How We Built A Profitability Tool For Service Companies And Earn $1.24M/year
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, my name is Santi Bibiloni and I founded COR in 2016 with Jose Gettas and Gabriel Marin.
COR is Silicon Valley´s next-generation solution for Advertising Agencies and Professional Services firms that intelligently suggests how to manage projects, finances, and resources in a single platform.
At COR we enable agencies like Ogilvy, VMLY&R, Wunderman Thompson, GREY, BBDO, DDB, TBWA, FCB, Mullenlowe, McCann, Leo Burnett, Saatchi & Saatchi, Havas, Dentsu, and many more, to bring best practices in and become more profitable.
Our mission is to accompany creative and professional teams in making decisions to increase their profitability, customer loyalty, and improve the organization of their work.
Creative and professional teams are moving forward, so is COR´s purpose.
After almost 5 years in the market, our current MRR is $103k and just closed our Series A round having raised $6M.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I always had two drivers:
1) Doing something big.
2) Giving opportunities to people who never had them.
At 14, I started doing milkshakes at home and then sold them at the beach until the resort asked me to stop. And I did, and learned how to do (and sell) thread bracelets
In parallel, I started cooking and serving food in a public shelter for homeless people. Since then, I've dedicated a large part of my time to helping poor and young people with social disorders overcome their situations. I try to show them a different way of thinking and a different perspective on the world.
At 20, after two years working as an ad-honorem at a non-profit organization and writing in some junior magazines, I started a blog: "No Tenemos Techo," (aka "we have no roof," meaning "we have no limits").
The blog, built out of WordPress, became popular, and some of my articles were published in different international newspapers. So I made a book called ¨Wake up in the same bed¨ with the blog's top-rated posts and sold it during a three-month trip to finance part of it. Back from that trip, a senior tech journalist hired me to write one of his book chapters about Steve Jobs's recent death.
At the age of 21, I finished my career in Communication Sciences and eCommerce was about to become a big thing in Latin America. I leveraged my WordPress knowledge to build quick websites for SMBs, and that's how I founded Balloon Group, bootstrapped, with no investors’ capital, to become one of Argentina's fastest-growing companies in its industry with 400 clients in 12 countries. Balloon Group's first office was an NGO's storage room with no windows.
Balloon Group was a successful business (and still is) but while its billing grew steadily, its profitability was unpredictable. Sometimes we earned money and sometimes we didn´t, even though the billing was high. We weren't able to know if the following months we would win or lose money, which directly affected our profits as partners/shareholders.
We realized that to increase the company's profitability, we had to go to the core: projects. If we could identify each one, know how much we would gain or lose with each project before they were finished (in real time, while our team was working), we could make good decisions and work only on profitable projects.
This allowed us to increase the profitability of the company in a great way.
With my partner and old-time friend Jose we realized that 94% of professional service companies around the world shared the same problem: salaries are too low in most advertising agencies, consulting firms, and studios.
This is not because their leaders keep profits to themselves, but they budget services poorly, as they don't know how much time projects take. With low-profit margins, these companies neither grow nor pay their employees better.
That is when we decided to create a solution and go out and compete on a global scale.
We sold most of our shares and started COR, the first AI-powered solution that detects where people are working, so they don't need to log hours manually. Having clear visibility on time and cost allocation could make these companies have more significant profits and produce a better life for creative and professional teams.
At COR, I felt I could:
1) Do something big.
2) Helping others overcome their situation.
In 2016, at 27 years, I moved to Silicon Valley to launch COR from the world's tech epicenter. If this new purpose-driven, long-term company was going to make it big, it needed to be located where things were happening.
COR went through 500 Startups acceleration program and did several financing rounds afterward, including investments from several venture capital firms and top entrepreneurs such as Kevin O'Connor (Founder DoubleClick, sold to Google for $3 billion), Doug Smith (Founder Anaplan, NYSE: PLAN), Marcos Galperin (Founder MercadoLibre, Nasdaq: MELI), Tom Chavez (Founder Krux, sold to Salesforce for $1 billion), and more.
Describe the process of launching the business.
We had a lot of things going on when I first moved to the Valley. Our CTO left the company, and it ended up just being my co-founder/ COO/CFO (an old school friend of mine) and me. Neither of us was an engineer, we had no CTO, and were about to enter 500 Startups. Both Jose and I led the Technical Team until Gabriel Marin entered the company.
Building the MVP of the first product to have traction was a very tough moment for us. We took 9 months to launch a product. After that, we started iterating very fast and then growing, little by little.
We entered the 500 Startups Program, a four-month accelerator program, which helped us scale. We were selling and started validating and iterating with some customers.
At the time, we were offering a free trial to SMEs with no contract. They tested out the product and then paid month to month. But our sales mentor in 500 Startups said: ¨So, you need to take out the free trial, sell to Fortune 500 companies, and ask for 1 year upfront on payments and sign contracts for three years, at least.” We couldn't believe what he was asking! The company was 6 months old at the time, and the MVP was kind of rough. But we trusted our mentor and did what he said.
By the next month, we removed the free trial, started asking our customers for contracts with 1 year up from payments, and started receiving them. We began with the enterprise life cycle that brought Fortune 500 companies as clients 4 months after we started.
It was all a matter of having a north star to work towards, understanding what was possible, believing in ourselves, and, of course, having a mentor with first-hand experience who could tell us, “Hey, this is how you need to do this.”
Since launch, what has worked to attract customers?
On our side, what makes the best ROI in terms of a decision is outbound. At first, I was the SDR, Account Executive, and Customer Success Manager. Then we hired an SDR who was calling and sending emails to these ICP (ideal customer profile) from our target market. He talked about the problem we were solving: our purpose is key for us. This problem is non-profitable projects in the professional service industry, so we targeted our cold emails to the CFOs as they’re the ones most affected by this issue.
The problem is so huge that they would answer back, asking for a call. After the discovery call, the SDR would validate if the person had budget authority, and in that case, he would schedule a demo with the Account Executive (it was me at the time).
As soon as I completed the demo, I qualified the lead, created a deal in the CRM, and carried it through the negotiation until closing. So we started applying this process from the beginning instead of doing it after achieving $1 million in ARR, which is the most common thing to do.
That helped because we attracted many big VC firms or entrepreneurs who are part of big ventures. We had a scalable fast-growing company with excellent unit economics, with part of our team internationally. Some of our team is still in Argentina, and our unit economics are solid. Nowadays, we have an SDR team with 12 people based all over the world. And still growing.
Speaking about Sales strategy, we have a database of most CFOs in the Agency world, consulting firms, and software development shops. We first target CFOs, finance directors, then COOs and CEOs by sending them emails.
If you are going to SMEs or mid-market, you can do this massively: we run HubSpot to send thousands of emails per week. If you're going enterprise, you need to tailor the message to target the right audience. To build this initial list, we prospect with Linkedin Sales Navigator and find emails with tools like Hunter, Zero Bounce, etc. And once you get someone’s attention, you do the discovery call and qualify them to see if they're the right fit. Then, you schedule a demo with the account executive to negotiate and close the deal.
From the Marketing side, we build a lot of success stories (we put a lot of effort into that) and we do SEM. We don’t spend a lot on paid media, only around $4000 per month. We also do blog posts, podcasts with people from the industry, and emails for product marketing.
Marketing generates a lot of MQLs (marketing qualified leads). Each lead is given a score that determines how hot it is based on how much the person interacts with our content. This directly notifies the SDRs so they can see when someone has interacted three times. For example, he went to a particular section on our website and wants your pricing and although he didn’t request a demo or whatever, he might be very interested. And so the SDR gets a notification automatically.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We have just raised a new financing round, which is going to be deployed 70% in growth strategies, involving marketing, sales, product, and customer success management.
Project Management is the old fashion. Project Profitability is the new standard.
Last week we welcomed Oceania and Africa to COR. Creative and professional teams from these markets are today using COR to become more profitable.
We are creating a new category, which is Project Profitability, as no professional service firm cares about collaboration/task management more than they do about profitability. Project Management is the old fashion. Project Profitability is the new standard.
Our long-term goal is to become the Professional Services Standard solution.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I receive a lot of emails and LinkedIn messages every day from SDRs, from other companies. They reach out, saying, “Hey Santi, how are you? I’m with this company, and we do XYZ. And we solve this and are curious about you.” I think people spending more time talking about themselves, rather than finding out about me, is a very common mistake. So I will encourage every entrepreneur and salesperson to ask how the other person is solving their problem. You need to be sure that it’s the ICP, and that the problem is significant for them.
There are three things I would say to myself if I was just starting a new business: First, start now. Success is not about ideas, it is about execution.
So, to reach out, we first explore the company and the contact person to see if they’ve done anything cool or interesting, and we mention that in the first paragraph. Or if we have a mutual contact, it’s a good idea to drop their name at the start of the conversation. Then in the second paragraph, we would ask two or three questions about how they are solving a profitability problem. In the third paragraph, we show them three success stories from companies similar to them. And at the very end, “Hey, have you got a few minutes to talk?” And that’s it. There are, of course, common sense things that will enable you to have a better opening or answer rate.
The second email needs to be very, very precise and straightforward. That is, “Hey Brian, have you seen my last email? Thanks, Santi.” You don’t need to go through the whole thing about profitability again, as you use the same email chain. Otherwise, the reader needs to go and search for your name and see what their last email was. And they’re unlikely to do that.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
At COR every department uses different tools but the whole company communicates through COR itself: every task goes through the COR platform with description, deadlines, collaborators, priorities, etc. We also use Google Workspace.
The MKT department uses Google Analytics, SemRush, WordPress, and more.
Some other tools used by Sales and CSM are Linked Helper, Hubspot Sales, Sales Navigator, Hunter, Zero Bounce, Zendesk, and Client Success.
In the Product Department some of the development tools are Retently, User Pilot, New Relic, Sentry and Github.
For design we use Zeplin, Sketch, Framer, User App, and more.
We are also integrated with a lot of tools.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I´m very fond of reading and have read many books in my lifetime. Here are some recommendations:
- Lean Startup, by Eric Ries
- Start with Why, by Simon Sinek
- Never split the difference by Christopher Voss
- Let my people go surfing by Yvon Chouinard
- Delivering happiness by Tony Hsieh
For sales advice, I would recommend two books: The Sales Acceleration Formula by Mark Roberge and Predictable Revenue by Aaron Ross.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
There are three things I would say to myself if I was just starting a new business: First, start now. Success is not about ideas, it is about execution. The older you are, the more responsibilities you have and the harder it is to take risks.
Second, solve a problem you are passionate about. Third, make sure that problem hurts a lot and to a lot of people.
Fourth, start with one distribution channel. It is better to focus on a few channels to have a bigger impact instead of being everywhere.
Lastly, I would say that PR and media only work if you’re targeting the right audiences and publications. I remember in my previous company how excited I was to be featured in lots of places (and it helped incredibly) but it wasn't for the right inbound channel or to get the right ROI, that’s for sure.
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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