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From Pancake Sales to Building a $10m ARR SaaS

From selling pancakes in school to steering Expandi to $7M ARR, Stefan Smulders' journey showcases the blend of relentless hustle and strategic insight unique to his entrepreneurial spirit.

Tales of overnight success are often myths. They overshadow years of relentless pursuit, failures, and gradual victories. Stefan Smulders' journey to founding Expandi embodies this narrative of resilience. But the road to here was filled with lessons from failures and small victories.

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Early Days

From a young age, Stefan was always looking to stand out and make something of his own. He tried selling pancakes to classmates and paintings to neighbors. Not everything worked out, like his dream of becoming a pro footballer, but every setback taught him something new about not giving up.

Young Stefan Smulders with breads

Finding His Path

Stefan never thought of himself as the best marketer or a tech genius. What he did best was spotting what others missed. This skill led him to create Expandi. He saw how people wanted safer ways to use LinkedIn for business without risking their profiles. Stefan promised exactly that with Expandi, even when he was hoping hard his team could back up his big promises.

Stefan Smulders with friends at a motor race

Making Expandi Stand Out

He took a big risk by being the face of Expandi. Back then, most people hid because they were afraid LinkedIn would shut them down. Stefan went the other way. He made sure everyone knew he stood behind his product. This move helped build trust and made Expandi more relatable.

For Stefan, success isn't just about making Expandi big. It’s about proving to his son and others that not giving up is worth it. He finds real joy in supporting his son’s football training, showing him by example how to keep pushing, even when things get tough.

Stefan Smulders with his family

Stefan Smulders' story with Expandi is a powerful reminder that the path to success is rarely straight. It's made up of failures, lessons, and the persistence to keep moving forward. Stefan teaches us that with a clear vision, the courage to be different, and the willingness to take risks, it's possible to overcome any obstacle and achieve your dreams. His journey isn't just about building a successful business; it's about inspiring others to never give up on their aspirations, no matter how challenging the journey may seem.

00:00:00:00 - 00:00:31:22

Stefan Smulders

I'm not a rockstar. I'm not world's most genius marketer out there. I just took advantage of the marketing lags and the gaps my competitors made. They made it quite easy. That's how I see it. My name is Stefan Smulders. I am from the Netherlands and I'm the founder of Expandi: World’s leading software for LinkedIn Automation. And that's what I started three and a half years ago.

00:00:31:24 - 00:00:57:03

Stefan Smulders

The biggest part of my journey although it don't look like that right now is failure. Yeah, and recovering from that and falling and standing up and retrying and re trying again. But that's what most people don't see right now. They see me like sort of a bootstrapped rockstar who broke through the noise and therefore, yeah, I made a joke.

00:00:57:03 - 00:01:27:10

Stefan Smulders

It looked like an overnight success. But the real pain was, was in the years before, for sure. I think if I look back right now, I was always quite motivated to achieve something. I somehow don't want it to be average and I always wanted to be the best in everything I did. And that started at school when I was six years and I went to school.

00:01:27:10 - 00:01:59:07

Stefan Smulders

I ask my mom to make a couple of extra breads and pancakes, and then I sold them to my classmates for a small amount of money. Of course I made paintings when I was seven years and I went to the and asked them to to, to, to buy it, for example, as such such kind of things. If I look back right now, I think that's definitely some signals that that, you know, that there's an entrepreneur in me.

00:01:59:09 - 00:02:24:12

Stefan Smulders

I was a very fanatic football player. I, I started at quite a young age, five, six years old. I made it on my seventh to to, to manage, to go to to PSV with some other teammates. Some of them became national players. They were really good. I joined as well, but after one and a half year, I was not good enough and I realized that myself as well.

00:02:24:12 - 00:02:57:21

Stefan Smulders

So they just wanted to get rid of me. And I went back to my village club and that was the first explodes of a dream I could not realize. I put it a lot of pressure always on myself, but read the realistic kinds of view on it. So I was always able for myself to look in the mirror and also acknowledge that I was not good at certain things or I did not master particular skills.

00:02:57:21 - 00:03:34:23

Stefan Smulders

So I was somehow trying to compensate that or focus more on on on the small amount of skills I was somehow mastering. And I found out that that was more in enablement, that that was more as an outgoing person, I was always the center of a conversation. People were always coming to me. But somehow it felt in comparing to, for example, one of my co-founders, my technical co-founder, who is a real wizkid, he can bring something to life, he can build something.

00:03:34:23 - 00:04:00:22

Stefan Smulders

It's visible you see it. And for me it felt I have the ability to attract people, to engage people, to convince people to let people believe in my story. I'm not a rockstar. I'm not world's most genius marketer out there. I just took advantage of the marketing lags and the gaps my competitors made. They made it quite easy. That's how I see it.

00:04:00:24 - 00:04:25:14

Stefan Smulders

And if I break it down, what we've built is a tool as a third party app on LinkedIn, a couple more companies did that before and everybody, especially all the US guys and friends, they want to use these automations to make more business, to do it faster to, to, to, to gain more money. And on the other hand, because it's a third party, it's not illegal, it's not forbidden by law.

00:04:25:14 - 00:05:06:17

Stefan Smulders

But at that time point when I started this, it was somehow against LinkedIn's terms and policy. So a bit of a gray, a special niche. And some of these previous tools, they were cracked down by LinkedIn and maybe a handful of users of these tools got lost their profiles. And at some point when we started this project, the boost around that topic safety was so major that it felt and it looked like if hundreds of thousands of people lost their profiles due to the fact that they were leveraging these crappy third party apps.

00:05:06:19 - 00:05:33:01

Stefan Smulders

So I thought if this is the most important thing for everyone, then I just need to pronounce Expandi is world’s safest tool out there. Believe me or not, I was really praying that Glenn, my co-founder, kept everything together and that it did not fall apart, but I kept screaming. It and eventually people start doing exactly the same.

00:05:33:01 - 00:05:55:24

Stefan Smulders

That was number one. The second thing was because it was somehow a gray niche, all these crappy and other tools, it was quite hard to engage with them as they were somehow hiding themselves for LinkedIn. Maybe all of them were sort of scared that Bill Gates should come one day and spank all of them and crack all these tools down.

00:05:56:01 - 00:06:29:07

Stefan Smulders

And I thought if that guy really want to find me and catch me, he will find me anyway. So let's do the opposite and use myself as the face of the brand. I really want to help people. I really want to solve something and it makes me proud just straight from my heart that if I provide you with something that it helps you further.

00:06:29:09 - 00:07:04:22

Stefan Smulders

The biggest achievement we have for the company is bringing it to a to 10 million annual run rate. It's more a personal thing. Nobody will die if it is not there next month or we will not reach it. But that motivation to do that as 0.004% of the bootstrap companies will achieve that. That triggers me. So much that that's by far the number one thing we want to achieve at Expandi on the personal side.

00:07:04:24 - 00:07:39:04

Stefan Smulders

I got a family. I have a boy. He became seven two weeks ago. He's a very talented football player and if I'm on the pitch with him and driving him to the private trainings and see how professional trainers try to get the most out of him, that really makes me happy. Trying to become best friends with him by investing all the available time to build that proper band with him and relationship that at the moment that's making me way more happy than gaining a shitload of money.

00:07:39:06 - 00:08:03:00

Stefan Smulders

And that's something I can prove now to my little boy. If he will face difficulties in life that I am the living example How to achieve it. Get out of your comfort zone. Don't stop. Keep pushing. Even if things are becoming harder and harder. Because at the end of days, with all the challenges I face in my life, I think it's all about that.

00:08:03:01 - 00:08:04:20

Stefan Smulders

Never giving up.