MobileAppDaily had the privilege of interviewing Gerardo Salandra, CEO at Respond.io. Gerardo is a serial entrepreneur and a TEDx speaker as well. He has been the CEO at Respond.io for more than 6 years now. Respond.io is a smart business messaging platform designed to help organizations in unifying their communication channels. The tool comes with features such as promotional messaging, conversational support, and transactional notifications, among others.
Respond.io is one of the fastest-growing tools that organizations are signing up for. Until now, 10,000+ companies from over 86 countries have already integrated Respond.io into their business operations. So, to know the organization that built this tool better, we organized this exclusive conversation with its founder and CEO, Gerardo Salandra. In this interview with Salandra, we discussed his professional experience, challenges, and strategies to drive Respond.io toward further growth.
I was born to an Italian family in El Salvador, a small country in Latin America. My parents decided to make it harder for me and sent me to a German school where I learned German. So at a young age, I (somewhat unwillingly) learned to speak four languages: Spanish, Italian, German, and English.
I was given the opportunity to study in Germany on a scholarship, and of course, I took it. I studied business, but my passion was always tech, so I pursued a career in the tech industry with stints at IBM, Google, and a few other tech startups.
Throughout this experience, I had the privilege to work and live in places like Germany, Ireland, Austria, and ultimately Hong Kong, where I started Respond.io. I also learned about how businesses in different regions operate, the tools they use, and the problems they face. These problems were what inspired me to start Respond.io.
Before starting respond.io, I was part of another successful startup, Runtastic. Whenever people reached out to us on Facebook Messenger with sales or support inquiries, we’d ask them to email us so we could follow up, but they’d get frustrated and drop off. As a consumer, I understood I’d been in their shoes. I hated making phone calls to resolve something because I’m from a generation that doesn’t instinctively communicate that way.
We didn’t have a choice back then since there wasn’t software that could shift us to instant messaging. I know because I researched this extensively. We could hire one person for each app we wanted to use, but since that wasn’t scalable or feasible in the long term, we’d rather not be on those channels.
But from then on, I knew there was a market for business instant messaging that even big players like Hubspot and Salesforce, which were primarily focused on email, had not tapped into. These were urgent problems that people were desperate to solve.
That’s how Respond.io was born. We knew exactly what we wanted it to be: A comprehensive solution for business messaging in the instant messaging era. When we started, most messaging channels didn’t have APIs yet. The only channel we could connect with was Telegram. But we were certain this was going to change; we were 100% confident. We just needed a proof of concept.
So, we reverse-engineered a popular messaging channel without an API to connect it to our platform. We sold this as a solution to some of our early customers, including LVMH. There we had it; proof of concept. When messaging channels began launching APIs, we were ready, and that’s when things exploded.
Every startup is different, and every startup solves a specific problem. I’m still learning a lot of things throughout Respond.io’s journey. The biggest thing I’ve learned so far is to focus on the customer and the problem they’re trying to solve. Never lose sight of that. There will be plenty of distractions along the way, but as long as you go back to the customer, you’ll find success.
The one thing I constantly try to do is to build a product differently and reinvent the industry. We try to innovate as much as possible. Unlike other players that would just copy what’s out there, we want to disrupt the industry.
We never went hunting for customers. We just built the best product possible and talked about it extensively via our content, which is translated into 16 languages. Then we looked at the data to pinpoint which countries, messaging channels, and problems we should focus on.
The countries that engage with us mostly have two things in common: They are located in developing markets, and they skipped the email era. It makes sense. Companies in established markets have legacy systems they’ve inherited, but new businesses in fast-growing economies are looking for solutions relevant to their times. Our pioneering solutions are unique to the problems they face.
What’s unique about us are the two ways we have gone to market: Through product-led growth and content leadership. We actually got our first 1,000 customers without a single salesperson.
This means that unlike our competitors, who are more sales-driven, customers find us organically online while searching for very specific problems to solve. We rank highly in search results because we fully understand customers’ problems, and we write great content around that.
And once they sign up, they realize the advantages of using Respond.io over other platforms. We didn't build our product by following existing solutions in the market or making assumptions about what customers wanted. We built it by using real feedback from customers.
We’re not talking about ten companies, we’re talking about thousands. And being in Southeast Asia, in Malaysia especially, we’ve seen how complex and competitive this regional landscape can be, where every consumer has an average of 2.5 messaging apps.
We’re on track to lead the market globally with social to conversational commerce solutions at the world's largest brands, nationwide retailers, and other enterprise companies.
To do that, we need to be at the forefront of this industry with the best modern technology. This means creating an incredible infrastructure, extending our extensive suite of integration capabilities, and processing over 140 million messages a month, which is at least 10x more than our biggest European competitor, Trengo.
We’re looking to expand from our home in Asia to build a stronger presence in the Middle East, Europe & LATAM. However, these regions are not untapped or unexplored. Quite the contrary, we currently have quite a number of customers from these regions as instant messaging is the primary method of communication there.
The average number of messaging apps per consumer there is higher here than in any other part of the world. Businesses that are not active on messaging apps are missing out on tremendous opportunities. However, there are other challenges that come with this trend, making this landscape complicated and hard to navigate. And that’s where we come in.
I am dyslexic. I know it’s ironic I am a CEO, and I can’t read. So reading a book is one of the hardest things for me to do. However, I have adapted my life around audio and love listening to audiobooks, especially about startup journeys. I really liked “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz, and “You are not so smart” by Dan Ariely. There is, however, one book that did change my life. It’s called “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey, my mom gave it to me when I was 16, and I have lived by these habits since. Fun fact, there wasn’t an audiobook for this one back then. It took me weeks to read, and to be honest, it’s not very long.
We have a very agile, creative, and goofy team! Like any team, we have a lot of strengths and weaknesses. I’d say we’re strongest at fully understanding the customers’ needs and the problems we’re trying to solve. At the heart of Respond.io, our core value has always been a commitment to customer success. That allows us to do two things: Create outstanding content and build a great product.
People around the world are searching for solutions to their problems, and we position ourselves as content thought leaders. As for the product, we work very closely with customers across a multitude of industries and countries to build something user-friendly, yet also incredibly flexible and sophisticated, which fulfills some of the most complex use cases.
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