This startup is meeting 5,000 customers face to face in 40 countries

This is how most startups see marketing: drive as many e-mail signups, likes, tweets, follows, +1’s, retweets, diggs, reddits, shares, repins and retumbles as possible. Which is only natural, given the fact that startups practically live on (or even in) their screen: they think of the computer display as the main interface with their clients and potential clients.

Which is why it’s interesting to see that STOIC is taking the radically opposite approach. STOIC is organising 100 meetups in 40 countries, and they are trying to meet with 5000 people in person. Face to face. It’s the Aerosmith approach to startup marketing – get on the road and tour, baby! For some reason, it also feels a bit recalcitrant and stubborn, qualities that I like a lot in people and in a startup. So I reached out to STOIC founder Ismael Ghalimi to ask him why no one on his team said “this is crazy, let’s not do this.”

Ismael Ghalimi startup marketing stoic

Ismael Ghalimi, Stoic

Ismael Ghalimi: “Nobody in the team said “you’re crazy” because everybody in the team *is crazy*. Being a bit crazy is a pre-requisite for joining our team. You could not survive in this environment without missing a few brain cells here and there.”

The idea to go out and actually meet potential clients came in a lengthy brainstorm, Ismael explains: “We worked with freelance marketing consultants. Typically, people who’ve been VP of Marketing in software companies. We organized brainstorming sessions with them. This allowed us to identify over 100 things we could do to promote STOIC.”

“We put that on a gigantic mindmap, using Mindmeister. Then, we asked ourselves the following question: if we were to pick just one thing out of 100, which one would it be? And we all agreed that the meetups were the best candidate, because they’re easy to organize, relatively predictable, and highly effective for creating champions – people who will spread the word about us because they believe in us.”

“At such an early stage of our company development, understanding what customers want and need is paramount. And nothing beats face to face meetings for having the right conversations with people. And by organizing 100 meetups in 40 countries within a year, we could meet 3,000 to 5,000 people directly. No other format can give you that.”

Meeting people directly without any bells or whistles (or Aerosmith like laser shows) is a great way to express the main value that stoic was built on, Ismael explains: simplicity. On their website, STOIC quotes Albert Einstein, who admonishes: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

That’s the underlying theme of everything that STOIC does and tries. You can’t strip marketing down any further than just going out and meeting people. Which doesn’t mean it’s simple to organise a 100 meetups in 40 countries. Or inexpensive, for that matter.

Ismael Ghalimi: “The meetups take a lot of time, and it will cost quite a bit of money. Around $400K when including travels expenses for two people and the fees of renting meeting rooms in hotels and serving soft drinks. But we could not think of a better way to spend that time and money in order to get 5,000 champions around the world.”

The meetups work as follows: STOIC spends spend two hours with early adopters. Ismael Ghalimi: “We start with 5 minutes of introduction talking about software illiteracy. Then, we demo the product, for about 20 to 25 minutes. Then we talk about our company, how we’re working, especially around our unique Customer Development Process. We show how we involve the community in everything we do, in a very intimate manner. And finally we talk about use cases, what people are actually doing with STOIC. We talk about some of our partners (if one of them is present and is co-hosting the event). And we spend half of the time in open Q&A.”

The reactions are very positive, says Ismael. “In Paris, people said they found it magique, and génial, or incroyable. Overall, people really like the product and find our approach to business highly refreshing. They leave the meeting with tons of ideas for applications they could build with STOIC and things they should change about their business. Or ideas for creating a startup of their own.”

Cheated spouse syndrome

STOIC is a platform that allows Google Apps users to easily build well designed applications on top of Google Apps. For developers and vendors, it wants to offer a low hassle way of building or moving their apps into the cloud. These are big promises, and going out and actually showing the product to potential users and partners is an answer to a problem that startups like STOIC face: the “cheated spouse syndrome”.

Every startup out there promises ease of use, beautiful interfaces, powerful applications and features that you just can’t wait to use – and that will actually make your business run better, or smoother. There’s a high “yeah, I’ve heard that before” factor. So Ghalimi and his cofounders go out and try to prove their claims, face to face.

“STOIC is a tool, or a platform. People build stuff on top of it. Building stuff takes time. Picking the right tool for building something new is an important and also a difficult decision. We’re a startup, and we’re asking people to trust us with their time and money and to make a bet on us when they decide to build a new app.”

“For them to make that leap of faith, we need to establish this trusted relationship, and meeting face to face helps a lot. People can see who we are, they can see the passion, they can see how committed we are, they can see that we’re very open, that we’re sharing, that we don’t have much to hide. Above all, they can see that our success depends on theirs, and that we know it. So they can be sure that we’ll do the right thing. For example, last week, we screwed up in New York, which we wrote about on our blog.

We apologized, learned our lessons, changed our process, and did everything we could to make people happy. This actually turned into a good thing.”

A radical startup design experiment

STOIC is Ghalimi’s second company. The first one was private cloud provider Intalio, which he cofounded in 1999, his first job after school (he studied Computer Sciences at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Mines de Nancy). Ghalimi left Intalio seven months ago, after thirteen years of “giving it everything I could”. The departure “wasn’t exactly fun”, he says, but he prefers not to say anymore about it, except that in the name STOIC you can find a reference to the break up (“being a stoic helped quite a bit”).

You get the feeling that STOIC is more than a business for Ghalimi, it almost feels like a thought experiment, or a business design experiment driven to extremes –  not just how all the cogs in the machine look, but how they work, feel and interact.

On the STOIC blog, the team archives with an almost archaelogical precision what exactly they are doing, how they do it, why they’re doing it this way, and what they think in the process – it’s like a liveblogged Harvard Business Review case.

Building a tool for other professionals is a way to reconnect with his past, he explains. “I’m an entrepreneur who loves the tools of business. My grand parents on both sides were farmers. For them, tools were everything. Without them, they could not grow their crops. I developed my passion for business tools from their teachings, especially from my mother’s father, Joseph.”

And he’s already planning his post STOIC days: “I’m a professional scuba diver and an instrument-rated pilot. My goal is to be an Airline Transport Pilot one day. Not that I’ll ever do it as a job, but I want the ATP rating – let’s say it’s an important personal checkbox. I also want to fly around the world in a Pilatus PC-12 for a year with my wife and three kids as soon as I can afford it. We already have the map outlined on Google Maps. Think of our roadshow as a reconnaissance trip for my next adventure.”

You can find the STOIC meetup schedule on their blog

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About the author

Raf Weverbergh

Editor of whiteboard. Raf Weverbergh was a magazine journalist whose work appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, Mail on Sunday, Publico and South China Morning Post. He is the co-founder of FINN, a corporate communications agency where he advises startups and multinationals on their PR and Mustr, the easiest media database for PR professionals. You can contact him on Twitter, Linkedin or Skype (rafweverbergh).

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