Fireside Chat with Founder and CEO of Front, Mathilde Collin (Video + Transcript)

Our podcast host, Harry Stebbings, sat down with Mathilde Collin, CEO and Founder @ Front. We talk about her start in SaaS, why she created Front, how she consistently gets funding in every round and more. We will have fireside sessions with all the CEOs and Founders you love at SaaStr Annual 2019! Tickets are still at discounted prices and you can learn from the best in SaaS.

Transcript

Harry Stebbings: Ready to roll Mathilde? We’ve actually done a podcast before, many, many months ago, about 18 months ago. So, very excited to be back with Mathilde. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Mathilde Collin: Thank you for having me.

Harry Stebbings: Now, I think, for anyone that didn’t listen to that first show, can we go back to the early days and how you really entered the world of SaaS and came to be founder of Front?

Mathilde Collin: Sure, I guess for me starting a company was something that I wanted to do before even thinking about what I would do.

Harry Stebbings: Okay.

Mathilde Collin: I think, the naive reason was just because my parents didn’t like their jobs, and so I was like, “I really want to enjoy every day of my life, so I’ll start a company and the only goal will be to enjoy going to work every day. And hopefully, other people that will join the company will enjoy that as well.” So, that’s the true story about why I started the company.

Harry Stebbings: Can I ask, what was the ah-ha moment then for Front with any idea at your disposal? Why Front?

Mathilde Collin: So, the reason is because the first job that I took out of college was in a SaaS Company and it was building a contract management software. That’s when I realized that SaaS businesses were pretty cool because you could build, in a few month, a product that would really change how some people were working, and so in my mission of improving how people work, then SaaS was good. But I was not using contracts to get work done, I was using email so, I wanted to work on email because I was spending probably six or seven hours per day in my inbox. And so I thought, “If I can make it better for me and other people then the impact would be great.”

Harry Stebbings: Yeah, absolutely. And doing kind of great impact, you’ve enjoyed such a successful journey. You recently raised an incredible round from Sequoia. Congratulations for that.

Mathilde Collin: Thank you.

Harry Stebbings: I would love to start on that though and, I love the story myself. Tell me about the story and kind of how that deal came together and your experiences around it.

Mathilde Collin: Yeah so, the story was just before Thanksgiving, we decided that we would raise our series B and so, I scheduled all the founders meetings the week after, so 11 founder meetings in one week, which was pretty tiring. Probably the most tiring week at Front ever, and Sequoia was one of the fund that we pitched. So, I pitched every single VC and I said that the deadline would be by the end of the week because we had a lot of interest. So I knew that we would have at least one term sheet, so then once you have one you can …

Harry Stebbings: Coerce the others?

Mathilde Collin: Yeah. So then, people heard that the run was pretty competitive, so then they were thinking about, what could I do to make Mathilde happy and take our terms sheets. I love Legos, so what Sequoia did is they built a custom Lego with a Front logo and the Sequoia logo, and then an Eiffel Tower, ’cause I’m French, and the Golden Gate Bridge, and they brought it to the office and then I was like, “That’s cool.”

Harry Stebbings: And that was it? Term sheet signed?

Mathilde Collin: Yeah, then the truth is that’s not why I chose them, but I chose them because Brian, who is joining our board, was one of the best people I had met.

Harry Stebbings: Yeah, absolutely incredible. So, if you do an analysis then, of the rounds you’ve raised, obviously that being a series B, a couple before that. How do the rounds compare when you hear them in terms of ease, conversation, kind of your thoughts and self-analysis on that.

Mathilde Collin: I mean, so the truth is, and I know we’ll cover that after, I’m not someone that say that things are easy, I always say that things are hard. But for us, at least, we’ve been fortunate enough and every round has been super easy, so seed series is B, we raised pretty quickly. So, if there is one thing that’s not hard, and that’s probably the only thing about building Front, for us it’s raising money.

Harry Stebbings: Okay, absolutely. So, in terms of then, within those subsequent rounds, how does what you want from those investors change with each round?

Mathilde Collin: Yeah, so I guess it’s a good question, because I have always been pretty clear about what I wanted at every round, so for example, seed round, I didn’t know what I was doing and so I didn’t want any VCs, it was more angel investors would invest, because I didn’t want to have any pressure from anyone and so you know that if you raise a seed round, and then you raise a series A, and the firm doesn’t follow, then you’re screwed. At that point, what I wanted was to be super independent because I didn’t know what I was doing so I didn’t want anyone to tell me how I should do it. Then series A was different. I started to realized that starting a company was really hard, even when the business was working. So I wanted someone that was very supportive, so that’s how I chose EnKind and a cheerleader.

Mathilde Collin: Then I felt like, it’s my first company, there are lots of things that I don’t know, so I felt like in order to be a better CEO, I needed someone to challenge me. So Brand is someone who is caring on one side, but also can push me and tell me what I am not doing well, so that’s what I optimized for.

Harry Stebbings: Speaking scaling round there, how do you think about scaling yourself as CEO. I’ve been to many CEOs and they say the most challenging part is scaling themselves as a leader. How do you think about that with the progression of Front through the stages?

Mathilde Collin: Yeah, probably one of the most critical things that I need to do. My job changes at least every six month, and every time I need to learn a new job and every time I don’t know if I’ll be great at the next job. I feel like one, having a coach is useful and it can be a different coach every six months. Two, I think learning from other CEOs is super important, so being surrounded by people that will tell you what you should be looking for, what you should be learning, what you should be reading, what you should be doing, extra, has been useful. So these two things. Then just being always super receptive to feedback because there are so many things that you’ll do well and won’t do well and you should always be aware and these things evolve over time, so something where people have told you before, “You’re great at doing that,” then that’s not necessarily a good thing three years after.

Harry Stebbings: So, coach, mentor and then follow CEOs to give you that advice?

Mathilde Collin: Yeah.

Harry Stebbings: A large amount of that and that experience is in the valley. How important is it being in the valley, do you think, today?

Mathilde Collin: So truth is, I don’t know, because the only company I’ve started was here and I was in France … I think that the good thing about being here is I feel like you’re always one email away from anyone that you want to talk to. You’ll always find someone who will introduce you to someone that you want to chat with. In that regards, I think it’s the best. The reason that I’m here and not in France was not really for that reason, it was just the energy and enthusiasm and positivity here was something that made me happy and that’s why I’m here.

Harry Stebbings: So before we move off fundraising, SaaS is filled with a lot of early stage SaaS founders. What advice would you give, having been through the multiple successful rounds that you have, to those founders maybe looking to raise their rounds?

Mathilde Collin: One thing that I would say, at least something that worked for me, so that I don’t know if it would work for other people, but one thing that I’ve done really well is I’ve built relationships with investors over time so that when you’re raising, you’re just focusing on raising money and your actual business, so what are your metrics? What are you raising the money for? And you don’t spend time trying to learn about them and they spend time trying to learn about you because that takes time. That’s the reason why, every time, we’ve been able to raise. I’ve said, this is this week or these two weeks, and I will set up these meetings and the people will accept that you will give them this timeline because they know you. There is a huge part of their due diligence that has already been done, so that’s what I would recommend.

Mathilde Collin: The other thing that I would say, one thing I’ve realized is people will give you a lot of milestones that you need to hit in order to raise, so they will tell you, “You raise a seed round when you hit that”, and then a series A when you hit one million in AR, or whatever, and series B when … but at the end of the day, I feel like the reason I’ve raised money anytime because I woke up and I felt confident about the business. I think it will be your biggest strength. Your biggest strength will not necessarily be the fact that you’ve reached one million in AR, you could have reached one million in AR and you don’t feel great about the business, then you should not raise, because they will be able to see it. I feel like that’s also something that I would share.

Harry Stebbings: Absolutely. So it’s easy to look at Front then, and see the rounds and the scaling and the success you’ve enjoyed, and as you’ve said, it looks easy from the offset. How do you think then about presenting that in the crushing world of silicon valley, with it actually, as you said, behind the scenes being very challenging? What are your thoughts on that and having that transparency?

Mathilde Collin: Yeah. I think it’s super important about what it’s really like to start a business because I feel like at least, for me … so I went to AC three or four years ago, three years ago, and I was seeing the CEO of Stripe and Airbnb and Drop Box and Facebook talking about building their company and the thing that really helped me was to understand that for them, it was still really hard, to the point that they were still wondering if they had a great business. Whereas, when you look at Stripe and Airbnb and Drop Box and Facebook, obviously they have a great business.

Mathilde Collin: I think it’s super important to me to share that back and to say that even if some people will talk to me and say, “Oh, Front is crushing it because you’ve hired these people and you’ve raised that amount of money and you have these customers,” and blah, blah, blah. True, that’s true, but it doesn’t change anything about the fact that every day I wake up, I have so many things that I need to fix and I don’t know how I’ll get to the next level.

Harry Stebbings: How transparent do you think founders and CEOs can really be today, in the very echo chamber-like ecosystems that we have around the world? And when saying, “I can’t believe my VP of Sales left,” or “I can’t believe we didn’t hit our revenue targets,” could actually then permeate back to potential investors and cause that problem.

Mathilde Collin: So here is how I think about transparency, so there’s two things. One, I feel like being transparent where you share actual things. So for example, metrics or any feedback from customers or anything, so you don’t share how you feel, you just share actual things. That has been super successful for us, so at Front, everyone knows everything about our runway, our NPS, our revenue, our turn, like everything. I think you can do that and, for example, I shared our series A deck, I will share our series B deck, and I think that’s fine. It’s numbers. People can learn whatever they want from that.

Mathilde Collin: The thing that I think is dangerous is transparency is not about sharing everything that’s on your mind and the way you feel. That’s true internally and externally, so for example, inside the company, I can’t say, “I’m freaking out about this competitor that just finished this product,” or like, “Oh my God, we’ve not hit our targets, what are we gonna do?”. I can’t share that. Whatever I feel, being transparent for the sake of being transparent, is not interesting.

Harry Stebbings: I think that slightly ruins my next question, which was gonna be what are the one or two things that keep you up at night? Does that fall within the spectrum of acceptable.

Mathilde Collin: No, no, no.

Harry Stebbings: That’s unacceptable.

Mathilde Collin: No, no, it’s different. I don’t know, so a lot of people ask me this question all the time. The honest answer is me and it’s personal. I think the thing that keeps me up at night is as the company is growing, people put so much expectations on Front, and specifically on me and so I keep hearing from a lot of different people the reason we’re betting on Front is because you’re the CEO and you’ll do great. As rewarding as it sounds, it’s super scary because I’d rather you tell me my business is amazing and the metrics are great and whether I’m here to not, it will go well. But that’s not what they say, so I wake up pretty anxious every morning.

Harry Stebbings: Then we can focus on the cool, hard numbers there and scaling one to ten, and move away from what keeps you up at night. I’d love to firstly, how long did it take to go from one to ten million ARFE?

Mathilde Collin: How long?

Harry Stebbings: Yeah, how long did it take?

Mathilde Collin: Two years.

Harry Stebbings: Two years. So starting on that, what was the biggest challenge in getting from one to ten?

Mathilde Collin: I feel like the biggest challenge is what has worked in the past won’t work in the future, so you always … I never know how I’ll get to the next milestone, and so you always need to change how you think about every single thing in your business. I feel like that’s the most challenging thing, is there’s no one recipe, so you can read, you can listen to as many talks as possible, you can read as many books. There is no magic recipe to get from one to ten, because I think it’s your … even if ten is big, it’s your first customers, so you don’t know what they want. You don’t know how they want to hear about you, you don’t know what keeps them happy versus make them leave, et cetera. I think the hard part is you can’t read anything and you can’t ask anyone. You have to figure it out yourself.

Harry Stebbings: What about a board?

Mathilde Collin: I don’t think the board can help you figure that out. We can-

Harry Stebbings: Is that not the role of the board, who’s done it before, seen it multiple times in most cases, and then provide that kind of?

Mathilde Collin: Fair enough, I think you can read a ton and hear a ton about how other companies have done it. The thing is, it’s very likely that that’s not how you are going to do it. However, there are things that you will hear that will be interesting and that you should do as well, so that can be helpful. But at least, if we want to talk about boards,  happy to share what the board has been helpful with and not helpful with-

Harry Stebbings: Yeah I’d love to hear that.

Mathilde Collin: So not helpful with, I feel like they are not helpful to tell you how you’ll get to your next milestone. Like they don’t have any answers for you. One story that I share, sometimes, so as I went to AC, so it’s not a board, but at the end of the day, AC are investors. We’re doing an email company and one of the [inaudible 00:14:27] ponder is the founder of Gmail, so how cool, I was like, “Great, I’ll get so many answers from him.”

Mathilde Collin: So I was waiting for my first office hour with him and I go to the office hour and I’m telling him, “We have this product we could go in direction A, B, and C. What do you think we should do? It’s super critical to our business,” and he was like, “Follow your growth.” And I was like, “okay, cool, thank you.” I don’t think I needed the founder of Gmail to tell me that. At the end of the day, he was right, because he doesn’t know anything about, like he doesn’t know as much as I do about our market, our customers, et cetera. I think it’s true as well for your board, where they don’t know as much as you do about everything, and I think they can’t give you a lot of answers on your business specifically.

Mathilde Collin: But what they can help with is, for example, one of the things that they can help with that is incredibly successful is hiring. You will succeed if you manage to bring great people, and you will not succeed if you don’t. Investors are great because people look up at them and they’re great and smart. If they can interview a lot of people or they can refer to you people, then that’s incredibly valuable. Brian, from Sequoia, who joined our board a month ago, I said, “We need a VP Sales,” and he was like, “I will run the search for you.” Then, so our new VP Sales is joining on Monday and that’s incredibly helpful and that’s as helpful as you can be, and far more helpful than him telling me, “In order to add three million next quarter, you need to do X, Y, Z,” ’cause I think he doesn’t know and I don’t know either.

Harry Stebbings: Can I ask, how much of a challenge was scaling the team in the Bay, with the kind of intense competition for talent that we have today and maybe not the resources in the earlier Front days of your big Titans of tech?

Mathilde Collin: Pretty tough. I think finding talent is hard, I think the choice that I’ve made is we’ve never lowered our bar, so we’ve operated with a super, super small team compared to where our revenue were because I was willing to either do the work myself or not do the work, in exchange for having great people. Tough, but I think it should never be a reason to hire not A plus people.

Harry Stebbings: Yeah, that makes sense. I mean, sure, in the journey from one to ten million AR, is there anything that looking back now, having gone through that, you’d wish you’d done that would have made that process easier?

Mathilde Collin: Good question. I don’t know, I feel like when I think about it, there are just a few ways that you can grow. When you think about it, you can, so that’s for a B2B business at least, you can generate more leads that will generate more customers, you can increase the number of customers that you have, you can take your existing customers and make them grow, you can go after bigger and bigger customers. The list is probably like seven things that can make your revenue grow and not all of them can work, but you have to find at least one of them that works.

Mathilde Collin: If everything is plateauing then that’s not good, so I feel like one thing that I should’ve looked at very early on is what are the trends that are going up and what can I double-down on, versus what I did, was let’s just play on these seven things and let’s try to land and expand, but also generate leads, but also find new markets and also et cetera. I think it’s not realistic that everything will go according to the plan, and in the early days, you’d rather find what works well and what you have internal resources for and double-down on that.

Harry Stebbings: So you kind of A-B test multiple different things and then allocate resources-

Mathilde Collin: And also, mainly step back, which I think is something that people don’t do a lot because they work so hard. Step back and look at your metrics. For example, I had to wait ’til our series B I think to look at our net retention, so our cohort, how much they would increase, and then I asked, “Is it good?” And they were like, “It’s amazing,” and I was like, “Oh!”. I didn’t even know if it was okay, good, blah, blah, and I think that you have a lot of bench mark about that.

Mathilde Collin: Then I was asking them about some other stuff and they were like, “Oh, that’s not that great.” For me, it would have been a good learning to know, okay, we have really high retention, so our customers land and expand, so let’s double down on that. Let’s try to see what’s the playbook that I could implement in order to make sure that when we have one team of whatever company using Front, then we can have ten teams of this company using Front. I think stepping back and looking at them and comparing what’s … there are a few things that will be unique about your business, so you’d rather know why and what.

Harry Stebbings: That makes sense. Can I ask one, kind of strange, matter question that I got posed the other day by a founder and it is: do you ever step back and look at the journey and feel proud? Although you’ll being , by not means has an incredible journey to go, but do you ever step back and appreciate the progress that you’ve made and enjoy the journey?

Mathilde Collin: No, I don’t do it, that’s the answer.

Harry Stebbings: That was a very easy answer.

Mathilde Collin: Yeah.

Harry Stebbings: I do want to finish on a quickfire round so 60 seconds per question, how does that sound?

Mathilde Collin: Sounds great.

Harry Stebbings: Okay, so management upgrades is the most important thing a CEO can do, do you agree?

Mathilde Collin: I agree. We talked about that, I think it’s the one person in the company where their job will change the fastest, and if you don’t change how you upgrade, what has worked in the past won’t work in the future, so you have to.

Harry Stebbings: What is the secret to scaling culture, especially when growing an international team now with Front in France?

Mathilde Collin: What I’ve found most successful was in order to have happy employees, they need to be engaged and the best way to make them engaged is to be very transparent about everything in the company. If they don’t truly feel like they’re a part of the journey, then they won’t be engaged.

Harry Stebbings: Slack, Facebook’s workplace messenger, is email dead, really?

Mathilde Collin: Of course not. I wouldn’t be here otherwise.

Harry Stebbings: I want to finish on, broadly, what do you know now that you wished you’d known day one when you started Front?

Mathilde Collin: Coming back to the fact that it’s hard. It’s funny because in the early days of the company, and even today, I was like, “It can’t be that hard. There is not necessarily something that is not going well with the business,” and I think if I had known that it’s hard for anyone, then you don’t ask yourself this question and you just figure out a way to solve every single problem that you’re having. So I wish I had known that.

Harry Stebbings: Well and Jason Lemkin say that when you get to eight to ten million AR, that’s when it really starts to get fun-

Mathilde Collin: Oh great!

Harry Stebbings: -So I think now is the fun time.

Mathilde Collin: Perfect.

Harry Stebbings: But thank you so much for joining me today, Mathilde, it was such a pleasure.

Mathilde Collin: Thank you. Thank you.

 

Published on September 11, 2018

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