Curator’s note: In this article, Shelley Harrison, Director of Marketing for cc:Mail, an important early email system, describes her experiences during the time until cc:Mail was acquired by Lotus in 1991. It’s full of fascinating personal observations, and gives you a strong sense of how exciting it was to be in a small, destined-for-success startup.
The cc:Mail e-mail product was originally developed by Hubert Lipinski during the first half of the 1980s. The company, a truly scrappy Silicon Valley startup, began its existence as PCC Systems, and was later renamed cc:Mail. Though it had been in business since at least 1985, growth during the first years was slow, to say the least.
When I joined cc:Mail in mid-1989 as employee #18, the future did not look bright. It had been the Year of the LAN for what seemed like several years running, yet our sales trajectory was hardly up and to the right. We were in fifth place in market share (the top spot was held by 3COM Mail) and few seemed to know who we were. When I left telephone messages, I found myself having to explain, “That’s little C, little C, colon, capital M, a-i-l.” We were dangerously close to running out of money. Philippe Courtot had been hired earlier that same year as CEO through a small ad in the Wall Street Journal. He was given a year by investors to turn the company around or it would be sold for cheap or folded. He claims that the day he joined, cc:Mail had $2000 in the bank.
So how did this scrappy little firm climb to the top of the email heap, garnering over 50% market share a scant two years later? Despite a relatively inexperienced team, each and every department contributed mightily to the effort. Certainly we had a solid product (thanks, Hubert!), although perhaps not heads-and-tails above the competition. But we believed it to be superior.
We also had more resolve than others. Several competitors, such as LAN vendors Banyan and 3COM, couldn’t decide if they were in or out of the email game. The no-frills sales style forged by Mike Palmer was a hit with the technology crowd. We were fiscally well managed by our finance head, Lisa Elliott, which meant we pinched pennies and had to justify everything we did.
Philippe came from a marketing background, highly unusual for a technology company CEO, especially in 1989. His form of marketing can best be described as guerilla; that is, innovative, unconventional and cheap. Also highly unusual for a technology company, marketing had a prominent seat at the table, while technologists and technical decisions drove most of our competitors. I learned lifelong lessons in the marketing craft from my cc:Mail days.
What made the difference between us and the other formidable firms back then?
#1: We worked together as a cohesive team.
Philippe had a most unusual management style. He refused to hold staff meetings. Instead he insisted on conducting his dealings one-on-one, presumably to make it easier to sway us to his thinking. The rest of the team was united against a) the competition and b) Philippe himself, although not at all in a mutinous way. It gave us common ground and a conspiratorial target. We got a healthy release by comparing notes, then laughing, shaking our heads, and rolling our eyes over Philippe’s words and tactics. Today I remain friends with each and every department head despite it being twenty-odd years ago.
The politicking and backstabbing we saw first-hand at Lotus (which acquired us in 1991) was a rude awakening, at times shocking with its fierceness and absurdity, and it served to enforce the lesson of embracing our fellow workers. While I don’t advocate Philippe’s disdain of team-oriented communication, the way we worked together as a tight-knit unit, however unconventional, was pivotal to our success.
#2: We got people hooked on our form of crack.
In our early days we desperately needed credibility and wanted the endorsement of someone customers trusted, such as a LAN vendor. But they would have nothing to do with us. If we couldn’t sell it, we had to give it away.
We went to the people willing to dance with anyone, the big software distributors, Ingram Micro D and Tech Data. They were happy to bundle a version of cc:Mail with Novell’s entry-level package of Netware so long as it was on our dime. The distributors shrunk-wrapped the two boxes together as a two-for-one. The world thought Novell had sweetened the pot with a limited-time promo. We got our much-needed endorsement, and got network administrators far and wide started on a long cc:Mail addiction.
#3: We understood our target audience and stuck to it, even though it wasn’t sexy.
We embraced the network administrator, end users be damned. Heresy you say? How can one ignore the ultimate consumer? Easy.
Windows 3.0, the first truly viable version of Windows, was launched in mid-1990. As it began to pick up popularity, the guys at our competitor DaVinci created a lovely graphical user interface. End users loved it. Screen shots appeared in every major publication, putting pressure on us to create something analogous. Thankfully end users were not allowed to call IT their first day on the job and request a specific email front end. They used what was handed to them. Network and email administrators were less happy with DaVinci. Focusing on the UI, Da Vinci didn´t have sufficient engineering capacity left to create a comprehensive set of technical administrative tools to properly manage the email system.
At that time the decision about email adoption was not a strategic one. Email was virtually ignored by the C-level crowd. The power was still in the hands of technical managers who were loath to switch systems, as doing so required re-training users and downtime to upgrade each desktop. We focused on backend tools and features, and while not ignoring the user interface, we didn’t burn the midnight oil improving ours.
The strategy worked. As the decision about email systems slowly climbed up the food chain, the winner in the war for the email-system-of-record often came down to simply counting up the number of email seats by vendor. The most widely installed system usually won as it minimized training and administrative headaches.
#4: We turned lemons into lemonade (that is, we never stopped marketing).
Our lack of experience with graphical user interfaces became more of an issue as Windows and the Mac grew in popularity. Our first Mac product was a fiasco. I seem to recall a sole engineer assigned to the task, or maybe even a Windows engineer who was interested in the Mac.
When we finally got serious and were a few months away from debuting our revamped Mac version, Philippe called in another member of the French mafia, Jean-Louis Gassee, then VP of Engineering at Apple, to check it out. It was an unofficial visit; marketing wasn’t even aware of the meeting. In fact, I learned of it upon receiving a call from one of the big Mac publications wanting a statement about our new version. I explained that we were a long way from announcing the product, and that I’d be in touch when we were. Their response: then why is Jean-Louis talking about it in his upcoming column next week? Yikes. Why, indeed. But the damage could not be undone.
Lotus’ advice (now our parent) was to ice them out, refuse comment, ignore it. As with most things that turned out well, we ignored Lotus. We weren’t selling enough of the current Mac version to worry about halting sales while the public waited for the new version. Instead we embraced every publication we could name.
Call to Publication Y: “Publication X is writing about our Mac version next week. Would you like an interview and a screen shot?”
Call to Publication Z: “Publication Y is writing an article and printing a screen shot of our Mac product. Would you like a beta tester to interview?”
End result: Coverage in every publication, screen shots in most, front page news on two of them. In those days this stuff mattered.
Within two years cc:Mail held more than half of the US domestic e-mail market share and had established a presence in the international market (mainly Europe and Australia/New Zealand at that time). Due to the recession in the US, however, further growth became more difficult and consolidation trends in the market came to bear on cc:Mail: we were acquired in 1991 by Lotus Development, which made it part of another story.
About the author
Shelley Harrison began her distinguished career in marketing at cc:Mail, see her full bio here.