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Growing a Digital Startup in an Evolving Marketplace with Xenia Muntean (Episode 52)

This week on The Jeff Bullas Show, I spoke with Xenia Muntean who’s the founder of the digital startup Planable. She launched the company because she knew scheduling social media posts and content planning should be easier.

After running a digital agency, creating and publishing content, and trying to schedule it, she discovered a big problem. How do you simultaneously manage content, get it published, and get it promoted? This question inspired her to eventually close her agency and start Planable.

Xenia went to Silicon Valley, where she was trained by Tim Draper, and now has clients like Coca-Cola and has been recognized on the Forbes 30 under 30 list. We’re going to talk about how she achieved this success and came up with her brilliant idea.

Scaling through automation

Content marketing became very complicated very quickly. In 2009, it was like the Wild West. There were almost no tools and nearly everything had to be done manually. So when Xenia started experimenting with automation in 2010, she got a lot of negative backlash.

She realized early on that you can’t scale yourself. If you’re going to manually tweet, post on LinkedIn, Facebook, and every other platform, you won’t have a life. Your work will consume you 24/7. If you’re a digital agency, then you’re doing this for multiple clients, which makes it even more difficult to keep up the quality.

So, once you solve the first problem of publishing, by automatically scheduling social media posts, you will naturally see a rise in content. This leads to more content production now that it’s easier to publish it. The problem has become how to coordinate that content and to make sure that you’re putting out good content. It needs to be on-brand. Content that represents you. Content that’s meaningful and valuable to your audience.

Planable solves these problems by answering questions like:

How do you manage an entire pipeline of content in a collaborative way?

If you’re a big company, you have lots of people that are involved in the process of social media content, from creation, execution, scheduling, reviewing, and publishing.

Planable helps manage that.

Growing a new digital startup

After capitalizing on an opportunity, Xenia found the hardest part was keeping the momentum going. Balancing the energy to grow the company while avoiding burnout was challenging. In essence, there was a need to continually evolve and scale as new goals were set.

After a year-and-a-half, Xenia was running out of money. This led to working in marketing to alleviate the financial constraint. Planable needed to put the product on the market, but they also needed to figure out how to get some external financing. They chose to partner with AppSumo, a marketplace for products that allow customers to buy a product, or a lifetime subscription to a product, at a set base price.

Founders hoping this will be their miracle solution, be aware that AppSumo takes 70% of the profit. It’s a commitment, something that you have to decide will be worth it for your unique circumstances. For Xenia and Planable, they were willing to try anything, experiment with anything, and on the first day (after sending only a newsletter) they were flooded with traffic.

They made around $200,000 in only a couple of weeks.

These early investors were so excited about the product that they tweeted about Planable, wrote blogs, and told their friends. When the deal was over, they continued getting traction and saw an uptick in subscriptions. This simple choice got the ball rolling and as word of mouth started spreading, the new digital startup was pushed into the market.

They hired a marketing team, and from there on, they never stopped growing.

Onboarding customers

Onboarding is difficult because although there are different models, it’s usually self-service. You have to build a great product experience to guide the user through the process and help them understand. This becomes crucial when you have hundreds of customers per month and thousands signing up because you can’t hand-hold or do demos with every one of them.

The trick with onboarding is to build a really, really good experience. If you have a product that is simple, then you can connect your social media accounts and it generates or mirrors your feeds.

This gives you an advantage because people are able to onboard themselves faster. The subscription model is great, but you have to make sure onboarding is as easy as possible.

Techniques for retention

Apple has a pretty good model that works for them as well as many other apps, though it may not be that ethical. They rely on making it difficult to access your subscription and then nearly impossible to cancel it.

It’s very controversial. Making it harder and even requiring an email to cancel is not for every business, and it’s definitely not something Planable uses. They simply don’t want to keep hostages.

They’ve implemented some touring techniques: giving people discounts when they leave to entice them back, for example. In the end, if the product is not a good fit for someone, then that’s it.

So, what’s the real battle? The evolution of what we do changes so quickly that a trend today can disappear tomorrow.

After investing time and money in a new addition or service for your platform, it can fade to the background in months as new trends and needs take precedence.

Even though you’ve broken through, now you’re trying to maintain your position and find that direct tactics towards consumers don’t seem to be working. So, where do you put your energy to achieve retention?

For digital startups, it’s easy to build products. The competition is fierce, especially in the world of marketing tech.

Being in this competitive space means you have to put some effort into not looking at your competitors, minding your own business, building, growing, and following your vision. You can’t fall into the trend trap, you have to do what makes sense for your business and stay focused on those natural areas of growth in the market.

To truly achieve retention, you have to stand out from the competition with a clear unique brand.

Working with APIs

An API (Application Programming Interface) is a link or connection to any platform, and there are certain rules about how you use that connection.

An API is what allows communication between two platforms. For example, if you’re trying to use the connection to publish your content on behalf of your clients to Facebook, you can only do what they allow you to do.

It was limited by design for a while, meaning that apps like Facebook didn’t want third-party apps to be able to automatically publish content on Instagram. The capability of an Instagram posting schedule was the biggest request the team at Planable had for a long time, and it was the biggest bottleneck to their growth.

For Xenia, it was downright painful, as a founder, to observe hundreds of requests and tickets every year that would go unanswered because of the app’s policies. Hitting this roadblock made scaling nearly impossible. They were losing business, losing prospects, but worst of all, they were losing customers because they wanted to be able to create an Instagram posting schedule.

You could do scheduling on Facebook, on Twitter, on LinkedIn, but you couldn’t do it on Instagram just because the API didn’t have the correct feature.

A few years ago, Instagram did release functionality in their API that made it possible to schedule social media posts, but they only released it to their specific marketing partners at the time. Unfortunately, Planable was not on that shortlist.

Finally, after years of testing, Instagram finally released the API to the public in 2020.

Many digital startups rely on APIs, and Planable is now generating 80% of their revenue through Facebook, which is nerve-wracking considering how complicated an API can be.

Think about the power an API has. If more than 25% of your revenue comes through one source, you’ve got to be a bit nervous because they can almost destroy you overnight by blocking or turning you off. In a moment, they can choose to not let you “play the game” anymore.

At the end of the day, it’s all about understanding how a business operates and making sure that you are not too reliant on any customer or any supplier.

To avoid getting even further dependent on an API, Planable decided to move into the collaboration space more and more.

Where is the line on automation?

Content is a very human thing. Creating content and reviewing it is human. Someday there might be AI that can look at content based on a set of keywords or a set of criteria, and flag content that is not on brand. However, that will likely not be in the near future.

Scheduling social media posts? A great use for automation. Creating content? That’s a whole different level, and it’s still too far away to even consider. For now, leaning into the “human touch” is what makes quality content, and what keeps people around.

A B2B or a SaaS business subscription can be amazing because it has scaling potential. You could literally reach millions of people around the globe! At the same time, getting started is hard, not just because of the competition, but also because it’s simply just hard.

You need to know who your persona is and you need to know who your ideal user is because it’s just such a huge ocean you’re fishing in. If you’re allowing the frenzy of competition to push you beyond what you’re ready for, then you won’t see the same results.

Don’t look over your shoulder too much, but keep an eye on the future and write your own story. 

For more inspiring lessons from digital startup founders, tune into The Jeff Bullas Show.

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