Doing Things That Don't Scale: How to Combat Customer Churn
CEO & Founder
Today on the show we have Foti Panagiotakopoulos, co-founder and CEO at Growth Mentor.
In this episode, we talked about the origin story of Growth Mentor and his struggle trying to learn without a mentor which ultimately led to the idea of Growth Mentor.
We also discussed how their biggest channel for growth is their mentors themselves, the high-touch human model they use, and the importance of doing things that don’t scale.
We wrapped up by discussing the challenge of sorting through data to create a predictive churn model, and the importance of looking for success indicators rather than churn prevention.
00:00:00 Andrew: Hey, it's Andrew. And today on the show, we have Foti Panagiotakopoulos, co-founder and CEO of Growth Mentor. In this episode, we talked about the origin story of Growth Mentor and Foti struggle trying to learn without a mentor, which ultimately led to the idea. We also discussed how their biggest channel for growth is their mentors themselves, the high-touch human model they use, and the importance of doing things that don't scale. We wrapped up by discussing the challenge of sorting through data to create a predictive churn model and the importance of looking for success indicators rather than churn prevention. As usual, I'm excited to hear what you think of this episode, and if you have any feedback, I would love to hear from you. You can email me directly on firstname.lastname@example.org. Don't forget to follow us on Twitter and enjoy the episode.
00:00:56 Andrew: This is CHURN.FM, the podcast for subscription economy pros. Each week, we hear how the world's fastest growing companies are tackling churn and using retention to fuel their growth.
00:01:09 INTRO: How do you build a habit forming products ? We crossed over that magic threshold to negative churn. You need to invest in customer success. It always comes down to retention and engagement. Completely bootstrap. Profitable and growing.
00:01:22 Andrew: Strategies, tactics and ideas brought together to help your business thrive in the subscription economy. I'm your host, Andrew Michael, and here's today's episode.
00:01:35 Andrew: Hey, Foti. Welcome to the show.
00:01:37 Foti: Thanks for having me.
00:01:39 Andrew: It's great to have you. For the listeners, Foti is the founder of Growth Mentor, a curated platform of invite only startup and marketing mentors with proven experience in their respective fields. Privacy funding, Growth Mentor, Foti was a VP of Growth at EuroVPS. So my first question for you today is what drove you to launch Growth Mentor?
00:02:01 Foti: Yeah. So it was really one of those platforms created to scratch your own itch kind of thing. So I was the first non-engineer hired at EuroVPS, a company that my brother founded and had just graduated college, studied finance, never used that degree, jumped right into this startup and took over the marketing sales. And basically, it was my job to help grow the company. So I had to teach myself everything I knew. I didn't have a boss or a mentor, and I made a lot of silly mistakes along the way.
00:02:01 Foti: And a couple of years into my career, I realized that there was an inverse relationship between the amounts of content that I consumed and my own productivity. So I found that I was self medicating myself with blog posts and watching videos, and I didn't like how I felt after spending a couple of days trying to learn something but not actually doing so. Then I reverted to another model, which was based exclusively on active learning. Once I hit a brick wall, I'd go on Upwork and I'd hire freelancers just to kind of talk to them and say, “Hey, I set up this campaign like this. This was my ad group structure and this is my targeting. What would you do differently? Am I on the right track? Am I doing something dumb here? What do you think?”
00:03:27 Foti: And by doing these calls, and this was back in 2016, I broke through a lot of my learning plateaus and I would just focus on actively working and executing instead of reading and further confusing myself because there's so many different perspectives and points of view. And I find that I learn better by just talking literally to the practitioners that are doing the thing that I want to do. So that really was the point when I had the idea. And then my wife at that point was teaching English on a platform called italki, which connects people with language tutors. So I saw her doing her English lessons and I was like, “Okay, well, from a product perspective, this would work really well for this other idea I have.” And then one thing led to the next and yeah, we made it very cool.
00:04:23 Andrew: Yeah, I think it's one of those things that it's very, very interesting model in itself. And I think I resonated a lot with what you're saying is at some point you just have a reverse effect in the amount of content that you're consuming because it just all becomes regurgitated as well on the web. And I think speaking to actual practitioners on the ground often like I ask for the show as well as does anybody know anyone that's not known? That is amazing at solving children retention as well because I think there's so many people that are just in it on the day today that don't have the time to sit and put on content. And yes, there's great content out on the web, but I think just being able to speak to people actually facing challenges on the day to day basis, the value that you get from there is probably 10X from reading a blog post because the blog post you might have these lingering questions as well that come up. But what if what that? And those are sort of the opportunities that you have to ask.
00:05:16 Andrew: Finally, it's actually like something that I experimented with. At some point I put together a landing page. I was thinking about building something as well in the space, not directly related, but something I experienced with the first startup where we were in part of an accelerated program. And what they ended up doing was they organized these events called BrainTrusts where they would have the CEO of each company. There was ten companies have an hour a week together, they had the CTO’s an hour together and so forth. And I found those roundtables to be amazingly valuable in the sense that you're going through similar problems, similar challenges at the same time everybody's trying to solve them and tackle them and yeah, I think it's super, super valuable. This is actually selfishly what I do with the podcast. I interview people that I want to learn from and then sort of apply that back into the business. Where are you at at the moment now? How are things going for you?
00:06:12 Foti: So at the moment we're doing quite well. We're doing around 1100 sessions being booked on the platform every month. We just passed the 25,000 session milestone. We're completely bootstrapped where we like to grow at a sustainable pace, absolutely zero ambitions to become a unicorn or whatever like that. So we like to have fun with what we do. But yeah, right now, what we're focused on is obviously, we're going to talk about churn, some of the churn issues that we're facing and how we deal with them here at Growth Mentor. But effectively, our biggest growth channel is the mentors themselves. And it's a very people driven growth strategy. Just get really good people on, make sure that they're getting a lot of value out of the experience as well and they're going to talk about it. People are going to see their profiles on LinkedIn, see Growth Mentors there. “Hey, what's this?” Click the link, curiosity kicks in. That's a major loop for us.
00:07:19 Andrew: Nice. Yeah. Definitely, I think it's interesting to chat a little bit about generating in the context because you have this double sided marketplace effect. I think once the network effect kicks in, they're very,very tough to challenge and beat at the end of the day, but in the early days they can be very challenging balancing between supply and demand. And I'm interested, how did you get started in the beginning with the chicken and egg challenge that most marketplaces face?
00:07:50 Foti: Yeah, so we decided to start with the supply side even before we launched the platform. So around a couple of months before we launched the MVP, which took around six months to develop, we started reaching out to people that we thought would be great fit for the platform and just cold messaged them and then showed them the Envision app. Clickable prototype of what we're building on a Zoom call and said, “Hey, if you want, we can give you access to our staging server. Here's the http pass, log in and you can start filling in your profile right away.” All right, so the day that we launched, we actually already had like 25 profiles already up. They had entered it on, they had filled it in while we were still not even live on the staging and we had some initial traction there. And because of the niche nature of growth venture it was super focused on growth, and there wasn't really another option out there specifically for growth, from the moment we launched, we never really had to try on supply. We still do get hundreds of applications a month inbound, so we could really focus exclusively on the demand side. So I guess we were kind of lucky because people in growth generally really like to talk about growth and what they're doing. They're very passionate people, and I would consider them geeks to a nerds to a certain degree, which I definitely am, and they enjoy it. So the supply was quite easy for us.
00:09:32 Foti: The demand, on the other hand, I mean, that was a little bit more difficult to crack for me. My initial growth channel was SEO, so that's what I excelled at my previous role, and I got to taste the evergreen nature of it. And it doesn't really have an expiry date if you write content that keeps adding value perpetually. So we tried hard to create good content in the beginning, the classical content marketing stuff. But long term now, how we get our users is word of mouth is around… it's probably 35-40% attribution of new sign ups and probably around 50-60% is just SEO. So we dabble a little bit in paid, but just primarily for retargeting .
00:10:26 Andrew: All right. Cool. So in the beginning you sort of did sort of manual outreach. You mentioned now that you get hundreds of applicants as well. And I can see that also being a little bit of a challenge. Obviously, mentioned like when it raised the bar when it comes to quality and who goes through. You also mentioned at the beginning of the call you have a very high-touch human model at Growth Mentor, so maybe you could ask a little bit about how that works.
00:10:54 Foti: Yeah, so it started from the very beginning. Every single mentor that applies, they go through a vetting process. They have to fill in a lengthy application form, which has quite a bit of drop off there. And then afterwards, there's a culture fit interview with one of my colleagues, and then the last stage is a final chat with me, which is less so much of an interview, but more just like let's build a relationship and get to know each other. And I selfishly use that for the same reasons that you do the podcast because I like to learn from all these people as well. And many times the call goes off in tangents and we geek out on something growth related. I think that for a curated marketplace, it's really important to build relationships early on with your key players, which on our side is the supply because without the supply, I mean, what would we be? Just like a fancy little platform, right ? The tech for me isn't really the disruptive elements of Growth Mentor. It's who is on here and moreover, why are they here, which is actually a really big important part of our vetting process, is making sure that the mentors that join genuinely want to talk to people and help and aren't viewing this as just another lead generation opportunity. Because that obviously is going to have negative consequences on the experiences from the mentee side, which is going to lead to churn.
00:12:20 Foti: So it really does begin that personal high-touch approach from the supply side from the mentors, but also that extends to the demand side. So up until… actually, six months ago, I was doing onboarding calls with every new sign up that we have and really taking the time to understand what is the root of their problem because sometimes they come with symptoms. And once I got the right idea of what the actual ailment is, I would give handpicked recommendations of who to reach out to first, just to make sure that that first call they're going to have is going to be like a crazy ‘AHA! moments like, “Oh my God, that was amazing!” Because I've personally onboarded all the mentors like I am the algorithm, the matching algorithm, which I know, I know it's not scalable, but it hasn't broke thus far. So it's all good with me. I enjoy it.
00:13:24 Andrew: It's awesome. I think they're doing things that don't scale like everybody says it over and over again for a reason because it does work. And then eventually, if you do need to start building an algorithm, you have a really good idea and sense of what needs to go into to be able to make those matches.
00:13:39 Foti: Exactly.
00:13:41 Andrew: So you talk a little bit now about the demand side, how you sort of got off the ground and got the natural effects flowing. I think obviously then through this journey, you've definitely faced churn retention challenges as you're going along. What was sort of like the first time you realized that you had a bit of a retention issue or a challenge, let's say maybe not even an issue, but that you wanted to start tackling as a team?
00:14:08 Foti: When we added the option for monthly and quarterly billing periods. Because we started off with yearly only and you're very insulated to churn then because you don't really have a close short feedback loop. And I knew that churn would be an issue if I added monthly and I kind of wanted that because I feel like you're just going to learn that much faster if every single month basically the customers vote whether they deem your service valuable enough to part away with whatever the price is, $50, $100 and so on.
00:14:44 Foti: So in the beginning we just added on the cancellation form a free text field that said, “Hey, why are you canceling?” And it was mandatory. You can't cancel without filling that in. And the number one reason was I just don't use it enough anymore. Just that same pattern, don't use it, don't use it, don't use it. And it was just crazy like, “Are these people like, talking to each other? Are they just this conspiracy to write the exact same thing?” But that was really the big moment that I realized, “Okay, great. We need to think a little bit more strategically about how we can leverage the data that we collect during onboarding in order to inspire the members to continue to get more value out of it.” That's when we created a better wizard onboarding and started collecting more granular data about our members like what stages their startup, how much traction do they have, what are their challenges, what are their skills. And then we try and use this data to create cohorts and create a more segmented customer experience through the application but then also through our email marketing as well. And I think that's been our biggest driver of churn reduction.
00:16:08 Foti: Well, I would say the second biggest driver the first biggest driver is implementing is making a full time customer success hire, which would just manually get involved during early warnings of potential churn. So if somebody books a call with somebody and it doesn't go through, there's a no call, no show, a Slack notification gets sent out straight away to our workspace. And then Michelle immediately dives in, investigates, reaches out to both parties involved. “Hey, what happened? Would you like another suggestion?” That kind of thing. So there's a lot of touch points that happen that are very ad hoc, and I think that's generally a good thing in businesses if you want to really take a hands on approach. Once there are signs, and usually you can detect these if you set up some sort of trap, get involved. There's no real replacement for that. You can send automated emails but I think people are just so blind to them that they've kind of lost their luster for the last couple of years.
00:17:14 Andrew: Yeah, and it's interesting as well. Like you mentioned, this challenge that people not using it enough, I think that's definitely a challenge for a lot of products as well where the frequency of usage is not that high in terms of the challenges. You may be working on something specific at a point and time and you really want to learn about this or you want to speak to somebody about this and then you might not have that for the next two, three months as you go. So you mentioned one way is just really trying to go granular and understand what are the challenges, what they need so that you can maybe recommend content and drive things. Have you ever considered additional use cases for the product as another way to retain users? So obviously, one way is the calls, but then perhaps other channels or mediums that you could provide to add value to the service that would keep that ongoing usage patterns.
00:18:04 Foti: Yeah. Actually, funny you mentioned this because I had totally forgotten and it would have been sad to not share this fail story on this podcast, but absolutely. So I hired a writer a couple of years ago to write this blog post randomly about mastermind groups. And I guess just the way the cookie crumbled, we started to rank position number one for mastermind groups and we get a lot of traffic from that. And I saw that people were actually converting from that blog post because the intent, yes, it's not to find a mentor but the job to be done for a mastermind group for entrepreneur mastermind group is very similar to the job to be done of joining Growth Mentor, which is to kind of combat professional loneliness and to have a peer to peer network. So what we did is we ended up building mastermind feature within Growth Mentor itself in an MVP fashion. And long story short, I don't want to bore the audience, but it failed miserably and people just didn't really… like they would show interest like, “Wow, this is cool, but then they wouldn't show up to the calls, to the meetings after week two because it was free. It was just part of the package and it wasn't really the primary thing that they signed up for, so they didn't really respect it as a feature that's enough.
00:19:29 Foti: Yeah, I mean, that just goes to show even if you have data that is seemingly corroborating your hypothesis that yes, this is going to be a great feature to add, people are looking for it, there's demands, if it doesn't really fit under the initial remit that they had in their mind to sign up, why are they signing up, I'm coming for mentorship sessions. And there was other cases like this as well where we had little small features experimenting with. But even though I still don't regret building that out because that code base, I'm now going to repurpose that into another feature that we're going to test. As long as you build new features out in a way that, okay, you have a pivot in mind for the tech, I think it's not a bad thing to be experimenting with tangential use cases and so on.
00:20:25 Andrew: Yeah, it's interesting you say that as well because what I mentioned previously, the idea was sort of these mastermind groups and what I found doing initial research was I did a couple of things I was trying to understand, okay, what would be the willingness to pay for a service like this? And the first thing I found that was a problem was that the people that were the highest in willingness to pay were the lowest in experience, and the people that were the most experienced typically already had their own mastermind group that they were a part of. So to build a group that would have been valued at the time would have been quite difficult to get the right mix and match because you don't want just a whole bunch of inexperienced people on the call like you want to try and mix that.
00:21:11 Andrew: And then the second thing I think that to this, which is quite a challenge, is you really need a driver for that to work. The ones I've ever been a part of or hosted myself, it's always been like other me, like personally, like pinging everybody, pushing out, trying to get what the topics were about. You need to have a champion and I think this is something we also previously chatted with Louis Rosenfeld on. It's something that they tried to do as well and they successfully did. What they did though was they ended up getting community managers involved and if I recall correctly, and then the community managers were the ones that were driving these calls and making sure everybody was showing up on time. Because if you don't have a single person just like pushing everybody, it is very easy. I mean we are all super busy, it's very easy to skip a call and not be accountable. But when you get something going and somebody is doing it , they are quite magical. I think I need to get one set up again now.
00:22:07 Foti: Yeah, it's kind of like a whole other product though and it takes a lot of work. And with us we got a lot of feedback from the mentees saying, “Hey, I can actually book a one on one session with this awesome mentor , why would I want to talk to other people?” So it's a little bit of that cannibalization as well.
00:22:26 Andrew: Did you ever consider then doing perhaps like a hybrid where you have a mentor and a round table with people facing a similar challenge and then wanting to sort of discuss and debate ideas together but then also having maybe like the men to drive it?
00:22:42 Foti: Yeah, we're considering pivoting into something like that. So it's like a panel of mentors and then you can save a spot and just jump on and chat with multiple people like Shark Tank in a sense where instead of the sharks, it's the mentors and people are coming with their growth challenges and getting diverse perspectives.
00:23:07 Andrew: Nice. Cool. And then what would you say has been like the toughest challenge that you've had to deal with when it comes to generate attention ?
00:23:18 Foti: I guess sifting through all of the data. I mean, there's just so much there's qualitative that we have which is extensive and then quantitative as well. And I think a challenge is deciding what to start with first. Should you start doing that qualitative analysis first, and then based on what insights you're seeing, then dive into your analytics and dive deeper, or first start trying to create some sort of model that shows what are the indicators of churn and then pivot into a user research quality styled research.
00:24:02 Foti: So right now, we're working with two data scientists that are actually mentors on growth mentor, part time now and trying to create a churn predictive model using the data that we have from a quant perspective. And they've come up with a formula to assign churn risk based on different attributes but I'm always wary of the causation versus correlation issue, and I think that to really protect yourself from that risk, you need to be doing that qualitative research. I mean for us we have a lot… I don't know for some other companies they might not have that much, so they have to revert to a lot of user research calls, which we do as well. But really trying to find that balance between the two is my challenge and trying to get that signal because there's just so much data. We use segment mixed panel, we have BigQuery, we have a very good tracking plan. Our data to hygiene is good but that's not enough to just have the plumbing set up. Anybody could do that, right ? It takes a very trained eye to sift through mountain some data and find the signal. And for me that's my personal challenge right now.
00:25:24 Andrew: And leverage it. Yeah, but it's something… I work with a few different companies and no matter how good the data stack is, it still requires somebody that has the capabilities to actually make sense of it and go into it and spend the idea, spend the time to do it as well. I think that's also because it's a time consuming thing and I think, as you mentioned at the early stages though, in early startups there's a lot more noise than signal because you just have the data depth. But it sounds like you're at that stage where you have got enough data.
00:25:57 Andrew: The one thing though that is always interesting on this topic of churn prediction versus churn prevention and sort of things I think is that it's much easier to predict who will be successful then who is going to fail. In the sense that a lot of people focus on churn prevention where I've come now over 180 interviews, I think you're far better off trying to focus and look for the success indicators and then using those to say, “Okay, what do we need to do to get people to the successful states and who is not taking these successful actions that we see other users taking.” Because like you said, churn prediction, it can be like if you're seeing it in the data, it's already too late. I think that's like the lesson that I've learned. So by the time you see it in the data and you've getting these signals in the data, it means that you've already lost that person somewhere along their user journey, somewhere along their onboarding experience. But if you can see early on in the user's journey what actions are they taking, what are they not like at that point, I think it's a much better point to focus and say, “Okay, let's make sure that this user experiences what they need to experience in order to get there.” But it's always an interesting one way people decide to focus.
00:27:16 Foti: Yeah. Exactly. Most companies, tech companies, they'll lose a majority of their customers during that activation onboarding period, right ? That first 90 day period. But then comes along this flattening of the curve, where you got your engagement, your stickiness periods. So I think what you're saying is understand what defines users during that stickiness period, that flat curve...
00:27:45 Andrew: What did they do in the first 90 days that everybody else?
00:27:48 Foti: What are their attributes? I think this sort of data here needs to trickle throughout the entire organization to sales as well. And it's positioning and the whole nine yards.
00:28:00 Andrew: Cool. I think we're running out of time, so I want to make sure I have time to ask you a couple of questions I ask every guest. First question, hypothetical scenario, you join a new company, generate attention is not doing great at that company. And this year, comes to you and says, “Hey, Foti. You're in charge, you really need to turn things around. You have 90 days.” The catch is that you're not just going to say, “I'm going to speak to customers and look at data and figure out then,’ you're just going to pick a tactic that you've seen work somewhere else and run with it blindly hoping that it works at this company to reduce churn. What would it be?
00:28:39 Foti: Create private Slack channels for my top 15 customers and just get them inside and do one-on-one support. I've done this before in my previous company. Works miracles.
00:28:51 Andrew: Nice.
00:28:51 Foti: Just give them that VIP experience.
00:28:54 Andrew: Cool. And Slack channel specifically as well. I've been involved in a few now and I think the experience is pretty awesome. You don't expect to have such a great experience with support, typically. And then last question is, what's one thing that you know today that you wish you knew when you got started with your career about your retention?
00:29:15 Foti: I wish I would talk to customers that had canceled, basically, the angry customers because I would throw out those surveys like everybody does. Who wants to jump on a call with me, right? And the people that answered are always like the happy client, “Oh, go, we’re reaching out, let's jump on the call.” But that's only half of the story. And I think the most valuable insights you're going to get from not just people that cancel, but people that maybe created the trial but never converted like how to get on the call with those people and then segment them accordingly. Because obviously, it's going to be a lot of people that are undesirables anyway so we don't really care about their opinions. But there's a lot of people out there that are ideal fits and just you've never spoken to.
00:30:05 Andrew: Yeah, it's very difficult to get the unhappy ones on the call and I think that's the only time we get the bias coming through. Very cool. Well, thanks so much, Foti. Is there any final thought you want to leave the listeners with anything they should be aware of?
00:30:21 Foti: Yes. Do keep doing the things that don't scale, they scale much more than you think .
00:30:26 Andrew: Nice. Great. Well, thanks so much for joining and wish you best of luck now going on into the new year.
00:30:32 Foti: Thank you, Andrew.
00:30:40 Andrew: And that's a wrap for the show today with me, Andrew Michael. I really hope you enjoyed it and you're able to pull out something valuable for your business. To keep up to date with CHURN.FM and be notified about new episodes, blog posts and more, subscribe to our mailing list by visiting CHURN.FM. Also, don't forget to subscribe to our show on iTunes, Google Play or wherever you listen to your podcast. If you have any feedback, good or bad, I would love to hear from you and you can provide your blunt, direct feedback by sending it to email@example.com. Lastly, but most importantly, if you enjoyed this episode, please share it and leave a review as it really helps get the word out and grow the community. Thanks again for listening. See you again next week.
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My name is Andrew Michael and I started CHURN.FM, as I was tired of hearing stories about some magical silver bullet that solved churn for company X.
In this podcast, you will hear from founders and subscription economy pros working in product, marketing, customer success, support, and operations roles across different stages of company growth, who are taking a systematic approach to increase retention and engagement within their organizations.