OneSignal is a platform that enables services related to email mobile, web push notification, and in-app messaging services with the aim to boost customer engagement and retention.

In this insightful interview with George Deglin, the CEO and co-founder of OneSignal, a leading customer messaging and engagement solution, we learn multiple facets related to customer engagement, personalization, and the future of mobile marketing.

Throughout this interview, George has provided valuable insights relating to the significance of OneSignal, and how it is helping its 2 million customers. George will share his unique perspective on customer engagement, personalization, use of AI, and collaboration with complementary partners. Therefore, without wasting time, let’s get ahead with this interview…

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1) Tell us about your journey and how you came up with OneSignal?

So, I got a pretty early start in my career. I got internships for learning software development and startups when I was 15 or 16.

I went to UC Berkeley to study computer science, but the entrepreneurship bug bit me. While in school, I found some friends who wanted to start a company. We ended up creating a business together. They were a bit older, so they already graduated from college. However, I was balancing classwork with startup. For that startup, we were able to find angel investors and venture funding. However, once we raised money, I left my education to join that company as a co-founder.

We got to a point where we started to look at some new opportunities. So, we initially started a mobile game studio in 2015, but then we pivoted to the idea of OneSignal.

We’re fortunate to have worked with many other startups, including gaming studios. Also, this category has had some really good experiences and lessons.

2) How would you explain the benefits of OneSignal to someone not from a technical background?

OneSignal is in the customer engagement platforms category, which is an emerging one. When you think about the product, you want to help increase the engagement rate of your business, customers, and repeat customers.

We have built it to provide a good experience so that the customers are compelled to buy things or engage more deeply with the company. So, when we think about what we do, it's all about helping our customers drive higher engagement, higher retention, and higher revenue from the customers we already have.

Coming from our personal experience when building games in this modern technology world, engagement doesn’t just happen when you’re in a store or using an app. It also doesn’t happen when you check your email or smartphone while checking out your messages.

Furthermore, understanding that engagement happens continuously in our day and is connected to the businesses. We interact from where the vision of our product comes from.

So, how does it boil down to the product? Well, customers use our product to send messages to their users. Those messages come in the form of an email. It can come in the form of messages, push notifications, etc. For instance, you might get notifications from food delivery applications or social networks.

We help customers send effective notifications and support channels like in-app messaging.

3) So are you trying to maximize the customers' engagement using OneSignal for your clients?

I’ll give you an example. When I wake up, the first thing I do is check the notifications on my smartphone. You’ll get notifications from different apps for instance, from a ride-sharing app, you might get $10 off.

I really like Starbucks, and in the morning, if they send me a notification on a drink that I like that is being sold at half the price, I might check it out.

4) What challenges do the companies have that are approaching you for your services?

There are a couple of challenges, and some of them are inherent that we work to solve for our customers. One of the challenges we face is the app's messaging channels. If you had an online business earlier, you were only required to email your customers and think about how complicated that was.

Furthermore, modern consumers must consider whether an email or a push notification will work. They might be sending SMS or have gone from one to four channels. This would be a lot to think about. Additionally, the channels need to work in coherence with each other.

Therefore, a system that can centralize these channels would greatly help. A system that centralizes those messages in one place and helps business owners and their teams orchestrate the right experience across those channels. We try to make all these channels work in concert with each other.

5) Is there some level of personalization with your system?

Yeah, so in addition to helping with sending messages, we want to make sure our customers are sending the right ones to the right people. You see, the message a customer receives will differ a lot. For instance, the messages can't be the same for a person who just downloaded your application and someone who’s using it day in and out.

We enable our customers to bring customer data to the system. So, whether the data sits in the app or their database, we have orchestrated ways to help them bring it to the system.

It can either be a manual or an automated process. So, once the data is fed to the system, it starts segmenting it. This segmentation is done based on different groups. For instance, regular users or users that seldom use the app. Those groups will naturally resonate with diverse audiences. However, the step beyond is, of course, the data and creating segments.

The best way to start to use this is not to have a manual process but to create an automatic one. A process where you can automatically sequence messages that goes out to the users. Once they download the app, a message automatically goes out to them. For customers who haven't opened the app in a while, we’ve got a product called Journeys. This product creates customer journeys automatically and helps you create different messages based on the journey.

6) Can you explain the depth of personalization your system provides?

The depth of personalization we offer can be unlimited. Localization is a core part of our platform, I think one way of it would be that businesses today are different than they were ten years ago. For instance, every mobile app has some type of global presence.

Customers are always thinking about whether we get our messages across in the right language. It’s built with our platform in terms of language and global time zone. We automatically detect the time zone of the recipient, and when our customers send a message, they can schedule it to be delivered at a consistent time across every time zone and will automatically deliver messages at the right time.

Talking about personalizing the message content, we support liquid templating. It’s almost like a programming language you can use inside the message content. It allows you to customize the content based on the data you’ve provided about the user.

For example, you might have a list of products, maybe five. So, you want to promote based on preferences that a person has provided with data like age, gender, or location. You can create one message and put it in one product. You can write code that says if a person likes a particular product, they’re in this age range, then show them this item. It’s cool because, without this, you might create 5, 10, or 20 different messages for different use cases. You just create the message once, but it adapts based on recipients.

Liquid templating is an advanced feature. It’s not something that all our customers use as it requires some technical expertise. If it’s something you don’t know about, then you need to learn it. However, it’s not difficult.

At OneSignal, we work with a very broad set of customers, from people who are building apps on nights and weekends to huge enterprises. However, we’ve found that more of our bigger customers like the powerful personalization feature.

7) What are the major challenges you face as a business?

Well, we have a multitude of challenges. For instance, customer engagement. So, as you may have understood, it’s not a simple platform. We offer ” n” number of capabilities to our customers. The expectations of our customers from us are very high. Also, our platform is extremely reliable.

For instance, a system needs to be easy to use and have powerful features, support localization, time zone targeting, liquid templating, etc. All these features help us meet those expectations.

We have a team of talented engineers. My background is as a software engineer, which I think has contributed to the quality of our platform. When we think about the size of our team compared to other software companies, we have a much larger product and engineering team at our stage.

Another unique challenge is how we've approached building a product in this category, which is why we've created something that anybody can use. We have a free version of the product that’s powerful. We have different plans up to the enterprise level that offer a lot of sophisticated capabilities suited for enterprise customers.

As a result of this model, many challenges have surfaced, as the product needs to be easy to use because if we’re only selling it to enterprise customers, it might be fine. However, we are selling it to customers who can sign up with a credit card or use the free version. They need to have an easy experience, all in their own right. It's also the scale. We’re enormous.

Today, one of five mobile apps launches with OneSignal as their messaging solution. We’ve approached two million people who created OneSignal accounts for mobile apps or websites. We’re sending 12 billion messages, so you can imagine the scale is enormous. We have customers with hundreds of millions of users. Even if we were building a platform for someone individually, creating a solution would be a little challenging. However, we’ve created a platform for hundreds of thousands of businesses, many of which have millions or tens of millions of people using their applications and receiving messages from them.

We manage all of that for them. It's not easy. I think you build a great business by finding something you’re uniquely good at, and we’re uniquely good at supporting this enormous scale.

8) Do you think artificial intelligence plays a significant role in developing such platforms and supporting huge organizations?

Yes. We’ve already incorporated artificial intelligence in a couple of places into our product. Areas where we see it being the most useful. Areas where customers have a difficult time making decisions on their own. Places in the product where places in the product are a little bit intuitive.

For example, we use artificial intelligence to determine the best time of day to send notifications to different people. It’s a hard thing for someone to know intuitively, and it’s a great place for us to provide an algorithmic solution that helps our customers just check a box. We’ll optimize when people receive their messages. We’ve also been looking at artificial intelligence for some other use cases for helping our customers. For instance, creating the right segments of the user.

You know, sometimes there are tasks at which humans are really good, and AI can do wonders. In those cases, our experience has been that people use a product for their good and if there is something in which marketers take a lot of pride. For example, writing messages. We are not trying to replace them with AI.

Every business is jumping on the AI bandwagon because it is a hot and interesting topic. However, we have a much more practical approach to integrating AI capabilities. We have a lot of non-AI capabilities that our customers need from us, and we have to make sure that we focus on them as well.

9) Between AI and human intelligence, what would you prefer?

I think humans are already very good at thinking. The best place to put AI would be those with super difficult tasks for humans. I think it is compelling in places where it enables you to do something you were never able to do before. I think it is nice to have AI, but it's not a need to have.

10) How do you maintain your huge customer base and rapid expansion at OneSignal?

As you must have gathered from the conversation, we have a product-centric business. We believe that in this category, the company that will win in the long term is the one that has the best product. The product that helps customers achieve results and engagement. Also, something that’s very intuitive and easy to use.

Contrarily, it's not always true to think about B2B software or enterprise software. It’s pretty clunky, and it’s not intuitive. It requires a lot of training, and our platform is the polar opposite.

It is designed to be very intuitive; everything works as expected. Setting it up is easy. We measure how long it takes for the average new user to set up the platform, and it’s under half an hour. So, we’ve designed everything to work as seamlessly as possible.

We call ourselves a product-led growth company because we have a freemium and self-serve motion. We don’t like to go out and try to convince every person to go and try the product one at a time. It’s about building a brand and a product so good that people can’t help but talk about it and recommend it to their friends. Therefore, the energy around the product experience helps drive a lot of our market adoption awareness. It drives the financial elements for business as well as it drives our revenue.

It’s a big part of our strategy. I would say that’s the only part. We do have marketing and all that, but I think having a product that is so good that it sells itself for the most part. It goes a long way towards success, so of course, like most of the time, it probably sells itself, but there could be specific marketing strategies that you adopt or choose to adapt to give your product an upper edge in the market.

Furthermore, many of these strategies tie to the product, i.e., our product's growth motion and quality. What I mean to say is that with our product growth motion and the freemium, we have an enormous user base. It means many people talk about us on Twitter, Reddit, etc. They create blog posts, or they create open-source projects that complement OneSignal. All of this leads to a great search presence with minimal effort. Let’s invest in SEO to make that even better.

We have a large community, and we do a lot around it. We take the people who love OneSignal and who like to evangelize it. We bring them together in a group. We let them try the free version earlier so that they become even bigger fans of the company and share it with even more people out there.

Finally, we do a lot of partnerships with companies that lie in the adjacent space. We have a lot of customers that overlap with our services pretty well. We go to many companies with whom we can collaborate and bring more customers. We use product integration, taking advice and tips or even introducing customers to each other. This has worked well for us.

11) Would you rather compete or collaborate if you find a competition?

We won’t collaborate with direct competitors. However, there are often complementary products. For example, we have a lot of customers that use Mixpanel or they use Amplitude for analytics. So they don’t compete with us. It just so happens that our customers are often their customers, so that’s a great partnership. We can work together to make those customers successful. We can introduce customers to each other.

12) What do you think would be the future of mobile marketing?

One of the biggest transformations today is that marketers and mobile marketers are using advertising solely focused on growth and monetization, which is rapidly shifting. There have been many changes from both a regulatory standpoint and, even more importantly, from a technology standpoint that has made advertising less attractive for user acquisition, attention, and monetization.

It’s shifted to get more users into the top funnel and maximize the engagement and experience of the users. Also, as advertising becomes less effective, the cost of acquiring users becomes costlier, so marketers are starting to think about how to get more users and generate more revenue from each person. This brings us to our product. This is a trend that, honestly, we didn’t foresee when we started OneSignal, but we’ve been very lucky to be able to be in the market. We’re in the market when this transformation happens because marketers are now thinking about maximizing user revenue.

We have to make sure that we are keeping them engaged. We ensure that we’re sending them messages offering promotions or telling them about the experiences they can have with the application. A lot of focus as of now is towards better utilization of our products.

13) Do you think the future of marketing via push notifications requires creating an experience for the user?

I think one thing when you look at the industry is that every company can do so many things. If we go back five or seven years, we see a lot of apps where the app experience was okay but not amazing.

Now, the ads that bring you into the app might be compelling, advertising can be highly targeted, and there may be loads of personalization features. However, when you get the app, it doesn’t always meet expectations. This could be a sound business strategy at the moment. Advertising was relatively inexpensive, and it was effective, whereas building a great app was hard. Therefore, understandably, businesses prioritized getting people in over ensuring a good experience. This has not shifted to really hard and very expensive advertising.

Right now, our business will focus on making sure that the app experience is amazing. You know, fortunately, they don’t have to do it alone. They have products like ours that have made it a lot easier. It is easier for them to build great experiences. They have other complimentary products and tools for analytics. All these tools help you build an app more easily. So, great technology has helped shift the balance to customer experiences, including email and push notifications. Everything else is a core part of how we use apps.

14) Is there any advice you would like to give budding entrepreneurs or someone who just wants to build something new?

One piece of advice that resonated with me over the years is to pick an ambitious path. It would seem counterintuitive if you plan to start a business to enter a new category with your business. It turns out that the hardest, most ambitious, and audacious ideas are not much harder than the ones that seem easy or less audacious.

There are many reasons for that. For instance, easy things tend to have a lot of competition. It’s been done over and over again. The other thing is to separate yourself from the idea, the journey of building a company that can be so challenging that it almost doesn’t even matter whether you’re working on something easy or hard. You have to do the same things. So, you might as well pick something hard. Something that will challenge you, and ultimately, it might result in much higher success. So, choose a road that’s less traveled. A road that seems difficult.

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