Xenia Muntean, CEO Planable talks startup life and journey to success.
You and the co-founders created Planable to make all processes related to social media channel management and client approval less time-consuming and more efficient. How long did it take you to launch it – idea to beta product?
It took us about half a year to develop the idea into a product that could be launched. We were first-time founders; a learning curve was part of the process.
Besides building the product, we put a lot of time and effort into learning about many other things: how to launch a startup, what are the attributes of a good co-founder, how to grow your user base and so on. It’s not like we were in the industry for ages to know how things work.
Precisely, you were in your early twenties and still, half a year…
Yes, we managed to build a minimum viable product we could start testing to understand if it makes sense for us to move forward with it. At that point, users were able to connect only Facebook pages and collaborate based on the content they created.
Who were the first people to test the platform?
We brought in a few friends from the industry and social media managers in our network activating in advertising agencies or different companies. Also, we made Planable available on (beta) product launch websites where curious, early adopters marketers test products. We acquired our first 500 users on these websites, they tested our platform and provided valuable feedback.
Many startups join accelerators to acquire business acumen and mentorship. Planable is no exception. How early in the process did you acknowledge that this would be a good move and how effective it was for the Planable team?
We joined Spherik Accelerator in Cluj very early in the process – all we had was an idea and a few mockups. Looking back, I think that was a wise decision, to join that early as they assisted us in building the foundation for what happened next. The team of mentors back then (they are with Risky Business Ventures now) guided us all the way.
They made us aware of the importance of having mentors, cultivating relationships and building a strong network that will open doors for us eventually.
All the people that we connected with and surrounded ourselves with during that period helped us make Planable happen and grow to what it is today.
So, we were lucky to understand this rather sooner than later. It’s not only about the things we learned from them but also about the opportunities a strong network could generate for us.
I assume mentors’ guidance helped you avoid making mistakes?
Besides all the knowledge and support, the most valuable thing they transferred to us was courage. These seasoned, experienced professionals invested us with trust and encouraged us all the way meaning that we were on the right track. That motivated us to move forward with confidence.
Building a startup, it’s just you and the co-founders. At times you may lack confidence and support. Friends and families, yes, they supported us – but theirs was a somewhat subjective perspective.
If people from the industry acknowledge that you are heading the right direction, even if there is a lot more to learn, to adapt to, it means they see your potential, and that can only lift your self-confidence and give you the courage to move on.
Did you work with the mentors on the technical aspects of the product?
Not so much. More specific support we received was on the product side of things. Radu Iuhas helped us simplify the product to make it as user-friendly as possible. Under his guidance, we implemented the minimalist concept of Planable. And we stick to this approach to the day. Keep it simple for all users.
As the CEO of Planable, you took on managing a business that is growing fast to include clients worldwide. What did you do, as a young entrepreneur, to be able to master the operational challenges, business decisions, and planning?
I don’t think life had prepared me for this. I had run a few small businesses before but, to be honest, when we started Planable, I was still not prepared. My approach was to surround myself with smarter, more experienced people, to learn from them and grow faster than the business did.
It is crucial that you grow more quickly than the company otherwise you are left behind. You must be one step ahead of the game at any given time. And my co-founders and I managed to keep the pace.
You learn how to address problems as they come your way. Ask a mentor, Google it, consult with specialists in your community or with other founders. You’ll solve it eventually.
As a CEO, I had to learn how to manage the less glamorous aspects of the business: accounting, finance, how to do a cash flow, for example.
You attended the prestigious Draper University program for entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. What did you learn there?
It’s an exceptional program with a focus on shaping mentalities and soft skills. It gives you courage. They train you to be bold. You learn about Silicon Valley founders and how to think big. Draper University taught me not to be afraid to think big. They help you shape your founder / CEO persona.
Growing up in East European countries, many of us inherited a very different type of mentality, we are less inclined to take bold initiatives, we are rather prudent.
Draper program helped me overcome that by pushing me out of my comfort zone.
What was your approach to attracting investment and what were the areas where you needed it the most?
We were granted an investment by TechStars London and, before that, by a Romanian family fund. We allocated the investment to expand the product and speed up the go to market. Our priority was to offer a solid product.
Planable competed with many other startups for the TechStars competition. How were you different and what helped you win?
It was 100% TEAM. This is the most critical criterion for TechStars. A motivated and driven team weights more than the product, the market, etc. Even if the product is not fully developed, it’s getting there. We managed to show them we are consistent, ambitious and determined to succeed.
So far you acquired market share mostly via organic growth. What is your marketing strategy for 2019? Do you plan to invest in paid advertising?
We’ll do more paid advertising this year. Still, we’ll invest mostly in content marketing. We plan to double down on content; it worked for us so far for both user acquisition and brand building.
We rely on content marketing to position us as industry thought leaders and we’ll use paid advertising to distribute the content we generate.
I can see you produced a lot of content for Planable blog lately. What other content-related tactics are you considering?
We planned for a lot more, as part of our content strategy. A podcast is to be launched soon; we have a DIY studio where we record sessions. Besides, we’ll start a community, produce a few ebooks, an industry report and launch an academy.
All content initiatives rely on extensive SEO research.
Another significant focus for us in 2019 is enterprise outreach. We need to be more active in the enterprise collaboration space. Content will support this initiative, too.
Marketing tools and platforms help social media managers work efficiently and drive great results for their clients. Technology aside, what are the most valuable skills social media marketers should cultivate (or acquire) to be successful in 2019?
It’s the must-have skills we all know and talk about: copywriting, data, analytics, strategy, visual content creation, video production, etc.
I want to emphasize the fact that technology and automation will only take us so far. It’s down to social media managers to act like…managers. In 2019 they need to acquire leadership and communication skills.
Social media is an increasing part of the marketing mix thus becoming more visible to stakeholders and top management. We should be able to communicate effectively with other business units about our job, our activities.
Social media must be an active and significant part of the marketing team and should collaborate well with all business units (sales, product, HR, etc.). These factors profoundly influence social media managers’ job.
But most importantly, social media must be aligned with business results and you must be able to demonstrate their ROI.
What is Planable’s primary business objective in 2019?
Our bold and ambitious goal is to generate 5x revenue.
Planable, the social media collaboration platform, is once again under the spotlight as Forbes featured them in their “2019 EUROPE 30 UNDER 30: MEDIA & MARKETING” section.