Steffen Schebesta of Sendinblue: “It’s a marathon, not a sprint”

It’s a marathon, not a sprint. You know that old saying, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint”? Well, it’s a saying for a reason: it’s true. If you start a company and want to make it successful, you will be working on it for at least 5 to 10 years. Be aware of that when […]

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It’s a marathon, not a sprint. You know that old saying, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint”? Well, it’s a saying for a reason: it’s true. If you start a company and want to make it successful, you will be working on it for at least 5 to 10 years. Be aware of that when choosing your start-up idea, and make sure you really love what you choose. You will be spending the vast majority of your awake time on it.

I encourage everyone to take their hearts in their own hands and really do your due diligence when you select your idea and your founder partners. Know that you will be committing yourself to a years-long engagement (if not life-long) to the business you decide to pursue and the people you decide to take the journey with.

As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Steffen Schebesta, CEO of North America at Sendinblue. He has over 15 years of experience as a business and digital marketing leader. Prior to joining Sendinblue, Steffen was the founder and co-CEO of Newsletter2Go, the leading email marketing provider in the German market. Under Steffen’s leadership, Newsletter2Go became one of the fastest-growing tech companies in Europe. In 2019, Newsletter2Go was acquired by Sendinblue and Steffen earned the title of co-CEO in Germany. Steffen holds a master’s degree in business and electrical engineering from The Technical University of Berlin.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

My dad was a college professor for computer science in Berlin where I grew up. He bought a 486 computer when I was 12 or 13 and taught me a bit of Turbo Pascal programming. I was enamored immediately. At first, I started creating basic — funny but pretty bad — games with a close friend. It was a fun project for us, we had a lot of our classmates and even some teachers interested and playing the games we were developing. Later on, that friend would become my first real business partner, co-founding a small web agency called Heart Code where we developed websites and small programs together.

Even from a young age, I always knew I wanted to be a company founder. I remember being in high school and applying for a scholarship — it was the first time I pitched myself as wanting to have a startup. From there, I continued on the same path. My friend and I started Heart Code in our 20s, where we took on light projects to finance our studies, mostly web based applications and websites. It was fun, relatively easy money and gave us a sense of freedom that sparked our enthusiasm for entrepreneurship. After Heart Code, we founded Newsletter2Go, an email marketing platform designed to meet digital marketing needs. Newsletter2Go was later acquired by Sendinblue, which led me to where I am now.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

One project that we worked on in our web agency was a basic newsletter tool. It was inspired by a different tool one of our customers was reliant on that couldn’t do much other than sending out an HTML file (that you created somewhere else) to a CSV list of contacts (that you had collected somewhere else) through external email servers (that you had to host yourself).

In other words, it was practically useless for the average Joe. But it did give us the idea to create an email marketing software as a service that would improve all these shortcomings. Most importantly, we would create a software that would be easy to use for any business. It was exciting to identify a challenge and offer a solution. That’s how Newsletter2Go was founded.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

In the early days, we had limited resources. We did everything on our own — programming, customer service, sales, marketing, you name it — and we paid ourselves a salary that was barely enough to survive. Even then, our sales were not enough. Eventually, we started to take on external projects again. We were working long hours, partly on our software, partly for the agency, and while our revenues were growing month over month, they were still too small. Faced with few options, we decided to set a revenue target and a deadline for ourselves. If we couldn’t hit that target by the end of the year, we would stop Newsletter2Go. With a lot of hard work and determination, we beat the target by 20%!

I remember the first time we broke 10,000 € in revenue in a month. We were beyond excited. Our friends — back then most of them were still studying — couldn’t believe it. That was a lot of money back then. For a couple of months, we didn’t trust that our business would continue to grow like this, and we were always afraid that our revenue would suddenly drop the next month. But it never happened. And we finally understood the business model we had created and how stable and predictable a software as a service model really is. It allowed us to allocate more money into the right channels and to become one of the top players in the German speaking market. In 2018, after we had tried for a year to internationalize to other European markets without much success, we decided to join forces with Sendinblue making us the European leader in the SMB email marketing SaaS business.

In the end, it was about persistence, hard work and long hours. But there was not one thing that changed everything. I think the most important one was to really understand our business model. It sounds a bit crazy because we were the ones establishing it, but it’s not only about what you control — it’s also how the market reacts. So in reality, it’s a fragile process. You tweak and optimize and experiment here and there. Eventually, you figure out how you fit the market: what works and what doesn’t.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

When you reach product-market-fit, you can certainly feel it and your customer can too. In the end, it’s a beautiful symbiosis and everyone benefits. When you provide the customer with a tool they love and would recommend to colleagues and friends, and you establish yourself as a software provider for a highly efficient and dynamic product, customer loyalty grows, which results in a sustainable sales engine.

My day-to-day work has changed overtime. I think one of the more defining ways my role has changed is that I’m now the challenger and reviewer for projects, rather than the creator. I enjoy this task a lot, and I still get to flex my creator muscles in a new way. Also, I am now more focused on business development and marketing in the North American market. It’s a new challenge — not a lot of European companies dare the leap over the Atlantic — but I feel like we are in a good place to become successful here.

During COVID, my schedule is more flexible. I typically begin by checking a long list of messages I received overnight, because I am behind the European headquarters. Then, we have kick-off meetings with the Toronto team to talk about everybody’s agenda for the day before everyone gets to work. I have meetings, sometimes more and sometimes less, but usually at least 3–4 a day and sometimes up to 6–8. I often review documents, handle operational tasks, discuss strategy and marketing with the respective teams, and network — it can really vary though. I also have special projects I focus on. Right now, I’m researching some companies for possible acquisitions, as well as factors that impact customer churn.

Sendinblue has transitioned from a pure email marketing software to an all-in-one software. Email is still at our core, but over time, we have added SMS marketing, CRM, a landing page builder, marketing automation, 50+ third-party integrations, retargeting, and live chat.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

When the pandemic hit in March last year, we were approached by a farmer from rural France. His family used to sell their produce in weekly markets for years. Amid the lockdown, they suddenly weren’t able to do that anymore and were struggling to survive (like many other small and local businesses).

Using Sendinblue, they built a small landing page, accepted online orders, started emailing their customers and even implemented basic order tracking via SMS. Within days, they had transformed their business from purely offline to mostly online and suddenly had a future proof business model that would weather the storm to come.

Enabling small and medium companies to digitize easily and quickly and to become stronger than ever before — that’s what Sendinblue is all about and how we stand out. We’re committed to helping businesses of all sizes have a seamless digital transition and experience.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

In our early days, we had prepared for and announced a huge launch. It was a really big and exciting thing for us, but as deadlines were approaching, we realized we needed more time than the original timeline we had given ourselves. We had already announced it though, and we were committed to delivering, so we got scrappy and did whatever it took to get it done.

The whole team pulled an all-nighter the evening before the launch, which included a presentation for a live demo the following day. The demo was meant to showcase the new software to all the customers that wanted to switch. Hundreds of other people were watching too. I began presenting the product and went onto a page that had filler text and non-functional buttons — and everyone was watching. I very quickly switched pages and recomposed, but in that moment, in all honesty, I was embarrassed.

Now, we look back at that whole scenario with fondness and laugh. While the rest of the demo went off without a hitch, we certainly had a fair share of challenges we had to work through following the launch, primarily because we needed more time. But the takeaway we got from this experience was navigating our first “crisis,” and really seeing strong company development following it. There was a lot of trouble shooting from all teams, and we were all working long hours. It can be really easy to start placing blame when a company goes through challenges like that — but going through it together — it brought us all closer instead. After smoothing out all the hiccups together, we knew without doubt we could all rely on each other.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

This is a challenging question, because the people I went to for mentorship typically shared really impactful and strong advice that helped me and the co-founder of Newsletter2Go grow and develop. Something that we heard a lot was that we were too conservative. For us, we thought we were being realistic. We didn’t want to get in over our heads or become another startup that didn’t make it because it couldn’t deliver due to high and unrealistic expectations.

There was a time we pitched an angel investor in Berlin, who told us he wouldn’t invest because we were “lacking ambition.” That advice really stuck with us. In the end though, our original and final business plan were closely aligned, and because we had set realistic goals from the beginning, we were able to build a really successful company.

Investors are always searching for something that is exciting and life changing — and I understand why they would. But when things are too unrealistic, or when startups have business plans that are completely unattainable, that is when true challenges arise.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  • Humble
    I truly believe that it’s extremely important for a business leader to be down to earth. Talk to your employees as often as possible, go for lunch with them, get operationally involved and listen to their feedback and treat it respectfully, even if you don’t agree. I try to take the time and make sure I am speaking with new hires as they are adjusting, and something I often hear is that they are most excited to be in an atmosphere where everyone is treated with respect. Different perspective helps you see the gaps a company may have, and by listening to all employees at all levels, you’re able to work towards solutions and keep a strong and happy workforce.
  • Enthusiastic
    When you start something from scratch, you better be passionate and enthusiastic about it. And you know what? That kind of attitude is contagious. One of my best memories from the early days was the night shift I had mentioned earlier. The whole team committed and worked straight for 36 hours before the big launch event. We all pulled through and it ended up being an amazing experience for everyone. There was so much hard work in the air that night, and we really were united as a team with one goal in mind. Carrying along your employees, sparking ambition with enthusiasm and excitement — that is really what leadership is about.
  • Analytical

When your business grows over time — especially when you go from start-up to scale-up — it becomes more and more important to be very data-driven and analytical. Like my university professor used to say, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” The moment we really understood our unit economics — customer acquisition costs, lifetime value, retention, etc. — we were able to pour large amounts of money into the right channels and really scale the business.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Above everything else, make sure you really enjoy doing what you signed up for. If you’re really passionate and enthusiastic about something, you can avoid burnout.

There’s something called the hedgehog principal. It’s the idea where you identify three areas — the thing you’re passionate about, the thing that drives your economic engine, and what you know you can be the absolute best in the world at, and are something where all these areas overlap. When you find that space, all your hard work will be worth it and you’ll be excited to keep moving the needle on your goals. And as I mentioned, make sure your goals and expectations are realistic. For example, it’s hard to say you’re the best baker in the world. But you can say you’re the best cookie maker in Seattle. This takes your area of passion, drives an economic engine, and offers a product you know is the best.

For me, even when I was faced with tough times, it was always still fun because I worked on things I enjoyed doing. There were months when I was working more than 10 hours every single day, but I pushed through because I was passionate about what I was doing. Now, especially with COVID, wellness initiatives are really important. Make sure you provide and leverage resources for employees to avoid burnout. For me, I feel most creative when I’m able to spend some time away from work. When I’m able to clear my head and relax, that’s when my most innovative ideas start to spark. I also have a network that I can depend on to share really honest challenges, and seek solutions. Sometimes it just helps to vent, but often, when you’re talking through a challenge, someone else has been there too or has the third-person perspective to offer sound advice.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

The worst mistake is to not have your company’s core expertise in the founders’ team. For example, building a software company without a programmer on the founder’s team will present more challenges for the company. Without an expert who can really offer advice and perspective, the business might struggle with growth. Instead, make sure that your core team has the experience and the expertise to execute on the vision for the company. And like I mentioned earlier, talk to all your employees. It’s easy to get tunnel vision or miss elements when you’re too close; pull in other perspectives and make sure you’re really listening. This way, you can identify and correct what isn’t working.

Also, be able to confront the brutal facts. A few people tend to ignore problems and think it will get better or they reconsider decisions they originally made. Be honest with yourself and your business — make sure you really understand and dig deep to confront yourself with the hidden truths you uncover, and take those learnings to help your company grow.

It’s okay to be frustrated or uncomfortable, but if you don’t address the little issues early on, they will only continue to grow into bigger challenges, and will ultimately hold you back. Always keep your long-term plan in mind, and try not to respond too reactively in the short-term.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

For me, the most annoying thing about running a company for a long time that nobody talks about and is underestimated is that you start accumulating a lot of legacy. Code, processes, documentation — you name it. All this stuff gets outdated and has to be maintained if you want to stay agile and fast. Legacy issues will slow you down tremendously and will make onboarding new employees a thousand times harder if not frequently upkept.

Luckily, there are a lot of ways now to avoid legacy issues. On an organizational level, you can break up bigger teams into smaller teams, so everyone knows each other well and can really own and focus on one specific area to maintain and improve and make decisions autonomously. At the IT level, you can create microservices, which splits the project into smaller parts too. If one part breaks, 95% of the product will still be okay, and fixing or replacing the small part is much easier and helps avoid legacy challenges.

From my experience, it was when we first started really growing and had a team of just over 30 people. We stopped communicating as efficiently, and as we started breaking ourselves into smaller and more organized teams, we started to iron out the kinks.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.

  • It’s a marathon, not a sprint
    You know that old saying, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint”? Well, it’s a saying for a reason: it’s true. If you start a company and want to make it successful, you will be working on it for at least 5 to 10 years. Be aware of that when choosing your start-up idea, and make sure you really love what you choose. You will be spending the vast majority of your awake time on it.

I encourage everyone to take their hearts in their own hands and really do your due diligence when you select your idea and your founder partners. Know that you will be committing yourself to a years-long engagement (if not life-long) to the business you decide to pursue and the people you decide to take the journey with.

  • First who, then what
    In the early days of your start-up, you know what problem you want to solve. You know where you want to go. Oftentimes, reality hits sooner than later and you have to adapt to the market, users’ feedback or investors’ pressure. That’s when it becomes important that your hires and your team are with you in the journey, even if the destination changes. As Jim Collins would say: “It’s more important who’s on the bus than where the bus is going.”
  • Product, product, product
    A great product is your best marketing and best sales strategy combined in one. In order to get to the best possible product, you have to be both visionary — creating something that your customer didn’t know they needed — and customer centric — listening to customer’s feedback and really trying to understand their current needs. Many of our best features at Sendinblue came directly from customer feedback.

Pro level: Have your customer fund the development of certain features they need, then roll them out more widely to your users. Most likely there will be another customer who is looking for the same features to address their challenges too. For example, the one-click product transfer was a feature a customer originally requested. They funded the project, and in the end, we had a really great feature we were able to roll out widely to other customers too. This not only provided customers with a great, new product, but also really set us apart in our offerings and our customer services.

  • Attitude over aptitude
    While aptitude is certainly very important when you hire, I had to learn the hard way that attitude is more important. When we were getting started, a few of the positions we were looking to fill were very niche interest areas. While we were finally able to land someone with the perfect expertise, we were presented with different challenges within our company culture. We realized we were happier and did better when there was a true team effort in place, and that while expertise is important, it’s only one part of the hiring process.

Hiring an expert who does not fit your company culture and personal values can be disastrous for the team, so make sure to hire slowly and involve your existing team in the process.

  • No pain, no gain
    In recent years, starting a startup has somehow become a lifestyle and has been idealized in many TV shows for portraying entrepreneurs becoming rich very quickly and easily. The truth is, starting a company requires hard work. Especially in the beginning, the more you work, the faster you will be, so you want to put in as much effort as possible. It’s not always glamorous, and it certainly is not usually very quick or easy.

There was a time where I worked 10 hours or more almost every day over a 3-month period. It was crazy but it paid off. I encourage those who want to be successful to be ready to put in the work needed, and stick to it. It may not happen overnight, but persistence will pay off.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’m an entrepreneur at heart. I believe that we should have more people out there creating innovative products and business models by taking their hearts in their own hands. That’s why I always encourage people around me to listen to that inner voice, to take that risk and to follow their passion.

In the end, entrepreneurship is basically problem solving. There are so many problems out there, some smaller, some bigger, that are yet to be solved. If more people found their passion and applied it or committed to solving some challenge, they could drastically improve the world.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Readers can connect with me on LinkedIn, and could also follow Sendinblue on Twitter!

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

It was my pleasure! Thank you for your time as well — I really enjoyed getting the opportunity to explore and discuss these topics more deeply.

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