Simon chats with Xenia Muntean, CEO and Co-Founder of Planable, about styling great Instagram grids and building an effective content machine.
Planable is a content review and marketing collaboration platform used by over 5,000 teams behind brands such as Hyundai, Christian Louboutin, Viber, and United Nations. It speeds up the way social media campaigns are managed and makes planning, visualizing and approving social media posts easy and fun.
You can connect with Xenia here.
Simon Dell: So, welcome to the show Xenia Muntean. Now, that’s probably a terrible pronunciation but it is lovely to have you on the show.
Xenia Muntean: Thank you so much, Simon, for having me here.
Simon Dell: Now, there’s a couple of firsts here. Number one, you are the first person that I’ve ever interviewed on the podcast in Bucharest. So, that’s number one. And the second one is the fact that I have had two beers this evening already, so I think this is the first time I’ve done a podcast slightly under the influence of alcohol.
Xenia Muntean: I love it. Such a great combo.
Simon Dell: [laughs] So, the normal podcast length is 30 minutes. This could go on substantially long.
Xenia Muntean: Sounds good.
Simon Dell: And to be honest with you, if the fridge was closer, it probably would go on longer, but… So, tell me about Bucharest. That’s your home city but you also – or you have been working in London. Tell me a little bit about your company plan, and just your recent history in starting that up.
Xenia Muntean: Sure. Actually, a fun fact: I’m actually originally from the Republic of Moldova, so another first one, you know. You’re interviewing – first episode to interview someone from Bucharest, and first Moldavian, I bet, I’m very sure.
Simon Dell: Well, absolutely, yeah. And without meaning to sound horrible, most people probably couldn’t point out either Bucharest or Moldova on the map, could they, really?
Xenia Muntean: That’s fine. Somewhere in Eastern Europe. That’s fine.
Simon Dell: Somewhere in Eastern Europe, yeah.
Xenia Muntean: Yes. So yeah, I’m originally from Moldova. I’m currently based in Bucharest, and that’s the capital of Romania. So, you’ve probably heard about Transylvania and Dracula. That part of the world, vampires, yes. So yeah, I’m the CEO and Co-Founder of Planable, which doesn’t have anything to do with vampires.
It’s a tool for marketers to help them collaborate on content and on planning their social media editorial calendars. And I’ve been doing that for the past four years. I had a social media marketing agency before Planable, and that’s where I actually discovered the problem that we’re solving today with Planable, and that’s the boring stuff that happens in Excels, and spreadsheets, and emails when you’re trying to coordinate social media content. And we’re making that simpler and more streamlined, and just helping social media teams work together better.
Simon Dell: And because I’m going to ask you for an extended free trial after this podcast… Explain to everybody what social networks you can use with it, because I know some tools are sometimes restricted. What are you working with?
Xenia Muntean: Yeah. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and my personal favourite, one, Instagram. You know, the big four, we support them all.
Simon Dell: Okay. So, Planable has been running for a couple of years, was it? And obviously… I mean, if people want to go and see what Planable does, which I thoroughly recommend, planable.io. You can get what it does within two seconds of looking at the website, so we probably don’t need to go into that in massive detail.
Xenia Muntean: I agree, yes. It’s really straightforward.
Simon Dell: I guess the first question I wanted to ask you is: What made you want to solve that problem? Because I’ll be honest, we still use spreadsheets and I actually – one of my team members actually was setting up a spreadsheet today. What made you want to solve that problem? Because we all know that problem is there, but what drove you to actually get off your ass and solve that problem?
Xenia Muntean: I am a highly visual person, and I feel like when I was working in spreadsheets back in my agency days, I just hated the process because it wasn’t visual enough. I also have a background as a graphic designer. And I remember back in my agency days, we were using stuff like InVision. Some of you might have heard about InVision, it’s like a collaboration tool for designers. And then loved it. I felt like it was helping me so so much to get feedback from clients on design work.
And then when I had to get feedback and approvals and just collaborate with my clients, but also internally with my team on content for social, I had to use this very clunky spreadsheet and spend a lot of time to format it. And in the end, I wasn’t even satisfied with how it looked. I didn’t feel like it was visual enough and I didn’t feel like my clients… I didn’t feel like I’m putting my work in the best light. And because of this kind of attraction to design and because I’m such a visual person, I think that’s what made me just stand up and say that “Hey, we should have a better way of working on this kind of stuff.” And that’s what made me try and solve it.
Simon Dell: So, two questions I’ve got around this startup. I don’t want to dwell too much on the startup side of things, but I do want to ask a couple of questions from there. Number one: When you’ve decided that you wanted to go and build this piece of software, what’s the first step? Because building a piece of software is not a small job. Do you have co-founders that could build the software? How did you fund it? What was the kind of really early stages there for you?
Xenia Muntean: Yeah. I think it was a lot of prototyping and a lot of customer development interviews. Like, sitting with people in our industry that could potentially become our customers, showing them some mockups, some wireframes on how the product would look like. Because we knew that this could be an edge case.
We weren’t sure if this problem is something that just agencies in Eastern Europe have, or this is a niche that most social media teams on the agency side, on the brand side, in New York and South Africa struggle with. Or is it just an isolated problem, an edge case, far worse? So, that’s why we did a lot of customer interviews in the early days. And yeah, we were – and still are – three co-founders behind Planable.
And I think that’s extremely important to just have a partner in crime when you’re building a startup. It’s extremely important, and we, us, the three co-founders, we have very complementary skills. I’m on the business side, another co-founder is our CTO, so he developed – he coded the product from zero, from scratch. And then another co-founder is on the sales and marketing side. So, it’s extremely important to find people that complement you. And just have someone, you know, you can count on when things are tough, and they will certainly be in the startup life.
Simon Dell: It’s interesting you say. So, one of those steps in those early days was you to actually prototype it, to show people the visual side of what it was that you wanted to create.
Xenia Muntean: Yeah. Again, going back to the visual, being like a visual learner. I felt like you needed to show people something. And even now, I prefer to show you the platform rather than explain it to you because you’re going to understand it much quicker if you see it rather than try and explain it with words, which is a bit more difficult.
Simon Dell: And it’s interesting you say that. The reason I hone in on that was because… And I’m probably going to get this wrong because I read a lot of books but I never really remember the books I’ve read. And I know you have someone who used to work for Uber working for you, but I always read the story… I think it was Travis Kalanick. It might’ve been the Uber founder or the Airbnb founder, but I’m pretty sure it was the Uber founder.
Before he did anything, he actually designed all these screens for the Uber app. Really, right at the start, before there was a business plan, he designed all the screens for the Uber app and showed them to people and said, “Is this interesting? Does this work?” Obviously showing them a live app version, but you’re showing them the screens and getting feedback at that point. And I guess that’s a really relatively cheap and easy way to test your theory about a new business.
Xenia Muntean: Yeah, an even cheaper one, and I’ve seen startups do it: Just throw a landing page and put a subscribe thing and see if people show interest. Like a landing page where you may put a mockup and you explain the product and see what kind of interest it creates. That’s even cheaper than the other one. And then if you see a bit of interest, you can take it to the next level, like prototype it. And luckily, there’s a bunch of stores out there like InVision, and Marvel App, and some other ones that you can almost create an app experience – no code, just tying together the screens. You can almost mimic the entire experience of the app just with mockups and designs.
Simon Dell: I think I’ve used InVision, and if I remember rightly… I have zero graphic design skills. There’s some great apps out there where you can just like little drag buttons and sections and things like that.
Xenia Muntean: Exactly, and trigger actions, yeah.
Simon Dell: Yeah, you don’t have to have any graphic design skills. You just have to think it through, I guess.
Xenia Muntean: That’s correct, yeah.
Simon Dell: Okay, so let’s talk about… Social media, obviously your passion. The two things we were going to discuss today is… One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you was about Instagram. This is going to seem a very narrow subject matter for people, but I don’t actually think it is because I think it’s a massively important part of using Instagram and growing your brand through Instagram, right, is to have that grid, have that… What is essentially the front page of your Instagram, right? To have that grid looking beautiful, looking on-brand. Tell me why that’s so important.
Xenia Muntean: I think it’s like your business card, almost, like your Instagram business card. And so many businesses have grown just purely out of Instagram: direct-to-consumer businesses, digital-only businesses, or even brick and mortar businesses that rely heavily on Instagram to promote their services or product. And I think it’s extremely important to have a grid that is carefully planned and that attention to detail is extremely important, because that’s your image. That’s like your landing page if you rely heavily on Instagram.
And there’s so many businesses out there that don’t even have a website, just Instagram is their home in terms of content and in terms of marketing, in terms of their audience. So, that’s why I think it’s extremely… It just creates a specific image about yourself because it’s so flexible. You can do so many things with it, and it also helps you stand out quite a lot. If you create a great impression, which can potentially increase the number of people who follow you after visiting your page, check your page more frequently, and it’s just aesthetically pleasing.
It gives you the opportunity to brand your profile even more and maybe stand out from your competitors that are not doing that. It kind of creates a vibe that these people are serious, they’re really putting in the effort of planning this thing. I might want to, you know, follow them, seems like they’re doing a good job. So yeah, I think that’s why it’s like extremely… There’s cons, obviously. It’s not easy to plan a layout if you want to actually design it – not just throw a post on it randomly, but like if you want to design it, there’s obviously cons to have to think, right? Like, if you design a very specific type of layout, there’s a bunch of disadvantages to it.
But I think it is worth it if you want to go that route and figure it’s so important, it’s totally worth it.
Simon Dell: I mean, we’ve been trying to do better at it, right? We got a new brand that we had at the marketplace for about 3 months now. And we’ve been trying to make our posts, make that Instagram feed flow better, look better, have a consistent brand, and visual structure. And then what happens is then I take a photo and post it out there when I’ve had a couple of beers on a Friday night. And it ruins the entire aesthetics of the brand.
Xenia Muntean: I agree so much. So, that’s one of the disadvantages. Like, if you go that route, you don’t really have the freedom of posting ad hoc content. Like, it always needs to be planned. You don’t have that liberty of just throwing a post there, you know, real-time content, it’s not really doable. Like, you need to plan it.
Simon Dell: Yeah, and in that sense, perhaps social media managers who are out there ought to take away the login details from their CEOs and things like that so that they can’t do those kinds of things.
Xenia Muntean: [laughs] Hide them.
Simon Dell: Yeah.
Xenia Muntean: Yes, but on the other side, the flip side of this is that it also allows you to bulk create content and schedule everything in advance, so it kind of automates things in a way. It forces you to automate things because you can’t just boast ad hoc. So, you maybe create some kind of discipline, and that’s good. We need that.
Simon Dell: Obviously, I guess the important thing is to understand your brand, your visual elements of your brand so that you can do this. I guess you need to understand the colours. You only need to understand the brand graphics. Is it better left in the hands of somebody visual like yourself, like a graphic designer? Is that somebody that you think would be doing a better job of this?
Xenia Muntean: Sure. If you have that kind of resource, yes, definitely. If you have like a marketer or a freelancer that’s helping you out with that kind of stuff, or like a designer, or if you’re one yourself, definitely. But it’s not rocket science, right? It’s really doable.
You can just read a bunch of articles, get yourself some filter apps, and just do it yourself. And again, because it allows you – because if you plan like a grid and if you design a grid, you can just plan it for a month in advance as much as possible. You can tweak it afterwards, add some other content in the meanwhile, but it’s – what I want to say is that it’s not rocket science. It’s just – you can read about a couple of articles on that and I think you should be good to go.
Simon Dell: And then there’s tools like Canva out there which you can sign up and pay a small amount of money.
Xenia Muntean: Yeah, or VSCO for filters. Again, paid as well. I think they have like 10 free filters that you can use, but it’s quite cheap to buy. You pay for a year in advance and I think it’s like $10, something like that.
Simon Dell: What was that called? VSCO?
Xenia Muntean: Yes, VSCO. V-S-C-O, and it’s like probably the best app out there on filters and stuff. There’s a bunch of other ones, but this one is like very – it has a lot of filters and a lot of options on editing photos.
Simon Dell: Okay, that’s cool. You mentioned before we started the podcast that you’ve also been helping out your mother with – was it her Instagram feed?
Xenia Muntean: Yes.
Simon Dell: Wait, so explain to me what your mother does because… What business is she in?
Xenia Muntean: She has a floral business. So, she makes crowns with flowers for like events like weddings and stuff like that. And I help her manage her Instagram grid. And I love it. I love it so much. It’s so visual and I think running a tech business, I think I’ve missed that visual side of things, working with real-life products, physical products that you can take photos of and align them in a beautiful grid. I missed that a lot.
And yeah, I’ve been helping her quite a lot with that, and that’s how I started working with disco and really got obsessed with planning Instagram grids. And I looked into – there’s formats of Instagram grids. There’s different types of ways you can actually arrange your grid. And they have names. There’s like the checkerboard grid, even just like the background colours, you alternate, you know. Light and dark background colours, and it’s mostly used with quotes and text. And a bunch of other formats. I can go through them if you want. They’re pretty interesting. But yeah.
Simon Dell: Give us a couple of examples, yeah. I never realized they all actually had names.
Xenia Muntean: Yeah. So, it’s like the…
Simon Dell: I guess that makes sense that they do, so yeah.
Xenia Muntean: Yeah, and there’s like the text line grid, which you know, you’ve probably seen that. It’s like you have one row in your grid, one of those three rows in your grid that’s like photos with text, right? And the other ones are like photos. One is text images and flat background, flat colour background and the other ones are photos.
And then there was a couple of years ago, the border grids were very, very popular, which was basically like giving an extra white space frame to your photos, making the white space between photos larger, bigger. And then there’s I think a complicated type of grid is the rainbow grid, which is like you transition through your photos and your photos have specific colours, like blue photos, and then you transition to green photos, yellow, and so on. Those are like very difficult to make and to plan.
Then I think the most complicated one, which I’ve seen gorgeous grids that have this type of layout but it’s just so hard to do it. It’s like the puzzle grid. But it’s like very strategic and very painful, but it’s also such a beautiful form of art on Instagram. And you know, the puzzle grid is basically each photo contains some kind of element and is connected with all its neighbour posts. And it all creates an entire image but it’s so hard because you need to start with like a template.
And with all of those grids, actually talking about all of these layouts, you actually need to have the design of the grid before you even think about individual pictures of posts, which I think is extremely – it’s hard to do, but once you set up, once you pick your type of layout, it is doable. You start with one of those formats, and you just go ahead and you plan it. So yeah, it’s an interesting world, I have to say that.
Simon Dell: I’m actually been, speaking of, Googled puzzle grid Instagrams. So, anyone who wants to know what puzzle grid Instagram is, go and do that. There’s some stunning, stunning examples of puzzle grids, just under that Google search itself. I mean, they do look complicated but obviously, they have a massive impact.
And I guess if you’re running a consumer brand that’s focused, very visually-focused like fashion, or beauty, or those kinds of things. That’s a fantastic option for you. But I also guess if you wanted to use Instagram in a non-consumer brand, there’s no reason why you couldn’t be using a puzzle grid or any other grid.
Again, I did another search that was “best Instagram grids” and there’s great links for some really good examples of those grids. I guess I’m going to answer my own question here, but I guess the reason that you would use Instagram is if your target market was on Instagram. So, maybe if you’re a B2B business or maybe if you’re targeting a demographic that doesn’t use Instagram that much, then you might not do it. But I guess anybody could really create these puzzle grids, couldn’t they?
Xenia Muntean: I 100% agree. And I would say that even if you’re a B2B business, it could also work with B2B businesses. From what I’ve seen, they are using quite a lot of the checkerboard grids because it allows you to use a lot of text on it. And also, the text language, right? Like, I’ve seen B2B businesses using Instagram for employer branding, and potentially using one line of the grid for their products.
They don’t exclude the product or the service altogether from the grid, and there are two rows for employer branding stuff, like new people in their team, how they’re working, and post a bunch of other stuff. So, I don’t think it’s consumer-only. I think it can be used for B2B businesses as well, but it’s very flexible. You can use it, and you can plan your Instagram grid and design it, and have it beautifully made. As long as your audience is present on Instagram, then yes. Go ahead. This could really work out for you.
Simon Dell: My second question for you today is how you stay constant on these channels. My first question is: Should you stay constant on the channels, and the second question is, how do you do that? Small to medium-size businesses, where perhaps they haven’t got that internal resource, or perhaps they’re scratching their heads as to how much content they can actually produce. How do they tackle that kind of problem?
Xenia Muntean: Yeah. I think it’s extremely important to be consistent on Instagram. So, I wouldn’t necessarily say that you need to post two times a day. No, not at all. You just need to pick your own frequency, like what works for your brand and what works for the type of resources that you have.
Like, in the beginning for my mom’s account, I was posting about once a day just to ramp up things. Like, the account was pretty new and needed to gather a bit of an audience, so I obviously needed to post a bit more often so that the grid doesn’t look empty. But afterwards, the events and winter are coming, so there’s not that many events, so the seasonality plays a big role in this particular business.
So, we’re posting a bit less. We’re posting two times a week, and that’s very doable for any kind of business. I think it’s pretty doable. That’s like 10 posts a month, right? I’m sure you can recycle some of the content. We’re using quite a lot of photos from our own customers, as you can imagine, like from the weddings, from the events, and reposting it on our own channels. So, you can find content for 10 posts and that is doable. But if it’s like your season, like the active season, probably a bit more.
So, it really depends on the type of business that you have. But it is important to be consistent and to post on a regular basis, because then it gets out of hand. It’s just about the discipline for yourself, like if you start – if you miss one week, you might kind of slow down the posting or forget about your Instagram account. So, that’s why I think you need consistency. You need to build that habit of planning.
Pick one week in the month or a few days in the month where you plan ahead for your entire month. You schedule them all. You find some kind of tool that helps you with the grid and grid scheduling – wink wink, Planable potentially, or not – there’s a bunch of tools out there. Basically, you can automate that type of stuff and it doesn’t need to take a lot of your time.
Simon Dell: I had a conversation a couple of episodes ago around social media and content production with a previous guest, Thibaud Clement. He suggested consistency beats creativity. And what’s been interesting is that we’ve taken that on board certainly in the last 2 or 3 weeks with our internal marketing people.
And I believe that now. People used to talk about producing – you need to produce this amazing content that gets people’s attention. People used to talk about the effort that you needed to put into good content, or one good content piece was worth more than 10 average content pieces. But his statement about consistency beats creativity, to me, rings true. And you being in that space, I kind of wanted to ask you that same question and see what you thought.
Xenia Muntean: Yeah. I agree and disagree a little bit. I agree in certain situations. I agree because like, there’s a saying, “90% of success is just showing up.”
Simon Dell: Yeah, that’s absolutely true.
Xenia Muntean: So, you need to be there. You need to put yourself out there. And also, another saying: Perfection is the enemy of good. So, I think if you try to think too much about, “How can I make it extremely creative? How can I make it better?” You’re never going to communicate. You’re never going to post. You’ve never going to market your product. You’re never going to launch. So, I think I agree with that from that perspective.
But then on the other side, consistency might not work for some specific channels. Like, for example, if you want to do SEO a lot for your business, then there, quality beats quantity quite a lot. You need long articles, very well-researched, very thoroughly-written. That doesn’t work in those circumstances. I think for social specifically, yes, I agree, but not for everything in the marketing world – but social specifically, yes, I think consistency is sometimes more important than just creativity.
Simon Dell: My last question for you today – to take you back to your digital marketing days, your digital agency days. And I want you to put social media aside. Let’s pretend social media doesn’t happen, never happened.
If you were sitting advising a client, what’s the one piece of advice that you would potentially give them from a marketing perspective about growing a business? And again, social media, you can’t talk about that. So, I want to hear about all those other channels and ideas. What’s been the most effective that you think people should focus on as well as social media? You mentioned SEO there.
Xenia Muntean: Yeah, I want to double down on that, actually. I think content is the big trend nowadays, right? Everyone is creating content. But I think one thing that people are forgetting – we’ve definitely made this mistake inside Planable, even, and in my previous agency as well. One thing that people forget is that you can’t just build content and expect people to come. If content is not being sponsored, it’s not going to draw traffic, or if content is not optimized for search engines, it’s not going to draw traffic.
You can’t just build it and expect people to come. You’ve got to either optimize it for search engines or pay for it. Those are the only two options. Or if you get lucky, like you build some kind of viral content and then it takes off… The chances are very slim and you can’t plan for that. You can’t plan viral content, so yeah, I guess that’s one thing that people forget. They put a lot of effort into building this amazing content, but then forget about distribution and how that content is actually going to drive traffic and bring an audience.
Simon Dell: When I talk to clients about marketing and doing types of marketing, I always tell them there’s three types of marketing. There’s lead generation. There’s branding. There’s nurturing. And when you talk about content, content is, to me, a great example of nurture marketing because you’re nurturing your relationship with clients or people that know you by producing good quality content.
But you’re 110% right that it’s all well and good, you doing nurture marketing, creating content, all those kinds of things. If you never tell anybody that that content is there, you’re entirely wasting your time.
Xenia Muntean: Yep, I agree, and you usually put on a lot of effort into creating particular content like a campaign, maybe like an e-book. If we’re talking about B2B businesses, like whitepapers, academies, a bunch of other things you could do. There’s a lot of resources, money, and time that you put in building that content. It’s hugely expensive to build meaningful, valuable content. It’s not easy. And then you totally forget about how people are going to see it, how they’re going to discover it.
Simon Dell: Yeah, I think that’s massive. I think people completely forget that point. And invariably, nowadays, you have to go, “Well, I’m going to have to actually spend some money to get people to look at this.” That is the stark reality of the world, whether it’s social media or whether it’s SEO, whether it’s Google Adwords, or whether it’s a billboard, or whatever it is. You’re going to have to spend money, time, effort, something to drive people to look at that content.
Alright, okay, that’s pretty much all the questions I have for you. I have one more I’m going to ask you. And given that you’re in Bucharest, I’m going to ask you something no one else would’ve seen. I often ask people about their favourite brands, right? Brands that impact them or brands that they envy, that they see do a good job all the time. That’s the gold standard for marketing and branding. What is that in Romania? What’s the brand that stands out the most in Romania?
Xenia Muntean: That’s a tough one. It’s probably a bank, to be honest.
Simon Dell: Wow, that’s fairly depressing.
Xenia Muntean: Yeah, or maybe like from a tech perspective, I think there’s a company that is doing a great job with branding themselves, and it’s usually hard to brand tech companies. And this particular one has all the resources because they’re like a unicorn. They raised like hundreds of millions so far, so they do have the resources to make it easy.
It’s called UiPath, one of the biggest enterprise companies right now, and probably one of the most successful ones. And definitely, a more successful example and story that came out of Romania. We don’t have too many consumer companies. Europeans, it’s mostly enterprise. Thinking about consumer companies born in Europe, I can only think about Skype and Spotify, probably. So, it’s usually not very sexy stuff in terms of marketing.
Simon Dell: I was going to say, no amazing fashion brands that have come out of Romania?
Xenia Muntean: No.
Simon Dell: I couldn’t think of one either, but yeah. Anyway, look, thank you very much for your time. I appreciate your time and your thoughts, and I know we’re over a big time difference here, so I appreciate that.
Xenia Muntean: Thanks a lot, Simon.
Simon Dell: Last question: If people want to get a hold of you, if people want to ask you a question or they want to see your products, or they want to use your products, what’s the best way of getting a hold of you or reaching out to you?
Xenia Muntean: Sure. If you want to give Planable a spin, you can just go to our website, Planable.io. And then if you want to chat with me, I’m more than happy to connect on LinkedIn. I do hang out on LinkedIn quite a lot, so send me a connection request. Tell me that you’ve heard me on this podcast, and yeah, I would be very happy to chat with you.
Simon Dell: Xenia, thank you very much for your time. It has been an absolute pleasure, and good luck with everything in the future.
Xenia Muntean: Thanks so much, Simon. I had a blast.