I've been involved in plenty of tech startups, as both a founder and investor. And if there's one thing I've learned, it's that the media's trope of startups that launch in garages and sell out for millions barely comes close to the reality of forming a new company.
Simply put, real entrepreneurship isn't what movies like The Social Network make it out to be.
No one startup story is alike. Every business owner brings a different background, set of experiences, value proposition and vision to the table.
In that spirit, I sat down recently with founder Mike Sharkey to hear more about the path that led him to launch Autopilot, a marketing automation solution that aims to fill the gaps between existing tools - rather than reinventing the wheel.
The Idea Behind Autopilot
Before launching Autopilot, Mike and his partners had all been working on their own companies, consulting for other brands ranging from small startups to more sizable businesses.
Their work often led them to develop their own in-house tools - including early ticketing software and SMS marketing solutions. In building these new solutions, they grew increasingly aware of a glaring weakness: that there were few solutions for managing customer data across multiple platforms.
Mike immediately saw the potential such a solution could have on sales performance. He knew that "the more information we had about the customer, the more we could support them across the customer journey."
Mike went on to explain, "When we initially started thinking about doing what became Autopilot, we were really intrigued by this notion that, if you can organize the company's customer information and you can have a great representation of the customer, then you're able to orchestrate really great experiences with them.
"While our original idea was to help a company organize their customer information, what we saw is that customer information really being scattered across multiple applications. If people wanted to communicate in a multi-channel way - if they wanted to understand their customer better and connect all their systems together - it was incredibly hard to do that."
Early attempts to solve the problems Mike and his co-founders identified gave the company a base of beta users to tap into as Autopilot entered development.
According to Mike, "Autopilot wasn't our first attempt at this, so we had a little bit of a head start with our first, say, 100 to 500 customers. And a lot of customers of the previous product were excited about what we were doing, because a lot of it was driven by their feedback as well."
In addition to having the support of an eager client base, Mike attributes a number of factors to Autopilot's eventual success.
Investing in Content Marketing
Early content marketing was critical in forming relationships with Autopilot users and prospects.
Mike shares, "We were communicating with people often. We were sharing what we were working on. We would allow them to sign up for betas and really early access to the product. Whether they followed us on social, were friends of ours, met us at events or were part of an existing email list that we had worked hard to curate over time, we were able to build great relationships by just producing some good content."
As a result, the Autopilot team was able to create - as Mike describes them - a "small community of people that were really interested and that tended to be the kind of early adopters that went out and started talking about the product."
Connecting with Existing Experts
One of the things that interested me most about Mike's story was the fact that he was entering an environment that was already quite crowded with marketing automation solutions - something that might discourage other entrepreneurs.
Mike, instead, saw it as an opportunity. "Many vendors see the big explosion of marketing technology as this negative thing. Many people say 'This is such a crowded space,' and 'There are so many martech applications that this is overwhelming.' But we always saw it as this huge opportunity because there's a reason all of those applications exist."
According to Mike, the marketing automation companies that existed at the time of Autopilot's launch represented the first-generation solution to a problem that required a more nuanced answer. Rather than trying to build new architecture from the ground up, he saw an opportunity to leverage the expertise of existing providers.
"We don't really see competition as a bad thing. If you want to go and run an event, we think you should use Eventbrite, because it's the best at managing events. If you want to take payments on your website, you should go and use Stripe, because Stripe is fantastic at taking payments. With landing pages, Instapage is such a phenomenal application that already exists."
Turning these competitors into partners helped fuel Autopilot's growth by allowing the startup to tap into their existing audiences. Many of these collaborations happened naturally. In our call, Mike shared the story of an Autopilot employee putting together a blog post review of different landing page software programs - and arriving on Instapage as the best solution.
Soon after, Instapage reached out with a thank you, leading the companies to realize they were headquartered close together. Organic conversations about possible partnerships sprung from there, resulting in Instapage becoming an early partner to Autopilot.
Mike shares, "A lot of our early growth was driven through product, predominantly. I think we're a product growth-driven company, and secondly, a partner marketer. We were saying, 'Okay, no, we think Instapage is the best at landing pages, so let's go and make them a key part of our narrative.'"
Building a Solid Team
Finally, Mike is quick to point out that Autopilot's success wasn't his alone.
Speaking about his team's success, he said, "We've been so fortunate to have a great group of people and a great chairman - and that helps. This is definitely not a one-man show. It's group of really good people working toward the same goal. A lot of this happens through a lot of hard work by many people."
All of that hard work has added up to 2,500+ customers, 24,500+ free trialists and 21% month-over-month revenue growth over a 24-month period, according to Autopilot's CMO, Guy Marion, in an interview with Growth Marketing Conference.
The company is off to a great start, and it's clear that further future growth is on the horizon for Autopilot. To learn more about Autopilot's visual customer journey offering, visit its homepage at https://autopilothq.com/.