Peter Peter - Founder, UserActive

Bootstrapped SaaS to $7.5M ARR with Stefan Smulders

Peter interviews Bootstrapped SaaS Founder, Stefan Smulders who is currently scaling his SaaS business to $10M ARR. 

His digital product looks like an overnight success, but Stefan is refreshingly honest about his background and his first failures in SaaS. After launching his current business, Expandi.io in 2019 alongside two co-founders, the company is currently at $7M ARR.

In this interview, you will hear SaaS Founder Stefan talk about:

  • The key that made his business successful after a couple of failed attempts
  • Stepping into an oversaturated market
  • How he came up with the USP of his software
  • Insights into market a SaaS which you can implement too
[00:00:00.170] – Peter

Hey.

[00:00:06.600] – Peter

Okay, so I am here today live with Stefan Smulders from Expandi.io. Stefan, thank you so much for joining me for a chat. Could you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about who you are and what you do?

[00:00:19.690] – Stefan

Yeah, first and foremost, Peter very happy and thanks for having me in your great and fantastic Take Facebook group. I already saw a couple of episodes which I hopefully can come close to provide some additional value. My name is Stefan, I’m from the Netherlands. I am a Bootstrapped SaaS founder and my journey with Expandi looks like an overnight success that it took me a lot of years to build a successful SaaS company. As the first ones, they failed and they did not took off really, really well. And my Expandi project is sales automation software focused on LinkedIn outreach.

[00:01:03.830] – Peter

Okay. Sales automation software for LinkedIn outreach. Stefan, can you tell me a bit about where you are with this business? Where are you with ARR at the moment?

[00:01:16.060] – Stefan

We launched it end of 2019. So just before COVID kicked in, it was quite challenging times, I think, for everybody. Right. But due to the fact that we are an online business, we could take off really well. And as of today, we are around seven and a half million in ARR.

[00:01:40.430] – Peter

Great. Seven and a half million ARR. And that’s completely Bootstrapped correct strapped business. Do you have any co founders?

[00:01:48.020] – Stefan

Yes, I have two co founders and we divided our shares equally.

[00:01:53.200] – Peter

Okay, there’s three co founders. And how are your role split between the co founders? To me, I see you as a marketer. Is that your predominant role? And what are the other two profiles?

[00:02:07.110] – Stefan

Yeah, my other co founder, it’s Glenn, it’s sort of the technical magician. And he took since they won actually care for the development and the technical side. And our third co founder, Art, he’s a bit more in the background. He tried to be the middleman between me and Glenn so that we not fight that much. That was our original plan and now he’s a bit more into the HR direction.

[00:02:39.020] – Peter

That makes sense as you expand and grow the team based on your growth. So your growth has been really impressive. So it’s been, say, three to four years that you’ve been running this business. It sounds like it was around eight years in the making as you were starting businesses, having a few learnings and some failures in there. What would you say has been the key driver that has made the impact with Expandi, that made it a success in comparison to the other ventures you attempted before?

[00:03:14.660] – Stefan

Yeah. Maybe you need to take a step back so that I can give a bit of more background. Because I started very enthusiastic in the early days when I was in my mid 20s with an ID. It was in healthcare, we should build an app. We raised 500 KVC money and burned everything to it before we launched the product.

I think that woke me up and it was something I remembered as I definitely want this never to be happening again, as I really felt unlucky and uncomfortable about sort of the mistake I made or that failure. And it took me a while to recover mentally from that first and foremost. After a while I as a marketer I have a marketing background. I was sort of always triggered about website visitors why they not convert and everybody is going with a special reason from Google to a website and only two or 3% fill in the form. They buy something or they apply for a demo call or so. For me it was quite hard and interesting to see why Google is not presenting these people and give them faces. These anonymous visitors.

[00:04:31.700] – Stefan

So I started with idea of an IP tracking software. Long story short we did that, we launched that on a local market. It was quite competitive to forensics lead feeder and after a while we found out it was more nice to have software. We pushed it as a side hustle with traditional marketing towards 1000 subscriptions. But at the end of the day everybody wanted to get results out of these identifications and they actually wanted to have appointments.

I was a bit disappointed that our software was not resolving the purpose they aim for. I stepped on LinkedIn because that triggered me to find ways to do acquisition on a much more modern way and that was actually the main reason. So I proved it my own profile and I never leveraged it six years ago for any commercial purposes before. But I found pivoted and learned by trying and doing and after a couple of months it became my number one lead channel. So I started to document everything I did the playbooks, how I optimised my profile, how I found audiences and how I engaged with them to get reactions and replies.

[00:05:49.180] – Stefan

And that became quite successful. So I thought let’s help some complaining customers from my IP tracking software do exactly the same for them. And after managing five customers it was working perfectly fine, but I could not scale that sort of starting done for you agency as I had two left hands, one Excel sheet and I was running totally out of time. So I thought let’s be clever and try to search for some automations which can at least automate these repeated tasks with connection requests.

And at that time, 5 years ago, I stepped into a new world which called LinkedIn automation. I had no clue what it was at that time point it’s not illegal, not forbidden by law, but I was not even aware that LinkedIn was especially there, not that amused with it. So it was all new for me. And I found a bunch of tools, 90% of them were all chrome extended perfectly fine with intelligent features for single users who just and simply want to run run automation. But from agency perspective, if I want to manage five or ten customers, I want to run A/B test and I want to run multiple campaigns, I need to set up VPNs for every action I wanted to do.

[00:07:08.700] – Stefan

And as soon as my wife was calling me for dinner at 06:00 p.m., I needed to close 40 browser sessions and I needed to restart everything again. So that was a big hurdle and it was really a huge mess. And that frustrated me so much for the purposes I wanted to leverage it that I shared everything out of frustration with Glenn, my current co founder. And he say let’s just build a thing ourselves.

We make it cloud based, quite intelligent, with dedicated IPS per user account. We can run hundreds of accounts in one admin and no worries, we don’t need to close it. And by the way, we will build in all features you need as an agency owner to manage more accounts.

So that was a bit of the start of Expandi and it took us a couple of months. It was a bit of more challenging as we are not leveraging an app on LinkedIn to access the platform and LinkedIn start to change things, they find all these tools. So yeah, that’s a bit of how we came towards ID from Expandi and how we were able to build it, why we really took off.

[00:08:21.460] – Stefan

I stepped in in an already oversaturated market, as we all know. There were a bunch of tools and most of them were quite spammy. And I saw three simple things obviously happening in this sort of a niche when we operate things. And I just took advantage of these three things. It’s quite simple because everybody’s asking me how did you get to seven or 8 million in such a short of time period bootstrapped without funding? And I think it’s it’s three things. At the time that we started, there was a huge burst on LinkedIn automation on the left side.

Everybody wanted to leverage these tools, especially all our US friends, because they could do faster business. It saved them a lot of time. It was fully automated. On the other hand, nobody wanted to get in problems with LinkedIn or losing their profile. And at some point before we started and launched our product, I think Linked Helper and DuxSoup, they got catched. And I think in reality, a handful of profiles maybe lost access to the platform. But there was a buzz that was so big that it looked like half of the world was losing their LinkedIn profile.

[00:09:37.010] – Stefan

So at that time point I really understood safety is the most important thing in this business model. So I thought if we launched a product, no matter what, we will present ourselves as world’s safest tool out there. And then just after launching. I was praying and begging that it did not sell apart the first couple of months. But I kept screaming we are the safest tool, we are the safest tool. And at some point people start believing it. And of course we did a lot of things to make it safe and build an intelligent architecture.

Secondly, as a former agency owner and user of such third party apps, it was quite challenging for me to get in touch with all these providers. Because let’s be honest, if I’m a single user, I put in my credit card, they charge $99. And the only requirement I have is that it needs to work. If I’m an agency owner, manage 50 or hundreds of accounts, then I actually want to know what direction LinkedIn is going. Can I give you a feedback to improve your product so that I can level up my results for my customers and so on and so forth.

[00:10:50.110] – Stefan

But all these providers, these founders of these providers, they were operating in a great mode. They were hiding themselves for LinkedIn. Maybe scared that Bill Gates should come one day, boom and spank all of them and crack their tools down. So I thought if I want to do things differently and stand out of the crowd, I need to manage this company like it’s just a normal company. Let’s put myself as face of the brand on Expandi that people see it’s a real company. These guys are not hiding themselves, everything is safe. It’s trustful, so that’s what I did. I run more than 700 demos in the first four months after launching Expandi.

I think that made the difference. And the last, I think obvious, thing we did is that it was at that time point, if you visited competitors website, they were just pronouncing 10x results, we 10x your results, we 10x this. And nobody was educating people on how to get these 10x results with what playbooks, what strategies. So we started to use our own Expandi tool to design the best out of the box strategies and the best performing ones.

[00:12:08.620] – Stefan

We took them apart. We created playbooks out of it with the how, the why, how you connect the dots, which messages you use, which targeting, how you need to scrape the proofs, the results from all the appointments, the screenshots from the Zoom conversations. And these ones we started heavily to distribute it among all the communities. A Facebook group for the growth hackers, for the growth marketers. A LinkedIn posts where we use the post to create a lot of engagement and manual traction. And then we followed up manually in all these Facebook groups with the DMs to send a link. We put a small retargeting on it and that we leverage actually inbound marketing by creating quite successful Playbooks. And they were all working because we tested out all of them ourselves actually.

[00:13:02.240] – Peter

Fantastic. Hey Stefan. That was such an awesome overview. I feel like I really understand what made the big differences, those three things. Also the time and effort you put in the pivot you made in the business. So I feel like I didn’t really have to ask you anymore, and you’ve been really generous in sharing all of that knowledge and your experience there. Hey, thanks so much for joining and talking with me today. How can people follow you and check out Expandi if they’re looking for a LinkedIn automation outreach tool?

[00:13:30.870] – Stefan

Yeah, I’m quite active on Twitter and LinkedIn. I try to build my company in the public and share all the lessons learned from me as a founder. So just fill in my name, Stefan Smulders, on Twitter or in LinkedIn. And for the ones who want to learn more about how to approach LinkedIn, I don’t want to sell anything, but I should recommend to just learn more about one of these practical playbooks which you can find on our blog to see if this could be something that resonates with your audience interests.

[00:14:09.690] – Peter

Okay, that’s great. So go and check out Expandi. And you can follow Stefan on LinkedIn and Twitter. Thanks so much for joining me. I’ve really enjoyed our chat. Stefan and I’ll see you around.

[00:14:19.270] – Stefan

Likewise.

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