Have you ever landed a job where you felt hopelessly out of your depth only to discover your feelings were unfounded? Chances are, it wasn’t that you were unqualified, you just needed someone to tell you whether or not you were doing a good job.
Foti Panagiotakopoulos built his startup, Growth Mentor, to help unsure startup founders, marketers, and product managers connect with the mentorship they need. He was inspired after speaking with experts on Upwork while working as an uncertain new VP of growth at a startup.
In 2022, four years after creating Growth Mentor, Foti’s platform makes him and his team roughly $720,000 in ARR. It also has logged a total of 25,000 mentorship sessions across 470 mentors. But these figures didn’t come easy.
Foti risked losing his entire development team and nearly went bankrupt while building his mentorship marketplace until he found the proper way to monetize it. He also learned one great technique for using online communities to make product changes quickly and effectively.
The Chat on Upwork That Made Foti a Better Marketer
Foti was born in the USA, spent his early life in Florida, and moved to Greece at 15. Between the move to Europe and later studying in the UK, Foti learned to be adaptable and focused. “What’s influenced me the most is having an international crew of friends,” he says. “There are also fewer distractions in Greece as there’s not much of a startup scene out here.”
In 2007, after completing his bachelor’s degree, Foti became the VP of growth at a startup web-hosting provider called EuroVPs. With almost zero marketing experience, he had to teach himself everything, and self-doubt plagued him every time he made a mistake.
“I made many mistakes that I didn’t need to make,” he says. “I had imposter syndrome about how to do ads so I’d hire freelancers to do them for me and get disappointed. I consistently saw a pattern of low-quality work unless I paid top dollar, so I learned how to do ads myself.”
But running Google Ads was hard work, and Foti couldn’t escape the feeling he was getting things wrong. Everything changed when he talked with a freelancer on Upwork who told him he was exceptionally good at it. Encouraged, Foti began seeking advice from other freelancers on Upwork to improve his skills.
“My biggest hindrance wasn’t a lack of skill but of confidence,” he says. “Talking to freelancers helped me benchmark my skills and press start. From then on, I focused on active learning from real people rather than passive learning online.”
In 2016, Foti wondered if he could build a platform linking new starters to career professionals. At that time, his wife had begun mentoring people in English on an online language tutoring service called italki. Students would pay to connect with a tutor and chat with them to improve their language skills. Foti used the italki model to visualize his future product.
“My wife was chatting for eight hours a day and getting paid for it,” he says. “I thought, ‘What if we overlayed my mentorship idea with that?’ I think this is something that many founders should do more often. You can get ideas from any industry.”
Building Against the Clock to Avoid Bankruptcy
After eighteen months, Foti had saved enough money to build the Growth Mentor MVP: a landing page with an email submission form. Now an expert at PPC ads, Foti also spent $500 on Google Ads to attract mentees. To attract mentors, he cold-messaged people he admired and gave them profiles on the staged version pre-launch.
Once people signed up, Foti called as many customers as he could to understand their pain points. Then he decided to splurge a little on a Ruby on Rails development agency to build the official Growth Mentor platform. “I was about to buy a car, but instead I put all of my savings into my new platform,” he laughs.
In September 2018, Foti launched the full version of Growth Mentor, attracting 1,000 users from his outreach and pre-launch waitlist. However, only five percent of mentees booked a paid mentorship session.
Over three months, Foti tested different ideas to increase mentor bookings. First, he added friction to signups by asking mentees to fill out a form that verified their interest. Then he booked video calls with all mentors who wanted to use the platform. Both of these helped a little, but it wasn’t until Foti allowed mentors to offer mentorship for free that growth skyrocketed.
“I hadn’t paid my rent in two months or my devs in three.”
“Most mentors didn’t care about the money – they just wanted to mentor,” he says. “They set low rates, so we allowed them to go free. And once we did that, we saw hockey stick growth in product usage because people had zero friction to book calls. We booked 500 calls per month by that winter.”
The growth was encouraging, but after another year of operating at a loss, Foti was in deep trouble. By February 2019, he was nearly bankrupt and struggling to pay his developers. He wasn’t even earning enough to live.
“We’d only made about three hundred dollars in revenue,” he says. “People got value but didn’t pay. We were a commission-based business and all of the booked sessions were free. Fifteen percent of zero is still zero. I hadn’t paid my rent in two months or my devs in three.”
Foti realized he needed to take radical action or he’d be out of a platform and maybe living on the streets. He decided to implement a subscription paywall in a last-ditch effort to monetize.
“Even though he was mad at me for late payments, I told my lead dev to do one more thing to pay it off,” says Foti. “He did it and in the first month we made fifteen hundred, then two grand, and onward from there.”
The Largest Lever Is Community
Since that nearly disastrous crash in 2019, Growth Mentor has grown linearly since. Foti has expanded his team to five employees and many long-term freelancers. “I think it’s important for founders to have a big network of contractors,” says Foti. “I lean on experts for different things, and you don’t need to hire them full-time. Even ten hours a week for a month is huge sometimes.”
“Mentors use our platform primarily for social proof.”
To attract quality mentors, Foti created an onboarding system where they need to do some mentorship for free. After three reviews from mentees, they can set rates. Surprisingly, Foti says many mentors stay on for free because they learn new things and earn community status for their time. “Mentors use our platform primarily for social proof. They get reviews, and some of these reviews are really good. Imagine LinkedIn recommendations on steroids.”
One of the primary draws for Growth Mentor is its community of users. When they join, they access a Slack channel where they receive on-the-fly mentorship from mentors and mentees. Foti says this has created value he didn’t think of. “Our biggest lever is our community and the feeling of reciprocity it has.”
The Slack community has both enriched customers and helped the development team adjust quickly. Over the years, Foti frequently launched large features that customers didn’t use. His frustration spawned a Slack channel for his team with 20 power users on Growth Mentor as the group’s advisory board: “Every time we have an idea, we drop it in there for them to check.”
Fail Quickly and Learn How to Do Mock-Ups
Much like previous Bootstrappers business, Mentorcruise, Foti wants businesses to offer his mentorship marketplace as an employee perk.
“Compared to passive learning options like Udemy and Masterclass, our option is much better,” he says. “One of your team members can speak with someone else at a different company who has the same role and see how they do things and bring fresh ideas into your organization. I’m pretty bullish on this space, especially with the rise of AI. Many roles are being made redundant, and people need to work together to cross-pollinate new ideas and jobs.”
“People take you much more seriously when you’ve taken the effort to draft something, even if it’s on the back of a napkin.”
Foti has three pieces of advice for founders: Fail quickly to learn from your mistakes, stop wasting time trying to force paid ads to work, and learn how to do mock-ups.
“Even if you’re not a designer, learn how to wireframe on paper and turn your ideas into visuals. It’s much easier to explain a visual idea than it is with words. “People take you much more seriously when you’ve taken the effort to draft something, even if it’s on the back of a napkin.”
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