The Brothers Maerz Speak of Bootstrapping, Content Marketing and Breakout Growth
"One of the really interesting things about these guys and Rocket Referrals is that there was no grand idea," shared Mike Colwell, Executive Director of Square One DSM by way of introducing Torey and Carl Maerz, Co-Founders of Rocket Referrals and guests at the August edition of Startup Stories. Truth be told, there was a grand idea, just not one that involved a product or a service per se, at least not yet.
"Rather than thinking about what we were going to do, we opted to think about who we were going to do something for. So rather than brainstorming ideas, we brainstormed markets," recalls Torey. To make a long story, and one told several years ago at a previous Startup Stories, short, the brothers decided upon the insurance industry. To be precise insurance agents.
Getting to Know the Insurance Tech Market
After lengthy market research involving many interviews, they identified a number of opportunities that could utilize technology to identify and cultivate potential clients. They also discovered the simple truth that agents are small businesses themselves, without the luxury of time and resource to investigate technological applications for their business. So, the Maerz brothers did it for them and became pioneers in the now emerging insurance tech field with the launch of Rocket Referrals.
Described at a high level as an automated referral system which reviews client data through use of a proprietary algorithm, what began as a referral-centric system soon evolved into a comprehensive communication platform, focused on leveraging an insurance agent's client base to grow their agency. Rocket Referrals aims to make personalized communication as simple as flipping switches — so agents can inspire their vocal promoters to take action, while also maintaining relationships and increasing visibility, both online and off.
A Harmonious Relationship Leads to Success
While Torey had soloed as Colwell's guest in 2014, Co-Founding brother Carl joined the cast this year and the two addressed the obligatory question of the challenges of brothers working together. While they admitted to the expected moments of antipathy and conflict, the venture has been relatively smooth. Their harmony, they suggest, stems from the fact that both were at a cross-road, looking for a change from their previous ventures when they jointly founded the company. Their complementary skill-sets, Torey a code writing developer, and Carl a wordsmith marketer, very much met the needs of their product. "If you have someone who is really great at communicating and someone who is really good at building software, don't you think you would build a company that makes software to communicate with people?" Torey observed.
Asked by Colwell to discuss the breakout year they were experiencing, the duo shared that for the past three quarters each month's sales established a new record exceeding the previous month. This allowed them to move from one employee to four with the pending hire of two more. "We had demo's backed up for two to three months," they recalled of the decision to bring on a sales person, fueling their upward trend. In their ensuing discussion with Colwell and the audience they shared two strongly held beliefs about the foundation of their success.
Bootstrapping and Beyond
Big advocates of bootstrapping, and being frugal individuals themselves, they utilized personal savings to launch the startup, foregoing a paycheck for an extended period. Carl shared that while they did spend some time exploring funding options and talked with several angel investors they opted to shift their focus. "It's a great process to go through and you learn a lot but at the same time you are not making sales," he offered. While neither founder would rule out investment money at some point or perhaps for future endeavors, Rocket Referrals has uniquely managed to self-fund from conception. "We had our first paying customer before we actually started the company," explains Torey. Nearing the completion of their market investigation, they would outline where they were going to the agents with whom they were meeting. Those agents were so excited that they bought the product still in development. "We actually had people buying a product that didn't exist," they shared.
Additionally, the Maerz's are devotees of content marketing. Employing Carl's extensive communication skills, they have developed content relevant and beneficial to their identified market and shared it with publications and blogs across the industry. "Essentially what I do is establish a need which our product addresses differently than anything else on the market," Carl explained. "I don't write it as advertising. I write it as an educational article which gets published for free, rather than a $5000 advertising fee," he shares. The credibility associated with publication as well as the opportunity to shape the discussion, defining the problem consistent with the unique solution you offer, serves as a most effective marketing tool.
And then of course, as they would both tell you by way of explaining their dramatic growth sans an expensive marketing campaign, "We use Rocket Referrals."