Learn about the inner workings of Salesflare, an award-winning CRM startup, including revenue model, customer acquisition, metrics, product development, overcoming challenges, and much more.
- COMPANY: Genesis of idea, target market, revenue model, customers acquisition, tracking metrics, and product development.
- PERSONAL: Finding solutions to challenges, getting help, constant learning, founder networks, daily tools, work-life balance, and lessons learned.
[0:15] Anil Hemrajani: Welcome to the Startup Sidekick Interview Series, where we take a look inside the inner workings of tech startups. I’m Anil Hemrajani, the founder of Startup Sidekick. My guest today is Jeroen Corthout. He is a co-founder and CEO of Salesflare and easy and automated CRM for small businesses selling B2B. He joins us today from Antwerp, in Belgium. Welcome, Jeroen. How’s it going today?
[0:39] Jeroen Corthout: It’s going well. How are you?
[0:41] Anil Hemrajani: Thank you for doing this. Let’s take a closer look at your company and also how you work. Can you briefly describe your company, for example, like what’s your mission, long-term vision, and your value?
[0:56] Jeroen Corthout: Yeah. Directly, hard questions. Our mission is basically to make CRM work. I don’t have a mission in front of me here. We’re not like Facebook, where we repeat our mission every meeting or something like that. If you would ask me, it’s making sure that companies, and sales teams, and salespeople can build valuable relationships with their customers powered by CRM and fixing the way it works currently because most people don’t use their CRM and don’t reach their goals when it comes to building customer relationships and making sales and all that.
In terms of values, we value being transparent a lot and very clear about things. Very clear communication is one of the core things we focus on. This is not just externally but also internally. It is partly around always being accessible and helpful. That’s also one of the things that differentiates us from our larger competitors is when you join Salesflare as a customer, we actually care about you more like a friend than a number, I’d say.
[2:38] Anil Hemrajani: That makes sense. What would you say is your unique value proposition because there are so many CRM products out there? Right?
[2:45] Jeroen Corthout: First of all, you go on G2, I think 650 CRMs or something. We are built for sales, so it’s only the core thing people do of the CRMs, but there’s also CRMs for lots of other purposes like real estate people to stay in touch of their relationships or their stuff, or eCommerce, and there are marketing automation systems that call themselves CRMs, and lots of other things. We are a sales CRM for small and medium-sized businesses, enough for the large ones. They need a building block system that consultants play with.
[3:26] We actually have an out-of-the-box system, which in a matter of days you’re up and running instead of months or years. The way we differentiate with the others that are still in that space is, we actually make it work in the sense that in most CRMs, you’ll see that there’s this huge expectation when you’re working with it that you’re going to fill it out perfectly with loads of amounts of discipline. Always put in the right data at the right time. And if you don’t do that, the CRM just doesn’t work because it doesn’t contain the data it needs to organize you or for you to organize yourself.
[4:14] At some point, we figured that the data that you’re inputting into a CRM is already in lots of other places, and you’re very often just taking it from one place and moving it to the CRM, like from your emails, from your phone, from social media, from your calendar, from company databases.
[4:36] We figured that we could build something that because it’s already somewhere digitally, build a system that pulls it all together, offers it to you, and you can still control it, so you can curate the information. But then, you don’t have to do all the dreadful input work, and because we don’t create so much data, it can also actually help you sell, and it works for you to organize your relationships.
[5:07] Anil Hemrajani: Yeah. That was one of the things I really liked about your product because I know from running sales teams in my previous tech startups, there’s so much copying and pasting between emails, and the salespeople dread that. How did you come up with the idea? Was it a problem you faced personally, or is it a personal sort of a passion?
[5:27] Jeroen Corthout: I faced it for many, many years and never really thought about it. I worked in a marketing consultancy for quite a while where we used Salesforce, and we also deployed it to clients. I never saw it working within the team. If we would push marketing data in there, that was fine. But if the team has to fill it out, it didn’t seem like training them or giving them special incentives or anything really helped to keep the CRM up to date or even filled.
[6:08] It was at some point when we were in another software company before this one, we had a lot of leads, and we really needed a system to organize ourselves. We didn’t find anything that worked – lots of things that worked better than Salesforce, but none of them that we could actually stick with because at some point, we would always slip. Like, we would forget to fill out this or that, and then it wasn’t in the system. Then you start making your own decisions. Your structure falls apart. That’s when we started thinking, “Hey, maybe this actually can be better.” Naïvely, we thought it wasn’t going to be a lot of work, so we just started on that. That was about seven years ago now.
[6:59] Anil Hemrajani: Wow. What target market are you guys going after? Is it small, medium businesses, larger businesses?
[7:08] Jeroen Corthout: It’s small, medium-sized businesses. More specifically, we have a lot of agencies in the software, marketing agencies, software development agencies, and all that. On the other hand, we have a lot of ex-startups and tech companies ranging from SaaS companies to Telcos; lots of other types of companies, actually.
[7:33] But usually, they’re a bit digital first. They’re not the ones that just type into CRM into Google and select the first thing that pops up because that’s probably not us. They make a bit of a fault-true decision. It’s mainly within English-speaking markets, so the U.S. is our main market, after which the UK is our second one. Then, Europe, in general. About 40% North America, 40% Europe, and 20% the rest of the world, which a large part of is, Australia.
[8:19] Anil Hemrajani: Wow. Yeah. You guys are pretty global there. What’s your business and revenue model? I saw from your website that it is subscription-based. You guys offer freemium models. Is there any product-led growth type approach?
[8:37] Jeroen Corthout: We tried freemium, in the sense of having an always-free plan and then upgrading to a premium package. We couldn’t really make that work better than our current model, which is a free-trial model. The free-trial model we have been tweaking a bit. Right now, you can start yourself with a 7-day free trial, which turns into a 30-day free trial if you actually use it, and even longer if you have a larger team because with all the set-up steps you take, you get more days in the trial.
[9:19] We saw that people who set the trial up – within the trial and within the first period, if you set the software up better, then it doesn’t only convert better, which is quite obvious, probably. But also, in the long run, these people are way more successful with the software in making sales. Therefore, they also stay longer with us.
[9:47] We sell subscriptions only. We don’t charge any set of costs or anything like that. Currently, it’s per-user, per-month pricing. We always think, is that most aligned with the value that people get? And I’m thinking about what are better ways? That’s what works best at this moment.
[10:15] Anil Hemrajani: Jeroen, why do you think the free model, part of the freemium, didn’t work for you guys because a lot of sites do that nowadays where they have zero or free written on their pricing plan page. Why do you think the free premium model didn’t work for you guys?
[10:34] Jeroen Corthout: I’m going to make wild assumptions based on some of the data I’ve seen, but I think it’s mainly because the free model does not attract the right people, at least for us to financially make it work, and our price is already relatively low. I think about all the functionality we’ve built and then how we price it. Lots of other types of software are way more expensive and way less functionality than the CRM. I think we just attracted the wrong people. I don’t think people necessarily expect CRMs to be free. When you then make it free, it’s people who don’t want to pay money.
[11:26] Anil Hemrajani: Yeah. That makes sense. You’re right. Salesforce also doesn’t have a free model. There are some other ones that do. How do you acquire your customers? What kind of marketing technique do you use, and then how do you try to convert them once they land on your site?
[11:43] Jeroen Corthout: Because the CRM space is so busy, and some companies charge a ton of money, they earn a lot of money per customer, which means that they can spend a lot of money per customer. Think about Salesforce; think about HubSpot. When you join them, you become poor very quickly. This also means that they have a lot of money to spend to acquire customers. I think HubSpot charges per customer ten times what we charge, for instance, which makes that we can’t just go for pay channels. That would be easy, but no, unfortunately.
[12:31] We mostly acquire customers, actually because we have had the customers. That’s reason #1. It is people telling other people. People ask on social media, “What CRM do you use?” Our people respond, “Salesflare.” That’s #1.
[12:50] #2 is people finding us on review sites and on listings and all that. We’re well ranked in most review sites. Look on G2, we’re the fourth easiest to use, third-best ROI, second-best support, and the #1 most easy to implement. So, people can find us there. That’s #2.
[13:14] #3 is content marketing. People have all kinds of questions about how to do stuff or on specific topics. We write articles on that, and articles that convert best are the ones in which we also show if they have an issue how Salesflare can also help them solve that. It generally starts with a generalized way: this is the thing you’re trying to do, and here’s some advice, and then if you want to do this or that, then look, this is how it looks in Salesflare.
[13:49] Anil Hemrajani: Yeah. I meant to mention at the beginning that you guys are the #1 product on Products for CRMs.
[13:59] Jeroen Corthout: Most on product, yeah.
[14:01] Anil Hemrajani: That’s pretty impressive, and AppSumo and stuff like that. What are some of the things that are working for you guys, and what are things that you’ve tried in the past that have not worked as far as acquiring customers?
[14:16] Jeroen Corthout: The things that I just mentioned are things that work now, for sure. Our Product Hunt Lounge, which you mentioned, was also a very important event, let’s say, that changed a lot of things for us, especially when followed with our AppSumo Lounge about three months later. Those were two defining moments in our company’s history, so far, because it opened up Salesflare to so many more people, which then also fuels the word-of-mouth I was talking about. Having more people means you can have more word-of-mouth. You can also have more reviews on review sites. It all sort of comes from there.
[15:03] Other things we’ve tried: we did try things like ads, which is very hard to make work. We, for instance, tried Facebook Ads. They might be cheap, but the people you get are sometimes not super-highly qualified in terms of leads. There’s a low chance that they actually convert to paying customers.
[15:33] We also tried outbound emails. We did send emails at some point quite early on, I must say. We took an atypical approach by sending them a Star Wars steaming story about – I don’t remember exactly, but Salesflare was out there and was going to save the universe. You can still find it on YouTube. I think if you type “Salesflare – Star Wars”.You get it in the Star Wars format.
[16:13] Some other things that work well, but take a while, are partnership building, getting backlinks, SEO. But it’s not something, like let’s say if you’re listening now, and you’ve just started your company, it’s definitely not the first thing to focus on. The first thing to focus on is working with your customers, being very close to them, selling all the way. Don’t let them self-serve themselves in the beginning. Don’t make any public trial.
[16:49] Really take them fully through the process because you’ll learn so much. You’ll have a great conversion rate on your demos, and your onboardings, and all that. Don’t start thinking like, “Oh, the guys at Salesflare do it like that now,” because that’s probably not the way it will work for you at this stage.
[17:13] Anil Hemrajani: Yeah, that makes sense. What kind of metrics do you guys track? What’s important? I often hear there are several KPIs that you can track, but a lot of companies recommend having a one north star type metric. So, what kind of metrics do you guys track?
[17:33] Jeroen Corthout: For us, in general, we track the amount of users every month that have joined us. That means from new companies and also existing companies that have more users. For small users means more people are using the software, which is better. It means more impact and more revenue from which we can build more.
[17:57] But then, when we look at these users, what we try as much as possible is to get them to use the software first, the earned users. For us, the main way in which we see that they’re actually using is when they start tracking customers. So if they create customers in the system, at some point, we see the threshold like they’re actually using it.
[18:30] A lot of people just check out CRMs by just starting a trial, having a look at the interface, not really use it, and then look at the next one. It’s not really the best way because if you don’t use it and if you just look at how it looks, it’s hard to make a good choice. The ones we actually convince to use it, we have a very high conversion rate.
[18:57] Anil Hemrajani: Wow. Yeah, that’s important because even in my previous company, it wasn’t just the fact that you signed up a customer, which is great, but in the SaaS model, renewal and retention become so important, so usage becomes an important aspect. Do you guys have dashboards where you track these kinds of stats like how much usage is going on, how many accounts have they created like you mentioned? How do you track that?
[19:21] Jeroen Corthout: It’s some self-made dashboards at this point and Google Sheets. Basically, we have Zapier running some queries now and then, and that gets updated in Google Sheet.
[19:36] Anil Hemrajani: Oh, okay. That’s interesting. Then, on the product side, how do you guys build your product? Do you follow Agile processes, two-week sprints? How do you go about building, and how often do you release stuff?
[19:50] Jeroen Corthout: We used to have two-week sprints. Currently, we have weekly sprint meetings because we organize in such a way that people rotate through doing features for a certain amount of time – then being a support hero for a certain amount of time. That means helping the support team with any technical things that might come up, solving any bugs that need to be solved very quickly.
[20:24] Then they have a bit of issue time. Issues mean solving bugs also, and also, small improvements, like not necessarily really broken but making small things better. They are not necessarily like big features. People rotate through that. It’s not like the developers are all at the same time creating features. When one is creating features, the other is doing the other thing. We have a team like that. If you were to look at their schedule, it’s all not aligned.
[21:06] We used to do monthly releases with a bunch of features. Now we decided to switch to feature-by-feature releases. It makes it a bit more interesting in the sense that we can ship quicker; plus, we can also focus our release on the feature when we communicate about it. We don’t have to make a message that spans a few features. It can be very specifically about that feature.
[21:40] What else? We use Intercom for support and get up for code. Those two are very, very tightly used together. Like, in GitHub, we have all of the issues, which means the bugs, the improvements, the features linked up with always what people ask, what people need specifically, linked up to an Intercom conversation.
[22:16] Now, if at any point, we fix the issue, which might be like a feature or an improvement to a bug or whatever in GitHub, then all the Intercom conversations open, again, also so that we can tell people, “We’ve just put this live. What do you think?” to really close that feedback loop. Recently, we have started using Clubhouse, not the audio social media thing, but the Trello replacement to organize our development.
[22:57] Anil Hemrajani: Okay. How do you guys prioritize your product roadmap? I’m sure you get a lot of feature requests. You’ve got your own vision and ideas. How do you prioritize that, and also, do you guys have challenges of tech debt and things like that?
[23:12] Jeroen Corthout: Bugs in the improvements, and we also have a thing called Debt Improvements for internal improvements, let’s say. They are given priorities, so we have a bi-weekly meeting in which we run through all the things that were mentioned or bumped. We prioritize things with low, medium, high, urgent. Then we have some blockers for releases and instances like it needs to happen now.
[23:46] Then, on the feature end, we actually look at the amount of times something has been mentioned. If it goes above a certain threshold, then it gets into a list where we really prioritize it, where we give it scores. We score it on alignment with our product vision first. Then, we score it along the business impact in lots of different parts of our business going all the way from, are more people going to make a trial on Salesflare to are more people going to actually go to convert to paid, are more people going to keep using it? Is it going to mean that we have to give less or more support? These kinds of things also come into play.
[24:33] We skip score on all these levels, and then there’s a formula which combined it all to calculate a score, which is like an ROI score, you can say, which is then an indication. It’s not necessarily that we need to pick the highest thing, but it’s an indication for our team of what we should probably focus on.
[24:57] Anil Hemrajani: Wow. That’s awesome. I’ve helped companies, also, with this kind of stuff, tying it all the way from the OKRs, but then on the scoring, how many times the customers request features. But I love the whole formula aspects and the ROI, so that’s great. Switching gears now to more of how you work personally, what are your top priorities and challenges currently?
[25:27] Jeroen Corthout: Good question. Currently, we’re going live with Samsung. They have a software business marketplace, which we launch in a few weeks, which is one of the main things I’m looking at to keeping all of our things going. It’s making sure that the things we put forward that should happen the last month.
[25:53] In January, we decided what we’re going to do in 2021. Making sure the whole structure for that is set out is one of the other things. Then, I’m getting a lot of podcasts, like this one. I’m writing an article here and there, helping the team with some stuff. In terms of challenges, nothing major. I might have to refinance some of our debts, but that’s about it, I think.
[26:30] Anil Hemrajani: How do you figure things out? Do you use advisors? Obviously, you’ve got a co-founder. Do you research and things like that?
[26:39] Jeroen Corthout: First, research. Second, we know quite some other founders. Between my co-founder and I, obviously, we discuss, as well. But I think the most important thing is knowing other founders and being able to talk to them about how they solve things. That has helped us the most.
[27:06] The biggest leap we made, probably with Salesflare, is when we joined the big startup incubator where we worked in-between lots of other startups. That really helped us to understand how others went through problems and how they sold this and that because other people go through the same things. It’s very important to build some sort of a network there and, let’s say, some startup friends that you can always fall back on.
[27:33] Anil Hemrajani: Yeah. With the pandemic, how are you staying in touch? Is it things like Slack, email? How do you tap into your network currently?
[27:43] Jeroen Corthout: It’s usually Messenger or WhatsApp.
[27:46] Anil Hemrajani: Okay. How much time do you spend on a daily or weekly basis researching online, would you say?
[27:53] Jeroen Corthout: I have no idea. It’s so embedded in work nowadays, researching. Everybody researches stuff. Developers research how to solve technical issues. Marketers research how to solve whatever it is they’re doing, which tools to use. It’s very hard to pinpoint all the different parts of the day where you’re looking for things.
[28:23] Anil Hemrajani: Yeah. Then, how do you know that you’re on the right track? Is it a lot of trial and error, or do you tap into your startup, like other founders’ network?
[28:33] Jeroen Corthout: Asking other founders, yeah. Publicly, it’s harder to find this information. People don’t generally like to publish things, and if they do, it’s usually people who want to fake some sort of success, so it’s very hard to rely on these kinds of things. You talk with others about it to see what makes sense for them. You try to understand that. You can compare, but the most important thing is to compare with yourself and always do better.
[29:08] Anil Hemrajani: Yeah. Where do you think you need the most help? What’s missing in your startup, or what are your biggest fears?
[29:15] Jeroen Corthout: Where we need the most help? The hardest thing for us is to grow and get more visibility, but I honestly don’t think there is an easy solution. If anybody has any great ideas on how to get us more traffic, that would definitely be helpful, but I tried most things already, I think.
[29:45] Some things work, and sometimes I wonder, why didn’t we do this earlier? Like, currently, I’m going through Google and seeing all the listings for CRM and seeing where we’re included. I don’t know why I didn’t do that years ago. It’s mostly around building traffic. The rest we have under control.
[30:11] Anil Hemrajani: How do you personally stay current with what’s going on. Do you read blogs, newsletters, podcasts, conferences, and so on?
[30:19] Jeroen Corthout: When I go to conferences, it’s just to meet people. I don’t want to talk there. I usually read blogs, and I’m part of a bunch of Facebook communities where people ask questions and share things. I think that’s probably the best place to stay up-to-date. Some Medium notification now and then as well, where somebody is sharing something with me, but I think it mostly fits with communities.
[30:52] Anil Hemrajani: Yeah. Can you name a couple of your favorite communities? You and I talked about that, like SaaS Growth Hacks, I think on Facebook.
[31:02] Jeroen Corthout: SaaS Growth Hacks is definitely a very nice one. There’s also Bad Business Secrets with Daniel Doan. It’s not necessarily constructive a group, more destructive, but it’s, in that way, also constructive, if that makes sense. What other ones? For a while, there was a product growth one, with Joel Fechter, when it was still called Banff that was pretty good, but it’s not that great anymore. I’m thinking which other ones give good updates. I’m in a bunch of them that are not necessarily consistent in terms of quality, but where Facebook surfaces popular things that are relevant.
[31:58] Anil Hemrajani: Do you pay for any of this stuff, or is it pretty much free?
[32:02] Jeroen Corthout: We’re currently not paying for any communities. No.
[32:07] Anil Hemrajani: Okay. What are some of your personal tools? What do you use on a daily basis? Is it like Google Workspace or Office or whatever?
[32:16] Jeroen Corthout: Yeah. We use
- Google Workspace on a daily basis, for sure.
- Slack, for internal communication.
- Salesflare for CRM, and mostly we use it for partnerships. I have a colleague here who does partnerships.
- Intercom for support.
- GitHub, like I said, for code developers.
- Clubhouse, since recently, also for organizing our development streams.
- A lot of Google Sheets. Part of Google Workspace, and Gmail Google Sheets. Calendar.
- Zoom for calls.
- We have banking services apart from traditional banks. It’s Revolut and Transferwise.
- ProfitWell for metrics.
- Zapier to automate things, like to connect different tools.
I have a bunch of other tools. I’m just looking at the tabs that are open on my Chrome browser.
[33:17] Anil Hemrajani: Yeah. That’s the classic thing to see all the tabs that people have open on the browser. Just to start wrapping up, just a last couple of questions here. On the emotional side, how do you handle the lonely-at-the-top syndrome? Because being an entrepreneur has its ups and downs, like an emotional roller coaster ride, but how do you handle that?
[33:42] Jeroen Corthout: Generally, it’s not a huge issue for me. I’m a pretty stable person, and I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who is not able to handle an emotional roller coaster to get into the startup life. I’m currently reading the Daily Stoic to strengthen my stoic skills. There isn’t much, actually. Sometimes, I talk about it to my wife, but it’s only certain moments. She doesn’t like to talk too much about it.
[34:22] Anil Hemrajani: Yeah. I’ve been there and done that. Just the last two quick questions here. How do you get work/life balance? Do you exercise? Do you have hobbies?
[34:33] Jeroen Corthout: I currently don’t exercise, but I want to get back to it. In terms of hobbies, it’s mostly reading, and watching NetFlix, and spending time with my wife. We don’t have kids yet. And spending time with friends and family on the weekends. I try to leave my office at a certain moment, if that makes sense, and not work anymore. That’s probably the most important thing to note, like if you feel overloaded, just make some space for other things. I also have a home, bedtime, and ritual, I would call it per se, but like going toward bedtime and that kind of thing going on, which very clearly puts a barrier between things.
[35:27] Anil Hemrajani: That’s smart. That’s really good. Yeah, because a startup will take as much as you can give it, so you have to have a demarcation point. The last question: what advice would you give to other entrepreneurs or even your younger self from three or four years ago?
[35:47] Jeroen Corthout: I would say just try things. I took quite a while to get into the entrepreneurial journey just because I was afraid that I didn’t have the perfect idea. But it will not come to you if you don’t just try something. Don’t go full-time, but on the side, go part-time, or whatever, and work on something. You’ll meet people, find out about more things, and roll from one thing into the other until, at some point, it really works out. The most important thing is just getting to it, I think.
[36:25] Anil Hemrajani: Yeah. Jeroen, thank you so much for doing this. This was great. I’ve learned a lot myself, and our audience is going to learn a lot. I love what you’re doing with Salesflare. I think it’s an awesome product, and there’s a good reason it’s #1 on Product Hunt and other sites, so best of luck to you.
[36:41] Jeroen Corthout: Thank you.
[End of Episode 36:42]