Stefan Smulders, is a SaaS entrepreneur and a member of the Forbes Business Council. When it comes to automating LinkedIn lead creation for B2B companies, he's got you covered as the Co-Founder of Expandi, a cold outreach automation tool. His team brought the SaaS company from $0 to $6 million ARR in just 18 months, making it a true bootstrapped success story.
LinkedIn’s Challenges and Building an Outreach Strategy
According to Stefan, since March 2021, LinkedIn users have been beset by spammers, which undermines LinkedIn's purpose. This resulted in the platform revising its policies and regulating mass outreach.
To address this, Stefan intended to target the right people with the right messaging and the right strategies. Since LinkedIn is founded on the Social Selling Index (SSI), a score ranging from 0 to 100 that the platform allocates to user profiles based on their behavior, those with higher scores are more likely to engage in outreach.
According to Stefan, hosting events on LinkedIn is a fantastic opportunity to develop an engagement strategy because LinkedIn requires users to invite only people they already know. He added that if you intend to conduct a one-on-one demonstration, events provide an excellent opportunity to propose your idea to multiple people simultaneously. Once you have generated a large number of attendees, they are the best candidates for a month-long follow-up, engagement, and use in an email campaign. The difficulty lies in attracting the ideal audience for this campaign.
Expandi’s Initial Stage and First Clients
In addition to optimizing your profile, according to Stefan, the first step is always to identify the ideal audience to approach, communicate with, and engage. However, he observed that individuals would conduct basic sales navigator searches with two filters, such as job title and location, and then put in as many candidates as possible.
Instead of skimming general filters such as job title and location, he strongly suggested reaching out to individuals who interact with posts and events that are related to some of the target keywords. Hyper-personalization disrupts the established patterns. Instead of doing a very frigid outreach to a first name they see, they can make a warmer introduction such as "Hey, I see you're a fan of Stefan's post about this specific growth hacking topic, I am too, I want to learn more, let's learn from each other." In the follow-up sequence, one can also incorporate personalized gif animations or white boards, where one can place dynamic content based on the behavior of their target audience.
With personalization, one can expect 55-60 percent connection rate, 25 percent response rate, and over 50 percent response rate on a sequence.
Stefan's Vision While Starting Expandi.io
As an agency owner, it was extremely difficult for Stefan to scale it. This prompted him to look for LinkedIn tools that can automate some repetitive duties. However, the majority of them were chrome extended and handling sensitive data and profiles of c-level decision makers, and he was constantly concerned about losing their profiles. Additionally, he found it difficult to scale accounts using chrome extensions because these extensions cease to function when the computer is turned down. He sought out to Glenn Miseroy, who later became his co-founder and handled the technical aspects of the solution, in response to his grievances.
In the outset, according to Stefan, they only intended to earn enough money to pay their expenses. Expandi was a high-risk investment on his part because, although it's not illegal, it's a bit complicated with LinkedIn, particularly when they were just getting started and developing this tool. He stated that he has a love-hate relationship with LinkedIn, as he and his team have encountered numerous obstacles, most notably LinkedIn's ever-changing policies. It is also not in Linkedin's best interest to shut down third-party tools like Exapandi, as 20% of its revenue comes from sales and subscriptions, and anyone who uses automation purchases a sales subscription. In the end, they were on the same page and desired to accomplish the same objective. The distinction is that they wanted to focus more on eliminating these monotonous and repetitive duties so that people can concentrate on brand-building and strategy.
Initially, the goal was to have a functional software for testing within three months, but this proved to be simpler said than done. After six months, Glenn provided Stefan with a tool for testing individuals. He labored to generate profiles, particularly LinkedIn users and those using automation solutions. Initially, he used himself as a brand and produced numerous valuable pieces of content. Stefan ultimately realized what was lacking from the platform: despite its abundance of tools and features, nobody educates LinkedIn's users on how to utilize them.
To address this issue, he provided agencies, growth marketers, and people who use LinkedIn and automation religiously with templates, strategies, and workarounds. Initially, they used their own tools to identify intriguing hacks, communities, and social channels from their competitors, converted them to LinkedIn profiles, transferred them to Expandi, and constructed messaging sequences requesting feedback from users.
Using the impressive results he obtained, he wrote a detailed and step-by-step guide blog article in which he explained how we did it, the templates they used, uploaded results with actual LinkedIn messages, and began disseminating this content.
As a bootstrapped company with limited resources, they utilized Stefan's personal LinkedIn account to disseminate content because they were unable to do paid advertising or traditional marketing. The promotion was largely manual, including one-on-one contact with his target audience using decks and guides. This proved effective as they acquired a great deal of traction, garnering between 160,000 and 200,000 views per post and tens of thousands of comments.
Content creation and the development of an inbound marketing strategy remain their primary lead generation methods. Stefan proudly reported that Expandi's blog has between 55,000 and 60,000 distinct monthly visitors due to the techniques, strategies, and tactics they employ.
Creating Content and Posting the Right Way
Stefan strongly warned against fluff content and ensured that every time they create a playbook or a blog, they never published a single article in which they failed to effectively execute the strategy.
He added that the content must have a very clear structure: the how, the why, the results with real displays and real statistics so that people can see that they executed the campaign themselves and that tested it 100 percent before they begin disseminating the strategy.
Challenges and Lessons Learned
Finding the appropriate audience for a campaign to gain momentum is the most difficult part of Stefan's founder journey. Additionally, he learned not to split test with multiple audiences. It’s always better to test different approaches on the same audience, whether it’s A/B test or a split test.
Status Quo and Plans for Growth and Expansion
As Expandi's monthly MRR increases by 70,000, according to Stefan, it's an exciting time for the company. Explondi also has a native email integration for email outreach, reducing the need to send only connection requests and tedious sequences. In addition, he is concentrating on the academy that teaches people how to be successful on LinkedIn.
In the future, he desired to organize the company, enhance the recruiting process, and strengthen the team. Since Expandi's potential is still so great, he wanted to determine how they can take advantage of it by standing back as the company's founder and allowing more talented individuals to join, in order to manage the routines, establish systems, and build the company on an organizational level.
Advice to 25 Years-Old Self
Stefan supported the idea of speed versus perfection. He said things never have to be perfect to go to market. If one has an idea and building out an MVP (minimum viable product), it will definitely make more sense to already start finding people who can use it and build a community around these people who will definitely be your ambassadors, give feedback, and help one move forward.
Instrumental Resources for Stefan's Success
While he candidly dislikes perusing books, Stefan described the primary sources of his inspiration and creativity. The first is GrowthHackers.com, which publishes a great deal of useful content. In addition, he attributes his success to the great individuals he has encountered along the road, such as Houston Golden of BAMF Media and a Ukrainian friend who was one of the Lampost initiators.
What Success Means to Stefan Today
While some people think it’s an overnight success, it was far beyond that for Stefan Smulders. After only 18 months at Expandi, Stefan had amassed $6 million and assumed that this sum would provide him with all of the comforts of life. Now that he is the father of a five-year-old boy, he knows that the only things that truly count are spending time with his son, playing football while his son watches, and doing what he can to improve the lives of others.
This article is a summary of the Akeel Jabber - SaaS District podcast with Stefan Smulders. See the full Podcast on Youtube below.