Matteo Grassi, CEO and Founder of Popup and a familiar face to the Relevant Founders community. The last time we had Matteo on the show, we talked about Russia’s war on Ukraine, how Matteo is rooting for Ukraine’s victory, and the future of the Ukrainian tech industry. This time, we’re discussing all things Popup under a more cheerful pretext. The first no-code commerce platform that enables businesses to control the customer journey visually.
In this article, Matteo discusses how the timeless nature of Lego can be used to help build your business, the Popup MVP, how leadership differs not so much from parenting, and the rise of e-commerce.
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“If you’ve ever played with Lego, that’s probably the greatest analogy I can offer. I believe we have realised that all the platforms out there were developed with a fairly rigid approach.”
Before launching Popup, Matteo and his co-founders ran seven different e-commerce businesses, the majority of which were hosted on Shopify. He explains how, by taking this approach, they were unable to advance without becoming more complex, despite running a very profitable business thanks to this fairly strict policy. With this knowledge, Matteo and his co-founders adopted the Lego approach, in which they provide customers with the fundamental building blocks, laying the groundwork for them to build whatever they want.
“Popup can assist you if you are an enterprise merchant or have a very complicated setup and want to design a very intricate and calculated client journey. However, if you’re a creator and all you need to sell is a course, a page, and a checkout, you can do so as well. You can use it in conjunction with your current e-commerce platform, as well as a standard on an e-commerce platform.”
He and his co-founders frequently argued about why things are so complicated. Due to society and the way we shop online are changing, it is difficult to adapt to the ever-changing e-commerce markets. This makes predicting what the market requires difficult, but Matteo is able to address this by evolving an e-commerce platform in tandem with how society changes.
“TikTok was created three or four years ago, and it opened up an entirely new possibility for creating TikTok ads.” iOS 14, for example, has destroyed Facebook advertising. We are all constantly looking for new ways to acquire traffic, and in order to do so, you must also provide a unique post click experience.”
Matteo emphasizes how cross-border commerce is becoming the norm, which means you’d have to sell in a variety of countries and currencies to stay ahead of the competition
Matteo describes how they bootstrapped Popup from the start with the intention of building it solely for themselves, just as Shopify’s founder did. Toby had no plans to build an e-commerce platform; he was simply trying to solve a problem he himself had come across. Toby made it easier for anyone to start an online store.
“We asked ourselves what do we need? If we had to build something, what would that be? What would it look like? We took a look at our current setup and simplified it as much as possible. We originally had a very complex setup, overseen by several people, using four or five different apps to achieve our business goals.”
“At one point, we were hacking Click Funnels on top of Shopify just to create a lead capture when going into a product page, and also when checking out. It was extremely simple. It was a use case to gather information from customers so we could send them a free e-book. Only then would we show them our product and this was the whole reason for doing this. To accomplish this, we needed to use ClickFunnels hacking on top of Shopify, followed by an email marketing tool. I worked at Shopify, as did Corey and Cait, and we had all these insights, experiences, and use cases that we thought we could help solve as simply as possible.”
Matteo and his co-founders closed the funding round in November after bootstrapping the platform for about six months. That was when they realised that this was not going to be a platform with a standard MVP launch.
“We realised it wasn’t the merchant size, but rather the integrations and basic features which was the most important. Running small and large stores requires the same, if not almost the identical setup as processing 100 orders or 20,000 orders per month. It doesn’t change.”
As for hiring, Matteo told us how it was important for them to keep all hires in-house. He told how they never went down the route of hiring an agency or outsourcing, but stresses that there isn’t a right or wrong when it comes to expanding your business. He stressed that it purely depends on what stage your business is at and what you’re trying to build. The Popup team believes it isn’t an exaggeration to say that they have one of the most ambitious preseed projects in the world right now and so building in-house would be more valuable–it needs that initial, tight-knit team.
“If you look at how many times an e-commerce platform has come out, you will see there’s literally just Shopify. Wix and Squarespace are web builders with e-commerce functionality. If you’re just looking at Commerce First, there’s nothing, and that’s because it’s so complex. You need to have worked in an e-commerce platform before to really understand the intricacies of the job.”
So far, it’s a one-horse race in terms of competition. Matteo emphasised that they currently have no direct competitors, owing to the complexity of their mission. Matteo believes that people are watching from the sidelines to see how it all plays out before attempting it themselves.
“We design Popup so that it can be used with your current e-commerce platform, just like a Popup store, or as a standalone store. In terms of competition, you have to build something like this from the ground up–it’s a very ambitious project.”
Matteo mentioned that the current challenge for Popup is building growth and hiring. With a team of 25 people, Matteo wants to keep all of the guys roughly in the same time zone. He explained that at first, this was not their preferred method, as they thought they could find a workable solution to the time difference challenge. However, he eventually came to the realisation that it simply does not work.
“There should be a three to four-hour time difference, no more. For us this looks something like a time zone from India to Ireland, that’s basically where we operate. We try to structure meetings three days a week. In terms of tooling, we use Fellow for meetings, which means that every meeting has an agenda. If there’s no agenda, it is automatically canceled. There’s no point meeting for the sake of it.”
“When we first started Popup, we were extremely fortunate to have three incredible engineers from India leave other e-commerce companies to join us. It’s difficult to find someone with e-commerce knowledge who can build an e-commerce platform, so we were extremely lucky to find them. It makes sense to continue hiring engineers in India, but I’m looking heavily to Ukraine for marketing, marketing talents, social media, designers, video editors, and other similar positions because they are amazing talents at a low cost. Ukraine is a good timezone choice because it is halfway between our engineering team in India and us in Western Europe.”
Matteo emphasises that the first thing they look for is a good culture fit, explaining how even if you are the best engineer in the world, you must fit the company’s vision.
“Ego is important. We don’t have a family mentality or a family-run business. It is more comparable to a sports team. We make sure that everyone understands this from the start, which means that everyone is replaceable. They are a member of a team and so they must do their part. There will be people at the forefront of this, the ‘All Stars,’ who we must push because they have unique skills that we need to utilise. But we make certain that everyone understands that we bring the results together as a team.”
Matteo is well-known for using his LinkedIn profile to rally his team and those who follow him. Matteo has the unique ability to inspire his audience with his honesty and integrity through innovative yet personal posts, often demonstrating how his path to success was also a bumpy one, and how this is sometimes part of the course.
“I don’t believe we can learn how to build a company culture from a book. You must define your company’s values and mission, and then live by them every day. We value diversity and so everyone should be treated equally. I like to use LinkedIn so that the people I work with can follow our journey.”
“Being a leader is like being a parent, which is funny because I don’t like parenting that much,” says Matteo. He shares with us how he has never felt as if he owns his daughter, or that she is obliged to listen to him.
“I’m here to support her as a tutor to help her to grow up to be the person that she wants to be. But she’s very much her own individual, if she falls, she has to pick herself up. I can tell her how to do it, but I’ve always preferred this type of parenting and same goes for work. The leaders’ job is to make sure that they feel supported and to champion the people.”
Matteo explains how he believes leadership is not far off the concept, where people can have a support system, but they have to learn how to pick themselves back up, dust themselves off and try again. He claims that outdated structured approach, with the boss at the top and your employees at the bottom of the pyramid, is not used at Popup. Instead, he prefers to put people at the centre of their projects and give them the keys to drive the road alone. However, Matteo explains that with autonomy comes great responsibility, great stress, and the possibility of burnout, especially if you’re the type who puts your heart and soul into what you do.
There are many challenges that come with being one of the first, daring to go where no one else has gone before. Matteo tells us how difficult it was to build something that had never previously been created due to there being no baseline to work from.
“You have to build something without having any reference. You’re creating something new and designing something from the ground up that needs to be relevant not only now but in two years and beyond. Making those decisions is difficult. You must be prepared to make a technical decision two years in advance, or else you will have to scrap everything and start from scratch.”
Matteo emphasises that he believes the demand for engineers will always be high, particularly in the current market, where technology is developing rapidly and every relevant company is set to become digitalised.
“Despite the market’s downturn, venture capitals are very well funded. There is currently $250 billion in venture capital funding available, which must be deployed. The most scalable solutions we have, such as e-commerce, self-driving cars, and unmanned drones, will be deployed in technology. But, regardless of the technology we develop, engineers will be required, and no-code solution can address the entire market by democratising technology. People are still needed to build the technology. No code is not a permanent solution; rather, it is a starting point. I don’t believe it’s a journey from beginning to end because growth and complexity will always be an issue.”
“Confidence. Have faith in yourself. Don’t think that other people know more than you just because they appear to have everything figured out or are making more money.”
“I always considered money to be a measure of success. That was my big mistake. When I saw someone making money, I always assumed that person knew more than I did. But I’ve also realised that I met some very lucky people. Many had no idea what they were doing and still made a lot of money; however, this money was lost as quickly as it was made. At the time, I reasoned that maybe I should listen to them, maybe I should do business with them. Whenever they said “No, I’m right, you’re wrong”, I always agreed just because they made some money.”
Matteo told us that his definition of success has evolved over time and that he considers himself fortunate to live in a country with a democracy, that has government support, and that is not plagued by war. He described luck as a starting point that allows you to pursue your goals.
“I believe that luck is being blessed with not having to face so many difficulties or failures. Gym Shark’s Ben Francis is a great example of this. He was extremely fortunate. He had a good business idea. It was the right time for influencer marketing to take off, and he just got it right. He now has a billion-dollar company, but he was also wise enough to take a step back, set his ego aside, and decide to step aside, allowing people who know how to run the business in.”
“It’s about consistency and having the motivation to move forward.” When I set my mind to something, I just do it. There’s nothing that happens that will put me back, but not all people have this ability. I’m probably programmed a little differently. I think this is what entrepreneurs have; they’re optimists. You cannot be a pessimist if you’re an entrepreneur.”
“Determine what truly motivates you. But keep in mind that this is not going to be easy. If you choose an achievable goal, you will only be motivated until you accomplish it. Then what?”
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