Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi everyone! My name’s Fotis Panagiotakopoulos and I’m the founder of GrowthMentor, a platform where you can connect with vetted growth mentors for one-on-one calls.
Growth mentors are rigorously vetted with just around 5% being accepted onto the platform. We only accept mentors that have a high level of both hard and soft skills with an attitude that says “I genuinely enjoy helping and am not doing it just for the money.”
The mentors are primarily made up of growth marketers, product managers, founders, and startup veterans with years of experience. Over 2,500 mentorship calls have been booked on the platform to date.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I graduated with a degree in Finance back in 2007 but never ended up using that degree.
After University I ended up heading growth at EuroVPS, a managed hosting provider, as their first marketing hire. With zero experience in marketing and nobody to show me the ropes, I ended up having to learn everything by myself through trial and error.
From not setting 301 redirects after site redesigns to burning shit loads of money hiring fancy agencies that didn’t deliver, I’m proud to say that I’ve made almost every noob mistake in the book!
Besides just learning from mistakes (active learning), I spent thousands of hours learning from blog posts and courses (passive learning). But I noticed that my productivity was inversely correlated to the amount of content that I consumed.
The more blog posts I’d read, the less time I had to actually produce meaningful work.
Fast forward to 2016 and I stumbled on a way to growth hack my learning curve while dramatically reducing the time spent on passive (non-productive) learning. Instead of hiring freelancers to “do the thing for me,” I’d hire them for a mini-consultation on a Skype call to learn from their experiences and get feedback on my work.
Below is an example of one of those Upwork job postings:
Benefits of these calls:
- Increased my confidence to forge forward and execute. It feels amazing to hear from an expert with more experience than you that “You’ve set it up great! Good job!”
- Decreased my indecisiveness and decision paralysis dramatically.
- Learned tips and tricks are relevant to my specific workflows and toolkit. You never know what gold nugget of inside information you can get from a 30-minute call.
- I built relationships with really interesting people that I could contact again in the future.
- I got to rubber duck myself (rubber ducking is basically all about talking through a problem out loud. When you talk out loud, more parts of your brain are engaged, and this helps with problem-solving)
This was the genesis of GrowthMentor.
I figured, “I’m just a typical person who has typical problems,” so if this works for me, it’ll probably work for other people too. Because growth is hard, and sometimes, you just need to talk to someone about it.
On June 18th, 2017 I registered the domain GrowthMentor.io and set out to create a purpose-built platform where marketers and founders could easily book mini-mentorship sessions with super experienced growth practitioners (at startup-friendly price points).
The next 6 months were spent validating the pain point through a simple twitter bootstrap template I bought off of Themeforest and $500 in Google Ads budget. The early access leads were qualified using a Typeform survey to get as much insight into what the biggest pain points marketers and founders have in their journey towards growth.
The biggest pain point we isolated from the data was loneliness.
I knew if I didn’t go all-in on this idea I’d never be able to live with the regrets of “what if.”
At that time I had just put a deposit on a mint gunmetal grey BMW 335i I’d been saving up for over a year to buy.
BMW 335i vs. building your first startup. Guess who won?
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
When making a product, I zoom out for inspiration from products in different industries. My wife (and partner) Jessica, teach English on a platform called Italki. Italki is in a completely different market. Yet the product accomplishes the same function we needed. People book calls with people that are open to taking calls.
Session booking user interface is really complicated, so having a frame of reference to draw inspiration on saved us loads of time. I started by sketching screens by hand, and then transitioned to Google Docs. Wireframing every single screen of the web app took a solid month. Then Alek Manov, (the most talented product designer I’ve ever met) took over and turned them into what members see today.
From the day we decided “let’s do this” to the moment we had the entire web app on InvisionApp as a clickable prototype took less than 2 months (and we both had full-time jobs during that time).
One tip for any non-technical founders thinking of building software…
Clickable prototypes that mirror 1:1 all the functionality of the final build will dramatically reduce the total build time and save you tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars in the long run.
Don’t leave anything to the imagination of the developers.
When working with a software house, understand that their job is just to build what you tell them to build, nothing more. You have to do product management.
I’m not a developer so I knew I had to outsource the product build. I outsourced the development to a Ruby on Rails agency in Poland, here’s the case study.
How’d we choose them? Well, their CEO, Maciej, has been an English student of Jessica’s for years. So when we got serious, he was the first one we reached out to for advice on how to approach the build.
After a couple of Skype calls, Maciej flew down to Athens to meet us in the flesh. We hit it off immediately. Once we finished the design prototypes, Jessica, Alek, and flew up to Poland, got drunk with the team, and the rest is history.
The development of the MVP officially started in April and lasted 6 months. We could have launched a few months earlier by going being leaner. But we thought that was lame. You can only make a first impression once, which is why we went the minimum “delightful” vs. minimum “viable” approach.
Describe the process of launching the business.
GrowthMentor is technically a marketplace, and like with any other marketplace, you need to take into account the chicken vs. egg dilemma and have a half-decent and realistic go to market strategy ready before launch.
The three months leading up to our soft launch in September 2018, we focused on pre-seeding the supply side with a minimum viable pool of mentors. That part was super easy. People in growth generally love talking about growth so seeding that initial cohort of early-access mentors was a breeze.
We soft-launched on September 4th, 2018 but made our first big splash when I dropped a request for feedback on the SaaS Growth Hacks Facebook group.
This post technically should have been deleted by the admin as it was thinly veiled self-promotion but when you make the effort to tell a compelling story that people can relate to while adding value, people don’t mind it.
That Facebook post got us our first couple hundred sign-ups and from that point on it was “game on.” We started out of the gates strong with the first two months after launch yielding around 500 early users.
But there was a problem.
Barely any users were actually booking any calls and we had no data on the new users since they could sign up with just their email address, we didn’t even ask for their name. What we ended up doing was purposefully added friction to the onboarding process in order to learn more about these early users signing up and to better understand their motivations.
The day we implemented this new friction-loaded onboarding process our conversion rate fell by over 80%. But we were totally cool with that.
Friction in onboarding has an unfairly bad reputation, but there are a time and a place for it. And in the early days when you’re still trying to find product-market fit, you need as much data as possible about the motivations of your early users.
We ran like this from October 4th till December 20th and collected 328 signups which we manually onboarded. During that process, we had awesome conversations with our users and collected thousands of data points.
We learned things like:
- What role do most users have?
- What industry are they in?
- What is their age?
- What are their largest challenges in growing their startup?
- What topics do they want to talk to a growth mentor about?
- How many SaaS tools do they use in their marketing stack?
- How much ROI are they deriving from that SaaS stack?
- Do they ever get feelings of loneliness?
- Do they really even want a growth mentor?
- How much are they willing to pay for one?
The data that we collected during those 6 weeks informed our decisions which led to our hockey stick growth in calls booked the months thereafter.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I really wish I could be like one of the cool kids and share a wicked growth hack that skyrocketed sign-ups, but I have no such stories.
Ultimately what worked the best for us were the basics.
- Word of mouth
- Content marketing
- Bonus: Leveraging other people’s networks
Word of mouth
Many of the users on the platform are solo-founders and don’t have people they can talk to about their challenges. So after a new user completes their first GrowthMentor session they generally experience a profound and sometimes emotional “aha moment.”
The natural side-effect of this is them telling their friends about it that that’s been by far our #1 source of customer acquisition.
We try and get in the habit of releasing at least one new blog post per week. It’s a mix of top of the funnel, bottom of the funnel, and company update posts.
We’re starting to cut down on the amount of TOF blog posts we create because the conversion rates on those posts is really low. The idea behind it was to pixel those users and then enter them into a retargeting/look-a-like Facebook funnel but we just didn’t have the time/energy to do that.
Instead, we’re focusing on building up a repo of landing pages with higher buyer intent, focusing specific buyer personas. We’re lucky because we have a lot of UGC (user-generated content) from the mentors that we can use. We had a lot of success with our GrowthMentor Summit where 54 growth mentors made a 20-30 minute video on a topic of their choice with super actionable content.
My biggest challenge as a content marketer is prioritization, so many good ideas, so little time.
Other people’s networks
One of the things we’ve got going for us vs. other marketplaces is that our supply-side are like mini social media dynamite sticks. The growth mentors are sort of “mini-influencers” and they’ve been more than happy to let us leverage their networks.
But it’s important to not be a taker only. If you give value first, you will always receive back. For example, instead of just asking for random shares, we share their mentor session reviews on social media @ them and their websites, and then they reshare it on their network. Focus on win-win relationship building, and you’ll always win.
Something specific and tactical that’s worked incredibly well for us is when the mentors add GrowthMentor as a position on their LinkedIn. Since we only accept around 5% of those that apply to be a growth mentor, it’s kind of like a “stamp of approval” that you know your stuff, and the mentors want to showcase that.
This is awesome because when they add a new role their entire network gets notified about it. We’ve around a dozen sign-ups from that organic growth loop. Around 50% of the mentors have done this so far.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Things are going well! Our priority right now is community engagement both online and offline. Our community has helped us to become what we are today and we want to make sure that we are paying them back any way we can.
We’ve added some new channels in our Slack group- one of them being a Mentor of the Week AMA and we are focusing on engaging one on one with our members.
It’s quite fun getting to know the mentees and the projects they are working on and then being able to suggest which mentors would be best for them.
We recently added a new product upon numerous requests from our community- Monthly Coaching Packages. So we’re looking forward to seeing how that goes!
Offline we’re planning to do live events as much as possible this year.
We’re heading in Barcelona in February to do a speed marketing event and maybe somewhere in Asia in the spring.
GrowthMentor is a very different animal than your average SaaS startup because it is all about people. It’s easy to get caught up on new features and what we are going to introduce next, so we are really taking a step back from that in Q1 and focusing on the people that make our community tick.
The future… I’ve got an endless list of product ideas that are just waiting to hatch. Everything revolves around the same sphere with the GrowthMentor platform always being the nucleus.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
It has sort of restored my faith in humanity. I’ve met so many amazing people who genuinely want to help others with no strings attached. I also have learned how great it feels to help someone. Honestly, that was something new for me and ‘mentor high’ is real!
Ask for help. Everyone is quick to tell you ‘let me know if there is anything I can do to help’ and you think, “oh that is so nice”. But most likely that will be the end of that conversation. Think quick and tell them how they can help. Simple things like interacting on social media can really help in the early stages.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
These are the SaaS tools I currently use:
- Google Docs/Sheets
- Pivotal Tracker
And these are just the ones I can actually remember off the top of my head.
But if you’re like me and feel like you are spending too much time thinking (or obsessing) about “which tool to use”, you might need a bit of a digital detox.
There’s a lot of talk about digital minimalism and going “manual mode.” And maybe that is what certain people need to break through their plateaus. Early-stage startups that don’t have tons of users and revenue yet could easily cancel their cold emailing software and benefit big by going 1:1 manual mode with outreach for example.
Strategy > Tools.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
My favorite business book at the moment is The Dip by Seth Godin because it has some great advice on when to stick with something and when to quit. The Dip gave me the ammunition I needed to follow my gut and to stick with the project even when it got really hard.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Talk to a Growth Mentor! Ha! But seriously, talk to someone who is totally unbiased. So many startups fail because someone goes ahead with an idea that there just isn’t a need for. Said founder probably had super positive feedback from friends and family, but they are biased and always going to give friendly advice.
Validate your idea and test it with an MVP.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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