On December 7, 2020, Trufan celebrated its 3rd birthday. It’s crazy to witness how an idea on paper can transform into a full-blown reality over time. These last three years have flown by quickly and I couldn’t be happier with where we are at today.
Before I get into the crux of this annual letter, here are some highlights of what we accomplished this year.
- Grew our customer base to over 600 paying customers and 10,000 free users in 4 continents
- Integrated our product with Hootsuite and partnered with Clearbanc
- Partnered with Digital Main Street, Google and Shopify on the ShopHERE Initiative (helping 50,000 Canadian small businesses get online)
- Launched the Navigating the Unknown virtual event series with Robin Des Bois and The DMZ
- Graduated from both The DMZ and Stadia Ventures
- Acquired PLAYR.gg (has 750K users and 50K monthly active users) and set out to unify their product with ours to create an affordable and intuitive data management platform
- More than tripled our team size (currently 26 strong)
Entrepreneurship is a team sport and none of what is mentioned above would be possible without the amazing team I have the honour of working with day in and day out.
I love writing this annual letter because it allows me to dive into not just Trufan’s successes but also our failures/struggles and the lessons that came from them. As I mentioned in our first year in review, “scars and wounds aren’t meant to be hidden. They’re meant to be shown.” This year in review is our way of doing that and if you have not checked out our first year in review or second year in review, feel free to do that before you read this!
2020 has certainly been a tough year for many entrepreneurs and small business owners globally. For Trufan, we found a silver lining with everything happening. We realized that since many service businesses had to shut down their retail location and sell online, this presented an opportunity to position Trufan as an affordable and effective solution that could help them find and engage their online community. Don’t get me wrong, as CEO I was definitely worried around March over what would happen to our business. It didn’t help that several of our key enterprise customers were directly affected by the pandemic and this caused cuts to their marketing budget and even layoffs. We had certain enterprise customers pause their subscription and we had countless enterprise leads go silent on us and not respond to our emails asking if they wanted to get onto our platform.
What I admired about our team and how we navigated this period is that we used it as an opportunity to reflect on our business, be critically honest about what was working and what was not and collaborated to figure out what we needed to continue to grow and give back during this time.
Here are some of the lessons we learnt in 2020.
1. Iteration, iteration, iteration
I remember watching a keynote from Michele Romanow a few years ago. She said, “the idea you start off with is unlikely to be the idea you will exit from or succeed with.” This stuck with me because Trufan today is definitely different from how I envisioned it three years ago.
In our first year in review, I described Trufan as a fan engagement platform that helped brands and influencers reach their most influential and engaged followers on social.
In our second year in review, I described Trufan as a social intelligence platform helping brands activate their grassroots communities and segment audiences (including their competitor’s audience).
Going into 2021, I wouldn’t say that we have pivoted but our business has certainly evolved to become bigger and more focused. We have our eyes set on introducing first party data generation to our platform and becoming more than just a social audience segmentation tool. We are striving to be a platform that can deliver high quality first party data to brands and allow them to segment and target customers/followers most likely to convert.
We came to every iteration of Trufan by obsessing over customer feedback and learning about the problems our customers were facing.
In 2020 though, we didn’t just evolve our business, we adapted our whole business model to accommodate small business owners and content creators. It all happened very quickly. As I noted above, in March we saw the effect of COVID on our enterprise sales strategy. Many of our enterprise POCs were laid off and many of our leads told us that their budgets were being slashed and they wouldn’t be able to purchase Trufan at this time. That being said, we felt confident in making a drastic change to our business model because we could rely on our existing enterprise revenue (most of which was guaranteed on long term agreements).
We decided to build a simple landing page that showcased affordable plans starting at $24/month. The page went live in early April and we got our first transactional purchase on April 14 (coincidentally my birthday). After that we saw transactional sales go through the roof. We were organically getting 10–15 paying customers a day and we began to understand how significant our organic reach was (social, SEO, word of mouth, etc). Due to this, we decided to put out a free plan in May and we saw similar results. Within 20 minutes of launching free plans, we had 8 users sign up for it.
They probably saw this CTA that we forgot to change before launching.
Going into July, we were getting about 100 paying customers per month and 2,000 free users per month. All organic. We decided to build and execute on a comprehensive marketing strategy which included testing paid advertising, putting out content daily on our social channels, putting out two articles on themes our customers would find relatable, and hosting a monthly virtual event called Navigating the Unknown (for small business owners that wanted to hear experts about how to grow during the pandemic).
I say all of this because it’s pretty incredible to think that within a few months of the pandemic starting, we truly became a SaaS company. We became obsessed about delivering value to not just our enterprise customers but our transactional customers as well. It was hard though because our platform was primarily built for enterprises before the pandemic broke out. With that in mind, beyond changing the platform and making it more intuitive, we also focused on reducing churn by reassessing pricing (adding incentives to sign up for an annual plan), hiring great people for our customer success team, building out a knowledge hub, and critically thinking about our onboarding flow (from a customer landing on our website to using our platform). I can’t say this enough, but our customer success team crushed it during that time, and I want to give a big high five to Scott Berty, Katy Farrell, Maha Hassan, Ali Malik, Sean Smith, and Rahul Arora.
2. Working remotely
I touched on this in our first year in review, but at Trufan we are no strangers to working remotely. Trufan was launched when our early team of 5 was in four different places. We were used to communicating over Hangouts and being ultra-responsive over Slack, text and email. When the pandemic broke out and we had to work remotely, we were definitely a bigger team then when we started, and this did cause doubts in my mind of whether communication would be as seamless as it was before. However, we quickly invested our time, energy and money into figuring out how to create the most productive remote environment.
We started using tools like Notion to consolidate, organize and manage our documents. We continued to use Hangouts/Zoom and Slack. This definitely helped us go through the Ryerson DMZ accelerator program which at times could be really intense between DMZ workshops, EIR sync ups, and everything related to running a business day to day.
Here are five tips I learnt about managing a remote team and fostering collaboration during the pandemic:
A. Keep everyone in the know from the beginning: when you hire remote employees, just like non-remote employees, it’s important to set expectations for them immediately. Let your team know how many times a week you want to talk with them, what sort of results you are looking for and what you have seen work in the past. Once you give your team a task, make sure to stay up to date on their progress.
B. Be accessible (as much as you can): it’s important when managing a team to have set blocks of time available to them. Even if you didn’t want to have a meeting on a given day, it’s important that your team feels like they can reach you throughout the day.
C. Engage regularly and efficiently: whenever you can, especially on events that bring the whole team together, try to loop in your remote teams virtually. In today’s world there’s no excuse not to do this.
D. Invest in reliable tools: pretty self-explanatory but do your research into what tools can allow you to get to know your team better, work on projects with them easily and track their performance/goals.
E. Get to know your team (past their resume): at Trufan we ramped up our communication past March. We have a Monday morning huddle, Wednesday exec call, Friday team call and then every two weeks we have a Friday cheers where we get on Zoom and play a game like Pictionary, trivia, etc. We also continue to have our monthly paranoia sessions (now called Hopes and Fears) where anyone in the company can share what they are excited about but also doubtful of in regard to the company’s direction, product, culture, etc.
A CEO has several responsibilities including setting a vision, fundraising, hiring/managing a team, and top line sales/partnerships. What I’ve come to realize though is that the most important responsibility a CEO has is to constantly make sure that the everyone in the company is aligned. In the pursuit of alignment, I sometimes spontaneously called discussions to make sure everyone felt like they knew what was happening but where we were going (ex. after our acquisition of PLAYR, I hosted a Town Hall for every employee to come and ask questions and share their thoughts on the next few months).
There are two aspects to this lesson: internal clarity and external clarity.
Let’s start with internal clarity. I learnt that it was incredibly important to be clear on what is working and what isn’t. The quicker you can be honest with yourself and your team, the better you will be in solving problems quicker. For example, recently due to Instagram’s API changing, we had to scale back our product’s capabilities. We continued to allow users to run their own account and view/segment their most valuable followers, but we stopped allowing users to run accounts they did not own (they could view those accounts’ followers if it was already in our database of 10 million audience reports).
Having to scale back our product capabilities meant that we had to have an honest discussion as a team of whether we could keep selling our product at the same price. We believed that we still provided incredible value on the enterprise side but that on the transactional side we needed to make our prices even more affordable. We decided to make our most affordable plan $9.99/month instead of $24/month. Even today, we are constantly thinking about our price points and whether the value our product delivers is reflected in that.
Switching over to the external side, one of our advisors Michael Hyatt once told me “Make it very clear what you do and how people pass your message on.” This advice was particularly important when it came to the fundraise, we are doing right now. My co-founder Aanikh and I have probably been on at least 75 calls in the last month all related to fundraising whether it was pitches or advisory calls. We’ve had to build an investment deck and then listen to feedback from several people. We have concentrated on incorporating as much of that feedback into our deck as possible which is probably why we are at our 15th iteration of our deck now. What Michael said will also be incredibly relevant to how we decide to build a unified brand in 2021. Given our recent acquisition of PLAYR, we have two entities right now between Trufan (analytics software) and PLAYR (consumer platform). What I love is that our CMO Karen O’Brien has been doing a great job of having us think about branding from square one. Before the holidays, she led discussions on value proposition, values, mission statement, etc. It was refreshing to do this with our marketing team and run some of those ideas by our broader team.
4. Empathy and trust
Given the time we are living in, this was definitely one of the biggest lessons I learnt. Whether it’s dealing with a team member, customer, investor or even hater, do it with empathy and compassion for what they must be going through. At the start of 2020, we had a Trufan troll account pop up on Twitter. The account shared some nasty tweets accusing us of not providing value to our customers by referencing a wireframe that I demoed with Aanikh at TechToronto (it isn’t the platform we have been providing customers for some time now). It was tough to see those tweets and we tried to be civil about how we interacted with the account owner but at the end of the day, the account owner decided to not listen to our offer to demo our current platform to them and get their direct feedback over a call. I didn’t mind that the account owner dismissed our offer because we had tried our best to deal with that situation in a considerate manner and at the end of the day, that was the only thing in our control.
After the pandemic started, I made it a point to check in with team members spontaneously and to also get on potential investor/customer calls asking a simple question “how are you doing”. It’s an underrated question and I think now more than ever you don’t need an excuse to ask it to people. It’s easy for us to forget that everyone is dealing with this pandemic in their own way and in some cases, they’re dealing with it on their own.
Beyond that, for any team to operate at a high level there needs to be unconditional trust. As CEO, I’ve had difficult moments in the past with employees who felt like I was micro-managing them, not taking in their feedback and not trusting them to get the job done. I’ve taken every bad experience and kept it at the forefront of my mind when it comes to how I deal with employees now. This isn’t to say in any way that I’ve figured out how to manage a team. It’s still a work in progress but what I’ve come to realize is that the basis of trusting your team means letting them to do what you hired them for. I remember our CGO Scott Berty once telling me, “a good manager doesn’t ask what his employees can do for him but what he can do for his employees.” That’s what I have tried to focus on — letting our team do what they do best and being an aid to them whenever they need it.
Despite that, I still sometimes feel an urge to reach out to people on my team and ask them where we’re at on certain projects. I am happy though that we’re now putting our goals and OKRs (objectives — key results) into a software called Koan. We’ll be using that throughout 2021 to make sure there is a clear standard of accountability at every part of the business.
Finally, we made an unusual HR decision at the end of 2020 in regard to vacation. Previously, any Trufan employee could go on vacation whenever they wanted. We didn’t cap vacation days — all we asked is that employees use that privilege appropriately. For 2021, we’ve decided to take this a step further and institute a mandatory two-week vacation ensuring that our team takes time off, disconnects and prioritizes their mental health.
5. Think bigger
Near the end of 2020, Aanikh and I began reassessing our moonshot vision for Trufan. We wanted to work towards something bigger and in that pursuit, we started talking to some of our advisors. One of the advisors we talked to was Alex Taub, the founder of SocialRank (which we acquired in November 2019).
Alex told us that it could be interesting for Trufan to not only allow brands to segment and analyze social data but do the same filtering and sorting for non-social data (web traffic, sales, voting, etc). We liked the general premise of that because it meant that we wouldn’t be reliant on third party platforms (ex. Instagram, Twitter).
At around the same time, Austin Walper (CEO of PLAYR.gg) and Andrew Mastracci (President of PLAYR.gg) approached us asking if we were interested in acquiring PLAYR. We had spoken to Austin and Andrew in the past and we appreciated their vision for data and how brands would utilize it.
As I mentioned in our second year in review, at Trufan we believe that modern advertising is a bubble that will burst soon: ad blockers are rising, ad attribution is hard to pinpoint, brands have no control over where their ads are placed, and domain laundering/click farms are a sad reality. In looking deeper at PLAYR, we began to understand that modern advertising is about to go through a massive shift and that the issue isn’t just with the effectiveness of ads and their attribution. It’s actually with the whole system of third-party advertising and customer data tracking.
In talking to PLAYR and doing our own research we began to realize that once dismissed as a fading social norm, privacy has come roaring back as a dominant public policy issue. Due to this, many brands are going to slowly realize that their primary channels to track and collect customer data are disappearing. We saw what happened earlier in 2020 and it validated our hypothesis. Major web browsers like Chrome, Firefox and Safari announced that they are deprecating third-party cookies, Apple announced ad-tracking permission rules, GDPR/CCPA started to compel digital ad platforms to reconsider how they do business, and ad blockers remain popular (more and more people globally are using some version of AdBlock).
Brands and creators are going to realize if they haven’t already that they play on rented property. The audiences that they have spent billions of dollars on creating on platforms like Twitter and Instagram can be taken away at any time (account gets deactivated, platform shuts down, platform changes algorithm and organic reach).
When we surveyed our existing enterprise customers, we heard similar feedback: first party data was going to be more and more important, brands value first party data a lot more than third party data and they are looking for an end-to-end solution. When deciding on whether to pursue PLAYR or not, we looked at what we had and how it perfectly complimented PLAYR. We had 80–85 world class enterprise customers, a great team/investor, and robust segmentation technology that complimented the first party data generation capabilities PLAYR brought. Not to mention that PLAYR has 750,000 users (50,000 of which are monthly active). Due to all of this, it was a no brainer to move forward with them.
After 9 days of due diligence, we told PLAYR we were interested in acquiring them and proceeding to a LOI stage. Within a month of Austin and Andrew reaching out to us we closed the entire deal. I want to give a big shoutout to my partner in crime Aanikh who crushed it on the legal side dealing with PLAYR and our great lawyers at Osler (they helped us on the SocialRank acquisition too).
We’re on the path to a bigger vision and the priority now beyond fundraising and getting our enterprise customers to adopt PLAYR, is to unify Trufan and PLAYR from a pricing, branding and product side. Internally, we’re calling this unification process “Project Arpina”.
2021 & The Future
We have some major goals for this year. We want to bring on more enterprise customers onto our first party data solution, show the value of our paid plans to our free users, unify our two products and brands and eventually raise a Series A (hopefully sometime around August 2021).
While we do all of that, I want to remain focused on helping our team execute at a high level and make sure that we have enough gas in the tank to go as fast we want to go.
At the end of the day, we have robust platforms, world class customers, and a clear vision. Not to mention that we have a great team that I believe whole heartedly in and I know that if we stick together and continue to trust one another we won’t have an issue navigating the unknown.
Thank you again to our community, investors/advisors, team and customers for supporting us. It means a lot!
Here’s to a great 2021!