6 Aug 2020
How Novocall started out and how we’re tiding over the COVID-19 pandemic
Current mood: 🙂 comfortable, but never resting on our laurels.
Since Novocall started, we’ve faced many ups and downs. But nothing has quite prepared us for the global COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve had to learn along the way as we many challenges came our way.
This is what we learned.
Welcome to the Lost & Founder blog. It serves as Novocall’s founders’ diary, to chronicle our start-up journey, share our successes (and failures) and most importantly our learnings. The start-up world is tough, and we don’t always have the answers. But in true startup spirit, we won’t stop till’ we find it. Here’s to future startups that might tread the same path.
L&F entry written by
Ng Jiong Han
Founder, CSO, Doer
42 hours. That’s the average amount of time businesses take to respond to customer queries.
When I learned about this a few years ago, I was wondering why there weren’t good solutions developed to tackle this problem.
After all, customers prefer to chat with businesses over the phone as compared to emails and chatbots.
Back then, I didn’t think that it was something that he wanted to venture into. That is, until I met my co-founders Amos Choo (concurrent Chief Technology Officer) and Jing Jie Huang (concurrent Chief Executive Officer) in school.
Together, we realized that slow lead response times is a problem prevalent among many industries and wanted to come up with a solution to this problem.
While validating the idea, I learned that many industries sold highly complex or expensive products and services.
These businesses would need to build strong relationships with their leads in order to sell their pricey products.
Our insights eventually led to the founding of Novocall in October 2019. And we’ve been helping companies that sell high-ticketed products and services streamline conversations with their customers and increase conversions ever since.
Novocall’s growth journey at the start
1. The funding process
We took both the accelerator and non-accelerator routes.
It was arduous. The journey to securing funds as a nobody was really tough at the beginning.
The Novocall team was initially invited to Y Combinator at the Silicon Valley for the seed funding round. Unfortunately, we didn’t make the cut then.
Then six months later, we were invited to Y Combinator again. This time, we made it and had the opportunity to go to India for the next round. Ultimately, we ended up not making the cut again as we were not growing fast enough.
But the fundraising didn’t stop there and we decided to take the non-accelerator route.
During this period, we sent large numbers of emails and continued to face countless rejections.
However, we were lucky that Novocall is based in Singapore. Of all the Southeast Asian countries, Singapore probably has the most number of Venture Capitalists (VC) based here. This provided us with easier access to the network of VCs in the region.
We leveraged this opportunity to network with many other VCs. Eventually, the team got in touch with 500 Startups, and secured funding of US$500,000.
The entire process took 10 months.
2. Leveraging partnerships
As a young startup, growth was hard. We lacked a strong brand reputation and a stable pool of customers. Very often, we needed to tap on our partners’ resources to grow.
We didn’t waste any time in reaching out to one of our first few partners, AppSumo.
AppSumo is a deals website where businesses can go to look for lifetime deals provided by software companies. I partnered up with them to promote Novocall’s first product, Conversations.
Leveraging AppSumo’s brand reputation and network helped Novocall to grow organically and exponentially in the US market.
However, such a move can be a double-edged sword. While the partnership with AppSumo allows startups to conduct a litmus test to validate their product, the profits were very marginal.
Nonetheless finding the right partners and testing waters are essential steps for newcomer businesses. This is especially so before they invest resources in marketing their products.
You need to have a comprehensive understanding of your target audience’s wants and needs and whether or not your solutions will help them.
Later on, Novocall grew its market audiences between 40 to 50% in the US, especially in the property industries. This was in part due to AppSumo’s exposure to the US market.
3. Learning from other startups
It is always a good practice to learn from the mistakes of other businesses so we can avoid making the same ones. Zendesk Chat was one of them.
It was known as Zopim back then before being acquired by Zendesk. It is a web-based live chat software also founded in Singapore.
It is common for startups to offer their products for free at the start as they wanted to incentivize more users to try out their solutions. However, this can have unintended consequences.
We were told by Zopim’s founders to get customers to pay right from the beginning.
The price tag businesses place on their products can be perceived as an indicator of the quality or the product. If businesses offer their products for free at the beginning, their users might think that the product is not up to standard.
Bearing that in mind, we proceeded to charge its initial 10 customers during their alpha launch.
Zopim emphasized that this will make the customers take our brand more seriously.
Along the way, we sped up our learning process by combining a lot of advice from various SaaS founders.
They provided us with invaluable advice either directly through our in-person interactions or indirectly through the content they had written (articles and playbooks).
Tiding over a pandemic
For quite a while, Novocall was doing really well. We were growing month-on-month by about 22 to 23%.
But just as Novocall was gaining traction, the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Industries were devastated.
I recall that our investors were advising us that we had to be in survival mode and not just focus on growth. Clients were either canceling their Novocall Conversations subscriptions or were requesting to temporarily halt their subscriptions.
We had to lower our targets as the economy further declined.
1. Re-examining your pricing plans
The pandemic has highlighted to us that stringent qualifying of leads is very important.
Over the last few months, many businesses that had paid for the cheapest subscription ($39/month) plan have decided to stop using Novocall’s product due to financial constraints.
Meanwhile, many of those who tried Novocall Conversations for free did not make the purchase.
This proved to be a huge waste of time for the Sales team as they spent a lot of time speaking to these businesses.
As a result, we decided to stop providing free trials and changed Novocall Conversations’ subscription plans.
Meanwhile, fixed prices will no longer be presented on the pricing page.
This was done in order to filter out businesses who only wanted to pay for the cheapest plans. In the long run, this could help Novocall ensure quality growth.
And it worked!
While we saw a decrease in the number of leads, the overall quality of each lead increased. As a result, the Sales team was able to become more efficient as they
Currently, we are maintaining a quality growth of 15 to 20% every month.
2. Targeting the right industries
During this period, there were three distinct groups of industries that stood out to me.
First, those who were hit really badly. We’re talking about an 80 to 100 % decline in revenue. These include the hospitality and travel industries.
Even if their fall in revenue were not so severe, many of these companies needed to provide refunds. This contributed to even more losses. Let’s not even talk about other costs such as staff salaries. These are industries that we will not even try reaching out to.
Secondly, there’s another group of industries that still managed to rake in 90 to 110% of their regular revenue. For them, it’s just business as usual but with occasional unexpected pivots that must be taken due to government regulations.
While the numbers looked good, we needed to be selective in terms of which industries to choose. For example, clinics. While they may be performing well financially, there’s a limit as to how much you can scale that.
And lastly, we have the businesses that are doing extremely well. Credit repair company White Jacobs & Associates, for example, experienced a 600% growth.
During this period, people want to lower their mortgage fees and improve their credit scores. So many turn to them for help.
3. Ramping up content marketing efforts
Novocall also started to beef up its blog content to align its content strategy with our goal of improving its lead qualification.
We started churning out more content types such as ultimate guides and case studies with search intent in mind.
We really wanted to create an inbound strategy to attract those who really need a call-back solution.
The content created is also tailored to readers at different stages of the marketing funnel. Online ads were then used to target different people at different stages of the funnel with the right content.
This served as a way for us to nurture and validate its leads.
4. Taking risks and trying out new sales methods.
Video sales letters (VSLs) have been gaining traction in the sales world recently.
It is basically a sales pitch delivered in a video. It replaces traditional sales copies and explains what your brand is about and what you are selling.
Using VSLs is a powerful and effective content strategy. We can use it as a way to qualify and educate the prospect before we can set up a call.
While it seems easy enough to create an informative piece of content, VSLs are highly personalized videos and created with a persona in mind.
Before the Novocall team implemented it, they did thorough research on what type of businesses could benefit from using Novocall’s products during the pandemic.
The new normal is anything but normal
The “new normal” is a buzzword that has been floating around for months since the pandemic started.
Analysts from across industries were enthusiastic in their attempts to predict what a post-COVID-19 world will look like and how businesses should prepare for it.
The issue with this term is that it assumes that a state devoid of uncertainty can even exist. This cannot be further from the truth.
Regardless of the presence of a global pandemic, nothing is truly set in stone.
Since the founding of Novocall, we’ve had to seek other funding routes when one failed, look for the right partners, and learn from past failures. When COVID-19 struck, we re-examined our lead qualification process and payment plans and tried news sales tricks.
Businesses of all sizes should not rest on their laurels and be constantly ready to make adjustments to their operations.
We’ve already made it this far. Let’s keep pushing!
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