If you’re a regular reader of our blog, you’re probably familiar with the fact that, at Starttech Ventures, we love Q&As. As a matter of fact, we’re keen on asking questions that lead to insightful answers; at least, that’s our intention.
That was the case during our latest Scale-up Greece event. We had the honor of hosting LearnWords, a successful edutech startup that made it all the way to the top.
In our three part series — this is the third one — we got the chance to learn all about LearnWorlds’ story and then delved into the most insightful parts of our discussion with Panos Siozos, CEO at LearnWorlds.
In this third part of the series, we’ll enjoy an insightful interview with Panos. We hope that you’ll find it inspiring!
Interview with Panos Siozos
Building the company
1. How difficult was the transition from a product-oriented mindset — “build it and they will come”— to understanding that you should focus on learning more about your customers?
It was difficult, but we had no other choice than to make this transition quickly. When you show your platform to potential customers and — although you get compliments — there are no paying customers in the end, you’re forced to adapt to this reality, fast.
2. What’s the biggest challenge you have faced throughout these years?
I’d say that it’s one thing to have a dedicated team of 4-5 co-founders that share the same perspective on how things (should) work and it’s quite another to manage a huge team of individuals. That was a big challenge for us; realizing that we’re no longer that small, flexible team. We had to adapt to the change. That made us understand that we have to devote significant time to manage our teams.
All in all, you have to devote the time and effort to communicate your vision and beliefs; and to set goals for the people you are now responsible for. We were challenged to transform the way we work, making sure we’re creating a new, attractive work environment for the people that join our team. As a matter of fact, as you grow, new people join your team. People who have their own lives, their families, their priorities and so on. We had to adapt to this new reality.
Another challenge was the fact that, as co-founders, we had to learn how to delegate, how to make space for new people that will take up their own departments, from scratch. Actually, we’re exactly there, at the moment; and we’re focusing on improving that aspect, too.
3. How many people in your company are not native Greek speakers?
Our company, today, has a head count of 85 people, coming from 10 different countries. Twelve of them are not native Greek speakers. And so, English is the language we use in all of our internal communication channels. People are naturally distributed over different countries, all over the world – that means, countries with different time zones than ours. And that meant we all had to put in some extra effort, to make this work. I’d say that, today, we’re finally a multinational company.
4. You mentioned some of your employees work remotely, while others come to the office. Are you concerned with the possibility that some of your team members may feel second class at some point?
Both our office spaces in Chania and in Cyprus have limited space; and that means the majority of our employees prefer to work from home. Actually, most of them prefer to come to the office for a scheduled meeting. The people we have already recruited were aware of the fact that we’re kind of remote-working oriented, from day one. I’m pretty sure we have managed to attract people that appreciate this flexibility. On our part, we try to balance this condition with retreat trips; and, also, by travelling and working in different countries, to meet some of our employees, from time to time.
5. Do you have a strategy as to how you’ll effectively manage the personal development of your personnel and especially your junior hires? How can you make sure they’ll keep pace with your company’s growth, so that you can turn them into effective managers in the future, if needed?
We hired junior people only in the beginning of our venture, when we were less than 20 people. The growth rate and pressure that followed, unfortunately, made us shift to experienced hires. That goes to say, we mainly hire senior level — or, at least, more experienced — people. I’d say that, now, we’re at a stage where our resources allow us to hire more junior people. That goes hand in hand with increased competition in the job market.
As for the training of our employees, we use our own platform to prepare the respective training material and help the onboarding of our new hires. We believe in helping people learn next to experienced employees. We give them access to all of our resources. And, we also give them access to online courses and books. Apart from that, we host experienced coaches (for Agile development, Scrum etc.) from time to time; and we plan to focus on training our people via conferences, in the near future. All in all, that’s how we try to speed up our employees’ growth.
6. Do your overall sales come from ads and content marketing efforts or do you also focus on building relationships with specific target customers?
Our product holds a low price; and, so, recruiting sales-people with this purpose in mind is not an option for us. We mostly focus on an inbound funnel. Customers land to our website, either organically — with the help of the SEO content we produce — either via advertisement campaigns we run or via affiliate marketing etc. All in all, we don’t use outbound sales. However, we do have a small sales team. Their job is to manage the requests of the people that have already landed on our website and are about to start their trials. We offer a 30-day trial and it’s quite easy for a user to set up their account.
We are product-lead and we try to offer an easy, trouble-free experience to our customers. More than 50% of our customers are self-serviced. Some of them may fill in their credit card details by the end of their trial expiration. People come, set up their trial account, read a few support articles, if needed, and that’s it. This is the ideal customer profile for us, simply because we devote zero resources to serve them. That’s SaaS, after all!
7. How long have you been working without “serious” funding?
That was the case ever since we started. I mean, right from the beginning of our venture — November 2011 — and for a long time, there was no funding at all. We got our first funding in 2019. Actually, the three of us — LearnWorlds’ co-founders — started to receive salaries in 2018.
8. What was your perspective regarding funding in the beginning of your venture and how did it affect your venture?
Back then, our team was unaware of anything that had to do with funding. The only money we got back came from the 3Fs. We used our own money and money that came from friends, family and “fools”. That’s how we started.
All in all, we exclusively focused on building our platform; as simple as that. If we knew all about the funding game and if we had somehow managed to get a huge funding, we’d probably have spent it without making this valuable refinement on our business; which, without funding, we finally managed to make. That probably got us to where we are today.
Making your way to success, in a nutshell
So, this has been the journey of Learnworlds, as Panos Siozos tells the story. It seems to us that nothing really makes a difference if you insist, persist and stay the course; seeing your vision to fruition. You don’t really need large, prestigious funds to get started. And, you don’t need salaries or great, big departments of specialists to bring growth. You just need people who share your vision, understand the stakes and care enough about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, to stay the course, along your side.
It seems Learnworlds did it with the same values we’ve always leveraged, ourselves. They did it with goodwill, communication, commitment and collaboration, remaining laser-focused on delivering on their promise; and, all that, being creative and working around problems with what they had. Just as our own MVIF describes!