April 18, 2024

Strategies for Success on LinkedIn and Beyond with Stefan Smulders

Alper Yurder and Stefan Smulders discuss his entrepreneurial journey and strategies for brand building on platforms like LinkedIn amidst rapid company growth.

Meet our guest

Stefan Smulders, Founder & CSO at Expandi, LinkedIn automation platform.

A seasoned entrepreneur with over ten years of experience, Stefan Smulders is best known for successfully building multiple ventures despite challenges. From weathering financial setbacks to scaling his SaaS to over $720k/month, his story epitomizes the resilience and determination required for entrepreneurial success.

Key takeaways

  • LinkedIn is constantly changing, and it requires creativity and adaptability to succeed on the platform.
  • Finding the right narrative and providing practical playbooks can help attract and retain customers.
  • Consistency and value are key in building a customer base.
  • Scalability challenges can arise as a company grows, and it's important to focus on specific target markets.
  • Customer success and onboarding are crucial for ensuring value and retaining customers.

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From childhood curiosity to entrepreneurial vision

In this episode of the Sales Therapy podcast, Alper Yurder welcomes Stefan Smulders, Chief Strategy Officer of Expandi, to talk about his entrepreneurial journey from bootstrap beginnings to serving over 15,000 customers. 

Stefan reflects on his upbringing in the Netherlands and his transition from a sales role at Yellow Pages to delving into online marketing. He shares:

"How could it be that if a B2B website on average gets 100 visitors... only two or three of them take contact?"

This curiosity led him to develop IP tracking software, albeit initially limited to serving Dutch customers. 

Reflecting on his childhood, Stefan shares anecdotes of his early entrepreneurial ventures, like painting after school and going door-to-door to sell the paintings.

Navigating business challenges

Stefan Smulders reflects on his transition from working at the Yellow Pages to becoming an entrepreneur, highlighting the challenges and pivotal moments he faced. He discusses the pressure of societal norms and familial expectations regarding job security and financial stability, contrasting them with the entrepreneurial drive to trust one's instincts and pursue unconventional paths. 

Smulders emphasizes the importance of surrounding oneself with like-minded individuals and finding a supportive community to navigate the uncertainties of entrepreneurship. 

"If you look in the mirror and you feel that you really want to make an impact, you really want to change things and to move forward, then if that feeling is stronger, I think one of the things to do is to… remove a lot of phone numbers in your phone and stop engaging with people who just choose other routes in their lives."

The conversation delves into the genesis of his venture, Expandi, stemming from his frustration with existing solutions and his desire to address customers' real needs. Smulders discusses the competitive landscape of LinkedIn automation tools, the evolution of the platform, and the challenges posed by changes in LinkedIn's policies. 

Strategies for sustainable growth

Stefan Smulders talks about the genesis of Expandi as a bootstrap venture, illuminating the pivotal role of creativity in its inception. Despite financial constraints, Smulders underscores the power of narrative and consistent messaging in shaping perceptions and building trust around Expandi's brand.

"I understood really, really well... I found the right narrative... if I keep screaming it other people will believe it as well."

Moreover, Smulders emphasizes the critical need to provide tangible value, elucidating the meticulous process of crafting playbooks and executing practical tactics, yielding significant results. 

Despite the proliferation of similar tactics among contemporary marketers, Smulders advocates for sustained consistency, underscoring the enduring importance of community-building and continual innovation to maintain relevance and distinction.

"The hardest part of everything you do to grow your business is showing up every day... you keep doing each and every day and you will always win on the long run."

The discourse extends to the challenges encountered during Expandi's rapid growth phase, with Smulders reflecting on the necessity of adaptability and focus to navigate scalability hurdles effectively. He emphasizes the importance of understanding the ideal customer profile (ICP) and providing tailored solutions for them. 

"But maybe, and that's actually the stage where we are right now, maybe the solution is just that we are not a tool for everyone, that we can only serve one or two ICPs and do that really, really well instead of trying to be everyone's friend."

Lastly, he touches on the role of customer success teams in managing different revenue streams and addressing the diverse needs of users. 

Resources:

Alper Yurder: Today in the therapy chair, we have Stefan Smulders. I don't know if I said it right, but who's currently the chief strategy officer of Expandi, a brand that many of you will know, especially because my audience lives and breathes LinkedIn. So they'll know it and they'll be very interested in this conversation today. Stefan is a visionary founder whose relentless determination took his venture from bootstrap beginnings to serving over 15,000 customers. We'll talk about his success, the joy, the pain and the journey. Welcome to Sales Therapy. Stefan, how are you feeling today?

Stefan Smulders: Thank you, Alper. And yeah, I loved the great introduction. So let's repeat it again. No, it's all jokes aside. Thanks for having me. Great to be here. And hopefully I can add some value by sharing some painful lessons learned, for example.

Alper Yurder: Yes. Absolutely, I love sharing the highlights and the lowlights and we talked about this in the prep and I think people are in for a treat. Am I butchering your name enough? Like is that Stefan? How do you say it in Dutch?

Stefan Smulders: To be honest, in every country people pronounce it differently. So, I hear to all different versions and dialects. So, it's all good.

Alper Yurder: Yeah, of course. Okay, I say I it sounds like we have too many similar things. It's a bit scary. I say the exact same to people when they when they ask me about am I saying your name right? I'm like to say whatever you want. It's I am whoever you want me to be, you know. Okay, that's good. Okay, so any good therapy starts with childhood and growing up. The first section is generally a little bit understanding your growing up environment. You're in the Netherlands currently. You grew up there, I believe. Can you tell us a little bit about your growing experience and how you think it shaped the business person or the person that you are today.

Stefan Smulders: Yeah, I definitely grew up in the Netherlands, more in the southern part, although the Netherlands isn't that big at all. I went to marketing university.

I started as the first part of my career being a sales job at the Yellow Pages. It was one of the biggest companies at that time point and they wanted to make a transition into digital and online. So they were looking for grinding young people like myself who were not affected too much with all the previous things happened over there.

It was my first sales experience, I liked it. I did a lot of visits, five or seven a day with the car to visit all these customers and locations. And after some point you didn't feel that rewarded, but I definitely always kept an interest for online and online marketing. And one question during my career that always kept me triggered was, for example, how could it be that if a

B2B website on average gets 100 visitors so people who actually go there with a goal and only two or three of them take contact, they leave details, they fill in a form, they place an order and all the other ones you have no clue who are these people, right? So...

Out of interest, I deep-dived in Google to see who are actually these visitors, can we identify them. And now we're talking about maybe nine or 10 years ago. Yet it wasn't possible. So I teamed up with one of my current co-founders. He's a bit of the whisk kid from the both of us. I'm just a marketing guy, I have two left hands and no coding skills. And we developed quite a… quite an easy and one of the first IP tracking software. Similar like Albacross Lead Forensics, LeadFeeder, to give website visitors and face. The only sort of a mistake afterwards we made was that we only did not spend that much attention towards the data and it was only a local data from the Netherlands. So we were actually only able to serve Dutch customers. And that are mainly small business owners. And these small business owners really liked to see, okay, what's going on on my website, what people…

Alper Yurder: Ah, okay.

Stefan Smulders: …we see there, but what they really wanted was actually converting these identifications into meetings and appointments and they were not able to do that themselves because they picked up the phone, they called to the reception, hey Albert, it's Stefan here, maybe per accident some of your colleagues visited my website, came forward me to them, I have no clue what you're talking about. And then it ends up...

They started to blame me as a software provider. IOS software is a reverse. It's not working for us. And then I understood if I really want to solve their problems, I need to come up with something that helps them do acquisition on a bit of a more modern way. Instead of because people don't like to do cold acquisition.

Alper Yurder: Okay, well, I'll...

Absolutely. I'll stop you there. We'll come to the business story for sure. But I want to know you first before we come to the business idea. I want to stick around a little bit with the younger Stefan. And also I'm curious, what do you call yellow pages in Dutch?

Stefan Smulders: How to hit?

Alper Yurder: How then hits? OK, good. So that's where the career started. But before the career started, I just love to understand a little bit the younger years, if you don't mind. So what did you study? Where did you grow up? What kind of a family relation you had? And generally, I think I have to do a better job of keeping people in there because obviously in these podcasts, nobody talks about these stuff. But I'm very interested and this is therapy after all. So I think we need to know.

Stefan Smulders: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Yeah, sure, sure thing. Yeah.

Yeah, it's already a while ago as I lately became 40. And I grew up in Eindhoven. It's maybe a bit famous for the company Philips from the Lightings, which was established there. And the football, yeah, exactly, exactly. I'm a fan as well. I liked football. I played football during my childhood.

Alper Yurder: Okay. Yes and the football club. Yeah.

Stefan Smulders: I have one smaller sister. We grow up in a very warm family where my parents worked really hard to help me and provide me with the things we need to execute on our sport ambitions and be able to study. And I actually did a bit longer over my study. I was not always that motivated in the beginning.

Alper Yurder: Okay.

Stefan Smulders: And I thought, let's pick somehow the most smoothest one. It was commercial economics. It was a bit marketing inside, a bit from everything. So I actually didn't need to pick one direction. And at the end of the day, it fitted me the best. But I found…

Alper Yurder: It feels like you kind of knew you were going to be a founder and you wanted to go that, you know, you were quite resourceful. No.

Stefan Smulders: No, I was always motivated to make some money, to do more than other people want to do. And I think if I look back now, I have a couple of maybe some cool examples. When I was maybe six years old, I made after school some paintings. And then when the school was finished, I...

Alper Yurder: Oh yeah. Mmm.

Stefan Smulders: …went to different doors on our streets to ask if they want to sell the paintings. I asked my mother when she was making my bread every day if she can make a couple extra ones and then I tried to sold them in my class to kids who didn't have a bread with them or lunch with them for example. Such kind of a thing. So maybe it was related to...

Alper Yurder: Yeah. I think there's definitely.

Stefan Smulders: …to become a business owner.

Alper Yurder: There's something definitely there. And I remember my very first entrepreneurial experience was quite similar. I was in a summer house, very young, seven years or something. And I basically gathered peanuts and like different nuts and then got them together in bags and started selling them. But I think my business went bankrupt because actually I was selling them for cheaper than what they were bought for. And my mother was like, why are you distributing all this?

Alper Yurder: premium or luxury stuff for so my first business was a bankruptcy I did yeah yeah yeah

Stefan Smulders: But at least you tried, right? Yeah, yeah, yeah. You're not the only one at the end of the day, right? So, but maybe you're the one percent who at least tries and improves and make things better. So, kudos, respect for that.

Alper Yurder: Yeah, absolutely.

Yeah. Thank you. And then fast forward to again, after that Yellow Pages experience and coming to being that entrepreneur, was that a smooth journey for you? Like, did you make that transition easily or how was that period in your career?

Stefan Smulders: It's somehow scared because at that age you started to live on yourself and your own apartment and paying your own bills and responsibilities and somehow your parents, at least in my currency, they actually...

Alper Yurder: Yeah.

Stefan Smulders: …with the best intentions, learned you how life should look like, right? You should have a job because that's security. You should save money because there was 50 years ago maybe some interest on it and you should drink milk because that's healthy for you. And actually at some point you slowly find out that you need to buy a house because that's your retirement.

If you listen to Grant Cardone, he says the opposite. Healthy people will find out milk is not that healthy. Savings make no sense. So at some point, you somehow realize, oh, it's actually all a joke. What's the truth? And then you feel alone. And you also become aware that the

Maybe the only thing you need to trust is just your gut feelings and what you feel inside. And because...

Alper Yurder: No, that's so... What you're saying is I think so scary and even when you say it my hair goes like how do I trust my gut feeling that's so scary.

Stefan Smulders: Yeah, because we as humans, I think most of us, we want to have a confirmation that we are in the right direction. We want to have confirmation from, yeah, all these things. And that makes it somehow difficult because if you're...

Alper Yurder: Yeah. Safety.

Stefan Smulders: ...going another direction or you want to build up something for your own, even the most closest people in your environment, they will say, maybe it's better to stay with your job, it's safer and how are you going to pay the bills? It's unique because not everybody has such a mindset or want to grow or is focused on these things. Other people will rather prefer to go for a party in the weekend and have some some drinks and yeah, then you feel actually that that isn't you, right? And I think that's also the beginning of finding, or at least trying to find directions, read a lot. Yeah, and even some...

Alper Yurder: Mm-hmm.

Stefan Smulders: …close friends and families, they at some point, because you're not successfully immediately, right? It's not an overnight thing. It will take way longer. And at some point they stop supporting you or what you've built in your software. Is it not ready yet after one year? No, we are close to that. They are not motivating. Or is it maybe not better to go back to your job? And how do you pay your bills? And so, actually maybe not.

Alper Yurder: So how do you in that moment, in that moment when everyone like it feels like the world is starting to become a difficult place. The logic says, you know what, like maybe no, you should go back. How do you stick to your guns in that moment?

Stefan Smulders: It is hard if you can't come out of your comfort zone. But if you look in the mirror and you feel that you really want to make an impact, you really want to change things and to move forward, then if that feeling is stronger, I think one of the things to do is to… remove a lot of phone numbers in your phone and stop engaging with people who just choose other routes in their lives or at least for that time point because it's only absorbing negative energy and try to surround yourself with more like -minded people. That's at least what I did for, let's say more in a monk mode, just with a handful of close people who had the same mentality, the same mindset were able to just wanted to grind and hustle and push and push. Yeah, that was from me and EyeOpener.

Alper Yurder: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think finding your...

Finding your tribe and your fellow hustlers is a big deal. Like at the moment, maybe sometimes I'm going through those feelings as well. And for example, we started doing this community in London, just three founder friends of mine in different startups. We were just, you know, it was a bit like a bitch fest complaining to each other about all the things that are going wrong. So we started these dreams called Founders Therapy. And now like yesterday we had one, like 20 early stage founders, no bragging, no...

Stefan Smulders: Yeah. Okay.

Alper Yurder: You know, just, just the reality of things is like the vulnerability, but like picking each other up and giving that positive energy. I think you need to find that community, build that community if you don't have, because you need that kind of energy around you. And another founder friend and I, we were doing a park walk the other day and he told me, dude, like a startup at this stage is a miracle. So if it, if your miracle works, great. If it doesn't, it doesn't. So I think.

Alper Yurder: You know, I really like that mindset now. I'm trying to adapt to it.

Stefan Smulders: …then. Yeah, it's I think worth to do it and it will not solve everything because, yeah, at least if I just look to myself, we always have to deal with different emotions and feelings. And one day it's more positive and one day you're more motivated or more confident than the other day. But I think at some point I and I really was sure I no matter if it will work out the first time, even if I failed the second time, I just don't want to give up and define my own destination somehow. So at some point I radically changed my behavior because I thought if I keep acting like how I did, the outcome will most likely be exactly the same. So just let's try to change some habits, try to become a bit more healthy so that I have more focus, start the day with very early in the morning with maybe some health exercises and gym things. So then I don't have to steal time later in the day from my family for example and all these small little steps engaging with people who were ahead of me. It's very cliche but also to ask me back.

Alper Yurder: No, it's very real. I think being in an early stage now and going through that early journey that you have been through, I think I definitely resonate a lot with that and trying to take a break. Like I never journaled in my life, but I started trying to keep myself to journaling and it helps. And sometimes, you know, the behavior shifts, but actually one of my questions for you that I had prepared was, what was that pivotal moment for? or inspiration that led you to start Expandi? And I think we already started talking about the founder journey, but was there like a specific aha moment about Expand .ly and how did that start?

Stefan Smulders: Yeah, I ended early in a conversation about that I somehow felt that the product we previously built, Leetexpress, wasn't solve customers real problems as they wanted to have a booked appointment and make actually money out of these identifications. So, that was for me the moment that I thought, okay, it can become a nice business, but it will always be nice to have software instead of a must have software, because there's a bigger problem what needs to be solved. So that triggered me to think about ways to solve that bigger problem. How can I help people do outreach, what's a bit more convenient on a modern way for them. So that was a moment I jumped on LinkedIn. I pivoted there. I leveraged my own profile. I learned everything about Legion on LinkedIn. And after a while, I started taking on some complaining customers from my previous software to help them book these appointments just as a managed service.

And that really worked out well. It became by far the best channel I leveraged as a marketer during my career. And I just stuck at some point due to the fact that I was running out of time. I was handling a bit too many clients, a lot of manual actions needed. So I just tried to be clever and I went to my best friend Google to find solutions who at least were able to automate some repetitive tasks. The boring connection requests or the scrapings. And I found actually a bunch of tools. We are talking about, let's say, five, six years ago. It was the beginning of LinkedIn Automations. I was not even aware about how this space looked like.

It's not illegal, not forbidden by law, but at that time point it was a bit gray and you hear the buzz around safety. And on the one hand, all people wanted to leverage it. And on the other hand, nobody wanted to get in problems with LinkedIn. So it was all new for me as well at that time point. But all these tools out there, which I was testing, trying to serve my customers,

They were all buggy, they were Chrome extended, they had some really cool features in it, but they were not designed to manage more profiles for sales teams, for agency owners, for growth marketers who provided a managed service. And that was at some point, I was so stuck that I couldn't grow that agency further, that out of frustration.

I shared, so actually coming from my own paints because the tools I leveraged, they were not good enough.

Alper Yurder: They just didn't cut it. Yeah. I think it's with the founder stories I hear generally there is either that very, very own pain point and frustration. Let me solve this. Or it is a bit like your universe coming together and pushing them out of a job and like doing something on their own. There's a bit of a common thread there. Unexpected exactly. But coming to today, do you feel like, so you started this, you know, it was, I feel like it was a bit of a different time…

Stefan Smulders: Yeah. And expect this.

Alper Yurder: …back then when maybe competition wasn't as tough this, and I might be wrong, yeah, you can tell me. Does it feel a bit like the competitive space is very crowded right now? It's a little bit more difficult to start today or is it just a myth I am telling myself as a new founder?

Stefan Smulders: I think at the moment that I started to discover this, let's say LinkedIn, a third-party app or automation niche, there were already a lot of tools out there. The only thing was that they were all somehow hiding themselves for LinkedIn. It was, for example, quite hard to get in touch…

Alper Yurder: Mm -hmm. Okay.

Stefan Smulders: …with them. You actually did not know who was behind the software, who was the founders. Can you engage with them? Because they were all scared that Bill Gates should come one day, maybe crack all these tools down, find them and bring them to court or something like that. So that was an obvious thing going on at that time point. Of course, when we broke through the noise and realized a hyper-growth…

Alper Yurder: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Okay, interesting.

Stefan Smulders: …on the way people haven't done before in this space as I did exactly the opposite as what people up until then had done. I was not hiding myself for LinkedIn. I thought if Bill Gates wanted to find me, he's the richest person in the world, he will find me anyway. So try to, yeah, for sure. Yeah, no doubt about that. And I thought that that don't make no sense, but  it will help to build a brand and to let people see that we are a real company and that they can engage with me as a founder and that I can envision why I built the software and that I can learn because I thought I just need to find Stephans who were previous agency owners because they were already in love with LinkedIn. They were using automation tools. So,

That's not the problem. And I knew exactly from my own experiences what kind of challenges they had. And I created a bond. I did, for example, more than 700 demo calls in the first four months after we launched our platform in different time zones. And especially all our US friends, they were not that flexible in their agenda. So it were quite long days.

And I did it with a lot of pleasure and energy, and it helped me define our marketing journey and why they were actually at least considering to buy from us, rather than from established companies and competitors. Going back to your question, I think we saw during the years that when we started, it...

was quite easy to make money on LinkedIn because everyone who was doing outreach on LinkedIn, they just a basic, simple, not hyper-targeted search and started to do spray and pray approaches and sort of a mass outreach. And if the outcome was too low, there was just one solution, which was quite simple. Just add more people on top of the funnel and they're really a positive outcome.

I think as you're in sales and already at that time also active on LinkedIn, you saw a change. Let's say two years ago, the platform is growing super, super fast. They have close to 1 billion users on their platform and they have two major problems, challenges.

And their biggest problem by far is spam. We all receive unnecessary bad targeted worse approaches in our inboxes. And if people receive too many of them, they will leave the platform. And that's what they want to avoid. So they reduce the amount of actions people are able to do on the platform. They limited it which means that instead of, let's say, an unlimited amount of approaches and people you could reach, now you only can reach 100 people. So it means that if you want to stay on this growing, wonderful and maybe the best platform for B2B,

You need to do a better job to get the results you actually got before. You need to be creative out of the box. And I think in terms of competition, it's not in software which have an AP connection with LinkedIn as a platform.

LinkedIn is changing. They are fighting all third party apps. They, they, they're AI detection algorithms. They will make it more difficult. So I think it's easy to start as a competitor because everybody saw how a lot of companies like our cells grow really, really fast. So it's logical that. Yeah. New ones things. We also want to have a P of the pie, but.

Alper Yurder: Mm-hmm.

Stefan Smulders: A lot of them were underestimating that it really is a hard job to just maintain this type of a software due to the daily changes LinkedIn is still making.

Alper Yurder: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And it's, I think frustrating to a lot of people trying to catch up with those changes. Um, in this section, I just really love to tap into your past experience and, and maybe have some practical tips and strategies for, for our listeners. If you don't mind, I'll ask a few like specific questions about, you know, your experience, what you've tried and how they went. So is that okay?

Stefan Smulders: All good. Share team.

Alper Yurder: I'll go for it. Okay. So for example, now in time you've reached over 15,000 customers globally. I'm just curious, like, is there, you already mentioned that going against the grain, like doing the opposite of what people were doing at the time. And that's a good takeaway for me. Were there any other strategies you employed to attract and retain such a large customer base? You know, things that you remember recall doing even today, maybe, like what are you doing to make...

Stefan Smulders: Thank you.

Alper Yurder: …sure that growth happens.

Stefan Smulders: At least the reality was that when we started, that we are a bootstrap company, we still are, that I literally did not even have a single dollar left to use for traditional and paid advertisement. So from day one on, we needed to be creative.

So I understood really, really well as I'm just, I'm not a genius. I'm just an average marketer and I think I took advantage of three things. First, we already touched base on it. I found the right narrative. As I understood, that a lot of people, they wanted to use all these kinds of third-party apps and nobody wanted to get in problems. And at the moment, before we started some crappy tools, they were catched by LinkedIn and maybe in reality, a handful of people lost their LinkedIn profiles.

But the buzz around that topic safety was so huge that that became the most important thing for people out there. So I thought if I pronounced Expandi as Will's safest tool out there and I keep pronouncing it up until the moment that I start believing it, at some point if I keep screaming it other people will believe it as well. And believe me, I was praying the first couple of months that my technical co-founder kept everything together.

Alper Yurder: I love that.

Stefan Smulders: And of course he did intelligent things to build a stable tool, but that was the best narrative we could find for the problem was going on at that time. The second thing, instead of hiding myself, putting myself as a frontier and a face of the brands, and I was the only one doing that, that people thought...

What is this guy doing? He's talking about LinkedIn automation on the platform. You can reach him. That's what we want. And the third thing I saw that everyone was talking on their websites, use our tool, you will 10x your results. I come to this tool, we will 15x your results. And nobody was teaching people.

How exactly to do that? Because it's easy to scream. I gave you 10x more money if you leverage my tool, but how are you going to do that? So I started with my own very small team at that time point to use our own tool. And we designed tons and tons of strategies and we were executing these tactics on our own profile.

Stefan Smulders: And a couple of them, they were so great that we booked some really, really insane results. For example, 40 appointments in a week, leveraging automation, really interesting scraping tactics. And what we did was took the best-performing ones apart. We created practical playbooks out of it with the how, the why, how we connected the dots, why we used that strategy, what results it brought, what messages we used, how we connected the dots, the proofs, screenshots, results, screenshots, everything in it. And we started to manually distribute all these guides around places where our audiences were, in the hackers. We did it with upvotes and different IP addresses. It was all manual and we did not even have a CEO expertise in our team. So all these e-books, playbooks, were not even CEO optimized. We did it in Facebook groups. We became friends with, for example, the admins of the group.

Are we able to provide value to your group? Practical use cases, they can leverage to do a better lead -in job. We did the same on LinkedIn. We used engagement pots in these days to create more awareness. And we followed up with our own tools. These things.

Alper Yurder: Yeah, I think. These tactics. To be honest, Stefan, I mean, hearing you, I think I'll be the devil's advocate a little bit because you pioneered all those things. You created, like you found out all those things on your, maybe on your own. There weren't too many examples of that back in the day, et cetera. But all the things that you said now, I think are like all the marketers now know those tactics, right? They're all now building in public. They're all now creating their eBooks and putting it out there on LinkedIn. If you scroll my LinkedIn, it's like full of giveaway templates and et cetera. Like at the time when you did it, it was innovative and creative. I think now that's adding to the noise. So at the sake of being the devil's advocate, I don't know, maybe if you observe the same thing that now people have opened their eyes to all these tactics and they're all doing it. So what do you do now to stand out? Because everyone else is doing those things.

Stefan Smulders: Yeah. The funny thing that to be fully transparent with you is that the best performing tactics still is doing giveaways and leveraging my profile will become a bigger brand. Sometimes it's actually free reach. I leverage for that my Twitter profile and my LinkedIn profile. And it didn't became overnight 30 ,000 followers, right? But if I do on average a post there where I provide and share, I do a giveaway with the value. I still get sometimes up to around a million views still with the same simple strategy. But if I look back now, I did of course more things and...

Alper Yurder: Mm-hmm. Valuable. Yeah.

Stefan Smulders: It's called now influencer marketing, but what we did, for example, in the early days, and I was not aware that the term for that was influencer marketing, I actually became friends online with industry leaders, with people who were quite active in the space, with people who served an audience.

For example, in our case, it was Rohan Chaubey, who was India's most followed growth hacker. I became friends with Houston Golden from BAMF, the LinkedIn influencer agency, and a lot of more people. And some of them became affiliates. Other of them became promoters in exchange for using our tool because it was solving their problems or free accounts. We did co-webinars, live sessions, where we only shared practical tactics people could implement straight away and we were so sure that they achieved the same results as we did and if you host something with someone who has a product or a service with what is complementary towards yours you can leverage the same audience and it will build more trust so we were focused on a couple of these things and

The most hardest part of everything you do to grow your business is showing up every day. And if you show up every day and you keep repeating what you did yesterday and you learn from things went wrong, but you keep doing each and every day and you will always win on the long run.

Alper Yurder: Hmm… Yeah, I just honestly, as you were telling me all these stories, I'm like, yeah, I know I'm doing those two inside that my subconscious brain is saying, yes, Stefan, I am doing those things. I am trying those things and maybe the listeners are doing. But the thing that you need to do, you need to focus is just just keep doing. I mean, that's the and I think one one thing that's really difficult to do is finding that thing that is valuable to people like giving value and providing that continuously. I mean, what you're saying is quite simple.

If you're providing value consistently, just stick to it and do it. And it won't be an overnight success, but in time it will build. So that's what you need to do.

Stefan Smulders: Yeah, and one of the ways to do that is to build community, right? To engage with your early stage founders, because that will become somehow your biggest fence. Involve them, ask them things, but still engage with them, even if you become bigger, because that's the people, that these people are in the trenches. There are people who are using… your tool or competitor tools, or they know what's going on, they get approached by your competitors. They exactly know what they need or what know what they need and what they want. So keep always in contact and engaging with your customers or people who leveraging and using such kind of tools. And I think what I see with a lot of companies is that, that, that, that, that that they don't do that enough.

Alper Yurder: Hmm. I think what my real takeaway from this conversation is I feel like all of those, if you mentioned like 10 tactics, strategies, et cetera, I'm like check, check, check in my mind. I'm doing them. I'm doing them. Probably I can improve. But the thing that I need to remember is it's not an overnight success just because you're doing them for three months, six months. Doesn't mean you'll go to the moon. Like you need to do it over time. Basically.

Stefan Smulders: Hmm. Exactly. Yeah, exactly. It's the same with sales, right? Then at some point we've built a great funnel and then we think we can relax. We are in our comfort zones and then the pipeline is quite big, but the close rate, unfortunately, is not 100%. And then if you start becoming a bit more lazy or you spend your attention almost all of it, you need to keep… doing things to fill that funnel, entry. You need to keep doing that.

Alper Yurder: Yeah, absolutely. And as you, as the, as Expander started to grow and you started seeing these good results, like obviously you started having probably scalability challenges or challenges about, you know, growing the business, maintaining the business, or maybe did you, like, how did you, did you have any scalability issues? How did you counter them? Anything on that?

Stefan Smulders: We grew from scratch. And I think it was 15 November 2019 that we plugged in our Stripe account on zero. And within 18 months, we were at close to six million ARR in dollars. And after that...

that there came so many challenges because it was our first time to be part of a successful journey. We did not have the experience, we did not saw what went wrong and we were only focused on growing. We had a very young team. We can talk another episode about so many things there. Yeah.

Alper Yurder: Yeah. Growing. Yeah. I know. I know, but now my face is already shining up because we do have a lot of like, we have a lot of customer success and enablement listeners as well. And I think maybe let's do a little teaser for them. And I would be very happy to have you on another episode to discuss this, but I'm curious, like what were some of the main servicing challenges you faced and.

Can you give us a little teaser of those?

Stefan Smulders: If we started really well with serving, let's say, an ICP that were agency owners, as I just mentioned, it were exactly the same people as I was before. And if you at some point get so much traction and you grow on a hyper speed, also other people will join your platform because they hear about the burst, they want to be part of it. If your tool is, for example, designed by developers and it started with just a couple of features.

And with all the requests and engagement and the communities we are in to talk with our customers and they want to have this, they want to have that. At some point, the software became so complex that a lot of people who are joining it, they were not able to activate themselves. They did not have a good onboarding. They did not saw the value. They did not got the results in the trial period. And maybe it's easy to say we need to solve a lot of things in the software to keep them and then if they grow, if you reach a plateau on the grow, then you feel the pain about churn problems. As long as you grow harder than your churn, everything is good because you, yeah, right? And if they grow, reach a plateau, then...

Alper Yurder: That is a problem. Yeah, exactly.

Stefan Smulders: Yeah, then you really see, okay, that the journey is actually a bit too high. What's going on here? And then the first thing you want to do emotionally is closing the back door and listening to everybody who has to say something. But maybe, and that's actually the stage where we are right now. Maybe the solution is just that we are not a tool for everyone, that we can only serve one or two ICPs and do that really, really well instead of trying to be everyone's friend.

Alper Yurder: Yeah, all things to everybody. Absolutely. And so do you have a customer success team? How do you take care of that side of things? Like once the deal is closed?

Stefan Smulders: Yeah. Yeah, we have two revenue streams. One of them is, let's say, bigger agencies or wide labels and they come in through demos and then we sell it actually and then they will be hand over to customer success team. But the biggest part of our revenue is coming from self-service at the moment.

And in that self-serve part, there are different kinds that can be single persons, that can be some founders who want to grow their business, that can be founders who are looking for new people and want to leverage for recruitment, that can be sales teams, that can be SaaS companies, that can be smaller agencies. So there's a huge variety in different people there.

And to be fully transparent with you, I think we have only through inbound on average 2 ,200 signups each and every month, trial signups. But we are not able in the current situation.

Alper Yurder: Mm-hmm. So you're still one of the true PLG standing in this bloodbath of all PLG companies dying down.

Stefan Smulders: That to bring people in, we don't have a lead gen or marketing challenges. Always, things can always be better there, but as soon as they're in, then the problems start. We do not ask it right. We actually do not even ask the question. But we need now, the challenge for us is now, okay, how can we keep a bigger part of these 2 ,200 signups in the platform? And if we keep them in the platform, how?

Are we able to provide as soon as possible the right value so they get a result? That's where our challenges are. And if we are able to solve that, I think that's for us the way to realize a new hypergrowth like we did in the first 18 months. And it sounds very easy and we are circling and we are circling and we are missing knowledge and we are talking to experts, we're talking to consultants, but… It's way harder than the sound.

Alper Yurder: Yeah, it's really a shame we came to this point towards the end of the conversation because now we've built Flola about a year and a half ago, we started building. My pain point was complex selling. Selling a complex multimillion dollar deal, multiple stakeholders is very difficult. Can we have one room where all the exchange of documents, conversations happen, et cetera? So I started as a sales guy and I thought another benefit could be...

Stefan Smulders: Uh, yeah. Yeah. All right.

Alper Yurder: …handover to client success because you know, client success sees everything. You know, the challenge of sales, sell something and then client success is completely in the dark. Like what have you sold? What are you doing now that we build the product and put it out in the world? First BDRs took it sales development teams. Actually, that's how I knew about the expander because somebody from your company was using it, sending a flow, et cetera, et cetera. But now the point where we evolved into is more like selling a product and making sure that the value is perceived by the buyer. Like the buyer is actually using it. It's become a hybrid of an onboarding tool almost. So we're trying to figure out like, what is our niche? What is our ICP? Where do we go? Where do we flow more? But the problem that you mentioned is definitely something we are starting to solve more of, which is new to me as well, because I'm not a client success person, although I've managed client success teams.

I'm a sales guy. I'm a gross guy bringing the people sell clothes, you know. So now I'm learning what you are just explaining as well.

Stefan Smulders: Yeah, and I'm open to have another conversation, even in private, and sharing more of these experiences because I think it hopefully will help you and even more people to prevent doing the same things because if you don't have the knowledge, we all try to do things with best intentions.

Alper Yurder: Definitely. Yeah.

Stefan Smulders: And sometimes it's just due to a lack of, not maybe vision, but a practical strategy. And then you need to have conversations with people who already made these failures to get insights. And that's what I did to less in the early days. And therefore these problems, the challenges are still there.

Alper Yurder: I love that. I mean, Stefan, this has been an amazing conversation. Thank you. I have a million. Actually, we are living on a very high note where I'm like super hyped for another episode. But is there anything you want to add? Any anything I should have asked you and I haven't asked you in this conversation.

Stefan Smulders: Definitely. I think it's obvious that we had a connection and a lot of common topics we can talk for a couple more episodes about, right? So count me in for that. I really liked the conversation and I always hope that I at least shared a couple of things which help people avoid making the same mistakes or think twice about it or...

Alper Yurder: Absolutely.

Stefan Smulders: …maybe some golden nuggets which help them grow or a technique or whatever.

Alper Yurder: Absolutely. That has been amazing. Thank you very much. Now I'm going to have to cut us on the clock just like a good therapist and I'm a very bad therapist because I never cut us on the clock because the conversation is always too good. But this is going to be a wrap on this episode of sales therapy. If you enjoy the show, follow us. Thank you very much, Stefan, for being with me. Excellent. So thank you very much for being with me on this sales therapy episode and I'm looking forward to having you again on the show.

Stefan Smulders: Same here.

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