SaaStock: Global Events for SaaS Founders, Executives & Investors
Alex Theuma is the founder of SaaStock, global conferences that bring together SaaS founders, executives, and investors.
Alex had been working in sales for many years, but he longed to start his own business and work for himself. But he didn't have any ‘great' business ideas.
He was interested in what was happening in the SaaS space. So he started writing a blog about what he was learning. And he also launched a podcast.
As he started to build a following, he realized that there was an opportunity to connect people. So he organized meetups in London for people interested in SaaS.
He really enjoyed bringing people together, but he wasn't making any money.
Several people told Alex that he should do a SaaS conference in Europe to bring together more people. But he'd heard many horror stories about people who had done conferences and large events. So initially he was reluctant but then decided to jump in and do what people were asking for.
In 2016, his first event in Dublin attracted 700 attendees and launched his business. He had finally found a great idea for his own business. In the next 4 years, he ran SaaStock events around the world every year. And now thousands were attending.
But then the global pandemic hit and the event business he'd worked so hard to build came to a standstill. He had a simple choice – go out of business or find a way to pivot. He had to do some hard thinking and make tough decisions.
In this interview, you'll learn how Alex has re-invented his business, what he's doing to rebuild, and why he's optimistic about future in-person events.
Now I've tried to make this podcast a virus-free place. There are plenty of other places you hear about all that stuff. But it's hard to tell this story without talking about the pandemic. So I hope you'll forgive me.
Enjoy the show!
TranscriptClick to view transcript
Omer Khan 0:09
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 SaaS business.
Omer Khan 0:27
In this episode, I talked to Alex Theuma, founder of SaaStock, which organizes global conferences that bring together SaaS founders, executives and investors. Alex had been working in sales for many years, but he longed to start his own business and work for himself. But he didn't have any great business ideas. He was interested in what was happening in the SaaS space. So he started writing a blog about what he was learning. And he also launched a podcast as he started to build a following he realized that there was an opportunity to connect people. So he organized meetups in London for people interested in SaaS. He really enjoyed connecting people. But he still wasn't making any money. Several people told Alex that he should do a conference to bring together SaaS people from across Europe. At first, he was reluctant but eventually decided to jump in and do what people were asking him for. Although it wasn't smooth sailing, he did manage to get 700 people to attend the first event which was in Dublin. And that's when he realized that he'd found his business idea. In the next four years, he runs SaaStock events around the world every year, and grew attendance to 4000 people. But then the global pandemic hit and the event business he'd worked so hard to build came to a standstill. He had a simple choice, go out of business, or find a way to pivot he had to do some hard thinking and make some tough decisions.
Omer Khan 2:03
In this interview, you'll learn how Alex has reinvented his business, what he's doing to rebuild, and why he's optimistic about the future of in-person events. Now, I've tried to make this podcast, a virus-free place. There are plenty of other places you can hear about all that stuff. But it's hard to tell the story without talking about the pandemic. So I hope you'll forgive me. Enjoy the show. Alex, welcome to the show.
Alex Theuma 2:32
It's great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Omer Khan 2:34
So this is something that we have been talking about doing, I think for quite a while. So
Alex Theuma 2:41
Yeah, maybe two years or so maybe.
Omer Khan 2:44
Well, good to have you here. So I like to ask my guests if they have a favorite quote, something that inspires or motivates them or gets them out of bed. Do you have something you can share with us?
Alex Theuma 2:55
I do. They're both from the same person. So I have to but what because one is topical and the other one is just one, I think that has been a favorite quote for a number of years. So they're both from Winston Churchill, the one that I like and have kind of, you know, reflected on over the years is “Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision. And I definitely tried to live by that in many ways and make, you know, decisions and be courageous and decisions that we've made both in business and in personal life. And then the other one, which is a bit more topical one, you know, look over the last few months is, “Never waste a good crisis”. And we've obviously been going through a few crises, I think to like globally. And yeah, I think there's always an opportunity, you know, within that, and yeah, like for us. It's been an interesting time and we can touch on that later.
Omer Khan 3:51
Yeah, absolutely. I know this has been an extremely challenging time for you and the nature of the business that you wrote. So I think there's gonna be some really interesting stuff that we'll be able to share with with the audience. For people who aren't familiar. Can you just give us a quick summary of SaaStock? What is it? Who's it for? And what's the main problem that you're helping to solve?
Alex Theuma 4:18
Yeah, so our mission is to really make a real difference to the lives and companies of the SaaS community and how we've been doing it. So that you know to date is by running conferences, creating content and building community. We've been doing that this is our fifth year of doing that. And yes, the first conference was in 2016. It was the first conference in Europe for B2B SaaS companies. So I started a blog, maybe 12 months or less before that first event, the blog and followed by podcasts, the SaaS Revolution show then followed by some SaaS meetups, and so I was I was involved in content and community building and all of the sudden I had a bit of a community, I had an audience. And I was really kind of passionate about doing this full time. But I was actually selling software at the time for a large Russian enterprise software company. And I was trying to figure out how do I monetize this? What is the opportunity? And you know, I tried paid advertising and you know, there wasn't enough of an audience there. And, you know, I looked at sponsorship, and it wasn't really sort of working. And then events and conferences was the kind of a third opportunity third revenue stream. And I was a bit reticent initially because I'd never done events, never done conferences. And so why would I quit my job and go all in on something where, you know, I hadn't really done before, but I did do that, but not, you know, to, to foolhardy. I did spend a good period of time doing customer development and I had spent about 12 months building an audience right as well. So we did that went from the first conference 700 people in Dublin in 2016. Right through to the last year, we had just under 4000 attendees in Dublin. And we ran four other conferences across the globe. We had a conference actually in five continents. So, one in the US one in LatAm, one in Asia, one in Australia, and obviously one in Europe.
Omer Khan 6:16
It was feels like, to me anyway, that SaaStock has been around for much longer than 2016. That doesn't seem that far away.
Alex Theuma 6:26
Yeah, it's not it does feel like a lifetime sometimes. But then sometimes it also feels like year one, right? It gets it depends on their day. Right. But yeah, we've been around for longer than it feels.
Omer Khan 6:39
What inspired you to start the blog?
Alex Theuma 6:42
Yeah, good question. I think like to be honest, I mean, I have 11, 12-year career in sales and selling other people's products and through cloud computing, you know, IT services, you know, enterprise software. And I always felt I was entrepreneurial and always had the entrepreneurial ideas. But never really the drive to act on them. And when I, you know, entered into my 30s, I was kind of reflecting on that. And again, like, I haven't done anything entrepreneurial, and will I be selling other people's software for the rest of my life. And then when I'm 50, you know, working at IBM or HP and selling, you know, other people's software, and again, nothing wrong with that. But you know, for me at the time, I thought, that's not my calling and I really want to make this entrepreneurial thing work, but I just didn't really have a clue to be fair what it would be. So I just thought, well, I'll experiment with a few things and testing things out. And I just thought that I had a passion or certainly an interest, maybe more than a passion at that time in SaaS and seeing all these new cool apps and platforms and companies come about, you know, I thought the likes of Twilio and Evernote and Box and Slack and so on, were sexy and interesting and making software, you know, really interesting. And that was that consumerization of software and I was working for this old, clunky enterprise software company where you get to deploy on-prem and spend about a million pounds on hardware, and 12 months to implement. And by that time, it's out of date. And so I was really drawn to this new world of the cloud. So I thought I'm gonna write a blog on SaaS, I looked in the market, I didn't really see like a blog that was not a vendor blog, you know, so not sending somebody else's software. That wasn't a blog from a VC that was really either, you know, trying to elevate their, their VC brand and their portfolio companies. So I thought there was a gap there for a bit of a neutral opinion and neutral voice. And I started saascribe.com at the time. And the thing is, I think there's a couple of limitations to that idea was one that having never written a blog before. I actually wasn't the world's greatest writer. Not that you have to be ready to kind of start a blog, right? I mean, I guess that comes with it with experience, so I wasn't the best writer but also I wasn't the most knowledgeable on SaaS, certainly, you know, back then. So if you're not a great writer and you don't know, you know, you know, a huge amount. And you're like, well, how's that going to succeed? But I think to my credit, I recognize the limitations. So I still held the idea in high regard. But I had these limitations. So how do I solve them? What I'll do is I'll reach out to a bunch of influencers that actually do know what they're talking about, and do know how to write content or customer success and sales and so on. And, like, here's my idea, and it's a blog, it's, you know, we're creating content for the SaaS community, and it's going to be by the SaaS community. And, and what I didn't realize what I was doing was they kind of bought into the why. And they, to my surprise, said, Yes, and they gave up their time. They created original content for this nascent blog with no traffic, you know, initially, and it's sort of built from there. And because of these people being influences already, I kind of I guess piggybacked off-network when they would promote that they've done this company and have written this content for SaaScribe. And we grew in the first sort of three months to like 30,000 visitors, you know, per month.
Omer Khan 10:09
Alex Theuma 10:10
And, and it was kind of a big hit. And then we had all these companies kind of reaching out to me saying, Oh, we love what you're doing, and so on. So yeah, so I guess that was a kind of a good idea kind of initially, and we were putting out five pieces of content a week at one point. And so I was spending, and this was like, it was a side hustle. It was a hobby at the time. So I was supposed to be doing this in the evening. But because I was working from home, I found myself like, working a lot on SaaScribe because I was really into it, and kind of managing my job, you know, in between and doing just enough to kind of keep the job which after a while, you could was reflected in my results at work. That's another story. So yeah, I just kind of became obsessed with SaaScribe and then getting on the podcast and I found myself like within doing That initial kind of blog posts are the initial kind of idea and launching that first sort of post. A few months later, you know, I'm interviewing Mark Roberge, who was the CRO of HubSpot at the time on Owen McCabe and Byron Deeter, and Jason Lemkin and others and you know, just in my bedroom with a, you know, sort of young man with a passion around SaaS, that suddenly, you know, the idea of kind of, really, I think it struck a chord, you know, with the community at the time, so the timing was quite good. I would say initial results were quite good.
Omer Khan 11:31
So tell me about how the first event came about because you mentioned earlier that you started thinking about how to monetize the blog. And there was no kind of master plan here, right? It wasn't about I'm doing this to get to running these events. That was one of the things that you just sort of tried along the way and it sort of clicked but what lead to that first event. And like, why was that? Something you were sort of motivated to do? Because from everything I've heard about running events, they can be a real nightmare. Right? This is not for the faint of heart. So, yeah, how did that happen? And what sort of attracted you to doing that?
Alex Theuma 12:28
Yeah, no good question. I mean, there wasn't an attraction, certainly to do events. And I've never wanted to do events in my life. But I've enjoyed, you know, some events and attended some horrible ones as well. But yeah, you know, I had this community that sort of, like developed and I had this drive to be, you know, a big part of building this community. So after the blog and the podcast, I started doing these meetups in London and the first one attracted 120 people, and they came from all over the UK actually, and there was a real Passion amongst these people, they really wanted to learn, they love being together, they're all starting up that create new and exciting businesses. And it was just it was a really nice vibe. You know, that that kind of first meetup. And everybody was so grateful and thankful. And it's like, wow, like, finally, we have a SaaS meetup in the UK, not only the first one in London, but in the UK. And it's taken somebody that's not running a SaaS business, but is, you know, kind of at the center of a, you know, a SaaS blog and a podcast to do this. And, and after running a few of these, there was this often recurring conversation, Alex, why don't you start a conference in your opponents conference in your, you're the person to do it, you're building a SaaS Empire, which I used to sort of laugh at. And I was looking for that, that way to really do something entrepreneurial, to do something that mattered. And it was staring me in the face, right. And everybody was saying to me, look, you know, we want to come together, have an annual event, you know, a larger scale than these meetups, and bring everybody together across Europe, I've done about eight meetups at this point, you know, several in London flew to Dublin to do a couple went to Berlin to do one. And I was like, yeah, look, you know, I'm kind of ready to do these people, there's so much demand for it, but I'm gonna do it right and I want to do it and because I, I want to be an entrepreneur looks so bad and this thing staring me in the face, it doesn't matter whether it was events or something else, right, you know, that was the time for me to really kind of kick on with it. Perhaps the first time that everything came together, you know, the idea, the drive the I guess like yeah, just kind of like that. The whole kind of passion and everything to find it go ahead and do it. So the stars were aligned and I went for it and as you said, then what I didn't realize is obviously then actually how difficult events are not only to get the people there, but then you're running it and deserve like all of the the nightmares that that sort of come with it. So yeah, and then the years of of stress, suffering quickly having run I don't know how many now, but yeah, it's not for the faint of heart. And, and often actually, you see quite a lot of high turnover in this industry, right again, because like, it's not for everybody people start out and then they're like, no, this is not for me. And you see, like, you know, some companies and conference businesses were actually like, every two years, they kind of, you know, they're changing over the management teams and their personnel because that's kind of like, you know, after two years of like, a lot of people can be a little bit burnt out to be less.
Omer Khan 15:30
So the meetups were you charging for people to attend those? It was just a free thing,
Alex Theuma 15:36
Free, you know, free thing. I was doing it in the evenings, you know, my back again, like no money, like involved, it was like, and again, you know, try and think back about the first meetup. I think, you know, when I was doing that there was no grand plan for the conference, certainly initially, right. It was kind of through the meetups. When I started to meet the community, the people that were reading the newsletter or reading the blog. When I was starting to meet them face to face, those conversations led into them saying like, why don't you do this? Why don't you build this event? And me, then thinking about it and getting the cogs kind of turning around that idea and thinking, well, this is maybe a path for me to actually, you know, start my my business started in revenue. So yeah, I did it for free, then it for the passion of it and kind of experience and yeah, that that was the kind of the start of the, you know, this community building and then led to the conference.
Omer Khan 16:32
So 2016 was the first SaaStock in Dublin.
Alex Theuma 16:38
Omer Khan 16:38
Alex Theuma 16:40
Omer Khan 16:41
And I think you said about, about 700 people turned up. How did you get those people there? Was that all through the audience that you'd built? Or did you have to go out and start actually marketing and finding new people?
Alex Theuma 16:53
Yeah, no, I mean, it was a bit of both right. I mean, in terms of the the tickets went on sale, in mid January of 2016, an event was in September 2016. And on the day of, you know, opening up the tickets, and I was, you know, trying to deploy or did deploy, you know, kind of like FOMO and scarcity tactics, and like, you know, which is kind of often typical events and saying, look, you know, these tickets, there's so much demand, they're going to sell out, you know, on day one, and so on. And so but, but I, as soon as we press sort of, you know, tickets live, you know, you can purchase now and sent out that email, you know, that very first day, like we sold about, I want to say, like, 37 tickets, and I think it was equated to maybe something like, you know, 13,000 euros in revenue, and I was very happy, very excited. And I was like, wow, you know, like, this is it. We're on our way, you know, we know at the time it was one and a half people at SaaStock was me and we had some somebody who was consulting for me at the time. And yeah, I thought, well, well, you know, this is it, but all of those 37 people that bought the tickets, they were the people that you know, are subscribed to the newsletter, obviously, the ones that came to the meetups, the ones that when I spoke to them said they would buy a ticket if you did the conference. So he's kind of doing this, you know, I'd maybe I didn't know at the time, it was customer development. So I bought the book, The Mom Test, and, you know, I was, you know, having these conversations, but yeah, those, you know, the early evangelists are the people that you know, bought the tickets and put their money where the mouth was, was the people that I've been speaking to for a number of a number of months.
Omer Khan 18:36
Okay, so great. So you got the 37 tickets, but yeah, probably still a long way away from getting to that 700 number.
Alex Theuma 18:44
Yeah, they weren't. So that was out in January. And then so after that initial high, then you sort of realized that initial spike, you know, it kind of slowed, you know, to one a day if that, you know, you've still got nine months to kind of go but but it was very what i what I found out what I was learning on the job a very kind of spiky revenue business, but it was often the strategies deployed in terms of selling tickets, you effectively and what is commonly sort of used is you have your kind of early bird pricing your, like regular bird pricing, and then you late bird pricing. So how do you attract people to buy tickets to your event from such a long way out from either 12 months or 9 months out? You give them a an attractive price, which expires at certain time, right? So we would always see these peaks of maybe 100 tickets, so it might be sold, you know, at the end of the super early bird sale. And then you know, it's very quiet then for a month, right and then you get another peek at the kind of the next sale. So that as a strategy worked. My email list wasn't really big enough. We sort of like on to the data to really drive from a conversion perspective, the 700 attendees. So actually what I think really, really works in our favor was the kind of decision early on and I, I've been doing a lot of research, you know, on how this works. And I was speaking to people in the industry, those are real help for me at the time was a guy called Paul Campbell who runs a ticketing platform called Tito and I pick his brains a lot, and you know, kind of explained how to recruit speakers. And part of that, as you say, like, this is the event. Here's the why, where it is like location people like locations, right? And Dublin, it was one, here's who else is speaking, some people like to kind of see who else is there. So one of the things I can learn from that is, if I early on, get some really good speakers, there should be this kind of almost say, like viral effect, but people can see who's speaking and say, Yeah, I want to join I recognize these people. And it's this sort of like a bit of social proof that so having also done and not gone into this cold, having, you know, spent 12 months or whatever on creating content and doing the podcast that enabled me too when I emailed you know, Des Traynor, Intercom or Christoph Janz, you know, the managing partner of Point Nine Capital. They was we've never spoken. They knew they we've seen Alex Theuma somewhere. Oh, yeah, right. He's the guy that does the podcasts or the blog, right? And, oh, yeah, like what he's trying to do, we like that. And obviously, they're invested in SaaS, in the SaaS industry being successful with it successful, they're successful. So they want to, you know, I guess kind of back somebody that's trying to make a, you know, a difference and trying to help out, you know, within the SaaS industry, so having like, gone through some high names, big names, in my opinion, early on and got those committed, and showcase them on the website and then I could reference them in the email then enabled me to attract further really quality in my opinion, you know, speakers for a first time event, you know, we get a lot of feedback that hey, the speakers you got for the first time then are you you know, are incredible and they will, you know, kind of backed it,they all promoted it. And there was always like, say like, the benefit from word of mouth a viral kind of network effect, that I would say like, I recommend these for 50% of the attendees of the 700, were driven, you know, from the speakers that we had from the speakers, having conversations, you know, promoting the event, the other 50%, you know, from our email list, so, so for us that really, that really works, but it was like, it was a long slog for fun, you know, nine months were like, every day, you know, I was, you know, sending out emails, I was creating content, I was, you know, doing all the social media and all the stuff that you buy until 11 o'clock at night and, you know, there was a lot of quantity and having never done it before I was you know, throwing stuff at the wall and seeing if it would stick. And you know, some of it did, some of it didn't so I was just doing everything in anything that I could so there was a lot of grit in there. You know, a lot of patriot sort of the word hustle and it's just a lot hard work and long slog, I focused on sales and marketing. And then we got a company like a third party company to come in just to the production and logistics of the event, you know, on the day as well to kind of take that strain away from us, because by the time with that first event, we were then three people. And we've nearly, you know, run out of money of money a couple of times, again, just because of the, I guess, kind of managing cash flow. I mean, that that was the challenge like the the spike Enos of the revenue coming into the business and managing cash flow. There were moments where it's like, end of March, you know, we're going to zero in the bank account. Oh, then I managed to close a couple of deals in on sponsorship, and you know, the last day of the month, and then, you know, everything saved and we're fine again, you know, so the first event we generated 350K Sterling in revenue, but we actually lost one of my big mistakes. We actually lost probably about 60-70K in revenue. So if you saw me On the day of the event, you know, I didn't look super well, or happy, because I didn't really sleep very well the night before with the final realization that I wasn't going to generate 70K sales on the last day to cover that gap. And yes…
Omer Khan 24:15
Why did you lose that money? What, what was the reason?
Alex Theuma 24:17
The reason was, I mean, called budgeting not knowing what the costs were. So like, initially, when I would set the pricing, you know, some of the sponsorship pricing that I'd sold hadn't factored into what the costs were so I'd actually lost money on some of the on some of the partnership deals. I'd also lost money because I sort of didn't realize I wasn't explicit when selling the partnership package and I don't know whether the partners you know, took advantage of that or not, that what you got was the the opportunity, you know, to speak to have a booth right and so on, but the booths themselves and the ones that we bought costly several thousand to build and buy. And in some cases, because we weren't explicit that that was additional, that the partner should take this on. But I had a conversation where I had to pay for some of these, right, because I've made this mistake in the partnership deck. And, you know, a couple of months before the event was really when I started to get this visibility from the production company on the costs of the event on all of this stuff that we needed for it to run. And I also went for I always kind of also chose the most expensive option rather than the least expensive option, because I was I wanted it to be look great, look fantastic, but he didn't need to look as good as it did. And everybody said on the on the day as well, those that came, you know, from from all over the world, they're like, well, this is much better than we expected. And this looks much better than a first-time event and you must have spent a lot of money on it. And you know, that that that was all true. I spent too much money on it. And you know, so I think there's just that financial management knowing the costs and having set the pricing but earlier on and done a lot of the same before we knew what the costs were, and I knew what the costs were kind of thing led to us trying to scramble to generate this additional revenue, because you know, 350K, in your first event, it's not bad. But the amount of money that I spent and the inexperience of managing that was obviously, you know, not good enough.
Omer Khan 26:17
So how did you get people like Des and Christoph to come to the event? Yeah, I think you said like, they weren't involved with the blog, or anything like that before, right? These were people that you didn't know and it's like, Hey, I'm doing this event. It's the first time thing haven't done it before. You might not say it pitch it that way but that's kind of how they're probably how they're seeing that. Like, did they say Yes, right away?
Alex Theuma 26:45
I would think almost Yes. I think like I knew, for instance, that Christoph was on my email list. He was on my newsletter because this was pre GDPR because I added him right. And, and so painting in the eye knew that he would get it. And, I mean, the guy is the he's, you know, investing in SaaS companies. He wants SaaS to be successful because he's gonna find more SaaS companies to invest in. So if I approach him and say, Well, obviously, you know who I am, because I've been spamming you or emailing you, you know, over the last kind of 12 months, and you haven't unsubscribed. And I'm going to build this SaaS conference, right? And it's going to be the first one in Europe. And here's the vision and here's the plan. And he's saying, Yeah, look, you know, I'll be a part of it. Right. And so, I think he could see that, you know, I was somebody that you've been putting in, you know, some effort and it wasn't somebody that hadn't been writing a blog or like creating a community blog, hadn't been interviewing all these people on the podcast, and then just come to them cold and say, Hey, you want to speak at my conference? Because I want to earn a load of money off the back of your of your content. I think they could see that, you know, this is somebody that's actually trying to like build community in new in SaaS, and that would be great. And also that would benefit the SaaS industry and it would benefit our portfolio companies and it will benefit our own company. So yeah, why not? Right. And I mean, today's as well, you know, the conference was in Dublin, you know, I said, Look, you know, you only have to pop out the office for for an hour to come and speak. So it was kind of convenient. I think if it was Paris or in Madrid, I'm sure he would have said no, right. Not because he didn't, doesn't like the cities but because it's just, you know, a harder kind of ask, but having said that, you know, it will look back at the speakers, you know, we had Nico's from workable flew from Boston. You know, we had Krish from Chargebee you know, he flew from Chennai, to speak and, you know, Christoph, from Germany and, and so on. So a lot of people, you know, came from the US and all over to speak of this first-time event, but they, after we got those initial speakers, they could see, you know, that this would be I think a quality event, really based on the fact that the speakers were Showing quality and I think it's often true, like if you've got a great speaker lineup, that that should lead to some form of success and give some form of confidence that these people know what they're doing, speaking about. So, yeah,
Omer Khan 29:12
And so even though you lost a fair amount of money, it sounds like you've got the bug for doing events, but we'll talk about other types of bugs in a while but yeah, certainly we're doing events and you know, you sort of have grown SaaS talk into at one point you were doing what like five events a year around the world. 4000 odd attendees. So what what happened next off to Dublin
Alex Theuma 29:45
Yeah, so after that the Dublin event in 2016 you know what I did? I was like, what's next? Right? I mean, first of all, what's next I need to recover the losses, you know, how are we going to do that? Well continue the plan was continue selling you know, for the next event. I kind of put my finger in the air and said well, let's do 1500 attendees next year let's double the size. And you know, somebody said it was crazy to come in you know, do the same thing twice, you know, especially if you made a mistake, but I didn't necessarily feel yes I made a mistake on the finances but the event itself was clearly you know, success and we got great feedback from from everybody that was there on the day and afterwards so I had that motivation to continue to do it again and doubled in size in 2017. Just saw one event and then 2018 we doubled in size again, but it's still we were just doing one event per year and part of the trouble with doing one event per year not only do you have a lot of time to kind of spend on you know marketing one event and perhaps too much time and spending time on all that detail but it is spiky on the on the cash flow right so you know you're not selling tickets all year round, right? So that revenue disappears, you know, for long periods, and then sponsorships are a bit more consistent, but it's not recurring revenue. So the idea was then, you know, to, to create events throughout the year, and also, so a bit more spaced out. So there was a bit more sort of consistency around revenue coming in and from different events. And then also the idea and we didn't necessarily have to do this, but my idea was, why don't we, you know, have a cookie cutter, the Dublin model, and you know, it's in Europe, but it is a global event. But why don't we put it in the US and why do we put it in latam and Asia and Australia and and start small and scale that up? And again, that's what we did. And in retrospect could have been another mistake just in respect to doing it all in one go all in one year. And without having all of the the processes and you know, systems within the business to really execute it properly. So what we've found that growth sucks cash is pretty well known that's the case and with us that growth investment into all of these other events started to mean that, you know, all of a sudden, you know, I'm paying out for venue deposits in the US. And then the next day, I've got to pay out, you know, another 50K for another live venue deposit, you know, in Asia, and not having the right processes in terms of payments and procurement kind of meant that there was sort of periods where I was paying out a lot of money, but actually, you know, not getting a lot of money back into the business. And again, that kind of really affected to the cash flow with the business and I think also not having the right systems and processes in place to do you know, five events meant that it was much harder to work like for us to actually make them a success. And in markets where we weren't known where we didn't necessarily have a brand and that kind of stretched the team a little bit and affected probably, you know, culture and you know, a few people may have, you know, suffered like burnout and stuff like that, so we weren't quite ready For this expansion and doing it in one big bang, what would have been perhaps better is enter one market, you know, at a time, you know, maybe whether it's one per year or two per year, but, and also getting all the processes right as well. So that was definitely challenging during a global expansion when we weren't really ready. We just had the idea and just kind of went for it. But it really kind of stretched the business was we did, we grew in revenue. We were less profitable in that time.
Omer Khan 33:29
So one of the advantages I guess you had was Sestak was like first to market in Europe and in terms of SaaS events, and there was probably an overdue opportunity there that needed to be addressed. But once you started moving into other markets like the US where there were already other sort of events going on SaaS events, how did you figure out how to how to differentiate SaaStock from other sort of events that people could choose from?
Alex Theuma 34:00
Yeah, yeah good question. So specifically, I mean, like in Europe, we're already cemented as the leading SaaS conference in Europe again, having had that advantage of being first and being there for a couple of years on our own. That kind of helps and being a quality event, right. So SaaStock in Europe was was pretty established, right. But even though we were only a couple of couple of years old, at that point, going into the US where there was an existing, you know, very large, you know, competitor, again, like, you know, okay, so what is the goal there? You know, is the goal to be number one in North America? And the answer was no, is the goal to be the biggest SaaS conference now, you know, how will we if there is a huge, you know, competitor in that market? You know, why would people come to SaaStock, right? And actually, kind of what I thought I mean, Saastock we've always had this kind of like family communities and like vibe, like at our conferences. Our conferences have always been Like, you know, okay, 4000, you know, people is pretty big, right? But some of our other events are in a much smaller scale. And when I looked at it, we had a player in the US that has, like 15,000 people attend their conference. It's in San Jose. And actually when it was like very small, and when it was in San Francisco, that was when I, I used to attend. And when I enjoyed it the most, when a lot of people that I knew when they used to go there, you know, they liked it when it was in San Francisco. And when it was 1000, 2000 people, and my thoughts were, Well, look, you know, we were entering the US, you know, we don't want to be the biggest but now there is an opportunity because there isn't a SaaS conference in San Francisco, that that we could, you know, go to San Francisco and, you know, provide an opportunity for a smaller event that many people like those that don't like the big event, here's a smaller event. It's also an event that's not just focused on unicorns and you know, having, you know, 20 unicorns on stage who are exceptional entrepreneurs from exceptional companies, but so far ahead of actually who the audience is, you know, and typically the audience like for us, and even, you know, some of these competitor events are companies that, you know, they're starting up, or they're between 10 and 50 people or they're trying to get to the first million in revenue. But then they've got, you know, the CRV, those, you know, 6.5 billion in revenue or valuation or whatever, they're giving some great advice. But again, how is that applicable to me now, some of it is, some of it isn't. So with us, we took a different approach to content, in that, you know, we're looking at getting in speakers who are often that just a few steps ahead, maybe even, you know, the same level as the audience and a lot of that content to really be very tactical, and that people can go away and really apply to their businesses and really kind of no matter what stage that they're at. So we focused on this kind of, you know, being a smaller, you know, alternative being an alternative that that's not really all about sort of unicorns and You know, bringing in a bit of you know, whether you're bootstrapped or funded, having something really kind of fit for everyone in that respect. So that was the kind of key in the US and like, outside of the US, again, where we massively differentiate from I think anybody else out there is the fact that we have a global like viewpoint and we, the people that we get to speak at our flagship event in Dublin, come from Brazil, come from the US, come from India, come from Australia, fly from Australia to speak at our event. And then they're like SaaS, it, I believe, is truly global. Now, especially, you know, never more so. But, you know, some of the kind of competitor events have very US centric, and like look, I mean, all of the, the unicorn kind of speakers, many of them, they're all based, you know, in Silicon Valley, many of them are and so it's easy for them to go and speak at the events which are kind of nearest to them. But there's often the the feeling and the feeling that it's quite us like centric kind of viewpoint and content, whereas we will have At our flagship event, a global viewpoint, and then we have a more regional lefthand focused event or an Asia focused event or Australia focused event as we did in the past. So bringing in that that kind of content, which is more applicable to, certainly to our, our audience, and you know, the regional audiences, and I think that's how we, we see ourselves sort of as different from those that are in the market.
Omer Khan 38:24
So from starting a blog, part-time in 2015, to within five years running multiple events around the world, having thousands of attendees, things sort of really clicked and you found, you know, the business that you'd been looking for all that time. And then, earlier this year, we had a little virus that started disrupting things around the world. How did that affect You and then the SaaStock events.
Alex Theuma 39:03
Yeah, yeah, no, I mean, massively affected us, right. We entered the year with these big plans, you know, with a great team. You know, we're 24 people in the company, we had a great kickoff spent whole month, you know, on forecasting budgets, like but more planning than I'd ever done in previous years. And we went out the blocks, you know, in January, with a record month and thought, you know, it's going to be a great year. And things started to slow down in February, because we started to see, you know, this pandemics sweeping across the world and a bit of uncertainty around the markets. And then in March, certainly there was one week in March, where I saw like 150 conferences canceled in one week, and it was like a domino effect and that makes you take note, and initially, I thought, Well, hey, our first event is in May, and then our next one in San Francisco is in June and then our flagships in October. So maybe this will all be over by May, we'll be able to do this. And then that was only a thought for about a week. And what we were seeing was obviously, you know, we had a pretty big pipeline of revenue for that quarter and for March, but the revenue actually went to zero, right. And we had a team of 24, you know, big, pretty big overheads and zero revenue, and that zero revenue, you know, I felt obviously, would continue unless we did something, right. And I hadn't momentary thought, I mean, you spoke about, you know, this, you know, five years, from blog to building this global events, business and a multi-million dollar, you know, event business. And there was a momentary thought that I had, which was like, well, what if a global pandemic is the thing that's going to wipe us out, right? And it was literally only a momentary thought, because I was like, well, you know, I'm not going to allow that to happen. What do we need to do? So I kind of, you know, mapped out the ideas that we've had, you know, some of them knew some of them we had on the shelf about how we could pivot how we could start to generate revenue again, how we could it was not only about revenue, again, how we could deliver value to our customers, and how can we deliver that the fastest? And how can we do that online because we can't do that in person. So we have a little war room meeting, we had seven ideas. After the meeting, we've kind of whittled them down to really what is the one that we can do the best the fastest, fastest time to revenue faster time to value by pivoting to online events. So we decided we'd do that. We worked in a sprint methodology within that decision to two weeks later, you know, we had the name SaaStock Remote, sort of ready, we had the website ready initial branding. Ready we had the first sales deck for sponsorships ready and all the pricing ready. And we went out to market is the new product by SaaStock. And then we got a lot of early interest. And then yeah, I mean that was still the peak of the pandemic, certainly in Europe. And we saw that a lot of companies just because of the uncertainty, weren't willing to commit, a lot of companies were just not so sure about online events, a lot of marketing budgets. So it wasn't the best time to be selling. But we, you know, we found a way, within two weeks of selling, we started to get our first revenue in, and then that doubled, you know, the next month and tripled, you know, the month after, and there was a there was actually, in the end like a really great kind of reception for SaaS remote. As a value proposition. We even pivoted the proposition, you know, after our kind of pivot, in terms of it being a bit more targeted, you know, to the times in terms of initially, we took our in person conference and our template for our in person conference, and just put that as an online event. But what we sort of realized was actually, you know, on reflection and looking what was happening in the market, that the content for sastra remote couldn't really be about our typical, you know, traction growth scale, but actually had to be more about what what people were going through. And we chose the three pillars of adapt, survive and thrive. And everything was focused around that. And so it was like the most topical conference that we put on, certainly today. But that really resonated well, by changing that value proposition. That was one month after we launched. So yeah, we had a period of one month in all of no revenue. And again, that hurts the cash flow a little bit when you when you have pretty big overheads, but we were able to come together, you know, we were all working remotely at this time. The team really galvanized behind this pivot behind the idea. Everybody works really well worked on the right priorities. We implemented daily huddles at that time, and we had the communication flow going correctly, everybody being aligned on what the goal was. We had one goal it was you know, SaaStock Remote, sharing the revenues, the transparency around everything, the importance of it, and people got behind it. And yeah, if we had the event two weeks ago, it was a success. We had 2700 people at the event, it was over two days, it was very global. Again, like being online, it kind of opens up to a new audience. we generated a lot of new business, we have a lot of new customers with this event. So we partnered with the likes of Front and Wrike and Warkato and ZoomInfo for the first time, which was great as well. So, so yeah, a lot of learnings from that but we pivoted at a difficult time. And we've got through that, a lot of learnings from that event. And now for the rest of the year, we have three more online conferences, one in that term, or SaaStock 20 Online and our Asia Pack One. And we will refine those events based on our first event and the learnings and the feedback from that.
Omer Khan 44:54
What I liked about what you've done with Sestak remote was that when some people say online events, It's kind of like, yeah, we're just gonna get on zoom or something. And you and the team sort of took the whole idea of what is that event experience like? And then how can we map that online? So, you know, for example, the idea of a virtual exhibition floor. I thought that was pretty cool. And so do you think this is the way it's going to be now? Or do you feel that this is a temporary thing? And then in person events will return? You know, either next year or something?
Alex Theuma 45:37
Yeah, good question. And funnily enough, I mean, just before this podcast, I was running around table at an online event accolation. And the the topic was the future of online events. And we were obviously sort of now it seemed and actually the the feedback from that is that most people prefer in person. Most people will believe that it will actually be a hybrid approach moving forward, we will adopt a hybrid approach. So for this year we are 100% online, because we don't believe that we can bring back an in person event at scale, you know, that can be safe and we don't know for a second wave is coming. We know that I think, you know, many of these corporations like if you're a Microsoft or a Salesforce, are you going to be sending your your teams, your employees, employees, you know, to a conference to a trade show, which could be you know, a hotbed of, you know, Coronavirus, right. And you're not going to do that and we don't blame them. So we made that decision where we're online-only we've seen some events like web summit, who are planning on doing in person and online hybrid in December to be interesting, see how that pans out because that's a pretty huge event. But next year, we will likely do hybrid so satellite remote will even it's a new product, but it will remain like a global online event for us. It is possible that our LatAm and our Asia pack and North America events and our regional ones, we may only do those online now it was, you know, save us a lot from having to fly across the world, and, you know, take so much kind of time out of the business to run these events and recover from, you know, all of this travel and so on and so forth. And the huge cost involved in doing those events with low-profit margins, which typically is, you know, it's a, it's a smaller event, but online events are much more profitable. And so as a business owner, it's, you know, has many kind of attractions. So, I think we'll do that, but our flagship event in Dublin, you know, it's loved by many, including myself. And, you know, we've got a lot of people that are very keen to kind of go back to the event and very upset that it's not happening this year. And as I say, we have a community of people that are keep coming back here over the year and we've been there for years in a row. And we really want that to happen in October 2021. You know, it's all booked in. We just have to see like, we can't really predict what's happening in the world. Now, you know, in the end, we can't forecast really that far ahead. But I do hope that comes back. But so that's our perspective. But I think there's a massive future for online events and even the platform that we use, which is Hopin today, just before this call, I saw that they've just raised the 40 million series A from Insight Venture Partners and Salesforce Ventures. So they clearly believe you know, what, we believe that there is a future in online events.
Omer Khan 48:29
I agree with you, I think the online events and remote is, is here to stay, but people are going to crave interaction and meeting in person and whatever, you know, we don't know how long this this sort of COVID-19 situation is going to go on for but it will end at some point. And you know, it never rains forever and I think people will really need to get out there and start spending time with each other and face to face again. So we should we should wrap up here. You know, I think I sort of i think it's it's really interesting what you've done with SaaStock. And there was sort of some takeaways here that I'd sort of noted down as we were talking that I think are useful not just for anyone who you know, is for an events business, but sort of thinking back to the, the audience and sort of SaaS founders. Number one was like, you know, the importance of you just got started, like, a lot of the times we get hung up with this, certainly with new entrepreneurs, you've got this idea of this business and how to build that thing from day one. And, and you started with the blog, and then the podcast came in the meetups. And eventually it sort of led to this events business, but the important thing was to get started with something. The second thing for me was like, how you use influences to to help you get leverage and momentum, whether it was asking people to write for the blog, or getting the right types of people to turn up at the events. And while it's even while you hadn't figured out how you're gonna make money the idea of number three was really just about still continue to find ways to add value like you were doing with the meetups, even though you were charging for those, it was again moving you towards this thing that you didn't know what it was, but it was getting closer and, and you were getting time with the right people and starting to understand what was going on. And then I guess, I guess, you know, you're a sales guy, right? So you're not afraid to ask people and, and sometimes we don't do that because we might hear no, but you asked and, you know, a lot of people agreed agreed to write for the blog agree to turn up at events and, you know, that's pretty impressive because I think, you know, I remember at some point, I think it was either Des or you from Intercom I try to get them on my show which is probably like in the first year of my podcasts. And I couldn't get either of them on the show. So I was impressed because probably around the same time, maybe a little after, like you you had does actually turning up to an event. So good on you. So let's just move on to the lightning round. I'm gonna ask you seven quick fire questions. So just as quickly as you can. You ready?
Alex Theuma 51:19
Omer Khan 51:19
Okay, what's the best piece of business advice you've ever received?
Alex Theuma 51:23
Probably. And again, this is topical right now we double down on what you're good at. And don't get distracted by like pet projects.
Omer Khan 51:31
What book would you recommend to our audience and why?
Alex Theuma 51:33
Probably your audience, I would say, Traction by Gino Wickman. And if they're a little bit kind of later stage Scaling Up by Verne Harnish.
Omer Khan 51:41
What's one attribute or characteristic in your mind of a successful entrepreneur?
Alex Theuma 51:45
I think resilience and even tenacity but certainly resilience. So if you're going to be an entrepreneur, you need to be resilient and you read Shoe Dog Phil Knight's story, you'll see that
Omer Khan 51:57
what's your favorite personal productivity tool or habit?
Alex Theuma 52:00
So it's not a well, I guess it's a tool but it's not software. So I have a Full Focus Planner, which is like the Michael Hyatt full focus planner, but it's like, almost like a diary, a planner diary. So each day at 530, I write down what I'm doing the next day, my top three things that I'm doing the next day and then everything else. And so that kind of helps me focus in terms of what that is that I'm doing. And also helps me like a little bit sort of decompartmentalize from work So once I've done that, and then in the evening, I my brain is a little bit free, you know from work and then I can turn off the next day open the planner and say, this is what I'm doing. And it won't have like affected my sleep. I won't wake up in the night thinking about work and that's really helped.
Omer Khan 52:46
What's a new or crazy business idea you'd love to pursue if you had the extra time
Alex Theuma 52:51
My own TV channel.
Omer Khan 52:54
That doesn't sound so crazy you know, what's an interesting or fun fact about you that most people don't know?
Alex Theuma 52:58
My first job I was desperate to work at McDonald's my first job when I was 16. And I was probably if I can remember his name, he did supersize me. But I probably had that idea before him, but instead of doing it eating McDonald's for 30 days, being I ate McDonald's for two years that wasn't very healthy but put on a bit of weight I have to say.
Omer Khan 53:23
Finally, what's one of your most important passions outside of your work?
Alex Theuma 53:26
Yeah, I mean, obviously, obviously my kids but cooking, I would say like I love cooking, and then I probably annoy like the only people that follow me really on Instagram and my colleagues and then they just seeing me cooking all weekend and posting pictures of what I think is quite nice food.
Omer Khan 53:44
Awesome. Alex, thank you for joining me. I'm glad we finally got a chance to get you on the show and chat. If people want to find out more about SaaStock, they can go to SaaStock.com and .remote and I'll include links to those in the show notes. They can check you out at the SaaS Revolution Podcast. And if people want to get in touch with you, what's the best way for them to do that?
Alex Theuma 54:10
Anybody can email me if you have any questions at Alex[at]saastock.com or follow me on twitter @AlexTheuma And we can have a conversation there.
Omer Khan 54:18
Love it.Thank you, my friend. Enjoy the the heatwave that you're having in England right now. And I wish you the best of success with continuing to build this this remote, SaaStock remote and hopefully a day when we can sit down in person at the next live in person SaaStock event wherever that happens to be.
Alex Theuma 54:45
Yeah, no, no, I definitely would love to have you at at an online or offline SaaStock event and really appreciate being on the podcast and speaking to your your community.
Omer Khan 54:56
Thanks a lot. All the best.
Alex Theuma 54:58
Omer Khan 55:01
Alright, thanks for listening. I really hope you enjoyed the interview, you can get to the show notes as usual by going to theSaaSpodcast.com, where you'll find a summary of this episode and a link to all the resources we discussed. If you enjoyed this episode, then please subscribe to the podcast. And if you're in a good mood, consider leaving a rating and review to show your support for this show. Thanks for listening. Until next time, take care.
- “Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business” by Gino Wickman
- “Scaling Up: How a Few Companies Make It…and Why the Rest Don't, Rockefeller Habits 2.0” by Verne Harnish