Updated: Mar 17
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Building in public takes guts. Being transparent takes guts.
That’s because it’s easy to be transparent when everything is going well. But what happens when things don’t go so well? Like when you’re having to do projects month after month...
Curvo is an investment app based in Belgium that's been publicly built over the past two years. Its founders, Thomas and Yoren have been bootstrapping the company. This means they’ve been learning everything they can about marketing, product regulation, and investing themselves. And taking their audience along the way. Their build-in-public approach has helped them gain consumer trust and effectively market and position the product in the market. And yes, they have been transparent, even when projects were delayed.
In this episode, Araminta is chatting with one of the founders, Thomas Ketchell, talking about the initial days at Curvo, and what their most effective custom acquisition channel is to date. They discuss why they’re so transparent on how they’re educating people and how leveraging the audiences of influencers helps them gain more reach. Finally, they also discuss the regulatory obstacles Curvo faces, and how the team overcame them. Thomas also explains why they’ve decided to bootstrap rather than raise money for the time being.
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Listen to Thomas' complete interview below.
When did Thomas first realise the investing or the pension system in Belgium was broke, and what did Thomas do to try to fix it? - Me and my co-founder, Yoran, started our first company 7 years ago in edTech, called Sutori. We actually moved to the States and we’re living there for about 3-4 years. Whilst we were out there we noticed there were so many apps, and there was a proliferation of wealth management apps that were really easy to use, like Wealthfront and Betterment.
At that point, we realised so many people in the US are taking care of their savings and therefore, are thinking about their retirement. It was at that point we wondered why there wasn’t the European equivalent to that. That’s when we got into the whole pension system and started digging into Belgium. We assumed that European pensions would be getting more money than in the US, but then we looked at it and noticed there’s a huge gap in the market where there are changing demographics. Our generation is not really well served and that’s when we really saw there was a problem to solve. As a result, we moved back to Belgium to launch Curvo.
How did you figure out who you’re going to target? - At first, we wanted to serve everyone because "everyone needs a pension". However, we realised we can’t serve everyone and as a result, we narrowed it down to us as the target persona. So, millennials who are entrepreneurs or freelancers and likely not saving for a pension. Because millennials are young, they won’t be thinking about their pension whilst being young adults.
Curvo’s customer acquisition strategy - We built a landing page that had the key benefits that we wanted to communicate. And then we had a signup form, so customers can sign up to our waitlist. If people submitted their email addresses, they could then book a time to chat with one of the founders.
This led us to have tonnes of conversations with potential customers before we actually built anything. We did over 100 customer insight calls overall in two years. We wanted to continue that when we launched. So when we launched the product in October 2021, we still phone every single person that downloads the app. So we collect their phone number and we give them a quick call just to check in on how they find the app. We also look at if the customers have any feedback or recommendations for improvements to suggest for us. From those insights, we gather as much information on where they come from, what they are expecting, and if there is anything that disappoints them.
After realising that we needed more than a landing page, we joined a couple of communities on Reddit, so that we can actually solve people’s problems as well. Therefore, we started to create a bit more content around Belgium-specific issues related to investing. That was another channel for us to grow our waiting list.
Two months after launching, our customers come from Google Search, which is great because a lot of our SEO and content is starting to take shape. Furthermore, we started a YouTube channel two months ago, and we also have our Facebook group with a lot of index investors, passive investors and people thinking about their future retirement. So there’s a lot of activity for those channels. We are still hitting our target persona right now.
The big takeaway for us is that content usually takes about three to fours months for it to be properly indexed etc. We’ve noticed as a way to accelerate it through distribution, so getting backlinks.
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Influencer marketing approach - The idea behind influencer marketing is influencers within the finance space. So there could be a financial influencer, who’s known in Belgium, who talks about ETFs, or a pension specialist who’s often in the news. And so we built a spreadsheet of over 250 of these people that we wanted to target, either have an interview with them or organise a webinar or just give feedback on the whole concept.
One of the most famous influencers that we interviewed was Ben Felix, who’s the host of the rational reminder podcast, and he’s got millions of YouTube views. He’s very famous in Europe and we wanted to interview Ben and have a live audience of European investors as a result. We had over 200 live attendees, which was a huge success for us. During the interview, we asked him about the different ways of investing and what was his experience of investing.
We reach out to influencers through messaging them on LinkedIn or emailing them. It’s easier for us to convince them when we have a product launched and therefore, we have existing events.
Transparency - The last two years we’ve documented every single month, everything that’s happened to the company. So everything that’s worked and hasn’t worked. We’ve done it through Instagram videos, a newsletter, and tweets as well, and we publish everything. We were inspired by a Dutch entrepreneur called Peter Levels, who runs Nomad list. He’s sharing his startup journey for years. We noticed how he built such a loyal following thanks to that.
Another inspiration was GitLab, which is a company that has just gone public and its entire core value is transparency. Everything they do is public first, which is a really different way of thinking about building a business. What I really love about is that most companies become non-transparent over time, because they just don't accept any mistakes. It’s interesting because the more you make public, the more collaboration becomes easier. What we noticed with GitLab is that you trust their product a lot more than you trust the people running it because you can go see every single meeting they have is live-streamed. So we really got inspired by that.
So far, we can kind of do a similar system with Curvo because we know as new entrants to the market, it's really difficult to build that trust. We felt like it was kind of the right approach. I don't know if we're going to be as successful as GitLab in terms of staying fully transparent, but that's our goal. Because it's in the interest of the customer as well to know the people behind the company, and then the decisions that we make.
Why bootstrap? - What we wanted to do with Curvo is really get it to a stage where we can have around 500 customers, we have a semblance of a product-market fit, or at least we have an idea of how to get there. We've tried experiments, we figured out a channel to bring in customers, we've tried some paid ads, and we're hoping to get to that stage within the next year. Which is the main goal.
So once we reach these targets, we know that we'll be in a better position to then raise our seed round. Bootstrapping is really tough. We're fortunate that we have revenue from our first company that enables us to take more risks.
For more interesting insights, listen to Thomas' complete interview below.