Founder Stories by TeamWave, are a series of interviews of founders of small businesses and other thought leaders who share their practical insights from their journey of entrepreneurship. Here they talk about how they scaled up their company, what challenges they faced during their initial years, marketing strategies that worked to scale up their small business and much more.
These success stories are dedicated to all the entrepreneurs, small business owners and startups, to show them a glimpse of what it takes to survive in this competitive business ecosystem.
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In this episode of FOUNDER SERIES by TeamWave, our guest is Johnathan Gryzbowski, who is the Chief Marketing Officer and co-founder of Penji, an on-demand graphic design service that is fast, simple, and affordable.
After experiencing first hand how difficult it was to find talented graphic designers for his business, Johnathan and his co-founder Khai launched Penji in 2017. Their goal was to provide an innovative solution by making essential tools and resources more accessible and affordable for entrepreneurs, business owners, and leaders.
Penji has been named as “top startup to watch” according to Philadelphia Magazine and mentioned in major publications like Success Magazine, Huffington Post, Forbes, and Inc.
Transcript of the Interview with Johnathan Gryzbowski (CMO & Co-founder, Penji)
Reshmi: Hello, everyone, welcome to the Founder Series by TeamWave and today’s guest is Johnathan Grzybowski, who is the co-founder of Penji. Penji is an effective on-demand service that provides unlimited graphic designs at a flat monthly cost. In this interview, we will be discussing what is Penji, who are their customers, who are their competitors and much more. So my first question would be I would like to hear from the co-founder himself. What is Penji?
Johnathan: Yeah, Penji is an easy and accessible graphic service that when you go on to our website, you should feel confident and comfortable that you’re going to talk to a reliable graphic designer.
You should feel confident you are going to receive quality work in an efficient and a timely manner, because at the end of the day, usually what happens is when you want a graphic design, you want it done like ASAP because you have somebody that maybe didn’t do a great job or maybe you just have somebody that’s unreliable that’s just like inconsistent and out there all the time.
So we want people to go on to our website and be able to just sign up for the service and talk to somebody right away and feel that comfort, that confidence that we as the company, Penji, can do it. And we’ve kind of changed the game because we don’t charge by the hour. We charge by the month. So it’s a little bit of an easier access point for people because. It just becomes a little bit more reliable, so that’s kind of what Penji is in a very long ended answer.
Reshmi: OK, that’s brilliant. Actually, I have a few entrepreneur friends who mostly find it difficult to get such great designers and get the work done very fast. So it’s great. I just want to know, how did you come up with this idea?
Johnathan: Well, so we used to be a digital marketing agency where we did a lot of Web design and web development, we did a lot of SEO and social media campaigns and ads and things like that, and we would lose clients. And then they would always say, well, you know, you’re good, your design was good, but everything else sucked.
So we kind of just like, realised, well, you know, if everybody is saying that, why are they saying this? And then we just realized that we weren’t that good at digital marketing until much later. And so we looked at the business model. We started talking to clients and we got into meetings with, like high-level business professionals and things like that. And it just wasn’t the most fulfilling world. So we looked at our business model. We said, well, how can we help more people?
How can we make an impact in the world? And that’s when we kind of came up with the idea of the subscription model of what you see now.
So we want to be able to help more people for less. We want to make a giant impact on the world. And we want to help people that actually benefit from the things that we do versus working with people and not necessarily feeling as if we were benefiting them or we’re providing any value.
Reshmi: You were talking about this subscription. So how does the subscription part work?
Johnathan: Yeah. So you go on to the website, you enter your credit card. It’s just like Netflix. It is no different. You sign up for Netflix you get access to a pool of thousands of videos and movies and things like that. You pay your fee, which is somewhere around five hundred dollars a month, and then you get access to a pool of graphic designers. We complete the graphic design on a maximum turnaround time of forty-eight hours. So usually most of our customers can receive anywhere from 10 to 40 completed designs on a monthly basis. And then they do whatever they want with it.
Reshmi: Are these graphic designers freelancers or have you hired them in your company?
Johnathan: Yeah, they’re all employees. While we don’t really call them employees, but they’re all team members. So we don’t want to go the freelance route because it’s inconsistent and not vetted. So we decided to hire every single individual to become a team member of Penji. And we do that because we can make sure that the quality is more consistent and we make sure that the customer feels a little bit safer because they know who they’re working with.
They’re not working with random freelancers that are going to change every week because they can come back with a graphic design and say, hey, I really like this person. And then we’ll be like, oh, you know, that person was a freelancer for the day. That’s it. Well, what happens if they want to work with them more of like a full-time basis? They can actually talk to the support team and communicate that to the person. And then we could find a way to schedule that person more for the business.
Reshmi: Now, how many designers are there at Penji?
Johnathan: So we have over 150 designers.
Reshmi: How many customers do you have right now?
Johnathan: I’m not able to answer the number of customers that we have right now, but what we can say is that we have over 150 designers and we do have over 1000 customers. I can say that, but I can’t give you specifics.
Reshmi: What kind of customers are you targeting? Small businesses or big corporates? Any difference like that?
Johnathan: Yeah. So a lot of our customer base is primarily agencies. They are also marketing teams. So when I say marketing teams, it’s somebody that is in charge of marketing that their job is too busy and they need help. So a lot of marketing professionals have the mind of a marketer. They have the creative brain, but they don’t have the technical capability to actually do it. And so that’s kind of where we come in.
Reshmi: OK, now, when we talk about marketing, part, back in 2017, that’s when Penji started right?! How did you market to the first few customers?
Johnathan: So I would say that I would break it down in certain stages, right, if you’re a startup listening right now, you want to be able to break it down in stages. The first stage is where you’re literally from zero to one hundred, a lot of our customer base, were our friends and family, I would say one hundred percent of our customer base within zero to one hundred was within a 15-mile radius of Philadelphia. Then we took that money that we profited and we didn’t take an ounce of that money for ourselves. We never paid ourselves. And we funnelled it back into the company by hiring more people, creating better technology and then advertising budget.
Then for the next two hundred comes into play is, while you’re working on those first hundred, you should be spending a certain amount of money on advertising in order to recoup that, to recoup more customers. In the meantime, you should be interviewing and looking at the data and figuring out, well, where are these customers coming from? Once we see where those customers are coming from, then it’s just a matter of scale. So then you could just say, OK, we put a million dollars into this because we know that this person that fits this description that lives in this area, that has this income class, that has this job title, they are very likely in order to become a customer of ours.
So we’re literally just in the process now of looking at our data, seeing how long it takes them to become a customer, looking at the keywords in which they’re searching for trying to optimize for SEO and write blogs in order for them to see the name of Penji. And then again, just keeping that funnel over and over again and pumping the engine, so to speak.
Reshmi: OK. Any particular marketing channels that you are focused on.
Johnathan: I would say right now, SEO and advertising in Google, LinkedIn and Facebook, but something else that’s super intriguing is what happens if Facebook goes down, right?
We saw the stock market in America go down for no reason, just illegal things happening to people that they just manipulated.
The brokers are manipulating the stock market. So if they have control, this is the stock market, one of the oldest entities in our nation. And these brokerages are able to just stop people from buying shares. So what’s that to say from Facebook doing something similar? I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but, you know, the big brother, they could come in and stop at any time. So you need to be able to think about, well, you know, yes, I’m using the marketing channel of Facebook and I’m using the marketing channel of LinkedIn and whatever you need to be able to have a marketing channel that you can call your own as well. And for us, that’s our website. And we’re also in the process of doing other things as well. But for the most part, our website is the sales engine.
And we need to be able to find ways to send as much traffic to that website as possible. Now, this only works if you are a business like ours. We are a SaaS type of company. So a lot of our sales come through our website. So we need to make sure that we’re sending as much traffic to our website as possible in order to get that sale. But if you’re a small business owner, that may be a scheduling base or meeting base or coffee base, whatever, in order to get your customers, how can you find more people to go to those networks to get that, whether that’s a Calendly link or whether that’s like leading a landing page or something like that, you need to have that source in order for you to drive results in traffic and sales.
Reshmi: Yeah, so that’s how you get more customers and how do you try to retain them?
Johnathan: Well, that’s the hard part, right? That’s the billion-dollar question. I think something that we do a really good job of is just being understanding and having empathy and being fair. I think a lot of the customers cancel our service because we do have cancellations, just like everybody else, churn is a thing. But, I can sit here confidently and say we did everything that we could in order to save them as a customer. A lot of times people think that because you received something from a graphic designer, it means that the whole company is bad and that’s not necessarily true.
So you have to educate your person and say, you know, this isn’t actually the case. But at the same time, I think we’re just really good people. I think we hire really good, really well. I think we have people on our team that work really hard. And I think that the customer sees that and we’re not robotic. We don’t have scripts that randomly just come out. We talk to them as if they’re human beings like I’m talking to you right now.
And that’s been something that’s been instrumental in my sector, which is customer support and sales. I want to make sure that our customers feel like they’re talking to a friend. And it’s not just like a robotic customer service platform. These are real human beings that have feelings. Some of them may not live in America.
And there is at times a prejudice against that. However, if we in my opinion, if we’re able to connect with them on a human level, I do feel like a lot of the barriers that when it comes to working with people potentially overseas, they do kind of diminish because we’re just talking to them on their level. Does that make sense?
Reshmi: Yeah, that makes sense. And when I read about Penji, one part that interested me is, you deliver the graphic design in 24 to 48 hours, right? How do you make that possible? Because there would be a lot of work involved, communicating with the clients, what they need, what are their requirements and then hiring the designers suited for the job.
Johnathan: Yeah. So Penji is not just a website. It’s an entire platform, so when a customer signs up for Penji, they have an ordering system that they can basically send their enquiry to the system.
The platform basically allows the customer to communicate with the designer in real-time or as close to real-time as possible. So when you submit a logo for your brand or 10, 15 social media posts. You can have that conversation with the designer, you can ask for revisions of the graphic design, you can submit new requests and kind of just like make a queue. So if you know that you have a content calendar that’s 50 days in advance, you can submit all of your requests. So the HOW is, this is just a ticket ordering system? It’s a glorified ticket ordering system. You submit X request for graphic design, we receive Y, and then we fulfil the order. No different than the McDonald’s, no different than a Starbucks. This is a little bit it looks a little bit different. Instead of coffee and Big Macs, it’s graphic design.
Reshmi: Well, actually, this concept of Penji is very different. I would be very interested to know who your competitors are?
Johnathan: I don’t want to give them the credibility in being mentioned right now because they don’t deserve to be mentioned. But a couple of things that I will say is that a lot of these freelance websites that you might possibly know, we are primarily trying to target the word “graphic design”. You know, that’s what we want to be known for. We don’t want to be known for unlimited graphic design, we don’t want to be known for freelance graphic design. We don’t want to be known for DIY graphic design or whatever marketplace graphic design like we want to be GRAPHIC DESIGN. And it’s up to us to figure out how to get the company to that notoriety of Penji, graphic design, etc.
Reshmi: OK, that’s great! We’ll come to the next point. We all know that a pandemic is happening. So what changed in Penji? How did you deal with that? Were there any changes or was it the same?
Johnathan: Not really, no. So we were. Already primarily remote as it is, the only difference is that our team members are just saying we’re in quarantine and we had to figure out cool ways to keep employee morale. So we just jumped on like we created a book club. We did weekly zoom meetings and things like that, kind of like increased employee morale. We created video game Slack channels. So in order for people to play video games with each other. So in short, nothing really changed. Our company wasn’t affected by COVID. Fortunately, you know, it sucks that a lot of people in the world have been affected by that. But for us in particular, the business definitely took a hit.
But what we realized is if, the graphic designers can be super expensive. 20, 30, 40, 50 thousand dollars a year, the people are sixty thousand dollars a year, people are spending on graphic designers and there’s definitely a speciality when it comes to graphic design that’s never going to go away. But sometimes people just need quick things like small stuff, and that’s kind of where we come into play. So rather than hiring that 20 to 60 thousand dollar a year employee, you can hire somebody like us and we’re only six thousand eight thousand nine thousand dollars a year.
Reshmi: Brilliant!! I’m very curious to know what what is the meaning of the name Penji? How did this come up?
Johnathan: Yeah. So if you think about like PDFs, then you think about JPEG right. And then you think about PNGs, you know, you can kind of get the idea of where it comes from.
Reshmi: Oh that’s interesting. I actually didn’t put that thought. Now the last part. I will ask two general questions. So which is the latest business book that you read or something if you would like to recommend.
Johnathan: So I’ll share a very cool, cool story, which I usually share when it comes to books. So I am not the best reader on the planet. I’ve definitely read I’m currently reading Blitzcaling, which has taken me about like a year to read. But in 2020 I told myself like I need to read more so I’m going to do anywhere from five to ten pages a day and night. Right. Just to kind of build, build that because I want to get better at reading.
However, one of the first books I ever read in business is called Never Get a Real Job by Scott Gerber. And it made a really large impact on me. And I ended up tweeting the person. In like 2013 or 14 or so, and I said, hey, I’m about to quit my job because I read your book and I feel really confident about it.
And then I created a podcast and I had him on my podcast and I showed him the tweet and I said, hey, you never responded. And I’ve quit my job and here we are.
So I guess the reason why I said is if you ever read a book and it made a really good impact on you, I highly recommend sending an email to the author because that can turn into a really cool relationship. And so because of myself getting him on the podcast and talking, etc I was able to meet some really amazing people. And he became a really good friend of mine.
So it’s something that I’m incredibly grateful for. And I think everybody else should. If you read a good book and you’re impacted, I think you should just reach out to the author.
Reshmi: OK, that’s very interesting and I would keep that in mind.
Johnathan: Yeah. I mean, an author is a human being. Right? So if a man or woman came up to you and said to you, hey, you know, you look amazing today or, wow, you’re so incredibly intelligent because you do a really good job, like who doesn’t want to hear that they look pretty or who doesn’t want to hear that they are smart human beings like celebrities are no different.
Reshmi: Yup. And, the second question is, because TeamWave itself is a project management software, so we would like to ask you, which project management tool do you use for Penji?
Johnathan: We don’t. Well, we have our own internal project management tool when it comes to project management tools. I’d say the basic answer is probably Trello. Trello for me has been something that I’ve used since day one. I am the type of person that doesn’t use a lot of apps. In fact, I have one screen on my phone. That’s it. I deleted every single app known to man and I only use Trello, Slack, Zoom, Spotify and all the Apple stuff, outside of that, outside of that, I use nothing else. I use Google Docs and Google Suites, but I’m the least app-friendly type of person on the planet.
Reshmi: Finally, we have come to the end of this interview. Anything that I missed out on, anything you want to talk about?
Johnathan: Um, you know, I guess something that I think is incredibly important is just at time that you sign up for a company and you pay for a service, make sure that you look into more about their background and their reason to why they exist.
I think now in today’s world of 2021 and experiencing what happened in 2020, we’re so quick to just buy things without actually reading about how it’s made or where it comes from or how it gets to you, to your mouth, to your plate or even how it receives in your inbox. And so I think the next time that you try and buy anything, just do a little homework beforehand and learn a little bit more about the company and be a little bit more invested, because I think by doing that, you might be able to have a better experience with said company. And so that’s just like my last little tip.
Reshmi: OK, that’s fantastic. And also there are many entrepreneurs who are watching, so, any special advice for them.
Johnathan: Yeah, I mean, I would say entrepreneurship is the most unsexy thing on planet Earth. It’s not what you think it is when you go on social media, when you go on social media and you scroll through Instagram and you see these people with nice cars and you see these people with beautiful houses and, you know, beautiful girlfriend or boyfriend or whatever it may be, a lot of people tend to get really jealous about that and they want to live that lifestyle. And I can tell you right now that that’s not really entrepreneurship. That’s just fake crap.
And it’s something that I feel really strongly about. And I don’t think that you should be thinking about that as well. If you’re trying to go through and create a business, it’s going to be really dark and really ugly for a very long time. And eventually that you’ll get paid and hopefully if you create something good that helps people. But I would say the advice that I would give is to just keep trying. And even though you want to jump off the ledge a couple of times and quit, everything balances out at the end. So I would say that for sure.
Reshmi: Have you ever thought about quitting?
Johnathan: Oh, every day. Yeah, 100 percent. Even now, you know, like, it’s hard but what keeps me going is just the end goal, right. Like I have an end goal that we want to do and. I want to be able to make an impact and be financially free, you know, full transparency and I don’t want to have to work. I am pretty lazy of a human being. But, yeah, I just think that drive to change the world to make money. I mean, yeah. I mean, those are the things that drive me.
Reshmi: OK, great. That’s all from our side Johnathan and also the advice for the audience is that if you’re looking for a graphic designer so you can connect with Penji and Johnathan and they would help you out.
Johnathan: Yeah, go to Penji.co
Reshmi: So nice to have you here. Thank you. Great talking to you.
Johnathan: Yeah, you, too. Thank you so much.