Stefan Smulders' Strategy: Achieving $0 to $10M ARR Using LinkedIn

Created On:
July 27, 2023
Updated On:
February 26, 2024
Stefan Smulders Interview

In the ever-evolving world of marketing, one strategy has proven its effectiveness time and again: LinkedIn outreach. With a staggering 65 million business decision-makers on the platform, it's crucial for outreach professionals to adapt and personalize their approaches to capture the attention of their target audience.

Generic templates and pitches are no longer enough to generate meaningful responses. Today, successful LinkedIn outreach requires a blend of personalization, creativity, strategic thinking, and relevant offers that resonate with prospects.

In this insightful interview conducted by Vaibhav Namburi, Founder and Director of, we gain valuable insights from Stefan Smulders, the founder of Expandi, an all-in-one LinkedIn automation software. Stefan reveals his secrets to winning first customers and how to do LinkedIn the proper way. Get ready to enhance your outreach game and skyrocket your results. Let's delve into the interview.

Q1: Why do people pay you? 

Stefan: “Yeah, because we provide the best software to help people get better results, mainly for LinkedIn outreach.”

Q2: So for those who are trying to sort of jump into automation and especially LinkedIn, what are some admin restrictions LinkedIn has these days that you advise people to be careful of?

Stefan: “Since 2021 LinkedIn changed a lot of things on the platform to fight spam. They reduced the amount of actions people do on the platform; kind of a spray and pray approach. LinkedIn is heading more towards this situation where they want you to contribute to creating content and be active there as well.

The way we do outreach on LinkedIn, that's changing. It's not enough anymore to just simply send a connection request and a follow up message. It's more, I should say, social engaging. And if you take a step back, go out of your comfort zone and try to adopt these new ways of commenting on people's posts, trying to build authority of personal brand by creating in a consistent way each and every day and use that as a starting point to engage and outreach people. I think that will make much more sense. But if you just talk purely about outreach numbers, I think 20 connection requests are acceptable and we can help you as well with 800 open emails and of course we have some hacks to bypass all these limits, but it's not my style and not a favorite thing to do.”

Q3: Why do outbound experts like you suggest doing outbound to validate your agency, your business, and your offering versus paid ads? 

Stefan: “As a bootstrapped founder, when we were in the beginning of our journey, we had to come up with out of the box  low cost strategies. So I'm actually used to doing the opposite and compared to paying that for placements. But lately I also see that you can scale really really fast through paid advertising.”

Q4: I want to ask about how Expandi acquired their first 1000 customers?

Stefan: “It's an interesting question. After we started to find the right audiences on the local market, I thought we actually need to find people who are already in love with LinkedIn because it will save me some time in demo calls to sell. And people were already using automations.

So as a former agency owner, I knew exactly all the faults of all these tools. So I made a kind of comparison. I took the most spammy tool as an example and I built a comparison page first of all and secondly, I scraped all their social communities and then I converted these, these person's email addresses into LinkedIn profiles.

I uploaded them in Expandi and used a soft outreach approach just to become friends. We asked if we both love competitor XYZ and I want to run some questions for you. Would you like to give me some tips? And we booked tons and tons of calls using that approach. What I did was I actually just asked all these people, um, what, what were the worst things using the tool.

And then they only needed to say, if I can solve it, would that work for you to jump over to Expandi? And so that was a starting point and we got real traction as we wrote a playbook out of this exact strategy, how we booked these 40 partners a week, how we scraped these competitors, the how the why, the examples, the proofs, the resources, screenshots, everything in it.

And then we started heavily distributing these not so optimized articles in the early days as we had no SEO expertise in and within our company. We distributed it using my LinkedIn profile at the time to all the Facebook community, growth hacking groups, agency groups, and indie hack obsessed core growth hackers and that gave us a lot of a lot of traction.

I think within six months we reached it mainly by using similar playbook strategies. After launching our product. And we did that together. These strategies, this Facebook strategy. So we actually use our own tool to design the best out of the box strategies and well, only the ones which performed really, really well. We took them apart to create playbooks out of it and started distributing that to the community.

And secondly, I invested heavily in building relationships with micro-influencers. So I manually went to Google, I picked up all books, articles, and people who were talking about LinkedIn automation. I recommended another tool and I found their LinkedIn profile using Expandi to just try to become friends with them, like Mark Makarenko, who is currently our CMO.”

Q5: But how do you create relationships with these people without sounding too salesy like they know you're coming to be their friends, they have the audience. So do you mind sharing some tips? 

Stefan: Let's break down two cases which brought us a lot of revenue. One of them is the case of Max Makarenko. He has a huge Russian speaking audience and we gave him quite a good percentage in an affiliate model, actually an ambassador role.

Then he slowly got convinced in comparing the current tools he was using that our one was way better fit for him. And so we actually gave more than we asked back. 

Q6: If you were to tell someone something about getting their first paying customer in two weeks, what are three things you would do if you're starting from zero right now? 

Stefan: “Yeah, you should start building a personal brand and start building authority on Twitter or on LinkedIn. Twitter is a really great resource to follow the most interesting people, people who are sharing value giving all these things away. So I should definitely focus on building out a personal brand, start sharing builtin public as feedback. Try to create a community, a safe place where you can push all people who want to engage with you. Yeah, I'm more kind of a community marketer.” 

Q7: On that note of building up a community based growth engine, can you explain to me how you personally personalize that skill using LinkedIn or even Expandi?

Stefan: I'm not a hard seller, so I love soft approaches. I do it in a way with a soft approach and I outreach to people on LinkedIn these days with a strong angle. So the starting point needs to be on point.

It can be people who engage with a similar post or in my content and use that. And people who plan to go to a similar event. This one is still working really well.

Or someone's attending a group or another event as well. Is that something you can do with expanding or what would you recommend to do something about that? Yeah, well, all these things just mentioned are able to ecstatically do expanding that look fantastic. Fantastic, fantastic. Now comes the next thing that I wanted to ask you, which is if you've got a lot of customers that are very successful.”

Q8: Now, for the ones who are already successful, what is the most common trait that you've seen?

Stefan: “I think you need to be consistent. You need to show up each and every day and fill your pipelines and do your searches, clean your lists, and make sure that things are running each and every day.

And, you know, most of the people suggest that they do one service to push people and they forget to follow up. They do not refill it. So I should definitely say consistency is the biggest marker.”

Did you know 60% of all customers refuse four times before saying a yes. This proves that follow-up is an extremely important process for sales engagement. With Smartlead, you can create as many follow-up emails you want and also create subsequences based on received replies. 

Here’s a suggested follow-up cycle: 

  • Day 3: first follow-up
  • Day 7: second follow-up (value addition)
  • Day 11: third follow-up (value addition)
  • Day 15: fourth follow-up (case study/testimonials) 
  • Day 19: fifth follow-up
  • Day 22: final follow-up/breakup email 

Q9: Do you mind sort of walking us through what the anatomy of a successful outbound campaign looks like? How many follow ups do you send? Do you use lead magnets? 

Stefan: “Our sales team is using a different approach as I do as a founder. We all try to build our authority, step a bit more in the content game, and use that as a starting point and so as I mentioned before, I like more soft approaches.

And I became quite successful with giveaway strategies on Twitter and also on LinkedIn. My latest LinkedIn post got close to a million views. So as a lead magnet added thereSo this is the main strategy I used in the early stage. It's a giveaway strategy with lead magnets connected and follow up on that afterwards. 

And I can put some retargeting on the lead magnet and they need to fill in for us an email address. I will also mention it's not spammy just to ask for feedback on it. So then they are in our ecosystem and then we can nurture them slowly.

So, if you purely speak about outbound, I should start on LinkedIn as this is by far the best data source that has the most accurate data out there and quite easy ways to find great people.

And we are all only focused on LinkedIn, mainly to gain new people, get new followers, make more connections, and nobody's actually leveraging first degree connections. So it's a great opportunity to invite a master pilot or your first degree connections or after making sales next search.

Also, you can do it by running an event and using an event invite to expand the audience base. This is such a simple strategy, you can gain a thousand attendees. You already have these people because they opt in with an email address. After the event you can follow up. You can nurture them.” 

Q10: What are three hot niches you see that have picked up heat recently through your customers and stuff?

Stefan: “I think yeah agencies are growing fast. You can leverage their community and push as much value as you can. Also, I think SaaS is growing super fast.” 

Q11: As someone again, who gets LinkedIn more than anyone, what are three things every LinkedIn outbound campaign should have? 

Stefan: “I may be boring, but it all depends on your profile. That's just the starting point. That's how people see you. So I just always recommend to make it catchy, to have a great headline and to have a on point, a background and profile image with the summary and targeting is becoming more important than ever. If you're not able to create content on your own, just scrape it from other people who can do it really well, which resonates with your audience and personalizes it for your audience.”


This interview sheds light on the increasing challenges surrounding LinkedIn outreach. Stefan highlighted the evolving user experience on LinkedIn, the way people build personal brands, and drive engagement. The interview also discusses the top tips to do outbound lead gen, particularly with LinkedIn, and how to build a brand from scratch. Furthermore, Stefan emphasized on the importance of following up for better engagement in your campaigns and free value addition. 

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Author’s Details

Sattwik Das

Sattwik is a Digital Marketing professional at Smartlead. He is a dedicated content writer who focuses on juggling words to bring out meaningful content. He is experienced in well-researched and SEO-optimized content creation, content editing, and copywriting for various businesses throughout the globe. His expertise in SEO, SMM, and SMO with a touch of creativity helps businesses grow and maximize their credibility and sales.


Edited by:

Charu Mitra Dubey


Frequently asked questions

General Questions

What is Smartlead's cold email outreach software?

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Smartlead's cold email outreach tool helps businesses scale their outreach efforts seamlessly. With unlimited mailboxes, fully automated email warmup functionality, a multi-channel infrastructure, and a user-friendly unibox, it empowers users to manage their entire revenue cycle in one place. Whether you're looking to streamline cold email campaigns with automated email warmups, personalization fields, automated mailbox rotation, easy integrations, and spintax, improve productivity, or enhance scalability with subsequences based on lead’s intentions, automated replies, and full white-label experience, our cold email tool implifies it in a single solution.

How does the "unlimited mailboxes" feature benefit me?

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Our "unlimited mailboxes" feature allows you to expand your email communications without restrictions imposed by a mailbox limit. This means you won't be constrained by artificial caps on the number of mailboxes you can connect and use. This feature makes Smartlead the best cold email software and empowers you to reach a wider audience, engage with more potential customers, and manage diverse email campaigns effectively.

What do you mean by "unibox to handle your entire revenue cycle"?

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The "unibox" is one of the unique features of Smartlead cold email outreach tool, and it's a game-changer when it comes to managing your revenue cycle. The master inbox or the unibox consolidates all your outreach channels, responses, sales follow-ups, and conversions into one centralized, user-friendly mailbox.

With the "unibox," you gain the ability to:
1. Focus on closing deals: You can now say goodbye to the hassle of logging into multiple mailboxes to search for replies. The "unibox" streamlines your sales communication, allowing you to focus on what matters most—closing deals.

2. Centralized lead management: All your leads are managed from one central location, simplifying lead tracking and response management. This ensures you take advantage of every opportunity and efficiently engage with your prospects.

3. Maintain context: The "unibox" provides a 360-degree view of all your customer messages, allowing you to maintain context and deliver more personalized and effective responses.

How does Smartlead ensure my emails don't land in the spam folder?

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Smartlead, the best cold email marketing tool, ensures your emails reach the intended recipients' primary inbox rather than the spam folder. 

Here's how it works:
1. Our "unlimited warmups" feature is designed to build and maintain a healthy sending reputation for your cold email outreach. Instead of sending a large volume of emails all at once, which can trigger spam filters, we gradually ramp up your sending volume. This gradual approach, combined with positive email interactions, helps boost your email deliverability rates.

2. We deploy high-deliverability IP servers specific to each campaign. 

3. The ‘Warmup’ feature replicates humanized email sending patterns, spintax, and smart replies.
4. By establishing a positive sender reputation and gradually increasing the number of sent emails, Smartlead minimizes the risk of your emails being flagged as spam. This way, you can be confident that your messages will consistently land in the primary inbox, increasing the likelihood of engagement and successful communication with your recipients.

Can I integrate Smartlead with other tools I'm using?

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Certainly, Smartlead is designed for seamless integration with a wide range of tools and platforms. Smartlead offers integration with HubSpot, Salesforce, Pipedrive, Clay, Listkit, and more. You can leverage webhooks and APIs to integrate the tools you use. Try Now!

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What type of businesses sees the most success with Smartlead?

No, there are no limitations on the number of channels you can utilize with Smartlead. Our multi-channel infrastructure is designed to be limitless, allowing you to reach potential customers through multiple avenues without constraints.

This flexibility empowers you to diversify your cold email outreach efforts, connect with your audience through various communication channels, and increase your chances of conversion. Whether email, social media, SMS, or other communication methods, Smartlead's multi-channel capabilities ensure you can choose the channels that best align with your outreach strategy and business goals. This way, you can engage with your prospects effectively and maximize the impact of your email outreach.

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Do you provide me with lead sources?

Smartlead distinguishes itself from other cold email outreach software by focusing on limitless scalability and seamless integration. While many similar tools restrict your outreach capabilities, Smartlead offers a different approach.

Here's what makes us uniquely the best cold email software:

1. Unlimited Mailboxes: In contrast to platforms that limit mailbox usage, Smartlead provides unlimited mailboxes. This means you can expand your outreach without any arbitrary constraints.

2. Unique IP Servers: Smartlead offers unique IP servers for every campaign it sends out. 

3. Sender Reputation Protection: Smartlead protects your sender reputation by auto-moving emails from spam folders to the primary inbox. This tool uses unique identifiers to cloak all warmup emails from being recognized by automation parsers. 

4. Automated Warmup: Smartlead’s warmup functionality enhances your sender reputation and improves email deliverability by maintaining humanized email sending patterns and ramping up the sending volume. 

5. Multi-Channel Emphasis: Smartlead places a strong emphasis on multi-channel outreach. You can reach your prospects where they are with the LinkedIn outreach feature.   With Smartlead’s cold email automation software, you're always one step ahead in your outreach efforts, enjoying the freedom to scale your initiatives and seamlessly integrate with other tools—all while maintaining a focus on maximizing the impact of your outreach.

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How secure is my data with Smartlead?

Ensuring the security of your data is Smartlead's utmost priority. We implement robust encryption methods and stringent security measures to guarantee the continuous protection of your information. Your data's safety is paramount to us, and we are always dedicated to upholding the highest standards of security.

How can I get started with Smartlead?

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Getting started with Smartlead is straightforward! Just head over to our sign-up page and follow our easy step-by-step guide. If you ever have any questions or need assistance, our round-the-clock support team is ready to help, standing by to provide you with any assistance you may require. Sign Up Now!

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