Executive InterviewsLatest

Meet Ryan Welmans – Prospecting proves priceless in pandemic.

Today we have selected Ryan Welmans to interview. He is the Founder and CEO of Sopro.

First of all, how are you and your team doing in these COVID-19 times?

We’re doing well, thank you. I’m a big believer in providing a great culture and environment for teams to do their best work, and it’s been challenging growing the team when many of them haven’t even met each other. But we’ve found ways to foster that spirit still and are looking forward to spending more time in person soon.

Tell us about you, your career, how you founded or joined this company?

I’d always been entrepreneurial: over the years, I have set up several businesses in the UK and abroad either as an early employee or as a direct founder. But in 2015, I joined forces with business partner Rob Harlow and set up Sopro.  We’d spotted that prospecting could be transformed on a global scale if we could pull together an innovative new service model combining people, processes, and technology.  That was the spark that created Sopro, it formed the basis of our initial service offering, and it remains the vision today. From there, we never looked back. After a flying start, Sopro has doubled in headcount, client base, and revenue in each of the last six years, and we are on target to do the same this year.  I’m also really excited about the roadmap we have lined up for the coming months. Rob and I also set up Sopro Ventures in 2016, through which we have now directly founded or provided non-executive leadership and support to many more high-growth tech startups.

How does your company innovate?

Innovation is baked into Sopro: we coined the term social prospecting as our approach was different from what had come before. Our approach to data makes it more expensive for us but considerably more effective for our clients, so that’s the route we take. Large databases go out of date quicker than you’d imagine, so we decided not to use one: we build fresh prospect lists for every client, using live information.  Our ops team then adds a layer of information to our data. It’s labor-intensive – they do it by hand – but it means we can take content personalization to another level. We also have a level of transparency that I’ve not seen anywhere else on the market: we publish all of our results live on our website. And of course, we innovate with new technology – we’ve just launched a website plugin that gives our clients even more information about their prospects’ behavior and enables innovative new ways of understanding and starting conversations with them.

How the Coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?

It was a crazy and difficult time a year ago, as it was for everyone. Still, we’ve been fortunate that our service is really robust throughout many situations, and the pandemic proved no exception. Plus, we have a really talented group of people working to make it even more indispensable. We’ve had to adjust, but our hard work has been rewarded, and the company continues to go from strength to strength. Over the course of the past 12-18 months, we’ve hired almost 100 people, moved offices, signed a record number of clients, and won several awards.

Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?

There were definitely some scary times initially, with customers churning and new deals slowing down. We decided that one of the first things we were able to do was help our clients. Project balloon was born. We created 150 industry-specific market impact assessments. I appeared on webinars discussing the best ways forward in different scenarios. We published a lot of content around the pandemic and the best business strategies to consider. Next, we quickly adjusted our own prospecting campaigns to suit the reality (agility is one of the advantages of prospecting). It meant that the number of leads coming into the business stayed consistent. But then we started to worry as the leads weren’t closing at the rate they normally do. So we scaled our lead generation – another advantage of prospecting – and got even more leads than before. And then a funny thing happened – the original leads started closing. It turned out, one of our lessons was that our lead-to-sale time had doubled. It makes sense when you stop to think about it – people were unsure of the situation and needed to discuss purchases and strategies with more stakeholders before committing. In the end, we found that our conversion rate was actually higher during those first three months of lockdown than the months before it. And looking back at the end of the year, around 25% of our new clients had been signed during that three-month lockdown period. That was a big lesson for us all. Please make the necessary adjustments, but you need a resilient marketing channel in a crisis, and for us, prospecting really provided it.

What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?

Like everyone, we’ve had to rely on video software and messaging apps to keep work going.  We operate 100% effectively on a remote basis, but we are strongly looking forward to a time when we don’t need to. System-wise, we operate a largely proprietary tech stack; our in-house OSS integrates with all the usual CRMs, either directly or through Xapier. We have a mix of billing platforms, email delivery systems, client-facing portals, and various hosted infrastructures in play.  Management has been difficult, and one of our biggest challenges has been maintaining the international and cross-departmental cohesion needed to maintain our unique company culture. Communication has been central to that. We have run various business-wide incentives to encourage team-based participation in fitness challenges, bake-offs, art competitions, daily yoga sessions, and plenty of other wholesome and engaging activities.  These have really made a difference to the experience of our team during the pandemic. We have also needed to overcome the difficulties of delivering our historically office-based induction program on a remote basis—no mean feat considering over 100 new starters in the pandemic to date.  There isn’t a magic fix for this, the only way to do it is to have managers in place with the personal qualities to take this sort of challenge in their stride, and you need to support them with the skills and tools to succeed.  Remote management is not easy and not for everyone. 

Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?

If I’m honest, we don’t really have any. There are certainly data providers who could give you contact details, and you could go out and send emails to those people, but as I’ve explained, the data wouldn’t compare, so neither would the results. You could pay for a subscription to some prospecting software. But that takes care of the delivery of emails. What about the rest of the process? Even if you have great copywriters, are they experts in prospecting copywriting? We sent an average of 15,000 emails a day last year, and you learn many lessons when you do that. Some are surprising nuggets, like the fact that is starting an email with “Hello” drops your lead rate. Others are more fundamental lessons about your approach or how you handle complicated jargon in an opening message. We offer an end-to-end, fully managed service. And we’ve embraced the theory of marginal gains throughout the process, so we’re getting better results every step of the way. I don’t think anyone else does that.

Your Final Thoughts

It’s easy to think of Sopro as an agency, but we’re very much a growth-focused tech firm.  We build, and we build, and we build.  We’ve spent the last six years building the foundations to make some big waves in the global sales arena.  At circa £10m annual revenue, we’re still a tiny player. Still, if you’ve ever played Othello, we have the corner spaces locked in with some high-profile strategic global initiatives launching in the coming months.  I can’t wait to lift the lid on some of our forthcoming announcements.  Watch this space.

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