From 200 to 400 paying customers & 6 months into our seed round! Welcome to the Startup Rollercoaster 🎢 😎

By Maxime Berthelot | 13 Aug 2019
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Really?? It’s already been 6 months? 😱😅

Yes, it’s been more than 6 months since we’ve shared with you all the story behind our first round and why we decided to finally raise one. As you’ve probably understood by now, we do not have any rules when it comes to sharing our updates. We’re just trying to share when we think we have something helpful to share.

A lot of things have happened at PixelMe in the past 6 months, as you can imagine. But because we haven’t shared much lately, every time we meet someone who read our content, they ask questions like, “What changed since you got investors?”, “You’re not sharing much lately, do your investors not want you to be transparent anymore?” or “Is it not hard to work for your investors?”

Okay, okay 😅. Let’s take a deep breath and sit down for a couple of hours. It’s clearly time to share some updates and address all of these questions. We’re really happy to report we’ve kept transparency as our main value - so will keep sharing more about our journey, and explain what our business life looks like since we got funded by our clever VCs 🙂 .

TL;DR - for those who don’t like reading

  • Being a VC-funded company didn’t change much of our routine or goals!
  • The biggest impact: we’re now a team of 8 😄. We hired 5 full time employees 🤗 ! So we’re smarter, faster, and stronger 💪🚀 .  
  • This July we rolled out “Smart Attribution”. It’s the first step to transitioning PixelMe to the first Customer Attribution platform 🔥 🚀.
  • We found it really useful to have monthly board meetings with someone outside of our day to day operation.
  • We passed 430 monthly paying customers, $17,000K MRR and $200K ARR at the end of June 🎉.
  • Our monthly burn rate is now around $70k. At our current MRR, we have 15 months to reach profitability.
  • We had to let our first employee go 😞. That wasn’t easy, but in the end it was the best for all of us 🙂 .
  • We were rejected for YC summer 19 😏 (we still love you though 😘) so we organized our own YC-orsica team retreat for 1 month 😍.
  • We launched our first side-project! 💌 More on that later 😉.

Our mission is still to help people advertise/communicate/market better online.

What has raising money actually changed?

“As a VC funded company, you’re working for your investors…”

We’ve been reading a lot of statements like that lately, especially from people who’ve never raised any funds 🤔 . How weird is that? (Personal advice: through the years, life has taught me to stay far from people who think they hold the truth 😅 😉)

So let us be crystal clear, as a VC-funded company, we’re working for:

  • 1. Our customers, this is the number one thing that matters to us.
  • 2. Our team, this is the second thing that matters the most to us.
  • 3. Ourselves, this is the third thing! We better like it because the rollercoaster is real 🙂

…and our VCs are helping us achieve 1, 2 and 3 🔥

That’s the number one reason why you choose your VCs and they choose you. You have to have a really good fit together, because you’re in the same boat and it’s not going to always be easy! (Let us know how those 3 points resonate with you? 👍 👎)

Now that we've clarified this, let’s move on to the nitty gritty details of our new VC-funded life.

Our vision about “Monthly board meetings”

Remote board meetings are the best 💪

To be honest, 6 months ago, board meetings were something totally new to Tom, Jérémie, and me. When we signed the term sheet, we agreed on having a monthly board meeting with Kamel (joined by Sebastien from Serena, the 5th person in the picture above), but we had no idea what to talk about or how we were supposed to handle it. Okay, that’s not exactly true, we had a little bit of an idea 😅 especially thanks to reading few articles like this one: Best practices for board meetings - Jean de La Rochebrochard.

But honestly, the most important piece of advice someone gave to me was from Kamel! The first time we talked about board meetings, Kamel told me something that I’ll never forget: “You have to see your monthly board as a tool. Use it to leverage all the people around PixelMe. If you see this as a constraint, it’s going to be very painful.

So after 6 board meetings this year, we can transparently say that having a monthly board is mainly a sanity check, something that we were trying to do by ourself before. It’s no more than writing down progress, struggles, and having one more person to help you brainstorm on everything. Having an outsider working with you is so powerful, because obviously this person is not involved in the day to day life of your company and is always looking at your stories with fresh eyes 👀 .

So far, we’ve noticed that having Angels and VCs around:

  • Forces you to summarize progress and anticipate roadblocks.
  • Lets you reflect with someone outside of your day to day operations! This means fresh eyes on your ideas, strategies, etc.
  • Gives you access to new networks. This is the best thing VCs or Angels can help you with at this stage. So choose wisely!

I personally love board meetings for 2 reasons:

First, I need to prepare them a couple of days beforehand so it forces me to write down all the things that happened the previous month. It forces me to take some distance from my day to day operations and reflect on high level things.

Second, during the board itself, it’s a moment of sharing & brainstorming. You forget everything from the outside. It’s like time freezes for 2-3 hours and there are just 4 people in the room focused on thinking about one thing: PixelMe 🙂

Hiring a core team

So far, for us, the main impact of raising money vs. bootstrapping has been being able to hire people faster than our revenue growth.

Why and how we hired our first employees

It’s no secret: we’ve always stated loudly, even though we raised $1.3M, that we wanted to stay small. That’s the main reason we planned to hire a "core team". A small team which would help us build our new platform, achieve Product-Market Fit, and start scaling it.

To achieve this, we wrote down all the values, skills, experiences, criteria we were looking for in a candidate. We agreed that the most important criteria was hiring someone aligned with our core values and culture. Not only someone we think we'd like to hang out with, but someone who truly embraces our vision of customer support, works smarter not harder, loves the feeling of a job well done, is autonomous, willing to make mistakes, takes responsibilities and is 100% excited by PixelMe.

Even at our stage, we don't believe in working long, hard hours. We'd rather look for people who are able to prioritize their work and get things done in their own time. Of course sometimes, you have no choice but to work longer, and then it's great to see that you can count on your whole team! 😘

This is also the reason why we decided to offer our first 5 employees a bit more stocks than what other startups usually give at this stage. (We'll probably share our process and the numbers in a later update).

One of our core values is also that we do believe in remote work, and even more than that, we think now the world has no boundaries! It'd be ridiculous for us to hire people only from one city when the world is full of amazing people. So we had no rules when it came to countries or time zones. The only difference is that currently people outside of France would have to be contractors, but we made it clear we wouldn't make any differences between them and our employees. They have the same number of vacations, and we help them pay their taxes, health insurance, etc.

Bringing amazing people together makes amazing things happen together

So with this in mind, we hired 5 persons:

  • Stephen → Engineer, lives in Guadeloupe
  • Leo → Growth Engineer, lives in Paris, left PixelMe on April 19th
  • Bernou → Conversational Marketer, lives close to Amsterdam
  • Miriam → Lead Marketer, lives in San Francisco
  • Jérôme → Engineer, lives in Budapest (and moving to Barcelona soon)
  • Nico → Growth Engineer, lives in Paris, joined July 29th

When the 4 of them joined, we defined some goals and objectives for each one. I do regular 1:1s with each one of them to make sure everything's going great. We go through challenges, short term and long term goals, and responsibilities.

Of course, as other founders say, hiring is the hardest challenge ever, so don't get me wrong - even with the best hiring process and values written down, etc. you'll still make mistakes. It's going to be hard, but stay positive and see the bright side, you'll learn a lot along the way.

Hire fast, fire fast?

We’ve all heard this startup mantra!

I am not sure we’re all agreed with this, but at our stage, being a company of 8 people, if you don’t hire the right person for the job, it can become very, very difficult quickly. One piece of advice would be to stay objective on situations and take action as soon as you can.

As soon as you start noticing some misalignment, you should always explore this 1:1 with this person. Explain the reason why and offer some options for them to improve.

If after a couple of 1:1s there is still no improvement, then I would advise not to think to take too much time to let this person go, the longer you wait, the harder it is on everyone.

From Paris to YCorsica! The necessity of meeting IRL for a remote team.

I am sure it has been shared a thousand of times already, but remote work will never ever replace meeting in real life. Especially when you start a company, building a culture is super hard to do remotely. That being said, it doesn’t mean it’s not possible! 🙂

On our side we’ve decided to meet every month with Tom and Jérémie in Paris. But most importantly, we also decided to meet regularly with the entire team (every 3 to 4 months).

I won’t cover why here, but remote work and brainstorming sessions are not very compatible.

So on April 19 we decided to organize our first retreat in Paris, so we could all hang out together for a week - in person 🙂.

We knew that Jérémie was going to be father for the 2nd time just before the retreat, so we had to find a convenient place for him and all of us. So we decided to do our first real life meeting in Paris. This was not the cheapest option as Paris Airbnb’s are outrageously expensive 😂.

So we booked 2 Airbnbs and everybody jumped in a train, plane, or car to spend a week in Paris.

I had personally met everyone in person before the retreat but for everybody else, it was the first time they would meet! We were a bit anxious, as you never know if the magic is going to happen and if people will like each others. Working together is one thing, but spending a week in an apartment is another thing 😅.

As some of them just joined the company a couple of weeks before, the goal for us was to really spend time together, digging and sharing with them the vision we have of the product and the company.

We spent countless hours brainstorming about the product, the next steps, the strategy, the type of customers we want to attract etc. It was honestly necessary and super efficient.

Of course, Paris means food! 🙂

We had lunches and diners in a great number of restaurants… but the highlight was certainly for everybody when we decided to pay a visit to Cédric Grolet bakery 😍.

We also had the chance to be scooting all together and spend one full day at Disneyland 🐭.

This time in Paris together was invaluable! Everybody came back home with context, vision and great memories 😋.

Later this year we decided to gather all together for a month in Corsica. We will probably share in our next update the reason why, how we organized such a long retreat and why it was key to our company growth.

Let me just tell you how incredible this month was in term of team bonding and achievements. We felt that we’ve been able to achieve 3 months of hard work in one🚀. More on this later 💫.

So impressed by our team 😍.

Deep dive on our metrics

When we first planned the year ahead, we set up some goals based on multiple parameters by quarters. We tried to reverse engineer our goals for the end of the year and break them down by quarters, months, and weeks. They were based on our team growth, our product releases, and our ability to deliver them on time.

Of course, like Col. John 'Hannibal' Smith would say “I love it when a plan comes together.” We all love it, but the reality is always a different story 🙂.

Reaching $17,000 MRR and 427 monthly paying customers.

So yeah to be transparent, Q1 was perfect for us. We reached our goal of $14K with an average ARPA superior at $35. But despite reaching our goal we started to notice our customer churn rate increasing a bit to 6%-7%, which is not crazy high but still not satisfying.

We started to investigate a bit more. Our NPS was pretty much stable and the same reason was coming over and over: “I like your tool, but I stopped my campaigns for now, I’ll come back later”. And this is pretty true, as our reactivation rate after 3 months of canceling is pretty high 🙂.

Honestly we knew this for a long time. This is the main reason we’re transitioning PixelMe to a Customer Attribution platform and not really digging further into the URL shortening market!

Q2 was a different story though. We ended up not reaching our Q2 goals at all. We planned to reach $22K MRR and we ended up at $17K 😬. I wrongly anticipated the impact of our first attribution features in Q2. But building an advanced SaaS product takes time, and transitioning your marketing efforts too!

So this is one good piece of learning for us and we’re still in game for reaching our end of the year goals 😉.

Pros and Cons of Transparency when you’re pre-PMF?

It’s not a secret we are truly supportive of the transparency movement in business. It’s not a secret either that sharing our journey with PixelMe is the most rewarding experience possible. Throughout the past months we received so much positive feedback from people starting their side project/entrepreneurial journey. We can say as of today, it was totally worth it to share everything just because of that.

Also, I am always amazed that in terms of branding, it helped us so much. Every time I am at a meetup and I introduce myself as one of PixelMe’s founders, and someone in the room says: “Oh wow I use your product everyday, I love it!”, it’s always such a blast! I honestly still can’t really believe it 🙂.

Of course being transparent has its downsides. In the past few months, we’ve been noticing a rise in retargeting URL shorteners. (Look on Product Hunt 😉). More competition is always healthy for sure. But in the short term, some customers might be fooled by competitors trying to lower prices. After almost 2 years, we know exactly what the URL shortening business is made of and we know what really costs money. So when we see competitors with an almost “unlimited” business model, we know that either they won’t be there in a year or so, or they will have to change their pricing along the way. (We know what we’re talking about 😉).

Also, because SaaS products are commodities, prepare yourself to be copied! In the 6 months which followed our Appsumo campaign, we noticed a new competitor that purely copy pasted our website 😱. (Because we said no to being promoted a second time on Appsumo, this competitor was promoted even though his website was a copy of ours 🤔).

We also had some discussion with potential partners which went pretty far. They had a community of users on Facebook. They were already selling them some courses and tools but none were the same as ours. After almost 2-3 months of back and forth, they ended up saying: “We thought about it and will probably add a new feature in our tool”.

“Ok! Why not.” And then we discovered they launched a dedicated app using our own terms on their website. They even copy pasted our FAQ articles 🤦‍♂️(plus, they even chose a name close to ours…).

Even if we wouldn’t do that on our side, that is part of the game and there is nothing you can do about that, except be better, and make your customers happier 😉.

So let’s focus on what matters the most, making our customer happy and building a ‘must have’ tool; not just a ‘nice to have’ one 🔥.

Customer satisfaction is all that matters

Measuring our customer satisfaction and being able to offer the best support to our customers is what we believe in!

We’ve been following our NPS thoroughly in the past 6 months. It fluctuated a bit and pretty much reflects our churn rate! Interesting! Also, an average of + 58 is good but far from perfect! We should be above 70.

We also believe in fast and helpful customer support, so this is the reason why we never turn off our live chat support. Bernou, our amazing conversational Marketer, is doing an incredible job at supporting our customer as fast as she can. In 6 months she’s been involved in almost 1,500 conversations 😅.

All these conversations helped us understand that throughout the months, we were adding more and more features not necessarily related to the historic part of PixelMe. We were making the product confusing and harder to use 😬.

So we needed to do something.

Welcome Smart Attribution

After a couple of months of hard work, brainstorming, testing and learning, and a month in Corsica, you can’t even imagine the feeling when your product vision comes to life 😍.

Whether they were Growth, Product, Demand lead generation, traffic managers, or even CEOs, we wondered what our leads’ paths would be from the first touchpoint to the conversion. We all dreamed of a super simple product that would tell us every morning with our coffee, “what are our best marketing channels? The ROI of our latest marketing campaigns versus the previous ones? What are our best marketing touchpoints?” etc.

All of these answers would be based on your real visitors, trialists, and customer data. Not just a number of conversions that would be impossible to match with your real sales of the week 😉 (like you too often see in Google Ads or Facebook Ads…).

In early July, we rolled out the first version of our Customer Attribution platform!

Yes, we believe in multi-channel real-time attribution data, we believe in a simple and easy to use platform, and we believe in attribution only if it gives you the real data and context about your customers and can help you take action.

Too often, traffic managers notice that when they run multi-channel campaigns, Facebook and Google attribute themselves to conversions which don’t exist in your Stripe or Shopify account 😬.

With Smart Attribution, we analyze all your traffic by UTMs, and give you the power to understand what’s working and not working for you 🙂.

You can even dig into your converted users and see your entire customer journey 🚀.

Of course this is a first version 🙂. We received a ton of great feedback and have a full roadmap to make it even more powerful!

Our Facebook Ads and Google Ads integration, Segment integration, displaying revenue and ROI are coming soon this summer 😍.

If you want to join the Customer Attribution movement and help us build the best platform 🙂, we’re waiting for you here: www.pixelme.me

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