As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing John Lauer.
John Lauer is an entrepreneur and telecommunications industry veteran, and the CEO and co-founder of Zipwhip. Lauer initially made his mark during the dot-com boom when he created Rootlevel, which built web applications for some of the biggest companies in the United States at the time. He then transitioned into the telecom industry and created Simplewire — one of the world’s first providers of SMS text messaging and mobile payment services. Simplewire notably gave Twitter its very first short code in 2009, which allowed tweets to be sent via text message and set the stage for what Twitter is today. Simplewire was acquired by Qpass, which later became OpenMarket. Just a few years after Lauer sold it, OpenMarket achieved $260 million in revenue. Today, as Zipwhip’s CEO, Lauer forms the company’s key strategies and initiatives and oversees executive operations.
Thank you for joining us John! Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My passion for entrepreneurship started at the age of 13, when I first asked my father how I could make money. My father’s response was simple: make your own. I started small, serving as a DJ at school dances and grad parties, and mowing lawns. I always kept my father’s advice close to heart, and as I entered my college years, I found I was more motivated to teach myself the ins and outs of business and computer science. I found myself reading every book I could get my hands on rather than spending my time in class. With only a few credits left to complete my degree at the University of Michigan, I made the decision to leave school and follow my entrepreneurial spirit to begin my own business.
My first business endeavor was a company I developed called “Rootlevel” which created the first web applications for companies like GM and Ford. After selling Rootlevel, I jumped into the world of SMS with my next company, Simplewire — one of the world’s first providers of SMS text messaging and mobile payment services. Simplewire notably gave Twitter its very first short code in 2009, which allowed tweets to be sent via text message, and set the stage for what Twitter is today. Simplewire was acquired by Qpass, which later became Open Market. Just a few years after I sold it, Open Market achieved $260 million in revenue.
In 2007, I started Zip whip, which originally offered a consumer cloud-texting platform, but in 2014 we pivoted to focus exclusively on business texting. It was a significant risk to alter the company’s focus, but it paid off. That year Zip whip became the first company to text-enable existing landline phone numbers and established the business-texting industry. Today, we have text-enabled over 6 million phone numbers and our products serve 30,000 businesses.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
As I mentioned, one of my first jobs was mowing lawns. I grew up in Michigan and the rivalry between the University of Michigan and Michigan State University was intense. My allegiance sat with the University of Michigan, so I came up with a marketing campaign where I posted signs around my neighborhood that said, “No I will not mow your lawn if you are a State (Michigan State) fan.” The “no” took up about 75% of the sign so it grabbed people’s attention. My phone started ringing off the hook instantly. Even Michigan State fans were calling me thinking it was hilarious and wanting me to mow their lawn. Of course, I said yes, I wasn’t going to turn down business. My summer quickly filled up with gigs, and I told my customers I would collect all my payments before fall started. Well, my downfall was my accounting department, which happened to just be me. I failed to keep track of how often I mowed each customer’s lawn. When it came time to bill them, I had no idea what their final tally was. I ended up misbilling all my customers and decided not to charge them anything. I made no money mowing lawns that summer, which was upsetting, but a valuable lesson. Mainly, that I should hire someone to manage the accounting, but also that I need to keep better track of customers and clients.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey A. Moore. Along with my lawn-mowing marketing lesson, this book convinced me that marketing was key to a successful business. But it’s about marketing the right way to the right people in order to establish yourself.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I’ve always been fascinated with how humans communicate. It’s the most important thing we do as a species. Since we’ve been able to communicate with each other we’ve always been looking for better ways to do it over long distances. We started with smoke signals, moved to sending letters then began calling one another — and now we prefer texting. There have been a lot of competitors, but nothing seems to be able to usurp texting. One of the reasons for that is that messaging competitors are closed ecosystems, meaning you have to be on their platform in order to use them (think Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp). Texting is an open ecosystem and universal, no one carrier or entity owns texting and it comes pre-loaded on virtually every cell phone in the world. That’s what has made it so successful over the past 25+ years.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
My number one principal is “you will be on your deathbed before you know it.” We only have about 80 years on this planet. It sounds morbid, but it’s true. So, I encourage everyone to take risks and do what your gut tells you. When you are on your deathbed, you won’t look back on those risks with regrets. You’ll be happy you did it and dealt with the ups and downs associated with risks.
For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The biggest challenge for our family has been being stuck in the house together with no place to go for the past three months. It’s been great to spend this time with my kids and my wife; there is truly something special about this rare opportunity and time together. But we all like to get out and do things, we aren’t good at being homebodies for so long. So, everyone is starting to get on each other’s nerves. Communication is playing a vital role in ensuring we are all staying mentally sound and of healthy mind and body. Sometimes we even text each other from the other room when we really need a break.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I think one of the biggest work-related challenges this pandemic has caused is that we do not get to enjoy the new office we moved into in October 2019. We spent a lot of time and effort to develop an office that meets the needs of our employees and helps our culture grow. Our office complements our culture thanks to the attention to details. We consciously built a variety of workstations catering to a variety of needs. We have a mix of open, group-collaboration spaces and quiet areas to get down to work. The kitchen can hold 200+ people, and every afternoon folks would gather there to catch up, have a drink or play ping pong. These small interactions are certainly things we all miss, but we are making the most of being virtual.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the corona virus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
My advice is to limit screen time and take as many breaks for your family, mental health or personal needs as you can throughout the day. Being in front of a screen and working all day can be draining, both physically and emotionally. Since we don’t have natural breaks (such as a meeting in a conference room or a run to get coffee), we all need to remember to sign off every once in a while. That means phones too. I like to take walks with my family, which gets us outdoors and gives us time to connect. My advice is to find something you enjoy that’s not in front of a screen and commit to doing that every day.
My other piece of advice is to seek out positive news. If all you are doing is taking in information about the pandemic, you’re going to get overwhelmed. Even though it’s important to stay informed, it’s also critical to take breaks. Set an intentional time limit to watch the news and then turn it off. Better yet, remind yourself that life continues on, and find inspirational and uplifting stories. For example, USA Today has a Good News section.
Additionally, stay in touch with loved ones and friends (may I suggest through texting). While it’s a little cliché, it’s true that we are all in this together. Connecting with friends and family members via phone can help you get through social distancing with a healthier mental outlook. It feels great to hear from someone who matters to you and to be reminded of important connections.
I always remind those who are anxious about this pandemic that it will eventually pass. I know at this point it can seem like we might be in quarantine forever, but there will be an end. Humans are resilient and our history shows that we have overcome obstacles like this before, so we should take solace in knowing that there is light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how dark it might be now.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
I think one of the positive things to come out of this pandemic is how businesses are focusing on communicating with customers. Many businesses had to unfortunately shut down or drastically adjust their way of interacting with customers, forcing them to pivot their marketing communication strategies. Customer habits and preferences are rapidly changing due to the pandemic, and businesses must show customers they are meeting them where they are now.
With customers using their phones more, businesses have found success in reaching their customer via texting. For example, professional sports teams — one of the hardest hit industries — are using texting to keep fans engaged in unique ways. One story that comes to mind is with the Chicago White Sox. An employee with the sales department texted a video to season ticket holders of his top five sports movies. People quickly started replying with their favorite movies or shows, opening the door to new conversations and continued engagement.
We’ve also seen businesses use texting to ramp their operations back up. For example, a ClubPilates location based in Austin is texting all of their members to let them know that classes are resuming, and they’re welcome to come back to the facility. Texting is the perfect form of communication here because it’s quick, personal and guaranteed to be seen.
Longer term I think we’ll see different practices from many of the businesses we frequent. As an example, before COVID most businesses didn’t offer curbside pick-up and now many do, from small businesses to large chains.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
We can already see some of the permanent changes taking hold. Whole business models are getting upended. Earlier this month our partners at The Riveter went fully digital, closing their workspace locations. Customers are also forcing permanent change on companies. A few restaurants in my neighborhood have become pseudo grocery stores, selling their fresh produce and bulk goods. Insurance customers have realized they don’t need to meet in person with a claims agent or even bother with a phone call. They can easily send a text with the information about the incident along with detailed pictures.
Overall, we are going to be more OK with things moving digital. Our education system went completely digital in a matter of days. While students will eventually make it back to the classroom, I think this transformation will make a bigger case for on-demand education. Even local businesses, who relied solely on foot traffic for business, had to quickly adjust to selling things online. Instagram pages become online stores.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
We’ve been in a lucky position. Our team has adapted well to virtual working and business has remained steady. As businesses have had to change their entire customer-communication strategies due to COVID-19, many of them have realized the power of texting. In a time of crisis, consumers want to simplify their communication channels and use what they know best, which is texting. We are reaching out to industries most impacted by the pandemic, such as sports teams and restaurants, to help them understand why texting is important and how easy it is to start texting customers. Businesses can immediately text enable their existing phone number and start communicating with customers the way they prefer.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Even if your business is completely closed, it’s important to keep up communication with your customers. Don’t let them forget you are there and will be open for them soon. Light touches, such as a text update, can be an unobtrusive way to keep your business top of mind for customers.
Can you please give us your favorite ”Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
You’ve might have heard this one, but my favorite life lesson is “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Of course, this doesn’t just mean your actual neighbor, but applies to everyone you are around. We can’t always be sure what the person next to us is going through, so I think it’s important to be respectful and kind to others.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can follow me personally on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jlauer12/
And you can follow Zipwhip across all social channels: