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eFounders Letter #5 — a Startup Studio on a Mission

Thibaud Elziere
Thibaud is the founder of Hexa. An entrepreneur at heart, Thibaud has co-founded over 30 companies through Hexa, many of which have become huge successes. He knows what makes a good idea and how to kickstart it. Previous to Hexa, Thibaud exited his first company Fotolia to Adobe.

We build the Future of Work

We launched eFounders 6 years ago and haven’t had any (significant*) exit yet. That means that for the last 6 years we’ve been burning money continuously without making any returns. Mathematically, it isn’t dramatic since the average exit time in the B2B software industry is 7.5 years. Psychologically, it’s very intense and sometimes it seems like we’re the only ones still believing in what we’re building. A lot of people doubt. And they’re right. Nobody has ever made the startup studio model work. Why should we be the first to make it succeed?

Building the Future of work

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards. You have to trust that the dots will connect in the future.” We’ve taken on the advice delivered by Steve Jobs during his Stanford graduation address. We believe in what we do because we trust in something: we’re building the future of work. We are inventing both tomorrow’s tools and tomorrow’s ways of working together. We have an opportunity to imagine the future of work. It sounds trivial, but since figuring out our mission by looking back and connecting the dots, it’s changed everything. It doesn’t only drive us, it drives everyone around us. We have a story to tell our teams, candidates, journalists, and anyone interested in us. Find out your mission and you’ll have everyone following you.

Trusting your mission enables you to finally do what you believe in. It took us some time to understand how to complete our mission well. There is no easy, straightforward way of building multiple companies simultaneously. Actually, it goes against a lot of common sense: building a startup studio isn’t about pooling ressources to be more efficient and better at making products. It isn’t about having developers, designers, marketers working together to turn ideas into MVPs. Building a studio is about finding the most talented people, making them believe in a common vision and setting the pace for them to go forward. It’s all about making the right people focus on a single mission.

Second time entrepreneurs often dream about building their own studio. They have so many ideas and it took so much time to build their first company that they desperately look for a way to increase efficiency. Pooling ressouces to be more productive and creating companies in parallel seems to be the obvious choice. You’ll get the reward and excitement of being a founder as well as the limited risk and relative tranquility of an investor. It’s true in theory, but in practice — at least from my point of view — building a studio is more intellectualy challenging and physically absorbing than building a traditional company. I’d be very bored if I had to build a startup again. Creating a startup studio, however, is a whole different adventure. The way you raise money, the way you hire, the way you get visible, the way you grow: everything is different. And it’s so difficult that no one has successfully pulled it off so far.

Being successfull at creating companies means generating revenue. We haven’t experienced any significant exit yet, therefore we haven’t made any revenue. We just need to be patient. Which is a lot easier given that our signals are very encouraging. We have built 9 companies independant so far (Mailjet, Textmaster, Mention, Front, Aircall, Spendesk, Forest, Hivy and FoxIntelligence**). They are currently bringing in a cummulated $2.5M MRR (vs $1.5M last year) and they employ over 350 people (vs 250 last year at the same period). In the last 12 months we have built more new projects than in the last 4 years combined. Slite, Briq, Station and Near are about to go out of the private beta in the following weeks and should become independent in the following months. I think we have proved that we know how to build products. Now we must prove that we know how to generate revenue. In order to prove that we are successful, we need to realize our first exit in the next 24 months.

Attracting the best talent

In order to achieve our mission we must continue to draw in the best talent. Some people might think that our founders arn’t real entrepreneurs. If they were true entrepreneurs they wouldn’t need a structure like eFounders. This couldn’t be further from the truth. We have the best entrepreneurs because we have the ones that know that if you are very ambitious you need a team, you need an ecosystem. Just look at the founders of our former and current companies and you’ll quickly realize that what makes eFounders what it is today comes down to the quality of the people. It isn’t a given and we will continue to work hard and adapt our model to keep attracting the very best entrepreneurs. The same way accelerators are looked at as a credible alternative for founders, we want eFounders to be an option for any ambitious entrepreneur. Whether they are a first time, a second time or even a serial entrepreneur: eFounders should be their go-to option to take things to the next level.

Finding great ideas

“Ideas aren’t worth anything, execution is everything”. This is true when you still doubt of your ability to execute an idea. When you’re confident about your ability to execute, ideas are worth everything. Execution will last several years, so it’s worth taking a few weeks to be sure the idea is airtight. Most our our ideas at eFounders originated from me. The first ideas we had at eFounders directly came from the first businesses I built. While building Fotolia I’d been very frustrated to observe problems, to get a glimpse of the solution, and not have the time to solve it. It is certainly one of the inner reasons that pushed me to create a studio. Mailjet, Mention, TextMaster, Front and Aircall are defintely solutions to problems I have encoutered during my life at Fotolia. One of my biggest regrets might be to not have realized that there was room for chat for companies: Slack. Since 2005 I’ve been hacking Skype to use it as a company chat. We didn’t have any office and we were tens of people working remotely and using multi-user conversations as rooms to discuss general, marketing or technical topics. I had never imagined we could do something better, Slack did it. Fortunately Skype brought me other ideas like Aircall. At Fotolia we were a very early and intense Skype-in users for our customer support. Many years after the official Skype-in launch in 2007 the service and the interface were so bad and so ill-suited for companies that there was clearly room for a solution like Aircall.

The last projects at eFounders like Slite, Station, Near or Briq are inspired by problems we’ve noticed at eFounders. It isn’t suprising that inspiration comes from problems we’ve been experiencing for 6 years. The good thing is that we are using these products every day and they are part of the way we are building the future of work. Theses ideas come from problems we all experience: like Slite with doc-fatigue and the need for knowledge, or Station for SaaS-fatigue. Other ideas like Near and Briq are products we’ve built for internal purposes and that we are now releasing as stand-alone products… Let’s just hope that we are solving problems other companies also experience. What is sure is that we are taking more and more risks, going more and more horizontal, and facing giants like Google, Microsoft, or SalesForce. It will be more complicated, but that’s what makes it worth while. We’re already working on a new batch of ideas and it’s super exciting. It’s funny to remember that the biggest concerns other people had when we started eFounders was our ability to find ambitious ideas!

Trying a new Track

We’ve tried working with entrepreneurs binging their own ideas and expertise. We helped them define the scope and the vision, build the first product, generate the first traction and hire the first people. Everything in only 6 months. We’ve done it with a company called FoxIntelligence, and it worked pretty well. It isn’t what we’re used to doing but it makes a lot of sense. It makes attracting entrepreneurs easier, it makes us benefit from each other’s expertise to test new verticals, and it’s pretty interesting for us. The ratio Investment/Equity is higher than what we have when building a company from scratch. The money, time, passion and energy deployed for a Full Stack Projet are very important. It is a new track we want to experiment, on an opportunistic basis. We call it “LightStack”. We won’t communicate a lot about it because we want to keep our focus on building businesses from scratch but will spend more time analyzing such opportunities….

Raising funds

One of our biggest missions at eFounders is raising money for our businesses. Our projects only become independant when they raise money from external investors. If a project stays at at eFounders too long, it prevents us from freeing up time to start new projects. Despite a very good track record at eFounders, it’s still complicated to make all of them accept the Studio Model. We know it takes conversative VCs a long time to change their mind but we know it’s possible. They were very critical of the accelerator model 10 years ago. Then they accepted it. Now they actively encourage it. We know it’s hard to change perceptions about entrepreneurship, to make people understand that you can build as a team. Their most common criticism is the fact that our entrepreneurs are not incentived enough, whereas we know for a fact that entrepreneurs at eFounders get more shares than if they would have created their startups themselves. Their real problem? They think we don’t deserve the shares we get because they think of us as investors and not entrepreneurs. They should come to eFounders for a week to see what happens here: be our guests! ;)

Opening new investment opportunities

We are willing to start with less shares in order to meet VC compliance, but we think it’s still important to keep a minimum of governance. We must try not to get diluted round after round. Since it’s neither our role nor our job to invest in our companies, we had promised to eFounders investors to get access to our pro-ratas. We have tested it. Since there will be more and more (and bigger and bigger) opportunities we decided to grant access to our exclusive deals to a larger group of people. These people will be gathered in a club called the eClub. The eClub will systematically offer eFounders’ pro-rata right to all its members. For every deal we will create an SPV (Single Purpose Vehicle) including the investors from eClub willing to invest. eFounders will control the vehicle and take a carried interest on every SPV. It will make it possible for eFounders to keep a decent place in the cap table and will also bring a new source of future revenue. We have even built a software called InvestorX in order to manage the eClub. InvestorX might be offered as a stand-alone product for other investement firms that manage syndicates (more on that later). We will see how eClub will evolve in the future, but if it works, it could do more than just follow…


It’s comfortable to be on a mission. It is the simplest way to keep moving forward despite our own doubts and other’s skepticism. Being on a mission gives you wings to go further and higher. Come with us to build the future of work, to create the tools and ways of working of the future. Entrepreneurs: come with your passion, your ideas and let’s build — together — tomorrow’s world of work.

* At the time we published this letter we coincidentally had our first exit. Hivy just got acquired by ManagedByQ. Even though it was a sensible deal (undisclosed amount) it happened too early to represent a significant amount.

** FoxIntelligence is a “LightStack” project. An entrepreneur came to us with his own idea and we helped him build a first version version of the product and get early traction.