An interview with Prompto CEOs Pieter Van Hoorne and Wannes Vanspranghe

Long hours, bold decisions, great success followed by occasional failure, but always the courage to carry on. Running a startup is not a walk in the park, especially when you are on a tight budget. Pieter Van Hoorne and Wannes Vanspranghe know all about it. They have been running the management team of Around Media/Prompto together for almost three years now. It has been an adventurous ride with plenty of ups and downs, but they have persisted. Using their strength, creativity, and sometimes crazy ideas to grow and push the company forward.

1) What does “content creation without a budget” mean to you?

PIETER: The first thing that comes to mind is working with limited resources. You need to do a lot in-house, and as a CEO, you have to give your team the freedom to be creative. At the same time, you must be realistic. With a small budget, you can’t deliver the campaigns as seen on TV for example, but that is okay. People know that you are a startup and keep that in mind when they see your content. Instead, you should focus on getting your message out. It is better to deliver more content than striving for absolute perfection and only providing content every other quarter – for example. Just get your message and content out there!

WANNES: For me, the quality of content does not depend on how much money you put into it. If you don’t have a big budget, you need to be even more creative. I am inclined to say that the quality of the content depends on the people and teams creating it, not on the money they have at their disposal. If it is a team effort, even with a small budget you can create content that reflects nicely on the company. But of course, it is always a question of how much content you can create with a tight budget and how quickly you can do it.

2) What comes to mind when you think about the role or benefit of having a personal assistant?

PIETER: I think a PA or an office manager is the greatest resource a manager can have. Especially in the early days of managing a startup, you work day and night and can sometimes drown in everyday tasks. To make a business flourish, the CEO should focus on vision and growth. To have the capacity to do that, you need to be able to delegate so that someone can help you with day to day administration. A personal assistant can take responsibility for things like organizational and calendar management, which are essential and critical, but very time-consuming so that you have time to focus on making your vision come to life.

WANNES: I am totally with you, Pieter! Someone that can help you be organized and manages daily tasks is a dream. Although, my hope lies in AI. (Laugh) If you don’t have resources for a PA, that is the way to go. There are many daily tasks that can be easily automated. There are many startups out there working on this already like: meetsally.eu, juliedesk.com, and sherpa.ai, to name a few. Additionally, try to get the best out of Google and Android. They have free services that you can execute on quickly and with little effort and can make your life so much easier.

3) Have software subscriptions minimised costs or optimised productivity?

PIETER: I have a twofold opinion about software. On the one hand, it helps tremendously. For example, it can help manage oversight and make tasks and achievements scalable. On the other hand, it can become quite a monster. All software subscriptions cost money and/or time. It’s a misconception that you subscribe to software and save time instantly. First of all, it takes an investment of time to set up a software properly. Second, you have to bring the team on board. Humans are creatures of habit. We all have routines, and to get people out of their flow and try something new can be tricky.

In my opinion, when software subscriptions are chosen strategically, it can be worth the investment and effort. At Around Media, we never accept the status quo and always aim to optimise our business flow. The selection of which software we use is a team effort. We research, we test, we get input, we discuss and finally we decide.

The three software which helps us the most at the at Around Media moment are:

  • Hubspot – a software tool that helps with marketing automation and CRM.
  • Monday – a visual collaboration tool that helps transform the way teams work together and manage projects.
  • Confluence – a collaboration wiki tool used to help teams to collaborate and share knowledge efficiently – especially helpful for things like on-boarding new staff.

WANNES: I want to add:

  • Peakon: an employee survey tool, which was especially helpful in the early days to understand better how our employees were doing and feeling. What are their concerns? It helps us find out if employees are unhappy or have things they wish to change, and on the other hand, what is working well and what they like about working at Around Media.
  • Officient: a fully-integrated software platform that helps with everything HR-related.

3) Tell us about how you used your “friend networks” to launch the business.

PIETER: First of all, using your personal network of friends can be tricky it should be done very carefully and with a great deal of sensitivity. By definition, when running a startup, you will inevitably make mistakes at some point. Of course, trial and error lie in the DNA of a startup, but your mistakes must not reflect poorly upon the people who helped you and connected you with their own networks. The key is communication. Always be open about your mistakes, but communicate at the same time how you are going to resolve the problems you are encountering and your plans to move forward.

We attended and organised many events when we first started. We also took a closer look at our friends’ network. Who does what, and how each person could potentially help us. We thought about what we needed to ask of our friends. Did we need contacts, feedback, could they teach us something? It took a lot of time and energy and we did not always get a positive response. Ultimately though, it was worth it because with each person who helped us, our case became stronger and we became smarter. Not to mention, of course, the easiest way to sell is to go through personal recommendations and/or introductions.

Just remember: Don’t burn your contacts! Your contacts are your capital, and will ideally accompany you throughout your career. You never know at which point a particular connection might come in handy. Treat them like treasures!

WANNES: The “friends network” is, of course, vital for getting feedback. As well as when you have stress or a question, and you need peers to talk to. For me, another essential component is engaging in entrepreneurial networks, such as Voka and Start-iT. We were very active in many from the very beginning. It helped us to get the word out and to enter the market. I also like the concept of giving and taking – and the power of collective wisdom. If you take the the time to help others, it will surely come back to you when you need help and support.

4) How do you decide when and how to use consultants?

PIETER: To be honest, we have not always had the best experience with consultants in the past. Especially when they were only engaged for a short period, it was difficult and not productive. Sometimes they can sell and explain an idea very well, but are not always suited to execute implementation. We have tried not to depend heavily on them and instead work with freelancers, who accompany us for a more extended period and become part of the team.

Especially in the beginning, I recommend finding a solution in-house if possible. That is certainly more cost-efficient, and the learning and experience stays in-house. It becomes part of the company’s DNA.

WANNES: As Pieter said, there is definitely a difference between long term (freelance-style) and short term consultants. The latter are very expensive due to their expertise and short time commitment. You have minimal time with them, so they must be a good fit for the company, and they must be motivated to push you to the next level. If not, it can be a waste of resources. It is hard to judge beforehand if somebody is a good fit. But what I learned from our experiences is that it is essential to set clear goals and objectives to the task at hand. It is critical that management takes the time in to brief the consultant, to define clear goals and expectations and to get the consultant up and running. If you don’t do that, you are setting yourself up for failure.

5) How do you deal with the fact that you have limited resources for training and growing talent?

PIETER: Oh, you have hit a sore spot. We would love to invest more in the people working for us, but when you don’t know if you are going to survive as a business, investing in training is challenging. We try to invest in people creatively by letting them have the space to experiment and grow.

I think that this is a common issue at startups. Everybody sees the pool table and the fun environment but it can also be difficult for the employees in some regards. They have to be self-motivated, be willing to invest in themselves and accept that there are risks involved. On the upside, if you hustle and the startup is successful, you can gain really wonderful experiences and make a great career. You can learn a lot in a startup, try out new things, be creative and find satisfaction in the adventure!

WANNES: I agree with Pieter – this is definitely a sore subject. Of course, we want to invest in our people but in a startup resources are limited. There are many free courses out there. To find good fits, though, it takes a lot of research, which can be very time-consuming. Many times there is no budget for paid courses. Although you may not be able to send your people out for additional training there is a lot of knowledge within the company, and much to be learned from each other. Everybody’s expertise is different; we try to stimulate exchange. I would like to start implementing the software Uman.ai, to get an overview and share everybody’s skills.

6) Have you had mentors who inspired or guided you along the way?

PIETER: Unfortunately, not as much as I would have liked. I wish that I could meet my younger self and share the experience I gained in the past few years with him. That would be great!

To advise a startup founder, I think you must have lived it yourself — the constant doubts, the struggle, but also the highs once you have reached a milestone. Of course, you can also learn a lot from people working in more traditional companies, but when it comes down to it, only someone who has been there can understand what you are going through.

Something like a “startup exchange network” would make sense. Where you can give people a shout: “Hi, I’ve experienced this and that. Can someone help me out?” Many things seem simple to me now, because I have done them. Others are still complicated. The role of the CEO is a tough one, and of course there are always benefits of passing on and sharing knowledge.

WANNES: We are fortunate to have many people around us who inspire us. As well as networks that helped us and are still helping us with bigger and smaller tasks. If you have a problem, you can call them at any time, and they are always there for you. One specific person does not come to mind; for me, it is more the networks as a whole that have been an inspiration along the way.

7) In thinking about experimentation – what is your philosophy?

PIETER: Having a startup is an experiment in itself. Experimenting is the essence of a startup: having an idea, testing the market, getting feedback, adjusting the product, testing again and so forth. It is easy to think that you know what the market wants, but without validation, you’re just making an estimated guess. You need to be reaching out to your clients and understand their needs and wishes to be successful.

We started in 2015, but have only really hit our stride this year. That doesn’t mean we haven’t had success along the way, but we have been continuously experimenting and are still in the process of finding the right answers. The experiment never stops, though, even though you might have the perfect product at the moment, you must always stay up to date, listen to your clients, and optimise.

WANNES: If you are not experimenting in a startup, you are falling behind. It is part of the startup culture to be constantly questioning, why are we doing it like that, how can we be better, etc…? We are always in experimentation mode and we tried to pass this mindset on to the team… and we have succeeded. Our development team recently asked us to give them the freedom to experiment. This implies that there is no wrong outcome. Nobody gets blamed when the result is different than expected – but also that you really push yourselves and the team to be the best you can be.

7) Let’s talk about money! How have you found a balance between fixed and variable costs? How do you prioritise CAPEX vs. OPEX?

PIETER: First of all, it is crucial to really understand what your costs are. It seems obvious, but it can be a real struggle. We always gave more priority to business costs. In retrospect, we took it a bit too far. You also have to invest in fixed assets. Mainly because the effect it has on people in regards to HR is significant. You have to find a balance between what tools your team needs in order to maximise performance and meet your employees’ expectations, and those that are actually not that necessary for the growth of the company.

Second: Communication is key. I learned the hard way by struggling with this myself. For example, talking to your clients about paying upfront in return for a discount. I was surprised that when you explain your situation, many of them understand and support you. The same rule applies when you can’t pay your bills on time. It is never a fun conversation, but I learned that being honest, upfront and explaining the situation, more often than not people will accept the delay and are willing to be flexible.

For a long time, we had very limited funds. Last year we got a first wave of significant funding, but we are still not used to spending money. Managing a budget is also a learning curve.

WANNES: I agree with Pieter that communication is vital here. And no, it is not easy to talk about these sensitive topics like not being able to pay immediately…but it is absolutely necessary.

One topic that doesn’t get mentioned a lot in startup talk is that the management team is always the first one to delay their own pay. When the belt has to be tightened, we are the first to feel it. That can be a bit stressful in your private life!

8) What risks are you willing to take when it comes to budget management?

PIETER: Our vision as co-CEOs is to grow exponentially. To do whatever it takes. In the first year, we took many risks. When we started, there were times where we didn’t know if we would be able to get to the end of the month. But once we switched into survival mode, we have always been committed to finding a solution, and so far, we’ve always found one. Willing to work and live in that space is something special, which also depends a lot on your character, your situation, etc. It is a very personal decision. Big risks but also the potential for big rewards.

WANNES: We take many risks, that’s for sure. We had times where we didn’t raise any funds, and we didn’t have any sales. So we didn’t have any money. Still, we were trying to get up and running. One strategy we tried out, which probably sounds a bit crazy – when it went very badly, we started hiring! Because when you are growing, people notice it. People say: “Wow, they are growing again! They must do amazing things!” It helped us to get deals in.

9) What is the most valuable lesson you have learned about budget management?

PIETER: I think it is all about getting a grasp on how your budget is set out. It is critical to be flexible but also understand your return on investments. You can be creative about where you make investments – but you must be sure that they yield value in the end.

As an example, we organized an event which cost us 10.000€. It was an absolute success! Everybody liked it, and we felt the money was well invested. But you must take the time to dive deeper and really evaluate your return on investment. How many people did you connect with after the event, how many turned into a follow-up meeting, how many became clients? Based on these numbers, you can decide if it is worth to do additional similar events or if the money is better invested in other activities.

Read more about growth hacking and analytics at Prompto here.

WANNES: For me, the most important thing that I learned in regards to budget is that you have to talk about everything that is going on. It is constant stress, and you need to be able to talk about it. In the first two years, I didn’t and it was not good for my mental health. But when I finally started to open up and spoke candidly about it with other entrepreneurs, it helped. It created trustful and honest relationships. Even business came out of it because people appreciated my openness. My recommendation: transparency is key…be willing to talk about things openly and also communicate clearly with your employees.

Thank you, Pieter and Wannes, for sharing your insights and experiences with us!

Stay tuned and follow us on Facebook and LinkedIn to read more about startup culture, growth hacking, and SaaS topics.

Kind regards,

Karolin, on behalf of the entire Prompto team.

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