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Lessons on Perseverance from a SaaS Startup That Almost Failed – with Panos Siozos [264]

Panos Siozos - LearnWorlds

Lessons on Perseverance from a SaaS Startup That Almost Failed

Panos Siozos is the co-founder and CEO of LearnWorlds, a white-label SaaS platform that lets you create your own, personally-branded online school.

This is a story of three guys in Greece who built an e-learning software product while doing research for their PhDs. At the time, they had no intention to start a business.

But some years later, after seeing how most learning management systems missed the mark, they teamed up and set out to build a better product.

Two of the founders kept their day jobs and paid the salary of the third founder, so he could quit his job and work on the product full-time.

It took them two years to ship the product. And then to their dismay, they realized that while people seemed excited about their product, no one seemed ready to buy.

It took them another year to find their first few customers – that's three years after they started.

And during those three years, there were times when they thought about quitting. But they'd invested so much time and money that it was hard for them to walk away

They kept telling themselves – let's just get in front of people, let's listen to the feedback and keep improving the product. And maybe one day this will all pay off.

Today, they have customers in 70 countries, a team of 40 people, and have built a multi-million dollar SaaS company.

It's a great story and I hope you enjoy listening to it.

Transcript

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Omer: [00:00:00] Welcome to another episode of The SaaS Podcast. I'm your host Omer Khan and this is the show where I interview proven founders and industry experts who share their stories, strategies, and insights to help you build, launch and grow your SAS business. In this episode. I talked to Panoz  Siozos, the cofounder and CEO of LearnWorlds a white-label SaaS platform that lets you create your own personally branded online school.

[00:00:39] This is a story of three guys in Greece who built an e-learning software product. While doing research for their PhDs. At the time, they had no intention to start a business, but some years later after seeing how most learning management systems missed the mark for them, they teamed up and set out to build a better product.

[00:01:01] Two of the founders kept the day jobs and paid the salary of the third founder. So he could quit his job and work on the product full time. It took them two years to ship the product. And then to their dismay, they realize that while people seemed excited about their product, no one was ready to buy. It took them another year to find their first few customers.

[00:01:24] That's three years after they started. And during those three years, there were times when they thought about quitting, but they invested so much time and money. That it was hard for them to walk away. They kept telling themselves let's just get in front of more people. Let's listen to the feedback and keep improving the product.

[00:01:44] And maybe one day this would all pay off today. They have customers in 70 countries, a team of 40 people. And have built a multimillion-dollar SaaS company. It's a great story. And I hope you enjoyed listening to it. Panos, welcome to the show.

Panos: [00:02:00] Hi Omer, thanks for having me.

Omer: [00:02:02] So do you have a favorite quote, something that inspires you or motivates you?

[00:02:05] It just gets you out of bed. It's getting better every single day. And for people who aren't familiar with LearnWorlds, can you tell us what does the product do? Who is it for? And what's the main problem you're helping to solve effectively.

Panos: [00:02:20] We are a Shopify for online courses. So we're in a e-learning platform where people can create and sell online courses.

[00:02:27] And, our customers are professional trainers and coaches and speakers and training organizations. So effectively we help them do retail. E-learning so directly their own courses to their own customers. Now the company was founded in 2014 and it's a UK based company, but the team is based in Greece. Is that right?

[00:02:52] Yeah, we were mainly, we are a Greek center and Cypriots we founded the company in the UK because as you remember the financial situation in Europe and especially in Greece in Cyprus a few years ago was terrible. So it wasn't an option to. To create a business here and now because of Brexit, actually we are moving our operations or the headquarters and everything out of the UK and into Cyprus. So because we want to stay as part of the European union.

Omer: [00:03:21] Got it. Okay. So let's kind of set the scene a little bit and talk about the product, the size of the business. So LearnWorlds currently is, multiple seven figure business for most of your journey, the business was bootstrapped all though, you have raised about a million Euros.

[00:03:46] Tell me a little bit about how the product actually works. And how it's different from maybe some of the other products out there we're

Panos: [00:03:54] Combining a new learning platform with an eCommerce platform. Perhaps now, obviously something that seems to like, self-evident and everybody wants to, or has seen platforms like that. Or there are several, sometimes I, I think that there's one new platform being created being launched every, every week. But a few years back when we started this, wasn't very easy. The people are mostly familiar with learning management systems, which are like the traditional tools used for learning, especially in corporate environments or in academic environments.

[00:04:25] But these tools are what gives you learning about names? So these are platforms. The mostly with the management of learning, but not with the learning itself. What we created in fact with our platform is in easy, lightweight learning models, where systems are, where a course platform. And we give lots of emphasis on the learner experience, like how people learn.

[00:04:46] So we try when we're creating an online course, the usual experience that people had is just being thrown a PDF or a video. And the dog was considered to be in learning. And after watching a couple of videos or being sent a few PDFs, there were supposed to have learned something and have acquired a new skill.

[00:05:04] But this is not how people learn. This is not how we work. And this is our understanding, this what, the notice that we had, acquired by our studies before doing LearnWorlds and we focused a lot on creating any learning platform with stellar learner experience and giving people sleep digital, beautiful experiences.

[00:05:25] And this is what people are used to having these days. I mean, where we used to having to with our gaming devices and our tablets and our iPads and all this stuff. So we want to create a great learning experience where people would go in. That we consume video that will consume eBooks, that we'll be happy with the, their learning journey. And a, there will be happy to be paying for a product for a known product that they have purchased.

Omer: [00:05:50] So a lot of products that I've seen that online course products often they're built by founders who either had a personal itch they needed to scratch and build something or they'd maybe use some sort of learning management system and thought that they could do better.

[00:06:11] But what I find interesting about LearnWorlds and you and your two co founders. Is that like before you guys like, even thought about building this business, you spent years actually studying the whole concept of e-learning. So tell me a little bit about that, because I think I want to try and sort of set the scene here in terms of like how deep the three of you got into the whole idea of e-learning before you even sort of got to the point where you said let's, let's build a software business.

Panos: [00:06:41] Yes. We have a very strong background in R and D. And in fact, we start wanted as researchers, not as entrepreneurs or like one of the  star toppers or anything else. So after finishing after concluding, we're three cofounders after concluding the studies in computer science, we did postgraduate studies in educational technology.

[00:07:02] And two of the founders, we received PhDs degrees, all of these, a process. So in this process, what we were doing was we were building e-learning platforms and not commercial platforms, but we were researching and publishing papers and trying to see what is the state of the art and invent the state of the art work combine and create products that work we have.

[00:07:26] So we have lots of research and lots of evidence-based, obviously. efforts to, to create the best possible platforms around e-learning. So we were doing that for about 10 years, working in research projects, national and international research projects, publishing papers. We never had an idea about, actually creating a business and selling the software.

[00:07:47] So we're creating a great platform and publishing your couple of papers. And then off we went to the next project or to the next level. But during this process, obviously we acquired lots of knowhow. So we, we knew we were seeing the trends. We were seeing the state of the art. And also we were, we were becoming increasingly very dissatisfied or pissed off, I would say with the kind of platforms that were out there.

[00:08:11] So people where we're using some products that we were considered to be very much behind of what we consider to be the state of the art of we learned  . And then at some point after several years after completing our degrees and even working in different jobs as software engineers or researchers or stuff like that. We came back together and we see figured out that we had it, that we still knew what was, we could do better than that on the rest.

[00:08:38] And we saw an opportunity in creating a product that would be commercial, something that will be far better than what the competition has to offer. That was around end of 2011, early 2012. There were some online companies being online, learning companies being created back then. You might remember, you obviously know Lynda, or you might remember Team Treehouse.

[00:08:59] So we saw there in the opportunity, all the expertise that we have, but now lots more new tools. Like it was much easier to develop products. Cloud computing was like prevalent. So we were, it was much easier to launch company and even to do marketing in a global scheme. So we came together to call our expertise and started creating a platform for, for the space.

Omer: [00:09:23] And so that was around what, 2013, 2014 when you started?

Panos: [00:09:28] We started designing at the end of 2011. And then he took us two years to create the actual platform. So that was a very, we were, I guess we were in, in the bunker. We weren't lucky enough to have, to have a garage. That's the, the usual metaphor people starting, starting a startup in a garage. We didn't even have that. We were remote a remote team in three different cities, two different countries. And we were working. We had the day jobs and nights and weekends, we were working on the platform, but also because e-learning is kind of complex. So it's not really easy to do an MVP. It's not really easy to just do a few pages and test it with people and say that you have something.

[00:10:12] So we went all in and we, we obviously, we spent two years of our lives creating what we thought would be the best platform for creating and sending online courses. So that was a very grueling process and also difficult process. We were hunkered down creating the platform, and that took us two years before we were able to go out and present the platform to, to potential users and potential customers.

Omer: [00:10:36] So the three of you were working day jobs at the time. This was, this was basically a side project for you guys?

Panos: [00:10:43] That was a side project for the first year months. And then when we do these one off of the three co-founders, he sacrificed himself and when in the project full time. So the other two had to cover his expenses. So that was our experience. But we are friends now for about 25 years, the three co-founders. So we were family probably the things that we did wouldn't have been possible with normal co-founders that have like professional relationships. So what we did is actually we were financing one of us who went into the project full time, and then we brought in one of our extra students.

[00:11:18] So we got him out of a university. And he came to us, started working for us as a junior developer, and we were making there  with the funds that we had gathered from previous jobs and external projects that we were doing. Just trying to keep this project alive and trying to give it the resources that it needed in order to be developed ,  develop into a full platform.

Omer: [00:11:41] So for almost two years, two of you guys were paying the salary of the other founder, as well as this. The student that you brought on, did you guys have a formal agreement or a company set up or was this just

Panos: [00:11:56] No, never. It was just a gentleman's agreement was, it was a project we really believed in and we still treated we're we're, I guess, closer than a family in many, in many respects. So, we didn't have any agreements. It was only, only very late when we put things in paper. And like formalized it in terms of like shares and stuff like that.

Omer: [00:12:19] So you, you, you said for two years, we were in a bunker and that sort of. Suggests there weren't a lot of conversations going on with customers at that point. Is that true?

Panos: [00:12:32] I, yes, it's, it's very true. I guess we did everything the other way around. So if we started again, we would probably have been much more agile and like try to like create prototypes and put it out there. We were certain and in many respects we were right that we knew what had to be done, but we definitely, if we did it again, we would have put all the products in front of customers much, much earlier.

[00:12:57] So effectively. What we did is we created, designed and, and created the platform for two years. During this, this time we were speaking with potential customers, but these were usually. Like theoretical discussions. People didn't really know what we had to offer and sometimes didn't even know their own needs and what they wanted from a, from a platform like that.

[00:13:18] So it wasn't easy to always find a match. Yeah. That was very introvert periods where we were beating the product, refining the product, but only based on our own feedback or feedback like colleagues, but not putting it in front of actual customers.

Omer: [00:13:37] I was having a conversation with, with some of the members of our plus community yesterday, we were talking about tech stacks. So just out of curiosity, like what, what was the tech stack that you built LearnWorlds on?

Panos: [00:13:47] It was pretty, I guess, a mundane. So it was MongoDB, and PHP, and lots and lots of custom handwritten JavaScript without any fancy frameworks. So it was just the stuff that worked. That was the expertise that we also had.

[00:14:06] So when you're working in a university arena in your research project, you don't really need technologies that scale a lot. So you're doing things one way in lots of custom handmade things. So this is how the platform started initially.

Omer: [00:14:22] Is that what you're still using today? Is it mostly like PHP and sort of vanilla JavaScript? Or have you evolved from that?

Panos: [00:14:28] Well, there's lots of new expertise and new technologies. So the schools, obviously that we're running are much, much bigger than what have we had in mind. At that point we were designing schools and we thought that if a school would have 1000 customers don't have been a success right now, we have schools that regularly daily run with more of a 300,000 users.

[00:14:50] So obviously lots of things have changed internally, lots of analytics. For example, we have to use. Yeah, platforms for a data analytics like big query and stuff like that. So there's lots of technologies changing every day.

Omer: [00:15:03] So the end of the two years you, you sort of come out of the bunker, the product is ready and what happens when you?

Panos: [00:15:13] We come out of the bunker and we realized that Europe is almost in a state of end and also in many ways, the rest of the world is in a state of a financial war.

[00:15:23] So there's a huge crisis happening around a and where we have a product that we are very confident about the product, and we try to sell it to companies and nobody at that point, especially in Europe and especially in Greece, if you remember, we were coming from Greece, there's lots of discussion, even if Greece should stay in the European Union or via expound from the European Union.

[00:15:46] So we don't even were approaching companies and telling them like to use a software product. And that's, the, obviously that doesn't work, if people are not investing,  and not testing new things, even me for, e-learning seems to be there the right thing to do. It's like very cost efficient and it allows you to do, to do things much more effectively without spending lots of time and money.

[00:16:08] Companies are very very reluctant to invest in a product and also professional trainers and all that people might be having in mind who would be our first customers. So we had to find, enhanced down our customers. We did a couple of pilot projects, we were happy to find a couple of customers in Greece, and we started like, creating, launching their first online schools and seeing the first successful sales, like actual students coming into one of our customers online schools and purchasing one or two courses.

[00:16:39] Well, you meant for us. But then we also realized that the European market is far. Behind US market when it comes to online courses, e-commerce and also the willingness to test a new platform, any innovative platform or something that is untested, that comes from a, from a new startup. So we, at that point, it was obvious for us that we should really only address the US market.

[00:17:05] It was strange, very strange sometimes. We were talking with, with European customer. We're very reluctant to work from the start with a startup from, from Greece, you were asking us like things that were like, what will happen if Greece next month it goes out of the European Union or if there no way for us to pay you guys, right.

[00:17:25] You get paid. So things that should shouldn't have been an issue. In a normal, in a normal functioning economy in society. On the other hand, we were talking with US potential customers who were much more risk tolerant. They really liked the product. They were really excited that we were coming from Greece or wherever they, they didn't really care.

[00:17:45] We've the product did what they wanted it to do. Then they were really willing to test it and use the platform. So we're very lucky at that point to get a few customers from the US who had experience in creating and selling online courses who really liked the platform. And then the new things that we, what we knew we were bringing into the market, they really liked those.

[00:18:08] They gave us a chance. They started using the platform. They gave us lots of very harsh feedback, very difficult feedback, but also very valuable for us. So we started working with them very, very fast, improving the platform, customizing the platform and make it work for these, for these customers. So at that point we went out of this bunker, we faced reality.

[00:18:30] We realized that we had to adapt very, very fast adopter understanding, conformed to what the  market actually needs and not what to the theory that we have in our minds. And that was a, that point. We entered a very fast cycle of the development and continuous improvement and development and refining, which we see continue to this day.

[00:18:51] So yes, that was the point where our theoretical understanding and research backgrounds that we are the experts are field learning, and we know how this works. This is the point where we face the reality of actual eCommerce and facing  customers that have built already businesses, eCommerce businesses, and knew how to sell in a natural market.

[00:19:13] So they gave us very Frank feedback and very valuable feedback that we put into the practice and at that point, Our great platform, which was also, very, abstract in some ways, became very, very practical and very much adopted to the actual necessities of eCommerce and the, and the way things work in actual life.

Omer: [00:19:33] So when you came out of the bunker after two years, there was a period where once you got the product out there, you realize that nobody actually wanted it. And how long did it take from that point to get to that first, first customer, the first 10 customers.

Panos: [00:19:54] I think that was, that was about a year. I would say it was a, the whole of 2014 when we started showing the platform and going to like pitching competitions and approaching customers, cold calling, mobilizing all our network and trying to talk with actual customers, also doing our very first basic elemental kind of marketing with mainly with content marketing and producing a few videos and blog posts and trying to show what we do better than the rest. And on that point, we started about a year, but we had our first two pilot projects. And then yeah. Actually finding our very first customers who started selling online courses.

[00:20:36] So at the end of 2014, our first customers have US launches launching online schools. And started sending, sending courses almost the very first days where we saw our platform handling, I don't know, 10, 20 sales in a day. So that was for us, but it was transformative. We realized that, okay, it works. I mean, people can actually go in and they purchase courses and they don't ask for refunds and they actually use the platform. So this is something that we can scale much more.

Omer: [00:21:06] For people who might not be familiar with the situation in Greece, I think it's worth just calling out that this was, is, this was a massive financial crisis and an extremely long recession that lasted what like eight, nine years. And you guys were building this business right in the middle of all of them.

Panos: [00:21:38] Yes. That's precisely how it is. I guess one of our early mistakes is that even with all these things happening around, we didn't shift to external markets or like the US market from day one. But our first steps, because we have the connections in Greece and we have all these good feedback. We felt that we could also sell it, so the platform in Greece to, to big businesses, but not really, they didn't pan out. So I think we are, we're very lucky that we were unsuccessful in finding customers in Greece and also having customers in the, in Europe. And so we had to go very, very early to the US market where things are much faster.

[00:22:20] If people know what they want, their risk tolerant, they're testing new products. There are early adopters. So it's, it's a much bigger and much faster, faster market. And to even to this day, I'm amazed by the selling cycle of our platform. When we talk with with European customers, it might take, I don't know, four or five weeks for somebody to reach a decision.

[00:22:43] When you're talking with a US customer giving them the same information, the same, the same data, they would make a choice in four to five days. So sometimes it's like, it's the differences are vast in how fast things work in the US market.

Omer: [00:22:58] So for that period of about a year where you're trying to find those first customers, what kind of push back, what kind of objections were you hearing about the product?

[00:23:13] You mentioned some of this in terms of people, some people would seem reluctant to. To do business with you cause you're, you're a startup based in Greece, but beyond that, when it came to the product or even the perception of the product through your marketing and I know that was fairly limited at the time. What kind of pushback were you getting?

Panos: [00:23:31] Mainly people were worried. They really liked the product. So that was the thing that kept us in the game. Because even those that didn't at the end, didn't work with us or didn't reach a decision to take the leap and the faith and, and use the platform. They really have some great feedback.

[00:23:51] Most of them, the diffucult of the pushback that we were getting was about our ability to help them and to be there. So a, are you going to be there next year? So will you be able to handle so many customers are so many users, will you be able to assist me with support 24/7? Because you are based in the different time zones, like seven or eight hours away.

[00:24:14] So these were the most difficult things I would say. And the way to overcome them goes with much much work. So, at some points e were, we were doing presentations to people and my schedule was starting at [10:00] PM. My local time and ending [2:00] or [3:00] PM, [3:00] AM because we have to speak with people from the Pacific Coast.

[00:24:39] So it was as simple as that we had to be there, we have to be present. We have to be able to give answers to people, very very fast. So at that point we were still four or five people in the team. So as you can imagine, we were wearing multiple hats. People were doing, I was making presentations to customers and that will also the customer support, representative writing, support articles, and answering tickets at the same time.

[00:25:03] So what we're trying to be. We were trying to be 24/7 ever present. And give the impression that we are a much bigger company, never lying about how big we are or how many people we have in the team, but always trying to be there to make people feel reassured and make them feel certain about their choice.

[00:25:23] So fixing stuff, fixing minor bugs. Very very fast. We were doing things that should probably are probably unsafe. Like, I don't know, changing codes, changing the code or putting new releases with minimal testing, breaking things and changing things very, very fast. But we were trying to be better every single day, improve small things, even small things, writing a better article, sending a better answer, creating an app that would perform half a percent better trying to improve all things more and just be ever present and give people the reassurance that we are improving. These that this is if they get something tomorrow and or one week from now, they will have a better product. That was something that helped convince people and help them stay with us.

[00:26:13] They, they understood that we have the depth about e-learning or we were understanding what we were building. We had the vision, so this vision and our passion about e-learning really resonated with them, but we also have to convince them that if they build a product, people were effectively leading a business on top of our platform. So we have to convince them that the platform would be functional, that our support will be there.

[00:26:37] And if they need something, they have my mobile phone. So you can imagine people were calling me like [2:00] AM, [3:00] AM. But they knew that they could find. So even though we were small, what was the thing that helped them, like take the leap of faith and invest in our business. Effectively, we were a bootstrapped business so our first customers were our investors and we, we still think of them this way, that our best investors are our customers.

Omer: [00:27:04] So you'd been thinking about e-learning for a long time, as we talked about during, you're getting your PhD. You guys are sort of starting to see opportunities as you look at other e-learning products out there, then you spend two years building the product and then it takes another year before you're finding customers.

[00:27:25] What kept you going through that time? Like why did you keep going? When a lot of people might've just said, okay, look, we, we kind of spent two years building this product. This doesn't seem like there's the market opportunity that maybe we, we thought that there was, and you know, we're going out there and people are sort of saying nice things or they're telling us they like the product, but they all seem to have excuses or objections. Maybe they're just trying to be nice. Maybe, maybe we just built the wrong product. Like what kept you going.

Panos: [00:27:56] Well as sometimes I think that probably we weren't very smart. And it also have to do with what you sent me before about the general environment, and they're like a crisis being there. So I guess if we were in a different, in an environment with many more options, I mean, we could, we could, I don't know, quit our, our startup and start working for like one of the big tech companies or whatever.

[00:28:19] This is perhaps something that we might have done, but I guess we have lots of like sunk cost, lots of investors I haven't already. So we feel that, okay, this is going somewhere. This is going somewhere. And we, and it's lots of grief and lots of determination. And lots of, at some point might even false hope, but we were really believing that this would go somewhere.

[00:28:40] So it was a very difficult situation. There weren't many chances around. But we were creating our chances. The chances are ourselves. So I guess that was what made us stay in the game. And also, I believe that we wouldn't have done that if we didn't, have the previous experience of doing postgraduate research then, which is something that is very difficult, very time consuming.

[00:29:03] You have to invest your whole self for several years. In order to get to a result that you like and get it, it's accepted by the, I don't know, by your, by your thesis expert and your another professors and the, and the scientific community. So we knew that it takes lots and lots of work to create something that is worthwhile.

[00:29:23] So I guess it's a, it's a mentality of having to prove the work, even the difficult work in order to get to a place where you get rewarded for that. So that's, I guess what kept us in the, in the game and then the little improvements of we were doing that we were seeing every day. So there were little even, I don't know, it couldn't have been like false signals of hope, but these little things like getting some good feedback and getting a potential customer from here and somebody who's interested from a, from another place, these, these are the things that were keeping us in the game.

Omer: [00:29:53] Now all three of you are engineers. And so at some point you realized, you know, we need someone to be doing the marketing and sales as well, and that needs to be us. How did you go about learning? How to do that?

Panos: [00:30:13] Well yeah, I'm the one that was tasked with, with this. So we were three co-founders. I was the one that was further away from coding. So I have, I had a previous job at the European parliament in process. Yeah, so effectively for US listeners, it's something like being a chief of staff or for a US Senator. So I was working in this capacity about R and D policy in, in European Union and stuff like that. So I was already a few years away from, from, I had left coding for a few years and also I was, I guess, the more extrovert of the team.

[00:30:49] So I was tasked with, with marketing. So obviously had no idea about all this stuff. So I started reading. Every kind of slogan and podcasts and everything that you can imagine about like, what is a startup and what is marketing and what these content marketing. So I was discovering all these things.

[00:31:06] And also what we understood that we knew that we needed to do is do all sorts of startup training that young people do these days. Like we were going into. We participated in startup competitions. The rest, I guess, were guys that were 20 or 25 years old. We were 35. So it would be today older, but still we knew that there, there was something that we needed to learn there that we needed to learn how to pitch. We needed to learn how to make our value proposition concise. We needed to start to learn how to do a business model canvas, and start to see what we have to, what is it that we are selling? What is our business proposition? So we, these were baby steps, I guess, but these were things that we understood that we lacked and we needed to do to create this understanding.

[00:31:54] So again, we started from a very basic understanding of business. Effectively we thought that we just create the best possible product. And it will sell itself. And when we got there, we realized that it doesn't work this way. So we had to do all that. So learning and start acquiring these knowledge. So effectively, I beat our first digital marketing campaigns, like created a Facebook account and obviously created a few terrible campaigns that didn't work.

[00:32:21] Well, we didn't know how to measure our conversion, all the mistakes that you can see in a, in a signup, we probably made them, but we made mistakes and we tried that's I guess what makes it effectively, what can they start of successful? If not, do you know about how fast you learn and we're very fast learners.

[00:32:39] So we were making mistakes big and small, but we were trying to do something better the next day. Like a better app, coping and another, stealing another idea from a competitor, whatever, anything that could make small things, so work and bring some people over to our website, like creating a website, all the basic stuff to put our platform in front of people's eyes and have them test the platform because we knew that once they actually saw the product and use the product that they would.

[00:33:08] Evaluate and get hooked, but it was a very difficult task for us to get them there. Like create awareness around our platform, get people inside and get them to start using the platform. So some something that I mentioned these up for the, for the first three and a half years, the trials of our, I mean, it's a SaaS product, so obviously people want to start a free trial. That's the best way we are trying to be product-led. So people want to just do the free trial. So for the first three and a half years, yeah, we were creating the trials manually. So people were coming to our website. They were like asking for a free trial and then thinking that they would get it immediately on the spot.

[00:33:50] And then they were receiving an email that says the team is working and we will send you the trial in a few minutes or hours. So my co-founder or CTO was waking up early in the morning and trying to see how many trials we had overnight. And he was manually copying and pasting databases, creating a new trial. And then we were emailing the credentials to the potential customer to come inside. So these were the things that, that we were doing and trying to get, as many people are supposed to go to like actually test the product. And then we were hoping that the product would do the rest.

Omer: [00:34:28] We've all heard, you know, Paul Graham and the whole, you know, do things that don't scale. Yet it's very easy to you spend your time trying to come up with scalable solution too soon. And one interesting lesson, I think you guys is that you really took that, that sort of, you know, advice on board and you spent a lot of time and effort creating. Very customized solutions for some of your early customers, which wasn't scalable, which was expensive. But was probably the right thing to do at that time. So tell us a little bit about that and like why you took that approach and, and, and what you learned from doing.

Panos: [00:35:27] Yes. So I think Paul Graham is very light to say that you have to do unscalable things. The catch here is, that you don't know which unscalable things are worthwhile or are the ones that will lead you to success.

[00:35:42] So we're probably doing lots of unscalable things even today. And some of them we shouldn't, but one of the things, as we mentioned that we were doing back then once at that point, when our e-learning expertise, faced the marketing, digital marketing and eCommerce reality. This is where we had a couple of customers who were, we were very lucky to get their feedback.

[00:36:05] So when they were asking for something, we knew that it had to be done because it wasn't like some kind of a, it wasn't a weird request, but they knew because they knew how to sell. So anything that had to do with e-learning, we were very reluctant to change and we were insisting and we were insisting on our vision and why, for example, the videos should be shown this way, because we knew from research and papers that this is the way to show a video or that's the correct way to show text on the screen or to navigate within an online course. We were sticking to these to our guns when it came to these, but when it came to how you actually sell, what you tell to the customer, how you formulate your checkout funnel, how you set it up, how you should show your, your coupons and the way people like to redeem coupons and how there should be like a thank you page afterwards, where you can up sell to customers. That was a treasure trove of knowledge that we didn't have. So we knew that at that point, we should sit down and listen. And we were doing customizations, which were very, very unscalable. So we were changing codes in different people's instances. And then every time we had a new release, it was a nightmare to go over.

[00:37:20] I don't know, five above point customers and try to merge the code so that we don't override any customizations that we might have done. And in many cases we overall, and we have to do that we get. So that was very, very unscalable and impractical at the moment, but we were trying, we were succeeding, we, we had that first successes, I guess, identifying the things that were meaningful for the eCommerce aspect of the platform.

[00:37:47] And then the product became much more balanced. So not only we could, we create great learning experiences, online courses that people would love it, and they would use, but also we knew how to sell them effectively, how to create a great, a great funnel. And help people sell online courses. So what we learned over time is how to make these a more scalable and put these into the platform.

[00:38:12] So at some point, once we reached 100 customers, we stopped doing customizations or doing fewer of them and try to do things the normal way. And just keep improving the platform. So at that point, we realized that we had the, we reached what elusive beast of a product market feed this stage. And we knew that we couldn't do customizations anymore, but any valuable feedback should, we should wait a bit and put it into the platform as a feature that all our customers would use. Obviously there's a very delicate balance there. And the main cases we made mistakes, like either adding things too early or too slow, but this didn't last. And at that point we started protecting the platform. So that was that's what, when the platform really became a thing of its own and we wanted to like preserve it and improve it and put it above the, any individual customer.

Omer: [00:39:12] So, how have things been for you guys this year, obviously with the pandemic, how has that affected your business?

Panos: [00:39:22] The pandemic is a, is a once in a century event and we really, really hope that this will go away and very, very fast. But I have to admit that online businesses in general and learning is our sector is one of those online businesses.

[00:39:39] Were really helped by these things. So we really hope that it goes away fast, but in any case we have to be ready in case it doesn't. And we try to help as many people as possible to make the transition into online businesses. So as you can imagine with the lockdown, all training overnight became online.

[00:39:58] So if you couldn't do online training, chances were, you couldn't do any training, any training at all. I say that from our side. It was, Covid was an accelerator. So things that would have happened in 10 years really happened in two to three months. So all the trends that we were seeing are still there.

[00:40:18] So remote working, isn't something that started with Covid. We were a remote company from day one and more than 70% of our staff works from various places in Greece, Cyprus, and then other and other countries. So that's all the new thing or people trying to do side projects or try to create a side income yeah for, for their businesses, or try to portray their sense as experts and then have their branding through the means of an online course, or maybe it will be, these were new things. But obviously with Covid, all these trends really quite lessened and all things really accelerated. So. It was some crazy times, a few months, about 15% per month, which also it was very difficult for our own people because as you can imagine, everybody was working from home schools were closed so kids, families, we're trying to balance that and the well being of our employees and also trying to help many, many people, thousands of people who were panicking, who were losing their day jobs, who were losing access to the, to their customers or ways to make money who were trying to do what we call emergency education.

[00:41:28] So you can imagine that you are a fitness center or a, I don't know, a yoga salon, and then overnight you don't have access to your customers. And you are trying to make things do by using Skype, Zoom, phone or an online course platform in certain cases.

[00:41:44] There were lots of things happening at the same time. We have our existing costumers who already had understood the business models and had already set up some great online schools who started selling like crazy. And in some cases they doubled or tripled in one to two months, like from mid-March effectively, when the lockdown really started spreading around the globe to April or May.

[00:42:08] Some schools went from 20 to 60,000 paying customers. So as you can imagine, the double door tripled their revenue. Also lots of people who were already thinking about online courses or it was, they seem, they felt that having an online course would be nice to have immediately. They realize that this is must have they have to be online.

[00:42:31] If they're not online. They're losing business. They cannot reach their customers. So that was another huge growth factor. Well, there were other people who were trying to find a temporary solution, like do emergency education. As I mentioned, fitness, yoga, sports clubs, online summits, and people were doing conferences and events.

[00:42:53] Everybody tried to transition into online business model and try to find alternative revenue, revenue sources. So we have to help them as well. So one of the, one of the ways we did that is that obviously lots of people started using Zoom. We know that's one of the huge success stories. So our platform was mainly mostly tailored for self-based courses or people were recording their videos and then they're putting them up.

[00:43:17] But we really understood that we needed to you help people, even people that don't have a ready made curriculum and they want to teach live courses. So we gathered our team and in about three weeks we released a Zoom integration so that anybody can use our platform. Even for teaching live classes, either one on one, small group or, or do a hold webinar with 500 people, you can just plug in your Zoom account, even if we are out and you can start teaching overnight without having anything prerecorded.

[00:43:47] So these are new and lots of new things happening. Obviously that's a huge experiment also when it comes to online training or even the school system and the whole academia is trying to find its steps and its path in these, in this crisis. So it's, there's lots of unexplored things and lots of potential that, that, is ready for, for harvesting or at least for trying.

Omer: [00:44:13] Yeah, I think e-learning is a, is a fascinating space and you're right that one of the things that's happened with Covid, it has accelerated a lot of that and being a forcing function for people to start thinking more about taking, learning into e-learning. And, and I think if there's, you know, any kind of like silver lining here, I hope that this is also going to be an opportunity for us to really do a much better job with children and education and using technology in better and smarter ways because it feels to me. Like, I mean, my kids go through this, you know, the, a lot of the times they're still doing, you know, very synchronous education. And do you really get that much value by staring at your computer while your teacher is talking to live for an hour and are there, you know, smarter ways to teach and educate, you know, using making use of technology.

[00:45:13] So I am, I'm hoping that, you know, we're going to see more and more of those things coming along, and it's great to see what you guys are doing. So we should wrap up. We should get onto the lightning round. I'm going to ask you so seven quickfire questions. Just try to ask them as quick as you can.

Panos: [00:45:27] Sure go, go ahead.

Omer: [00:45:28] Okay. What's the best piece of business advice you've ever received?

Panos: [00:45:32] That startups are a marathon, not a race.

[00:45:36] What book would you recommend to our audience and why?

[00:45:39] Always, Hitchhiker's guide to the Galaxy? I think it reads innovation and radical way of thinking and approaching things and that's always useful, especially in days like that in times like that.

Omer: [00:45:52] I love that book. What's one attribute or characteristic in your mind of a successful founder?

Panos: [00:45:59] Patience. I guess that's a, that's a, the, the best thing that you can have, especially with, with people who are the ones that needed the most.

Omer: [00:46:09] Yeah. And I think your story also is a great example of patience and perseverance. So what's your favorite personal productivity tool or habit?

Panos: [00:46:18] Sleep. I think I'm missing a few years ff of sleep. And so that's whenever I realized, I know that lots of people are struggling with this, but I really know that when I can get, I don't know, seven hours of sleep, I know that the next day, I'm gonna kill it. So that's a, that's the thing I use the most.

Omer: [00:46:38] What's a new or crazy business idea. You'd love to pursue if you had the time?

Panos: [00:46:42] If there's a, there's lots of craziness. Sometimes I think the most radical thing I think about is trying to do what we did now, again, with the things that I know. So I, I it's, I know that it might seem a bit, a bit strange or masochistic event, but I will try to build the same thing starting again with, with all the knowledge that we have that we have now, that would have been a great experience.

Omer: [00:47:13] Yeah. Very masochistic. What's an interesting or fun fact about you that most people don't know?

Panos: [00:47:18] Wow. I don't know. I guess. I wore daily suit for five years, even when I was working in the, in the European parliament as a, as a policy analyst. And I haven't touched a tie since.

Omer: [00:47:36] Love that. And what's one of your most important passions outside of your work?

Panos: [00:47:40] My family. That's it, that's the thing that all of us, I guess the three co-founders, it was because we were almost in the, in the same, in the same age, raising small children and, and going through this with them also going through COVID and the pandemic and the remote teaching. This is the thing that keeps us working and keeps us alive.

Omer: [00:48:04] Awesome. Panos thank you. It's been, it's been a pleasure and really enjoyed learning about the LearnWorlds story and how you guys have built this business into multiple seven figure. SaaS company. And I think there's some really important lessons for a lot of people in total, you know, the three or four years of the journey from building, finding customers for a lot of founders, it's, it's, you know, that getting started is, is really hard. And I think there's a lot of inspiration and advice that you shared there.

[00:48:37] If people want to find out more about LearnWorlds, they can go to learnworlds.com. And if they want to get in touch with you, what's the best way for them to do that.

Panos: [00:48:47] They can just shoot me a, an email at hello[at]learnworlds[dot]com. I'm always there.  I'm always seeing all the incoming emails. So we're happy to connect  with anyone personally.

Omer: [00:49:02] Awesome. Thank you so much, Panos. It's been a pleasure and I wish you all the best!

Panos: [00:49:06] Thanks for having me Omer, stay safe!

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The Show Notes

Omer Khan

Hi, I'm Omer, the founder of SaaS Club and host of The SaaS Podcast. I help early-stage founders and entrepreneurs to build, launch and grow successful SaaS businesses. Join me on this journey.