You know you’re a born entrepreneur when you’re willing to do anything to build your company, including moving across the globe, getting married in three weeks, and talking your employees into moving and getting married, too.
Welcome to the life of 28-year-old Australian-born Mike Sharkey, CEO of a tiny but fast-growing startup Autopilot.
Autopilot is a marketing automation startup taking on MailChimp. It launched a month ago and immediately signed up about 1,000 businesses, 100 of them as paid customers, it tells Business Insider.
Its claim to fame is that it offers email, texting and snail-mail marketing at a very low price. A 500 contact list will cost a business $US4/month; 5,000 costs $US80/month.
Three brothers, three companies
This is Sharkey’s third company, all co-founded with his older brother Chris.
It says something about Sharkey’s charisma that the little brother gets to be CEO.
Chris is the tech brains, and the oldest brother, Peter, also joined the company to “do project management. He was a big corporate lawyer in the city, the straight-and-narrow one. We needed someone to keep Chris and me on track,” Sharkey describes.
The brothers also have a little sister, who doesn’t work for the company, “not yet. Our mum would kill us. We all moved to America,” laughs Sharkey.
The brothers’ first project, built in their teens, was a company called Stayz, a home-rental sharing company known as the Airbnb of Australia, which Sharkey founded to pay for his dream of becoming a pilot.
The brothers sold it to a company called Fairfax for AUD$17.5 million in 2006, Sharkey told us, when he was 19, and, yes, he got his pilot’s licence.
“It was quite a bit of money for our ages at the time. In America that number is pathetic,” he laughs. Most American teens would disagree but Fairfax did turn around and sell it to HomeAway three years later for about $US220 million.
The brothers then fired up “Driven by Limo” an Uber-like call-a-limo service, he says. That company still exists and “is a very good business for us,” he says.
These projects gained them so much attention as tech entrepreneurs that other tech companies started calling asking for help. So they fired up Sharkey Media and became consultants specializing in digital marketing.
And from the frustration of that company, came Autopilot.
“Technology from 90’s, email, is still really ruling the digital marketing world,” Sharkey tells us. He wanted to do creative things, like sending customers hand-written thank you cards triggered when they accepted an email deals.
So the brothers built a platform that could do such things, at an affordable price, the precursor to Autopilot, a company called Bisir.
An arrogant email full of f-bombs
Although they were bootstrapping Bisir, there came a time when they wanted some outside investment.
Mike Sharkey had a crazy idea to apply for an Australian grant program that only funded startups turned down by venture capitalists.
“So I wrote arrogant emails to the two major investment companies in Australia, saying ‘I’m going to build the biggest company ever,” he tells us. He peppered the email with f-bombs “hoping they would reject us so we could get the grant.”
But to “our disappointment” they asked to see the product. “They became really interested and said we’d like to put in some money.”
One catch: They thought the company would do better in the US.
“We agreed,” he said. “So after building the company for a year in Sydney, we moved the company to San Francisco.”
The Sharkey’s didn’t have any trouble getting immigration approval to move all seven of the company’s Australian engineers to the US.
“I had to march them into my office one-by-one and ask them if they were willing to move. We literally gave them three weeks notice. You can imagine what that was like,” he said. “It was a big risk and crazy leap of faith.”
There was one problem: A couple of them, including Sharkey himself, were in love.
He needed to convince his girlfriend to move with him.
“I had to go to her, randomly, and say, ‘Do you want to get married and move to America in three weeks? That was one of the hard parts,” he laughs.
She said yes.
“And I had to convince another one of our developers to marry his girlfriend, which was an awkward conversation as well,” he jokes.
But it wasn’t smooth flying
He was the first to move and arrived in San Francisco alone, with one suitcase.
“I got on my plane and left my new wife in Australia for a year, she had to finish her studies. It was this surreal experience. You’re on the plane and you’re like ‘Holy –t’ I just left this really amazing, great life. I’ve left a girl. I’ve lost the beach. I’ve lost my pilot’s licence. I’ve just given away everything I have to pursue this thing I’m passionate about. Am I just crazy?”
It took months for his coworkers to arrive and for his company to start thriving again after the product relaunched in the US with its new name.
“The moment you know it all works is that we just launched this product and it’s blowing up. People are tweeting, ‘this will change my life,” he says. “In every company I’ve worked at there’s a point of momentum. You hit momentum and you are unstoppable from that point.”
An American Dream
He thinks he’s hit it. The product launched and has been well received.
The company has raised $US10 million, including backing from an Australian fund called Blackbird (backed largely by the founders of another hit Aussie company, Atlassian).
And the Sharkey clan is having fun.
“Moving to America, coming from Australia, was maybe an easier transition for us. But this country does a really good job of welcoming you and making you understand this idea of the American Dream.
“At first, I used to think that was a silly idea, coming from Australia, but now I truly understand it,” he says, then jokes, “The Australian dream is really about alcohol and having a big backyard.”