When Emerson Smith received his first browser-based push notification from Facebook in the summer of 2016, all he could do was stare at the screen.
At the time, Smith was running several consumer-facing websites that relied primarily on email to communicate to subscribers. He had never seen a messaging technology that could deliver like push notifications could. And although he wasn’t a developer, he could tell that third-party software wasn’t involved.
“I couldn’t believe that you could send a message to a consumer that quickly,” Smith said.
So he started researching cloud-based push notification software for internal use. But after perusing what was available on the market, he wasn’t impressed with the products being offered.
Instead of using one of the “clunky” versions available, Smith hired a freelancer to help him build a marketing tool he could leverage. A month later, his former company saw a 30 percent boost in productivity across three different website verticals, as measured in revenue. And Smith began sharing the secret sauce with clients who asked. After his clients saw similar success, he worked to productize the software for large-scale use.
In January of 2017, Pushnami opened its doors with no outside funding.
“Our goal was to make a messaging system designed for marketers to make an impact,” Smith said. “The rest, as they say, is history.”
How did you become an entrepreneur? What’s your background in technology?
I’ve been an entrepreneur my whole life. I graduated from the University of Texas here in Austin, and almost immediately moved to Manhattan and started my first tech company out of my apartment in the East Village. It was certainly a lot easier back then.
I’ve been through everything in the last 20 years of internet technology, from the initial boom to the recession in 2008. I’ve had partners and investors and acquisitions. And that led me to where I am now.
I sold my shares from my previous venture about five years ago, right before the birth of my first child. Then I took some time off and really figured out what I wanted to do.
Meanwhile, I tried to stay involved in internet technology by making consumer-facing websites. At my previous venture, I built what’s called an ESP, or email service provider. I come from an email world, so I understand how powerful digital messaging can be, along with how to use data in order to send someone the right message at the right time.
How did Pushnami come to be?
I got my first browser-based push notification in the summer of 2016 from Facebook. Now, look, I’m not a developer. But I understand technology really well and I knew there was no third party software on my system. I couldn’t believe that this technology was available, that you could send a message that quickly to a consumer on any device.
So I started researching the technology. I looked at what was available on the market so I could put the software on my websites. But the products out there weren’t designed for marketers. They were clunky. They didn’t consider the consumer experience. They were press-and-play. So, we built our own over the course of a month. Our clients started noticing the boost in productivity as well, and I started showing them the technology. Once I saw that they all had similar positive results, we decided to productize Pushnami.
We opened our doors in January 2017 with zero outside funding and a goal of making a machine-learning based messaging system designed for marketers.
We are in digital messaging. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make a difference.’’
What about Pushnami makes it different from your competitors?
It starts with our culture and ethos. After both the positive and negative experiences I’ve had throughout my career, I wanted to build a company in a non-traditional way. That meant no outside funding, no board, just focusing on people and customers first. Our company is built on positivity, acceptance and using our success to not only to make an impact on ourselves and our families, but also on the community around us.
Early on, we invested in machine learning, which allows you to target individual subscribers using multiple data points. It gives you information about what day of the week and time of day is best to send a particular message to an app user in Austin, for example. It has taken us 13 versions of our machine learning, which we call “pushnomics,” to beat the humans here. And to be fair, I consider these humans the best in the world at this.
We have about a dozen developers who touch different points of the system. Our director of data science is constantly trying new things. We even have outside data science consultants with doctorate degrees in artificial intelligence. They lend their expertise to make sure that we are on the cutting edge.
Have you shifted your business model in the last few weeks in response to COVID-19?
From day one, we’ve always been focused on how we can impact the community around us. We’re obviously not curing cancer at this company. We are in digital messaging. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make a difference. Every month, we have donated a portion of our revenue to local charities. We’ve increased our contributions in the recent weeks to focus on organizations that provide direct impact on the local Austin community, like the Central Texas Food Bank.
Right away, we announced that we were giving Pushnami away for free for six months to any business that wants to use our messaging platform to reach and engage with their audience. We’ve already seen hundreds of businesses sign up.
What current projects are you most excited about?
Our experience with messaging systems allowed us to build Pushnami with strong bones for sending outside of web-based push notifications. We integrated email into the system late last year. Now, we’ve recently added what’s known as “mobile push” or “app-based push,” so that all of those systems can work together.
Essentially, if you have a subscriber coming to your site, you can talk to them about the kind of ways they want to receive messaging from you. Having all types of omnichannel messaging communicate together allows machine learning to create a total subscriber journey.
If you could eliminate one business hurdle, what would it be?
I’d say one of the biggest hurdles we have is competing with so many other talented companies over data science talent and developers in Austin. As a smaller company, you don’t always have the same pull as some of the big guys out there when you’re trying to recruit really talented people.
We’re currently at 42 employees in Austin and 24 internationally. We started with just 18 employees at the beginning of 2019, so that is a quick rate of growth for a company our size. We currently have eight positions open, but realistically need another 20 this quarter alone. If we could find the ideal candidates, I’d like to bring on one person per week. We have to make sure we’re making smart hires.
What’s one push notification myth you’d like to dispel and why?
People who don’t typically opt into push notifications might think that it’s not a widely accepted vertical. We see globally in our system that on average, 18 percent of visitors to websites will opt into push notifications, which is a lot higher than I think most clients believe.
Often, senior decision-makers don’t opt into push notifications. But this doesn’t mean that other subscribers don’t want them. It’s all about making sure you understand where to put the notification and at what point to include it. Consumers do respond well if it’s used effectively.