Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi everyone! I am Gina and I am the founder and CEO of Wolfpack Digital. The name of the company stems from my surname “Lupu”, which means “Wolf” in Romanian. We are an award-winning app development agency from Romania with an in-house team of 50 people. We design and build web and mobile apps start-to-end for startups and scaleups from around the world, while advising them with their business and product strategy. This has given me the opportunity to personally work with more than 40 entrepreneurs so far and to learn more about their business, which is super exciting!
The main industries we focus on are fintech, health tech, IoT, social and transportation. Most of our customers come from the US, UK, Canada, Ireland, Germany, Denmark, and France. More recently, we started the journey to building our own apps in the health tech and Greentech fields, and we have won an accelerator competition with Pamble, our in-house health tech app for gambling addiction treatment.
This year Wolfpack Digital has exceeded the 1.5M USD yearly revenue threshold, yet what we are most excited about is the great atmosphere in our team and our amazing office space, coupled with the fact that we get more and more opportunities to work on meaningful apps with inspiring founders.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I come from a diverse background, as I am a Telecommunications & IT Engineer at the base, yet I also have a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, a Master’s in Public Relations, and an M.Sc. in Engineering with Business Management from King’s College London. I was always interested in many fields and entrepreneurship became the path to bring all these technical, social, business and creative interests together. You really get to do it all as an entrepreneur.
I lived most of my life in Cluj, Romania, which is the heart of the Transylvania region. After graduating from university I decided to move to London for my Master’s degree, and after that, I worked in London as the main iOS developer for an IoT company building smart jewelry. I continued my work as an iOS developer and business strategy consultant for a while.
This made me realize that I love working with apps and founders so much and that I am so addicted to innovation, that I would love to be able to cover as many ideas and products as possible in my day-to-day life. At the same time, the tech talent pool in Romania was impressive, while the ecosystem back in 2014-2015 was pretty much lacking the needed soft-skills and strategy or business skills to build products start-to-end, especially for startups.
This gave me the idea to move back home and start my own company here while bringing together cross-domain knowledge and taking advantage of the unique opportunities in my hometown. Cluj is one of the most important tech hubs in Europe to watch out for in 2020, according to Slush. I founded the company here in 2015.
Be careful about keeping your mental health in good shape, as you are in for a marathon, not a sprint.
The first two years were the toughest, as all the unpredictable business we attracted relied on scarce recommendations. I started the business when I was 25 years old, when my public app portfolio was quite thin, while my network was quite limited. This meant I had to rely on my own savings for a while, and also do most of the software development work myself initially. I also resorted to working with freelancers for design and web development. My commitment to the new business was all-in, and I gave up on most of my own freelancing commitments as iOS developer and decided to move some of these on-and-off clients to the newly-founded company.
Right now, our entire team is in-house, which is absolutely amazing! Yet I believe working with freelancers who were very carefully selected was a necessary step to help the business survive and grow at the time. Some of them became our full-time employees and are in key positions now.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
The first product we built was for a UK-based customer called ZipHire and it was a multi-platform recruitment platform aimed at students especially. It had Android and iOS apps for job seekers, a web app for employers, and an admin dashboard for our client and partner. The business edge of the platform was that it allowed employers to also advertise offers to jobseekers (for example “Free tequila shots on Monday in our Pub”) so as to attract more business from the audience, and not just potential employees. Features included: candidate search, chat, interview invitation, a news feed, social interactions, notifications, etc.
This was our first contract and at the same time it was a start-to-end digital product we had to build, and we did everything in-house, from design to development and to the final testing and launch. We also helped the founder with support during investor discussions and advice with respect to product flows and decisions. The process we used then and we are still using now is the following:
We always work by the lean methodology (build-measure-learn) and advise starting with an MVP to focus on the core functionalities. We start by defining the requirements with the customer and ask relevant questions to ensure the product-market fit, and follow with several wireframing sessions, where we draw together the block-scheme of all possible flows of the mobile/web app, depicting all components and actions in each screen/page, and then refine it. Afterward, we move to the UX/UI design phase, where we add color and branding elements to the screens/pages in the wireframe, in several iterations.
Finally, we move to the development phase, when the code is written and tested, and we then release the app or website. This entire lifecycle gets repeated for every new feature/change, and we couple this process with the Agile methodology. In this way, we ensure efficient spending of resources while remaining flexible to changes and input, which is at the core of the lean methodology.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Since we are a B2B company, the start was tough and there was a lot of work needed to attract customers, especially in the beginning. After incorporating the company, I started reaching out to my network and letting as many people as possible know about my plans. That’s where the first contracts came from.
Immediately after incorporating the company, I made sure we had a super nice presentation website launched and our logo designed. The next step was to rent out a small office space, which, looking back, was a pretty bold move in those early days, but it turned out for the good since it added to the constructive pressure to generate revenue fast so as to be able to pay for rent.
I believe we were too optimistic in the beginning and did not realize the amount of patience needed. We even decided after our first contract was signed to give ourselves salaries, which meant the company had to pay significant taxes for ourselves as employees (almost 43% in Romania), and it also meant a commitment to have a steady company income. Little did we know, and in a couple of months, we quickly realized we need to rely on dividends and postpone having a full-time traditional employment arrangement for ourselves in the company.
However, being “hungry” in the beginning really helps, as this pushes you to over-deliver to your customers. The first 2 years were highly unstable financially, with huge variations in workload, and I relied on my personal savings to pull through. However, the second year was already a lot better than the first, and seeing results is very encouraging, always.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Even now, 5 years after starting the business, I can say what works best is doing a fine job, as customers will recommend you to others and attract more business. Recommendations make out most of our strong lead sources.
Retaining customers is something we do by ensuring the relationship with them is a great one and that the team remains committed and motivated to deliver high quality. Working with Scrum makes things easier, of course. We are happy to say we have customers we’ve been together with from almost the beginning.
Working with diverse teams may be difficult, but it’s totally worth it, as the results are much better.
We also have a small internal marketing department that is focused on maintaining our online and offline image on various social media channels, and this helps attract some business leads that are far more difficult to convert than the ones coming from recommendations. The biggest challenge comes from the fact that we build custom software, so we do not have an actual product or a service package that we can present as a stand-alone solution in the initial conversation. Therefore marketing is more efficient in the HR aspect: employer branding for recruitment and team retention purposes.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
The company is profitable today and it has been so since its second year of existence. We have pretty much doubled in team size every year, however, we do not see increasing headcount as the top goal. This is tricky, since most of our contracts are time and materials, which means we get paid for the man-hours/man-days worked on each project, and therefore a bigger team means increased potential for revenue. Our revenue has almost doubled every year too, with a consistent profit margin of around 15-20%.
We started reinvesting profits in developing our own apps and the long-term plan is to keep doing a good job and offer better and better customer and employee experience. Financially speaking, our goal is to have a steady 20% increase in revenue in the upcoming 2-3 years.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I believe I started to value the importance of patience and that of choosing the right people through starting the business. Luck and the right context are a big part of why anything works, as without these two ingredients a lot of things can go wrong. Every result is a consequence of both controllable and uncontrollable factors, so the best you can do is give everything you’ve got in the controllable area.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
As an app development agency working on projects of so many shapes and sizes, there are many tools we use during development, so I am only going to name a few that are more general to our operations.
In general, we prefer to use Trello for project management and Slack for internal communication. We really enjoy their friendly and colorful interfaces, together with the fact that they enable a dynamic and flexible workflow while allowing the required level of structuring. We work in an Agile way and therefore the versatility of our tools is essential for us. Another great tool for us is Marvel, which we use for wireframing and prototyping, together with Sketch.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I will have to include the Lean Startup book from Eric Reiss here, and the Tim Ferriss Show podcast. Another great book is How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. I see these all as “classics”.
I must admit I sometimes find it difficult to navigate through the huge amount of information and noise made available by business books/podcasts/articles nowadays, and I believe most valuable business principles are repeated in high-quality materials and interviews. The rest of it is just connecting the dots and integrating cross-domain knowledge in practical situations. In the end, it’s all about human psychology and drives.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Be careful about keeping your mental health in good shape, as you are in for a marathon, not a sprint. Another thing I have learned is that many times taking care of your team is more important than running around after seemingly exciting business opportunities and customers.
Also, the way you recruit is highly important, especially in the beginning: watch out for the right attitude, not just for the technical skills.
In general, be patient and persevering, results will come, sometimes much later than expected. And last but not least, working with diverse teams may be difficult, but it’s totally worth it, as the results are much better.
If you are a tech entrepreneur looking to build a tech-centric company, or you are an entrepreneur simply planning to extend your services digitally, make sure you choose the right software development partner which has the proven expertise (background checks are important here) to help you on your journey.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are always ready to hire exceptional people, especially senior Ruby on Rails devs and talented Project Managers.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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