Drama and quirk aren’t necessary for startup success

Many of the stories in our EC-1 series tell tales of startups in the wilderness hacking out green field opportunities. Klaviyo is a different breed of company: One that went into an established market and challenged powerful incumbents, ultimately finding success with a new, more data-oriented generation of email marketers.

As such, the lessons that it offers are, perhaps, more subtle; its insights bordering on common sense.

But as the saying goes, common sense to an uncommon degree becomes wisdom. Here are four pieces of wisdom I’ve gleaned from Klaviyo’s story:

Drama and sizzle help companies stand out, undoubtedly. But are they necessary for success? Klaviyo’s story suggests otherwise.

Lesson 1: Drama and quirk aren’t necessary for startup success

Silicon Valley has become a showcase for oddity. Ironically, we all enjoy “Silicon Valley” (the show) or “The Social Network.” Unironically, we toss around phrases like “the hustle” and “sweat equity.” Hot companies often stand out with stories of intense struggle and failure, a larger-than-life founder or a chaotic (and often toxic) management structure.

Drama and sizzle help companies stand out, undoubtedly. But are they necessary for success? Klaviyo’s story suggests otherwise.


By Danny Crichton

Marketing in 2021 is emotional and not just transactional

Brands are emotions made physical. The clothes we wear, the media we consume, the devices we use — all signal not only to others what we value and see in ourselves, they also are a way to construct our very identities. Experimenting to deepen that bond has been at the core of the marketing profession for a century; its origins rooted in Freudian psychoanalysis.

There had always been one critical limitation, though: Marketers had to appeal to the masses. Radio, television and print media allowed brands to deliver only one message to everyone, no matter if their product conferred luxury or smart cost-consciousness.

On the internet, the masses have been shattered into ever smaller shards, shifting that marketing calculus toward targeted audiences and social network interest groups. Today, niche brands, large corporations and every business in between are reaching ever-narrower audiences.

Marketers who become expert at personalization, especially for existing customers through owned marketing platforms like email, will hold an edge over their competitors.

Yet, advertising and social networks are competitive marketplaces. Over time, prices to reach niche audiences rise, and strategies that once worked become unviable. In 2021, these perpetual challenges are joined by two new factors: a fresh influx of new e-commerce brands and changing privacy policies on third-party platforms.

Klaviyo benefits from these secular trends. While the cost or difficulty of acquiring new customers may increase, as we looked at in the second part of this EC-1, the cost of emailing an existing one remains much the same. Marketers who become expert at personalization, especially for existing customers through owned marketing platforms like email, will hold an edge over their competitors. It’s no longer about marketing to narrow slices of audiences — it’s about building an emotional bond with an audience of one.

To a booming economy, now ad inflation

While 2020 was a banner year for e-commerce in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the early months of 2021 have brought about a new problem: Customer acquisition costs are rising, sometimes to a worrying degree. For instance, one company interviewed by TechCrunch that did not wish to be named said it has seen its return on investment for Facebook ads fall by nearly half in the first months of 2021. Such inflation has also been predicted by firms like ECI Media Management.

There are two possible reasons for this increase. First, an unprecedented number of companies are moving online, spurred by COVID-19 and worldwide lockdowns.


By Danny Crichton

How Klaviyo used data and no-code to transform owned marketing

Email is the communication medium that refuses to die.

“Eventually, every technology is trumped by something new and better. And I feel that email is ready to be trumped. But by what?” wrote the venture capitalist Fred Wilson in 2007. Three years later, he updated readers that other forms of messaging had outgrown email. “It looks like email’s reign as the king of communication is ending and social networking is now supreme,” he said. (To be fair to Wilson, his view was nuanced enough to continue investing in email tech.)

Despite the competition, Klaviyo didn’t just break into the market — it has also achieved an unusual level of excitement and loyalty among marketers despite its youthful history.

Investors weren’t alone — marketers have also spent years anticipating the next big thing.

“It was SMS, it was YouTube, it was Instagram. Before that it was Facebook, then it was Snapchat and TikTok. I kinda feel like individually all those things are fleeting. I think people found: You know what? Everyone still opens their emails every day,” says Darin Hager, a former sneaker entrepreneur who is now an email marketing manager at Adjust Media.

Email has an estimated four billion users today and continues to grow steadily even as mature social networks plateau. Estimates of the number of nonspam messages sent each day range from 25 billion to over 300 billion.

Unsurprisingly for a marketing channel with so much volume, there’s voluminous competition to send and program those emails. Yet, despite the competition, Klaviyo didn’t just break into the market — it has also achieved an unusual level of excitement and loyalty among marketers despite its youthful history.

“If you’re not using Klaviyo and you’re in e-commerce, then it’s not very professional. If you see ‘Sent by Constant Contact or Mailchimp’ at the bottom of an email by a brand, it makes it look like they’re not really there yet,” Hager said.

How did Klaviyo become the standard solution among email marketers?

In Klaviyo’s origin story, we delved into part of the answer: The company began life as an e-commerce analytics service. Once it matured to compete as an email service provider, Klaviyo benefited from the edge given by its deeper, more comprehensive focus on data.

However, that leaves several questions unanswered. Why is email so important to e-commerce? What are the substantive differences between Klaviyo’s feature set and those of its competitors? And why did several large, well-funded incumbents fail to capitalize on building an advantage in data first?

In this section, we’ll answer those questions — as well as laying out the significance of COVID-19 on the e-commerce market, and how newsletters and AI figure into the company’s future.

A positive Outlook on email’s longevity

Email is one of the oldest tech verticals: Constant Contact, one of the most venerable email service providers (ESPs), was founded in 1995, went public in 2007 and was taken private in 2015 for $1 billion. By the time Klaviyo started in 2012, the space was well served by numerous incumbents.


By Danny Crichton

The Klaviyo EC-1

E-commerce is booming as retailers race to transform their brick-and-mortar footprints into online storefronts. By some counts, the market grew an astonishing 42% in 2020 in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and estimates show that online spending in the U.S. will surpass $1 trillion by 2022. It’s a bonanza, and everyone is figuring out this new terrain.

Consumers are likely familiar with the front-end brands for these storefronts — with companies like Amazon, Shopify, Square, and Stripe owning attention — but it’s the tooling behind the curtain that is increasingly determining the competitiveness of individual stores.

Klaviyo may not be a household name to consumers (at least, not yet), but in many ways, this startup has become the standard by which email marketers are judged today, triangulating against veterans Mailchimp and Constant Contact and riding the e-commerce wave to new heights.

Founded in 2012, this Boston-based company helps marketers personalize and automate their email messaging to customers. By now, most people are intimately familiar with these kinds of emails; if you’ve ever given your email address to an online store, the entreaties to come back to your abandoned cart or browse the latest sale are Klaviyo’s bread and butter.

It may seem obvious in retrospect that email would grow to become a premier platform for marketing, but this wasn’t the case even a few years ago when social ads and search engine marketing were the dominant paradigm. Today, owned marketing and customer experience management are white-hot trends, and Klaviyo has surged from a lifestyle business to a multi-billion dollar behemoth in just a few short years. Its story is at the heart of the internet economy today, and the future.

TechCrunch’s writer and analyst for this EC-1 is Chris Morrison. Morrison, who previously wrote our EC-1 on Roblox, has been a writer and independent game developer covering the video game industry and the marketing challenges that come with publishing. As an analyst and a potential user, he’s in a unique position to explain the Klaviyo story. The lead editor for this package was Danny Crichton, the assistant editor was Ram Iyer, the copy editor was Richard Dal Porto and illustrations were created by Nigel Sussman.

Klaviyo had no say in the content of this analysis and did not get advance access to it. Morrison has no financial ties to Klaviyo or other conflicts of interest to disclose.

The Klaviyo EC-1 comprises four main articles numbering 9,700 words and a reading time of 43 minutes. Let’s take a look:

  • Part 1: Origin storyHow Klaviyo transformed from a lifestyle business into a $4.15B email titan” (2,600 words/10 minutes) — Explores the rise of Klaviyo from a database for e-commerce data into a modern email powerhouse as it successively learned from customers and bootstrapped in the absence of funding from accelerators and early VCs.
  • Part 2: Business and growthHow Klaviyo used data and no-code to transform owned marketing” (3,000 words/12 minutes) — Analyzes Klaviyo’s recent growth and how marketers increasingly focus on owned marketing channels and customer experience management.
  • Part 3: Dynamics of e-commerce marketingMarketing in 2021 is emotional and not just transactional” (2,200 words/9 minutes) — To fully understand Klaviyo and this new world of martech, this article contextualizes how and why marketers are increasingly trying to personalize and build deeper emotional bonds with their customers outside of social media channels.
  • Part 4: Lessons on startup growthDrama and quirk aren’t necessary for startup success” (1,900 words/8 minutes) — Founders shouldn’t have to keep learning the same lessons over and over again. Klaviyo offers a number of tried-and-true tutorials to understand how to build a competitive startup and not get bogged down in finding product-market fit and scaling.

We’re always iterating on the EC-1 format. If you have questions, comments or ideas, please send an email to TechCrunch Managing Editor Danny Crichton at [email protected].


By Danny Crichton