When Mathilde Collin (@collinmathilde) started her first company, she knew she wanted to create a great place to work and to improve the lives of her customers. The product was just an implementation detail. Learn how she picked up the skills she needed to succeed, and built a 100-person company with over 3600 happy, paying customers.
What's up, everyone? This is Courtland from IndieHackers.com and you're listening to the Indie Hackers podcast. On this show I talk to the founders of profitable Internet businesses.
I try to get a sense of what it's like to be in their shoes. How did they get to where they are today? How do they make decisions, both at their companies and in their personal lives? And what makes their businesses tick?
Today I am talking to Mathilde Collin the CEO of Front. Front has been described as multiplayer version of Gmail. It's a shared inbox that puts all of your emails, apps and teammates in one collaborative workspace. Mathilde, welcome to the Indie Hackers podcast and thank you so much for coming on.
Thank you for having me.
So Front is a very impressive company. I think you guys have over 3,500 customers now, is that right?
Yeah, I think over 3,600 now.
Okay, yeah, you guys have achieved a lot since you started it about 4 years ago and I want to start by getting to know more about you as an individual. What kind of person becomes the CEO of a company like Front and what were you doing before you started this company?
Sure, so I started the company when I was pretty young, I think I was 23. So I've not done much before doing Front. Basically I went to a business school in France, I graduated, I then joined a startup.
It was a software startup that was doing a contract management system and I stayed there for a year. What I did was launch a new product for them and then I quit but I was passionate about just software in general.
So I decided to work on a software that I was even more excited about, which was email. So I was in France at the time and then a few months after I moved to the US and then Front grew and here I am today.
Now I hear a lot of founders who start by going to business school and I hear a lot of founders who start by working at a startup. You did both. So now I have to ask you, with the benefit of hindsight what do you think was more helpful?
Definitely working in a startup. I don't think that, like if anything, when I was in business school the thing that was most helpful to me was meeting with entrepreneurs that had built companies and that inspired me.
Apart from that I think where you learn the most is when you get things done and so working on an actual project was where I learned 99% of what was useful for me afterwards.
Yeah, that's what I would have guessed would be the case but at the same time business school is so popular that I wonder what kind of lessons you get out of it and whether or not it's been helpful at all.
Yeah, it's been helpful. I'm sure every business school is different. Probably in France they are different than in the US. For me I think knowing a lot of things about how generally a business worked was helpful in the first two years. Then I took a year off where I worked in two companies.
Huge company, I didn't like it and a super small startup, I loved it. So in essence internships were helpful, so that I could know what I was passionate about. Then my last year I decided to specifically focus on entrepreneurship and that was super helpful. So I worked with four different entrepreneurs at different stages of their companies.
So from the moment you start, the moment you scale and then the moment you fail and at the end just working on my own project and that was super super helpful. I think that reflecting back when I was thinking about what are the things that I learned, the main things I learned were let's talk to founders that have built businesses.
Let's try to understand what it means. That's the thing that really drove me to start my own company because I think if you just learn from books, I think you will always think that it's impossible to do because it seems just so hard to start something from scratch.
Yeah, I think probably most people listening to this podcast are at least vaguely interested in starting their own business and maybe they listen to podcasts like this, maybe they read books, maybe they read blog posts. It's really hard to take that initial plunge and get the confidence to actually start.
How confident were you when you first decided that you wanted to run your own business? And what were some of the things that helped you become confident besides just meeting entrepreneurs in real life and getting to talk to them?
This is a good question. So the first thing that you should know is when people were asking me about what I want to do after business school, I could hear some people say I would like to start a company. I was always like, well I wish I could say the same thing but it just feels too hard to me.
So I think that I wasn't confident at that time that I could start my own company. So I think if anyone is listening to the podcast and feels that way then it I think it's totally normal. I think there are two things that made me believe that it was possible. The first thing is joining a startup and actually seeing what it took to build a product and launch it, sell it and iterate on the product. I think that give me some confidence.
So being exposed to at least one young company I think is super helpful and the second thing is, trying to meet with one person whether it's a friend or mentor, anyone that will believe in you, was also super helpful.
So like in my case, I was dating someone who started a company at the same time and just really believed in me and today he is my husband. I think it helped me so much to know that he knew that I could start this company and just hearing that from someone, whoever it is, is incredibly helpful.
Yeah, I think a lot of times if you're procrastinating doing something, if you're worried about something being too hard just taking that first step is the hardest part.
And in fact even doing the thing isn't as hard as taking the first step. So having somebody who believes in you or someone who can sort of give you the opportunity to get your feet wet is really helpful.
Yeah it is. One thing I would tell you, once we started building Front a few months after we applied to Y combinator and we got accepted so we went there. At YC every Tuesday night you have a dinner with a successful entrepreneur, talking about their business.
For me it was the CEO of Stripe, Facebook, Dropbox. So super successful people and just hearing them talk about how hard it was when they started, how non-obvious their idea was and how hard it still is today, is one of the things that helped me the most. I'm sure that a lot of people have heard about the book The Hard Thing About Hard Things, that it's one of the books that has helped me the most because just knowing that it's hard for everyone will prevent you from thinking about, is it normal or not that I find this hard?
So then you can just focus on actually making progress, whatever it is and you can stop wondering if it's normal that he's hard or not and just keep doing what you're doing.
So one thing that's interesting about your story in particular is that Front is an app in the email space and it's notoriously difficult to build an app in the email space. It is very hard to get a product out the door.
It's hard to deal with all the competition and so in some sense it kind of was just you, doing this thing that was a little bit harder than a lot of other startups. Why did you decide to work on Front? And how did you how did you stumble onto this idea?
Yeah sure. So I think it's a combination of two things. The first one was being exposed to the SaaS world and looking at the impact that the contract management software that I had launched, had. It just made me super happy because I was very happy to see that you could build software in just a few months that would actually deeply change how some people were working.
The thing is I wasn't using contracts to get work done. I was using email and so I think I was fascinated by the fact that email is the tool that people use the most today to get work done and it's the only software that has not evolved in the past 10 years. So if you look at Gmail 10 years ago and Gmail today, it's very very similar.
And so I think the space was interesting to me. Now the pain point that we started with was shared email addresses. So any email address like [email protected], [email protected], [email protected] etc, is a pain point that I had identified when I was working in the startup. So people were emailing this email address and then nobody knew if someone had replied to it, or we were replying twice to the same message. I just thought that that could be a really good entry point in this space and that's why I started Front.
Did you do anything to validate your idea to make sure that it was a good idea worth working on? Or were you so excited that you just jumped into it from the very beginning?
No. You know, I feel like the first two years of Front were validating the idea. So I did a lot of things, I talked to a ton of companies in order to understand their email workflows and trying to understand where it was broken. I tried to write a lot of content on email and communication, have people get in touch.
Especially people interested that space, talk to them about just the space in general and what pain points they have identified and then just start building something. Even like screenshots of what we had in mind, show them to people, have them excited or not excited. So it was constant validation for the first two years and even more true in the first two months.
Yeah, two years is a long time to spend validating an idea. I guess to some degree, you don't have a choice though. I mean it takes that long to really do all the steps you need to see if your company is going to be viable. Let me ask you, what was motivating you at the very beginning?
I think everybody's driven to start a startup for different reasons. Some people want the money, some people want the financial freedom. Some people want to change the world in a specific way. If I could have gone back in time four years ago and asked Mathilde of then, why are you doing this? What would you have said?
Yeah, so the answer to this question is very naive but it's true. So when I was a when I was a kid, I was in France and one thing that struck me is that no one in my family liked their jobs and so they didn't want to go to work on Monday. They were always looking forward to being on vacation.
I was a very happy kid and so it just felt to me that it was a bit sad that when I would grow up I would not enjoy working. For me starting a company was a way to create a place where I would be happy to come to work every day and hopefully other people would be happy to come to work every day. Then if I was on top of that, able to work on a product that would make other people happier, more productive, more engaged at work then I would be even happier and more fulfilled.
That was true four years ago but it's still true today. That's what drives me. Whenever people join the Front team I do a presentation during their onboarding week and I always mention that Front a means to two ends. One is happy employees and two is happy customers. Front isn't good in itself, it's just good because it helps us achieve these two things. That's really the main driver that I have but I think also the whole company has.
How do you like being a first-time founder and has the journey been different than you first expected it might turn out to be?
So one, I love it, so I love my job. I think it's an incredibly hard job but it's very rewarding. Being a first-time founder is, you just realize at every step of the way that your job is going to change maybe every six months.
So you need to be very humble and be self-aware about the things that you don't know, so that you can learn the thing that you don't know. I love it and I would do it again and I think being a first-time founder is also really good because you can invent a lot of new ways of doing things and I find it incredibly exciting.
Yeah, it's super cool that when you start a company it's pretty much you in control and so you don't really have to be beholden to the status quo.
You can do all sorts of new things and it's risky because you can spend a lot of time doing things that aren't really helpful to the bottom line and achieving your real goal. At the same time it's it's pretty freeing to be able to do that. Especially when you come from working a normal job where you don't have as much control.
Yeah and I think specifically on Front, working on an email product I think it was super important that I actually didn't have a lot of work experience because I think it's easy when you use email so much to get used to a specific way of dealing with email.
Then not be able to have a new pair of eyes on a radically new way to deal with email. I actually think that the fact that I was young, my co-founder was young and most of our early employees didn't have a ton of work experience or no experience in the email space, enabled us to be pretty ballsy in the value proposition of our product and I think that led to us being quite successful so far.
Cool. Well, I want to dive into the details behind how exactly you guys have done what you've done. And how long it took you to figure out that perhaps having a fresh set of eyes was crucial to you guys.
So let's go back to the very beginning. The days when you guys first came up with your ideas and got started. What was sort of the first step you took to work on Front?
Alright, so the first step I took was, first of all just talking to as many companies as possible as I said. Then at the same time you can just keep talking to people. So I started this company with my co-founder who is the CTO of the company and so he started to build a product very early on and so the idea was super basic.
It was an email client. So you can receive and send messages. Then you had two features, you could assign messages to people and comment internally on any message that was coming in.
So he was building this and I was talking to people, hoping that one person would say I'm happy to test it when it's ready. Then at every step of the way whatever I had to show. Whether it was just a one pager, then a screenshot, then a product that wasn't working that well to a product that was working okay.
Then I put that in front of whoever I was chatting with. I feel like one thing that I've seen is founders can sometimes wait too long because they are not proud of what they've built because it's obviously shitty.
Anything that you build at the beginning is not working or is bad but I think that putting whatever you have in front of as many people as possible is something that helped us get to product market fit as quickly as possible. So pretty much, the early days were running I was chatting with users and my co-founder was building product and because I was chatting with users or potential users, he was changing how he was building the product and so on and so forth.
How did you know that was the right way to go because I think the vast majority of first-time founders do exactly what you said. They're embarrassed about what they built.
They build it for six months or a year before they showed it to a single person. By the time they have, they realized they built the wrong thing and it's too late to go back. How did you know to do things the way that you did?
Hard to know I think it's just that personality where I'm someone that I think is more pessimistic than optimistic. So I always feel like I will not think that something is great until a lot of people have told me that it's great. So I think it's just who I am. I'm also someone that's very focused.
So I knew that in the early days of a company there are just so many things you could be doing. From talking to people in the same space, to talking with potential investors, to talking with potential partners, potential hires and I felt like being super focused on just doing two things.
Which were taking to potential users and building the product. I think it helped us a ton. So I also think that you need to have a lot of confidence. You need to be low ego in order to do what I've said you should do. Which is just put it in Front of people as early as possible because for sure people, will tell you that it's bad.
You just need to use that as a data point and they're not judging everything you've done and or who you are. I think that if you are in this state of mind and don't have too much of an ego, then it will be easier to do that.
It's funny to hear you say that you're a little bit more pessimistic than the average person because I think the stereotype for the founder of a startup is to be wildly optimistic.
To believe that everything is going to work and throw caution to the wind and be extremely amenable to risk. Where do you think that pessimism comes from?
So I don't know if pessimism is the right word. Maybe it's paranoid, I don't know if that's better but it's basically this idea that I just always think about what could go wrong, rather than hope that things will go well.
So when you start a company things will be hard, you will maybe have bad news and sometimes you have one piece of good news. I think that it's incredibly important to face this bad news so you should expect them. I don't know where it comes from. It's just that I know things will be hard. I know that things will stop working at a point and if I can anticipate that I have the confidence that we will be successful in the long run.
So something that's funny about this pessimism or optimism is that I remember one thing, which is when I was at YC, so we had the not launched the product yet. So super early on, we had a batch with a hundred companies. The partners were telling us, so in this batch most likely about three companies will work out. At that time I was thinking about what we were doing and I hated everything about our product.
So our batch mates were asking, can we try the product? I was like no, you should use our competitor, it's much better. So on one hand, I was, I don't know if it's ashamed but not happy about the current state of the business. So that's the paranoid, pessimistic state of mind that I was referring to.
On the other hand when YC was saying probably 3 companies will work out, in my head I was like I'm pretty sure Front will be one of them. So I think I have always been that way, where I'm never happy about the current state of the business and I always have a lot of confidence in the fact that were figuring things out.
Give me a sense of the timeline around the early phases of your business. When did you come up with the idea of verses when did you finish building the product versus when did you guys get into Y Combinator?
So we started working on Front in October 2013. We applied to YC in March 2014 so that six months after. And we launched the product in June 2014, so yeah, nine months after we started working on it.
And how were you guys funding things before you got into YC because a lot of founders or would-be founders struggle with trying to figure out the finances behind how they can take time off or save up enough money to actually work on a business.
Yeah, so we were lucky enough to have an angel investment from a startup studio in France and then six months after we got a $120k from YC so that was fortunate.
Yeah, that's great because that's more than enough for, I think, two people to really work on a product for at least a year and try everything that you can.
You've written that at the beginning of Front your job was to do literally everything that wasn't engineering.
So you're doing sales, support, product management, hiring, marketing Etc. What do you think out of all those jobs was the most important to getting through your very first year as a company?
Sales for sure and it wasn't my favorite one. For me, my favorite one was product. I knew that I had to spend the majority of my time demoing the product to potential customers.
Then talking to these customers about what they were liking and not liking about the product. So I think sales is something that either you love or you hate. Even if you hate it or dislike it you should spend the majority of your time doing it when you're doing software.
Yeah, I think one of the cool things about sales is that it forces you to actually talk to your customers. It's easy to sort of have this mass marketing approach at the beginning that everybody sort of dreams of of. Oh, I'm not going to talk to anybody.
I'm just going to put my product out and it's going to spread like wildfire on Google or through the tech press or on Hacker News or whatever. That deprives you of the ability and the chance to really talk to your customers and find out what they like or what they don't like.
Do you remember any of the lessons that you were learning by talking to your customers and doing sales early on?
I mean the main thing is I learned a ton about the product. So it was funny because I remember that my co-founder was building features and every time I was like, I think we just need one last thing, then people will use it.
So he was building that and I was demoing it, then being like oh there's this other thing. So then I was coming back and I was like, one last thing. That lasted probably a year. So yeah, I think that what you learn the most is just what people want.
Yeah, how do you get out of that rut? Because that's something that I talk to a lot of people who are starting companies and they think, hey, my products not good now but when I add one more feature, that's really what's going to make a take-off.
It is a pretty common viewpoint and very often ends in companies never really finding product market fit. How did you guys get to product market fit and get out of that cycle?
Yeah, so I think it's different for every industry. I think in the email space you have to first get to an MVP that people are going to use. So when you're doing email there are some features that you cannot not have.
So you need to be able to CC, BCC, you need to be able to add attachments, generally you need to have tags for example. So I think that you should get to a point where at least one customer is going to use it and then understand how many more customers could be using it because the truth is you always find people that want more out of your product.
The goal is not to build everything that people ask for. So for us this period pre-launch was good just to know what an MVP would look like in our space. So what I wanted to find is, one, can we have 10 customers paying for this product? If we can have 10 then most likely we can have a thousand.
So tell me a little bit more about this early sales process. What was it like finding and talking to your first customers? And how did you even know who to reach out to?
So like, I hustled. I think that's the only way to go. So first of all I was writing a ton of content on the email and communication in general and then we had a waiting list. So whenever people were subscribing to our waiting list or beta request then I would contact them and ask if they want to see a demo of the product. I did that, I asked my network.
The good thing about joining YC is the fact that they had a huge network of YC companies. So I probably reached out to a lot of them in order to know who would accept seeing our products. We did a lot of things, we launched on Product Hunt probably seven times and we were in every startup listing that you could think of.
I was talking at a few events so that I could tell them that Front app was amazing. I just did so much and I think there is absolutely no shortcuts. You need to hustle hustle at every every stage of the business and for what it's worth, it's still true today.
Yeah, it's funny to hear you talk about that and also talk about why you wanted to get into startups in the first place, which is to create a job that you actually would enjoy going to.
It's hard for me to imagine you doing all this hustling if you didn't actually enjoy what you're doing because it would just be like a normal job but even more work.
Yeah, I agree. If you're optimizing for the amount of time you'll spend working then a startup is really not a good fit. But I just love it and I've always loved what I was working on and really I think it's super important to understand that being happy at work doesn't mean that it's peaceful or easy or fun.
At the end of the day I care about our mission, I care about the people I work with. I think it's super rewarding to make progress, especially on something that no one has ever done before and every founder can probably relate to that. That's what makes me happy everyday.
So back in June of 2015, about a year after you guys launched, you wrote about how you'd reached the point where you'd put some essential fears behind you, regarding building something that people want, attracting talent, securing funding, landing customers. What do you think was the biggest turning point after a year of working on Front?
I think it is hard. I don't think that you ever wake up one day thinking, okay we've nailed it. Now things will work out. It's still not how I feel today.
So I guess it's just, I think that at the moment you realize that you have a handful of customers that are using your product, are happy to use your product, are paying for your product and you know that there is no other product that they could use that would be better for them.
That's when you realize that's a handful of customers but there could be many more. That's when you realize that you have product market fit and so you can think about scaling your business.
Yeah, give me a breakdown on what it was that you were selling customers on and why people use Front. What made it different than the normal email experience and what made it something that people were willing to pay for?
Sure, so we started as a shared inbox tool. So it was the easiest way to manage any shared inbox. A shared inbox could be a shared email address or a shared Twitter account, Facebook account, a shared Twilio number.
So there are a few reasons why people would use our product and find it better than any other tool. So the first one is, we had a lot of support teams use the product and they preferred Front over a ticketing system like ZenDesk or FreshDesk because of the fact that it was an email system first. So the communication looked very personal.
You didn't have to receive your ticket number one, two, three, four, five. Reply above this line. It was also very intuitive to use. So if you wanted more people in your company to see support requests then it was easy and less expensive as well. So I think we had traction at the beginning because it was just a better way to support your customers.
Then what we saw is, all these features around collaboration and new work flows that we enabled when people were dealing with email. We're actually useful to support teams but also account management teams, product teams, recruiting teams. We started to see these teams don't have a ton of other solutions than Gmail and Outlook to deal with their email.
Yet Gmail and Outlook weren't and specifically designed for businesses or for teams. So whenever you need to collaborate you'll CC, BCC, reply or forward. It's super hard to integrate it with any other tool that you're using, like a CRM or project management tool so then we got traction in these other teams. That's when we started to realize that there was something very unique about what we're doing,
On one hand it's such good news to see all these other types of people and roles being able to use your product and actually find a huge benefit by using it. But on the other hand one of the things that you hear people tell founders all the time is to focus.
Focus on your core user, focus on your core use case. Don't get distracted by any of the hundreds of other opportunities and features you're going to be able to build over the course of your business. How do you make that decision to widen your net and go after more more customers and was that a tough decision to make?
Yeah, I think it always depends on your space. So email is interesting because it's one of the rare tools that used the a companies of 3 people and companies of 200,000 people. It's used by engineers and by product managers but also by support reps and sales reps.
So I think we were in a unique situation. I would obviously tell founders to focus but I think one of our opportunities was the fact that we were a horizontal product in the fact that you could have both a support team and an account management team and a sales team on Front. So now it doesn't mean that we didn't focus.
So there are some teams where Front is not good for them. There are some industries where Front is not good for them. There's some size of teams were Front is not good for them. We had to be very deliberate about not building the features for these people.
So let's talk about growing your team. In the beginning it was just you and your co-founder working on Front. How did the two of you meet?
So we met in France in a startup studio. So I think that five years ago the community in Paris of people interested in tech, especially in SaaS was pretty small. So I met him in the startup studio. So the funny story about my co-founder and I is that we started the company together just a few months after we met and usually you hear people that are best friends, have worked together, are brothers and sisters.
For us it was very different, so we actually spent a ton of time together in the first two months asking ourselves all the tough questions that we could, when we encounter them. So for example, what happens if you want to sell and I don't want to? What happens if I want to fire you or you want to fire me? We just felt so aligned so that was one thing that helped us decide to work together.
And the other thing was I think that today our relationship is still fantastic after 5 years. It is definitely one of the things I've been the most lucky with and I think it's because there was just a lot of respect between the two of us. So I hugely respect who he is and what he works on. He really respects who I am and what I work on and so that's why, even a few years after we still have a very strong relationship.
I think people really underestimate how helpful it can be to have a co-founder who you trust and you work together well with and also how harmful it can be to work with somebody who you don't have a good relationship with. It actually kills a tremendous percentage of businesses, just disputes between two co-founders.
Yeah and I think the interesting thing is the fact that you get on the well with this person is actually not the most important thing. Like the fact that there is deep respect is the most important thing.
So what's it been like growing from just the two of you to a team? How did you make your first hire? And how does your role change as you brought in more and more people?
So the first hire was network, so our first hire is still with us today. We hired him in France then he moved with his whole family in San Francisco. It was just a friend of a friend of a friend, so was our second hire and third hire. So then our jobs changed so much.
So we went from, I will talk about my job specifically. I was doing everything and then for everything I was doing I hired people better than me. So I was always doing the thing that no one was doing and then I was leading all the teams. So it was head of sales and head of marketing and head of recruiting and then I hired people better than me to lead these teams. So now I have a totally different job.
Does your vision change as you were growing your company because I know early on you might think, okay we're going to be this product. We're going to have this goal.
But as you said you realized that you could sell your product to more people and it can be useful to people in different roles than you expected. How else did the vision for Front evolve over time?
So I think it just became more and more ambitious. The truth is we have a super ambitious vision today and when we raised our Series B we pitched it and people often ask me, was that your vision since the beginning? The truth is, it's not.
My vision was different before it just that I was thinking first if you can a company with a hundred people one day then I'll be incredibly successful and happy. Now that the team is a hundred people I can think, okay. what does it mean for Front to be successful and for me to be happy and it's always bigger. So that's how the vision grows.
Yeah, one of the things you've written about that's related to this is that you said countless entrepreneurs before you had gotten started had warned you about something counterintuitive.
That's that things can get harder the more successful that you get, not easier. In part because the stakes get higher. Have you found that to be true for Front and do you have any examples of how that's become true?
A hundred percent true and I think there's just so many times where I thought, once we hire someone things will get easier or you know, once we're bigger than obviously we'll have product market fit so things will be easier.
Or once we raise money things will be easier, whatever. And the truth is there are always a million things that are broken and more and more things as the company gets bigger. So it's just harder and as I wrote the stakes are higher.
So you just have more customers, you have more employees, you raise more money. So you have more investors. So anything that could go wrong has a bigger and bigger impact as your company is scaling and so in that sense it I'm aware that it will never get easier.
Do you think any part of that perspective is the fact that you're sort of paranoid as a CEO and you're always on the lookout for what can go wrong? Or do you think that at every company things get harder and more challenging as you become bigger and more successful?
Every company. I've met so many founders and CEO's and none of them have told me it just got easier over time, nobody.
So one of the things you've written about as well was your blog post earlier this year called, What Does the CEO of Front Do?
Not only did you outline what exactly your responsibilities are as a CEO of this hundred person company, but you also broke them down and you showed exactly how much time you spent on each of these tasks.
Why did you write that blog post? And can you sort of describe it to listeners who haven't read it.
Yeah. Sure. So why did I write it. So that it's actually pretty funny. So when the company was small I was doing everything and I think everything that I was doing was visible to everyone.
Then one day which was maybe I don't know six months ago, I do have an office hour every two weeks. I have 30 minutes or maybe an hour where I'm in a room at Front and anyone that wants to talk to me, you can talk to me about anything. So one day someone comes to this office hours and asks me, what's your job exactly?
I found it super interesting because you know, I actually started thinking about it and it's true that when I was replying to support enquiries or selling or hiring or other things, it was very visible. So people could tell exactly what I was doing. Then as your company is growing you're less and less hands-on and so maybe it's less obvious what you're doing. So then I wrote this this blog post that was just publishing a presentation that I had done internally in front of the whole company on Monday morning, explaining what my job was. So my job is lots of different things.
I have a few responsibilities. So one is the financial health of the company. So I'm in charge of making sure that we always have money. The second thing is I need to make sure that I am knowledgeable enough on the product and the space so that we always make the right strategic decisions. That's not true for every founder and every CEO but I'm still super involved with the product, so that's one of my responsibilities. The third one is I'm responsible for building and taking care of an executive team. So at any point in the business, we need new people.
For example, right now I'm working on a Head of Finance search and so I need to work on that while working on making sure that our existing executive team is working well together. The other responsibility is I need to make sure that the culture of the company is always great and at the end of the day, there's of course a lot of people working on that but if the culture is not goo it's ultimately my responsibility.
Then there are lots of things that I do on a day-to-day basis. One of them is I'm a manager and so I will spend a lot of time doing one-on-ones with our employees. I'm still very involved with customers. So I read every single NPS comment made every day so that I stay in touch with our customers and I make the right decisions for the product and for the business.
And I work on any other ad-hoc problem. So any topic that doesn't have an owner. So for example, we might work on new pricing and it's not directly the responsibility of marketing or product or sales but it's really a mix of everyone. So I will ultimately make the decision on some of the topics that don't have a clear owner.
So that's what I do in this presentation. I explained exactly the percentage of time that I spent every week working on these topics. If you follow me on Twitter you can see that my EA sends me at the end of every week the splits of my time for the previous week. So she tells me how much time I've spent in each of these categories and then I usually publish it so that people can see it.
Yeah, I've seen that it's really cool. I'm going to see if I can find one right now. Okay, this is from August 13th. You've got, looks like 12 different things that you spend time on during this one week.
Manager, you spent 32% of your time doing that, emails, 12.5%, executive hiring 10% of your time, product and strategy 10% of your time. It's a lot of stuff. That's a lot of jobs. How do you remain efficient while switching context so often? I think it's hard for people to just work on two jobs in a given week, let alone 12.
Yeah, so there are a few things I do to make that work. So the first one is at the beginning of every week I send an email to all my direct reports and I explain what's top of mind for me and what I will be working on during the week and I think that helps me structure what I will do and makes me accountable.
And then I make sure that in my calendar that week I have some dedicated time for each of these topics. So I know that if I don't have that, then I will never know what to work on. So at the beginning of the week my week is pretty much set on where I will spend my time then I feel like I'll be proactive about a lot of different topics.
Yeah that makes a lot of sense as planning ahead is a lot better than leaving things to chance and I know as a programmer myself, if I don't plan ahead I will end up spending all my time coding because that's what I like doing the most.
So one of your responsibilities is to be sort of the guardian of the financial health of your company and you mentioned earlier that you raised a Series B for Front pretty recently and you guys raised $66 million dollars. What's the story behind what that process looks like?
Sure, so beginning of November 2017, I felt great about the business and at the end of the day, I feel like you should raise money when you feel good about the business. Not when you've hit specific metrics or milestones that people tell you are necessary to raise money.
So I felt good. I felt like we had found a way to scale the business in a reputable way and I felt like we could invest more money on the product in order to make our vision become true more quickly. And so it was a combination of I feel good and I could use the money and I've proved something since our last round.
So what I did was I contacted a lot of different partners in different firms and I decided to put all the partner meetings in one week and then I was like either it works doesn't work. But at least if it works it will be a short process and I could get back to work. It worked, so we had term sheets and so at the end of the week we picked one of them and then I moved on and started working again.
You make it sound so easy, but I think for most people getting timesheets to raise $66 million dollars and doing it on your own terms, where every investor has to be with you in the span of one week would be impossible.
Why do you think Front was in such a great position to do that? And what were some of the tricks you used to make that outcome more likely?
Yeah sure, you're right like it's never easy and I think we're very lucky that it happened that way. Reflecting back, I think the few things that we did were first of all we had really good metrics. So I've published our Series B deck so you can see everything about our metrics at that time.
I think it helps it a ton and everything else is a detail compared to if you have strong metrics, then you should be able to raise pretty quickly. Then I think the other thing that helped is I had built relationships with most of the partners that I met with and so then it makes things easier when you raise money, you don't need to spend a lot of time getting to know the person that you'll partner with.
So that helps. Another thing that helped you is we had a data room with all our data available. So then I didn't spend weeks answering questions about the data, everything was available. So these are I think a few things that helped.
One of the the challenges of raising money is that well, it gives you on one hand, the resources to move faster and do more.
It also sets the minimum bar for success much higher because investors expect you to exit for much higher than the valuation you're at when they put in their money. How do you think about this trade-off as the CEO and do you think raising money puts more pressure on you to perform?
I think I put enough pressure on myself to not feel additional pressure when I raise money. If anything, I chose Sequoia to lead our Series B and Brian Schreier joined our board and I think that maybe earlier on I thought that having a board member could be scary and would add pressure.
But in fact we're already on the same team and see if anything, so I've been working with him for nine months now, it gives me so much energy because he's great. He's very talented and I think I just want to be a better version of me so that he is proud and I think that's positive for the business and his experience is very positive for the business. So I don't think there is a ton of things that are negative. I think the mistake would be because you have money, you spend it and that's something that I'm trying not to do.
What are some of the other advantages to raising money and having these world-class investors on your team besides just having the money in the bank?
There is always a network of people that go with every fund. Sequoia has a strong network so it's useful, they have resources internally that can help you. So for example, they have an amazing recruiting team that helps me whenever I'm doing a new search.
They have events on specific topics and so either me or other people in the team go to these events and learn a ton. So yeah, they can help sell candidates when you have late-stage candidates. If they believe that you company is great then hearing from investors that they think your company is great helps a lot.
Yeah. The reason I'm asking about fundraising is because I sort of oscillate between having VC funded founders on the podcast and having self-funded bootstrapped founders on the podcast.
It's a lot of conflict between these two camps, like the bootstrappers tend to believe that raising money from venture capitalists is selling your soul, in a way. Giving up control of your company.
You're giving up your dream and it's oftentimes a bad deal that founders get. Whereas the VC funded founders tend to believe that you can't build a significant or big company without raising money. What would you say to a founder who's on the fence between these two camps?
Sure. So, I mean first of all, I don't think that raising money is good in itself. If you could generate enough money to never raise money then obviously do that. But now the question is if you don't have a choice and so the two choices that you have is either you don't grow as fast as possible because you don't have any or you try to grow as fast as possible.
Then it's really a different depends on what motivates you as a founder. For me as I said I care about having an impact both on customers that are using the products and on people that are in the company.
So the bigger the company is the higher the number of customers we have is then the happier I am. So for me, growing quickly without threatening our culture is incredibly exciting and that's what I want.
And so like we're a pretty young company, but we've been growing pretty fast and I would have never been able to grow that fast without capital. If I could have, then I would have done it but it wasn't possible. So that's how I would think about.
It's funny because raising capital helps you grow more quickly, yes but the reverse is also true that growing really quickly helps you raise capital and it helps with a bunch of other things too.
Helps you with hiring. I talked to a lot of companies with co-founder issues and it's almost always the case of these issues pop up when things aren't going that well growth is stagnant and so in some ways growth is the answer to a lot of problems.
Yeah, that's true. But then you could also think about companies that just wants to have a lifestyle business and they don't want to be a billion dollar company and I think that's totally fine as well. I think people should just do what makes them happy. For some of them it's being in a high-risk environment and for some of them it's not.
Let's talk about what makes you happy Mathilde. You mentioned that there are two reasons that you started this company.
One of them is to build something that improves your customers lives and the other was to create a company. that both you and your colleagues could actually enjoy working at. So what does the culture look like it Front?
It's always a tricky question to describe the culture in just a few words, but there are a few values that we have that I think we would describe really well. So one of them is low ego and combined with high standards so those are two values. So I think we're a team of talented people that are super humble and know that there is so much they don't know.
This third value is care. I think we're a team of kind people that care about each other and about our customers. Transparency is our, I think most surprising value in a sense that when people join they are always surprised at how transparent the company is. So it means lots of different things.
It means that employees always know what's happening. There are few examples of that. We have a public roadmap so anyone can see what we're working on. Every Monday we do a presentation, we go over all our metrics, everyone knows the runway. We have the amount of money we have in the bank.
Everyone knows the feedback that's good and bad from our customers and at an individual level everyone knows how people and their manager feel about them and their manager knows how they feel about them. So there is a culture of radical candor. So that's what I would say that now we have two offices.
We have one in SF and one in Paris. So I think our culture is also defined by the fact that we have these two these two cultures. We like board games. We do offsites company wide offsites, twice a year, where the whole company goes somewhere for a few days. So that's how we describe the culture in in just a few seconds.
What's your favorite board game?
So I have a new one, Puerto Rico. A lot of people know Settlers of Catan, so it would be a version of Settlers of Catan without the dice because the problem of the dice is that there is so much luck, so much luck.
So yeah, so I don't I love Settlers of Catan because I think it's an entertaining game but I don't like it that much because I think there is too much luck in it. So Puerto Rico would be the same but without luck.
It's funny because after a game of settlers, you can sort of forget about the dice rolls. You just see the results and you don't really remember how much luck went into it.
Which I think is analogous to running a business in some ways where a lot of things happen and of course you're working as hard as possible, but there are some lucky things that happened too that are really easy to forget about.
What do you think has been the luckiest things that have helped you get to where you are with Front?
Yeah, so first of all, I think that I've been incredibly lucky. I don't think that there has been a few things where we've been lucky. Overall we've been super lucky that I met my co-founders, super lucky that our first employees worked out, super lucky that we went into YC. Super lucky that the first customers that we had were very patient and gave us a ton of feedback.
Super lucky we got funding from the people we got funding from and then helped us. You know, there is just so much. I was very lucky to have people help me along the way. I have amazing mentors, amazing people that have believed in me and told me about it. I have an amazing husband who believes in me and tells me every day. So just a combination of a lot of luck.
Has there ever been a time where you were looking at your business and thought shit, we're screwed. I don't know how we're going to get out of this one. And you weren't really sure that Front could survive?
Yes, so that's the spoiler, that it happens every month.
Wow. What do you think is the scariest moment where you've had those thoughts?
I don't think there is one, like I'm just used to it. So I don't think it's scary, just the reality. Like there's thoughts that I have all the time that I've always had and I think if I keep having them and that's how we'll make the best decision.
Let's talk about the business model behind Front and some of the numbers in the decision-making that have gone into that because I know to get Front to the level it is today you've got to put a lot of thought into your pricing and then to what kinds of customers you want to target.
What kind of customers you don't want to target. How have those decisions evolved over time?
So we always had a price per user per month or price per user per year. Then very early on we invested in a system that would allow us to iterate on our pricing pretty easily. So we went through 17 iterations of our pricing already.
Wow. What did you learn from that?
Just that pricing is super hard to get right and even today, I think it's completely wrong. So you just need to I think invest in a system that would allow you to change pretty quickly, it is a super great investment.
What about the competition? How do you think about other players in the space? Because for most businesses they're paying five or ten dollars a month or something like Google Apps, they're paying for Outlook.
They're paying for other help desk software. How do you make decisions about the pricing? How do you experiment with your business model at Front knowing that you're part of this wider competitive landscape of companies and products that charge their own prices?
Yeah. So I mean, it's true. At the same time, you know, you should think about pricing as as a return on investment. So I think email can be so critical to some teams that they would actually be willing to pay a lot of money if it was significantly better.
So yes, we compete with Gmail and Outlook. We also compete with as I said helpdesk solutions and then on one hand helpdesk solutions are super expensive on the other hand email solutions are super cheap and so our pricing is pretty much in the middle and it's tough. I mean, it's tough in a sense that it's never right but you have to accept it's never right and you have to keep iterating on it.
Have you guys ever had any big disagreements over major decisions around pricing or your product or just the direction the you should head in with Front and if so, how did you resolve those issues?
So first of all the fact that we all use Front at Front so everything is shared. Every customer feedback and I think the reason why we we've never really had a disagreement on the product is because we know, like we use the product so we know what we need to improve.
Then we see what our customers like and don't like, so we know what we need to work on. And so that's something that I would recommend to to any company, which is the the more you can share the feedback of your customers and leads to the entire company the more alignment you'll be able to have.
So Front is one good tool to do that but there are other ways you can achieve that. I think transparency in general is just the best way to create an alignment in your company. So I don't think there's been a ton of disagreement, like we agree and then we make mistakes and then we change it but I don't feel like we've done a lot of time at Front arguing. We've just spent a lot of time trying to fix problems.
Let's say you could go back in time to the very beginning of Front when you guys first started working on it. What would you tell yourself and your co-founder that you didn't know at the time?
I think it would just tell myself that it will be hard and I shouldn't think too much about the fact that it's hard along the way.
You've got a time machine here, Mathilde. You wouldn't tell yourself any answers to specific questions any decisions or predictions about the future or stuff like that?
I don't know, I would say move to San Francisco. At the time it was better and it took a lot of time for us to convince ourselves that we should make the move so I would say that.
What if you could go forward in time and ask the future Mathilde any questions and she'll tell you the answer. What do you what would you ask yourself?
I don't know. I would ask myself if I'm still happy doing this job.
Yeah, this is because I want to make sure that it's always true at any time in my life.
Such a simple question to ask yourself, but also such a good north star to have. I mean it's the basics, am I happy and if not, I need to change things up. And I think it's tough sometimes because I guess different incentives can come into conflict.
For example, if on one hand you want to make your customers happy and you want your company to succeed but on the other hand you want you and your team to be happy, things might be in conflict. Which one wins?
So that's the thing, when I do this presentation at the beginning of every onboarding session, I do tell them that I never want to compromise and I never want to compromise and I do think that happy employees lead to happy customers and happy customers lead to a happy employees. So I actually don't think that you need to make a trade-off.
That's fascinating. How do you balance things so that you never have to make that trade-off? That sounds very hard to do.
I don't know if it's hard, it just you know, it's just there are some companies that will just focus so much on customer happiness. And so for example for us it means that everyone does support every week.
We highlight a customer, like it's just a choice that we've made. It's not good in itself. I think it's totally fine if you don't have a customer centric company, you can have an employee centric company you can have a products centric company. So I don't necessarily think that you should do the trade off.
You've been incredibly successful as a first-time founder. You've grown your company 100 employees, you've raised millions of dollars. You have thousands of paying customers. What is your advice to people listening in who are considering becoming first time founders themselves?
So one is, do it. Like you should just get started because just make a leap of faith and you know, nothing that has been built was obvious otherwise it would have been built ten times before.
So that would be number 1 and number 2 is as I've worked with entrepreneurs one thing that I've realized is once you start building your company focus is so important and being organized is so important. So one thing that I find surprising is I help entrepreneurs and usually they keep me posted on their progress.
Some people will keep me posted, every week or every month doesn't matter and the format of their email is always the same. So these are the metrics that we track and they always send it to me on the same day or whatever. There are others that don't do that. I can tell you now that for these people, for a few years that every single time a founder does it in such a structured and focused way their company works out.
Every time they don't do it their company doesn't work out. So obviously because you will do it your company will be successful. That's not it at all, my point is I think the ability to be super focused and to face the reality and to just be organized will be a huge reason why you will succeed or not in the early days.
That's great advice but listen Mathilde, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing your story and your learnings and your wisdom with all of us here.
Can you tell listeners where they can go to learn more about what you and your team are up to at Front? And also what's going on in your personal life?
So you can go on frontapp.com and you have a link to our blog and I think that's the best way to know more about Front.
And I have a Medium blog and I post a lot of things. I have a twitter accounts that I use every other day maybe. So just @ my name on Twitter and Medium and you'll find a lot of things about me.
Alright. Thanks so much again Mathilde for coming on the show.
Thanks for having me.
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