In the interview, you’ll hear about the journey that led Katie and her sister, Sara Castillo, to founding TapOnIt and how it’s grown into the company it is today. She breaks down what it has been like as a woman founder building a business in Iowa, raising money, surviving a pandemic, and successfully pivoting. Listen through to hear valuable advice to females looking to get into venture.
Read a summary below, or listen wherever you get your podcasts.
Iowa-based Female Entrepreneurs Disrupting the Tech Industry with Innovative Text Message Marketing Platform
In today’s fast-paced digital age, businesses are constantly on the lookout for new and effective ways to reach and engage with their customers. While email marketing and social media campaigns have been popular for a while, a pair of sisters from Iowa saw an opportunity in a space that was relatively untapped – text message marketing.
Katie Castillo-Wilson, the Founder and CEO of a female-led tech startup based in the Quad Cities of Iowa, had always been passionate about marketing and helping businesses grow. But it wasn’t until she worked as a Digital Advertising Director for a local newspaper in 2007 that she began to see the potential in the text messaging space.
In an interview with Venture Pill, Katie explained, “Email was all the rage then, people were just starting to really focus on building their social media following, and to me, there was a huge opportunity that I saw in the text messaging space. Email is great, but we all have multiple email addresses. Every time you get a new job, you’re getting an email address, whereas for the most part, we have one cell phone number. It’s tied to everything in your life. So just a space where brands can start to build relationships with their customers or audiences, and this phone number level actually sets them up for success wherever it goes next and the whole world of communication.”
With this insight, Katie quit her job in 2014 and convinced her sister to join her in founding a text message marketing and communications platform. They were early adopters of the idea, with most businesses not yet using text messages as a marketing channel. Moreover, those that were only used SMS, which did not allow for the inclusion of images. Katie and her sister saw an opportunity to make text message marketing more engaging and effective by allowing brands to include multiple images in their messages.
Eight years later, their startup has grown and thrived, disrupting the tech industry with their innovative platform. Their company is not only unique in its approach to text message marketing but is also an example of female entrepreneurship in a male-dominated field. It has been a wild ride for Katie and her sister, but their success is a testament to their vision and determination. As they continue to pave the way for more female-led tech startups, we can expect even more innovative solutions to come.
Early Challenges in Text Message Marketing
“Initially, people thought nobody would sign up to get texted ads. Our focus was on building a database we owned and sending out offers and promotions from local businesses to consumers who signed up to receive them for free. Businesses would pay pennies to have their ads sent out.” This highlights the skepticism surrounding text message marketing at the time, and the company’s approach to building their database.
She also mentions the company’s growth trajectory, saying, “The company raised $2 million from an investor in January 2018, and the business was growing.”
The company then launched a sweepstake, offering a trip to Greece as a prize to grow their audience. However, this coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, and they had to shift their focus. As Katie explains, “Luckily, we had started building out a software as a service (SaaS) side of our platform, and we had already validated the model, i.e., that consumers would sign up for text messages from businesses, and businesses would pay for those texts.” This highlights the importance of having a backup plan and being adaptable in the face of unexpected circumstances.
During the pandemic, the company did some unconventional things to generate revenue, such as selling PPE on their Shopify store and launching a program called Community Gift Card. Katie states, “We shifted to raising around a convertible note to keep things moving and had investors who kept us alive, allowing us to completely shift the focus of our business, rebuild everything, the branding, website, how people found us, and our technology so that we have this solid multi-tenant approach that could scale.”
How TapOnIt Works with Small Businesses to Major Brands
According to Katie, the pitch for their technology and its benefits doesn’t necessarily change for small businesses up to an enterprise. “The key is when we tell people to build a database of cell phone numbers, which sets you up for success in whatever form of communication or marketing that comes next,” she explained.
She added that they have a unique proposition to offer major brands, “We’re the only ones who have experience not only in helping our customers and clients build databases, grow them, engage them, monetize them. We have really cool tools to help the end users share and organically grow those databases.”
Katie also noted that their experience is super focused, which means that their results are also super focused. “When it comes to having awesome customer service from people who actually know how to use the technology, and how to work with people in your database, and the people you’re trying to get into the database, you won’t find a better team to help with that,” she said.
For small businesses, they have a Client Resource Center, which provides access to templates, ideas, content, suggestions, best practices, and real results. On the other hand, for enterprise clients, they build out strategies specific to the brand and how to implement them. “Depending on whether they need a little bit help in the beginning and then want to be able to do all on their own, we have professional services where some of the major brands have us actually creating, managing and deploying and measuring the results of the campaigns.” Katie explained.
Katie shared that their technology and services can cater to any size business, and what sets them apart from their competitors is their deep knowledge of the industry and what works and what doesn’t. As she emphasized, “We can build integrations into whatever platform it is that you want. So you can track things and pull database information.”
Building a Successful and Supportive Team
When it comes to working with family, many people say that it’s not a good idea. But for Katie and her sister Sara, it has been a positive experience. “Starting a business with my sister has brought us closer together,” Katie said. “I’m incredibly grateful for the fact that she was willing to take a complete leap of faith into this completely unknown world.”
Katie recognized the strengths that her sister brought to the table. “I saw how talented Sara was in the marketing realm and in communications. And whereas I’m kind of that nerdy side of things. So when I started working on this whole idea, it just makes sense that we can do this together.”
Their relationship as sisters has also helped their business partnership. “I don’t trust anyone more than I trust my sister,” Katie said. “We’re here to cheer each other on, pick each other up when we’re down.”
Their team has grown since they started the business in 2015, and they have brought in talented individuals who share their goal of scaling a company and making an impact. “Since 2015, we’ve been growing this team of really talented individuals,” Katie said. “We have recruited people, engineers, product designers, all sorts to actually move to Iowa to work on it. You know, I know it sounds crazy, but the cost of living is incredible. You can get a whole lot for a whole little here.”
Their operations manager, Rachel, has been with them since the beginning and has helped to build the company from the ground up. “She’s been helping to build it from the ground up,” Katie said. “They’ve automated everything, and they are so knowledgeable that we don’t have to worry about it.”
Defying the odds and going against the “norm”
TapOnIt has faced external pressure to move the business to a major city like San Francisco or New York. TapOnIt is based out of the Quad Cities, which is two cities in Iowa and two cities in Illinois. Despite being told that she needed to move her business to a bigger city, Katie was too stubborn to do so because she loves the community in the Quad Cities and wanted to have a lean business model with a team of people who were dedicated to the success of scaling the business at an affordable rate. In 2019, TapOnIt had a successful year and was planning to raise a larger round of funding. Katie spent a lot of time traveling and starting conversations with funds in San Francisco, LA, New York, and Chicago. However, almost everywhere she went, she was told that in order to build a technology company, she needed to be in California or New York.
Katie didn’t believe this was true and instead believed that smart people with big ideas should be able to start a business no matter their gender, where they live, or the color of their skin. She believes that entrepreneurs should be able to start and grow a company where they want and not be forced to decrease their potential profits by moving to an expensive city. Despite the challenges of being a female founder in a male-dominated industry, Katie did not realize how hard fundraising was going to be, but was able to secure investments from successful business owners in her area.
“I think most people know that when it’s just an idea, they’re really investing in the founders…they’re investing in the people.” said Katie.
Through their business and their team, Katie and Sara hope to inspire other women and anyone who wants to start their own business. “We’ve been able to create something that we hope inspires other women and anyone really throughout the country and beyond to take a leap of faith and start something themselves,” Katie said.
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