eFounders’ Letter 2: After 3 years and 9 startups built, here is what we’ve learned
Have you checked our website+newsletter about startup studios, “BuildTogether”? http://buildtogether.co/
One year after our eFounders’ letter #1 “DNA of a startup studio”, we decided it was only time to reflect upon what happened, how we developed our startup studio model, and which lessons we learned. The goal of these letters are to provide more transparency, avoid misconceptions and false information about our model, and hopefully, bring value to the startup ecosystem.
We have been building 9 startups so far. Four of them are completely independent (Textmaster, Mention, Pressking, Mailjet) which means we don’t play any role in operations anymore, we just act as insightful board members. Two of them are just being launched (Front, Aircall) and are entering their go-to-market phase. They should be 100% independent by the beginning of 2015. Three companies have been started this year and are currently at different stages of their development, DesignX started in January and will be officially released before the end of the year and ExpertX and OfficeX will be made public by the beginning of 2015.
BUILDING THE STARTUP STUDIO’S “PERFECT CO-FOUNDER” MODEL
When you create something new, most people in your ecosystem are either ignorantly critical or acceptably skeptical. Building a startup studio is very innovative: there are very few, maybe no structures like us, that have successively and regularly built startups that have become truly independent. There are other structures that resemble our model — early stage investors, coaches, accelerators, incubators — but very few are real company builders.
The only well-known structure that can be referred as startup studio is the (in)famous Rocket Internet, by the Samwer Brothers. We call them “(in)famous” because they are very controversial: their business is to clone successful US e-commerce business models and implement them in other geographical markets. We can somehow be assimilated to them, although we are also very different. One can see their model as non-innovative, since they are not implementing new business ideas, yet they are truly disrupting other aspects of the e-commerce industry (Sales, Purchase, Logistics, Localisation). We, at eFounders, are 100% focused on product innovation and developing new businesses’ ideas in the software industry.
Our second and main difference with Rocket Internet’s model is that we aim at creating independent companies. Rocket’s companies are internally — or almost internally — financed, and they are strongly tied to Rocket Internet’s resources. It makes it more difficult for them to emancipate from the Rocket Internet group and to build their own culture. At eFounders, we are building companies that are bound to be independent within 18 months.
The Startup Studio model is new and needs to be evangelised. Whereas we had no problem convincing European VCs of our network to invest in our companies, it has been much more complicated talking with US counterparts. The problem was not the model itself but the capitalisation table: we had the feeling that we were giving away a huge amount of shares for free to our co-founders — about one third — yet we realized it was not perceived as such by US investors. We decided to slightly change our model: we now divide the shares equally between us and each co-founder (CEO and CTO). This is the reason why we call our startup studio model the “perfect co-founder model” (you can read more about it here).
We also realized skepticism came from US stakeholders when our venture Front applied to Y Combinator. We wanted Front to be part of Y Combinator because we thought it was a good idea for the company, since the majority of their clientele is based in the US and they are targeting a very broad market. We also thought of it as a good way to evangelise eFounders in the Silicon Valley ecosystem. It wasn’t an easy endeavour, although the nature of the project and the quality of the team made no doubt: we had to strongly negotiate to have YC accept our model before we finally got Front accepted — even though YC itself had a hard time to get accepted by the ecosystem when they emerged few years ago. In the end, we made the right decision to have Front attend YC: both them and us largely benefited from YC’s network.
There are many people who don’t understand or don’t want to understand what we are doing. We don’t blame them, we blame ourselves for not communicating the right way. We are about to communicate much more, now that we know better who we are and where we go.
WE ARE A STARTUP STUDIO. AND WE’RE ALSO A STARTUP.
After a while, it became obvious that we, also, are a startup, just like any of the startups we are building. It sounds silly, but while focusing all our efforts and resources to each of our startups, we just forgot that we also had similar issues. We’ve learned that we should apply to ourselves the structure and the rigor we impose to our companies in order to scale properly.
To be fully honest we didn’t realize that we were growing too fast. This awareness directly came from our projects that blamed us for not being structured, helpful and demanding enough. When we started eFounders, there was only Quentin Nickmans, my co-founder, and Didier Forest, our Creative Partner. The number of projects was increasing, therefore, we had to hire more people and get more organised; exactly like any startup would do. We’ve doubled the size of the team: we are today around 12 people in charge of our projects.
We have still many important recruitments to do over the next months but we intend to stay a small team — around 15 people. As we are not to be involved in our projects after the 18 months there is no reason for us to be a bigger team as long as we develop not more than a few projects a year. We have decided to impose ourselves the same structural rules that we impose our startups, for instance the Sunday Evening Agenda that I send to everyone each week, and the Monday morning meeting that we hold for general issues. Even though it is still an ongoing process and will certainly always be, we have made some progress as of the time I am writing this letter.
Being a high growth startup with a growing team also means developing our own culture. We’ve been implementing initiatives to go into that direction in the past few months, and it is going very well. The mood in the office is excellent and mixing brilliant creative, business and tech talents creates a very inspiring environment. eFounders is building its own DNA that will hopefully be partially transferred to our projects.
STARTUP IDEAS NEVER GO DRY
We positioned eFounders on SaaS and more largely on what we call B2B “Fortune 5 000 000” not only because we love it but also for strategic reasons. It is a vertical where lots of things can be pooled in terms of resources and it’s also an industry where the ratio “reward vs risk” is extremely high. There are plenty of examples of billion-dollar companies on this segment, and compared to other web verticals, it is hard not to make a profitable company when you have a good team and a good product. As a matter of fact, it is very likely we will go on thinking about how we can reinvent a current service or even create a new segment targeting SMEs. In addition to SaaS products we’re also building marketplaces and even IaaS.
Being short in finding good ideas is what scares some people about the startup studio model but it is actually the less challenging part. The key to our idea fuel is that we start with a market we want to address and then figure out what is the best way to address it. There are some very exciting ideas that can explained in few seconds and look very promising. There are also “boring” ideas with huge opportunities and very few competition. The most challenging part is to be sure that we are going after a big enough addressable market; we don’t want our company to miss the opportunity to be a unicorn. We are actually not looking for ideas but for big enough addressable markets and ways to target them.
We are always super excited about our new startups and I must say that I am very confident about what is coming. They might not be all successful but they actually result from a long and collective thinking. They are certainly worth the try.
WE ARE BUILDING INDEPENDENT STARTUPS
Startup’s independency is crucial for us. If a company needs us for more than 18 months, it means we won’t have the resources to build new companies, which is the basis of our model. The first batch of companies we’ve created didn’t exactly follow this model: the way to success and independency was a bit more complicated than expected. Mailjet and Pressking have been founded before the birth of eFounders, Textmaster has been founded at the same time as eFounders.
We basically “did” before we even know what we were doing exactly. We were 3 partners with complementary skills acting as co-founders in many startups at the same time. We were discovering what we wanted to be and what our values were while we were building these companies. Mention was the first company we’ve created the “eFounders’s way”, that is to say following eFounders’ process in recruitment and management, but it was still very early on.
As a consequence, some people had to change positions among our co-founders, and we had to maintain our roles in operations for a longer period of time than expected — Quentin even became CEO of Mailjet for a short period of time. Of course, this was not the best way of handling our model. Ideally, we would like the technical and business co-founders to stay during the entire company lifetime, and we don’t plan to be involved in operations for more than 18 months.
This means that recruiting the right co-founders is crucial for a startup studio that values companies’ independency above all, like us. As we explained in the eFounders Letter #1, we have completely changed the way we are hiring our co-founders. We are spending almost one third of our time interviewing excellent entrepreneurs before deciding whether they will be capable of turning a project into a successful company. Formidable founders are keys to success, that’s why we are taking as much time as needed to find the best founders because we’ve lost too much time, resources and reputation changing them along the way.
We’ve also realized that a company’s independence means both not depending on any eFounders’ resources but also preferably located elsewhere. Textmaster understood that pretty early and it helped a lot for reaching their global independency. Mention, which was located in Mailjet’s offices, just moved across the street earlier this month. Sharing an office does not make companies stronger: it is their ability to take advantage of each other’s networks that can empower them. That is why we are not trying to gather everybody at the same place but we are building tools to give companies the advantages of a shared network.
Finally, we’ve realized that building a startup that is bound to become independent means that we should not be involved in follow-up investments with VCs. Being very involved in the construction of our startups, we are very aware of their fundamentals and it is sometimes tempting to follow up some investments along with the VCs. We have succumbed to the temptation for some of our startups but we will not do that anymore. External investors really help for startup independency. It is important to know where you stand: regarding eFounders, we have decided to sit on the founder’s side.
WE’RE ALSO BUILDING AN ASSET
Since day one, eFounder’s goal has not only been to build successful companies but also to create an asset that makes it possible to give more chance for startups to succeed. Increasing the chance of success comes from 3 different ways: hiring better people, be better at execution and offering unfair advantages.
Hiring better people actually requires 2 things: always getting great talents to apply, and having a great recruitment process. After 3 years of existence, we’re starting to get some visibility, a good reputation and an attractive model that makes more and more talented people apply to eFounders. We are not really advertising for our jobs because we prefer people to come to us instead of us getting to them. Concerning the recruitment process, it is getting better and better since we are using Workable and since we’ve understood that we need to dedicate a great part of our time doing that.
Quality in execution is something that can be drastically improved over time. Good execution requires good people and great processes. Building a good software is hard: not only does it require the best developers, designers and architects but it also requires discipline and organisation. Projects after projects, we’ve improved the way we are structuring the development (technology choices, interactions, tools, time management) to stay agile and efficient at the same time. The same conclusion applies to any other kind of execution: getting visibility, acquiring clients, building a community. As a studio, we are structurally better at execution than the average, but there is still room for improvement!
Offering unfair advantages is at the same time the most scalable and the most challenging asset we can build, because it mainly relies on the dynamism of our network: a difficult thing to maintain. In order for our community to remain truly active, we have gathered it around one concept: the Network. The Network is made of any member of a startup co-founded by eFounders, and eFounders’ employees and partners, that is to say 150 people as of today — but this number should rapidly grow.
The Network is at the same time a set of tools, a series of events, a few habits and a mindset. We are using several services to facilitate communication throughout all startups, and so, in a fun and creative way. We’ve built a knowledge base that is shared with everyone. We are organizing regular events, either for our teams or to gather people from our ecosystem. Step by step, the feeling of belonging is spreading through our community.
As an illustration of how the Network runs on a daily basis, we all rely on Slack for communication and access management. We have dedicated rooms for projects and expertise (marketing, tech, etc) that enable us to share knowledge across teams and companies. We’ve also build a virtual currency to trade thankyous and rewards called the Briqs, based on Slack: we use a custom command (/give) to spend briqs and keep track of who’s rich (or briqch) — we’ll be publishing a blogpost about it soon. We’ve also just released a new custom command called “/share”, that suggests everyone who linked his or her Twitter account to retweet something in just 1 click: it makes it easy to spread a news using the power of our community.
Our next big challenge is finding our business model. Our main issue is a treasury issue: running the structure costs a lot of money and the only revenue we can count on are startups’ exits. Knowing that the average time for a startup to exit is 7 year, it means that meanwhile, the structure has to get financed. Until now, we — Quentin Nickmans and I — have been personally investing our money but we will need external money if we want to continue to grow at some point. We took some time to define the best way to welcome external investors and we are currently in the process of raising money.
So far, it has been an amazing adventure. First, because we are creating something new, where everything has to be invented: the way we structure ourselves, the people we should work with, the way we should communicate, the way we will get financed. Second, because it is an incredible adventure to work with amazing entrepreneurs, to disrupt industries, to transform a crazy idea into a successful product or service. It is highly intense because we are living the ups and downs of each of our startups all together. We have very optimistic signs but we still have to prove everything. We know that we still have a long way and certainly many obstacles to overcome, but the adventure is very exciting and definitely worth it.