In the last 3 years, a lot has happened...
We went from 0 to $4,000,000 ARR with lemlist...
Sold lempod, our side project, after 18 months of hypergrowth....
And scale our team to 23 amazing people...
In this article, I wanted to share with you 7 key learnings about how we managed to scale that fast with $0 in fundings (fully bootstrapped) 🚀
1- Build a family, not a community
With more than 11,000 members, lemlist family has become our unfair advantage over the years, and that's because we decided to build a family and not a community.
Communities die, families prosper.
What I've seen when people build a community around their product or service is that they either let their users run the community by themselves OR they try to get an instant ROI on every single action they do...
In the first case, most often it turns into a complete mess when it becomes too big as posts are not organized, and some people will seek for help without any response...
The second case often leads to a dead community after a bit as people don't like to be sold to all the time.
In our case, we've decided that lemlist family will be a safe place for people to seek help, get the best insights about sales automation, get inspired and get better at sales prospecting.
Obviously, we also share product updates and big announcements, but we do it in a way where we know that our users are always involved in the growth process.
Having such a cool family has allowed us to build trust and grow with our customers. We don't pretend to know everything, but we strive to listen to our users and finding the best solutions to their problems...
2- No product no money
We see more and more companies that are Product-led growth, which means that their growth is essentially driven by their product.
We can think of companies like Figma, Airtable or more recently Notion.
Investing heavily on your product can make a major difference in your growth, and that's what we did at lemlist.
Hiten Shah recently twitted that when your team grows, we too often see the quality of the product decreasing...
In my opinion, this can happen for the following reasons:
- The founding team did not plan to grow in the first place (poor documentation, technical debt, infrastructure not made to scale..).
- The recruitment process doesn't work, and the onboarding of junior developers only lead to more bugs and more issues.
- The company has decided to go up-market and has started building more and more custom features making the product less and less user friendly.
That's why I was extremely lucky to start lemlist with my 2 co-founders, Francois and Vianney - 2 technical geniuses with 25+ years of experience each.
Since Vianney, our CTO, previously managed a team of 50+ developers, he knew that experience beat numbers. At lemlist, our tech team is composed of engineers with 15+ years of experience on average.
We never focused on the number of engineers in our team, but we focused only on the talent of the people we hired.
As Vianney says:
One great programmer is usually more productive than 10 average ones
So when I say that our dev team kick asses, they really do 🚀
3- Fuck long term vision - Be adaptable
When you look at how most success stories are told, it's more or less always the same structure: you'll have one founder telling you that one day, he had a dream of revolutionising XYZ industry in order to accomplish something GREAT that will totally change the world...
In my opinion, this is pure bullshit (for most companies)... When we started lemlist in 2018 we wanted to solve one problem. Help sales teams get more replies from their prospects.
We focused on one single problem during our entire journey, and our "long term vision" changed and evolved a lot in three years.
It evolved a lot because we were continuously discussing and talking with our users.
We tested different verticals, different ICPs (Ideal Customer Profiles) and different approaches to find our Product Market Fit.
In my opinion, the so-called "long term vision" is the best excuse for founders to stay in their comfort zone and not go talking to their users because "they know better"
Too many founders are convinced that only THEM can find the solution...
I've met a lot of entrepreneurs in the last 3 years, and I can tell you that in most cases, this so-called "long term vision" translated into "we've worked 2 years on the product, but the launch didn't go as planned, and I think we're too early and too innovative for that market"... This sentence was usually followed by "we've had to shut down the company"...
I'm not saying that it's a bad thing to have a long term vision... Long term vision is great to help you get the bigger picture and be more ambitious.
But being adaptable is much more valuable. Changing your vision based on your user feedback is what will help you build a successful company IMO.
4- Team is everything
This might sound obvious, but your team will be the most important success factor of your company as you grow.
The biggest challenge we had growing so quickly was to scale the team accordingly. I've made a lot of mistakes when it comes to hiring and managing the team and here are a few things I wish I knew when I started:
A- Never make compromises with your core values
At first, I didn't really understand why core values are crucial to a company. Over time, I realized that your core values are the best way to determine wether you should hire someone or not.
For example, continuous growth and curiosity are key at lemlist. So during the interview process my goal is to understand to what extent people are curious enough to learn new things by themselves.
Hence typical questions could be:
- What have you learned recently?
- Do you listen to any podcasts? Which ones?
- What books have you read recently?
- What have you learned from the last article/book that you've read?
- Have you completed any course recently? What was it about? Can you highlight your key learnings?
When it comes to making important decisions, having clear values will make the decision process much smoother because you'll always be able to tell whether or not it is part of your values.
Which lead to my second lesson 👇
B- Hire fast - fire fast
Hiring is like an art... The more you practice, the better you get at it...
BUT hiring someone is not an exact science.
That's why our recruiting process is really fast - from 48 hours to a few days before getting a final answer.
If it's not a good fit, we will always give detailed feedback in order for the person to understand why we think that this position is not a match.
Interviews are a great way to filter candidates but that you'll only know if someone is a good fit after working with him/her for at least a few weeks.
Sometimes, you will realize that someone who was incredibly talented during the interview process is simply not a good fit for the company...
And that's a very unpleasant feeling... because it shows you that you were wrong...
But in my experience, the faster you'll let that person go, the better.
Keeping someone who is not a good fit will only make your team less efficient and less motivated.
C- Talent bring talent
The key source of talented people is actually the persons you've already hired.
At lemlist 75% of the people we've hired came from a recommendation from someone from the team.
Make sure that your employees are happy and involve the whole team in the hiring process.
D- Hiring is like selling
At first, I thought that hiring people was gonna be easy.
Candidates were rushing through our job offer and craving to work for lemlist...
The truth is that if you want to get the best people to join you, you need to learn how to sell your company.
Hence, understanding what the person is looking for and finding whether or not they are good fit is essential.
When finding perfect candidates, make sure that your vision is aligned with where they see themselves in a few years.
Building a startup is an exciting adventure, and if you find ambitious people, they need to trust you and understand that you will help them achieve their goals 🚀
E- Build a hiring process fast
I mention that hiring was not an exact science, but it's still an art. And the more structure you have when hiring people, the more predictable and repeatable it becomes and thus, whoever is in charge to conduct the interview.
Make sure that all candidates undergo the same hiring process, so you're sure not to miss any flaws and hence reduce your risks.
F- There is no silver bullet in management
I grew up playing competitive team sport, and to me, great coaching was synonym to tough coaching.
And I guess that my management style was in some ways similar to that...
Tough but fair...
However, I realized that this management style had a negative impact on some people and that I needed to adapt. My biggest learning was that communication and trust is the key to the success of a company.
If you don't communicate and if there's no trust, your team won't be able to give you feedback about your management style.
People shouldn't be "scared" to tell the CEO that he fucked up or that his management style is OFF.
Everyone makes mistakes, so it's important to make sure everyone knows they can tell it to you directly.
G- Don't be a perfectionist
As a founder, it was extremely difficult for me to delegate at first.
I was the only person managing sales, marketing and growth at lemlist for a long time and having others do what I considered as "my job" was tough because it was never exactly the way I wanted it...
But as time goes by, I understood that it will never be exactly as I want it to be, because it's simply not me doing it 😅
I loved the way Julian talked about the 70/10/80 principle.
Building up on that, if you want to help people getting better at what they do, you have to build processes from day 1.
5- Process rimes with success
Do you think it's a coincidence? Hell no!
If you've been reading my articles you know that I love processes. Processes are reliable, predictable, and the easiest way to understand what went wrong if shit hit the fan...
Whether it's for onboarding new employees, sharing knowledge or even structure the way you work, our processes have been a real game changer.
At lemlist, we structure everything in Notion. Each department has its own processes, and everything is accessible to everyone.
Below is how our sales ressources are organized 👇
If you dig deeper, you'll end up to sub documentation for each step of the sales process.
For example, the screenshot below shows the important things to know for setting up our Pipedrive CRM so that when someone is new or has a doubt, he/she can refer directly to that specific page.
In each subsection, you will find a detailed tutorial with screenshots and a video tutorial that has been tested and approved by the team.
Creating clear processes make the information easy to understand for everyone in the team which allow us to train and ramp up people in a much faster way 🚀
6- Be transparent
Unfortunately, that word has been overused, especially in the startup world... Since "transparency" is becoming cool, most companies are putting "transparency" in their core values, but the reality is that they are not transparent.
Ask a "transparent" startup what's their ARR? or how much is their EBIDTA? or even what's the CEO's salary?
If you don't get these answers, ask them what they meant by transparency... and leave...
Some people will tell you that it's easy to be transparent when you're growing fast and have crossed the $4m ARR mark...
But if you've searched my previous articles, you'll see that I was transparent from day 1, even when our MRR was waaaaayy smaller...
When growing a company, there are 3 levels of transparency, and each taught me something important.
Being fully transparent with your team:
When building a startup, the people you hire are going to become brand ambassadors.
Every person at lemlist is passionate about the project and considers lemlist like his/her own baby.
Being transparent from the start with every single person who joined our team has helped us build such a strong culture.
How do you want people to be involved in the company’s growth if they don't know the big picture nor the issues and challenges you're facing?
Not telling when shit hit the fan is like expecting everyone around you to be covered in shit without letting them know why and expecting them to handle the cleaning.
Being fully transparent with your customers:
When you look at how companies are handling crisis communication, you'll see that when shit hit the fan they will either don't say anything or find some shady answers..
But let me tell you something...
WE ALL DO MISTAKES
Me, you, your customers, your team... Shit happens! That's life!
A year and a half ago we had the biggest bug ever. A bug that, when checking the messages people were sending to our support team - made me thought that it would cost us 25% of our customer base...
That was probably the scariest time for me... I had to write an email explaining everything to our client...
We decided with V and F to be fully transparent, giving all the technical details behind it and explaining what our plan was so this would never happen again.
To my surprise we received mostly support messages! The fact that we were vulnerable and transparent just made us look more human.
Being fully transparent with the outside world
If you're reading this article and have been reading my previous article, you know that I share everything.
I started sharing all our metrics since day one when Nathan latka interviewed me for the first time. I think that the more you share your metrics (MRR, Churn, LTV etc...) to the world, the more you will feel the need to do better the next time you share something.
This is important to me because it allows me to reflect at everything we've accomplished and have a clearer vision about what's next!
On top of that, I will always remember the first time I read such a transparent article about startup story.
I got so inspired that day!
It felt like I was part of their journey and I wanted to make people feel the same way.
The other reason that you probably already know is that obviously, the more you share honest stuff, the more people relay to what you say and will share your article. Hence more visibility for your company 🚀
7- Surround yourself with love ❤️
For a long time, I thought that being kind was a weakness...
The reason is that when it comes to business, a lot of articles mention that it's "either you eat someone or you'll be eaten..." or stuff like "you need to be a shark if you want to be successful..."
I'm scared of sharks...
So why the fuck would I like to look like one?
When I started lemlist I asked myself: "Can we build a successful company by building business relationships with people we love to work with and with whom we share the same values?"
3 years later I can tell you that the answer is YES!
Was it easy?
I've faced critics of people telling me that the way we communicate was childish, not serious, that even though they wanted to use lemlist they really didn't like the fact that we consider our users as family etc...
Critics hurt... they make you doubt about yourself and about your vision... but sometime, all you need is one customer telling you about why they love being part of the family, and it all goes away.
Growing a startup is like being on a rollercoaster except that you can either reach the moon or end up in a wall...
Building relationships with our users based on love and trust has been a true source of inspiration for the entire team. We even have a Slack channel to share all the love we receive daily to remember the reason why we're doing what we're doing.
Here's the plan for 2021:
- reach $10,000,000 ARR by the end of the year 🚀
- double our team size in the next 6 to 8 months 🔥
- ship some major releases on the product side 👾
- launch 4 side projects marketing 💥
- launch the best training about how to become a beast in outbound sales 🤯
- build the best YouTube channel for ambitious entrepreneurs 📹
If you found this article useful, feel free to share it 🙏❤️
If you have any questions, you can reach out to me directly on 👉firstname.lastname@example.org