When we talked to Keiko Tokuda and Emily Hackeling, Head of Marketing and Content Marketing at Front, we brought our usual checklist of “growth” questions.
Specifically, we wanted to know about Good Email Copy, a free tool Front created and released in April of 2016.
How much traffic has it driven? How many trial signups has it generated? What’s the conversion rate to paid customers?
And most of all… what’s the ROI?
As we talked with Keiko and Emily, it quickly became apparent that Front doesn’t think like most companies.
Oh, they measure things.
Good Email Copy has referred 10,000 people to Front’s website since its launch, for example.
But short-term ROI and detailed growth numbers?
That’s not what Keiko and Emily wanted to talk to us about when telling the story of their growth efforts. Because that’s not how Front has approached marketing for most of its time as a company.
This is a different kind of growth story.
Not one of numbers.
But of culture.
Yes, Front tracks data and measures analytics. But that has not been their main focus. Instead, they’ve focused on what they believe is a much bigger vision:
“To make a difference in people’s professional lives.”
Naive? Shortsighted? Impossibly idealistic?
You could argue the point if you wanted. But, as you’ll see, it’s an approach that is also paying off financially.
Front was founded in 2013 by CEO Mathilde Collin and CTO Laurent Perrin.
In a blog post, Mathilde explained that the two reasons she and her co-founder started Front were to make people’s lives better at work and to run a business that people would enjoy working at.
“As a company, we could improve things locally, internally, by creating a work environment where employees could thrive,” she wrote.
They also believed that their product could “improve things on a much bigger scale, by working on the most critical tool people use to get work done: email.”
The product started as a simple team inbox that managed group email addresses such as email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
It was an idea with the potential to disrupt the massive $20 billion market for cloud business email.
They were accepted into Y Combinator because they could, as TechCrunch put it, make email “suck less.”
Mamoon Hamid of investment firm Social Capital said he invested because he believes Front “has the potential to become one of the core apps that knowledge workers live in.”
Today, the platform has evolved into a robust team communications tool with features such as:
- The ability to have conversations with coworkers inside an email
- App integrations that bring information and context from 3rd party apps into your inbox
- Live chat functionality to respond directly to website visitor chats from your inbox
From the initial handful of customers in 2014, Front has grown to over 2,700 customers, and in 2017, the company grew from 22 employees to over 50.
What accounts for all that growth?
According to Keiko and Emily, not just ads or other traditional marketing tactics. And it certainly wasn’t an obsessive focus on the short-term ROI of every activity in the company.
Instead, Front runs on a different kind of competitive advantage.
What’s the business value of transparency?
“Transparency is all about speed of execution,” Mathilde wrote on her blog. “Transparent organizations move faster than their ‘opaque’ equivalents, and as ex-Googler Dave Girouard puts it: ‘All else being equal, the fastest company in any market will win’.”
In this way, Mathilde’s personal desires and her business desires (to build a successful company) align perfectly.
For Front, being transparent and open isn’t just a value, it’s an operating methodology that has driven their success.
Since the beginning, Front’s corporate culture has been a model of transparency — including the product itself.
“Transparency is hugely important to our product,” Keiko explained. “The shared inbox provides complete transparency to see all of your team’s incoming email and customer communication in one place.”
For example, Mathilde published a piece that detailed how to get into Y Combinator.
People took notice, especially other entrepreneurs.
“We have a great following among Silicon Valley’s startup community who are looking to build their own companies,” Emily told us. “Other startups who are at similar stages look to Mathilde and Laurent for their guidance and ideas around building a company and building culture. And that’s what’s most successful on our social media.”
Front is just as transparent about its future plans, maintaining a public-facing product roadmap that allows customers to see where the company is heading.
When users offer feedback, they don’t have to submit a form or call customer support. They add their thoughts to the public roadmap, letting everyone see how their suggestions fit into the company’s long-term vision.
As Mathilde wrote, “[Users] get a sense of ownership on a product they use every day, and we get good suggestions to improve that product: win-win!”
For marketing, transparency means looking for every opportunity to give away value.
As a team, if they build a tool that solves a problem internally, they always ask themselves, “could we release this to the public? Would this be useful to others?”
If the answer is yes, they do it.
As we talked with Keiko and Emily, we realized Good Email Copy isn’t the only free tool Front has released.
It’s actually one of three:
The Email Checkup Tool provides really useful data around your email usage such as how quickly you are responding to emails and what percentage of emails you’ve responded to.
Front’s Compensation Calculator allows startup candidates to understand their compensation package, including equity.
Good Email Copy, a simple website based on an internal Trello board that shares examples of good communication, sorted by use case, from a variety of companies.
All three tools work to expand brand and product awareness. And since each tool was originally an in-house tool built for Front employees — building public versions of each was perfectly aligned with the company’s commitment to transparency.
Because they’re directly related to email, the checkup tool and email copy website in particular help set up Front as an expert in their market. They share useful things about email.
Instead of writing yet another blog post on how to write better emails (although they have those too), Front promotes useful tools that directly improve people’s communication practice.
Front was founded in 2013, but the company didn’t have a fully-fledged marketing team until 2017.
Until then, the company’s other core members, including Mathilde, wore part-time marketing hats, and Front grew mostly organically or from the buzz surrounding Y Combinator.
“When you have people who are not traditional marketers, they tend to think much more outside the box,” Keiko explained.
Part of that outside the box thinking was not concentrating on ROI, especially when it came to deciding whether to build free tools for the public.
“My marketing experience has trained me to say ‘Look for ROI,’” Keiko told us. “But at the same time, it’s also part of a marketer’s job to think about how we portray our brand, and these brand efforts are harder to measure.”
Part of branding, she added, is about portraying company values, like transparency, and collaboration.
Front is maturing.
Now, at this stage, with an established brand, a strong corporate culture, and a commitment to values like transparency and collaboration, Front is adding more traditional marketing efforts to the mix.
Over the past year, a new five-person marketing team has built a foundation of acquisition strategy, like creating a long-term ROI model, figuring out cost-per-leads, and building out their content marketing strategy.
“We’re testing out a lot of things,” Keiko told us. “In the last six months, we’ve been doing a lot of different tactics to see what sticks with our audience.”
None of these efforts are meant to replace transparency as a core driver of growth.
Indeed, transparency is just as much a part of Front today as it was in the beginning — a commitment that comes right from the top.
Bryan Schreier, the Sequoia investor who joined Front’s board as a part of their $66 million Series B round, described his impression of Mathilde in an interview with Forbes, saying, “She’s an outlier in every sense of the word, a classic self-made founder who got herself to the U.S. with a product she had a passion for.”
“It goes back to the fact that she’s not just taking from the community. She’s constantly giving back and giving her very authentic take on challenges that she’s experiencing as a founder, as a CEO.”