Connect Spotlight: MagicBell

Posted: 6 Dec 2021

Whether you’re a product that relies on them for your business or a user who’s fielding too many, notifications are a powerful tool, and getting them wrong can be unforgiving. MagicBell knows this, and they’re here to take the pain and mystery out of notifications for everyone. A complete notification system that tackles anything from announcements and billing to workflows and more, MagicBell makes it easy to just plug-and-play your notifications strategy into any product — it’s a CTO’s dream.

It also happens to be Connect’s dream — a category-creating company that brings a new take on an essential product feature, to the delight of creators and users alike. No wonder Pietro’s ears perked up when he first heard about them! Here he is talking to MagicBell Co-Founder and CEO, Hana Mohan, about stepping up to fix a widespread problem, discovering surprising use cases for the products you build, and executing an ambitious but infinitely beneficial vision. Enjoy the read.

Hey Hana, thanks for joining us today to share your MagicBell journey with us. Let’s start from the beginning. What is MagicBell’s origin story? Why did you start the company?

I’ve been a developer for a long time — I’ve been developing and building my own applications and startups since 2007. And for everything I’ve built, I would spend a lot of time writing email notifications. As time went on, that turned into in-app notifications and mobile notifications. It just felt like a simpler solution should exist, and I kept hoping somebody else would do it. I had this idea for almost five years before I finally decided that maybe I should be the one to do it. So I started working on it in March 2020. I had another startup back then, so it was a little bit on and off. Then finally, in October 2020, I decided to take the plunge and invite my co-founder Josue Montano to join me and here we are!

Amazing — born out of a true need. If we dig a little deeper, what problem does MagicBell solve?

If you think about it, notifications are very important for every application. They’re how users interact with your app when they’re not actually in it — and even sometimes when they are. Building notifications is extremely challenging — not in the way that AI or machine learning is, but in how you have to learn multiple different APIs, from browser push notifications to mobile push notifications; you have to get the email templating right; you have to build a smooth in-app experience. Putting all of this together is a lot of work for any team, and it’s not really related to any other core competency. It’s easy to learn — a number of smart engineers can pick it up and do it, just as we are — but it’s just not worth it for any team to do in-house.

Most notification systems, whether you look at Twitter, Dropbox, etc., haven’t evolved that much in the last five years. Even the best companies build something, launch it, and almost never have time to go back and tweak it. That’s also why cool features like Slack’s “Do Not Disturb,” which mutes notifications after work hours, haven’t permeated to other applications. It’s because nobody has a dedicated notifications team that actually works 24/7 to improve them.

So I would say the problem we solve is a combination of building notifications, keeping resources allocated to maintaining them, and delivering a really compelling end-user experience.

Absolutely, you’re filling a crucial niche that everyone needs but no one has prioritised. That makes you easy to love! Speaking of, why do you think your customers love MagicBell?

What I love to share is that our best customers are CTOs or product managers who have built this once before, either at a previous job or their current job. If you’ve built it once, it’s pretty much guaranteed you will never want to build it in-house again. Those people are always excited to find MagicBell.

The “aha” moment is when our customers come to us and expect to release their notifications in the following quarter. When we ask them why, they say it’s just going to take that long. Then they’re surprised that within a day, they have a proof of concept. Within a week, they’ve gotten everybody’s approval on the team and it’s ready to launch to their customers.

In a nutshell, they love how quickly they can launch, how nicely it integrates into their product, and how dedicated our customer service is. As a young startup, we’re very big on supporting our customers — it’s our number one priority.

Love hearing about those moments where it just clicks. We’ve all been exposed to notifications in some shape or form before — you mentioned Slack, Twitter, Dropbox earlier. Could you tell us more about how your customers are using MagicBell? Have you noticed anything surprising?

Absolutely. We have customers in all different industries but there are a few that stand out. One is SaaS collaboration, like for instance our customer, Pitch. They have an app to make presentations more collaborative. So anytime someone makes a new comment or adds something to the slide, instead of just sending an email notification, they can also send an in-app notification or a mobile push notification.

The second big use case is logistics. Let’s take Blink for example, who were actually one of our Y Combinator batch mates. They’re an Italian company that focuses on fast, sustainable delivery. For them, it’s essential to know if there’s been an incident, if the delivery needs to be rerouted. Before MagicBell, they were only relying on email — the whole team was just constantly checking their inbox. Now, they have MagicBell notifications in-app and can easily see what they need to act upon and when. It has categorically improved their operational efficiency to the point where they’re better able to manage their time and workload with the same number of people.

A use-case that’s vertical agnostic is decluttering email inboxes. MagicBell allows savvy products like vSimple to tailor their email notifications so they only go out if a user hasn’t seen them in-app within a certain time period. Smart notifications can cut down the email notification volume by up to 50%.

One important use case that has surprised me is simply sending announcements: sharing new features, revealing partnerships, highlighting channel launches, communicating scheduled maintenance. It’s become prevalent across industries, too.

Very true, I’ve noticed that too. Super interesting. Going with Connect’s thesis of investing in “opinionated products,” how would you describe MagicBell as being opinionated?

Notification services have existed for a long time — think of SendGrid for email notifications or OneSignal for mobile push notification. The aspect we are betting big on is the in-app experience — the notification inbox, as we call it.

I like to make a parallel with Stripe. When Stripe launched, payments were pretty broken. They launched really good APIs, and that was already a big step up. Then they figured out that even with the APIs, it was still a lot of work to put together a nice user experience and optimise checkout flow. So they launched their check out form. And slowly, almost all of the internet now uses their default check out form because it’s well optimised and it just works.

MagicBell is taking a similar approach. Even though today, you can take a lot of different APIs and build the solution yourself, we think putting this in-app experience together is actually extremely challenging. Everything from having an infinite scroll of notifications that works well on both desktop and mobile, to managing user preferences, or asking for push notification permission nicely and not intrusively — we package all of it into a smooth experience for web and mobile.

Our bet is that in a few years, every product will have a notification inbox. The quality of the notification inbox will become a competitive differentiator. You can already see it in companies like Notion or Asana, though some do it better than others. Instead of thinking in terms of channels like text, email, or Slack, apps can let MagicBell know they want to notify a user, and we’ll figure out the rest.

Building off of that, what’s the long-term vision for MagicBell?

We want to be the notification provider for every app, the trusted standard that works well for both apps and users. A close parallel would be how the Facebook or Google sign-in buttons replaced the need to create a username and email sign-in for every site. As an app developer, you no longer had to worry about security; and as a user, you could trust that your credentials were safe, and it was easy to use.

We also want every notification to flow through MagicBell in a way that respects users’ notification preferences. Right now, a lot of different systems send notifications — whether it’s billing notifications, lifecycle notifications, or something else — and the default is just email. I think the future is that every notification goes in-app. By going through MagicBell, we can figure out whether the user wants email or push, whether they want a digest or batch communications, what their phone number is, etc. Once users add MagicBell to their product, they no longer have to think about these things. They simply say “Notify this user” and we find the best time, the best channel, and the best way to do it.

Sounds ideal — we’re on board! Looking at your journey so far, what would you say you’re most proud of? And what mistakes have taught you the most?

I think the answer to what is actually the same: I’m really proud of the team we’ve been able to put together. It’s a very capable team, and very diverse, with people from six different countries. But bouncing off of that, our biggest mistake was not understanding how competitive the hiring market has become, and how much effort you need to put into showcasing what’s unique about you as a company or culture. It took us much longer than we would have liked to put together this core team, but I’m very proud of the end result.

On the product side, we’re super proud to be powering notifications for a customer like Pitch. If you don’t know, their CEO, Christian Reber, co-founded Wunderlist, which was sold to Microsoft. They are known for their design and product excellence, and they’re one of Europe’s hottest startups. Getting MagicBell onto Pitch’s web product, desktop app, and mobile app, all while keeping them as a happy customer has been a massive product highlight for us.

Two impressive wins, and both quite different. Congrats! What about Connect? Why did you pick us to back you on your journey?

It was two things, really. First was Connect’s track record with category-creating startups. Even though MagicBell is creating a notifications product, and notifications have existed for a while, the idea of the notifications inbox is fairly new and the dynamics are extremely different. We’re creating this new category, and it felt very obvious to me that Connect had a strong understanding of what the Northstar metrics should be, how to prioritise the short-term versus the long-term, and so on.

Second were my personal interactions with you, Pietro, and positive references from others. I learned a lot just from our first few calls together, all our interactions were well run, and other founders you backed, like Tony from Oyster, said you always backed your startups all the way through. That gave me confidence that Connect was the right partner for us.

That’s great to hear, thank you! Final question: what is a product you love or that you can’t live without?

It might sound like a cliché but for me, it’s my Tesla Model 3. It’s just a really cool product and so inspiring to see how a software experience can change driving. Even if you remove all the hype, arguably, Tesla brought electric cars into the mainstream. Between the story, the product, the experience, I’m sold.

Not cliché at all — it’s definitely a great product. Thanks for your time, Hana! It’s been great hearing how you started MagicBell and talking about what the future holds. We look forward to being by your side as you continue to chase your vision.