The parallel entrepreneurial journeys of Luc Pallavidino and Alban Sayag converged at a crucial turning point for e-signature platform Yousign. That this meeting catalyzed the startup’s growth rather than derailed it is a testament to their unusual ability to candidly assess their own strengths and weaknesses.

Earlier last year, Sayag, 42, a serial entrepreneur, became CEO of Yousign, replacing Pallavidino, 35, who had co-founded the company more than a decade ago. The ease with which the pair agreed on this transition is remarkable in a startup world where egos driven by the pursuit of success can often become inflated along with valuations. Rather than resulting from a confrontation or a crisis, the elevation of Sayag occurred gradually over several years as the pair developed a mutual respect while implementing Yousign’s new growth strategy developed in partnership with Hexa (eFounders at the time).

As that work began to bear fruit, Pallavidino recognized that his skills as a founder and a builder weren’t necessarily the ones best suited to lead a company that was rapidly scaling. Instead, he suggested relinquishing that position to Sayag who thrived on the operational decision-making responsibilities that were becoming more critical to the scale-up phase of Yousign.

From the start, Yousign’s mission has been to simplify life for enterprises by democratizing the use of e-signatures. Rather than splintering Yousign, the change left the company unified and in a stronger position than ever to realize that goal.

“I wasn’t the right person to help the company evolve,” Pallavidino said. “By stepping out of the way for Alban, I knew this was the best way to maximize Yousign’s chance of success and becoming a European leader.”

A Startup Age Of Innocence

Growing up in the Normandy region of France, Pallavidino heard the entrepreneurial calling at a young age. He started an astronomy newspaper in elementary school, and later in high school launched an online service to let others create paid blogs. He became attracted to computers, seeing them as a way to facilitate the creation of new tools and ideas.

“All you needed was a computer and an Internet connection, and for me it was just magic,” he said. “There were a lot of possibilities.”

Pallavidino enrolled at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d'Ingénieurs de Caen (ENSICAEN) where he became fast friends with another programming student, Antoine Louiset. They teamed up on a student project for their studies to see if they could create a tool to enable electronic signing of documents.

Pallavidino looks back at that time and marvels over how naïve the pair were. They were unaware that US-based DocuSign had launched several years earlier to address this issue. They knew nothing about starting a company. Had they known the complexity of the technical and regulatory issues they would have to eventually overcome, it’s likely they would have abandoned the project early on, he said.

What they did know, however, was that existing solutions were clunky and complicated to use. They required the installation of specialized software and training to understand the functions to download and leverage the electronic certificates that were needed to validate electronic signatures of documents. Sometimes a smart card or USB key was needed. Signing documents electronically could still take several weeks, so most people just stuck to paper.

“What existed on the market, at least in France, were solutions that were very complex, very cumbersome to set up, reserved for technicians only, and not at all usable for ordinary people,” he said.

Convinced that there must be a better way, they pushed on after graduation in 2011 to continue development. They received support for two years from the Normandy Incubation program and ENSICAEN which allowed them to develop the first version of the product.

To accomplish this, they needed to comprehend the French and European regulations governing digital signatures. In terms of complexity, these regulations are quite similar to those concerning banking and financial products.

In 2013, Yousign was officially launched. But it still took until 2015 to get the financial certification needed to be recognized as a legally binding option.

The Yousign founders in 2013: Luc Pallavidino, left, and Antoine Louiset, right

The co-founders wondered at times if they were crazy for taking this on. It was daunting work. Refining the product, chasing customers, hiring to expand their team. Still, they raised €500,000 from angel investors. Bit by bit, the product began to get traction.

To overcome some of the technical challenges, Yousign tried to leverage existing solutions. The company had been in talks for a deal with Open Trust to use its electronic certificates when the latter was acquired at the last minute by DocuSign. This was a blow at the time but proved to be a blessing later.

“We were ready to sign, but they said no, they didn't want to work with us,” Pallavidino said. “So we said we're going to make our own infrastructure. Today, it's a big advantage on the market because we manage the whole chain.”

While the competition with DocuSign was tough, the US company helped evangelize the market as it expanded in Europe. In 2016, the European eIDAS (Electronic IDentification And Trust Services) Regulation, went into effect, which defined the rules across Europe for the legal recognition of e-signatures and boosted adoption.

Despite the intensity of those early days, Pallavidino knew there was nothing else he would rather be doing. He found it stimulating to constantly be meeting new people, whether it was new employees, customers, or partners. New collaborations brought electric, unexpected moments.

“What has been the most extraordinary for me is the enormous learning curve you have as an entrepreneur,” he said. “You have to do everything when you start a business. Every day, you get out of your comfort zone.”

But the highs of entrepreneurship were accompanied by lows.

“Your job is to manage what's going wrong,” he said. “That's the job, to deal with shit. You go to sleep thinking about it. You wake up to work on it.”

By January 2018, the business was growing at a steady if unspectacular clip. Yousign raised a €3m round of venture capital led by Alto Invest. But tensions over the direction of the company began to emerge. A faction of investors believed the company should throttle growth and shift to focus on becoming profitable. An outside company offered to acquire Yousign.

Louiset and Pallavidino wanted to remain independent and believed they could grow faster and compete against DocuSign. They just weren’t sure how.

It was at this moment that Hexa entered the picture.

A New Start

Pallavidino and Louiset had followed Hexa since the startup studio’s inception and were big fans of Hexa companies such as Aircall, Spendesk, and Front.

Thibaud reached out in 2018 to enquire about how the company was doing, the conversation quickly took a turn and they began exploring the possibility of a partnership. This would be a big departure from the classic Hexa playbook where ideas are generated internally, and then a founding team is assembled. But there was enough interest in Yousign’s potential that talks soon became serious.

Thibaud’s email to Luc in 2018 - the very start of what would then turn into the Hexa x Yousign partnership

Eventually, a €3m deal was reached in which Hexa bought out the investors who weren’t aligned with the new direction.

“It was a much riskier opportunity for us personally,” Pallavidino said. “We were starting again from scratch.”

Fortunately, the transition to Hexa was smooth, Pallavidino recalled, with no major culture shocks. The Yousign team was in the Hexa office working side-by-side. The Yousign founders were assigned a coach to help guide them through the work sessions and keep an eye on the bigger picture. They refined the go-to-market strategy, the product’s positioning, and branding by working with different eFounders marketing leaders and product developers.

Ideas and strategies emerged from conversations, Pallavidino said, rather than being imposed by the Hexa team. Eventually, what emerged was a product more focused on serving SMBs in Europe, still promising to make it simple for them to use e-signatures.

“What Hexa brought to the table was several elements,” Pallavidino said. “It's a methodology and rhythm, combined with everything they had done in the SaaS world. We had a partner with us who gave us a great deal of access to maximize our chances of success.”

The rebuilt SaaS platform and user interface delivered on this message and customers responded. In 2020, as the pandemic hit, Yousign grew 200% over the previous year and expanded from 35 to 120 employees. The company believed it still had a major market opportunity by targeting SMBs who had not adopted e-signatures and who felt that DocuSign’s more complex offering was designed for larger enterprises.

After years of growing at a measured pace, the company had shifted into high gear. Continuing to work with Hexa, they refined the internal structure of Yousign, making responsibilities clearer, and demonstrating where the co-founders needed more expertise. They were able to recruit new employees to fill those gaps via the Hexa network.

Eventually, the co-founders decided that they needed a COO to manage the day-to-day operations.

“We could see that we were reaching a momentum where the structure of the company was becoming difficult for us to manage,” Pallavidino said. “We needed to be able to rely on someone else.”

That was when they were introduced to Sayag.

Enter Alban

Sayag was born to be an entrepreneur. He grew up in a small town near Geneva where his father had immigrated from Algeria as a teenager. Sayag watched his father start one business after another, a man constantly with new ideas for businesses.

Originally, Sayag wanted to be a professional tennis player, but realized as a teenager he likely wouldn’t make it as a pro. So he shifted gears and started his own business in high school, selling bootleg copies of DVDs using pricey equipment he financed through revenue sharing deals with partners.

After enrolling in a Lausanne business school, he created another business on the side that developed short-range wireless gadgets. When that failed, he started an IT advisory firm that was bought by Capgemini a few years later. He didn’t expect to stick around long but wound up staying 5 years as he found himself managing a team of 200.

“I made all the mistakes you can imagine in terms of management,” he said. “I learned quite a lot.”

His true nature pulled him back to entrepreneurship.

“I like the freedom I have when I’m doing it,” he said. “That’s something super precious to me.”

In 2012, he launched WINGiT, a live event marketplace, and relocated to the US. The company expanded to 200 cities and had 30 employees at one point but proved difficult to monetize. When WINGiT closed 5 years later, he took another gig running the European division of a Chinese e-bike startup, before starting a seed fund and startup studio backed by AirFrance KLM.

Alban in 2012, when he was a founder at Wingit

“I thought I was done with entrepreneurship,” he said. “I'm too tired. Three companies already. I'm done. I'm going to work for a VC now.”

But he found it unsatisfying, and just as he began looking around, he received an email from Hexa partner Amaury Sepulchre saying one of their companies was looking for a COO and wondering if Sayag might want to discuss it.

Sayag’s gut reaction: No thanks.

Amaury’s (Hexa’s cofounder) email to Alban to join Yousign as a COO in 2020

“It was a COO job, not a co-founder,” he said. “And from the outside, you hear ‘e-signature’ and you think, ‘Yeah, boring.’ And you are competing against Adobe and DocuSign. So it doesn’t seem like there is anything to do here.”

Still, given that Hexa was involved, Sayag resisted that urge to say no, and instead started looking at the e-signature market where he was surprised by the low adoption rates and large opportunity. And he liked the idea that the concept and value proposition were straightforward.

“You're not trying to do some AI stuff or create a new category or something,” he said.

“Some people have to sign documents, and you have a nice signature solution. Plain and simple, super easy, and with a very, very big market.”

Sayag agreed to meet Pallavidino and Louiset for lunch, and from the start, they made it clear the COO position was their idea because they needed someone to complement their skills.

“They said, ‘We want help because we're going crazy and we don't we don't have all the answers,’” Sayag said.

Pallavidino said the co-founders were immediately convinced that Sayag was the missing piece they needed. They had already talked to several candidates, but no one seemed to have the same combination of managerial experience and entrepreneurial mindset as Sayag. Plus, he was clearly well-versed in technical issues.

“You could tell pretty quickly we had the right one,” Pallavidino said. “It was like love at first sight.”

In 2020, Sayag officially joined as COO.

From left to right, Antoine Louiset, Luc Pallavidino and Alban Sayag

Moving Fast

What has become clear over the past years is that Yousign is a company firing on all cylinders. It currently has 17,000 customers on the platform, up from 6,000 in 2020. And the team has grown to 200 employees from 30 over that same period, having expanded beyond its home market of France into Germany and Italy.

Yousign's product serves both entreprises and software vendors, the company has become a product development machine, rolling out new functionalities at a steady rhythm while also beginning to explore new geographies. Yousign even completed an acquisition in 2022 and is now executing a strategy that moves beyond just signatures to enabling the entire electronic document journey, from creation to storage.

This flurry of activity has meant moving in many directions simultaneously, a dynamic that required adding more layers of complexity and structure to manage the increased scale. The company believes it can become the leading e-signature tool in Europe in the face of strong international competition from the likes of DocuSign by offering a tool that is simpler and easier to use.

“The positioning on SMB has been super successful,” Sayag said. “We were right that there was a need for simple product with the standards for ‘prosumers’ who are used to working with tools like Slack and Notion. That became the differentiator for us.”

Yousigners in 2024

Scaling And Turning The Page

Yousign continued to grow at a faster clip and Pallavidino and Louiset added to the management team and continued to delegate responsibilities. As Pallavidino put more on Sayag’s plate, the latter seemed to relish each new challenge such as strategic projects, HR, finance, and internationalization of the company.

“To be honest, I like it a lot,” Sayag said.

“People think with scaling that things won’t be entrepreneurial anymore. And that’s wrong. At each step, you need to reconsider what you're doing. You will have new problems and you will have to solve them. It's a never-ending story.”

In 2021, Sayag was tasked with leading efforts to raise a €30 million Series A round. The following year, Louiset decided he was confident enough with the product and technical teams around him to step down as CTO. Pallavidino began to have similar thoughts. He had a new baby at home, and after a decade with Yousign, he felt ready to let go. So he approached Sayag with the idea of taking over as CEO.

“I had reached a point in my life where after ten years, I no longer had the same energy,” Pallavidino said.

Sayag, in contrast, remains energized by the challenges ahead for Yousign. The new CEO is focused on continuing to expand Yousign’s base of small businesses users in its home market while also growing its marketshare in Germany and Italy. The company recently introduced a free version of its tool to entice even more casual users to adopt e-signatures.

The company is also diversifying its products by building out an end-to-end contract management platform. That included acquiring last another Hexa company, Canyon, which helps automate contract management. “You need to bring more value to the customers,” Sayag said.

While he may be cheering from the sidelines now, Pallavidino remains buoyant about Yousign’s future.

“I feel good because I know we've left Yousign in very good hands,” Pallavidino said. “I wouldn't have left if I wasn't 100% sure that it was the right decision. It will always remain my very first baby. You don't just leave your baby with anyone.”

Alban Sayag at Yousign’s 2024 kick-off