Charles Thiede is the CEO and co-founder of Zapnito, a SaaS platform for creating communities that showcase expertise and promote thought leadership.
We caught up with Thiede to find out what he does all day…
Please describe your job: What do you do?
I’m the CEO and co-founder of Zapnito, so ultimately, the buck stops with me. I started Zapnito with our CTO Jon Beer, and together we’ve built a business that’s all about enabling brands to better connect with their communities – whether that’s customers, readers, users, members, whoever they want to reach.
We’re still a young company, so my main role is building growth. I’m in charge of sales and marketing, as well as investor relations. Our team is small, so while I keep my eye firmly on the overall vision for our platform, I’m still very much involved in the day-to-day projects with both prospects and customers.
It’s incredibly varied – I need to be able to have a good grip on our sales funnel, and an eye to the future of the company, but also be able to advise customers on how to get the most from their individual communities on quite a granular level.
Whereabouts do you sit within the organisation? Who do you report to?
I’d say I sit at both the top and the bottom of the organisation. I don’t report to anyone in the traditional sense, but I report to the investors, to our customers and to my team.
We’re a very flat organisation so I’m just as likely to have our marketing executive checking in on whether I’ve completed something as one of our investors. I encourage that. I’ve learnt a lot from listening to and acting on suggestions from team members who, in a bigger organisation, might be considered too ‘junior’ to have much say in organisational direction.
What kind of skills do you need to be effective in your role?
Varied skills for a varied role – skills in finding and building the right team, discipline, people skills, communications skills to put across the vision as simply as possible. The biggest things I’ve had to learn are patience, resilience and accepting rejection.
Another key skill is learning to walk away from things if they don’t fit into the vision – even if that means losing revenue. Saying no to things is as important as saying yes. I’m still working on that.
When I was in a corporate job, I worked hard to be someone else. In this job, I’ve also had to learn the skill of being myself.
Tell us about a typical working day…
I get up, check Slack, check my schedule and then prepare for the onslaught of meetings and follow-up from those meetings.
The meetings are usually with prospects or customers, but we do have internal meetings as well. Usually I’m juggling my calendar, responding to things quickly and trying to keep on top of the task list.
I’ll run a meeting with a possible client that is only in the discovery phase and then meet with a large customer about a new community they want to launch with us. Our sales are all led by the founders and senior team, so we’re kept very busy.
During the day, I’ll come up with thoughts on the platform, the competition and have ideas for the product and partnerships. Many times they’re the wrong ideas, and my team aren’t afraid to point this out. But when they’re right, it’s great to see how quickly the team pick them up and run with them.
What do you love about your job? What sucks?
There’s a lot that I love. I love seeing the product develop. Our vision is all about bringing expertise back to online discourse – creating communities where people can trust what they read because it’s brought to them by bona fide experts. And they can learn from and interact with those experts too.
Recently we revamped our expert profiles – the profiles of community contributors and members – to really highlight their expertise and also make it easier to create links between experts with similar backgrounds. It’s fantastic to see our vision developing and maturing, and then see customers excited about having it rolled out to their communities.
It’s also great to see the team get excited over an innovation, or when they solve problems on their own. I’m busy running around locating projects, so it’s reassuring that we have a team that know they don’t need me to build great stuff.
I also love speaking at events. And of course, when a new customer deal closes. That’s the best.
What sucks is the rejection or people wasting your time – particularly in the sales side. The uncertainty was a massive issue for me at the start. But that’s passed, now that we’ve hit on our product-market fit.
Probably the biggest thing that sucks is going too hard and then feeling burnt out. I’m learning that breaks are as important as effort. What they don’t tell you about being an entrepreneur is that a lot of it is a slog. But the wins definitely make up for all of that.
What kind of goals do you have? What are the most useful metrics and KPIs for measuring success?
In the business we follow two main KPIs. Overall revenue growth and ‘health’ of our communities. ‘Community health’ is the combination of engagement, content development and creation, and number of experts actively logging in and being part of the community.
We also follow pretty standard KPIs in digital marketing – with a focus on our sales funnel and conversion rates.
To me, community health is the only KPI that truly matters, because that is what will impact on the rest. If our customers communities are thriving, then I believe business growth will follow – provided we’re telling people about it, of course.
What are your favourite tools to help you to get the job done?
Hubspot for sales and marketing. Trello for project management and dev work. G-Suite, so Google Docs, Slides, and so on. Whimsical for flow charts. And of course, Zapnito for our customer community.
We also use Slack – a lot. But I have a love-hate relationship with it at the moment. It’s fantastic for fast interaction with the team and batting ideas back and forth. But at the same time it can really eat into your day, if you’re not careful.
How did you found Zapnito, and where might you go from here?
I was running product and technology for a £300m business information company. I saw that consulting and information services were converging. So Jon and I initially set up a marketplace of experts – somewhere to go to find the expert you need.
We then pivoted to create a SaaS platform, as we didn’t want to be in competition with LinkedIn or another new network that had sprung up. We wanted to give our clients the technology to use for themselves.
We did consulting and reinvested until it could pay our way. We’ve been at it for six years, but only full-time for about three and half years.
What’s next? It’s all about growth and building a great brand. We want to be an internationally recognised contender in the $16billion community platforms market. We also want to grow without VC backing, so we will grow fast but smart.
Which businesses do you admire most for their community management?
This is a tough one, but I’d have to say Springer Nature. They’re one of the world’s largest academic publishers, and our biggest customer – they have 30 communities with us at the moment, so they really know their stuff. When most people think of academic publishing, I’m guessing they don’t really think about online communities, but Springer Nature has really embraced the community model.
There are a few reasons why I think what they do is great. First, they’ve seen it as a long term investment. You can’t create thriving communities overnight; it takes time.
Second, they’ve put a lot of focus on creating great content. For example, they have a series called ‘Behind the Paper’ across many of their communities, which gives people a ‘behind the scenes’ look at articles they’re publishing in their journals.
Third, they’re really focused on innovation. They’ve used our platform to create a whole range of different communities. Some are subject-based – so aimed at attracting people with a particular research focus, for example. Some are private communities for their editorial boards. They also have a community which provides training to researchers through a variety of formats – peer-to-peer, video, written, slide based. These are all created using Zapnito – they’ve pushed us to think about all the potential uses of the platform
Finally, I think the thing that impresses me most about their work is that they’re really analytical about their community performance. But they don’t just look at numbers. As well as looking at traffic, commenting, number of members, and so on, they’ve analysed what they deem to be the quality of the traffic they then get to their journal sites as a result – so how engaged people are on the journal sites, and so on. And they’ve also asked users how they feel about the communities, which has offered insight into the communities’ impact on brand engagement.
Do you have any advice for marketers seeking deeper engagement with their customers?
Engagement is a word that is fraught with challenges – I think a lot of brands are looking at the wrong things.
We often talk about engagement on social media, for example. But that’s reduced to ‘Likes’ and ‘Shares’ of posts. Is that actually true engagement? It’s really easy to click a button. It suggests agreement, maybe, but not necessarily real engagement with what you stand for. I believe you have to go for quality of engagement, rather than just cold, hard numbers.
That’s why we’ve drunk the community Kool-Aid, so to speak. And I don’t mean communities which are trying to replicate the likes of Facebook – these are noisy, and finding what you want on there is overwhelming. People like something then scroll on. Instead, it’s about focusing on communities that are the go-to destination for expertise, information and discussion on a particular topic.
Engagement is all about personal interactions – whether that’s B2B or B2C, I think that holds true. To create real engagement in a community, marketers need to put people front and centre. The experts in their company, their customer advocates, the people who really know their stuff.
That can be hard, because you need to persuade those people to engage and actively contribute. But it’s worth it to drive those real, personal connections between your company and your audience.