by Krzysztof Marszałek — 02 OCT 2015
Can you briefly explain how you arrived at the current stage? How did your startup evolve?
The business was founded in 2010, by 3 experienced entrepreneurs. We had become fed up with the all the paperwork that comes with running your own business. Having felt the pain and hassle of all this extra bureaucracy, we were keen to set about finding a way of getting rid of it.
So we set about building a system that we, as business owners, would have benefited from. We initially decided to focus on developing a tool that dealt with invoicing, given that this is the main way to monetise in business.
Automatic accounting was added as an optional extra later on, once the invoicing software had proved to be a hit with users.
Zervant started as 3 guys in a room with an idea. 5 years later, after a lot of hard work and the occasional four word expletive, we’ve developed into a business that is trusted by over 60,000 small businesses and entrepreneurs in over 140 countries worldwide.
Our core markets are Finland, Sweden, France and Germany, with a growing presence in the UK.
Are there any books on startups that you've read and would recommend?
Loads. Too many to list here! But an excellent starting point is "Crossing the Chasm" by Geoffrey A. Moore. It's an oldie, but pretty much the Bible of start-up guides. A must-read for anyone interested in start-ups.
How much time do you think you will need before your startup starts bringing profit? If it already does, how long did it take to cross the break-even point?
This is a good question, but it really depends on the type of company you have. A consultancy, for example, can hit break-even within 3 months if you have an existing client base. But if you’re looking to build a scalable product, it’s going to require investment and development.
Ultimately there is no right or wrong answer though.
Just remember that if you want to run a start-up, you need to be patient. The general rule of thumb is to double whatever your estimate is on the time required to hit break-even.
Do you use any CRM system in your startup? Which one?
Based on the volume of sign ups that we get (currently around 5,000 a month), we felt this would simply be too much information to handle in a small firm. So we opted to automate the sales function. We focus on a content marketing strategy, and have a separate country manager for Finland, Sweden, France, Germany and the UK.
How big is your company? How is it split? Why do you have it like that?
Zervant is a team of 20 people, split evenly between a marketing team and an R+D team.
We’ve got people from 7 different countries, and you’ll hear 6 different languages spoken in the office on a daily basis. Half the team are under 30 years old. All this makes for a truly international office, and a dynamic, creative atmosphere.
At Zervant we’re trying to shake up old habits in what is quite a traditional, conservative industry. So openness, different points of view and a variety of cultures really reflect our business ethos.
Do you have an investor? If yes, at what stage did you start talking to an investor? Do you know think it was the right decision?
We have several investors (6 different ones in total). Through 4 investment rounds we’ve managed to raise a total of 4 million Euros. We started talking to potential angel investors and looking for government funding 6 months before we even started the business.
Looking back, it was certainly the right decision. In fact it was NOT an option to not talk to investors. Because, with a business like ours, if you have ambitious growth plans, you’re going to need to invest heavily in product development. Which means you’re going to need investors.
As anyone will tell you, it takes money to make money. And for Zervant, coming out of a small home market such as Finland, we needed to build an international business form the very start. This took much more effort than starting from a large home market such as Poland, Germany or the UK.
Can you name the three biggest challanges a startup leader has to face?
Number 1: would be focusing on the right things. Because the fact of the matter is that there are always going to be more things that require your attention than you have time for.
Number 2: would be finding the right people to work with. At Zervant we worked long and hard to find exactly the right people we wanted, as I mentioned in the question about our team.
Number 3: would be actually getting the business going. Getting it off the ground and ready for the mass market. Pushing it beyond the early adopters that are happy to use it when it’s a little rough round the edges.
What is the best advice for a young, first-time startup CEO?
Always, always test your business plan. Be it with customers, investors, potential partners, or any other relevant parties. And don’t stop developing and adapting it.
It’s not as hard as you might think. It can be as simple as a quick PowerPoint presentation. Ask people “would you buy this?”. If not, ask them “why not?”.
And dialogue with your customers is key because once you lose that contact, you lose your focus. From when Zervant first built its online invoicing software, the CEO and the COO continued to directly handle all customer support for the next 4 years (due to rapid growth we’ve recently appointed a customer services manager who now heads up this area).
But it’s crucial to keep your finger on the pulse. To understand what's going on in the market. By pitching our business plan to as many relevant parties as possible we were able to develop and enhance it. No business plan is ever 100% ready. You need to test it, constantly.
The whole point of a start-up is that it constantly evolves and develops. It took us over a year and a half to get the plan we have today, based on the feedback that came in from all different directions.