In January of 2005, I was creating pencil sketches of what benchmarkemail.com should look like. I must admit it was not pretty. I can remember taking some inspiration from our competitors at that time for sure. Basically, looking at their process and figuring out how to improve it. The process consisted of me drawing out on graph paper, scanning that and sending it as an email attachment. Initially, I took pride in being neat and trying to explain everything, eventually as we became more comfortable with each other, it started to look like chicken scratch. Our developers would in relatively short order create an asp web forms page for me to review. I would give my notes via a skype call (Skype was founded in 2003, so we were early adopters of their technology). We would continue to iterate that process in the ensuing weeks until I felt comfortable with our results. We did not have a testing server, only our production server, the changes we were making went live quickly. It was a very fast process to develop, but I must admit our creativity in terms of doing things differently was lacking a bit. Our technology stack back then was basic HTML and SQL and web forms all running on one server. We expanded and grew our technology out of that. I don’t want to chronicle our technology changes as that is not the purpose of this post. I simply want to show how we were doing things. The early conversations with our developers went quite well. Sometimes people ask me how I found this team and if it just by chance. I can honestly say that I went through at least two other teams trying to get them to execute my ideas. However, things were difficult with my initial developers, communication was difficult, fixes were tiring, Skype had more issues, etc. You get the point. It just did not feel right. Kind of like dating the wrong person, but you are trying to make it work. Eventually, you just give up and move on. Once I did find the right group things became much easier. They communicated well and spoke English fluently. Our early developers were quite personal as well. Ash, Kishore and Mark (two Hindus and a catholic) were willing to engage in just about any conversation and have a good laugh. This willingness and ease of communication were not easy to come by, as the cultural differences can be quite strong and an understanding of nuances and laughter are sometimes difficult to come by. My guys were from the southern parts of India (Mumbai and Kerala) where English is more prevalent. In fact, I have been told that the South (especially programmers) prefer English even over Hindi (actually the four major languages of the south are Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam) and this obviously worked to my benefit. So the development was proceeding smoothly and we were making excellent progress. Once we started seriously selling the product in 2005, I became convinced that Benchmark had legs and would become successful. We were having brisk growth and clients were flocking to us. Quick digression (my internet slang in the early days became QD, Quick Digression, as that would allow me to digress onto many different points I needed the developers to consider, they liked it as well, so long as we did not digress too much, like what I might be doing here :)), I must talk about my first trip to Delhi. I was flying to meet Virender, our only support person at that time, in Gurgaon, which is a suburb of Delhi. The flight was a direct one from Chicago to Delhi. If my memory serves me correctly, it was at least a 17-hour direct flight (UGHH!). I flew coach in an older, uncomfortable 747. I did not sleep a wink. As I was walking through the airport, I saw many automatic weapons and armed guards which were a new experience for me. Handguns holstered and machine guns in their arms. It was a bit shocking to an average American who had not traveled to that part of the world. [caption id=\"attachment_2452\" align=\"aligncenter\" width=\"768\"] While this photo was taken on a later trip, it\'s amazing to look back to even this long ago and realize how far we\'ve come ... and how much younger our kids (and us) looked.[/caption] The language and fragrances (I do love curry) were foreign. The people dressed differently and I remember walking out to this big area and seeing a sea of faces and honking of horns, all waiting for others, with signs in Hindi and English. Virender finding me and welcoming me to India could not have come quicker. I felt relieved when we finally met and immediately felt at ease with this new land and my new friend and colleague. In my next blog, I will talk about how my early team and I overcame our challenges and kept moving forward.
I have decided to write a monthly blog about our company history and the benefits and challenges of having international offices. This came as an outgrowth of our leadership meetings. Other team members of the group were sharing how they have learned things which have helped them do their job better by reading blogs of other companies and how they had overcome their challenges. We can improve by understanding new concepts and utilizing tools that we might never have heard of except by reading those blogs. I hope that the reader of my posts can glean some insights that can help them in their business success, especially as they think about growing internationally. How did Benchmark start? In 2003-2004 I had just come out of the financial services industry and was looking for a new challenge. In the previous 10 years leading up to Benchmark, I had started a couple different companies mostly focused on desktop publishing and printing. I was moderately successful in those industries, but I was quickly losing interest and wanted to embrace the new online opportunities and technologies that were developing at that time. After a few months of reviewing, dreaming and tinkering I decided upon the email marketing space and registered the name benchmarkemail.com. I liked the name Benchmark for obvious reasons. I dreamed of the product being the standard in the industry. The rock, or benchmark, by which our clients would evaluate email marketing. Plus, I am very competitive so the name was a good fit for my psyche … and hence decided upon benchmarkemail.com. Now came the challenge of building this service (back then I did not even call it a service ... we looked at it more as a website that had cool features and tools) of email marketing. Where would I hire the designers and programmers? Where would the money come from? Should I get my family and friends involved or an angel investor maybe? I decided to bootstrap the entire operation. I opted out of an angel investor as I wanted to grow at my own pace and not be pressured. Both my wife, Denise, and I did not want to ever have to explain to our family and friends why things did not go well. Failure meant a loss of our time and money only! First order of business was to look overseas for my team, as I knew the cost would be high in the US. I decided upon India as the location to look for talent. There were a couple of reasons for this. One was the high tech level that developers had achieved in that country the other had more to do with the integrity and trust factor of the Hindu culture. I think somehow subconsciously, in my younger days, I was influenced by the movie Gandhi, starring the incredible actor Ben Kingsley. India just felt right. [caption id=\"attachment_1820\" align=\"aligncenter\" width=\"1024\"] The original sign that hung outside our office in Gurgaon, India.[/caption] [caption id=\"attachment_1822\" align=\"aligncenter\" width=\"1024\"] On our first trip as a family to India. What better way to see how far we\'ve come as a company than to see how young my son looks in this photo?![/caption] I was helping my wife at that time with a small printing business and we had some desktop publishing products that we were selling online. This allowed us to have some income while we gave Benchmark a chance to grow. We were located in a small medical building (our first office was a room within an office, maybe 400 sq. ft.) next to dentists, optometrists and podiatrists, but the rent was cheap and it allowed us to spend money on the product. In the first year of operation, we had one support person out of India (Delhi), four developers (Mumbai) and myself. I would sketch out a design and list some logic on graph paper, scan it and send to our team in Mumbai. That’s it! Very barbaric by today\'s standards, but very effective back then. My working hours were quite long. Full day at the office ,then usually at least 3-5 nights of 2-3 hours on India daytime hours. Back then I was a bit younger :) and loved the challenge of this new idea. As you can see Benchmark was born as an international company. In my next post, I will talk more about these early five years and the specific challenges and triumphs we encountered.