TechopiaLive: Why email marketing is ripe for innovation

For those who think email marketing is dead: think again. Knak is an Ottawa-based software company that specializes in codeless emails for enterprise marketers, and they have 25 million reasons why email marketing is alive and kicking. Coming up on "Techopia Live”, OBJ is doing a series of interviews looking back at 2021 and forward to some of the brightest and most intriguing tech prospects in Ottawa. In this episode, Michael Curran spoke to the CEO of Knak, Pierce Ujjainwalla. This company is helping its clients, mostly enterprise marketing teams, create codeless emails and landing pages. 

This is an edited transcript of part one of a two-part series with Pierce Ujjainwalla.

OBJ: Pierce, can you give us your business elevator pitch?

PU: When everyone receives that beautiful email in their inbox that has nice images and buttons, there's actually a lot that goes into that, and marketers spend a ton of time and money creating those. Even though we're in 2022, a lot of that is still being done by hand-coding, or these marketers outsource it to expensive agencies. So what Knak does is allow marketers to do that themselves, no coding required, and put a lot of the creativity back in the hands of those marketers.

OBJ: We're gonna spend a lot of today's show digging into your product and the business challenge you're trying to solve now at Knak. But Pierce, let's just get to know you a little bit better. 

PU: I was born and raised in Ottawa. I went to high school here and to Carleton University where I studied International Business. That's really where I found my passion for marketing. I found I was always kind of a creative person, but I wasn't sure how I would channel that creativity. When I found marketing, I knew that's what I wanted to do. I started my career as an email marketer actually at Cognos, and my job there was to assemble the emails and the landing pages for our demand generation campaigns. And that's where I got this passion for email and marketing and where I saw the challenge firsthand that Knak would eventually solve.

OBJ: Let me just ask you about the management team that you're building at Knak. Give us a sense of who you're assembling there.

PU: We've got a great team here at Knak. One of my co-founders, Brendan Farnand, is someone I actually worked with back in the day at Cognos, and he was more on the product marketing side, but then went on to Trend Micro here in Ottawa where he led their marketing operations teams. He really lived in the shoes of the customers that we sell to every day, and was somebody that I've always wanted to work with. Patrick Proulx, who's our other co-founder and CTO, has a very technical background. He has worked, like so many people in Ottawa, with the government for a few years, and then had started his own company and was one of our initial developers here at Knak. We have Chris Davies as our chief creative officer. He spent 25 years at some of the biggest agencies in Canada and was TELUS' creative director for many years. If you've seen those animal commercials, he was the one responsible for those. Rounding out the team, we have Kelly Rigole as our VP of operations and manager of HR, legal, security, IT, and then Chris Chan is head of finance. He is amazing at what he does and really helping us leverage this new capital for future growth.

OBJ: Is this your first company, Pierce?

PU: This is my second company. About 10 years ago, my first company was a marketing consultancy. We focused on marketing operations specifically around the Marketo product. So this is my second time around. And that business is where we found the opportunity for Knak.

OBJ: Can you give us a few other company metrics in terms of number of employees or offices or what markets you're focused on, number of clients, so on and so forth.

PU: We are headquartered here in Ottawa. Our office is in the business park in Nepean. We are currently 45 employees. That number is going up every day. We have hundreds of customers around the world and thousands of marketers who rely and use Knak every day to do their job.

OBJ: I wanted to talk about the business problem you're trying to solve for your customers. And I'm someone that's used email marketing, probably like all of us for many, many years, maybe 20, 25 years. So the Mailchimps and the Constant Contact and all that type of stuff, that's not what you're doing, right? So help us explain where Knak really fits into that email marketing solution chain.

PU: Knak is focused exclusively on the creation component. In a lot of those other systems, you still have to code the emails and landing pages. Knak removes any requirement for knowledge about coding. Additionally, Knak has the full suite that allows you to create, control their brand, stay compliant and allow everybody to collaborate in real time within one system. 

OBJ: So does that really come down to that increased ability to be creative in email marketing and the integration? Are those the two main differentiating points?

PU: Yes. The ability to be creative is something that we're all very passionate about here at Knak. Something that got me into marketing was my creativity. And unfortunately, with a lot of the technology that marketers are using today, they're getting further and further removed from being able to be creative. So by eliminating those technical barriers, we get people much closer to that creativity. I think the other thing for sure is our integration. With whatever platform a marketer wants to send those emails or host those pages, that is very unique to Knak. If you look at the cryptocurrency fields right now, all the talk is about decentralization. And at Knak, we're really decentralizing those marketing assets where before they were proprietary property of the system you were using to build them. At Knak, you can take your assets and bring them anywhere with you. So it's a very new concept.

OBJ: I love the sense of that portability. I don't believe this, but let me play devil's advocate for a second here, Pierce, and say there might be someone watching, again, I don't believe this, but saying, "Oh, email marketing, that's a thing of the past. I get too many emails. Why do enterprise marketing teams need to be doing emails?" What's your response to something like that?

PU: That's nothing new for us. People are constantly saying, people have been saying email is dead for the last 20 years and I'm sure they're gonna continue to say that. But if you look at email marketing, that is somewhere you are fully in control of who is gonna be receiving your messages and no algorithm is gonna interfere with that. So I think a lot of marketers realize that. And, as a result, they're doubling down on email marketing.

OBJ: I would tend to agree by the way, when we do various types of marketing at OBJ, email always wins when it comes down to conversions. I keep on saying enterprise marketing teams, and that's a little bit of jargon there. Tell us about these clients.

PU: We're really being used by some of the biggest and best known brands from around the world. So we have two of the top three pharmaceutical companies that have hundreds or thousands of marketers around the world and who care deeply about their brand and the consistency of their brand. It's kind of always been like that here at Knak that we're a very customer-focused company and we plan to continue building the business that way.

OBJ: Maybe just a quick follow-up to that, how are you acquiring these customers? 

PU: We have a lot of marketers on this team and that's really our background. And so all of our business currently is inbound. So people who find us on the internet or see an ad of ours and request the demo and who want to learn about our product, or they've talked to other marketers in the space who have spoken highly of the products. So there's a lot of organic growth, a lot of word of mouth, and a lot of people who are interested in what we're doing.

In part two of this series, OBJ speaks to Knak about the company's recent venture capital round and digging into some of its barriers to growth, as well as what can be expected in the coming year.