University of California, Riverside

Bourns College of Engineering

Alumni Spotlight

Did You Lose Your Mail?

SendGrid foundersIsaac Saldana '03, B.S., computer science and electrical engineering
Tim Jenkins '99, B.S., computer science
Jose Lopez '06 B.S., computer engineering

In 2009, BCOE alumni Isaac Saldana, Tim Jenkins, and Jose Lopez (left to right in photo) established SendGrid, an email delivery and management service company. In less than four years, the company has raised more than $26 million in funding, has grown to about 140 staff, and has more than 100,000 customers.

When you first meet Isaac, Tim, and Jose, their mild demeanors belie the multi-national corporation they run. They greet you with a warm handshake and a soft-spoken "hello." Located on the fourth floor of a sparkling business park in Anaheim, California, the light buzz of busy minds permeates the atmosphere at the SendGrid offices.

"We summarize the culture of SendGrid with four 'H's: Humble, Happy, Honest, and Hungry," said Isaac Saldana, SendGrid co-founder and president. "Some of us would add Health. We try to have healthy snacks, things that would help people be happier. We even have a staff allowance specifically to encourage fitness. It's proven that people who exercise are happier, so we try to encourage that."

Tim JenkinsTim and Jose nod in agreement. They all work out regularly at the local CrossFit gym, as do several of their staff. To keep the health-focus at the office, an Olympic-size Ping-Pong table stands right in the middle of the suite. Off to its side is a large pomegranate-red, fluffy sofa to sit down and watch the games. The entire staff – scattered throughout a large, mostly wall-less suite – use them to relieve stress or to open up their minds for the next breakthrough in coding.

"A lot of us work out together. I use it to relieve stress," added Jose Lopez, SendGrid co-founder and web architect. "It's really cool."

From their quiet beginnings as students in the computer science classrooms at Bourns College of Engineering at UC Riverside (UCR) to running a corporation that has grown enormously in a very short period of time, Isaac, Tim, and Jose have had to overcome many challenges in starting this company.

"Starting this company was scary because of the pace it was going," added Tim Jenkins, SendGrid co-founder and chief technology officer. "Anytime you move faster than you want, it's unnerving. The need became so obvious for what we were doing and how bad this problem needed to be solved."

"We never had created a company that grew this fast," added Isaac. "It was more of something that you're nervous and excited about at the same time."

Jose LopezFounded in 2009, SendGrid's core business is email delivery and management service. It offers businesses a way to manage transactional emails (emails generated by web applications). It can handle services like subscriptions, bounce management, and complaint feedback. SendGrid also offers analytics to clients, allowing users to track requests, bounces, spam reports, invalid email requests, click tracking, unsubscribes and more. Clients include Foursquare, Spotify, Twilio, Airbnb, Pinterest, Path and Hootsuite. Plans range from free to $400 per month.

"Raising start-up funding was definitely hard work," explained Isaac. "We were getting traction since we started the company. We never stopped getting customers. But even with that, it was difficult to raise money. You have to have a good combination. You have to have the right people, the right product, the right market."

In SendGrid's case, they had all three, but none of them had the experience of running a big company.

"The investors needed to trust that it should be OK for them to give us money. We're talking about close to a million dollars. It's not easy for them to say, 'I'm going to give you a million dollars.' But I think creating something and gaining traction starts building some type of trust. Once you build trust and a relationship with investors, at the end of the day, they're still people. Most of the investors became our mentors."

And thanks, in large part to TechStars, their mentors have given them sound advice. Last year, SendGrid announced it had raised $21 million in Series B funding led by Bessemer Venture Partners. Existing investors Foundry Group, Highway 12 Ventures, SoftTechVC, 500 Startups and Bullet Time Ventures also participated in that round. This brings the company's total funding to $26 million.

TechStars produced the following video about SendGrid's startup story:

But before they were all grown up and transformed into SendGrid, Isaac, Tim, and Jose were kids like everyone else. Isaac was born in Los Angeles, but grew up in Mexico before moving to Indio, California at fourteen. Tim moved around several times as a child and now claims Riverside as his current home, and Jose grew up and still lives in Los Angeles.

"I was really young when I first started playing my first video game," said Tim, who, of the three, can be the occasional jokester. One of his favorite games was Might and Magic (MM), which he credits as one of the things that drew him deeper into the world of technology and computer coding. It is a role playing game of fighting monsters and trying to save the world, but, as he explained, it was his favorite because it first introduced him to copy protection.

"These guys (creators of MM) were so smart! They put copy protection in the system. I broke the copy protection, but they had a way that if you broke the copy protection, the program wouldn't let you finish playing the game. So I got to the point where I wanted to finish the game and had no choice but to buy it. And that was so cool, it's like the technical cloak and dagger."

Jose recalls the original Super Mario Brothers, which his parents gave to him for a Christmas present, as his first video game. "I remember staying up late trying to beat the 8th World, right before the final dungeon. I remember very vividly. It was the game that got me addicted to video games and technology."

However, Isaac's entry into the world of computers came a little later, at college.

"I didn't use computers much 'til I got to UCR," added Isaac. "The only computer I used before that was like computer class in MAC. You had to draw balloons or whatever and type papers."

In fact, he randomly picked computer science as his major. He liked math and science in high school and realized that computers were starting to go mainstream. When he took a computer science class, he recalls getting a B minus.

"I think that was probably one of the grades I remember the most because I had never gotten Bs. I was used to As. The class was so hard for me because it was something new. You had to start thinking in a computer language, but that got me so into it, and from that point I became addicted to computer language."

That addiction is paying off, both with financial and business success. SendGrid has offices in Anaheim, California; Denver and Boulder, Colorado; Rhode Island, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Romania. These offices serve different purposes. The United Kingdom and Germany are focused more on sales. Romania is for engineering resources. Anaheim, Denver, and Boulder are for different types of human capital like engineering, marketing, and sales. Rhode Island focuses on their research and development.

Market growth is bullish for SendGrid. "We'll go to conferences," added Tim. "'Oh, you guys are SendGrid! We're customers. You guys are awesome!' We've eliminated a major headache for developers trying to make sure their email gets delivered. On average 20 percent of email doesn't reach its intended recipient. For example, if eBay7 were to lose 1 percent of their email, they would lose $14 million in revenue per year."

And losses like that tend to add up. According to Tim, email delivery is an enormous problem. Service accounts and companies that rely on email to generate income find that many of their emails do not reach their intended recipients and, as a result, they lose income. SendGrid aims to be the go-to service provider for companies, large and small, that want to plug this income-losing leak and keep their competitive advantage.

SendGrid now sends 7 billion emails per month for customers in more than 150 countries and tracks and reports more than 400 million events per day. In total, it has sent 100 billion emails on behalf of clients.

"We have over 100,000 businesses using SendGrid," added Isaac. "We have companies sending 3,000 emails a day to millions of emails a day. Any size of company can use SendGrid."

The biggest challenge the company faces now is the need to hire great people – and a lot of them. They currently have close to 70 positions they are trying to fill by year's end in software development, operations, marketing, and sales. SendGrid often holds "hack-a-thons" as a means of finding talent. [For those who missed the evolution of this word's meaning in this rapidly evolving field of computer programming, "hack-a-thon" is a session that allows programmers to quite simply create software; its bad-boy descendent is now "crack-a-thon," used to denote illegal activity.]

Isaac strongly believes that human capital is their biggest and greatest asset. "The product can change and the service can change, but human capital is what's going to make you reach those goals and make you enjoy coming to work every day."

When asked what advice they would give to current students at UCR's Bourns College of Engineering who want to start up their own businesses, these young entrepreneurs each had some sound words:

"Anyone has the power to change how things work," said Isaac. "Steve Jobs says half of what separates great entrepreneurs from the rest is just pure perseverance. So if you're thinking about doing something, just do it. Odds are going to be against you, but having the power of how things work is great motivation."

"Stuff might go wrong, but just keep the positive attitude and just do what you love to do," said Jose. "If you're really passionate about solving a particular problem, just do it. It's about having that passion. You can't go wrong."

"The same thing," said Tim dryly, soliciting a round of laughter, but then got a little serious. "Don't be afraid to try and fail, be afraid to fail to try."

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