Interview with Maarten Doornenbal, Co-Founder at Churned.io
How is it to be the co-founder of a startup? How big of a trend is A.I. going to be for the future? Does a CS tool like Churned have the potential to replace CS teams? Any advice for someone wanting to start their own business? – Maarten Doornenbal, Co-Founder at Churned.io shares his answers!
Hey Maarten, welcome to the SaaS Newsletter Deep Dive. Could you please introduce yourself?
I’m Maarten Doornenbal, 32 years old and living in Amsterdam. I am the co-founder of Churned, an AI-based retention management/customer success management platform. Together with my brother and his former professor in data science/econometrics, we founded the company three years ago. My brother studied econometrics and data science at the VU and is more of a technical person. The third founder is a professor of data science and econometrics at the VU, so obviously another very technical person. I would describe myself as the commercial person. I have a background in sales. I did a master’s in Entrepreneurship and Business Administration at the VU and then worked in sales (also recruitment) for five years, billing and managing teams. At the end of 2019, while speaking with my brother, he came up with the idea of using AI to predict customer health and prevent churn. Since I studied entrepreneurship, I was excited by the idea of starting a business, so I thought “let’s do it with these two talented guys.” Three years later, we have 18 employees and I am in charge of the commercial side of things at Churned.
What was one of your biggest obstacles when starting Churned?
As a startup founder, there are many obstacles you face. Since I had never started a company before, it was not clear to me what exactly I needed to do to make the company a success. It is a lot of trial and error, mistakes, and learnings. I would therefore say that the main obstacle was not having done this before and figuring things out as we went. But that’s how it works; you just have to start.
A second obstacle was selling something that was not finished yet. As a software company, you don’t have a finished product from day one. As the commercial person, I had to sell the product, but the product was not there yet. I was basically selling slides and an idea.
”I had to sell the product, but the product was not there yet!”
What exactly is the problem that Churned solves?
As the name suggests, Churned helps customer success teams predict and prevent churn. We assist companies in lowering their churn rate and increasing their NRR. While companies grow by acquiring new customers, it is just as important to retain them in the long-term and keep current customers satisfied.
Additionally, companies have a vast amount of valuable customer data stored in their systems. Our AI transforms this data into insights, predictions, and actions. The Churned platform indicates, at the customer level, who will churn, when they will churn, why they will churn, and what actions should be taken to prevent churn. The platform can do much more, but the main problem we solve is helping companies avoid losing their customers.
”While companies grow by acquiring new customers, it is just as important to retain them in the long-term and keep current customers satisfied.”
Do you only sell to other SaaS companies or could it also be a solution for other, non-SaaS companies?
Our focus is on SaaS. If you were to look at it purely from a technical perspective, it does not matter for the AI/prediction models whether the customer is SaaS or a B2C company like a newspaper. The models go over all the data points, check for patterns, and then based on that, give a prediction.
Would you say that Churned could take over the work of a Customer Success team, or at least help reduce the number of employees required in a CS team?
That’s not the goal. The goal is to give Customer Success Managers the tools they need to do their work well. I believe that Customer Success still heavily relies on the human factor. Nevertheless, our solution helps CS teams become more efficient, as a single CSM can serve more customers by using a tool like Churned.
”I believe that Customer Success still heavily relies on the human factor.”
You mentioned you started your career in recruitment. How did you end up selling a Customer Success solution software?
I was not specifically looking for a recruitment job, but I was looking for commercial job. In my eyes, Recruitment is a Sales job and the product is recruitment. I would actually say from my time as a recruiter that I had a Sales job, and I managed Sales teams, of which the product was recruitment. Moreover, as I said before, I did a master’s in entrepreneurship, hence my interest in starting a business. I was always fascinated by, and always had this mindset of doing things smarter, better.
Then my brother wrote his master thesis on the subject of the potential of AI to predict client churn. The answer to his thesis was that AI was very much capable of doing this. We realized this could turn into gold, realizing that churn is actually a huge problem that most companies face, and if AI could predict churn, then our product could help reducing it. That is when we realized that this idea has potential to solve a huge problem. As a CSM, one of your most important KPI’s is churn. So we started with the churn problem, and then moved to Customer Success.
So a thesis subject turned into a Customer Success platform!
”The thesis subject turned into a Customer Success platform!”
As co-founder of an 18 employee SaaS startup, what does your typical day or week look like?
In a typical week, I have a couple of general internal meetings focused on roadmap, strategy, funding, finance, etc. Next, as the commercial founder, I’m responsible for all the non-tech stuff at the company. Think of Marketing, Sales, Legal, HR. So my typical day looks different from the other co-founders who are much more on the technical side.
So a big part of my time goes to sales and marketing activities. Go to market roadmap, pipeline generation, pipeline management, forecasts, coaching, but also participating in the sales meetings. So I spend a good part of my week working as an account executive as well.
In addition to all the standard recurring activities, I also spend my time on numerous other things that fall in between teams. As a startup founder, you are never done with work. It is grinding, a lot of hours go into your business.
How have you seen the SaaS market develop itself in the past three years?
A huge trend in SaaS has been remote work and collaboration, obviously accelerated by covid. It has become more and more common to hire remote people in other countries. We have hired people remote in Portugal for our tech teams. I think that five years ago, this would not have happened. This has made it easier to enter other markets as well. So a further globalization of the SaaS market. This did change the dynamics somewhat. Looking at talent, that has the advantage that you have a large population to find good staff, but the disadvantage that you now also face more competition in your local market from, say, US software parties with deep pockets, who hire people here.
And nowadays, what trends do you currently see in SaaS?
Of course we are an AI tool, so we are part of the trend ourselves. The rise of AI and Machine Learning. This will play a big role in the future and have a lot of impact. Not only for us and CS, but in all domains. You have seen all the Chat GPT hype currently. I am 100% sure that AI will be the biggest trend and change of 2023.
Another trend is that because of the current economic downturn, more and more companies will focus on customer retention instead of growth. It is more difficult to acquire a new customer than keeping a current one, so the focus will shift on retaining customers and getting more value out of them. Growing your NRR, not only focusing on signing new clients.
”I am 100% sure that AI will be the biggest trend and change of 2023.”
What advice would you give for someone that is interested in starting their own business?
We have also only been at it for a few years, so I don’t have all the wisdom, but I would say “Just Do it!”. What worked well for us is bootstrapping it from the get-go. You don’t have to have everything in place to start. It’s okay to start with an idea, some spare time and some income from elsewhere. This should be enough to start in a lean way. Just do it. Start lean, bootstrap, and once you get some traction, go big!
Quick-fire, one-worded answers. Favorite book?
I was just talking about doing things in a lean manner. I really like “The Lean Startup” from Eric Ries, that’s a business book. I really like that one.
The Scale Lab of Techleap. They interview founders of tech companies, just like this interview, but with more successful founders than me haha.
One person to follow on LinkedIn
Depending on your profession. Every profession has its own influencers. If you are in Sales I would recommend Kyle Coleman, very practical posts. For AI, Ronald van Loon.
Favorite Growth hack?
My personal productivity growth hack is simple, planning my day well in advance the day before. I arrive at the office early and already have my to do´s and goals for the day ready. This gives me peace of mind and increases my productivity.
Furthermore, we “growth hack” a lot as a company with the deployment of all kinds of tools that make our work more effective and efficient. Some of my friends make fun of me for having a tool for everything. Of course, you can get carried away with it, which is not good either. But still, I think you have to be open to it. Often things can just be done better and easier.