How Three Fresh Out Of University Founders Created A 250K/Month Media SaaS
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hey, my name is Niklas Dorn, CEO, and co-founder of Filestage. We started the company in 2015 fully bootstrapped. Today we are the leading content review and approval software.
But let me give you some more background on that: Every day, agencies and marketing teams create, share and collaborate on millions of files. But the feedback process is messy and complicated for everyone involved.
Our software enables teams to easily share, comment, and approve any digital content. You can collaborate on anything from videos, images, pdf, podcasts, or entire websites with Filestage.
Today over 600 customers and 50.000 users worldwide use Filestage to manage their content approval rounds. Companies such as Sixt, Sharp, Publicis Health, and BBraun use the software to have all their files, versions, and feedback in one central place and to make their entire approval process more efficient.
Speak early on with the customers you want to serve with your business and let them challenge your idea. The original idea will almost never stay the same after talking to real customers. It’s just extremely valuable for the future success of your business.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I was always passionate about marketing and entrepreneurship. So after my master’s degree in media management, I decided against a corporate career and instead started our business Filestage together with my two co-founders.
My co–founder Maël Frize was working in the advertising industry and produced lots of videos back then. I had my experience in various marketing jobs. It was great fun, but we were both frustrated about one thing: Whenever we produced new content, such as a video, we had to go through endless feedback rounds with clients and stakeholders to get their final approval.
Back then, there was no software. So actually, we spent half of our week in endless email ping pongs trying to collect feedback, build new versions, and get approvals. Our statistics say that marketers today spend about 30% of their time giving or receiving feedback. That was a nightmare because you couldn’t do what you love: Being creative and producing great content.
So yeah, long story short: This is how I became the co-founder of Filestage.
In the first year, Filestage was almost completely bootstrapped, and also later, we survived for a long time on a small business angel investment. But at this time, it was okay because we came still fresh out of university and weren’t used to big salaries. Also, it boosted our hunger for more and forced us to focus on winning customers early on.
Take us through the process of building the first version of your product.
Since day one of our startup Filestage, we've been asking for feedback. Today, we often refer to ourselves as a feedback company. Talking to users is one of our core habits still.
So before we wrote a single line of code (btw I can't code!), we interviewed more than 30 professionals from the film and marketing industry. At that moment, we had only a few drafts from my co-founder. But we wanted to understand how creatives work and how they collaborate on content before building anything.
With these insights, we built the first prototype. It was basically a tool that allowed you to share and comment on videos in the browser.
We continued this process for every new feature. And today, when a new feature goes live, we are ready to improve it further with user feedback until it's perfect.
Today we are no longer an early-stage startup, of course, but I still believe user feedback is the key to sustainable growth.
Here’s a more detailed post I shared on LinkedIn a couple of months ago with more insights on this.
Describe the process of launching the business.
As we launched the business, we had no money for marketing or professional developers. I still remember how hard it was. At the same time, it pushed our creativity and motivation, and we worked crazy hours to win our first beta users and, later on, customers.
One thing that worked super well for us was to be open and transparent from the beginning. I personally went into many online communities, such as Facebook filmmaker groups, and shared our story. I also gave the product free to everyone that shared feedback with me. During those early days, we were able to generate a lot of buzz and beta sign-ups through that method, but it also helped us to improve our product.
One of the most important things I’d do differently is to invest in great seniors earlier. We tried for too long to achieve everything with working students, interns, and juniors. Better one senior to 2 juniors.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Later on, we switched to a content-driven approach. At this stage, we still had money to spend on marketing, so we focused on content marketing. Basically, with that, we were able to generate our first traffic and drive new sign-ups more automated.
We published educational articles around different topic clusters, such as project management, marketing, and video production. Each of these articles contained internal links to support other pages across the website, like our video review and collaboration software page.
Another good example is our What is online proofing? article, which sits further up the funnel and educates readers on how to solve problems in their review process.
In addition, I pushed outbound email and phone sales a lot. So we reached out directly to agencies and film production firms as our first target audience. Here I used the same approach again as in the Facebook groups. I said we are a startup with a new product and that I’d love to get their feedback as professionals in the creative industry. However, I have to say this sales outbound tactic was good in the early days, but wouldn’t work for us today anymore.
Today we focus a lot on producing helpful content for our main user persona. So today, we publish content that helps our ideal customers to become better marketers. We just believe that everybody is interested to learn to become better in their jobs, and by providing great content to them, they will gain trust in us and, over time, also become interested in our software that will help them to automate their content production processes.
With our content, we aim at the one side to attract the right people to our blog via google search. On the other, we use the best content pieces as fuel for social media. There we break them down into different content posts and pieces and share them, for example, via LinkedIn. We are also producing videos and shorts to publish on channels like youtube.
Here are some examples of super helpful articles:
- 8 steps to optimize your graphic design process
- Top 19 review and approval software to improve your team’s performance
- Easy ways to submit a successful request for approval (incl. 8 templates)
And here are some video examples:
- Short: When your work gets approved in the 1st round of feedback
- 4 Ways Online Proofing Tools Make Feedback Easier
- What makes a great review and approval solution?
On top of that, we’ve built a strong sales team that is also focused on being super helpful and knowledgeable. Our workflow consultants - we don’t call them sales managers - are there to help prospective customers to optimize their entire marketing workflow. So before talking about us and what Filestage can do for them, we help them to get a better understanding of their entire marketing workflow.
We also want to know about all the problems they face during their content production and marketing campaign creation. Based on that, we give them great tips on how to become more productive and how to integrate the different tools along the production chain. Once this is clear, we help them to become more productive using our review and approval software Filestage.
From my experience, building a strong sales team consists of three elements:
- Start with the right people and hire people who are already enthusiastic about your product, or at least willing to be enthusiastic about it.
- Establishing a sales process so that everyone is aligned and consistent
- And train your salespeople in customer service as well as sales skills.
This way, we won many of the first customers that we still have today.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today we have a more sophisticated marketing strategy than when we first started. At the same time we are now venture-backed by Newion, HTGF, and seed+speed and closed our series A in early 2021.
With the newly available funds, we invested heavily in our product and service and ramped up Filestage from 25 to 50 employees. This was important since we believe in the product and content-led growth. So providing a top-notch product that our customers love and customer service that goes above and beyond is the key to our growth strategy.
To give you a better overview, I am happy to split it by new customers and existing customer expansion.
Currently, we win around 20% of our new customers through the viral effects of our product. In addition, we win many new customers through our blog, newsletter, social media, and SEA. Furthermore, we win many new customers through software comparison platforms like G2 and Capterra.
Once a customer has started to work with Filestage we roll out the red carpet for them. Our CS and support team is personally there to help them. We listen to our customer's needs systematically and build the features they need.
On the other side, we have formed one of the best customer success teams in the SaaS space. Our CS is working hand-in-hand with the customer on their individual workflows and helping them to get the most out of their Filestage software.
In addition, we create helpful content for people working in the marketing and creative space that want to make their content collaboration and workflows more productive. This involves everything from insight blog articles, and free masterclasses to free templates.
In the last year, we have grown our revenue with this strategy by 80%.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Over the last couple of years, I certainly made some mistakes and had my lessons learned.
Looking back, one of the most important things I’d do differently is to invest in great seniors earlier. We tried for too long to achieve everything with working students, interns, and juniors. It’s okay to get things from the ground if you are bootstrapped, but I’d invest the first revenue definitely in building a team of professionals. Also, less is more. Better one senior to 2 juniors.
Also, this goes the other way around. You should do everything to motivate your best people and help them to remove roadblocks. At the same time, be very strict with who you hire and who shall stay after your probation period. Don’t compromise on value fit and performance.
It’s easy to waste lots of money on paid advertising. Investors often force you in because they want quick growth results. However, it won’t work if you don’t have proper tracking in place to fully understand your funnel. Also, you really need to be on top of it yourself, or you need to have an expert taking care of this 100% of their time.
Last but not least, you need to prepare your company for scaling. But what does it mean? For me, one of the core things is to make the team's founder independent. Therefore you need to make sure every team has clear role descriptions, responsibilities, playbooks, processes, and targets in place to operate. Even the best hires will be ineffective if the basics are not set up properly.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
At Filestage we invest a lot of money in software because it saves us thousands of working hours a year and makes our lives easier. These are some of them:
👉 Asana: With this tool, we keep track of all to-dos and projects.
👉 Slack: Internal email is prohibited, so Slack is our base for internal communication. All our employees stay in touch here throughout the day. And some customers are plugged in here as well. Internal email is prohibited!
👉 Loom: We believe in focus time, so pulling people in meetings all the time is bad. That's why we often record our thoughts in short Loom memos and share the videos asynchronously via Slack or Asana.
👉 Miro: We often use it for brainstorming and to structure our thoughts.
👉 Figma: We create most of the designs for our software Filestage, but also for our marketing in Figma.
👉 Filestage: Our tool for marketing collaboration. This is where we share, comment, and approve all of our digital content before we publish it. From videos to landing pages.
👉 Google Workspace: Our central file storage, office tool, and basis for appointments and video calls.
👉 Hubspot: This is where we manage our lead funnels and our marketing automation.
👉 Intercom: Our software for customer support, live chat, and customer communication. We also use it to manage the automated onboarding of our new customers.
👉 Vitally: Ingenious software for customer success and customer health tracking. We use this to look after our existing customers and manage optimal support.
👉 ChartMogul: Our software for tracking metrics and KPIs. From sales growth to expansions to churn.
👉 Zapier: For all tools that don't talk to each other natively, we use Zapier to set up custom workflows, automations, and integrations.
In addition, there are about 50 other paid software tools that take work off our hands.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
The most valuable source of inspiration for me is still talking to our customers as well as conversations with other saas founders and CMOs.
However, there are also some great books and podcasts that I follow:
Ben Goodey offers great advice on how to grow organically and shares insights into the growth strategies of companies like Monday.
Chris Walker and the State of Demand Gen is a great source of inspiration for marketing.
Book: The ultimate sales machine by Ched Holmes is the best sales and business book I read in the last couple of years. Lots of insights into self-organization and building an actionable sales strategy.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
The most important advice I can give is to speak early on with the customers you want to serve with your business and let them challenge your idea. The original idea will almost never stay the same after talking to real customers. Sometimes it’s cruel, but in most cases, it’s just extremely valuable for the future success of your business.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are currently preparing our series b funding round to continue our growth as the best content review and approval software in the market. Some of the key hires we want to make in 2023 are a CRO and a VP of marketing.
Where can we go to learn more?
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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