There comes a time in every venture, when you need to make tough organizational decisions. Do we still have the right team for the phase we are in? What is our relationship with our primary investor? What does the future look like for us?
These questions are a sign of change. Questions that come naturally when you are a corporate start-up heading into scaling your venture. To ask them is one thing, to answer them, is a whole different ball game. It is where maturing begins.
For the private-public growth platform nlgroeit, maturing was indeed the path forward. Nlgroeit had started in 2016, creating the success formula of powering entrepreneurs by offering mentoring to them, which is provided by other entrepreneurs who have already seen the struggles you face when building your business. On the one hand, the Dutch government supported and funded the platform with both a financial injection from the Ministry of Economic Affairs and providing the right people from the Chamber of Commerce to launch the platform.
After 5 years of growing the platform, thousands of enthusiastic entrepreneurs are connected to their community. The Pay-It-Forward principle is well-grounded into the proposition, where more seasoned entrepreneurs coach the less experienced ones. Everyone in the network helps out each other, without even a single financial exchange.
But, they knew this situation would not last forever. The subsidy to develop the platform, would have to be phased out and nlgroeit would have to be able to stand on its own two feet. This also means being able to monetize their platform.
Transitioning from a corporate subsidized venture to a semi-private foundation that will monetize the platform is a difficult process. It requires three large pivots at once: a new team, a standalone technical backbone and the introduction of a monetization model.
To help plan, test and execute these pivots, they turned to the Grow & Scale team of innovation studio Aimforthemoon (hence: Aim).
“Knowing Niek and Aim from the time we actually founded nlgroeit, they were the obvious partner to turn to when looking for a transitioning partner for our platform”.
Kees de Jong, Founder
Starting in April 2022, nlgroeit and Aim have been moving through a pivotal roller coaster.
The Chamber of Commerce team would be operational until the end of May of that year, which meant that all operations would have to be handed over in a matter of weeks.
This put quite a strain on the recruitment process to find a new team that would fill their shoes.
- The first step in the process would be to take over all operations in matching entrepreneurs with their mentors. Recruitment efforts by Aim were mainly focussed on finding the right people for the job. However, the very first person, Aim hired for the job, was the new Managing Director. Having someone to oversee everything, and be fully committed to this transition, was of utmost importance.
- After that, we needed to create an independent technical backbone for the platform to work from, separate from the Chamber of Commerce systems. Experts from the Grow & Scale team from Aim were able to manage this end of the operation, which involved migrating the website to a new CMS and separating the CRM systems. Technical partner Clever Strategy executed the technical part.
- To make sure the new platform would be more robust than the previous one, we also created smart algorithms to allow digital matchmaking to take place between the entrepreneurs. This would reduce manual labour and thus make the platform more efficient on a unit economics level.
“Before kick-starting any transitional period, it’s essential to have a flexible multidisciplinary team on board.”
For this transition to have the greatest chances for success, this team must be a delicate balance of internal and external talent. In this case, even more important, since we were replacing the entire Chamber of Commerce team that has built the platform for the past 5 years.
Internal talent brings in the industry skills and knowledge to navigate key stakeholders. External talent brings unique, fresh ideas to the table.
- To lead the team through the transition, Aim appointed Managing Director Saskia van Roode
- To retain internal knowledge, Saskia managed to extend the presence of one of the matchmakers in the team from the Chamber of Commerce, thus providing a stable influx of internal knowledge.
- The multidisciplinary team of Aimforthemoon consisted of 5 different experts that were deployed when needed. This varied from commercial strategy to webdesign/UX, content and copywriting, growth hacking, front-end development and product owner.
- To find the right external candidates, Aimforthemoon reached out to its innovation community. The nlgroeit board and new MD Saskia did the same within their network, resulting in the hiring of 2 new matchmakers and an event coordinator.
Scaling a platform
With the goal of becoming independent of the Chamber of Commerce, the team commenced onto the next step: launching a scaled version of the platform.
- The newly to be used tech stacks had already been selected, so it was up to the team to migrate the website from MODX to WordPress and CRM/Marketing Automation from Canopy (in CoC account) to stand alone CanopyDeploy upgrade
- Over the course of 12 weeks, the team migrated all webpages and customer data.
- In parallel, the API strategy was formed to be able to create one clear customer view, instead of using 7 different client facing systems.
Although this is the expertise of Clever Strategy, it is the responsibility of nlgroeit to provide the right input for the developers:
“ You always need someone to translate the business needs into technical requirements, to be able to truly get what you want. A first draft on paper is almost never the same as the end result. We iterate every step of the way to create the most business value.”
Jurjen Rolf, Product Owner
Testing monetization models
What is mentoring actually worth?
Next, the team set out to define how to turn the free mentoring model into a value proposition worth paying for.
- In the test phase, Aim introduced 2 new experts to the team. They are validation experts, ready to dig deep into the mentoring proposition and find out where the true value lies.
- They interviewed 30 customers of the platform, and also 20 mentors who currently provide their mentoring services free of charge to nlgroeit
- For the latter, it was of utmost importance that their services would remain free, in spirit of the foundation’s manifesto to Pay-It-Forward.
- What they found out was that a lot of value lies in the core of the proposition, which is being matched to a more experienced entrepreneur that has seen your situation before.
- With the answer, they then drew up multiple concepts which could make the core of a membership model, where the customer pays for being matched to another entrepreneur, whilst the actual mentoring would still remain free of charge.
- The first signs from a new set of interviews provided enough confidence to put the membership model to the test. On the nlgroeit website, every new client would be confronted with a membership fee before signing up for matching. Also, when in conversation with one of the matchmakers, they would again be reminded of the costs associated with using the platform. Finally, the new clients would even receive an invoice and payment link to complete a payment to nlgroeit for the membership and the use of their matchmaking services.
- Not putting all eggs in one basket, the team also set out to test another business model, namely that of voluntary donations from previous clients. A subset of 60 former clients received an email asking them for either a donation or the willingness to participate in the platform by now becoming a mentor and thus paying the service forward.
How will nlgroeit sustain itself?
To be able to stand on its own two feet, nlgroeit needs to bridge the gap between phasing out subsidies and upscaling a commercial model, bearing in mind that nlgroeit is still a foundation without a profit motive.
Saskia and the board have decided on a combination of multiple small fees, charged upon use of the platform; lowering the barrier of usage whilst still being able to properly run the operations at a high quality.
- A yearly membership fee for clients who want to be matched to a new mentor, with the guarantee that a new match will be initiated free of charge if the first attempt fails
- a fee for attending specific nlgroeit networking events, special tariffs may apply for members
- a fee for masterclasses and learning tracks, special tariffs may apply for members
- a fee for an elaborate growth scan of your company, including an extensive report with advice relevant to your company’s growth phase
“The first 12 months of the transition were a big learning experience. From jumping onto a moving train, to being able to stand still and observe the working of the platforms, thus being able to make more informed decisions and move nlgroeit forward.”
Milena Grul, Growth Lead Aim
Measuring, implementing and growing into the right direction
The next step in the journey is to bring the new monetization strategy to life within a short time frame to keep the momentum moving and grow the independence of the platform.
- Implement one uniform method of order intake and payment for all different small fees
- Increase conversion rates in cross- and upsell between the different small fees
- By June 2023, we aim to double the conversion rates by focusing on a customer-centric approach.
“Now that we know what works, we know what to do next. Executing it doesn’t even seem like a big thing any more. We now just need to get the work done.”
Getting board-level support
Each step of the process, it was important to think 2 steps ahead. The unpaid board of nlgroeit consists of three very experienced entrepreneurs, who have a keen sense of what the role of nlgroeit the coming years should look like. At the same time, it was part of Aim’s responsibility to create a data-driven approach to growth and scale and challenge their views as well.
- Together with Saskia van Roode, Milena Grul took part in a large portion of the board meetings to keep them up to date and ask for their opinions on new findings and views
- Together with the board, Saskia was able to secure a solid phase-out period for the subsidies, thus providing nlgroeit with the right runway to fully execute the transition.
- Together with the help of the ambassadors and mentors of nlgroeit, the platform is able to transform itself whilst keeping the founding principles of the foundation in tact.
“The first 12 months involved a lot of stakeholder management. We needed to get a lot of people on board, from the nlgroeit board itself, to ambassadors, mentors, the Ministery of Economic Affairs and eventually our own new team who will execute all of this. But as long as we take it one step at a time, we will manage to cross the finish line together.”
Saskia van Roode
How to organize for scale
Today, nlgroeit is doing everything it can to automate all manual activities. Their website is the main vehicle which will enable this transformation. This helps clients to select their mentor, become a member and reap the benefits of this membership.
While the next steps of the journey are still being written, Aim will continue to help nlgroeit with their scaleup journey.
- The implementation of the different monetization models is being coordinated by our Product Owner
- Commercial strategy and growth hacking is being overseen by Aim’s Grow & Scale team
- To expand nlgroeit’s team, they have once again turned to Aim’s Community Team, who helped them recruit a Marketing Manager and Community Manager of their own.
- Aim has implemented an automated dashboard which tracks all the important KPIs and week by week performance and quarterly progress. This has developed a newfound focus, an overview of products and alignment between pipeline and operation.
- To ensure the continued support from key stakeholders, the dashboard will become a key mechanism to communicate and visualize key progress metrics.
- Aim’s design team is helping nlgroeit on their website as well as sales presentations, content and marketing assets.
- Aim’s own former marketeer is actually now creating new partnerships and sponsorship for the platform, so that a long term influx of revenue can be secured from larger partners as well.