How can you build a sales pipeline without spending a dollar on marketing?
Soulaima Gourani is here to share her journey in founding Happioh, a platform designed to protect people against low-quality meeting hours.
Soulaima will cover the process of building a waiting list and making sales before your software is even released… all without a marketing budget.
She’ll break down:
- How to identify and engage with early adopters
- How to convince someone to pay for your software
- The importance of identifying your ideal user
- And more
Mentioned in this episode:
Voiceover: This is Performance Delivered, Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success with Steffen Horst and Dave Antil.
Steffen Horst: Welcome to the Performance Delivered Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success podcast, where we talk with marketing and agency executives and learn how they build successful businesses and their personal brand. I’m your host, Steffen Horst. The topic for today’s episode is how to build a sales pipeline without spending $1 on marketing. Here to speak with me is Soulaima Gourani, who is the CEO and co-founder of Happioh, a platform built around all meetings with the goal of safeguarding and protecting people against low-quality meeting hours.
Soulaima is a Moroccan-Danish immigrant, entrepreneur, international speaker, certified and active board member and best selling author. She’s dedicated to a common purpose to create innovators, critical thinkers, problem solvers, and entrepreneurs. Soulaima, welcome to the show.
Soulaima Gourani: Thank you so much, Steffen. I’m so excited to be here. Thank you.
Steffen: Now before we talk about how to build a solid pipeline without spending a dime. Let’s find out more about you. You know, when we had our intro call, you shared with me some really great stories. And as I mentioned, I’m really happy to have you on. Tell us about yourself. How did you get started in your career and what led you to founding Happioh?
Soulaima: Yeah, thank you so much. Yeah. So I think I have a very untraditional background. I don’t know many Danes. I grew up in Denmark, I was born in Morocco. But I grew up in Denmark. I ran away from my parents when I was just 13 and picked up by the police. And I was put in a children’s home. And later I was put into foster care and other institutions. I’ve moved schools more than I can count. This is my fourth country that I live in. But one thing, one thing I’ve always been loyal to, and that is sales. Sales of software.
To be quite honest, throughout my career when I was a young woman, I’m a seventh-grade school dropout, I should say. I mean, my academia background is not impressive. Meaning I did not get super good grades, you know, how can you when all your life is about surviving? You know, when you’re not thriving, it’s very, it’s very hard to do your best, right? You’re simply hustling. But hey, hustling is a good skill, you know, as an entrepreneur, if you don’t mind being very much on your own.
Hustling, not knowing the future and not have the need for being comfortable then I think you’re really a good fit for entrepreneurship, especially that kind of entrepreneurship that I go for, right? Less than 30 women in the world, Steffen have actually IPOd a company. And I definitely want to try that. So it’s on my bucket list. And that’s what I’m doing. So I’m an entrepreneur, in Silicon Valley. I moved here for the purpose of building Happioh. And I don’t know about you, but if you’re into sport, or if you really want to compete, you have to go compete or be inspired by the best.
And entrepreneurship is still really the masters of entrepreneurship and fast-moving, fast-growing scaling companies is still in Silicon Valley. There are many entrepreneurship places and locations in the world that are good. But Silicon Valley is really the brutal place. If you want to be the best, you should definitely come and try it out here. Back to your question. The tech industry was actually the only industry that wanted to give me a job.
So in 99, a founder of a small company with just 100 employees met me at a conference, I believe I was working for the Danish embassy in Norway. And I’ve probably been very energized, right and trying to create leads and finding investors for Denmark, and I don’t know. But he was very impressed with my energy. And I was very young. So he gave me an offer. And he said you should consider to come work for the tech industry. And this was in 99. It was just you know, at a very exciting time. And I said yes. And they made me responsible for one string of code and one developer. That was nothing.
And they said to me half joking, can you go out and build a global company on this vision and this string of code? And I didn’t know that this was not, I mean, it’s not impossible, but it’s definitely not an easy task, right? There was not even a slide deck, there was not even a presentation there wasn’t even, there was nothing. And I said yes. And I managed to sign one of the biggest retail chains in Europe. Have them buy-in on the vision, have them accept and be excited about testing some beta software.
This was even before it was beta software, but really stick with us for this whole process of building it and testing it and deploying it. And I did that multiple times. And I believe when I left the company the software was active in 55 countries. And we did not have a marketing budget, Steffen. I want to say I have the deepest respect for marketing. I can see what good marketing can do. But since you asked me how my career started, and how I got into sales was this is, you know, this is this was my way into sales. I’ve never been educated or trained as a salesperson.
I believe I’m a good salesperson because if you think about my background, a way to survive is to find people you can trust quickly, and filter those away you cannot trust. I believe maybe I’m also good in being liked. I think I’m likeable. And I think it’s a survival skill. Really, I think so. My networking skills are definitely a product of my upbringing.
Steffen: Interesting. Now, with Happioh, you know, when we talked, before, we talked about, first of all, how did you come up with the idea of Happioh, but then once you had the idea to validate that idea, talk about that a little bit. How did you validate that there is really a need in the market for your software solution?
Soulaima: I mean, I know a lot of founders, and they build a product, or they start producing a product, it could be consumer goods or whatever, it doesn’t matter. And they start the business. And then they go out and say, hey, who will buy my product or who will be my customers, but I think it’s the other way around. You have to fall in love with the problem. So since 2007, I have actually been writing books, and I have been talking in more than 40 countries, on the theme future of work.
My passion for future of work comes out of my own story. Like, I used to work for very large enterprises like HP, Microsoft, Maersk, very large enterprises. And it’s very hard to work in those organizations, especially as a young, ambitious person. It’s a lot of work, you can easily burn out, there’s no playbook, there’s a lot of politics, you have to overdeliver. It’s very competitive. And, and you know what, that’s nice, but it’s also a brutal place. And I had a massive burnout early in the 2000s. And I was picked up by the ambulance twice. And my doctor said, If you don’t take care of yourself better, you will burn out forever.
So I also learned how to work better and smarter. And that inspired me to start thinking about future of work. Should we really work until we drop? Is it really a 60-hour work week? Is that really the future. And you and I might laugh about the theme of future of work. But for the past 10, 15 years, it’s really been, it’s been a theme that we talked about, but nothing really happened, right? We all went to the office, we all work more or less the same, maybe a few companies here and there would give you a day off.
So you could work from home. But then the pandemic hits, right. It was a beautiful moment, a tragic, a tragedy, but a beautiful moment for future of work. Because now we’ve suddenly finally accepted the fact that we can be as productive, actually more productive from home. I’m not saying to work remote is wonderful, always. But we definitely found out that people can be very productive. And that inspired me to now might be the time. Like, the timing is right. Because if you’re a startup founder, you have to look to a problem you understand very well. A problem you are in love with solving. And the timing has to be right. Those three things has to be in order.
So instead of just hiring a few developers, I kind of knew what I wanted to build like that was for sure. But instead of just building because when you start building software, it’s very expensive. Like a full stack engineer, it’s very expensive. And if you build something wrong, you’ll lose all your money. So what I did was I started interviewing companies, I even interviewed Slack, the CMO of slack. I interviewed MasterCard, Hitachi, IKEA, Volvo, I mean, lots of companies, lots of Fortune 500 companies, and I simply asked them to two questions.
We’re going through a pandemic, there’s going to be a post-pandemic period of time, everything you’ve learned through this pandemic, now, have you thought about how you going forward will protect and safeguard your workforce against burnout, and low-quality meeting hours? Because it’s, I think everyone can agree on that we are in a lot of meetings, but not all of them are worth your time. So could we reduce the hours you spend in meetings that are not relevant for you, that will be a huge gain is a problem.
But no one seemed to know how to solve it. At least not in a very easy, understandable way. And by interviewing all these big enterprises, I met some of them I met with them actually bi weekly for seven, eight months. They fall in love in sitting and discussing future of work with me, I guess. And through and I recorded some of these interviews. I use them as research, I started talking to investors. And I said, hey, this is the insights I have from the market. These are the leading organizations in the world, they don’t seem to have a solution. Here’s the solution that I would like to build.
So I raised, I believe, half a million. $700,000, or something from really good investors and angels. And I started building what you would call an MVP, like a minimum viable product, very embarrassing, with only a few features. And then I gave it back to those companies. And they start playing around with it in a demo version. And they continue to give feedback about the solution. And what happened is that we’d gotten used to work together, we know each other very well, I’m probably the only one in the market that really, truly deeply care about solving their problems.
Because today, if they call Microsoft or Google or Cisco, or whatever, no one is going to pick up the phone and like, help this company provide better services for their employees, because all these big companies are all about standardization right? Here, I’m here, I’m not customizing the solution. But I have built a cohort of 15 large organizations, some of the biggest one in the world. And they all face the same problem. But they’re all noncompetitive companies. So they feel they are part of a cohort.
And I really believe that they love the idea of being the front runner, and become one of those companies who will be known for taking their employees very seriously and come up with a solution that can set them apart from other companies in the industry. I hope that was the short answer. I don’t know. Basically, fall in love with the problem, start interviewing, make sure that your product resonates very much with the user base that you will, eventually would like to sell to. And be careful. If you only interview people in one industry, it’s going to be a very industry-focused solution. I interviewed companies from all kinds of industries. That means that Happioh today is a platform and an industry agnostic solution.
Steffen: I love the challenge or the solution you’re working on just because earlier today, I had a conversation with my business partner about a meeting that we’re on, and I see a long list of people on that meeting. And I’m always wondering, do all of these people really need to be on this call? First of all, right? And then the question is how our meeting is structured, right? I mean, we these days, jump on meetings, there is no agenda, there is no one that really leads the meeting, which kind of brings us to a point where we’re kind of almost blind, going through the meeting without kind of working towards, you know, not necessarily a solution, but working towards what the meeting is supposed to achieve. Right.
So building a software that helps focusing people, I think, is great, because we all are bombarded with meetings. I mean, if I look at my calendar, there are so many meetings. At the end of the day, after all the meetings, there’s still work to be done, right. And if we can cut out time or make meetings shorter, that gives people the opportunity to save hours, so they don’t have to work 60-plus hours, you know. I as a former big agency person, I know how it is working 60 to 80 hours a week. So I love the idea of the software in general.
But I also love the thought about talk to your target audience first. If you have an idea, try to get your target audience early engaged. See whether your idea of the product actually makes sense. If there is a market for it, you know. And the next part about keeping them engaged while you’re building a software, I think is really smart. Because they are basically also shaping the software the way how they need it, you get feedback from them as they’re using the software. And so you can adjust it or you adjust it so that it fits your end customer at the end of the day, you know. So I think that’s great.
Soulaima: I mean, you know, when you want to succeed with something that is early stage, MVP, beta, early stage software, Steffen, that’s not an easy sell in most organizations, because why would a CTO take a chance on you, he could eventually actually maybe even lose his job. If I put in malware and infect the entire system. You know, it’s a risk. So if you have something that is early stage at this, that can impact a company at the scale like we can, because if they implement Happioh, one click and everyone’s calendar has Happioh filter on top of it, so everyone will get it immediately.
So you can just imagine the impact but also the risk if we didn’t know what we were doing. So to have someone that has been through the process with you for three or six months, they will take all the conversations, all the fights even maybe for you internally and they always they almost feel like it’s their product. And I can tell you we are currently negotiating with a very large organization in Europe, and the procurement officers said Soulaima, every time I call Microsoft and I have some needs, they almost laugh, you know. I love Microsoft, don’t get me wrong, but you know, they cannot develop any feature for a company with 50, 60, 100,000 employees. It’s simply not what Microsoft is born to do.
They are born to build software that is, hopefully bug-free, but standardized, right and can fit any industry. And it’s not amazing, often. If it was by choice, they would maybe not even win the market, but because it’s bundled into all kinds of other stuff, then people live with it. Right. And they are a company that I deeply respect. But in terms of hardcore innovation and making things simple, that’s not Microsoft’s forte. Right, but and that’s why I think anyone who listens with here might think, why would I ever be successful with an early-stage product. To all of you listening, all of you founders, remember, you, as a founder, you are extremely passionate about your product or your problem.
And you’re probably very innovative. Even if your product seems very simple, that might actually be the strength of your product, you see through the complexity, and you can deliver something that truly benefits people. What is the biggest job for you, as a early stage founder of any product, washing powder, or creams or whatever, is to find those early adaptors. Those who are willing to take a risk with you. Those who are entrepreneurs in companies already, who are willing to invite you into the companies. There are lots of them. I mean, I have a company that has several 100,000 employees, so they’re big.
And they keep saying we love to be the guinea pig of Happioh and I’m like, that’s a really weird word. Don’t say that. But they’re actually very proud of, they call themselves guinea pigs and I, and I’m like, oh, that’s actually interesting. But they are, you know, what they are proud that they dare to do it. They feel proud about not being settled and lazy and satisfied. That they’re still innovative. So for them, they and you have to find those. They’re not easy to find. For every 100 company, there’s one that will take a risk on you.
Steffen: So after, after doing all of these interviews, with companies from different industries, and identifying whether there is a market for the business idea that you have. How do you identify and engage with early adopters? So how do you make the right selection of the companies that you actually, first of all start talking to? And then also getting them to say, yes. Because you talked about right. There is a risk there for them to say yes. And then kind of implementing the software.
Soulaima: There’s a personal trust that has to be there, they have to trust you, right? I have shown my team to them, even down to the very engineer the back ends, right? So they know who’s building the software. And I think that that matters. And then of course, you also need to you have to talk legal, like we have a legal adviser appointed by one of our investors, and he sometimes join these meetings, because we are a small company. So if something happens with the software can we afford to pay? If something happens, how do we protect your data. Like cybersecurity is all over when you deliver software, right?
So rightly so data protection, and so forth. So a way to keep the conversation going is for you to show them that you are also mature and that you understand the severity of this risk that they’re taking on you. So one is how you can compensate them for things that might go wrong, but also identifying potential scenarios and that you have an awareness and a plan in hand, if x, y, z should happen. And then what we did also is that I know cybersecurity is the number one roadblock for software.
So we made sure that we engage as our advisors and investors, the best cybersecurity experts in the world. And when I say in the world, I literally mean in the world, so that these companies feel like oh, okay, they certainly know what they’re doing. Keeping them motivated on a personal account, that’s very much up to you. A lot of people who work at large organizations, they love their job, but they miss and they are looking for excitement, something that’s innovative. And if you are a founder of, and you bring some energy.
That’s also why big companies love to buy young companies because you bring in all that youth and energy and inspiration to the room. And it’s nothing not different for a product manager that sits at Procter and Gamble or whatever, to get the opportunity to work with a young founder that has found out something that’s interesting. So they get energy from you and excitement and all these things. So there are many agendas in it. But I will also say I did a big mistake with one of the biggest companies in the world.
For seven months, we were meeting bi-weekly, everything went well, we had different engineers from the organization working on it, and suddenly she quit her job. And we were not in a position where we could broadly substitute her with someone else. So now we are kind of just facing the normal procedure, like, yeah, you can come and team with the software, you know, in April, whatever. So one thing if you do, if you do sales like this corporate, make sure that you engage more people than just one or two in the process, because something might happen to that person.
Steffen: That’s great advice. I think a lot of companies face that or have faced that situation where you build a really strong relationship. You think you’re really safe, and then all of a sudden that person goes because they got a better job, or is being let go. And then the new person comes either with their own team, their own thoughts, you just don’t have history with that person. And that, in many cases, makes you the one that has to leave at the end of the day, you know. Now you identified your early adopters, you engage with them.
How do you get the first people to start paying for your software? If your software isn’t really done yet? You might have a product that that is useful, right? There is value there. But there might be still bugs in there. You know, how do you convince someone to say, I’m okay with paying you x, y, z for the software. Because I see the potential and it already helps me at the moment. But I see the bigger vision basically.
Soulaima: There are several things when you sell software that you should be aware of. Number one, I think Gmail was in beta for four years if I’m not wrong, like it was in beta forever, if I’m not wrong. Software can be in beta for years. So when is the piece of software done? It’s hard to say. So that’s very important to keep in mind. We actually asked upfront, would you be willing to pay for one license. So one of the companies have been paying for license for a year without having the software. And we basically told them, if you pay for this software, one license is inexpensive Steffen.
So it’s not like $20,000 or something. Just symbolically have them pull out the credit card and pay for one license. It boosts the morale of a company, right? Because then you know that someone is actually paying monthly. We had a handful of companies paying for one license, just like a single-user license. And that boosts the morale right? So just by asking, would you be interested in paying and then be upfront and say, it’s good for the team to see that you’re paying this way you also keep you’re on the waiting list, you will be the number one company to get the software when it’s released, right? That works very well.
And then what’s also important is to make sure that in the very beginning that you’re very fair in your pricing, because there are hurdles. Beta software testing, if you’re like a pilot piloting, it’s really not for everyone. So good companies who are curious about testing new software and have the advantages of using new software. Remember, you’re not doing me a favor, per se. I’m actually also doing you a favor, because I’m creating competitive advantages for you. I’m saving each user four hours a week by using our software.
So you know, I’m also doing them in a favor, right? But it’s very important that a good company who know what they’re doing, and have done this before, know that one of the main and critical things that they have to do to help this make this to a successful project is to identify the real, what would you say the ideal user of this software. I don’t know who is the ideal user in a company because I don’t work there.
But we feel that these companies that we’re working with have done a great emphasis, they have done a great job in identifying the perfect user. And the perfect user in our situation is someone with more than five meetings a day, busy busy working across time zones, lots of internal meetings, likes to be associated with being you know, over-delivering, competent, considerate person.
So he or she is probably preparing a lot, writing recaps, notifying people, reminding people like that kind of attitude. But they use a lot of time to be that professional. And those are the ideal testers for us in the beginning, because our product aligns with how they want to be perceived by others. So they can continue being perceived like that, but we’re just improving the way they deliver that quality of work, if you like.
Steffen: Due to the interviews that you have early on. So with all the companies that you interviewed to identify if this really is a problem and there needs to be a solution for this. Did that help you to build that pipeline that you’re not feeding off? And how, if that’s the case, how do you keep all of these companies updated on what’s going on? How far are you from actually releasing a software that people then can start to use?
As far as I understand from our previous conversations, there are a number of companies that already use the software. But it’s not released, obviously. So there is a number of companies that have their hand raised and say, I want this company, but they can’t have it at the moment. So how do you keep everyone updated? How do you build that list of companies that is ready to jump on the moment you open the floodgates?
Soulaima: Yeah, when you build software, it’s very important that once you go live, and you publicly launch, I don’t know about Europe, but in the U.S. at least, we have very strict rules, especially if you’re building out of California, about disability, accessibility, lawsuits are probably waiting around the corner. You know, God knows what. So when you launch publicly, there is a huge opportunity, but there’s also a huge risk. So you should only launch publicly when you’re really ready. And our software is not. If you’re colorblind, you might have difficulties, if you cannot see anything, you know, I mean, you know what I mean, right? It’s not built for complete inclusion just yet.
I mean, we it’s very expensive to build inclusive software. And I’m so happy that we have those laws, because everyone should have access to software, right. And if you’re not disabled, or have any learning disabilities, or whatever, you might not know that all software have to live up to those rules. So you can adjust your software to whatever needs you have. So these that we don’t have yet. So we’re probably not going to launch publically in the next one year. We will focus on satisfying the customers that we already have.
Because let’s be honest, the 15 we have in our pilot, if everyone deploys, and everyone is happy, it’s $120 million in annual recurring revenue, right? That’s a unicorn status almost right there. So instead of thinking about all the customers that we could get, we are more focused on the one that we have already in front of us. And I’m not saying all of them are going to fully deploy. Unlikely. But why would I not focus on the 15 out of the 300 that we have on the waiting list. But that being said, we are very serious about our waiting list. I communicate to them through a newsletter. I’ve learned over the last few months, that I have probably been too secretive about features and what we have fixed and what is next.
And there was an investor saying to me just two weeks ago, Soulaima, just open up, just be honest, just tell them all the amazing features that you have. And I’m like oh but then I will be copied. And he said, yeah, but you execute faster than anyone. So I also have to learn, right? How much should I disclose? We don’t even have a homepage, right? If you go to Happioh.com, you can either invest in us, or you can sign up for the waiting list, we don’t tell you much, right. And that’s my goal for ’23. That is just opening up and share with the world what we are building because it’s so awesome.
Steffen: That is great. And I guess you know, if the moment you open the floodgate, you will face other problems, right. you know, all the companies that all the sudden come in, once the even the 15 start to deploy the software in a much bigger state, you’ve got to have support staff, you gotta probably have a much bigger development team, because there might be things popping up there that at the moment, they don’t pop up. You know, the more people use it, the more little challenges come, you know, to the surface basically. So other problems then to plan for before you probably make that step.
Soulaima: You know, we keep if you go on Twitter, everyone is talking about short runway, high burn rate, not enough funding, these kinds of things. But truth is running out of money is of course, something that kills a startup because cash is like air, right? But what most people don’t talk about is the third reason or fourth reason companies die. Besides partners that gets to a disagreement and split up and whatnot. It’s actually success. Success can also kill a company because you’re not ready for support. All our clients are global. I don’t know about you, but I work in a few different time zones per day.
And it means that I work from 5:30am to 10:30pm. It’s long, long days. And you can only do that for so and so long. But you also have to be very careful in the beginning not to over employ because it’s so expensive to have people employed. And so I rely a lot on my organization. And I’m very lucky that a few of them have done exits before. They have built significant companies that are household names today. And so they know what is around the corner if you like. So, I’m being poked by, for instance, my CTO next month. Soulaima, we need one that can do this, and one that can do that. And now I need this. Now, I need that.
And the good thing is that since he’s such a brilliant person in the Bay Area, he can recruit people. That’s another thing you need to talk about that is, even if you pay people prime dollar, you have the most amazing job for them. Really talented people in tech, don’t want to have a good salary per se, they want to work on something that’s exciting, something that’s difficult, and they want to work for a rockstar, CTO. I’m not saying they don’t care about salary. Of course they do. But hard problems with a brilliant team is much more attractive to talented people than anything else.
So besides having good customers that you really like serving, because you end up spending lots of time with them. So if you, if you have customers you don’t like it’s horrible. Like it’s not going to work. So please, please pick someone you really like to spend long hours with. And then the next thing is bring in good people. Good people that other people respect, because as a startup, access to talent matters. So success kills companies, growth kills companies. And in our situation, we actually end up signing what you call SLAs.
And that is service level agreements. If a company is signed with Happioh, they have certain expectations to the quality that we should deliver. And if we don’t deliver, we get fined, right. So you have to have a lot of confidence. So actually, I will say sometimes I run around my kitchen table, and I don’t know what to do with myself, because this is a real problem. What happens if, what happens when this and this happens, right? Because you don’t want to let people down. Remember, someone has backed for seven months, and then they sign and then you don’t deliver. That’s a catastrophe that cannot happen.
Steffen: Yeah, no, I hear you. I hear Soulaima unfortunately.
Soulaima: Oh, no!
Steffen: We’ve come to the end of today’s podcast episode. We could continue talking about this for quite a bit. Thank you so much for joining me on the Performance Delivered podcast. It has been a pleasure talking to you and finding out your journey, how you kind of started Happioh, how you went through kind of the idea to getting companies interested and even engaging with you and helping you build this software as kind of a community so to speak, right? Where you guys are almost like a community leader.
You know, ingesting the feedback that you get from the software as it is at the moment in order to build something that fits across industries, and satisfies and meets the goal that you have. Yeah, that’s really great. Now, how can people get in touch with you if they want to find out more about you, or about Happioh or any of the other things you do?
Soulaima: Well, I’m certainly active on LinkedIn. So if anyone is on LinkedIn, it’s simply Soulaima Gourani, I’m the only one with that name. I’m also very active on Twitter. And Happioh is also active on LinkedIn, sorry, on Twitter, but otherwise happioh.com. We have a waiting list, a running waiting list. So if you want to get notified when Happioh launch, then feel free to drop your name and your email and we will notify you once you can get a version of the software.
Steffen: Perfect. As always, we leave all this information in the show notes. Thanks everyone for listening. If you liked the Performance Delivered podcast, please subscribe to us and leave us a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast application. If you want to find out more about Symphonic Digital you can visit us at symphonicdigital.com or visit on Twitter at Symphonic HQ. Thanks again and see you next time.
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