Who would have guessed that hand writing a note to 500 prospects would be a highly successful marketing campaign? Our guest, Rick Elmore, did! Founder and CEO of Simply Noted, Rick joins our host, Chris Beall, today to discuss his career path from college, to professional NFL football player, to a job in medical device sales and marketing, to a startup company now in its fourth year. It was the success of his handwritten-notes campaign that encouraged Rick to found his own business, offering this same service — now automated — to help individuals and companies utilize the personal touch of what looks like a handwritten note to reach out to their customers. Rick and Chris talk about the open rate of these notes versus the open rate of cold — or even warm — emails. You’ll want to hear it with your own ears on this Market Dominance Guys’ episode, “Duly and Simply Noted.”
About Our Guest
Rick Elmore is the founder and CEO of Simply Noted in Tempe, Arizona. Simply Noted is a company that utilizes software and robotic technology to create personalized handwritten notes for its 300,000 monthly users.
Full episode transcript below:
Chris Beall (01:20):
Okay everybody, this is Chris Beall. This is yet another episode of Market Dominance Guys. You'll note that at the moment, I am not here with Corey Frank, and those of you who are used to Market Dominance Guys at this point, know what we talk about. We talk about the practical world of dominating markets using the human voice, but today we have with us Rick Elmore, Founder and CEO of Simply Noted, and it's actually analogous, I believe. I'm going to have Rick talk about it, but we're into the human voice. We believe you have conversations, you create trust, and you can pave markets with trust and harvest that trust at your leisure while your competitors try to get in where they can't go anymore because the market trusts you. Rick's actually got a very similar business. Rick, thank you so much for jumping on Market Dominance Guys today. I am really, really excited to hear what you have to say.
Rick Elmore (02:14):
Thanks so much, Chris, for having me here. This is great.
Chris Beall (02:16):
Cool. We run a pretty informal show here, so here's the informal show part. I know you have a very, very interesting background. We both went to school at the same place. You for real, and me, did it for three years and then went off and became a professional blackjack player for a while. Your background is unusual, I think for anybody, much less in business. It's something people want to hear about, but then, I also am dying of curiosity, as a guy who bought probably the second or third HP 7470A sweet lips pen plotter in the world, back in 1981 or two, I believe. I am fascinated with the use you have found for using a pen plotter to create artifacts efficiently that generate trust and more, so tell me the story.
Rick Elmore (03:07):
Yeah, well thanks for the intro. I appreciate it. My background's actually in athletics. I went to the University of Arizona and played football for Mike Stoops back in the early 2000s. Lucky enough to have a good career, went to the NFL and played three years in the NFL, had the typical journeymen struggle to survive. Just super competitive there, but was fortunate enough to stay and thrive and play for three years, but then when I got done, like most competitive athletes, they're looking for that competitive environment still, so reached out to some people who made that transition. Got into medical device sales, was rookie of the year my first year. Then I was top 1% or number one rep for the next five years. And then, just felt like there was something more. Saw that chip in my shoulder. I wanted to do something big.
So in 2017, went back to Eller, that's University of Arizona's Business School, got my MBA, and I was in a marketing class and a marketing professor was going over just all the success rates in marketing. Everything was super nominal or marginal, super low from cold calling, knocking doors, print mail, email. Everything was either single digits or low double digits, and being in sales myself at the time, I was trying to figure out what the competitive edge is and waiting for him to kind of drop the truth bomb and hallelujah moment, but at the end of the lecture, he said half jokingly, "Hey guys, you know what still works nowadays, even more now than ever, is a nice handwritten note. It has a 99% open rate," and I was just like, that is a no brainer. Why aren't we doing that now? It's obvious, because nobody has the time, but I was like, why isn't there a business out there doing this?
I got to researching. There was a company at the time named Bond, but they were focusing on the worst segment. They were funded with a million dollars and they were focusing on the wedding industry. I was just like, you're dealing with Bridezillas. Why would you focus only on weddings? I've been married, tons of people have been married. Everything changes all the time, last second, delayed. This needs to be a business tool. Again, my background's in sales and marketing. It's not in software. It's not in robotics. We actually tried using a plotter at first. Nice little AxiDraw plotter, holds a pen, does what you want it to do. Our technology's much more advanced than that, but we worked with the mail house here locally, talked to them just about what we can do, our ideas, how can we get it done.
We sourced product from all over the world, south America, China. Worked with some Autopen companies, but over the last four and a half years, we've grown our platform to over 300,000 users a month. Going to make the Inc. 5,000 this year. We've developed our own technology, our own robotic technology from the ground up. We're going to have six patents on it. We're really excited about it. I'm really proud of it as well because we've done this with no funding, no investors. The product has always paid for the company, been cash flow positive since month one, leveraged my sales and marketing background. And then, I've really launched a pretty cool little business here in the last four years.
Chris Beall (06:05):
Well, it sounds like it might not be so little. 300,000 monthly users is actually a pretty big number. When you say monthly user, what is a monthly user?
Rick Elmore (06:12):
Just somebody who comes to our site and uses our site for whatever they needed to do. We've invested a lot in SEO over the last 18 months and we just drive a lot of organic traffic. Our conversion rate is anywhere from a half a percent to one and a half percent. It really just depends on the month and where the traffic is coming from, but we're driving a lot of interest. People who are searching for products that we are selling, they're coming to our page. We're not closing every one of them. They're not all making purchases, but they're coming to our platform, signing up, requesting samples, sending one card. They're just actively engaging with our website every month.
Chris Beall (06:46):
Got it, got it. Well, I've been to the site and it's a thousand times better than ours, so I admire it.
Rick Elmore (06:51):
I appreciate it. Actually, the bane of my existence is building websites. It's just so frustrating. Little things get tweaked all the time that cause problems.
Chris Beall (07:00):
It doesn't take much. Well, you know what we say about networking, which is bad enough. It's two bits away from not working. I think there's a corollary over there on websites.
Rick Elmore (07:09):
Chris Beall (07:09):
I don't have a good little poem for it or something, but we need an aphorism for website development and it's like Murphy's Law on steroids.
Rick Elmore (07:17):
Oh my gosh. Anything in software, Murphy's Law for sure. What can go wrong will definitely go wrong.
Chris Beall (07:24):
Well, software is funny in that sense. It's fundamentally brittle and I've been building it since 1968, so to give you a sense of how the first time I ever put my fingers on a keyboard and wrote a line of code was in '68.
Rick Elmore (07:37):
Wow. That's cool.
Chris Beall (07:38):
That goes back a little ways. Some people probably think-
Rick Elmore (07:41):
That's fine. I'm fine.
Chris Beall (07:42):
You aren't dead yet?
Rick Elmore (07:44):
I'm actually going through a Harvard CS50s class right now, a little computer science introductory course and a Python course, just so I can get really well versed in this type of stuff, just so I can communicate and work with my developers better. There's just so many opportunities within software and what you can get it to do in automation and APIs and machine learning, and all this stuff applies to our business, which fascinates me even more.
Chris Beall (08:08):
Well, it's funny. You're doing the right thing. In my opinion, most people who are founder CEOs don't bother to learn what's under the covers and it's what's really-
Rick Elmore (08:08):
Ignorance costs a lot of money.
Chris Beall (08:19):
Well, what's funny about it is, you nailed it. The communication with developers is communication with anybody, which is that once you have a common language, now you're down to how many iterations are you going to have to do in order to get to a finished product? Until you get to a common language, it doesn't matter how many iterations you do, you never get to a finished product. Most founder CEOs, I believe, end up in what I call the world of the flying car. That is, they don't know how the stuff is made, so they keep asking for flying cars and then after they get told over and over and over, "Sorry boss, you can't have a flying car." Then they stop asking for anything and the engineers take over and then you get an engineering run company, which is-
Rick Elmore (09:00):
That's a good thing, that's not the case for us because I literally understand... I've done everything with this company from building our websites, being engaged with the software team, the handwriting engine team, the robotics team, the sales and marketing, building out all of our case studies, all of our marketing materials, working... I guess that it is a bad thing if you don't understand the depths of your business for sure.
Chris Beall (09:21):
When folks talk about software eating the world, they don't actually consider the possibility that the senior executives who are running things are further divorced from how things run than they've ever been in history, and it's a problem because I don't know, you can give orders, you can tell people what to do, but if you don't know what underlies it, you're just [inaudible 00:09:41]. That's all there is to it. You just got to fucking do it. By the way, I'm a huge Python fan. I taught myself Python on a Saturday morning in 2006, I believe it was. Yeah, 2006, when I just got off at my own developers at a company that I joined in Silicon Valley because I wanted a visualization of this graph network thing that I thought of, and none of them would write the damn thing. So I said, "Ah man, I don't write much code anymore, but I'm going to do this," and I went and found a package to help that was done in Python and I thought, I'm going to hate Python because it likes white spaces and it's white space sensitive, which I used to teach programming languages to people, and here I am taking something I hate, which is why [inaudible 00:10:26], but why does it care about white space? I fell in love and about 10 minutes. I think it's one of the best languages ever.
Rick Elmore (10:31):
No, we can have a whole podcast talking about just the challenges of working with developers and why it's important to understand this and Python so far... I'm taking a course through Michigan right now in Python, so I'm only three weeks in, but I'm excited. I'm like the worst person to compete with because when there's a challenge, I just run through walls until I figure it out, so I feel bad for my competitors because there's no give up in me. If I need to know something, I'm going to figure out a way to understand it, even if it's at the expense of my time.
Chris Beall (10:57):
Well, I don't care about your competitors. I want to be crushed by you.
Rick Elmore (11:01):
I appreciate that.
Chris Beall (11:03):
That's what this whole podcast is about is dominating markets. Our [inaudible 00:11:06] is really simple, which is either you dominate or you're in peril. That's it. And then, you trump the markets you dominate and the more markets you dominate by count, the less peril you're in. It's just because after that, it's portfolio theory. It's like each one, if I have five markets, I dominate, all five have got to go away before I lose the ability to adapt the simplest way, which is to reduce overhead to match gross profit flow, which is the key to everything in businesses. You got to make your overhead just barely below, or well below, your gross profit flow and then grow. That's kind of it. There's not much more to it.
If they have all those business courses, it's like, guys, you get money from folks. There's your cost of goods, there's your gross profit, it flows into business. You have to reduce your overhead to being below that. Your final unit of overhead is your own salary. Figure that out. It's not that hard. Figure it out. It sounds like you've done that. Month one, month two, month three, there you were putting this thing together. You say, "Let's go." What did you do in month one in order to become cash flow positive? That's hard. That means you have to collect money from human beings for something they didn't pay for before, and human beings hate to buy stuff they didn't pay for before. They like doing today what they did yesterday.
Rick Elmore (12:27):
My background's in sales and marketing. I'm extremely competitive, extremely driven, but we started researching this in 2017 when I was going to school, and in 2018, we really started messing around with product, different machines, Autopens, the axidraw plotters, and getting samples. I was talking to my current clients, current business executives that I respected. My wife works in fundraising development, so she works with a lot of businesses, so we're really well connected here in the Phoenix market with people who run their own businesses, but prior to ever getting started, I probably had over 50 conversations with people that I respected, friends, family and business leaders, and when we finally got kicked off, I was just really excited about the product and people can see how excited I was about the product. I believed it down to my core, and I believe if your clients can see that in you, they get excited about it with you.
And then I was just obsessed with making sure those first clients that we had were successful. Even if it was at our expense, I wanted to make sure that they had a good experience because those first few clients that you have can make and break your business. You got to make sure they're fans about your business. They're lighthouse customers. They'll refer their friends. They'll keep buying from you if they know that you have their best interest in mind. So those first few months, looking back now compared to what we have now, it was a crappier product, but people just believed in it, and I talked to them about the problem that we were solving, connecting them with their clients in a personal way, in an automated way, in a more efficient way because if you think about it, everybody now is competing digitally for everybody's attention. It's all social, it's all SMS or MMS or LinkedIn or Slack or Twitter.
Nobody's competing in the mailbox, and with that high of an open rate and with how rare it is to receive a handwritten note and how expensive it is to require a new client versus just keeping a current client happy, it was actually a pretty easy sell to somebody who would listen, but now we have a much more complete platform. We have tools that automate it. We have better robots, we have higher capacity, we run our own printing press in house. That means faster, same day order deliveries. We have capital equipment that allows us to push out 10, 15,000 notes a day. We're just a lot more mature, but early on it's getting peoples excited about your journey, your product, your passion, your vision, get them to buy into you because they're not going to buy into a product they know nothing about. You really got to hard sell them on why they need to do it.
Chris Beall (14:52):
Yeah, you do. What was the point, before you actually launched somewhere in there, you went from, hm, interesting to, I'm going to go do this.
Chris Beall (15:48):
My experience is, that's what I call a mousetrap. It snaps. You don't grade into it and go, Oh, I think I'll do it. Maybe it's like, at some point you go, okay, I'm doing this. What drove you to that point? What was that like?
Rick Elmore (16:00):
I call it the entrepreneurial seizure. When you had that aha moment where you're literally, your whole body gets rushed with hormones where you just feel so good at, you had that moment, but when we were still testing this out in 2018, we were using plotters back in the day, and it took me forever. It took me weeks, I think it was four or five weeks to write 500 handwritten notes, but I was in medical sales at the time. I had a large territory across Arizona and Nevada. Again, I was in my class, my professor said a 99% open rate, and I was like, man, if I can get in front of my client 99% of the time, that is going to make me more successful. I wrote out 500 handwritten notes, basically pitching a product to doctors who never bought anything from me and really was really clear and concise who I was, how I can help them, can I buy them lunch and tell them more about it?
From those 500, I had over 30 people respond, which to me was new. I was just like, holy crap. People are calling me about a product and are about wanting to learn more. I always had to knock on doors and get people to sit down. And then from those 30 people, I sold $280,000 in equipment and it was $20,000 in commission from literally, from 500 handwritten notes. Literally, for that four or five, six weeks, my quota of monthly was $39,000, so when they saw $280,000 come across in six weeks, my whole company went crazy. My VP of sales were like, "Rick, what are you doing? It's working. We got to get everybody doing this," and I shared with them what I was doing, and really from that moment on, my business went on autopilot until January 2019 where I jumped in two feet with this.
But I saw it work firsthand and it was an idea that was kind of incubated during an MBA where we put a lot of work into just finding stuff that make it work, a lot of tinkering, and then weeks of getting this product together, and then I saw results and I was like, man, if we're seeing results now, let's solve a problem, build a platform, build the best technology, and we're going to have a really good company down the line that we can sell. That's really been my vision for this company, is to solve a problem, make it easy to use, build a robot, which we just did, and then scale it and sell it. We're really excited. We're only four years into this, but the next four years are going to be amazing.
Chris Beall (18:11):
Is it fun to watch the robots do their thing?
Rick Elmore (18:13):
I am obsessed with it. I was on a different call earlier today. I'm in here sometimes 11 o'clock at night, and I'm just still amazed seeing these little pen wielding robots. We build our own pens. There's a lot of technology in this company. We build our own pen inserts, we design the pen insert. It has 300% more ink so it writes longer. Also, you can control the quality of the ink. This is how geeky we got into this.
Chris Beall (18:13):
Rick Elmore (18:38):
We've really thought of everything. The viscosity, viscosity's like how wet it is and how much it'll smear, so we have full control of it.
Chris Beall (18:47):
Remember, I have a physics degree from the University of Arizona.
Rick Elmore (18:51):
We've gone everywhere from the pen to the robots to the software, to the handwriting engine, to the website. Everything's been built from the ground up, which I'm extremely proud of.
Chris Beall (19:00):
That's so cool. Do you show videos of the robots doing their thing?
Rick Elmore (19:03):
Yeah, there's tons of them on my LinkedIn. I have them pinned up on the top. If you go to our LinkedIn, you'll see them. The website that we have now is actually being rebuilt. It's a two year old website. We're actually rebuilding the web app and then just the front facing design. We'll have a lot more of our technology highlighted on our website soon.
Chris Beall (19:21):
How personalized is the handwriting to me? I have a use case in mind right now. My team talks to 85,000 VPs of sales a year. I want them to follow up on every single one of those conversations with something-
Rick Elmore (19:34):
Chris Beall (19:35):
Because once you talk to somebody, you may as well do something. We can actually get people even to open email, which we don't like very much, but when you talk to somebody, you send them an email, 10 minutes later, five minutes later, three minutes later, it's an email from somebody you just talked with, so we have the ability to scale the conversation side, but our follow up is, in my opinion, relatively weak. It's email and then we have a follow up conversation mechanism for people we want to talk to more than once, blah, blah. All that's built out. We put like, $55 million into this thing over time, so it does a lot of tricks, but it doesn't do your trick, so if I want to do your trick, how do I do it so that it feels like it's me writing that note, so I'm comfortable with it having come from me?
Rick Elmore (20:21):
Everything we do is custom to you guys. From your campaign, we'll completely set up custom, but the magic is automating it. Depending on what software you use, what CRM you use, we actually think our automation's a perfect follow up sequence. Say you had a call today and you book it and you want to set up an automation so once that trigger happens within your CRM, you would be notified same day either through an API integration or a Zapier integration, and we ship most orders same day, but it takes three to five days for them to be delivered. We actually think from that call to that landing in their mailbox within a week, five, six days, is actually a perfect follow up sequence for sales. Again, my background's in sales, so I'm always thinking about ways to engage prospects to get them on board. Even though we try to sell this as a tool for appreciation and thank you because again, cost of acquisition is five times more than just keeping your current clients happy. We just automate it through a Zapier integration. Super simple to set up. Just create an account on our website, we give you an API token, you log into the Zapier app, set up the automation, you never think about it again. It's pretty awesome.
Chris Beall (21:26):
Cool. We use Salesforce, so we know what's going on and then we pull it out of there. I'm sure you have that pre-wired, right?
Rick Elmore (21:31):
Yeah, Salesforce is one of the most flexible integrations we have.
Chris Beall (21:35):
Absolutely. Well, that's really interesting. How about on the handwriting side? It's me. How much is it me or is it a choice? It's like choosing a voice narrator for an audio book.
Rick Elmore (21:46):
This is a geeking out again, but the reason we had to build our own handwriting machines is these Axidraws or Autopens, they just have patterns when they write. It's impossible. They don't have super strong handwriting engines. They were built in the 80s and 90s, but can use your handwriting if you want. We can give you a handwriting conversion form, but what's powerful about ours is, not only do we have the ability to build you an unlimited sized handwriting style, so if you want to give us 100 As, 100 Bs, 100 Cs, we can create a very custom handwriting style to you, but we go well beyond that. We go into ligature style, so how your T connects to an H, what two T's look like together. What's an E at the end of a word versus an E at the beginning of a word look like.
It takes about five days for one of our graphic designers to convert your handwriting style and create your handwriting style, but there's a lot that goes into it, but everything about your campaign is completely custom, especially on our enterprise level accounts, stationary design, custom inserts, shift cards, business cards, bags of seeds, lumpy mill. You get really creative of what goes in an envelope, but we set up your custom campaigns. Really, when people come to us, they tell us about the project they have in mind and we show them the path of least resistance to get it done.
Chris Beall (22:58):
Got it. Well, it's very interesting. Our customers pay, they'll say an extraordinary amount of money to talk to people and follow up is everything, as you and I both know. I'm new to sales. I've only been at it for maybe 60 years, but as far as I can tell, I've learned very little and one of the main [inaudible 00:23:16] I've learned is follow-up is everything.
Rick Elmore (22:58):
Oh it is.
Chris Beall (23:18):
If you don't follow up, nothing ever happens in this world, and there's another thing which is courses for courses. We're calling people on the phone, not that you use a phone when you use ConnectAndSell. You push a button, you talk to somebody on your list, but to them it's a phone call. Then the question is, well, did you get everybody? You can get, roughly speaking, initially, you can get about 35% of the market on the phone right away. They're phone answering people, and it's not all about their mobile. It's actually all about what they actually answer on, and we do 60 million dials a year, so we know what everybody answers on, so we've got all of that information, but on the other side, what about the people, not just following up with the ones you talk to, but what about the people you can't reach? What about that note? That's still 60% of the market, roughly. You're saying to my customers right, and I have a fair amount of them that pay attention to this podcast, that if they want to reach the other 60%, that I don't know what the open rate will be. At a 99% open rate, is that still the case or whatever it happens to be?
Rick Elmore (24:27):
Yeah, there's tons of studies published online. We actually verified this. We took six different types of envelopes. One of them was handwritten, the other ones were print, different colors, different sizes. What we did is, we put a $10 check inside and told them what we're doing. "Hey, just scan this QR code. We're testing an open rate case study, but here's a $10 check," so we confirmed it by checks being cashed and then QR codes being scanned, and over 99%. We verified it, but there's tons of case studies out there as well showing the open rate is 99% as well.
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