two babies, she decided to start her PR software company Iris PR. Why would she leave the perfect business to start a new one? Aly talks with Clate Mask and Scott Martineau about tenacity, why it doesn’t work to chase two dreams, and creating a product that changes customers’ lives.
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Aly Saxe: I believe that you can't chase two dreams at the same time. You've got to pick one thing and focus on it, and I saw the safety net almost as a detriment to what I needed to do to the software.
Scott Martineau: That's Aly Saxe of Iris PR talking about how she built the perfect business and why she left it. To hear the whole story, listen to this episode of the Small Business Success Podcast.
Scott Martineau: Welcome everybody to this episode of Small Business Success. I'm Scott Martineau.
Clate Mask: And I'm Clate Mask. We're cofounders of Infusion Soft and we're really fortunate today to have Aly Saxe with us. Aly, how you doing?
Aly Saxe: I'm great. Thanks for having me today.
Clate Mask: You bet. Thanks so much for being with us. Why don't you tell our listeners about your company, where you are, how long you've been running it, how many employees you have. Just give us a little taste of who you are and what business you're running.
Aly Saxe: Sure. So I'm a PR person trapped in a software company which feels weird but I'm learning to embrace it. So I used to have a PR agency that had 10 employees and in that agency we developed a piece of software to help us streamline, improve value, understand what was working and what wasn't, and just deliver better results to our clients overall. That took on a life of its own and about 20 months ago I got the software funded, shut down my agency, and now I'm totally focused on having a software startup, so we have seven employees now. We're located in Phoenix, and it's just wild.
Scott Martineau: Who in their crazy minds would ever start a software company, Aly? [laughter]
Aly Saxe: I don't know.
Clate Mask: No, especially – the thing I think our listeners probably – I think would be interesting to them would be to hear – so you had a successful PR company.
We know your company well. We know the good work you guys did. You helped us in a lot of ways. You were building a great business there, so take us into maybe a little bit about the success of your PR firm and then we'll talk about what possessed you to leave that and start a software company.
Aly Saxe: If I had the answer to that, that would be – maybe we could find that today, because I had a successful services company. We actually were profitable by almost 30 percent which is almost unheard of in the agency world. I had literally the perfect lifestyle business. I had 10 employees. I was not running the day to day. Many of the clients didn't know who I was. I literally worked less than 20 hours a week. I was the only owner of the company. I mean it was the entrepreneur's lifestyle dream.
Clate Mask: You have a bunch of listeners out there who are like, you're crazy.
Aly Saxe: I am crazy.
Clate Mask: That's what I'm working for. That's what I'm trying to get to, 20 hours a—
week, 30 percent profit margins, 10 employees that run the day to day without me. I mean that's a pretty great success story in and of itself, so it sounds like you had a great thing going and yet you chose to do something different, so we'll see if we can help you figure out why, but before we do that why don't you share with the listeners how you built that business. What was it that helped you to create that success story with your PR agency?
Aly Saxe: You know I think it came down to a couple key things. One was relentless tenacity. I just didn't know when to hit the stop button and I just didn't even think about it. It took a good two to three years to get the agency really churning and it never occurred to me during that time that I shouldn’t do this. I just kept going, and it's probably was because of the second reason which is—
I loved what I did. I genuinely loved doing PR. I got up in the morning excited, went to be excited, and only moderately annoyed with clients, but I woke up refreshed the next day, and I loved growing a business. I found out that more than PR I loved building teams, and leading, and trying new things, and being experimental, and specializing, and carving out a niche, and I adored everything about it, but I think it came down to the love of what I was doing and the tenacity.
Clate Mask: That's great, and you built it up to 10 employees, and were having great success there, then you made a decision to do something different, so tell us about that decision.
Aly Saxe: Well I think there's something wrong with my brain because I had – with all that time on my hands, and I had two babies at that time, I'm like, this just isn't chaotic enough. I'm just not punishing myself enough.
I have to find something to do. But I already started it so we built the software for the agency and our real growth happened after I actually implemented the software. We actually tripled in size in 18 months, and that’s really when the change started occurring, and it didn't occur to me to even explore software until a couple of our clients who knew what we were using said that might be our business. You should think about giving that away to some clients, or some colleagues, and see if it can live outside your environment. So that happened organically, so I did that, and all of those companies I gave that to are still paying customers to this day. They were our first early adopters, so while I realized, while there may actually be something here, and I've got all this time on my hands, I'm going to see what I can do with it, and the tenacity just kicked in, and the train—
started going, and then I got it funded, and I thought, I've got this safety net of this agency here, and I believe that you can't chase two dreams at the same time. You've got to pick one thing and focus on it, and I also saw the safety net almost as a detriment to what I needed to do with the software. Like I was never going to be all-in on the software until I knew that I didn't have a safety net anymore, so that was a really difficult decision for me to close up the agency for a lot of reasons, but I still believe it was the best decision for the software company.
Scott Martineau: So interesting, Aly, because we had a similar journey. I'd say we didn't quite have the same success you did on the custom software before we were officially a software company—
Clate Mask: Product software company.
Scott Martineau: Before we created our first product, and I don't know that we had as much discipline as you did. It was probably a little more survival instinct, but there was that transition going from—
the services, which although it's a difficult business, we get accustomed to what we've created right, and there's a stability feel that we have there whether it's real or perceived, and I remember the day we walked into our employees and we were like, hey, you guys need to take over all these custom software projects. We're going to go make this jump across the chasm to the product world. That's a stressful thing to do. I mean on the other side you have this concept of recurring revenue which is a fantastic – I think any business owner who can find a way to create a recurring revenue base, that's a fantastic thing to get, but it's nerve wracking to do that. Congratulations on making that jump.
Clate Mask: Yeah, I listened to so many things as you were describing that. There are so many things I hear that I know are pressing questions in the minds of entrepreneurs every day. I see a different business opportunity. Do I go after that?
Now I've gone after that business opportunity. Do I run two businesses? Do I get a team to run this other business while I move and take on the new thing? Those are all tricky challenges and tricky questions, and a lot of times you find entrepreneurs who will get two, or three, or four things going, but none of them ever really takes off and creates a business that satisfies the dreams or ambitions of the entrepreneur, and I think that's what I hear in why you made the change. You had ambitions as an entrepreneur and I know you're ambitious. I know your drive. I know how you wanted to do more and wanted to take that to many more agencies where you could make an impact on a lot more business. I don’t know exactly why you made the jump but I have the sense that it was in part because you could see a much bigger business opportunity—
that could really scale and become something that would have major impact on other businesses.
Aly Saxe: Yeah, I mean that's definitely the dream, right? It's a bigger opportunity. What astonishes me is how many people assume that entrepreneurs are in this for the money, and honestly I can honestly say that the money didn't occur to me. I know that sounds bizarre, like money is nice icing on the cake. There's certainly no money in it now as you know in the early stages. There's no glory whatsoever but it's this drive that as an agency we impacted 15 or 20 companies at a time, but as a software company, I can impact thousands, and that means I can make a dent on an industry, and that's cool. Like if I could do that and nothing else, that would be enough.
Clate Mask: Yeah, look at you speaking like a true software entrepreneur.
Aly Saxe: Thank you. It only took 20 months.
Scott Martineau: Aly, I want to hear what's behind your comment around focus. We're going to be successful when we create focus. Where does that come from in your past?
Aly Saxe: You know, I think I've just always been that way, almost to a fault. I get – my husband jokes with me – we renovated – we bought a house about eight years ago when it was not livable, and we redid the whole thing and tried to do most of it ourselves, and he used to joke that we would redo an entire room and there would be one hole left in the wall that wasn't patched up, and that hole would keep me up at night. I would zero in on that hole like it was my job, and that's kind of the way I've always been, and my – Anila, who you know, my CTO, cofounder here—
just rides me about that. Like I'll focus in on one thing and she's like, why is it this one feature? Why is it this one initiative? And I guess when I clamp my jaws on something I hold onto it like a boxer dog. I think – I also don't like being distracted. It actually makes me anxious, so having too many big initiatives going on at once I think is a dangerous place for an entrepreneur's head to be.
Scott Martineau: I always get nervous when I see a customer e-mail and I see that they have six URLs at the bottom of their signature, six different websites, because it's counterintuitive but I think the natural instinct is to say, hey, if I want to grow, if I want to have more impact, I need to expand what I'm doing versus focus in. It's such a counterintuitive thing, but it's a pattern I've seen for sure in business owners. You've got to be willing to say no in order to create the focus to create the real deep wins in another area.
Aly Saxe: _____ to do that, right? You had to say, it's small business. We're not going to go upstream, and that was a scary proposition for a lot of people in your world right?
Clate Mask: Totally. I was actually a series of focusing decisions we made starting with we'll serve – we'll do custom software, then focused it down to semi-custom CRM, then focused it to a product, then we said just for small businesses, then we carved off a couple pieces of the product that were distracting us, and it's interesting because each time we narrowed the focus we found a new layer of growth. It's actually very counterintuitive but the focus actually enables more growth, and there's – it's something I think a lot of entrepreneurs struggle with because they don't want to say no to opportunities, but the reality is it actually opens up the opportunity in the thing you're—
passionate about, but if you don't have the passion, then it's probably not going to be the right place to apply your focus, and by the way, that's another thing I see. The entrepreneurs that have the six URLs, they're usually not passionate about any of them. They're just kind of playing an economic game as best they can in each of those six businesses. So you've found passion, and you drove hard on your passion, and it was easy for you to let go and focus on one business. But that's not totally common with entrepreneurs, so good for you on the focus.
Aly Saxe: Thank you.
Scott Martineau: So Aly, take us – one of the things we like to ask our guests is take us kind of to the dark side. What's maybe been the most challenging, most difficult aspect as you've grown either of your businesses?
Aly Saxe: Where do I begin? [laughter]
Scott Martineau: Probably in the depths of the pain. Just start there.
Aly Saxe: I was saying to somebody yesterday that I felt like over the last two—
weeks that I've been taken out to the desert, and water boarded, and beaten, then somebody presented me with a beautiful oasis and then took it away. It's such a bipolar existence. I mean product is so hard. Scale is so hard. Talking about focus – I had a realization recently that I need to spend more of my time on – we're going upstream right now and I really need to put attention on getting those type of accounts and learning how to get those types of accounts which is not a skill set that I have. So it's been a very scary month for us because I've taken my attention off of going after these small accounts that we're used to getting, and that's terrifying because I didn't know if it was the right decision because those type of accounts you spend a lot of time on, and I don’t know if I'm doing it right, and I'm making these trips. Just in the last—
couple days we've started to see the fruits of that come out, and these are things that I've been working on really for about six months now and really in the last two months said I'm dedicated to making these things happen, and because of that, as I told you before the call started, we did more in revenue today than we did in all of last month.
Clate Mask: That's so great.
Aly Saxe: The son of a B is I still don't know if that's the right—
Clate Mask: It's great if last month was zero and this month was one, right? [laughter]
Aly Saxe: Right. Fortunately that wasn't the case but just because as you know, you can't look at a single victory, or even two victories and say that's a pattern, you need to see it 10 times. I think the hardest thing for me in this journey has been completely letting go of certainty. I feel like I was a very certain individual before, and I could predict things pretty well, and even running the agency, I could walk in to a prospect meeting, or client—
meeting, and I could call the shots. I knew exactly how that was going to end and most of the time I was right because I had been doing it for so long, and I could read the signs, and if a client said, "I really like this service but I don't like that one." – we just adjusted the contract, and we still got the client, and it was – services are not easy but they're a lot easier than product. On the product side, going into a market with something that has never been brought to that market before, terrifying. You know all about that. Trying to scale, like truly scale and never having done that before is terrifying, and I feel like the thing that has saved my sanity is realizing I've had to kill certainty. I just don't know. I'm going to be wrong today but maybe tomorrow I'll be less wrong. I'll learn something about it.
Clate Mask: Yeah, that's a – thanks for taking us through that because Scott and I are smiling here because we remember very well the days of going through that, and I know a lot of listeners have gone through it or are going through it now. I remember when we made that transition from moving away from custom software and custom accounts to a product, and there was a period of time where in order to make it work, I had to abandon the sales pipeline that we spent a lot of money to build and a lot of time and effort working that process, and it was very familiar. It was very understandable. I had a good sense of what the pipeline would yield if I just put the work in, and no doubt it was a lot of grueling work, and the rewards weren't great, but they were just enough to keep the lights on. That was a cruel security blanket because—
it kept us in a place where we were keeping the lights on, but we got to a point where we had a small line of credit that was 25,000 bucks, and Scott was like, now is the time for us to go after our product work, and I just remember how terrifying it was to not go through the regular daily routine of the custom sales work, and instead move to a whole new world of working on bringing in customers on this early stage product that was still in the development process. It's a tough, tough thing, and anytime you're switching your business model like that, and switching how you sell and take your product or service to your customers, man, it really is an unnerving experience. It's not for the faint of heart. That's for sure. So congratulations to you for having a great month in sales and starting to see the fruits of your labors over the last several months as you've made that transition.
Aly Saxe: Thank you. I think the cool thing though on the positive side of that – because it is really terrifying, but when you realize you don't know, you can't predict, it's not just the negative you can't predict. It's the positive. You can go into situations that make you really anxious and nervous, and I don’t know how this is going to turn out, and I don't feel good about this because I don’t know, this is uncharted territory, then you think, gosh, anything could happen. I might walk away from this with an outstanding outcome that I never even imagined because I just don't know, and that actually happens a lot. If you pay attention and you walk into a situation with no expectation except what you can control – like I know I can learn something from every situation that I walk into. I can walk away with a lesson, and I'll be glad with that, and then see what happens – some of the most amazing things come out of those interactions, and I feel like that's—
kept my head in a good space through this journey.
Scott Martineau: Yeah, I was smiling earlier for a slightly different reason, and that was because this idea of certainty, I don’t think it's ever there for anybody.
Clate Mask: We delude ourselves into certainty.
Scott Martineau: I'm not trying to say when we perfect a skill and create a pattern of success that it's not repeatable, but the irony is I think there's a part of the entrepreneurial infection which sort of resists this idea that we're going to live life in the middle, meaning the middle of the lows and the highs, and I think Aly what you're describing is the essence of – I think it's an underlying drive for a lot of business owners. I don't – like you said earlier, I don't really like living life with a safety net. I'm not terrorizing myself enough or tormenting myself enough. I know that's the funny way to say it, but in reality there's this underlying thing that calls each of us up in different ways to different things, and that's—
where you really get to experience life, and that's where you really get to grow, and I think that there are lessons in life that you can learn about you, and about the markets, and about people, and about business that you can't learn in any other environment. That's one of the beautiful things about it. It's a playground for learning, and development, and growth for you and for your employees, right? It's not just you. Like you said, being a little less wrong tomorrow than you were today, and appreciating the positive unexpected learnings just as much as the negative aspects of learning, so I can appreciate that. As you were talking I thought back on being a couple years into our business, and things were just so freaking hard. Everyday was – I think I said this before, but I remember somebody asking me one time if I had a good day, and I was thinking, I haven't had a good day in a long, long time.
That's not how it is when you're starting your business, then I remember a couple years in those – you do occasionally have a big win. You have a rush and you're like, wow, this thing's going to work, and you're feeling encouraged by that, but they're few and far between in the early days. I remember a couple years in it was almost like, we have a good day a week now. It's happening enough that this isn't so crazy to think that we can have some good days here. It was about two, two and a half years in where I just recognized, you know what, every day that we survive is a great day. It's getting us closer. It's making our success more imminent. It's increasing the likelihood of it. It's just a matter of fighting through every day, and like you said, getting a little less wrong, a little closer to pleasing and satisfying our customers in a way—
that they're excited to be working with us.
Scott Martineau: And have fun.
Clate Mask: And have fun.
Scott Martineau: Might as well.
Clate Mask: Good for you. That's awesome.
Scott Martineau: I'm on an ultimate Frisbee league. I joined a league.
Clate Mask: Is that your important appointment tonight?
Scott Martineau: No it's not, it was last night, but the coach said something also. He said, this is how we're going to play this game. We're going to have a blast every single game because I've noticed that the games that are really stodgy and super serious, they don't usually win anyway. Besides, the marginal difference between playing a really stodgy, stuffy game, and winning, it's not that much different than playing that way and losing, so we're going to have a good time. I thought that was a great philosophy.
Aly Saxe: It must be nice to have time to play Frisbee, Scott.
Scott Martineau: Yeah, do it late at night.
Aly Saxe: When do I get to do that?
Scott Martineau: Eight o'clock, Tuesday nights. So Aly, take us to the other side. Maybe let's not talk about the fading oasis, but—
as you think back around your experiences as a business owner, what has maybe been the most rewarding part for you?
Aly Saxe: Anytime a customer says your product or your service changed our organization for the better. It's what you get up in the morning for as an entrepreneur, right?
Scott Martineau: Yeah.
Aly Saxe: To create something that somebody else sees value in, there's just nothing better in this world, and second to that is the cheap thrill. I go on when I'm working late at night. I go in our backend and see which users are on, which is kind of creepy, but there's a lot – we have customers in about seven or eight other countries now, and it's incredibly cool for me to see somebody on the other side of the world using something I created, which you've probably been through that the first time you had a customer in another country.
Clate Mask: That's awesome. I totally relate. I remember a few years ago I was in an airport, and I had an Infusionsoft shirt on, and I was walking into the bathroom, and this guy was walking out, and he saw my shirt and stopped me and he goes, "Dude, Infusionsoft. Do you work for them?" I said, yeah, I'm the Cofounder and CEO. He like stopped me, and grabbed me, and goes, "Your software is freaking awesome. Totally changed my life." It was just so fun. I remember sitting there and thinking, that's amazing, that you create something that has an impact that would cause somebody to stop you and share that. You could just feel his excitement for what was happening in his business as a result. That's super cool. I love your cheap thrill you get when you go see who's using the software, where they're using it. It reminds me of Mark, our former CTO's words of, "All the blinking lights." You could look at the servers and see all the lights, and knew that those were calls to our software that customers were using. It's pretty cool.
Aly Saxe: Yeah, that's a good story.
Scott Martineau: So last question, if you could boil down all of your wisdom into one succinct piece of advice for entrepreneurs, for our listeners, what would that be?
Aly Saxe: Man, I don’t have a lot of wisdom, Scott, so I'm going to have to dig deep here. Let's see.
Scott Martineau: Yeah you do.
Aly Saxe: Don't let fear hold you back. You just can't do it. Whatever you're afraid of – and everybody's afraid of different things, and everybody has a different edge – just jump. And you don't even have to have faith to jump. I know a lot of people say have faith you're going to land, and I don't know that you even have to have that because you know something great is going to happen. Even if it's disastrous, some great learning is going to happen, some great moment of growth, or something really positive and awesome can come from it too, exactly what you'd hope for, but as soon as you let fear hold you back from something, you're already losing.
Scott Martineau: That's great. Let me ask you this. What ingredient, what characteristic do you think has been most helpful for you in your business in entrepreneurship?
Aly Saxe: Whisky.
Scott Martineau: It's now become a personal characteristic of yours? [laughter]
Aly Saxe: It's the focus.
Clate Mask: That's great. I heard you throughout talk about focus, tenacity, passion. I think those things are all huge, and one thing I've always admired about you from the time we met you and you were doing PR is you're doing a great job of selling, but selling who you are and what you can do for people in the world, and you've done a great job of that in building your PR firm. You did a great job of that in raising capital—
to get people behind your concept, hiring talent. You're very persuasive and a very skilled seller when it comes to getting people behind your ideas, and that's what drives – in my view of you that's what drives your success. It drove your success in the PR firm and it's driving your success in what you're doing, so keep that up. Don't lose that part because you're world class on that.
Aly Saxe: Oh, thank you. Yeah, I have to tell you, I've been doing the investor rounds – we're doing a raise right now and over the last couple of weeks investors that have gotten to know me very well have all made the same comment to me. They say, "You seem a little tired, Aly." So I think I may have put the vibe out, and now I need a nap, and I thought it was funny that they've all said, and I have this—
rule that when three smart people tell me the same thing, I have to pay attention to it whether I believe it or not, so I've decided – so today's my birthday.
Clate Mask: Oh, happy birthday. That's awesome.
Aly Saxe: Thank you. And I've decided that I'm going to bed at 8:00 tonight. As a birthday gift to myself I'm going to shed the Aly looks tired image and start fresh.
Clate Mask: Good for you. That's awesome.
Scott Martineau: Well Aly I look forward to next year's birthday coming back and hearing the story of what you've done over the last year.
Aly Saxe: Yeah, we should do that.
Scott Martineau: Or maybe we could not do it on your birthday. What are you doing on a podcast on your birthday, Aly?
Aly Saxe: I know. This is actually my second podcast today. I did a podcast with Jenny Dietrich from Spin Sucks. It was actually a videocast, The Spin Sucks Inquisition, this morning at 7:00 am. She's like, what are you doing? I'm like, you know, it's a Wednesday. The world doesn't stop. It's not a special birthday. Let's just do this.
I'm going to get some sales today and that's what's going to make it great. I'm going to go home, then my kids have a plan, and when they go to bed I'm going to bed.
Clate Mask: Good for you. That's great.
Scott Martineau: Before we jump off share how people can learn more about Iris.
Aly Saxe: Yep, so we have a great website, irispr.com. We have a fantastic resource center too to learn things about public relations, how to do PR better, how to get more and better PR results. You should check out the resources section. You can find me on Twitter. My handle is Aly_Saxe, and I actually try to respond to every single e-mail I get, so you can e-mail me at [email protected], and I like talking to people.
Scott Martineau: So it's aly_s-a-x-e, correct?
Aly Saxe: Yes.
Clate Mask: All right.
Scott Martineau: Fantastic. Go ahead.
Clate Mask: Scott and I are vying for the close here.
Thanks so much for being with us especially on your birthday. That is commendable. We appreciate it, and congratulations not only on the great progress you're making right now in Iris PR, but the success you've had in your agency, and I know that success and the things you did there are going to continue to prove super valuable in Iris PR. So stick with it, keep growing it. It will work, I know it will, and enjoy your birthday. Enjoy going to bed tonight. Thanks so much, Aly.
Aly Saxe: Thanks for having me.
Scott Martineau: And thanks to all you listeners for tuning into this episode of the Small Business Success Podcast. We'll call this a wrap. Go out and do great things in your business, and we'll talk to you again soon. Thanks. Bye-bye.
Clate Mask: If you're looking for more ways to grow your business check out our Knowledge Center at learn.infusionsoft.com. That's learn.infusionsoft.com.