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Interview with a Successful Startup Founder

GrowthMentor: Bootstrapping a Marketplace for Mentors

Foti Panagio
Foti Panagio
June 7, 2019
Category of startup
Country of startup
Revenue of startups
Interview with a Failed Startup Founder

GrowthMentor: Bootstrapping a Marketplace for Mentors

Foti Panagio
Foti Panagio
June 7, 2019
Category of startup
Country of startup
Cause of failure of the startup

Foti is a 33-year-old entrepreneur who has co-founded GrowthMentor, a 2-sided platform that gives entrepreneurs the ability to connect with growth mentors for calls. They started in September 2018 and have since grown it a lot, mainly through free marketing channels. Learn from Foti’s successes and mistakes.



Hi Foti! What's your background, and what are you currently working on?

I'm what you would call a 'third culture kid.' I was born in America, but my parents are Greeks. At three years old we moved to Greece. Two years later I moved back to America as a 5-year-old, not knowing any English. At 15, after I had forgotten most of my Greek, we moved back to Greece. But one thing that’s been a constant throughout all that madness was my exposure to entrepreneurship. My Dad was a pretty badass commercial real estate developer in Florida in the 80’s and 90’s. So as a 10 year old I remember spending my afternoons helping out at my his construction sites and the father-son chats we’d have on the way back home where I’d get to learn about the nuances between cost per square foot, utilization rates, and negotiation tactics he’d use to hustle vendors to get the lowest rates on construction material.

Fast forward two decades and I’m now 33 years old and an entrepreneur myself! I’m currently working on building a community called GrowthMentor. GrowthMentor is a 2-sided platform that gives entrepreneurs and marketers the ability to connect with amazing growth mentors for calls on Skype. All of the mentors on the platform go through an intense vetting process. We guarantee that they’ve got the track-record to back-up their claims, and also that they have the soft-skills required to be exceptional mentors. Entrance to the platform costs $99 per year, but this includes 5 hours of free mentorship calls and a bunch of other goodies. All growth mentors are required to have completed at least three mentor sessions at zero cost before they can charge for their time.

GrowthMentor Dashboard

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

After completing my IB exams in high school I decided to keep scratching that entrepreneurial itch by studying business at CASS Business School in London where I majored in finance. Honestly, University was a bit of a blur, but I do remember realizing early on that I wasn’t a fan of the big financial institutions. I could never reconcile fiat currencies and the total ridiculousness of wealth inequality. We can print money out of thin air and create trillions in bullshit derivatives, yet 2 billion people don’t have access to clean drinking water. Right… Never ended up using that Finance degree in a career kind of way, but those courses in stats were super useful when it came time to setting up statistically significant A/B tests a few years down the road.

After University I ended up heading growth at EuroVPS, a managed hosting provider, as their first marketing hire. With zero experience in digital marketing and a team that consisted of mostly engineers, I ended up having to fake it till I made it and learned everything by myself through trial and error. I made every noob mistake in the book. From forgetting to set 301 redirects after a site relaunch, to using broad match keywords in Adwords without a single negative keyword. I’ve screwed up more ways than most people would ever financially afford to screw up.  

I spent countless hours reading blog posts and taking Udemy courses on new areas I wanted to improve in. While I learned a lot, I noticed my productivity was inversely correlated to how much stuff I learned. The more time I spent learning things, the less time I had to actually get things done. There had to be a better way to learn and stay competitively productive concurrently.

Computer Gif

That’s when the idea hit me.

This was the breakthrough move I made that ultimately planted the seed for the birth of GrowthMentor.  Instead of watching courses made by some random person who knows nothing about my business, why don’t I hack together my own real life courses custom tailored to my point-in-time situation?

To do this I’d create job postings on Upwork such as: “60 minutes Skype call with Facebook Ads expert,” and do screen shares with freelance subject-matter expertise and learn directly from them in a field environment. I was shocked at how much faster I learned this way. I was breaking through plateaus left and right. If anything seemed difficult or out of reach to learn I’d simply create a job posting on Upwork and get on a call with an expert. I’d make sure to do my homework and due diligence before the call as to be prepared with structured questions. I’d even record my screen so I could play it back later. This way I could focus 100% without having to take notes.

This was how the idea originated. I figured, “I’m just a typical person who has typical problems,” so if this works for me, it’ll probably work for other people too!

How did you build GrowthMentor?

I registered the domain name GrowthMentor.io on June 18th, 2017 but didn’t start actually working on the idea till October of that year. My wife teaches English online via this platform called Italki, so I kind of knew that I wanted to take a similar approach from a product perspective since I had seen it work first hand for years.

The first iteration of GrowthMentor was a simple landing page I put up to validate the idea. I used a Twitter bootstrap template to hack together a landing page then drove $500 worth of Adwords traffic to it bidding on the keyword “find business mentor” I  had a ±18% conversion rate with an average CPC of $2 and managed to score 40 leads. Of which I got on the phone with 10 of them for customer development interviews. I used a simple Typeform to profile those initial users and extract as much qualitative data as possible into the pain points of growth. I isolated that loneliness was a major pain point common to all early respondents. And it’s only superficially being solved and also exacerbated by social media. It’s a pain point that was integral to my own motivations for jumping on those Skype calls with the Upwork contractors, so I explored the underlying causes in more depth. What I found was that people in growth have very specific stressors which are hard to relate to if you’re not also in growth.

GrowthMentor - First version

After roughly three months of customer development and fine tuning our positioning strategy, it was time to start building. Wireframing and then prototyping took around a month. We started sketching every screen out by hand, and then transitioned to Google Docs. After each screen was laid out in Google Docs, Alek Manov turned them into high fidelity designs which we iterated on for a month via InvisionApp. By mid-March, we were ready to start development.

We outsourced the development to Ragnarson who specializes on Ruby on Rails web apps. We were well prepared with clickable prototypes on InvisionApp that 1:1 mirrored all of the functionality of the final build. This dramatically reduced the total build time. Development officially started on April and 6 months later we launched the public beta with more features than we really needed. We knew we could have gone a bit lighter on the build-spec, but thought our target audience was very web savvy and had higher expectations than your traditional B2C customer personas.

If we were going to do this, we were going to do it properly. Not going to reveal exact build cost, but it was around the cost of a brand new BMW sedan. We ran out of runway (aka my savings) a month after we launched and the funding of the continued development comes from my day job’s income, exciting times for sure :)

Minimum delightful product > Minimum viable product

We didn’t make a big fuss about the platform pre-launch, no pre-launch promotions or anything like that. I’m a big fan of shadow launches because they give you buffer to fix things before the spotlight is on you. We did do a targeted 1:1 outreach campaign for mentors so we could launch with a decent quantity already onboard. I think we had like 15 mentors on the platform the day we launched the public beta.

Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?

The first two weeks after we launched we did absolutely zero promotion. We focused exclusively on 1:1 outreach to get more mentors onboard, targeting growth people we personally admired and that we believed had the right ethos fit. Once we had around 30 mentors, we decided to tippy toe into the limelight a little more. Our first “public” appearance came via a post on the SaaS Growth Hacks Facebook group where I told the story of the platform and asked if people resonated with it. I was blown away by the positive response. We must have got more than 100 signups from that single post.

Since we’re bootstrapped, we exhausted all free marketing channels first. That meant mingling in niche communities like IndieHackers, GrowthHackers and a variety of Slack channels. This was a go-go-go time period where we didn’t get to sleep that much. LinkedIn worked really well too. I’m not really a big social media user but I knew that if I was going to play the role of a founder of a marketing platform, I had to up my game. We also did a lot of blog posting writing dozens of blog posts those first few months. A few of those posts are starting to rank for some pretty serious keywords, but as we all know, SEO is a long game. My biggest regret is that I didn’t promote those early posts enough. It was one of those cases where I “knew” I should do it and I even made a pretty sweet checklist for it, but I just ran out of steam...

GrowthMentor - First Version

We spread ourselves way too thin those early days. I should have delegated the promotion to my VA instead of all the list building I had them do. At one point I went on a massive targeted scraping campaign with the big picture to send out semi-personalized (at scale) email drips to drum up demand. I only ended up using like 2 or 3 of those lists. It takes a lot of time to do outreach at scale properly, and if you’re managing operations, creating content, and also juggling a day job, it’s like the first thing to cut from the “to-do” list. Anything done at scale carries the potential risk to tarnish your brand if executed improperly.

Doing things that didn’t scale like cultivating 1:1 friendships with the mentors and mentees was our most successful marketing strategy. Unlike other B2C 2-sided marketplaces like Airbnb where the supply side is just normal people trying to make some side cash, our supply was bad-ass growth marketers that legit wanted to help people grow. Many of them are deeply entrenched in the startup scene with huge networks. So leveraging their networks was kind of a no-brainer for us. We didn’t want to create a “marketplace,” we wanted this to be a community.

We started with private Facebook groups, one for the mentors first, then a few months later, one just for the mentees. It turned out to be a great place we could ask for feedback from super smart growth peeps, share our progress, and where members could network with each other.

What are your goals for the future?

In December 2018, we added the ability for mentors to set their rate to free. Our hypothesis was that it would act as a catalyst to spur platform engagement. It worked. Since growth mentors legit enjoy helping, they had no problem offering a couple hours per month for free to mentor bootstrapped startups. This completely demolished the barriers to “aha” moment for mentees leading to hockey stick growth in session bookings which led to hockey stick growth in reviews and social proof.

GrowthMentor Growth in Sessions Booked

We didn’t make any money from that spike in usage since the price was zero. But in those first pre-traction moments, optimizing for learning and getting that social proof from early adopters is more important than making a quick buck. Think, we can now turn around and leverage that social proof in our marketing to increase reach and conversion rates. Which is exactly what we did!

After two months we hit the +500 booked session milestone and we decided it was time to monetize. We decided to put up a $99/year paywall for access to the platform. All early adopters were grandfathered in free for life. Our goal is now to raise money through selling subscriptions so that we can continue product development.

What were the biggest challenges you faced and obstacles you overcame?

The biggest challenge is figuring out a way to educate founders and marketers that there’s a whole new way that they can learn hard stuff. And that’s the peer to peer way. For example yesterday I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to properly set up cross domain tracking on Google Tag Manager. So I jumped on a 15 minute Skype call with Max Corbeau, a growth mentor who specializes in analytics. He walked me through it on a Skype screenshare and within 3 minutes my problem was solved.

If it wasn’t for him, I’d probably hire some freelancer to fix it for me and lose out on that opportunity to learn something new. Busy/successful people don’t have time to read hours of blog posts and watch online courses. Either they know how to do it, or they hire someone who can do it for them. Their time is too valuable to waste. Communicating succinctly that there’s a middle ground option is my biggest challenge so far in the realm of product marketing, but we’re getting there!

In terms of the chicken vs. egg dilemma, I’d say the biggest challenge is demand side acquisition. The first month was easy, just post on Facebook Groups and communities and shout some stuff on LinkedIn. But after the low lying fruits are eaten, you need to become more sophisticated and choose your weapon of choice. Outbound? Inbound? PPC? Referral? I used to think, “I’ll just do them all!” but OMG, that does not work when you’re a team of two people working this alongside another full time job!

Ideating, executing, and tracking results of growth experiments is relatively straight-forward, but for me, what’s most challenging is managing the pressure of taking corrective action based on the data. There’s a million directions you can take, and as growth lead, you have to make the tough calls. My biggest obstacle is controlling my FOMO. There’s always going to be that annoying little voice in the back of your head telling you that you’re missing out on huge opportunities by not doing that “new cool thing.” 99% of the time that voice is just talking shit. Ignore it.

Relax Gif

Which are your greatest disadvantages? What were your worst mistakes?

My greatest disadvantage is that I don’t know Ruby on Rails, I’m a non-technical founder. I can’t just jump into the code and fix things. Anything that needs to be done like bug fixes or new features has a significant cash cost. And as a bootstrapped founder, this can get a bit demoralizing. To know that you have the design and spec sheet ready for <insert here killer feature>  but you just can’t afford it. I guess that’s life though :)

But on the flip side, being a non-technical founder also can have it’s advantages. You end up being much more deliberate with product development and rely on a lot of user testing and data to justify all your decisions. At the end of the day, you’re paying for it out of pocket, and building silly features that don’t move the needle stings. It also puts the fire on your ass to make more money. Nobody is going to come and save you, you have to save yourself. You want to build that new feature? Figure out a way to sell 100 new subscriptions!

In hindsight, my worst mistake was probably flying the team out to San Francisco for the StartupGrind conference. It’s not cheap to fly 4 people to San Francisco for a week, but the worst part was that I had to miss one of my best friend’s wedding to attend it. Sure, we got some great photos and made some solid connections, but overall was it worth it? I guess time will tell. On the flip side, I got the chance to see first hand how unattractive  the whole groveling for VC money scene is. I don’t know if I’d be so strongly footed in the #bootstrapped camp as I am now if I hadn’t seen that with my own two eyes.

If you had the chance to do things differently, what would you do?

If I could talk to my former self before GrowthMentor I’d tell him to not stress out so much. Everything’s going to work out. Spend more time in the sun, play more basketball, take those Sundays off and just hangout and stuff.  

I’d also tell him to completely scratch those “at scale” outbound campaigns I had planned but never actually executed. That was such a waste of time. Let’s be honest, how long does it take to send five super personalized and high-impact emails per day? Maybe an hour on day 1, but as time passes, you’ll get faster and faster since you will be building up a big repo of templates, by month two you’ll probably be able to do 10 per day. That’s 300 emails per month to hyper relevant people that can become strategic partners and who knows, maybe even friends down the road!

I know that outbound at scale has its place, I’m actually planning a few campaigns now, but at that early stage, it just wasn’t a good fit. It’s something I wish I knew earlier on.

What are some sources for learning you would recommend for entrepreneurs who are just starting?

Shameless plug, visit GrowthMentor and book a call with a growth mentor. And don’t worry, they’re all super friendly. We have a strict “No Jerks Allowed” policy. We’re pretty serious about that. As an early stage entrepreneur that’s just getting started, having a chat with a seasoned startup warrior is like going into a time machine through the eyes of someone else.

Regards to books, podcasts, etc. different strokes for different folks I guess. There’s just so much great content out there that I’m not sure how to even answer this. I guess I’ll just shoot out my favorite podcast which is the thestartupchat, and if you want to learn content marketing, check out the blog GrowAndConvert (Benji’s also a mentor on the platform), it’s top notch.

Final note, be mindful to prioritize active learning vs. passive learning. It’s so easy to waste valuable time mindlessly consuming information that you’ll never actually use. You probably know enough already to really put a dent in this world. Go forth and create! You got this!

Where can we go to learn more?

You can follow me on my Twitter profile here.


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