Founder Coffee episode 033
I’m Jeroen from Salesflare and this is Founder Coffee.
Every three weeks I have coffee with a different founder. We discuss life, passions, learnings, … in an intimate talk, getting to know the person behind the company.
For this thirty-third episode, I talked to Xenia Muntean, co-founder of Planable, a social media collaboration and approval platform for agencies and bigger companies.
Xenia started a social media agency in Moldova when she was in university and built it out to seven people, until she founded Planable to solve one of the collaboration issues they were facing in her agency.
Her startup was discovered by an accelerator in Romania, and afterwards by Techstars in London.
We talk about why you should hire slowly to build culture, how excited she is about rebranding Planable, getting back to pottery and jewelry, and the long road to product-market fit.
Welcome to Founder Coffee.
Prefer listening? You can find this episode on:
Jeroen: Hey, Xenia. It's great to have you on Founder Coffee.
Xenia: Hi, Jeroen. Thank you so much for inviting me.
Jeroen: So you're the co-founder of Planable. For those who don't know Planable, what do you guys do?
Xenia: So Planable is a creative workflow tool for social media teams. And what it does is it helps marketing teams create social media content together. It helps them work better as a team, to get themselves aligned around the content that they have produced, to visualize it and get it published in a very streamlined way. Everything in one single place. So it’s like a productivity tool for social media teams.
Jeroen: So are we talking big teams, then? Or are we in big companies and agencies now? Who uses Planable?
Xenia: So agencies definitely, because agencies collaborate by default, with a lot of people, with their clients. They are, by default, in a collaborative environment. They need to showcase their work to clients and get approvals. So this type of workflow is necessary for them, because of their business model. But it also applies to in-house teams that are bigger. You know, five people and more. Or even fewer people, but distributed, working remotely and needing something to communicate around the work that they're producing.
But yeah, usually the problem gets messier and more complex when more people are involved in social media production.
Jeroen: How did you get started with making a solution for this problem? Is this something you've faced yourself?
Xenia: Well, very similar to your story, Jeroen, we were in the industry. We saw the problem with our own eyes. We personally felt it. We personally struggled with it. Before Planable, I had a small social media marketing agency, and my technical co-founders worked in a similar agency. And we were talking about the challenges that we were having at work and how hard it was to gather feedback internally from the team members.
We were building social media calendars in Excels, or sometimes in PowerPoints, and we were sharing it by email internally, inside the agency, and then externally to the clients to get approvals. And it just felt like such a broken process.
We also have a background in graphic design, and we were always thinking, "Designers have InVision to collaborate around the frameworks and the design files that they're creating." It's just so easy in InvVision to leave a comment and to share your work with clients and to share your work internally.
And it's just such a beautiful process, and it's very pleasant to work in InVision when you're a designer. But marketers, they don't have anything like that for social.
They don't have anything as smooth and elegant and also as collaborative and visual as designers have with InVision. So that's how the idea of Planable was born. We wanted to just make our work simpler and a bit more delightful. So Planable was born to do just that.
Jeroen: So you mentioned that the schedules would basically be distributed in Excel files and people would give feedback in those.
Jeroen: But how would you, before Planable, mock-up the social media posts? Did you have anything for that? How did you visualize that, or was it just a few lines and people had to imagine what it was?
Xenia: Oh God, that's such an interesting story. Especially when I had very important clients that were very serious about their grants - Coca-Cola, for example, in Eastern Europe. I had a Photoshop file where I was mocking up how their entire timeline is going to look like with all the posts that we were planning to publish in the next week or next month. So that was tedious work.
And then I got smarter, and I created a fake Facebook page where I could just mock up the posts, take a screenshot and send it to clients or send it internally. It was good because it was easy for the clients to understand how their content is going to look like in the end.
But it was also good for me, because I could make sure that the post was looking like I intended. Because spreadsheets and Excels are just a terrible way of showcasing visual content. There's no way. You're just relying on everyone else's imagination to guess what you had in mind when you were drafting that post.
So that's how I was doing it back then. And with Planable, you can just create the post and it looks exactly like on its social media platform. It looks exactly like what it is supposed to on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Facebook. So what you see is what you're going to get in the end with Planable.
Jeroen: Right. That social media marketing agency, was that your agency or were you working somewhere?
Xenia: No, I started it during my second year of university. I was in a student organization and one of the partners, one of the sponsors of that organization, was looking for someone to do their social. So there I was, young and hungry. And that's how I started my agency.
I was studying PR and mass communication back then, so it was one of my dreams to work in this space. To work in advertising. And I actually never imagined I'm going to start an agency. It was a dream that I actually didn't have, but it became a reality.
The agency was just me at the beginning, and then we were like about six, seven people doing, not just social, but also websites and branding work, and that's how I learned more about the industry and the challenges marketers have.
Jeroen: Does that agency still exist?
Xenia: No. When I started Planable, we left, together with my co-founders, we left everything we were doing back then. I closed my agency. My technical co-founder, Nick, left the agency he was working in. And my third co-founder, Vlad, he dropped out of college to do Planable. So we left quite a lot behind us. Our work, but also we moved countries. We started in Republic of Moldova. That's where we are originally from. And then we moved to Romania to build the business.
Jeroen: Why did you move to Romania? Is Romania a better place to have your start-up?
Xenia: Well, first of all, Romania is in the European Union, and it just has better economic opportunities, I would say. It has investors. It's a growing, I wouldn't say "strong", but it is an upcoming start-up ecosystem, because it has angel investors and strong technical universities, accelerators, and quite a lot of events like the one we are going to speak at. Quite a lot of other conferences and platforms for start-ups too.
And it also has inspiring success stories, like the one that you've probably, quite a lot of people probably heard about, UiPath, the Eastern European unicorn. And all those inspiring stories that Romania has, just create a better environment to build a start-up than Moldova. Moldova is still trying to develop this ecosystem. But I would say Romania is a few steps ahead.
Jeroen: Right. So when you basically wanted to start your own company, you felt like Moldova was not the place, and you all decided to move to Romania?
Xenia: Yeah. We were discovered, actually, by an accelerator in Romania. They discovered us in Moldova while we were having the idea of Planable, and they invited us to the accelerator in Romania, and that's how we moved.
It's really hard to start the company when you do not have the support of someone else, and I think that was a huge factor that helped us build the company. The fact that we had this accelerator that was confirming that what we're doing made sense made all the difference. They were willing to put in the time to invest in us so that we could build the business and move forward.
I think without those things, you can definitely build a business, but it is easier if you have people that are validating what you're doing.
Jeroen: Absolutely. You mentioned that you started off because someone needed someone to do social media?
Jeroen: Is that the first time you decided to start a company, or was this something that you had in mind before already?
Xenia: No. I'm an entrepreneur by accident. I was not dreaming of becoming an entrepreneur at some point. Because in Moldova, it's this tiny, tiny, post-Soviet country in Eastern Europe, and people do not have entrepreneurial aspirations back there. It's not a trend. Young kids are not dreaming of becoming an entrepreneur at some point. So that was not something that I was always thinking about. It just happened to me, and I didn't even realize I'm doing it until a certain point.
But my agency was not my first venture. Before the agency, during high school, I had a small venture. I was not even thinking about it as a business, but it was producing money. And what I was doing was I was crafting handmade jewelry, and I was selling it online. So that was, you could say, fashion eCommerce, if you want to exaggerate it a bit.
But it was my first attempt at a business that I had. It was a good one. It was profitable, as the agency was. So that's how my journey started.
Jeroen: Is that similar for your co-founders, or were you the one who dragged them into entrepreneurship?
Xenia: Well, the idea of Planable as it is, it came first to my co-founder Nick. So I think he had this entrepreneurial spirit in himself as well, though I think it was the first business he was getting into. Planable is the first business for him. But I think we all had the hustle in ourselves. Vlad, my third co-founder, he had started a few NGOs while he was in high school.
So we all had this ambition in ourselves, even though it was not, maybe, materialized in traditional businesses at the time.
Jeroen: Mm-hmm. Cool. And what is your dream now as an accidental entrepreneur? How do you measure success, let's say?
Xenia: Wow. That's a tough question. So, success, personally, in life, or would you say success in business?
Jeroen: I guess you can cover both. For many entrepreneurs, success in business is success in life. Or, at least, a big part of it, I guess.
Jeroen: But it doesn't have to be.
Xenia: Yeah. I wouldn't put it at an equal platform.
Jeroen: No, definitely not.
Xenia: Because it's a dangerous path. But success in business, for me, would mean actually transforming the way marketers work today. You could become a multi-millionaire business. You could actually drive a lot of revenue and have a lot of clients, but not change anything. Especially if you're in the enterprise business. You could sign quite a lot of contracts, but a big majority of those licenses are not active, and people are not actually using the product and you're not actually driving change in the way people work.
So I think, for me, the way I would measure my success is if we actually could transform the industry. Obviously that would come with bigger numbers in terms of revenue and in terms of contracts, but for me, change in the industry and actually making people say goodbye to Excels, Microsoft Outlook and Google Drive and all those archaic tools, that's the way I see success in Planable.
And also, a big part of success in Planable is building a culture that makes you wake up in the morning excited. Like really excited to go to work. I think that's a big, big part for me, both professionally but also kind of personally as well.
So that's how I would define success. Having a really awesome team and helping the industry change.
Jeroen: So, on the one hand, it seems that you want to build a big company, at least serve a lot of clients, because it's kind of a requirement to change how people work, I suppose.
Jeroen: On the other hand, you're giving a lot of importance to building a company with the right culture. How do you feel you will marry the two?
Xenia: Yeah, it's a good question. It's really hard to have both, because the more you grow, the harder it is to keep the culture as you intended initially. It is tough, but when we recruit new people at Planable, attitude is the first thing that we look at. And if we do not find someone that we are, a "Hell yes," about them, then we decide to start the process again.
So, for us, it's really important, especially now that we're still a small team, we're only 10 people on board, it's really important to make sure that every person that joins Planable is as excited about it as we are about them. It is hard, but I think it's doable if you stick to your values and principles that you have in mind, and if you do not compromise. I have definitely compromised before in terms of recruiting, and it never worked out.
So you recruit people that are brilliant and super smart and super talented, but there is not a 100% click, and you think that the fact that they're smart and the fact that they're interested in the company is going to work out and everything is going to align in the end, but if there is no chemistry, it's not going to work out in the end. Things are going to go and it's going to be an issue at some point.
So I've learned that lesson, and now we're trying to make sure that the people that join in are happy and we're happy. And I think those things are doable. Having a big company and having a happy and awesome and cool culture are doable, but it is definitely a hard thing to do.
Xenia: So yeah. Fingers crossed.
Jeroen: A bit on the same subject. Do you guys see yourself bootstrapping this, or are you looking for funding?
Xenia: Well, we have already raised money, so we're past that bootstrapping point. We were funded from the beginning, actually. So we had like a small family fund ticket investment, like an angel investment, of 20k, three years ago when we started the company. And afterwards, we went through Techstars in London, and that was 120k again. And we recently just closed our seed round. So we are definitely going on the easy path.
Jeroen: I went to look you guys up on Crunchbase, and instead of Romania, it says London there.
Xenia: Yeah. Because the company's incorporated in London. We already switched now. It is a classical Delaware inc. So an American company now.
Jeroen: Mm-hmm. What is it that you, personally, do at Planable? What are you busy with?
Xenia: I ask this myself sometimes. It's a jumble to see. You would probably agree with me, or disagree. It's just so diverse, and you do so many things at once. One of my focuses at the moment is our rebranding process. We're not changing the name. The name is still going to be Planable, but we are changing our visual identity because, if you look at Planable's logo now and the new Slack logo, you might see some similarities. Though our logo, I built it, I designed it three years ago. Slack is a big company so you don't go against them. So yeah, we are changing.
It definitely needs an upgrade anyway, so it was a good opportunity to evolve the brand. So that's one of the big focuses that I have at the moment. And we're recruiting. Recruiting, I think, is one of my top priorities always. Recruiting and building the culture and making sure that I'm ticking all those boxes that we just discussed.
Yeah, those are my two biggest focuses at the moment. And I think the third focus is sales, bringing in new clients. So those are my top three priorities, top of my mind every day.
Jeroen: So those are the three things you do when you're in the office?
Xenia: Yeah. I mean, they're high level. High level, that's kind of the things that I do. But I think actually, they translate into writing emails, a lot of emails.
Jeroen: Yeah. Mostly writing emails. Actually, myself, I don't write so many emails, which is sometimes a bit wrong, I guess.
Xenia: Wrong? Why would you say "wrong"?
Jeroen: People wait a long time to get a response. Because there are so many other channels that take away my attention. We chat with customers in Intercom for instance.
Jeroen: I mostly chat with other founders or so, in Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. There's the internal Slack chat. And the emails are really the last place where I go look.
Xenia: Interesting. Emails are the first thing for me, just because I think we use Intercom for self-service customers, the one that come just on the website for a free trial and all of that, and for customers as well. And then, my priority is enterprise customers, and those usually happen on email rather than in the chat bot. Then, with providers and recruiting, it all happens on email. So that takes a big, big chunk of my day.
Jeroen: Yeah. That could be true. LinkedIn as well.
Xenia: Yeah. That's true. LinkedIn as well. I don't know about you, but I have such an issue with the LinkedIn inbox. I just dream about a better LinkedIn inbox, one with reminders and a snoozing feature. It just feels so inefficient to work with. I mean, I'm forced to work in the LinkedIn inbox, but I'm dreaming about someone building a better client. The way there are email clients for email, I'm imagining something like that for LinkedIn. So someone should build that, if the API allows it.
Jeroen: I hope LinkedIn hears this, because I think a lot of people would like to do it, but the LinkedIn API does not allow it.
Xenia: Oh, goddammit. Yeah, well, fingers crossed for LinkedIn to build it some day.
Jeroen: Yeah. The only thing you can do is like sort of hack it. Lets say a client side inbox on top of theirs.
Jeroen: But the question is how long that survives.
Xenia: Yeah. That's true. I mean, I'm not sure, but it's always difficult to build something on top of others. I can say it from our own personal experience, with APIs there's always an issue. So it's difficult, especially with LinkedIn being very restrictive with their API nowadays.
Jeroen: Yeah. This is a totally off-topic question. Does that require a lot of work on your side? Because I've read some posts, for instance, by the guys at Quuu, that they spend a lot of 2018 catching up with all the different APIs and all the changes they made.
Jeroen: There's also other apps that I've seen closing because Twitter closes whatever part of their API and then doesn't allow them anymore, or tools on top of LinkedIn which are a bit more hacky, not using the API. How is that for you guys?
Xenia: It is a difficult job for us, working with the APIs. But because the problem we're solving is more one of collaboration and planning rather than publishing, I would say it is not the core of Planable, but it is definitely a top five issues and top five priorities that we have.
For example, one of the biggest challenges that we have at the moment is direct Instagram publishing. There's a lot of Facebook marketing partners that have direct Instagram publishing, like Hootsuite, for example. And we do not have it yet. So that's an issue for us in terms of keeping customers and gaining new customers. It is by far the most requested feature that we are missing at the moment. And now with Facebook introducing direct Instagram publishing in their Creator Studio, it becomes even harder.
And it is heartbreaking when you talk with customers and they leave Planable because we don't have that. It's not something in our control. If it would be up to us, we would build it in a day, but it is the API again. So we are spending a lot of time working with Facebook to gain this enhanced API access. So APIs are just a bane to work with and to get access to them as well is difficult.
Jeroen: Yeah. So back to what you're doing, actually. Like, if I had to see what you're doing, what is exactly the next thing from your batch of tasks that you would like to delegate?
Xenia: Tasks that I would like to delegate?
Jeroen: Yes. I mean, you are a CEO, co-founder, general management, and one of the things you probably want to do more. So what’s the one thing you do and want to delegate so you can focus on the company better?
Xenia: Yeah. So I think one of them is I definitely need to delegate a part of the hiring process, because now I'm doing it end-to-end. Now I'm going to involve my team into the first part of the hiring process, the full screening and the first selection of candidates. I think that empowers the team as well to have decision-making in who joins the team, who are going to be their new colleagues. I think that's empowering for them as well, but it also helps me save some time and drop in the recruiting process in the middle and not do it end-to-end.
And then, sales. Expanding the team and growing the sales team so that it's not just me focusing on enterprise sales, but having the team to support this function.
Jeroen: Of the things you do, what actually gives you the most energy?
Xenia: I'm very, very excited and terrified about our rebranding process. It's just mixed feelings that I have about it, but I am enthusiastic about it, though I am also scared about it. But I'm excited to see how it's going to work out in the end, how it's going to look like. I think this type of change is a fresh breath of air and it's long overdue.
The branding and the new website, I'm quite passionate and enthusiastic about it, also because it involves design, and I love design. And since I started the company, in the beginning I was doing quite a lot of design, but now I do not have the time, and I shouldn't have the time to do design. But every time I get the chance to give feedback on design and our marketing materials, or do anything related to design, I'm very excited.
Jeroen: Why do you think that is the case?
Xenia: Well, I learned Photoshop when I was in seventh grade. We moved with my family from one part of Moldova to a different part of Moldova, and I didn't have any friends, so in the summer I learned Photoshop. My mom, she's a painter and she has these aesthetic skills and she taught me how to see the world visually. And I think I miss that. I was doing a lot of design in my agency back then, so I think that's something that I miss a lot.
And it's also because when it is visual, you can almost touch it, right? With other things like sales or marketing, it's more of a process rather than an end result. With design, it's the closest thing it can get to an actual, physical thing. And I think that's related to my first venture as well, when I was crafting handmade jewelry. It's also a physical product.
So I think I miss this entire part of building beautiful things and designing beautiful things, and I think that's why I enjoy it. I enjoy doing it whenever I get the chance.
Jeroen: Yeah, I was just about to say, you probably enjoy building beautiful things, and then you said it.
Jeroen: Cool. I'm supposing you are quite busy, considering all the different things you do, from the hiring to the design process to the sales. Through all these kind of things! How do you keep that all in balance with your, let's say, personal life next to that? What is the limit between your work and the rest?
Xenia: I don't know if I keep it in balance. I remember when we started Planable, we didn't have a weekend. I think we were so, so excited about building it. We are still, obviously, very excited, but back then we didn't have any limits. We were working Saturday, Sundays, up until 11:00 PM. And then we gradually started making time for our personal lives, and we started taking the Sunday off and then the Saturday off.
Now, I am trying to build some hobbies and other stuff to keep my life in balance, but I'm not sure I'm doing a really good job yet. What I'm trying to do now is go to the gym. I think that energizes me and helps me put a bit of balance in life, and it helps me rewind. But I'm still struggling to do that regularly, as quite a lot of people are. Gym is hard to maintain.
Jeroen: Yeah. If you're looking for hobbies, I suppose you don't have kids?
Xenia: No, no. Are kids a hobby?
Jeroen: No. They kill hobbies.
Xenia: Oh. Yes. I don't have kids, no. Not that much personal life. Or at least not that interesting.
Jeroen: So it's mostly a few hobbies you're developing and going to the gym?
Jeroen: What kind of hobbies are you looking at?
Xenia: Well, I was thinking about something physical again, like some things like crafting, doing something with my hand. And I was looking at lessons on Skillshare or something like that about crafting ceramic pots and painting them and stuff like that. I would like to do that, but then you need like this big oven where you can bake those pots, basically, out of ceramics. And I didn't find any. They're like super, super expensive to buy, so you need to find one, and I didn't find anything in Bucharest. But I would like to do that because it reminds me, again, of what I was doing in high school with the jewelry. I imagine that would be super relaxing to just paint them and craft them with my own hands. That's something I would like to do.
But yeah. I'm postponing it until I find a solution to actually making them.
Jeroen: Yeah. And that's in Bucharest, or is it in London? Because we had a discussion around the two places.
Xenia: No, I'm based in Bucharest at the moment. The company is incorporated in London and we have a lot of business there. Investors and customers, so I do spend a lot of time in London. But I consider Bucharest my home now.
Jeroen: Mm-hmm. Slowly wrapping up, do you also read books?
Xenia: I do, but not as much as I would like to, to be honest.
Jeroen: I usually ask what the latest good book you've read, and why you chose to read it?
Xenia: Ah, yes. The latest one that I read, I mean, I'm still reading it is 21 Lessons from Noah Harari.
I read his Sapiens book as well. I like a lot of what he's writing. And I think especially if you're working in technology, 21 Lessons, is a good book. And it's also just easy to read. It doesn't require a lot of mental space and effort, so it's also, I would say, a relaxing read. At least for me.
Jeroen: Yeah. What's the main take away you had from the book so far? Like what is a lesson that has stayed with you?
Xenia: Data is going to kill us all. Yeah, he's talking a lot about how this accumulation of data on humanity, on society, if it's not properly regulated by governments, in the future it could lead to authoritarian technology regimes, and how it can go badly if the data is not regulated, because people who own it might develop technologies that are not necessarily in our interest.
So we could go in a very Orwellian world. So yeah. I said it is a relaxing read, but now, when I'm saying it, it sounds scary.
Jeroen: Yeah. Is there anything you wish you would have known when you started out with Planable?
Xenia: It's an interesting question. Yes, I wish someone made it more clear to me that it is going to take a lot of time to get to a product-market fit, and that product-market fit is a very uncertain thing. You might think you have it, but it's always a question if you actually achieve it or not.
So I think just the amount of time it takes to put the product on the market, to iterate on the products. I think I probably was a bit naïve and expected things to move a bit faster, and I wish I knew that. I wish my expectations were set more correctly. So I think that's one of the things that I wish I knew. Yeah.
Jeroen: Yeah, thinking about it, I feel the same way. I remember it was in April 2014, having this great idea and then thinking like, "People are going to love this and we're going to be successful so fast. We just need to build this thing." I mean, we had an approach about it, like to do it step-by-step and to test the idea.
But we definitely imagined it to go faster than it did.
Xenia: And I think one of the issues around this is that I was imagining it all depends on me, right? On how fast I move and how much I work. But it doesn't. There are things that are out of your control. And you just need to wait for those things to happen, and time needs to pass. So I wish I knew that it doesn't depend only on me and my team and how much we work and how much effort we put in this. That it still depends on so many other criteria out of our own power.
And I think if I knew that, it would have helped me not feel guilty in some instances, feel a bit more relaxed around how fast things are moving. Because if you put all that pressure on you, and if you think it's just up to you on how the business is going to go, when it doesn't go well, it's also all your fault.
Xenia: And it kind of is, because you're doing the business, but not 100%, right? There are some criteria outside of your control and you need to be aware of those.
Jeroen: Yeah. Do you have some examples of those?
Xenia: The APIs, definitely. Working with external partners is hard always. And also, just talking with customers and signing new contracts, it's also an external factor that. I mean, you can push it. You can speed it up. But in the end, it's again, outside of your control. I think in sales, there's a lot of those things that don't depend on you entirely, right? I mean, you know better probably than me. But I feel like that's what I've learned so far.
Jeroen: Right. Final question. What's the best piece of business advice you ever got?
Xenia: The best piece of business advice? Let me think.
Jeroen: It could've been from one of your investors, co-founders, Techstars?
Xenia: Yeah, so I think it was from one of my investors recently. It is a good piece of advice about creating our own category. So I think it's very important to define a new category, build it with your own product. That's what we're trying to think at the moment about Planable, like what product category does Planable create? And that will probably be creative content collaboration.
So I think, creating a new space and owning it, putting a flag in it and owning it, driving growth in that specific category that you created, is an interesting approach to business. So that was a piece of good advice
But general advice is just how important the team is. I think that's something that I learned very early on, from my mentors. And because it was just us, the three co-founders, in the beginning, one of the best advice that I got was just to not hire in the beginning, if you know what I mean? Like, postpone hiring as much as you can. And that's important because it gave us, the co-founders, the chance to build a culture between the three of us and align ourselves in terms of values and everything and be more mature as a business when we started hiring. So I think that was some good advice we got.
Jeroen: That's definitely some solid advice. I would advise people to do that as well.
Jeroen: Thank you again for being on Founder Coffee, Xenia. It was great to have you.
Xenia: Thank you so much, Jeroen, for inviting me. My coffee just ended right now, so perfect timing.
Enjoyed it? Read Founder Coffee interviews with other founders. ☕
We hope you liked this episode. If you did, review us on iTunes!