Matthieu Vaxelaire on starting up in Paris, pivoting and rapidly growing a global business.
Somewhere, perhaps 4,000 miles away from where you’re sitting, a customer Tweets praise about your product. It’s so good that you can use it as a testimonial.
From the other side of the world, a prospect publishes a post to reddit complaining about your competitor. They seem like a perfect fit for you to reach out to.
And elsewhere, a YouTube video is posted featuring your CEO on stage at an industry trade show. You’ll want to save that for your press kit.
The bigger the web grows, the harder it is to keep track of all of these mentions.
And the harder it gets, the bigger the opportunity gets for whoever can step in with a solution that makes things easy for brands and agencies.
And with more than 350,000 users, it looks like they’re doing a damn good job at it.
We talked to Matthieu about starting up in Paris, making a big pivot, rapidly growing a global business and the mistakes he’s learned from along the way.
How Mention Went From Zero to 350K Users in 3 Years
How Mention Got Started
Mention’s birthplace was eFounders, a startup studio where Matthieu was a partner.
It’s kind of like Betaworks in the US.
We would nurture different startup ideas, find a CEO and a CTO that would become the co-founders, give them some equity, and put the first financing in place. Then we’d give the team whatever help they needed to get traction, and they’d grow into independent, autonomous businesses.
One of those ideas was for Mention; the eFounders team saw an opportunity to meet a big need in the market as businesses struggled to keep track of all of their mentions around the web.
The idea is really simple. We wanted to have tools that would allow us to know what was being said about our different projects or startups on the web, and we wanted it in real-time.
We could do it with Google Alerts, but that wasn’t real-time, so not the best tool for us.
And that’s when we started to look closely at the market, and realized that there was basically nothing that was affordable. Of course there were some big guys, but they’re very expensive, they’re not user friendly, and they’re built for big corporations.
eFounders helped to turn the idea into a startup, and feedback in the early days suggested that with the right team, the company could become a successful business.
Around the same time, Matthieu was looking for a career change. Rather than working on a handful of companies, he wanted to focus on one.
And so, he decided to make the move to focus 100% of his time on Mention.
Finding Early Success
Mention’s first product was targeted at what the company called “prosumers”: individual consumers, entrepreneurs, freelancers and other micro-organizations.
They offered a plan that was completely free, which helped them drive some early signups as a more polished alternative to Google Alerts.
There were about 27 million people using Google Alerts, and many of them were crying to have a better tool that would monitor more sources in real-time, so there was a strong need that drove signups early on.
To get users quickly, mentioned took a page from the book of one of the most rapidly-scaled SaaS companies in recent history:
One thing that we did to grow quickly from the very beginning was offer a referral program, similar to the Dropbox model: for every person you invite to join Mention, you would earn Mentions for free.
It worked very well for us, so a lot of blogs were writing articles about us, and putting putting their referral link in the post. That drove a good number of signups, and for the blogger it translated to thousands and thousands of mentions for free.
Because of the built-in virality, Mention had customers sharing their product across a number of different platforms:
People were sharing, and writing articles about Mention without telling us. They were recording YouTube videos and explaining how to use the product.
It grew very fast, and word of mouth—combined with offering a referral incentive—had a lot to do with it.
In fact, that’s actually how we crashed our server for the first time. A very influential blogger in France included his referral code in his article. It drove so many signups that our product went down.
A Change in Direction, and Testing New Pricing
There’s no question that Mention’s early days were a success from a traction standpoint.
But the overwhelming majority of those users weren’t paying Mention a dime.
And that, they realized, needed to change.
It went very well in the beginning with free users, but then we started to see some very big companies sign up. Companies on the level of Facebook, Microsoft, Spotify, that size.
Our software was becoming good enough to directly sell to the B2B market.
And that’s when the Mention team decided to make a shift.
They abandoned the prosumer market, and started to position themselves as a better fit for larger companies.
Don’t get me wrong, we’re not targeting the big Fortune 500 companies.
We’re targeting B2B companies; what I call the Fortune 5 million. It’s anyone from 5 to 250 employees.
That’s the strategy we’ve been implementing for the past 10 months, and since we’ve changed direction, the company has been growing faster than ever from a revenue standpoint.
That’s really what allowed us to cross the 100K MRR milestone, and it’s really exciting because it tells us we’re going in the right direction.
Still, Mention didn’t want to leave their existing users behind and risk alienating (and upsetting) hundreds of thousands of people.
Changing our pricing was definitely a stressful decision.
We decided to grandfather all of our existing users in on the prices they were already paying (or not paying).
Only new users were onboarded with the new pricing.
Figuring out that new pricing was—and still is—a challenge.
It was tough. Really, we made a best guess on all of the data we had, and we came up with the best pricing structure we could based on the needs of our new users.
Of course, there was some legacy perception in the market; in people’s minds, Mention was a free product, and it was for prosumers. For some of those people, it was difficult to jump on the new pricing structure, but as we shifted our positioning to targeting the B2B market, it became less and less of a problem.
Our smallest plan is $30 a month, which isn’t much for these types of companies.
It’s hard to keep changing your pricing over and over, but I feel like if we don’t test our pricing, we’re leaving money on the table. I force myself to change pricing at least once a quarter to test elasticity and the impact on our growth.
But one thing that Mention didn’t want, even as they went upmarket, was to lose what their customers loved most: the simplicity of their product.
The big strength of Mention is the product. People love it because it’s super easy to use; anyone can create an alert in less than a minute, so one of our absolute rules is that whatever we do, we have to keep it a very simple product.
That becomes a challenge when we want bigger companies to use Mention; they need a lot more features and functionality than free users, but we still don’t want to make it a difficult product to use. Whether it’s a free user or it’s Spotify, the experience should be the same for both.
To accomplish this, the team has worked hard to keep the interface streamlined, even as they’ve added features to make Mention more valuable for bigger companies.
We removed the “Team” panel in the app because we realized that smaller users don’t have access to a team.
For them, the team panel was making the app more cluttered, so we decided to remove it and make it an expanding panel, so you don’t see it unless you click on it.
What we found was that even the bigger guys who did use the team panel actually all loved it; it just made the app look simpler.
Another example is features that free users don’t really use. We won’t even show those features to free users in onboarding, because we don’t want to make the experience too complicated.
But one thing Matthieu is steadfast about? Not doing custom development for bigger customers.
You can put a big check in front of me to try to get Mention customized for your team, but we won’t do it. The product is the same for all of our users, and we won’t be distracted from making that product the best it can be.
We’re lucky that all of our leads come from inbound marketing, so people come to us because they’re already interested in the service. It might be different if we had to do outbound and had to fit the requirements of the clients we were pursuing.
Those inbound marketing leads help fuel more than 10,000 trial signups for Mention each month.
Why Mention Decided to Start Doing Inbound Marketing
As the company thought about different ways to grow, they weighed their options.
We wanted to grow faster, and to have a channel that we could manage ourselves.
It became pretty obvious that Google AdWords or anything like that wouldn’t work for us; our freemium model couldn’t support it.
And we wanted something that would bring long-term results.
But with inbound, if we write good content it and promote it, it will still bring people to our website a year later. That’s something we see from our best articles: a compounding factor.
So we settled on an inbound strategy and we got started very early on producing content and attracting new visitors to our website.
But while Mention is growing fast today, they’ve had plenty of challenges along the way.
One of the challenges that has hurt the most is a product of being a global company.
Overcoming a Big Language Problem
Mention launched in Paris, and they’ve recently opened an office in New York.
While 40% of their customers are in the US, most of their customers are in Europe.
And they don’t all speak the same language.
To overcome that, Mention launched in four different languages.
That made things interesting, to say the least.
Everything in our app is in English, French, German and Spanish.
It’s helped us build an international customer base, but it’s also been insanely complicated.
It’s brought so many challenges: it’s decreased the product release velocity, because we have to do translation at every step.
It increased the number of languages we need to speak as a team, because we have to do support in four languages.
We have to do inside sales in four languages.
All of the materials that we produce always need to be translated..
If I were to do it again, I would stick to one language.
When Mention launched their content marketing effort, at first they tried doing that in multiple languages—English and French—too.
But they’ve since killed off the French content and now stick to English.
Fortunately, Matthieu says, they’ve found that international customers have been responding well to English-only content, too.
The language issue is part of another interesting challenge: the cultural differences between selling to French companies, as Mention did when they started, and selling to American companies, as they’re focusing on doing now.
The processes are actually very different.
If you compare the approach we have to use in New York and the one we use in France, they’re completely different.
In the American market, sales is much more direct. Customers are pretty quick to sign up, and they almost always start with the monthly plan. Then, if they’re happy with the service, they’ll switch to the yearly plan in a few months.
In France, the sales process is a bit longer and you have to spend more time building a relationship with the customer, but when they sign up, they’ll go straight for the yearly plan from scratch.
The SaaS model isn’t as well known in France yet. In the US, it’s really common to buy something for a month or two months, and if it works you keep it, and if it doesn’t you leave.
In France—and in much of Europe, perhaps outside of the UK—buying a monthly subscription for Europe is sometimes a bit more unusual.
How Mention Chooses their Most Important Metrics For Growth
One of the key elements that Matthieu attributes Mention’s growth to is the organization of the company and the way that they set and track goals.
We have five teams at Mention.
We have the tech team, where the mantra is monitor more, monitor better.
We have the product team, which is the visible part of the technology, and what you have in your hands when you’re using Mention.
We have marketing and sales teams which handle bringing in and converting our inbound leads.
And we have a new customer success team.
Every quarter, we define “battles”, which are basically KPI’s, and everyone on the team knows what the battles are for that quarter.
We track progress on a weekly basis on those battles.
A quarter’s battles can be anywhere from topline numbers like number of signups, to MMR growth or MMR churn.
The key here is that I try to be really transparent and have the full team focused on no more than 3 KPI’s per quarter. And that’s the maximum; sometimes we only have 1 for the entire company in a quarter.
And everything we do must be related to that KPI.
Business metrics aren’t the only numbers that Mention tracks. They also pay close attention to how their customers are feeling.
Why Mention Loves Net Promoter Score Surveys
Mention uses NPS surveys to track how their customers perceive the product. And one of the most important benefits that comes from it is the customer conversations that the surveys create.
Something we realized early on (I’m sure we read it in a Groove blog post), is that one of the biggest wins we can achieve is to create conversations with our customers.
A conversation can be a support ticket, a phone call, an email, it can be an NPS response, but we need one conversation and with that, our conversions increase by 10x.
So we’re always trying new ways to create those conversations, and that’s why we originally started doing NPS surveys.
The other huge benefit here is simply gauging the value that the user is getting from our product, and getting more visibility into what they like, what they don’t like, and what they want to see us do next.
Between those two, we’re becoming big fans of NPS.
The Biggest Mistake That Mention Made as They Grew
When asked about the biggest mistake the company has made, Matthieu doesn’t hesitate.
Early on, we stopped thinking about the customer as soon as he or she paid us.
We were focused on top-of-the-funnel acquisition, conversion and lead nurturing, but once someone became a paying user, we forgot about them.
We forgot to stay in touch with them, we forgot to respond to their concerns, we forgot to let them know what’s coming up, we forgot to continue nurturing them.
It was a huge mistake, and we didn’t even realize we were making it.
Our retention suffered, and eventually it led us to make a new, very important rule: a new customer cannot be more important than an existing customer.
To improve retention and keep existing customers happy, Mention started focusing more on building relationships with their existing customers.
It’s not something that you can solve in a day, but we’ve worked hard to fix this.
Between our new customer success team, and new, better long-term onboarding for paying customers, we’ve come a long way.
We now build a profile on every paying customer that gives our team instant access to at least 10 key pieces of information about that customer; things like how long they’ve been with us, product usage, things like that.
Matthieu’s Required Reading
Groove’s blog subscribers tend to be voracious readers who work tirelessly to better themselves and their businesses. That’s why we’re asking each of our My First $100K interviewees to share their favorite blogs that they read daily.
Matthieu offers his tips with a warning:
The best way to learn anything is just to do it.
But if you want one resource where you can learn a lot, especially about SaaS, I think what Jason Lemkin is doing is fantastic. Between his blog and responding to thousands of questions on Quora, he’s been great for us.
Ask Matthieu Anything (Plus: Mention Is Hiring)
Matthieu has (very) generously agreed to answer your questions in the comments of this interview. We’re going to be watching closely and trying to learn as much as we can ourselves, so don’t be shy.
And if you’re looking to join a great startup, Mention is hiring.
Post your questions for Matthieu in the comments below.