Adrian Tobey of Groundhogg

Adrian Tobey – Founder of Groundhogg

December 13, 2020 / Plugins / 1 comment

I am Adrian, the CEO of Groundhogg Inc., FormLift.NET, and co-founder of MailHawk.io. I help small businesses launch their funnel, grow their list, and scale their business with proven digital marketing tools and strategies.

I’m from Toronto, Ontario in Canada where we ride around on polar bears and live in igloos. (jk) But seriously, as I’m writing this I’m landlocked in my home because there is SO MUCH SNOW outside.

I grew up in an entrepreneurial family. My parents ran a digital marketing training company for many years. While I was growing up I would travel with my parents, doing seminars, handing out workbooks, running around microphones, and collecting order forms. I’d also assist with sales at trade shows, setting up the booth, and driving around supplies.

After finishing high school I went to the University of Toronto for a computer science degree. At that time my parents’ business transitioned from being a training company to a full done-for-you service agency, and I ended up working with them full time and doing my degree part-time.

I ended up dropping out of University in 2018 after failing my first course ever, CSC263, to pursue a career in WordPress plugin development.

The Journey Began

As I was working with my parents in their digital marketing agency I used WordPress a lot. I would build websites, write landing pages, configure WooCommerce, and a whole host of other plugins.

We worked with a SaaS platform called Infusionsoft, now Keap, and one of the big drawbacks was their Forms looked like they were from the early 90s. Unstyled, and non-responsive. This of course was a problem, and our agency clients were not a fan of having pretty websites with ugly forms.

This is when I started building FormLift.NET. A WordPress plugin that takes Infusionsoft forms and makes them pretty! I started to make a little bit of money from it soon after. I adopted the freemium model from Easy Digital Downloads, the plugin I used to build my store, and that earned me even more.

Instead of studying for school, I would work on FormLift in the library. Designing new sales pages, writing new extensions, improving the UI.

Eventually, my desire to create useful products instead of studying landed me in a tough spot. I failed my first University course. I did the math on my rate of progress and how long it would take me to finish my degree at my current pace. If I continued to do it part-time, and work full time it would take an additional 6 years, meaning I wouldn’t graduate till 2025.

That’s when I decided school wasn’t for me and started thinking about what I would do instead.

FormLift.NET was a good product, but its market cap was very small. There were only 40K or so Infusionsoft users, and only so many of them used WordPress. I needed something else, something with a much bigger audience.

So, I decided to go big or go home, let’s compete with Infusionsoft itself! I know the product, I know the market, I know its weak spots, I can build a CRM and marketing automation tool that works directly with WordPress.

The Need for Groundhogg

Groundhogg Logo

Groundhogg Logo

We primarily worked with Infusionsoft, the original CRM and marketing automation platform for small businesses. It has many strengths, but it also has weaknesses as well. Its webform module is still the same as it was when FormLift first hit the market.

So, while I was thinking about what product I could build to start my first real software business, I couldn’t help but think that I could improve upon the CRM and marketing automation concept and make it an open-source, self-hosted WordPress plugin package.

Some of the problems with traditional SaaS CRM and marketing automation tools are:

  • Information, emails, funnels, automation, etc is not that portable.
  • You don’t control your own data, you’re just renting space.
  • They often come with a big learning curve.
  • Lack of clear direction or templates to make implementation easy.
  • WordPress integration was difficult or non-existent.
  • Pricing scales with list size, so they can get expensive quickly.

These are all issues I ran into as an agency working with small businesses, so I committed to fixing them with my new plugin.

I would make Groundhogg:

  • 100% Self-hosted, you have full control over your data.
  • I would make everything importable and exportable in one click.
  • I would make the integration with WordPress very deep.
  • I would make the user experience similar to WordPress to lower the learning curve.
  • I would provide dozens of templates, training, and office hours to onboard users faster.
  • And I would make our pricing flat-rate, meaning you pay one fee no matter how big your list is!

At the time, there was only a handful of self-hosted CRM plugins out there, but none of them had the marketing automation component like Infusionsoft or ActiveCampaign.

So If we did this, if we built it, we would really be the FIRST full suite CRM and marketing automation plugin out there that is 100% self-hosted on WordPress.

This meant that we had to build everything from scratch, of course, which came with its trials and tribulations. We made many mistakes and had to patch many bugs. But 6 months in we had a very stable and usable product.

We are continuing to make Groundhogg even more small business-friendly, with advanced reporting features and more WordPress integrations. One of our specialties is agency features, we focus a lot on helping agencies get better results for their customers and giving them the tools they need to finish projects quickly.

I think one of the things that set Groundhogg apart from its competitors is that we’re not just a software company that builds exciting features. A long time ago we transitioned from being a company that builds software to one that designs solutions that help our customers get better results.

We don’t just build CRM and marketing automation software, we help small businesses launch their funnel, grow their list, and scale their business!

We do that through great tools, stellar training, and unmatched support!

Myself with my Brilliant Team

Team Groundhogg

Team Groundhogg (Not pictured: Nathan Sachs & Jessie Brown)

Advice for Business Owners

Here are 5 things I wish I had known before starting my own business.

  1. Build your business around the customer, not the product. Product centric businesses tend to focus more on creating new features and have shiny object syndrome rather than focusing on getting their customers results. When businesses fail to create results for customers, they lose them. I struggled with this my first year, I was focused on making a better product versus listening to what my customers really wanted, which was solutions to their problems and making money. When I shifted my focus to providing solutions rather than software, things went up!
  2. Being different is better than being better. You do not need to have a better product; you just need to be different. For example, some people will identify with your method of delivery rather than make the decision based on the quality of the product. Groundhogg is not better than its SaaS competitors, but it’s the only accessible open-source one in its league, and that makes it different.
  3. No one got rich and stayed rich by being the cheapest option. By being the cheapest you exclude an entire market of people who are willing to pay more for better service and quality. By being cheaper, you carry the connotation that your product isn’t as good. By increasing our prices, we actually saw more sales. Don’t stand in the way of your customers giving you money.
  4. Niche down early. Find a group of people who really benefit from your product and make it all about them. When you try to be all things to all people, you end up being able to help no one at all. It’s like the old adage, “When you sell to everyone, you’re selling to no one.”
  5. Do more sales calls. When starting out I was reluctant to do sales calls. I was, “too busy coding or too focused on the automation part (the system should close the sale).” That was an ego thing I had to get over. As soon as I started opening up to getting on calls, reluctantly, I would close and upsell 50% of the people I spoke with. I found many people just wanted permission to buy – a little nudge and the comfort of knowing that I was a real person. This was easily done by picking up the phone or hopping on a zoom call. Now I look forward to doing them. I keep them short, 15 minutes at most, but that’s long enough for them to make a buying decision. A nice side effect is you build your personal brand at the same time.


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WordPress & Beyond

In our never-ending journey to make CRM and marketing automation more accessible, and provide more effective solutions for our customers, we are redeveloping and redesigning our core product.

We are moving to a full ReactJS build and incorporating Gutenberg in a lot of areas to keep up with the WordPress ecosystem. You can expect a whole new funnel editing experience with more advanced logic and branch, deeper integrations with other WordPress plugins, a Gutenberg powered email editor, and more!

We have also taken a step outside of the core plugin business and started MailHawk.io, our own proprietary SMTP service for WordPress. This is our first venture into having a real SaaS product and it’s going well. You can look forward to MailHawk being recommended by more WordPress plugins and powering more sites in 2021.

In the next 5 years, I see WordPress, and especially WordPress plugin contributors, incorporating more and more SaaS style products to their core plugin businesses. I see this happening with AffiliateWP and their payouts service, I see it with MonsterInsights, I see it to a degree with Elementor and their template library, and now MailHawk is technically a full SaaS product with a WordPress plugin component.

WordPress plugin companies don’t sell for the 10x multiples that other SaaS businesses get because they don’t own a lot of their IP. You can expect only 2x, maybe 3x, because the majority of your IP is tied up in GPL WordPress plugins, which can be forked and redistributed at any time. So to increase their business value, and protect their IP, I think many plugin businesses will, and should, add true SaaS components to their business model. I know I will be.

I foresee the end of the business model I currently support now. Annual payments for support and updates. If you look at the Shopify ecosystem, everything is monthly, and everyone is killing it! The purpose of a business is to give value to users and make money doing it so you can continue to provide. There is only so much value you can provide collecting $200 annual payments.

A hybrid model I came across recently was a “SaaS/plugin hybrid.” You installed the plugin on your WordPress site, all the data was processed on the site but to load the UI you had to subscribe to their payment plan, and the UI was then served over a CDN.

This is kind of cool because it meant you could change the UI without having to release a patch, and it meant that you could lock customers into payment plans and have a much higher renewal rate because the consequence of not doing so was a product that doesn’t work.

Obviously, this is counterintuitive to the “WordPress way of doing things.” But when you look at how much money SaaS is making vs. us WordPress folks, it begs the question, “Is the WordPress way the best way?”

My Love for the WordPress Community

I was all booked to go to WordCamp EU and WordCamp US this year, obviously, neither of those in-person events happened, which is a bummer!

I co-hosted the WP-Tonic podcast with Jonathan Denwood for a good portion of this year and last year and I’m a regular panelist on his Friday show.

I’ve built a network of relationships with some fantastic WordPress folks as well over the last couple of years. Jonathan Denwood, Cory Miller, Chris Lema, Michael Short, Chris Badgett, Mark Westguard, Spencer Foreman, Francisco Opazo, just to name a few. We help each other out and cross-promote, make integrations, and have fun together. I can honestly say without some of the people listed, Groundhogg would not be where it is today.

That being said, my customers and the WordPress community are often not the same groups of people. Sometimes they overlap, but lots of people out there, lots of businesses and agencies, use WordPress as a means to an end and aren’t that involved in the community aspect. So I’m more involved in building my own community rather than building the “WordPress community.”

How I Keep Myself Updated

Stay updated?!? Who has the time?!?

But seriously, it’s hard to keep on top of everything. There is so much happening, so much content, so many products, so many technological advancements, it’s impossible to keep on top of it, so I don’t really try.

If there is something important to know, I will generally get a message from a colleague or a team member. I’d rather spend my time learning a new skill, developing new solutions to get my customers better results, or recharging with an episode of Star Trek Voyager.

I Have a Life Other Than the Work

I love what I do. It’s not a job for me. I genuinely love getting up in the morning and solving problems for small businesses. When they succeed it fills me with joy.

But it’s draining, sometimes. No one said being in business would be easy! So I have developed some barriers to prevent burnout. 6:00 PM is my cut off point for work unless there is an emergency. After 6:00 PM the laptop closes and the chat is set to, “away.” I will work weekends, but usually only to answer the occasional urgent support ticket or to answer a pre-sales chat message.

During COVID-19 I’ve been spending lots of time with my girlfriend, binging TV shows and making puzzles. We go for drives up north to look at the scenery and travel to our local wine country to enjoy the views and the wines!

One of the things we’re not so fond of, especially now, is grocery shopping. So we got HelloFresh, which has been fun. Sometimes the meals are hit or miss, but for the most part, expanding our culinary palette has been a blast!

I Reward Myself by 

I like to start throwing on some Vinyl. One of the many things I am blessed with is a wicked 1980s sound system with original JBL speakers. Among my favorites are Pink Floyd (Wish you were here), Marvin Gaye (Let’s get it on), and Dave Brubeck (Take Five).

Next, I’ll open up all the windows so you can hear the music outside and go out and sit on the balcony.

I’ll pair the music with a nice Cuban cigar and some top-notch 12-year single malt scotch to top off my self-care routine.

The stresses of the day just seem to melt away after that.

Connect With Me

If you want to hear more about our story, or learn how we can help your business, find us at Groundhog.io

Spread The Love!

1 comment

  • Dimiter Kirov

    Amazing journey
    depicted on a great site ( wpfounders – Incredible both as a design & content . And UX .

    Thanks a lot!

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