Project Streamline — how after nearly 15 years we became a ReStartup and returned to our entrepreneurial roots
It’s been a while since my last update here and I thought it was about time to give everyone an update on what I’ve been doing since the beginning of 2018 and outline some of the changes we’ve introduced at Venntro Media Group.
As is well known, my business partner Steve Pammenter and I founded Venntro Media Group back in 2003 without any external investment and over time built our core business WhiteLabelDating.com to become leading technology platform for the global online dating industry, powering thousands of dating sites around the world.
By 2013 (more than 10 years since we started the business) we began building our B2C own-brand business, making acquisitions and building mobile apps. In addition to this investment, we simultaneously grew our business outside of online dating, investing in areas such as Bingo, Poker and other online gaming opportunities.
In short, with hindsight it is clear that after 10 years as CEO I was bored with the success we’d achieved and was distracted by these shiny new business opportunities rather than investing in our core white label dating platform. When we should have been focusing on building our core WLD platform we were instead distracted on other pursuits.
I take responsibility for this and there were painful lessons to learn as we were distracted by these new business lines and our core business struggled with a number of payment processing challenges.
Nevertheless, we successfully recovered from these challenges and began growing our core business again in 2016. At this stage, my long-term partner Steve took over the day to day CEO duties and I stepped into a chairman role to work on partnership and considering external investment.
Over the next 18 months Steve (along with our fantastic CTO Barry Frost and CFO Darren Damiano) did a great job focusing the business again on it’s core WLD business and maintaining momentum in challenging market conditions.
Working with the team, the board successfully shut down non-core revenue streams and helped to focus the entire business on the award-winning WhiteLabelDating.com.
It was hugely beneficial for me to have time away from the day to day operations of the business throughout the second half of 2016 and most of 2017 as it gave me great perspective on how we were running the business and what kind of company we’d built up.
In the early days, we made decisions quickly and decisively and would implement the outcome of those decisions within hours or days.
Over time though, I realised we’d become slow and corporate in our approach. Whilst the team were doing all that we asked, it was taking too long to react to things and we’d gone from a hungry, self-financed startup to a large, lumbering beast. Most importantly though, we weren’t delivering results for customers, partners, staff and shareholders — we needed to change.
For us to take the next step as a business, we had to get back to who we were — we needed to become a ReStartup. We needed to intentionally and proactively disrupt ourselves in order to regalvanize ourselves strategically and operationally.
The lease to our Windsor HQ had a break clause in March 2018 so this seemed an ideal opportunity to take advantage of a fresh new start by moving offices and implement what we called “Project Streamline”.
Project Streamline — Products, People and Partners
In order for our business to move to the next stage, it was clear we needed to get back to our roots. We needed to be able move quickly and decisively — to be nimble, in order that we could better serve the needs of customers, partners, staff and shareholders.
After discussing this project for a number of months, I returned to the business full-time in January 2018 to support Steve in this new approach.
He and I would no longer be CEO and Chairman respectively — instead we would simply be owners of the business with distinct operational responsibilities. Steve would look after our partners and customer care and I would look after Product and Finance. Under our simplified structure, this would cover the whole business.
There were 3 core elements to deal with in Project Streamline — products, people and partners.
Streamlining our Product
Over the years we’d — unsurprisingly — built up a huge amount of legacy technical debt which needed to be dealt with. For the last few years we’d been pushing the platform more and more without dealing with some underlying technical challenges.
We decided that in 2018 we would focus on these underlying challenges — migrating away from some older technology, implementing SSL, adding multiple payment processors and chargeback-management technology and generally taking time to breathe so that we could move forward in the future without these challenges.
None of these changes by themselves would grow our revenues but together they would provide our partners with a much stronger, more stable platform for growth.
In addition, we’ve been able to rapidly deploy new front-end improvements to the platform, particularly our mobile sites which represent 70% of traffic — these changes are having a significant improvement to engagement metrics and increasing partner revenues as a result.
Streamlining our People
Over the years we have built a phenomenal team and we’ve been very lucky to keep some of our team for many years. Nevertheless, with the office move looming, we knew that this would be the best time to make some fundamental changes to our people and our structure that would better serve the long-term interests of our customers, partners, staff and shareholders.
At one time in our history we had nearly 200 staff working for us — whilst we had reduced this in recent years (partly through outsourcing our moderation team and partly through the elimination of non-core products), the structure of our business was still broadly designed for a company with hundreds of staff. Despite the best intentions of our great people, this was causing us to be slow and unnecessarily bureaucratic — at a time when we couldn’t afford to be either.
From Bureaucratic to Autocratic
Our people structure was designed for a company with hundreds of staff — we simply didn’t need this structure anymore. In addition, we had many people generating reports in the business and working to provide answers to questions that people had. But we were not in a position to take any actions based on this insight.
Reluctantly we decided that we needed to make the sad but necessary steps to restructure the business and make a number of roles redundant. In addition a number of people left the business of their own volition whose roles were not filled and indeed these roles have also been eliminated from the business.
Most of the roles that were affected were within our finance and product teams. We have outsourced our HR function and moved our accounting system from the very complex and expensive Sun Systems to the much simpler (and cheaper) Xero platform which does all we need and more. In addition, the SaaS-based Xero platform means we need far less people in our finance team as a result.
As part of this we have said a sad goodbye to our CTO Barry Frost and CFO Darren Damiano — both of whom have been instrumental in the success of this business. We certainly couldn’t have achieved the great things we have without them. They are leaving with our full support and will remain shareholders and supporters of the business for the long-term.
It is also worth sharing how we have rapidly changed the culture in the business as a result of the changes.
At the beginning of 2018, we made it very clear to staff what kind of business we wanted to be, what the environment would be and how we intended to run things at a day to day level. I have learnt the importance of being true to oneself and being authentic about who one is — and critically who one isn’t.
As a result, we made it clear to staff that we would be returning to how we ran the business when we started out — as entrepreneurs who would make decisions in an autocratic rather than bureaucratic way. Simply, if Steve and I felt that we should do something, then we’d do it — no committees, no steering groups — and that we would recognise and reward the behaviour we wanted to see in our business.
We implemented our new approach immediately with Monday morning standups, where each department would explain what they’ll be doing in the week ahead. We would also livestream these standups using Google Meet to our remote staff around the world.
In addition, we hold a “weekly wrap-up” on Friday afternoons where we reviewed what has happened in the past week and crucially what each team has achieved for the business and where they were above or below expectations and the reasons why.
This has introduced a new level of accountability to our teams and I’m confident is one of the reasons why the business is performing so much better so quickly (more on that later).
Finally we introduced a monthly “Viva Venntro” competition for staff where everyone in the business has the opportunity to win a great sports car for a month or a long weekend of pampering at Pennyhill Park, the top spa hotel in the UK. The goal of this is to publicly reward staff for delivering above and beyond to the business. We announced the first winner in April and — as we were so impressed with what had been achieved — there were actually TWO winners.
Streamlining our Partners
The last part of this project is the one which we’ve only recently completed — after much soul-searching we decided could no longer justify having thousands of sites on our platform which didn’t generate any meaningful revenues or register new members.
We are implementing SSL across our platform and adding a number of new payment processors which means the number of sites we run has a direct impact on our costs.
It is not in the interests of ourselves or our partners to create and operate dating sites which are commercially inefficient — so we took the decision to notify a minority of our partners that after reviewing their sites we would be shutting down a number of sites on the WhiteLabelDating.com platform.
Members of affected sites would be migrated to another, larger site belonging to the partner along with any associated revenues the impact of this would be minimal.
I have found it a difficult process to shut down sites which we have worked hard to attract to our platform and some partners have worked hard to create — but there is no point running sites which are not performing (or even showing any signs that they might perform).
Instead, we want to spend our time and efforts with our committed partners and invest both money and resources into supporting and motivating partners who are driving registrations to our business and working with us proactively for mutual long-term, sustainable growth.
It’s only been a few months since we returned to our entrepreneurial roots but we’re already seeing some very encouraging signs.
Whilst streamlining our business has increased our profitability, that wasn’t the goal — it’s easy to increase profits by reducing costs. We streamlined the business to enable us to make and execute decisions faster and to enable us to invest more in our committed partners.
Indeed, with the improved profitability we’re able to incentivise partners to grow more by providing better revenue share terms and incentives.
However, it’s growth rather than profitability which matters to me and I’m pleased to see some encouraging signs already. Compared to December 2017 (traditionally a popular month for online dating due to Christmas and Holidays), the first three months of 2018 have resulted in:
- Daily increase in registrations of 4%
- Daily increase of initial revenue of nearly 7%
- Daily increase of re-initial revenue (returning lapsed subscribers) of a whopping 15%
- Daily increase of snapshot conversion of 2.6%
Whilst these figures aren’t huge, they are significant early indicators of growth at a time when we’ve significantly streamlined many areas of our business. For me, this is certainly encouraging and reassuring after some very difficult decisions were made.
More encouraging still though is a huge reduction in chargebacks we’re now seeing across the platform. We made some very significant (and ridiculously clever) changes to our approach to payment processing in March which has resulted in April of a forecast 52% MoM (month-on-month) reduction in VISA International chargebacks. We’re also forecasting a 14% MoM reduction in Mastercard chargebacks. This is insanely good and came about directly as a result of a more empowered, entrepreneurial approach within the business (and in particular a smart, ambitious, tenacious individual who spotted this opportunity and rapidly implemented it).
We are now a ReStartup — we are intentionally and proactively disrupting ourselves to regalvanize ourselves strategically and operationally.
We’ve got a few more interesting projects which will be delivered in the next couple of months and I’ll update on here again when they are complete.