I’m an entrepreneur since 2001. I’ve started creating businesses on my home’s land, Romania. That’s the moment when the story I want to share with you starts.
2001: Tasting the entrepreneurial flavor
Back then, I was a professional Starcraft player. Together with my Starcraft addicted friends, I decided to buy an optical fiber broadband connection in the neighbourhood. With $300 in my pocket we became famous by night.
How did we do that?
By changing the lives of hundreds of parents who were able to talk to their kids who were working or studying abroad. Here’s how the business became successful…
The opportunity: The dial-up connections were weak. We managed to deliver something better to our target audience.
The luck: Our Balkanic culture promotes rigid systems with authoritative leaders. Thus, with a bit of creativity and courage, we were able to take advantage of the brain drain.
P.S.: My country’s culture still generates a bit of discomfort because it’s getting harder and harder for a young company to hire talented people. They are drained by the amount of unnecessary stuff they have to learn in school and the poverty sometimes.
The enthusiasm of the first (and fast) win as an entrepreneur plus the money from the exit made me want more.
In 2005 I left the company, aiming for something that I thought it would become profitable by night. Like in the previous business, but with more opportunities to scale, I decided to enter the web development industry.
This time, I failed.
Good market size + bad timing = failure
I consider myself the luckiest person I know. Even though I failed, I had the luck to meet a great man: a young and visionary entrepreneur who wanted to sell car insurance policies online.
This time I wanted to base my decisions on data. I searched for some keywords in Google trends and then it struck me:
80% of the UK car insurance market was already online.
It was going to be huge!
Using growth hacking and conversion rate optimization, we managed to become market leaders in 2012. Over 25% of the drivers in Romania used our platform to compare prices in that year.
One of the best growth hacks I’ve made with my partner allowed us to switch the search trends for “car insurance” queries:
It was really easy. Basically, we realized that our target should be to convince drivers to use Google to search for “cheap car insurance”, which had our website on the 1st position.
10 students, 5.000 stickers on the garbage bins exactly at the point where the eyes of the drivers are looking, got the job done in 2 nights. ROI? 160,000%
2012: The pain of the creation
After a successful year, the need for a conversion optimization solution that wouldn’t cost me my entire marketing budget became vital. Because Adobe Test and Target was excruciatingly expensive (and still is), we had to develop an in-house solution.
After increasing our own conversion rate with 60% with our own platform, I figured this is my next business idea. To build a Software as a Service solution that integrated A/B testing, web personalization and surveys. I dreamed about having a platform that empowers marketers around the world increase their conversion rate. I had that pain back then and I needed to do something to go to the next level.
MVP ready in august 2013, let’s hit the market, I said.
2013 was the most painful year in my entire entrepreneurial history. The difference between our expectations and reality was incredible. We were only 4 people, with no idea of what was going to happen to us. We had no office, but a small area offered by our first angel investor (an advertising agency).
I had to split my time between product development, cold emailing to influencers, prospects and potential investors and also doing local sales. Thank God I was a pretty good consultant in marketing, otherwise we couldn’t survive. The revenue generated by the first customers was not enough. I had to offer marketing expertise to be able to keep things going.
2014: We are lost. Where is the freaking growth?
In 2014, our boat was shaking from all its parts. We encountered internal turbulences such as the lack of resources and experts. We were a team of great people, but with general skills. We needed experts to help us get back on the right path. Keeping my team motivated at a high level was the best thing I could’ve done back then. And it worked!
I don’t think I can describe you that period better than this little allegory:
Itzik and Strul were two entrepreneurs. Each one had a car washing business. One day, Itzik visits Strul. Surprisingly, he finds out that Strul had an elephant instead of a washing installation.
How come? He asks.
Well, Itzik, here are so many advantages: you pay less for the utilities, the elephant wets my wife’s garden,and the kids uses his trump as a slide.
Wow! That’s fantastic! Are you selling it?
You must be kidding me! How could I sell my bet revenue stream?
C’mon, Strul! We know each other for so long, you can take another one! How much do you want?
I can’t sell it!
Listen, I will pay you double than what you’ve paid for it!
You are crazy, but OK. I don’t want you to be sad. It was 30K USD, but you can have it for 60!
A week after, Strul visits Itzik who says to him:
You’ve fooled me! The elephant destroyed a car, my wife’s garden and almost killed a kid who wanted to climb on him!
C’mon, Itzik! You’re never gonna sell this elephant with this attitude!
Disregarding Strul’s lack of ethics in business, this allegory can teach you an important lesson.
The attitude is the one that sells your dream to everyone.
As a founder and a CEO, you need to sell your dream to many parts. Let me explain.
Your own self
If you want to remain sane in this journey, you will have to work a lot with yourself. You’ll have to conquer your fears, handle your strokes of enthusiasm and pump yourself everyday up to the top. A never ending story.
What’s so funny is that, at the beginning, I thought that reaching the beta version and then the first ten employees will make me feel at ease. Also, in my ideal world at that time, I believed that having the first leaders for each team, achieving 50K MRR, a positive cash-flow, and the first investment would make me chill out. But the reality was different.
I’m 100% sure that the game is getting more and more complex. There is no chance for me to stay relaxed until the final round. It’s a never ending story, a game with many levels, that me and my team are completely determined to win.
By far, the most important outcome was the discovery of my true potential. Being self-aware and accepting the change helps you get more of what’s valuable. One of my mentors was right: when you give to the others, you get more. Both sides have to win from this transaction. It’s magical!
Your co-founders & investors
For me, the most important aspects of this relation are clarity and constant feedback. If you get swamped into opportunities, challenges, and projects, it’s very likely that you’ll forget about your co-founders and investors. I did mistakes regarding the relation with the co-founders and investors at the beginning.
1. Ask as many questions as you feel it’s right to ask
The co-founders and investors have such a powerful impact on your mood and productivity, that you don’t want to risk not giving them enough of your time.
I did this mistake.
I was not involved enough into understanding their real expectations regarding the mission and vision of the company. It costed me a lot. I recommend you take all the time needed to listen to them, ask many questions, and test them at the beginning of your journey.
How patient and willing to support you they truly are?
It’s a mandatory question you need to ask yourself and then find the true answer to it. They seem to be in for a journey, but for a long enough journey?
2. Make a good contract
Another advice is to sign very clear “psychological” and legal agreements with your co-founders and investors. If they are not “all-in” for a long term marathon, and you don’t state clearly what’s gonna happen in case of trouble, you’ve just got yourself into trouble.
Here’s how to avoid doing these mistakes…
Make it clear to yourself what’s the vision and mission of your company. Write it down, make a picture, or stick it everywhere it’s possible.
My vision was to create a platform that delivers outstanding value to marketers with the help of a team that enjoys the journey. I care about my people and I want to see them growing as fast as possible, have our nice exit and then continue with anyone who believes in my next dream: an alternative education institute, regardless of profit.
I know that for some founders and angel investors, the single purpose of running a company is getting as much money as they can, as fast as they can.
I believe money is not a value and I’m building businesses for people. My experience in conversion rate optimization taught me a lot about segmentation. Thus, I am segmenting people, team-mates, employees, co-founders and investors in only two: value-driven and money-driven.
My question for you is…
What type of people you want on your team?
Money-driven or value-driven?
Before answering, take your time and consider that you have only one life to live.
Only one company that you are building.
There are lots of money out there, but there’s is only one of you who can make things happen. Make sure you team-up with the right co-founders and investors in the best conditions to protect you, your company and your team.
This is my favorite part in being an entrepreneur.
My team gave me the most valuable feedback and the most precious time in the last three years.
2013 (4 people)
When I think of our early stage, I have almost the same feeling as I had in highschool.
Without my team, I wouldn’t be even close to this moment. They were the first crazy people hired by a poor company that nobody heard of. They had small salaries, no benefits, and no equity.
As crazy as it sounds, these kind of people actually exist. They are out there, waiting for someone to lead them, to show them how big they can grow. You have to continue your search for them and sell your dream.
Young people love the freedom, the absence of roles and procedures. They love navigating in a huge ocean of opportunities. I feel so lucky that I encountered these folks. Ciprian was my initial co-founder, then I hired Elena and Ioana, our first employees (who were at their first job) and Radu, my right arm & Jack of all trades. They were the first crazy ones that believed in me and in the possibility to do something greater than all of us.
It’s funny to see that they still don’t believe what they have accomplished and what’s going to come next. Also, I don’t think they still understand that they follow a crazy guy.
Here’s a funny video that explains how leadership works:
2014 (8 people)
As I said earlier the attitude makes it all.
I transformed the attitude toward every experience within our team into a positive-no-matter-what attitude.
The benefit of staying positive no matter what?
Everyone will believe you and will adopt a positive attitude.
Let me explain…
First of all, the product was not even close to where we expected it to be. “No problem, we said, we’ll make it someday.”
Secondly, we couldn’t afford going to a big event.
Hint: don’t go to over-estimated events where there’s no investor to see you. It happened to us at Web Summit where we spent a lot of money and got nothing from what the organizers promised.
Third, my small team was unmotivated and not focused. I did one-on-one coaching with each one of them, hoping that they will understand my vision. I knew we couldn’t control the environment, but we could control our attitude. So, why focus on what we can’t control instead of focusing on what we can?
We had all the chances to fail, as you can see.
But we didn’t.
Our secret was the power to attract, acquire, and retain talented people. My wonderful wife helped me build an organisational culture. She also assisted Bitdefender in building an organisational culture from 80 to 1,000 employees. So, her input determined me to give up controlling and empowering people, but rather encouraging them to take responsibility and to do their own mistakes.
2015 (22 people)
When you have a healthy basis and enough revenue you can start hiring experts. Make all the efforts to attract and motivate them, because they are better than you at what they do.
To make sure that we hired only the right people we used psychological profiling and placed attitude and commitment above skills. We believe that crafting a culture that relies on it’s values and vision is critical to a company’s performance.
2016 (30+ people)
Right now, my focus is on helping my people by listening to their needs, fears, concerns, aspirations and barriers. I know that they need to overcome these at an individual level to be able to do their job at their true potential.
Not being able to spend more time understanding what shapes every human being at a deeper level saddens me the most. I’ve got busy with long travels, board meetings, complex reports or important partners who are asking for more and more of my time.
Though, I am happy that we still have our team buildings, cooking days, Happy Fridays. All of these are experiences that facilitate the relation between us. I have the chance to meet all the smart, talented, young people that are navigating with us.
The CEO role
As a CEO at a startup, you will constantly need to change your job. You will have to be “the main hunter”, then CPO, CMO, HR director, and CFO. Finally you will become CEO. When you got yourself surrounded by your pillars: you’re good to play your role as CEO.
Your team can become your second family. Remember that you stay more than a third of your time at the office. That’s why you need to treat them as your family. Celebrating victories, constantly sharing the company’s status, keeping the values and values on the first place, making small surprises, justifying your strangest actions, anniversaries, going out, playing, fooling around and being authentic and transparent is the key to build authentic relations with your team.
If you really want to be good at this job, take responsibility for all the mistakes and give all the credit to your team for all the wins.
There are some concepts around the fact that you should always put customers first. I completely disagree with this.
Our take on this hierarchy is this one:
First, is your inner calling: your values and your vision. Don’t sacrifice them, no matter what. Even if you’ll change your direction and strategy, your values should prevail.
Second, is your team. Read upwards why.
Third, comes the product. If it’s a shitty product, your customers will vanish no matter how good your services will be.
Forth, there are your customers.
And last, but not the least, there is the revenue. Your company’s oxygen in order to get further.
Unfortunately, I’ve also been on the many entrepreneurs are falling into this trap, focusing too much on the revenue, neglecting or asking too much from their team, sacrificing the product or the relationship with the customers.
Not putting the customers first doesn’t mean not to over-deliver like crazy to them. Not to make small tweaks so that the product meets their needs. But if their needs are specific and non-replicable to other potential customers, remember you are in a SaaS business. Of course, there are special moments, when you need to evaluate if making some sacrifices will get you further or will threaten the relationship with the hard-won clients.
If you aren’t a good salesman, make sure you get someone to be the head of sales. Your sales and support team must play on their side. You can play on both sides. Your product team should play on the product side. By making this constant dialogue you can reach synergy and move the ball further.
After making the product work, after generating revenue and having a great team, we’ve got to be the hunt and the investors to be the hunters. In our early days, I’ve wasted precious time pitching at various events, hoping that they will provide me the money I need to grow.
Now I know. Money follows value.
People generate value. Stupid simple, I know.
After I’ve got to choose from 4 potential investors, we’ve closed a deal with one of them.
Our criteria in choosing them:
- Good chemistry with the person on their part
- Smart money and good track record for the fund
- Fair conditions
- Good evaluation (not the main one, but important)
- Possibility to help us in the next round
So, here we are today. We are competing in the space of conversion rate optimization. Our product provides A/B testing, behavior insight surveys and web personalization. We have 7000+ users and almost 3Billion visits per month.
Our competitors are way bigger companies like Optimizely (400 employees) or Adobe Test and Target (extremely expensive solution, providing not even 80% of our features) plus lots of smaller players like we are, from all over the world.
But I know our points of difference will prevail:
Team: our team is very agile – our competitors are at the phase where they are moving like huge snails
Features: our product is an integrated platform (less passwords, easier to transport data and better loading times – if you use two different tools – one for A/B testing and one for surveys, your site will load slower because of 2 requests)
Costs: our costs are 4-5 times smaller (a senior web developer in Romania makes 30K USD/ year comparing to 120k in the US)
Distribution: they open local branches, we’re teaming up with local partners. We already have 8 countries with this model, Brazil, Japan and Russia opening up very soon.
I know time will be the only one to tell, but worst case scenario, we’ll be an important player in the marketing technology space. As the main bonus, it would have been an incredible adventure, lots of fun, learned a lot and got from a 20k euros initial investment to a multi-million euros company in only 3 years.
Not bad at all! Well done, Omniconverts!
P.S.: If you want to team-up with us, we’re hiring and looking for localization partners all over the world.
P.P.S.: if your website needs better results, try our software. It’s (still) free for up to 10k tested visits per month.