Show Value Immediately. Attention spans are short; gone are the days of long instructional videos and tooltips. Now there’s only space to let someone click around and get to know your product within their first minute (or less!). Make it easy to get your people into the product, remove as much friction as possible during the signup process and find a way to show your customer value immediately. It feels like we review our signup and onboarding process every single week! We watch and listen to what our people are doing when they land inside Plann and continuously clear the way to make sure they see how quickly they can upload photos (or use stock images!) to drag and drop to design their best Instagram gallery. The faster someone learns how your product can help them, the easier your job is to convert them and turn them into loyalists. Put all ego aside and do nothing but help your people get what they need from you the fastest way possible.
As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App or SAAS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Christy Laurence.
Christy Laurence is the 4x award-winning founder of Plann, an Instagram Management tool she self-funded to over 1.5M downloads in 160+ countries. Plann has been listed in the top 800 grossing apps in the world and is equipped with a passionate global team, plus website visited by hundreds of thousands every month.
She was recently featured in Vogue and spoke at the Vogue Codes Sydney Summit for digital innovators. Christy now splits her time between Silicon Valley and Sydney to grow her software business, mentor on multiple startup accelerators empowering female, non-technical founders to build their own successful tech companies, and lecture at Universities on Innovation, Social Media and eCommerce.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Absolutely! Happy to be here!
To go right back, Plann was born from a freak brain trauma. I woke up one morning with a weird strain of the flu — instead of it going to my body and just giving me a temperature, it went into my brain and completely destroyed my vestibular function. That’s the part of your brain that controls your balance and spatial skills — it left me hideously nauseous and dizzy. I lost my vision, as the world wouldn’t stop spinning, and my mobility for more than a year. I had no idea that was even possible!
I was working in corporate advertising and after a couple of falls on the way to work I decided to stay home and work on getting better. To pass the time I spent a lot of time illustrating which has always been a passion of mine.
From there it all happened quite quickly! Friends would ask how on earth I was selling so much (it wasn’t long before I was making good money) and next thing I knew I was consulting other creatives and female entrepreneurs all around the world, all from my home, but I wanted to reach more people.
There are so many talented people in the world; if only they knew how to successfully market themselves, they too could create secondary incomes or move from passion project to full blown business owners too!
What if there was an app that could help you brand your Instagram feed, that taught you when to post, what to post, and why to post? I knew it was a brilliant idea, and someone was going to do it — why couldn’t that be me?
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company?
Can you share that story with us?
Instagram marketing is slightly different to other social media channels; you need to really understand that your gallery needs to be designed as a branded, visual storytelling machine.
The follow button of an Instagram feed is at the top of the gallery and once someone visits your profile you have literally seconds (maybe 1–3 thumb scrolls of an Instagram grid!) to convert someone to tap the follow button, turning them into a warm lead who you can serve your offers, products and business to.
As a business owner, there’s no way I’d want to leave that first impression to chance!
I was overwhelmed by how many people couldn’t quite grasp the concept and were left incredibly frustrated by ‘Instagram not working’, especially when it offers so many amazing opportunities if done well.
I found I was repeating myself over and over when I had my own ‘there’s got to be a better way!’ moment that many founders talk about. I would have advised 10 times a day that when designing a grid, to think about image perspectives and the white space of how images sit next to each other, then: ‘a-ha!’.
What if you could drag and drop to design your gallery first, with professional image editing tools built in to make sure you have brand consistency — an idea that would wake me up at night for 4 months before I did anything about it.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Gosh, in the early days I thought about giving up ALL the time!
My biggest challenge was definitely trying to build a software company with no technical experience, and no technical team! I laugh at myself now, but I’m convinced my ridiculous optimism helped because I had no idea what I was in for and had to keep bashing through each challenge as they came up.
It was a mind-bending learning curve. I watched YouTube videos until my eyes burned, devoured books, went in search of amazing mentors, took online courses and made thousands of mistakes, a combination that has taught me everything I know so far and I still feel like there’s so much I don’t know.
My drive for success took a toll on my personal relationships, my social life and eventually my mental health. I had a handful of supportive people but there were more nay-sayers and those telling me I was wasting my time, than not.
There was a week where I seriously thought about throwing it all away. I was watching people playing volleyball at the beach and started crying because I had forgotten what it was like to have a clear mind that didn’t involve punishing myself for not working. Funnily enough, it was to be the next week when Plann took off.
So, how are things going today?
How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
All of those inspirational quotes about success being mostly about showing up and just keep on going? There’s some real truth to those!
The fail rate of startups is so high you have to have the craziest amount of self-belief and self-discipline that you can be one of the 1/100 that make it. One year in startup life is like 3 years in a normal job.
I’m proud that we’ve made it through the statistically hardest years and now have an amazing team who are passionate about what we do.
You literally have to grit your teeth through every challenge and force yourself to find a solution. There is no roadmap, and there isn’t anyone you can ask for help who have faced the exact same challenges as you. I’ve learned that everyone in startup land is mostly working it out as they go!
In my experience — the fastest way to learn is to make as many mistakes as you can and pick yourself back up, quickly. For me, it’s important to always have a smile on your face and have the humility to laugh at yourself.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting?
Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Mistakes can make or break a Founder. Thankfully I can laugh now at how much optimism I had, but this mistake almost defeated me — I ended up in the back of an ambulance because of it.
My biggest mistake and when I really felt like throwing it all away was within the first 3 or 4 months of launching, I’m secretly pleased it happened so early but at the time it was absolutely devastating.
I’d spent months teaching the 40,000 people already using Plann that they needed the app daily, so when they were all served a black “screen of death” for over a week when our server went down (and while I was away for a wedding), our customer support blew up (when it was just me), the app ratings crashed and I got smashed on social media and I really thought it was over.
I ended up working myself into an ambulance trying to answer all the emails and didn’t know how I was going to be able to keep going. It wasn’t a heart attack; it was my first major panic attack and my sister took me to a Justin Bieber concert to laugh it off.
The lesson was that I didn’t know enough about how our backend architecture and sever worked together, I’d just left it to the developers — which is another lesson I learned, not all developers know everything about all different types of systems and codes, they’re all specialists! In hindsight, you can’t be in control of your tech business if you don’t know how the tech works.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I love that Plann doesn’t just put a social media scheduler into the world and say ‘Here! Figure it out!’
We become an extension of your team, offering content ideas, strategy ideas, royalty free images and analytics that really help brands understand what moves the needle rather than celebrate vanity metrics.
Our mission at Plann is to empower our community to find success, beauty and confidence telling their story on Instagram. For example, Instagram is such a visual platform and I really wanted people to understand that and take control of their online shop front — so we built in a ‘best performing color palette’ feature.
You’ll learn what colors work best for your individual engagement and click-throughs for your own audience, and you’ll also learn what doesn’t work (*ahem* that late night, dark photo of cocktails).
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Controversially, I don’t believe there is such a thing as ‘balance’, but that you have a life and you fit what you want into it, as and when you want to.
When you set your own hours, you have to keep yourself motivated, focused and stay incredibly self-aware. For example, I quickly noticed that I have my best hours before the sun comes up and can be fairly unproductive (read: useless!) between 2–5pm in the afternoon, then have a second wind in the evening to coincide with my international team members’ workday.
Being aware of my body’s rhythm helps me stay productive and not waste energy when I know my brain is literally fried mush.
I’ve taken up a new hobby (some might say another obsession) — roller skating! Having something that I am passionate about outside of work helps me with the stress that comes from having a business that is growing so quickly and forces me to disconnect from my devices and get some exercise.
Balance for me means fitting in my entire life, in whatever hours I need, to feel fulfilled.
If I want to throw myself into the ocean, open a bottle of wine or head outside for a roller skate at
3pm on a Tuesday, then I do it. When you’re reaching your limits, head outside.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My husband, Tim, has also sacrificed a lot to get us to where we are now.
When he came home from work one day and I announced ‘Babe! I’m going to build an app!’, he asked if I knew how to build one, and when I said ‘Heck no! But there are 2 million in the app store — it can’t be that hard?!’, he didn’t even bat an eyelid and was immediately in my corner. I guess it was hard to argue with my ridiculous optimism, passion and an entire fleshed out product roadmap, business plan and marketing plan.
I’d always said I wanted my own company and I’d had many hairbrained ideas during our relationship but he was able to see definite potential in this one.
Going down to one salary and me becoming a workaholic, his life also changed but he never complained, always encouraged me to keep going and gave his blessing for me to move to the US for months on end, and for that I am incredibly grateful.
After a few years building Plann (and getting him to help me with the accounting in the weekends) he’s now a fully-fledged Plann’er, leaving his role in finance to join full time as the company COO and helps me make really important decisions. I guess you could say he’s bought in!
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?
Plann has helped over 1.5M people across 160+ countries grow their brands on Instagram.
- Build a solid product that your people can tell from the first time they login it can help. Getting people to see value immediately saw mass word-of-mouth happen for us which was a sign we were on the right track from the start.
- Our company is customer funded, so I’ve learnt the importance of working really hard to focus on what challenges our people have and obsess about solutions to help them, and if they’d pay for them to be fixed. You have to be constantly listening to what they are asking (which might not be what they are actually saying).
- Our brand is fun, relatable and incredibly empathetic. We’re a consistent cheerleader and best friend there to help you with free content, help and support. It’s been a huge piece of work, but our brand voice is everywhere throughout our product, blogs, emails and even our app store updates. Having a strong brand that’s a little quirky and different to other software companies has definitely been an advantage.
What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?
When we first launched Plann, we charged an up-front, one-off fee but it was incredibly hard to budget or hire staff when you didn’t know how much money was coming in each week. As the app evolved, we transitioned into a subscription service to create a sustainable business model.
We’re bootstrapped which means we’ve taken no external funding from investors to build the company. There was no way to support the operations or pay developers if we’d followed the likes of Tinder (the world’s top grossing app), who pushed for a mass of millions of free users before monetizing, and could afford to do so with millions of investor dollars in the bank.
Plann is now what’s called a Freemium SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) product, which means there’s a free-tier that you can use until you’re ready to upgrade to the advanced features.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app or a SAAS? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Product Market Fit is everything. Do whatever you can to serve an underserved audience, pivot, get traction and find more customers that are willing to part with their money (and then help those people clone themselves, to do your job for you) before you run out of money. At Plann, I spent 10 months researching and asking people, before we launched, what their biggest challenges on Instagram were. I shared my ideas for how to fix them and actually asked if they would pay (friends and family don’t count here!). If they said yes, I added them to an email list and sent out Instagram marketing tips as part of a pre-launch campaign. (My first email newsletter I had 25 people on it!) It has now grown into the hundreds of thousands and I still put in the same hard work and pack value into each edition. It meant that when Plann launched, we hit Product Market Fit immediately with 1,000 paying customers in the first 7 days. It wasn’t luck: we’d really understood what our people needed.
- Show Value Immediately. Attention spans are short; gone are the days of long instructional videos and tooltips. Now there’s only space to let someone click around and get to know your product within their first minute (or less!). Make it easy to get your people into the product, remove as much friction as possible during the signup process and find a way to show your customer value immediately. It feels like we review our signup and onboarding process every single week! We watch and listen to what our people are doing when they land inside Plann and continuously clear the way to make sure they see how quickly they can upload photos (or use stock images!) to drag and drop to design their best Instagram gallery. The faster someone learns how your product can help them, the easier your job is to convert them and turn them into loyalists. Put all ego aside and do nothing but help your people get what they need from you the fastest way possible.
- Obsess About the Customer Experience, With Data. Your gut feeling can only get you so far, it’s so important to have real numbers and data to work with. You might think you know what features your people are using, but until you track what they’re doing, or straight out ask them, you’ll never really know and there’s a chance you could end up making a wrong move. Our analytics stack as we’ve grown into enterprise level has changed as Plann has evolved, but right now we couldn’t live without MixPanel (in-product analytics), FullStory (watching user-sessions), UserLeap (customizable in-product survey tool) and Google Analytics.
- Business Metrics. Even if you’ve taken millions of dollars in funding to build your brilliant idea, eventually you need to become a business. Without customers and people buying your product — there is no SaaS business! Spending time understanding cash flow management, cash projections, your cost to acquire a customer, conversion rates and your customer lifetime value will stop you throwing money at things that might sound great but are actually costing you money. At Plann we’re incredibly strategic with where we use our marketing dollars and it’s not uncommon for us to talk about the cost of acquisition per channel. We’ll also talk about conversion rates daily and talk about what multiple tests we’re running to make each piece of the marketing and product funnels better. It’s likely we will be running over 15 tests at any time and reviewing revenue and cash flow metrics every week.
- Teamwork! One of the biggest reasons startups fail is that the team doesn’t work as a team unit, for example, individuals not taking ownership or are not agile enough to bend, learn and move as a tech startup requires. Working in a tech startup is unlike any other job in the world! There are always about 7 fires burning and you just have to do your best to prioritize the one brightest one. Ensuring everyone in the Plann team has the tools to perform what’s expected of them and bringing their personalities to work while having a clear runway to do their best has been really important. I like to hire smart people and then get out of their way, however if the data and numbers aren’t working out, without a clear reason why, I’ll jump in to help out, as the last defense.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
What I would love to change about the technology/startup industry is that there are generally two buckets of founders that you can fall into, The Technical Founder, and the Non-Technical Founder.
Because I didn’t grow up learning how to code, instead honing my skills in design thinking, innovation, marketing and product development, I was immediately labelled a ‘non-technical founder’ which called out a weakness before I could even introduce myself.
I’m not a Technical Founder but I am a Product Founder, a Marketing Founder and a Creative Leader; things that most Technical Founders hire first. Over the years running Plann, I’ve also learned more than I care to admit about programming languages as a necessity to run my company and scale a global team.
I’m dumbfounded why there are still only the two categories considering the amount of brilliant ideas that have been born by technical founders but equally need marketers and product visionaries to bring them to life together. Just like how I needed someone with great technical acumen to join my team.
The movement I’d like to start is to encourage everyone to lead with their strength instead of having to highlight what they’re not, just because they don’t code.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
At Plann we publish social media articles every single week over at www.plannthat.com to help you find success on socials, or alternatively you can find great social tips and tricks over at @plannthat.
To follow my Founder adventures and comic musings on Instagram, you can find me personally at @christyladylaurence. I love a good chat and any terrible puns you’ve got!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!