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What we learned as we built our product

Pierce Ujjainwalla

By Pierce Ujjainwalla

·

Updated Jan 31, 2024

Published Dec 12, 2023

What we learned as we built our product

Summary - From template generator to a comprehensive solution for the entire creative process. Uncover key learnings, challenges, & innovations in Knak's 8 year journey.

We recently retired the first product Knak ever built – a template generator.

An important innovation when it was created a few short years ago, the template generator had outlived its usefulness as we perfected, improved and expanded what we sell.

The demise of that template generator got me thinking about all the things I’ve learned as we have built Knak. I want to share those learnings here.

Our original idea was just the starting point

Ten years ago, I was running an agency (Revenue Pulse, it still exists and I’m still involved) that built emails and landing pages for customers.

We were making good money, and our customers were happy.

I, however, was frustrated.

That’s because, every time we worked with a customer, we started from scratch, coding the entire email or landing page template from top to bottom every time.

Because we had to start over again with every customer, I did not feel that we were building something lasting.

That’s when the idea of a template generator was born. Our original thought was that someone could put a company’s logo, font and colors into the template generator, and out the other end would come a coded template that people could use with their marketing automation platform.

It worked very well, and because it solved the initial problem, which was the coding of landing pages, the template generator was highly successful right from the start.

But here’s the thing: I eventually realized that the problem was much bigger than just templates, and the template generator only solved a small part of it.

We made templates – tens of thousands of them – and we kept thinking we’d finally make the perfect one.

But there is no such thing as the perfect template. The reality is that marketers are creative. They want to make their assets unique. And the moment any tweaking was needed, we had to go back to coding.

So my first big learning was that I did not know how big the problem was. It extended way beyond templates and across the whole creation journey, from the initial customer request through ideation, creation, testing, review and execution.

If we really wanted to help our customers, we had to have solutions across the entire creation journey.

Which is what led to the creation of Knak.

We had to identify and solve pain points across the entire creation journey

Having realized we needed to help our customers create the whole asset, from start to finish, and create it easily and according to their own tastes and wishes, we then had to identify their pain points along the creation journey. And to be successful, we realized we would have to come up with a solution for each of those problem areas.

Some, like the need to execute, or send emails out, were obvious right from the start. Sending emails out is the whole point of the process, after all!

That meant that we had to make sure that whatever we created synced flawlessly with marketing automation platforms.

The need to stay on-brand was also obvious very early on, right from the template generator, in fact.

We immediately realized that if you are a big company (or any small company that’s given the matter some thought), everything you build has to have the company’s approved look and feel.

So one of the first things we did was add brand guardrails to the email and landing page creation process. With those guardrails in place, marketers could fiddle to their heart’s content, secure in the knowledge that their fiddling would never result in anything off-brand.

It also became clear that the review process was a big pain point.

The review process includes collaboration among different contributors, as well as the approvals process, which can take a lot of time. The bigger the company, the more stakeholders are involved. Therefore you can end up with a lot of people wanting to tinker with the product or needing to review it for approval.

That’s when we realized we needed to make it easier for people to work together so they could get things approved. Speed was crucial, as was simplicity of use.

Less obvious from the beginning was the need for inspiration, an important part of the ideation process.

Our early customers were bowled over by our product. They suddenly realized they could build anything! But this realization seemed to lead to the marketer’s equivalent of writer’s block. Because the possibilities seemed endless, they didn’t know where to start.

That led us to create the Knak Inspiration Centre.

It’s a collection of real-life emails and landing pages from actual companies that show what our product can do. And you can search the Inspiration Centre by category, so if you’re looking for an email that invites people to an event, you can see what others have done in that category. No Lorem Ipsum placeholder text or placeholder images; we want people to be inspired by actual emails and landing pages.

We had to deal with technical limitations, challenges and innovations

One of the things that’s unique about emails is that there are no standards about how emails are rendered across various email platforms. Something will render one way in Outlook and another way in Gmail.

This makes email clients very different from web browsers. Web browsers have recognized web standards that allow consistency across browsers; no such thing exists on the email client side of things.

That means that before sending an email out, marketers need to run tests to see how their email renders in different email platforms.

It used to be that they would actually send emails to separate testing platforms. We decided it made more sense to run the tests inside the platform you are using to build emails – Knak. So we added testing capabilities to Knak.

Another technical challenge we had to confront was how to get Knak to work with the project management tools companies use – things like Adobe Workfront, monday.com and Wrike.

There can be dozens of components to a marketing campaign, of which email and landing page creation are only one part. By integrating with project management platforms, we are able to make the email and landing page creation a visible part of the project management process.

And as you might expect, we are also seeing how we can use generative artificial intelligence to help and speed the process. Right now, we are using generative AI to help our marketers translate their emails and landing pages in seconds; down the road, we have lots of other ideas on how it will be improved.

But there are limits to AI. That’s because one of the things we’ve learned is that humans – the people who read the marketing emails – tune out when they realize something was created by AI. The best marketers know that the best way to connect with people is through human-generated creativity.

We had to keep Knak easy to use

By now you will have noticed that there’s a theme to this post, and that’s the need to keep refining and improving the product. Every time we thought we’d solved one problem, we found another we could tackle. So now, even though we’d covered what we thought was the entire creation process, we found ourselves confronted with two more, which are really subsets of email and landing page creation: personalization and translation.

In other words, we added features to Knak that allow for emails to be personalized and (thanks to artificial intelligence) translated into a variety of languages.

But through all of the changes, additions and refinements to our product, one thing has remained constant: The need to keep Knak easy to use.

That’s because ultimately, the big problem that Knak with all of its features solves is that it eliminates difficult, cumbersome and time-consuming processes.

You don’t need Knak to build emails and landing pages with existing marketing automation platforms. But using those platforms without us is difficult, time-consuming and costly. It requires technical skill, and a lot of willpower to push projects through.

So no matter what improvements or refinements we have made to our product, we have learned to focus a lot of effort on keeping things easy for the user.

Putting the learnings to use

Because Knak is so easy to use, it decentralizes creative power, giving it to every person in a company. The people with creative ideas no longer need access to people with technical skills to turn their ideas into reality; they can do it themselves. This eliminates bottlenecks and ultimately brings companies closer to their customers.

It’s also good for efficiency, which is top of mind for many companies these days as they look to keep a closer eye on expenses. Knak was doing efficiency before efficiency was cool, and now that there’s a reason to change the status quo, people are more interested in what we have to offer.

I like to think that Knak is a company with the right product at the right time. We have learned a lot over the last eight years, refining and improving our product, and it’s all coming together at a time when customers and potential customers are interested in what we have to offer.

I wish I could say we had timed it to happen this way, but it’s more a question of us being ready when the market is. We have what people need – road-tested and ready to use.

That’s not to say there’s no room for improvement – and no potential for bumps on the horizon. We are keeping a close watch on AI to see how it develops and how it affects both our business and marketing in general. I certainly see the potential for AI to help marketers by generating images, or writing copy or personalizing emails.

I also note that right now, email platforms do not support audio and video content. So anyone sending emails has to send words and images only.

That may end up making email a more desirable marketing channel.

It was a lot harder to get here than I ever thought it would be.

But our customers have guided and supported us, telling us what the product should do and helping us figure out what we should build.

When you build a good product, you have happy customers. And a happy customer is everything!


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Pierce Ujjainwalla

Author

Pierce Ujjainwalla

Co-Founder & CEO, Knak

Pierce is a career marketer who has lived in the marketing trenches at companies like IBM, SAP, NVIDIA, and Marketo. He launched Knak in 2015 as a platform designed to help Marketers simplify email creation. He is also the founder of Revenue Pulse, a marketing operations consultancy.

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