Panos Siozos is Co-Founder and CEO of LearnWorlds, an online course platform for creating, selling, and promoting online courses.
Chad talks with Panos about building e-learning platforms dating back to 1999, providing rich feature sets and catering to customers located in lots of different places, and deciding to stop bootstrapping and take investor money.
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CHAD: This is the Giants Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots Podcast, where we explore the design, development, and business of great products. I'm your host, Chad Pytel and with me today is Panos Siozos, Co-Founder and CEO of LearnWorlds, an online course platform for creating, selling, and promoting online courses. Panos, thank you so much for joining me.
PANOS: Hi, Chad, and thanks for hosting me.
CHAD: You have been working on LearnWorlds for a while now. Where did the idea come from?
PANOS: I guess this has been brewing in our minds, mine and my co-founder's, for many years. We built our very first e-learning platform back in 1999, right after completing our studies in computer science. And we started postgraduate studies in educational technology. So in an academic setting, though, we had built many, many e-learning products, platforms, and authoring tools. And we were always exploring the state of the art.
And we always had it in the back of our minds the possibility and our obligation, I guess, to create a commercial product at some point and try to get the state of the art of e-learning that we were exploring in the academia and put it at the hands of actual trainers, and teachers, and give them the tools to create the best possible online courses that they could. That was always at the back of our minds.
And after completing our Ph.D. studies, after working in different jobs and different roles, we got back together at some point in 2012. And at that point, the conditions for e-learning were very, very mature. It was like bandwidth was in abundance. It was easy to create videos. It was easy to distribute videos. Cloud computing made it even easier to create software as a service platforms. And we understood that it was the perfect moment to come together, take our expertise, and try to put it in an amazing product that would be commercial and help all those people out there that wanted to create online courses.
CHAD: So I think you launched in 2014.
PANOS: Yes, we spent a couple of years. We started building the platform in 2012 in stealth mode. We were, I guess, traditional engineers. We had this build it, and they will come mentality.
PANOS: We had done almost like in the first year almost zero research on customer development and business development. We just had in mind to create the best possible platform that we could, and then obviously, people would just buy it because it's the best. Obviously, things don't always work that way. So we created the platform then we started talking with potential customers.
We launched commercially in 2014. And this is when we had our very first customers, people who had the online courses. They had the online content. They had audiences, but they didn't have a platform. It seemed a huge burden and a huge task to create an actual platform to deliver and sell their courses. And this is where we came in and started providing our tool as a software as a service solution.
CHAD: So in 2014, I'm sure that there were other competing products on the market. Today, there are probably even more. What makes LearnWorlds different from all of those or better from those?
PANOS: In 2014, it was very early, I guess, in online courses. Most people were going to marketplaces like Udemy or Coursera. It was very difficult back then to create your own online school, to own the website. We had people who were either using traditional clunky Jurassic; I would say, learning management systems.
PANOS: And they were trying to adapt them for e-commerce and all the stuff, and it was always very difficult to do. Others were trying to duct tape together WordPress sites and plugins and custom codes. And that was something that wasn't scaling very gracefully. I would say after a couple of 100 users, it was almost impossible to maintain sites like that.
Others were trying to create their own platforms, write code internally or hire a couple of developers. And then a few months or a couple of years and after having spent a couple hundred thousand dollars, they were realizing that this is very difficult to develop a tool like that unless you've done that in the past and you know what you're doing. So it was very timely to bring to the market a product like that.
What differentiated us from the others and what still differentiates us is that we have an obsessive focus on the learner experience. We're probably the only, I don't want to sound presumptuous, but we're probably the only course platform creators or, let's say, founders or co-founders of a course platform who have actually studied that. And we have PhDs in edtech. So we are bringing lots of our academic background into the platform. And we know that initially, this was even detrimental to growing the platform because, in some ways, the platform was even too complex for what people were expecting and could absorb back then in terms of features.
But as the years passed by, we managed to find an excellent balance between how powerful the platform can be in terms of amazing design, offering great, interactive, engaging learning experiences, and also offering the ease of use and all the commercial features that users would expect. So we have a deep product with lots of offering affordances.
For example, people can create amazing interactive videos very easily, just like editing a PowerPoint, I would say. You can just upload a normal video that you shot yourself, perhaps using a mobile phone, and you can convert it into an amazing interactive experience. And this is something very important for the students, the customers that will actually, at the end, consume the content.
So to this day, the platform is very innovative. We're still participating in research projects, and we're seeing what is the state of the art of e-learning? And we're trying to implement that into the platform, obviously, now with amazing feedback from thousands of customers and millions of end-users. So it's an amazing opportunity to give to the people the things that they actually need and use to create the best possible online courses and sell as many of them as possible.
CHAD: One of the things, and it speaks right to the value proposition of the product that you use, is that there are so many features that you can have. And so, if you embark on the journey of creating your own platform, it's really easy to look at the surface level of what that looks like and say, "Oh, that's easy."
CHAD: But then, when it comes to other features, you have the ability to make mobile applications on LearnWorlds and those kinds of things. Like, that's a rich feature set that is really difficult to deliver on your own, right?
PANOS: It's very difficult to deliver on your own, and some things look deceptively simple. And when you actually see what is under the hood, it is very, very complicated to deliver a super user-friendly and easy tool or platform or authoring environment. So the platform is very powerful because people have all these different needs.
We're talking here this is a platform that can support both the, I don't know, the nice, old lady that wants to sell some knitting courses, and she has a community of a couple of dozen people who follow her and consume her courses, all the way to online schools that run with more than 300,000 users. It's extremely difficult to be able to scale a school to a size like that.
And in many cases, people might start simple. They might even create a nice, simple user interface with a couple of videos. This is something that everybody believes that they can do. And they can do it initially, but once they have a couple of hundred users, or a couple of thousand users, their success becomes problematic. They cannot keep up with all the demands for something like that. And then they need more features. They need more features for doing their marketing. They need analytics. They need the scale and the reliability that a platform that serves a few thousand users requires. There are all sorts of things that people miss.
So we believe that you don't necessarily have to reinvent the wheel, especially when there are amazing ready-made wheels out there, white-labeled wheels where you can just go to a platform like ours. And in a couple of days, you can have an amazing online school customized and optimized for your own case study, for your own audience, for your own language, for your own design. The settings that you need to power your own business model, whether it's selling courses on their own, selling memberships, selling subscriptions, bundles of courses, all those different things that look simple on the outside but they require lots of precision to work great and delivering in scale.
CHAD: So, given the rich feature set, I'm sure that you have a lot of customers located in lots of different places. I'm sure they have different needs, too, different profiles. How do you as a company go about deciding what to work on? And how does the workflow through your organization?
PANOS: This is always a very interesting task, something that we are doing almost every month. We update our roadmap on a quarterly basis. But every month, we go out and check again the feature requests, and the trends in the market and the industry, and all the things that are happening. We receive hundreds of feature requests from our existing customers every week, and these are being organized and prioritized. And we always try, obviously, to help our own existing customer base. But we work with many partners and other platforms as well to create integrations and to deliver features, and uncover needs that people have today.
And in the past couple of years, as you can imagine, with COVID, we had to adapt many changes to the new business models and the new ways that people started creating, delivering, and consuming online courses. For example, when COVID started, almost overnight, there was a huge demand for creating and delivering live courses with no pre-recorded videos. That's something that used to be quite frequent feature requests, let's say. Before COVID, we had it in our roadmap. Once we understood what COVID would mean for the industry, almost overnight, we stopped other things that we were doing and started working hard on delivering, let's say, our Zoom integration.
So in just a matter of a few short weeks, it was super easy for anybody who wanted to teach. You imagine how the situation was amidst the lockdowns. People their businesses were shutting down. They couldn't reach their audiences, their customers. Their revenue streams had ran out. So we brought to the market this integration, and it was super easy for a photography teacher, a yoga teacher, a coach from anywhere to just create an online course, plug in their Zoom account, and be able to deliver courses, either one-on-one, to a small group or even to hundreds of students.
So we had to adapt as the market was adapting, and the same comes when it comes about business models, ways of getting paid, different payment methods. For example, some European countries...as a European company, we're also very attuned to what our European customers need. In several European countries, credit cards, traditional credit cards like Visa and MasterCard are not the most frequently used methods of digital payments. So we have to work with local payment gateways to provide these kinds of solutions. Also, for taxes, taxes in Europe are way more when you're selling from one country to the other. They’re much more difficult and complex than in the U.S., So we have to adapt to the demands from customers and offer solutions like that.
So it's always anticipating, seeing what the actual users need but also keeping a large chunk, I would say, space for innovating, bringing to the product things that people don't actually ask for because they don't even know that they could exist and that they could be helpful. And this is where our expertise, I would say, comes into play. Our team is constantly researching trends and other platforms and how people interact with platforms and other tools. And we try to stay ahead of the curve, not just follow what others are doing but be the leaders in this kind of chase.
And rightly, you mentioned there are dozens of platforms out there. It's great to see so much innovation in so many different platforms. Especially after COVID, I can say that it seems like there is a viral spread of new platforms. We almost see one new platform every week. And it's nice because it seems that the industry is very hot. And there is lots of demand for these kinds of solutions. We do have a head start, and we will continue to improve the product and bring an amazing solution to people who want to use something like that.
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CHAD: One of the features that you have is localization, being able to have your content in lots of different languages. How early on did you add that feature?
PANOS: This is something that we had to do very early on. The first iteration of the platform, before even founding the company when we were just a side project, was built for the Greek market and the Greek language. So that was in a very difficult situation back in 2013, 2014. There was a huge financial crisis in Greece back then.
So once we had the product ready, we realized that nobody wanted to invest in e-learning. It was a very tough situation to be in. So that's probably one of the best things that happened to us. Because almost overnight, like in day two, we had to go to an existing mature market, which was the U.S. market, where people were willing to test a new platform. They really liked what the platform could do. They were ready to risk a product, a new product that was brought into market by a small ragtag team from the other side of the world. And so we had to adapt to a new language.
So that was something that came in very early on and was very helpful in dealing with different markets and different localizations, working with different payment gateways, and becoming an international product from very early on. So right now, we have customers in more than 110 countries; even though U.S. is by far our biggest market, almost half of our market is based in the U.S. But we are very willing and able to work with new markets and help them and help people bring their own localizations and their own translations into the platform.
CHAD: Yeah, that jumped out at me because I've seen other products that don't have that feature. And I think it's in part because a new company started in the United States knows that they have a fairly big addressable market just within the U.S., and they don't necessarily need to support multiple languages. And I thought that, and that's what I heard, was that the fact that you were not in the U.S. compelled you to have localization really early on. You've also mentioned a few other ways in which that has influenced you. How do you think being in Greece and being a European startup has influenced you as a company overall?
PANOS: This is the DNA and the blueprint of how the company eventually grew. For example, we started in Greece amidst a dire financial crisis. We were, from day one, a remote company because of the conditions of the co-founders. So we happened to be in three different cities, two different countries. And we just wanted to work together. We didn't have any long-term plans of how a company would evolve. So from day one, we became a remote company. So as you can imagine, in the next few years, that gave us...and even when COVID came, that gave us an immense advantage because that's the way we had been working. We knew that full remote was an option from day one.
The second thing that really also influenced us is that because we were growing in a situation...amidst this financial crisis, we were a bootstrapped company. We didn't have access to any external funding, which obviously made things much more difficult at the beginning. We couldn't get access to funds and invest in marketing very early on and push the platform heavily.
On the other end, as a bootstrapped company, we developed a mentality of being very resource-efficient, cash-efficient, paying great attention to all of our KPIs and our unit economics, doing lots of unscalable things, as Paul Graham would say, you know, wearing lots of hats, investing a lot in people who didn't have the credentials, let's say, or the experience that one would expect from to hire in a U.S-founded startup.
So we had to invest in the local people, in the local skills, amazing youth. We're talking here back in 2013, 2014. Youth unemployment in Greece was about 70%. So it was a terrible situation. It's like this meme where people were asked to have experience, but nobody was giving them a chance to develop this work experience. So we invested in people like that. And that's the best thing we did.
So we're talking about a remote bootstrapped startup with a can-do mentality with access to amazing people, not specialized or skilled, let's say, or experienced in this particular software as a service role but very smart and willing to work and excel and do better for themselves and for the company. So I think that was the recipe that helped the business grow.
And also, coming from a small market, we had to adapt to a fragmented European market. Europe is a huge market of about 500 million people, a few less now, a few million less now, barring UK. But this is a fragmented market. You don't have a unified market of one language. One currency may be, yes, in most countries, but we're talking different languages, and different tax regimes, and all the staff and different mentality even. So we had to adapt. This is difficult. But also, it gives you the resilience and the flexibility to adapt to all these different cases.
And then going international was very natural to us. It's not that we started in a small market, and then we're trying to create a foothold in a second market or the third market. From day one, we had to look outward to find the people who would use and dare to use a platform like ours and try to be our best selves and try to give them an amazing product.
CHAD: Yeah, that's great. You mentioned that you initially bootstrapped. Have you taken investment since then?
PANOS: Yes, we have. We did a small seed round of about $1.1 million in 2019 with a small local VC. And then last year, about a year ago, we closed a Series A funding round of $32 million with Insight Partners.
CHAD: That's great. Congratulations. What caused you to make the decision to stop bootstrapping and take an investment in that seed round?
PANOS: That was the point when we realized that we needed the extra fuel in order to push the pedal. We were seeing that we already had a great product. We were on to something. It would have been too slow to continue working in a bootstrapped mode with a few resources that we had. We wanted to accelerate. We wanted to accelerate hiring, product development, and all this stuff. So we didn't actually need the money back then for the viability of the company, which is actually, I guess, the best reason to raise money and the best time when we don't actually need it.
So that's how we started. That gave us the extra confidence. It allowed us to bring in a few extra people. We started investing more in hiring professionals that had already done that, who had already experience in SaaS businesses and international businesses. And that gave us a lot more certainty and trust in ourselves to keep growing the product and going further.
And this last round with Insight Partners...Insight Partners is one of the top VCs in the private equity funds. They also bring in an amazing team of operators who can always jump in and help in case we need something. So it helps us expand our horizons, be more aggressive in our hiring, much more confident about what we can do. And that also has given a great boost to the business and the team.
CHAD: This idea of acceleration and going faster is an interesting one. I've seen it in our clients as well where, especially if you're in a competitive market, you could have a good growing reasonable business, but if everyone else around you is raising money, raising capital, and accelerating, that can put you back especially if you don't realize it. Do you feel like that was part of what was causing you to want to accelerate?
PANOS: Yes, yes, definitely. So e-learning is a complex industry, let's say. What we're doing is very competitive because the market is always changing. People demand more. New business models require new features, and everybody wants an all-in-one platform that will keep doing more and more. So you cannot just stand still. It's not like a micro SaaS where you can have a feature the same working for five years, and you can still have people signing up and using that. You have to be ahead. You have to adapt. This is a very fast pacing industry.
And now there are so many different players from all different industries who look at online courses and content delivery in general in new ways and start approaching from different angles, whether they are marketing tools, or video hosting providers, or email marketing providers, or traditional learning management systems. So there are many people around this online course industry. So you need to have a war chest. You need to bring in experts.
You need to keep investing in R&D and improving the product and also customer success, making sure that your amazing customers can perform even better, and they can take advantage of all the features in the platform. So you cannot just stand still; that's not an option. You can perhaps get away with it for two to three years. But eventually, the product will fizzle out. We will not be able to compete with what is happening.
You mentioned all these different platforms coming into the market. You have to stay ahead. And luckily, now, with the recent funding and obviously with the help of our customers, we have all the resources that we needed to implement the vision that we have for the product. All the things that we couldn't do in the past because we were constrained in terms of resources, and time and money, now we are able to innovate much faster, bring many more new features to the platform and to the market, and help people create the best possible online courses.
CHAD: You mentioned that when you raised that initial seed round, you did it with a local investment company. Was that intentional? I took a peek; the company is Marathon Venture Capital. And they specifically say on their website that they day one partner to Greek tech founders, so they're very focused. [laughs]
PANOS: Yes, they're very focused. There is a huge network obviously of Greek founders almost everywhere in the world. So they have a deep pool of people to reach out to and a huge network. It was definitely; also there was a parameter of convenience, you know, them being close, being able to communicate easily, having the same kind of mentality and the same kind of experiences. This obviously makes things much more easier. I guess at that point; it would be much more difficult to go from a bootstrapped remote ragtag team to a fully funded company with a traditional, let's say, Silicon Valley-based VC.
Even explaining back then in 2019 that you are a remote company wasn't easy. It's something that made some people wonder about how serious you are about that. What are your plans going forward? How are you going to hire? How are you going to compete? How are you going to hire people if you don't have these amazing startup offices with the pool tables and all the stuff? But we were saying that it's feasible. You can do it. I mean, you can find the people who want this kind of lifestyle who appreciate this flexibility, who want to be close to their families and work from their small cities somewhere in Greece or in other countries and be close, let's say, online with another team.
We weren't crazy back then. So it was much easier to make these kinds of propositions to a local team. I guess it was convenient, and we had a good match. But already, this investment prepared us a lot in terms of organizing the business, due diligence, taking care of our finance and reporting, and all the stuff, and legal and made us ready to go for a bigger investment later when we needed it and when the time was right.
CHAD: So from three co-founders in 2014, how large is your team now?
PANOS: I think with the recent hires, we're about 120 people right now. We are still fully remote. In fact, in the next few weeks, we will just open a small co-working space in Athens where about half of our staff resides. But this is going to be more of a co-working space kind of experience. I think right now; we have people in our team from 16 different nationalities in 11 different countries.
But still, the majority of the people are based in Greece, so here are the roots of the company. But we are internationalizing fast, getting people everywhere we can find them. People that fit the business, we're happy to bring them on board, and these kinds of remote-first flexible environment that we have is very fitting for some amazing people from all over the world. And they prefer that actually than returning back to an office.
CHAD: For yourself as a leader, how have you needed to grow or change as your team has scaled so much?
PANOS: We're still doing that.
PANOS: It's not just me. It's my co-founders as well, my two co-founders, Fanis and Giorgos. I wouldn't have been able, obviously, to do anything alone, neither any one of us, without having the others. Still to this day, we're very hands-on. We're involved in all the projects. In some cases, we were a bit more reluctant to delegate. But still, the team really appreciates that we're still in the trenches with them, learning, solving problems every day, trying to not give solutions from both ad hoc but be with them, solve problems with them. That's something that they appreciate a lot.
And obviously, we are still...every day we are transitioning. We started as a team of three people on a side project that was just taking a few hours of our time per week. And this business came to be the biggest part of our lives, spending 12-plus hours every day and more, and weekends, and everything else with a growing team amidst some very difficult conditions like COVID where things were, you know, in our families and our cities, things were blowing up.
And we had to stay close to our teams and keep delivering a product that was skyrocketing in terms of demand. So we are still learning; that's our motto here in LearnWorlds, getting better every single day, trying to enable our team be more enablers now and better project managers, inspire people in order to help them deliver the best that they can.
We are lucky to be in a great industry with amazing customers, all of them creative people who create great content. They love their products. They love their own customers. So this is something that helps us have a great mission that our employees also share. So they see that it's not just about the numbers or about getting the MRR or getting the sale or whatever. But they really enjoy helping our customers and helping them create amazing little, online businesses and get their products online.
Every day we get amazing feedback from our customers, and that really makes people around here very happy. At the end of the day, they go home, and they know that they helped launch another business or two and help people, in some cases, realize their dream of becoming independent, you know, escaping nine-to-five, or helping a coach or a trainer get some amazing reward for the fruit of their labor and the content that they have created with so much work. So this is a great thing to watch. And it's great being around people who enjoy this kind of business and this kind of environment.
CHAD: Is there anything that when you were starting the company based on your prior experiences, both good or bad, at the other companies that you had worked at along the way in your career or your co-founders’ careers when you said okay, we're starting LearnWorlds. We're starting our own company. We specifically want to not make this mistake or instill this value in our culture that you were very intentional about?
PANOS: There are probably a lot of things. I'm not sure if I can name one in particular, but we always wanted to create a business that we would love being employees of. So we wanted to be in an environment that we would enjoy being ourselves. That's probably kind of egocentric, like, it was about us. But I think there were some unspoken values in some cases or cases where we would see that no, this is bad; we shouldn't go down that path.
We didn't want to replicate ourselves and create a company of people who'd look like us and react to the same things that we would. But we always wanted to have an environment that we would feel happy, and we would love to be part of. So far, at that scale of 120, we have managed, I guess, to do that. In many cases, this is also our number one priority.
Features come and go. People come and go. Customers come and go. But we know that the biggest strength of this company is the minds of the people who work for us. We want them to be happy. We want them to come to work happy every day and bring their best. That is our major priority. And especially in times like that, their mental and physical well-being as well it's a major priority for us.
And we believe that if we create these conditions of safety and trust, the empowerment and learning as well of constant improvement, we will achieve our goal, and we will have a team that will be working for a product that is going to be better every day and every week.
And this shows, at the end of the day, this is something that customers can appreciate, either by seeing a new feature in the platform that they love or by receiving some amazing help from one of our customer support reps or an amazing demo from one of our salespeople. This is something that we are lucky still to show everywhere in the company. This is the mentality of the entire company. Hopefully, we'll be able to preserve these kinds of values and attitude as we scale.
CHAD: That's great. I really wish that for you. Good luck and congratulations on all the success. Thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing your story and your wisdom about scaling the company. If folks want to learn more about LearnWorlds or get in touch with you or follow along, where are all the places that they can do that?
PANOS: You can always come to our website www.learnworlds.com. Our platform offers a 30-day free trial, no credit cards, no strings attached. If you have any questions around online courses or any ideas about what you could build yourself for your business, come to our website. Join us, and we will be happy to help you out and show you what is possible today.
CHAD: Great. And you can subscribe to the show and find notes and a full transcript of this episode at giantrobots.fm. If you have questions or comments, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can find me on Twitter at @cpytel.
This podcast is brought to you by thoughtbot and produced and edited by Mandy Moore. Thanks for listening and see you next time.
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