Martin here. Welcome to another Guest Edition of Founders’ Hustle!
Today’s guest writer is Stefan Smulders, co-founder of Expandi. They’ve built an automated cold outreach tool for LinkedIn that’s used by top brands like Google, IBM, and BMW.
In a little over a year, his team bootstrapped from zero to $4M ARR! 👀
Below, Stefan shares his story of launching and building Expandi.
Six key ingredients to Expandi’s success.🌱
How Stefan and his team acquired Expandi’s first customers. 🤝
How Expandi grew to $4M ARR with zero paid marketing. 😮
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by Stefan Smulders
It was almost 14 months ago when we went global with Expandi.
If you were to tell me we’d reach the $1 million ARR (Annual Recurring Revenue) mark in our first 14 months as a business, I would’ve taken it right then and there.
Sitting here and writing this, I realize how lucky we are to not only reach $1 million but to surpass it four times. 📈
It’s official: our hard work and dedication have paid off in a major way and we got to $4M ARR in our first 14 months of business!
Here’s what that looked like. 👇
How did this happen? We created the safest LinkedIn outreach automation tool, starting only with enthusiasm and awesome people willing to roll up their sleeves and push in the same direction.
The best part—we did all of that without spending a single dollar on paid advertising!
We’ve also built a fantastic team along the way, kept our identity, and continued to provide excellent service to our loyal clients.
What you’re about to read isn’t a blueprint. This is simply our success story that may serve to inspire you and show you the mistakes we made, the main things we focused on, and our most important pivots.
If you learn something along the way and find useful things that you can apply to your own story in the making—all the better. 😊
So, here we go: our entire journey, from start to today.
No BS, no self-promotion, straight from one of the co-founders. 👀
The prequel project – LeadExpress
I met Glenn—our other co-founder—in school, more than 10 years ago.
He’s what I like to call a “technical magician”, someone who can take an idea and turn it into reality through sheer skill and technical innovation.
Our first project was LeadExpress, a local (Netherlands-based) SaaS created in 2015 with the help of a small team. The tool helped our clients track their website visitors— which industries and companies they come from, and which products or services they’re most interested in. 👇
Our baby project 👶😍
While a good product from a technical standpoint, LeadExpress was only making enough money to pay the bills and eat. I believe it had these key issues:
🚦 Too many features overwhelming users;
🤷 Users didn’t know how to follow up on website visits.
It’s the latter issue I spent most of my time thinking about. That’s also the issue that brought me to LinkedIn and got me into LinkedIn automation tools—but more about that in a second!
For now, it suffices to say that, despite all of my best efforts when it comes to customer service, people just weren’t using LeadExpress all that much. And, when I say “my best efforts” I mean my absolute best efforts! 😅
I put a lot of energy into each customer interaction, I never missed an appointment, and I never let anyone wait for more than 10 minutes to get an email reply.
I sometimes woke up in the middle of the night just so I could answer queries that arrived while I was asleep. That’s why all those “You’re a nice guy, Stefan, but we just don’t use the app anymore” emails hurt so much.
But, as it turns out, this dedicated, highly personal approach suited me well in our Expandi adventure that was just around the corner! 🚀
The beginning: why the world needed Expandi
One of the biggest pain points we identified for LeadExpress users was how to reach out to prospects in a more modern way, instead of using the phone.
I jumped on LinkedIn at some point in 2016 to try and solve this issue for them.
Instantly, I fell in love with LinkedIn Sales Navigator and all the search options—it allowed me to find exactly the right prospects among millions of users. It was love at first sight!
Just look at all those options! 😍
Unfortunately—as is so often the case when you’re new to something—I sucked.
Only so many connection requests were accepted and most of my message responses came from existing business relationships and friends. I was too enthusiastic and spammy, although I was coming from the right place.
So, what do you do when you reach a wall? Back to the drawing board, of course! 🤔
I took a step back to try and understand how to get better at these conversations, from a psychological perspective as well.
After a few months, I started getting some really impressive results. So I went back to some concerned LeadExpress clients and used this same approach to help them follow up on website visitors more effectively. It worked like a charm.
Just like that, a small LinkedIn agency was born. 💥
One big problem, though—since I was doing everything manually (yes, you read that right), it was way too time-consuming for it to be sustainable.
I would have to do it 24/7, employ someone, or find an automation tool to do it for me.
So, I started using some automation options available at that time (all Chrome extensions, by the way) and, although they looked promising at the start, they soon started displaying some major flaws.
Here are some of their biggest deficiencies:
💻 Your laptop has to run 24/7 —if you close it, the tools stop running.
😬 You have to open a new tab for every campaign, so five clients, three campaigns each—I ended up with 15 tabs open at all times, minimum.
🚫 You can’t see campaign statistics in these tools.
😱 Most importantly—I heard stories about accounts being banned from LinkedIn for using these browser-based tools.
With a combination of magic and chance (read: Google), I found a tool that bypassed many of these issues – JetBuzz.
Now, JetBuzz itself had some issues that we would later address with Expandi but it was far and above other options on the market. I used this tool to scale my agency, reach more than 80 clients, and increase my revenue. Life was good!
However, the app served me only at the beginning of my journey. As my business grew and my needs changed, I needed more features to keep achieving the same results.
JetBuzz didn’t upgrade (despite a lot of feedback on my part!) and I was, yet again, stuck with a tool that wasn’t good enough.
The birth of Expandi
At this point, I was desperate.
I had no way to do my job properly —I even had nightmares about JetBuzz and panicked over the fact that I couldn’t use it anymore! 😭
I was stuck and I talked to my co-founder Glenn about it. Looking back on it, this decision to vent to my friend and express my frustration was probably one of the best decisions I ever made.
With no knowledge about LinkedIn himself (he only had 145 connections), Glenn just confidently said: “Let’s build the thing ourselves”. 🤷
Let’s create the perfect tool that the market needs with the knowledge we have from an agency perspective, and let’s make it the safest tool around so that people wouldn’t lose their accounts anymore.
Now that I think about it, I believe even he didn’t know exactly how we would do this.
But, sure enough, I was ready to start a new journey with Glenn and create something we believed the world needed. On the 14th of January 2019, Glenn registered Expandi on Github.
It was first called LinkedExpress, similar to our first project.
Just before the global launch, we changed our name to disconnect it a little bit from LinkedIn. Also, Expandi just sounded smoother. 😎
Getting things off the ground
Our initial plan was to have a working prototype in three months and we got right to it. We worked with our small LeadExpress team and ran everything from our homes.
But, to build a team (essential), we had to change our focus and dedicate ourselves completely to Expandi. That meant cancelling our old office location, bringing more people in, and working from our common friend Aad’s house. Yes, our friend offered us his lovely home to use as our office!
Thanks, Aad for making it all possible. Also, for making the best coffee in the Netherlands! ☕
A cold winter in Aad’s house with ONE gas heater and ONE scrum board. 😊
To pay salaries to this new team, Glenn and I put all of our savings into Expandi. We didn’t even give ourselves salaries. You wanna talk about “bootstrapped”? We gave it 200% percent like so many entrepreneurs do, knowing that only a handful actually succeed.
Our first prototype was done on the 1st of July—three months later than we planned. This meant three additional months of no income for both of us, something that I sneakingly kept secret from my wife. 😅
Testing our first users
This was a very exciting time for Expandi. We were just starting to launch our first version to the public so that we can get feedback and validate our product.
So, team members Sharon, Demi, and I decided to go about this in two ways.
🤝 We already had tons of contacts from LeadExpress. The tool didn’t have too many users but the ones that were there received royal treatment. Since Sharon is a copy of me in many ways (although much prettier), we were both available day and night (quite literally) when our clients needed us. So, getting 50 people to try our new LinkedIn automation tool was easy.
💡 We believed the best way to show how our tool actually works was to use it to reach out to people! We started by approaching LeadExpress competitors. Because users have to place a tracking script on their website to get it working, it was easy to scrape these websites with a tool and then look up LinkedIn profiles. We used Expandi to execute the campaign and got 150 beta testers in this period!
Afterwards, we gathered feedback from our first users and started thinking about what we can improve. Here are some of the most important things we learned:
👥 Our users come from all sorts of backgrounds, from experienced LinkedIn users to complete rookies. But, they all had one thing in common: they’ve never tried automation before.
⏱️ Our sales calls took too long because we needed to educate users about the fact LinkedIn is the perfect tool for sales outreach and automation is the way to maximise results. After that, we helped them build sequences and create good outreach messages.
🔧 We also got a lot of technical feedback—since we were still in the beta phase, there was a lot of work to do! Our technical team, lead by Glenn, was incredibly patient and dedicated to making sure everything was perfect.
So, at the end of the testing phase, we were a lot smarter and better informed about the product we have in our hands.
We knew that focusing on people who have experience with automation tools would save us a lot of time and make much more sense going forward.
It was clear our best target groups would be Growth Hackers and LinkedIn agencies, since they’ve probably had the same issues with other LinkedIn automation tools that I experienced personally.
Key takeaway: validate your product as soon as possible! ✅
You need to get it out there and see how people interact with it. It’s dangerous to keep making assumptions —you’re just sitting there by yourself and pretty much imagining things.
What you need to do is get the product into people’s hands and learn if it performs as well as you think it will.
Also, as we’ve learned, people are highly skilled and they know what they’re looking for. Giving your product to 100+ people to test things out will result in them finding bugs and suggesting things you might not have noticed.
Getting serious: the global launch
Another thing we realized during the testing phase was that our domestic (Dutch) market was too small for us to make any sort of significant impact.
So, we decided to go global.
To do this, we needed more money and an office —up until then, we gave demonstrations in Aad’s house, with Sharon in the sleeping room because the noise was distracting. 😂
To finance this, we reached out to our beta users with a special offer: if they get a yearly subscription (and pay upfront), they’ll get a discount and we’ll help them with content for outreach message sequences.
We had 62 users accept this offer, which translated to nearly 50k euros in subscriptions!
I’m pretty proud of this move. It provided us with a much-needed cash injection that helped us move everything forward.
We rented an office in Eindhoven—a central location easily reachable for the colleagues that biked to work. 😊
Expandi officially went global on the 15th of November, 2019 —the exact day our Stripe account started counting from $0 USD!
On the same day of the global launch, we published an article discussing how you can generate more leads on LinkedIn.
It got more than 160k views! 👀
We also got a bunch of likes and more than 1k comments.
And what did we do with all this engagement?
We used Expandi to scrape the people who engaged with our post and reached out to them with personalized messages.
Here’s how people reacted:
Some hot leads right here! 💯
This approach became a playbook for our whole marketing strategy going forward: NO paid advertising, ALL outreach and content.
Next up, what we did to boost our sales and achieve $4M ARR. 👇
Using Expandi for outreach
After the initial beta phase success, we knew reaching out to prospects with Expandi was the way to go. It was the perfect tool for us to make connections with potential clients and build meaningful relationships.
So, we found our competitor’s closed community on Facebook, scraped those contacts, and reached out to them with Expandi to discuss new LinkedIn outreach ideas!
Doing this helped us book 60 calls per week—yes, 60 calls every week!
Thankfully, we had more than one person (me) handling the calls – otherwise, it would’ve been impossible. 😅
To this day, we still use Expandi for outreach.
We send 60 messages per account, every workday, with an acceptance rate of 60%!
My team also regularly publishes content on our blog, detailing our outreach efforts and educating our clients pretty much free of charge. Which leads us to…
We were always aware that SEO is a great way to promote our product, we just weren’t ready to fully commit to it at the beginning. We needed quick results and didn’t have the resources for a good strategy.
Once we had the money, we went all-in on SEO.
How? We created a powerful content machine, handled by the awesome team at Quoleady who executed everything to perfection!
Thanks to good research and great writing, we now get amazing traffic: 15k visitors a week! 👇
The team at Quoleady also helped us reach out to some relevant publications to get our content in front of relevant audiences. We grew our profile quickly and have since been featured in many publications, including Forbes.
We publish all of our experiments with Expandi on our blog. They serve as detailed, step-by-step guides that our clients can implement themselves. This both gets us traffic (and, by extension, booked demos) but also gives our clients ideas and real examples of how they can use Expandi to achieve similar results.
The rules of the game on LinkedIn are changing and, understandably, LinkedIn strongly discourages spam.
That’s why all of our content is dedicated to creating smart outreach strategies that work. We help our clients create intelligent human flows with different touchpoints, so they don’t focus on mass outreach (spam) but rather on hyper-personalization (relevancy).
Reaching out to micro-influencers
We knew there were a lot of experts that like to share their knowledge about LinkedIn with their audience.
So we scraped a list of LinkedIn experts (authors of articles about LinkedIn Automation and high engaging post authors on LinkedIn) and reached out to them to get their feedback.
We didn’t try to sell them anything. We built relationships, got their feedback, and implemented that feedback to our product. It helped us create a better product that people really need and build relationships with people who had an audience.
As a result, we improved Expandi and made some friends!
Forums and communities
We posted content on all the communities and forums we are members of. This allows us to target all those professionals that are likely to be interested in what we created.
For example, our first post on Growth Hackers got more than 1k views. 👇
We also created a powerful Facebook community to engage our users in all kinds of conversations. This gave us an important channel to obtain product feedback and take part in fun outreach discussions!
Where are we now?
Today, a little over a year since our global launch, our Expandi team consists of 22 members —we added 15 new people to our team in our first year.
It sounds crazy when I think about our first team building back in the summer of 2019 when we all went carting.
Back then, we could all sit at the same table! 😀
A year and a half later, we’ve grown both in terms of team size and revenue but we’ve still kept the same spirit and dedication to each client. We’ll never forget what got us here and we’re confident that’s what’s going to push us even further.
That’s what I’ve come to realize in the first 700+ demo calls I handled myself —people buy from people, and nothing can replace a personal approach that we nurture here at Expandi.
Our philosophy is simple: you spend eight hours a day with your colleagues, which is more than many of us spend with our families!
So we treat our team members like family members—we laugh, have fun, and stress together, every single day. We keep giving our team new challenges and firmly believe that educating your own people is one of the most rewarding things in business.
This rubs off on our clients, so we feel happy that we can say we’ve created an extremely positive climate all around Expandi.
Six essential ingredients
In a nutshell, here’s what we believe were keys to our success:
👂 Listen to the users. Let the users guide your decisions and take feedback seriously. That’s why we keep coming back to product validation—people can often point out things that you miss or simply don’t find that important.
👥 Team, team, and TEAM. I feel so lucky that we managed to create such a strong team from the very beginning. We did have some struggles along the way, so I can say from experience: cultural fit is a thing. Make sure your new hires share your vision. To a great extent, that can be even more important than expertise
🧠 Knowing the product and industry inside and out. With lots of experience with LinkedIn automation tools and outreach, we knew exactly what we were trying to do. We knew which features we needed and we had an idea of what the market needed.
💪 200% dedication. We were aware that only a handful of entrepreneurs succeed but we still gave it everything. We invested all of our savings and we lived, ate, and breathed Expandi in our first year (we still do to a certain extent😊)
✅ Validate early and make adjustments. We went live with our beta version as soon as possible to get feedback and make adjustments. This was an invaluable experience and it allowed us to draw some important conclusions going forward.
🔎 Focus on organic marketing. We used Expandi for outreach and published content on our blog detailing our outreach efforts step-by-step. This both generated a lot of demos and provided our clients with real value and ideas on how to use our tool.
If you have any questions, feel free to reach out!
I may be a CEO of a successful company —something I’m still not used to saying—but my doors are always open for casual industry conversations over coffee, just as they were two years ago.
All the best! 😊
Co-founder of Expandi
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