Mike mollick headshot

Mike Mollick

Published on

Building NeverBounce: A Retrospective

In mid-2014, approximately a decade before the authoring of this article, I was a developer at a digital agency. One of our clients wanted to re-engage their marketing contact lists after neglecting them for several years. As expected, many contacts no longer existed, and the emails bounced. We evaluated a few contact list cleaning services but found the quality of the services to be abysmal and the pricing to be too high. Partly out of spite, we built our own email verification solution. While another engineer began working on a prototype, I built out the first iteration of the web app that would become NeverBounce.

After validating the concept and getting a couple of customers signed on, we spun off NeverBounce and dove into it full-time. A small friends and family round helped get us off the ground, but otherwise NeverBounce was a bootstrapped company. Bootstrapping was a significant motivator early on; we had to get to profit as soon as possible. We had several touch-and-go moments earlier, but we weathered them and hung on for dear life.

Within our first 12 months, we managed to turn a profit and see the fruits of our labor. We celebrated every new payment and sign-up. A few short (grueling?) years later, we entered into an agreement with ZoomInfo to be acquired.

This is a brief retrospective of that experience.

Being Comfortable, Being Uncomfortable

As a fresh-faced 22-year-old in my second year as a professional software dev, I was overwhelmed. Just a few months prior, I completed my Bachelor of Fine Arts. As the solo developer on the project, I had to build a user portal with authentication, file uploads, live updates, and payments.

This was a great starting point for my career. Having started in the deep end, I learned various concepts and technologies on the fly. From simple app development to infrastructure management, how to talk to customers, and even how to manage a team, all these were brand new concepts when we started building NeverBounce. I had to learn and level up quickly for myself and the company’s success.

Since NeverBounce, I’ve continued to jump into the deep end, from higher-level leadership concepts to new tech stacks, technologies, and verticals. If there’s one foundational principle I could give to anyone, it’s to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Iterate at Lighting Pace

While breaking into the market, one of our strengths was how quickly we could make changes and iterate. We built our first iteration of our web app in two weeks. This shabby application was a handful of PHP and JavaScript files I uploaded to a shared host via FTP. While not the most sustainable setup, this allowed us to move as quickly as needed during those early stages.

After six months of running the business on this, I rebuilt the product using Laravel and React. This gave us a much more sustainable foundation while allowing us to be nimble. Being able to ship as often and quickly as needed allowed us to experiment and not fear breaking things.

Stay Lean and Wear Multiple Hats

Bootstrapping has a way of forcing teams to remain lean. We were a team of four in the early days: our CEO, Sales, and two engineers. For the most part, we had our core responsibilities, but there was a lot of overlap. As an engineer, my top priority was building user-facing features. While working on engineering tasks, I would also serve customer requests via Zendesk and Zopim.

This was a unique opportunity to interact with customers and get first-hand accounts of their issues. More than a few times, I got to debug and deploy a fix while conversing with them on live chat.

This setup doesn’t scale well, so it should be no surprise that our first hire was a customer success manager. Even then, I liked to keep in close contact with customers and frequently interacted with tickets requiring engineering support.

Over the years, we did continue to hire but took a very measured and deliberate approach. By the time of acquisition, we had grown to a team of 12 people (only 3 of whom were engineers).

Ignore the Competition and Embrace Their Flattery

Early on, we only had a handful of competitors in the space, which made it relatively easy to gather competitive intelligence and stay ahead of the curve. A few short years later, we saw upwards of 100 competitors, with new ones popping up weekly. As we’d come across them, either from a customer shopping around or Google alerts, we’d share them in Slack and do some reconnaissance.

As you can imagine, this was a massive distraction for a small team like ours. A more significant issue was that if we kept looking at competitors, we’d inevitably be following their lead rather than being a leader ourselves. Eventually, our CEO mandated that we stop sharing new competitors as it did everyone a disservice. This was how we maintained our position as an industry leader; we stopped worrying about what everyone else was doing and stayed the course.

On top of this, we also found that most of the competitors that did pop up fizzled out and disappeared just as fast. In the end, there were only a handful of actual threats in the space, many of which followed our lead.