Emeric Ernoult of Agorapulse

Founder Coffee episode 012

I’m Jeroen from Salesflare and this is Founder Coffee.

Every two weeks I have coffee with a different founder. We discuss life, passions, learnings, … in an intimate talk, getting to know the person behind the company.

For this twelfth episode, I talked to Emeric Ernoult, Founder & CEO of Agorapulse, one of the leading social media management platforms.

As a young French lawyer, Emeric moved to Washington DC to practice law. After he decided this was not for him, he started a French pre-Facebook social network and a B2B community software company, while juggling other jobs on the side.

We talk about his backstory, why he hasn’t raised any VC funding, and how he builds his product, brand, content and company… all from Paris.

Welcome to Founder Coffee.

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Jeroen: Hi Emeric, it’s great to have you on Founder Coffee.

Emeric: Hi Jeroen. The pleasure is all mine.

Jeroen: You are the Founder of Agorapulse. In case someone hasn’t heard of Agorapulse yet, what do you guys do?

Emeric: It is software that you can use online. It basically helps you manage social profiles — especially if you are a business or an agency managing Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube, or whatever social media account for your business. You need a tool to manage these profiles because it makes your life much easier, and makes your daily task and work much faster. Right from replying to incoming comments and messages, to addressing mentions or private messages on Twitter.

It helps you publish on multiple social profiles — all the previously mentioned social networks. It helps you get metrics, and reporting on how you are doing as well. Basically, it’s a tool for social media managers.

Jeroen: There are so many of these tools that allow you to manage conversations on social media. There are tools that do the posting and the scheduling, and then there are those that offer you analytics. But your seems to be doing everything!

Emeric: Exactly. We are not the only one though. I’m not gonna lie, we have competition.

Jeroen: You do?

Emeric: Yeah we do. Like several! The biggest one is called Hootsuite. Many people know Hootsuite, because it’s the leader in the market. Hootsuite is a Canadian company, so a north American company kinds. The second in that market is Sprout Social, which is also an American company, and the third is us. We are the only European contender at a reasonable price level of course. I’m not comparing ourselves with the enterprise softwares that cost thousands of euros every month. Our pricing starts at 49 euros, so it is affordable for any business size.

In that market range, Hootsuite is the leader, Sprout is the second, and I hope we are the third.

Jeroen: You are focusing on the smaller companies, and not so much on the big enterprises then?

Emeric: Yeah. We are not focusing on the bigger enterprises. We are not focusing on the very small companies, like the mom and pop’s companies because those guys don’t have time for social media. They obviously don’t have a need for tools.

We are more focusing on small agencies, who do that work for clients, because they definitely need tools. I’d say small to medium size companies. It’s not necessarily a matter of the size of the company, it’s more a matter of their level of maturity on social media, and the level of activity they have on social media.

You can be a pretty large company and have a very poor presence on social media. Then the tool is not really what you need the most. That’s how we define our clients. It’s based on how mature, and active they are on social media.

Jeroen: So if someone really wants to become a professional on social media, that’s when they should get your tool?

Emeric: Yeah. Then, you have to. You can’t without a tool.

Jeroen: It’s all a big mess with all the different social media platforms — where to login, where to find the analytics and just how to make sense of it all.

Emeric: Yeah. It’s a huge mess if you have more than let’s say four or five differential social profiles on different social networks. It’s too much of a waste of time.

Jeroen: Does it also manage more forum related platforms? Because for instance with Salesflare, we don’t just publish things on social media like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter et cetera. We also actively post on Reddit, growthhackers.com and other channels. Is this something that is also in there, or is that not a possibility yet?

Emeric: No, it’s not in there. Outside of scope I think. It is funny you mentioned that, because we never ever had a request for that kind of feature. I didn’t think there was a need for it in the market.

Jeroen: If we would become a customer, I would definitely request it. That would be the first request we make, I guess.

Emeric: You would go into our receptive request, and we will evaluate based on the number of requests and the amount of money you are paying us every month.

Jeroen: I see. I will certainly have a look at your trial, and then we’ll see. How did this actually start for you? Were you a social media manager before?

Emeric: It’s a long story. You want to go back to the early days of what I saw?

Jeroen: Yeah.

Emeric: At the age of 18, I was finishing high school. I had no idea what I wanted to do, and funny enough I have a 17 year old now who is finishing high school and is in the same spot. He doesn’t know what he wants to do. I guess it’s a normal thing for many people to not have a passion they’ve been following since they are five or six and knowing exactly what they want to do.

Long story short, I ended up in law school because I was told that I should go to university to prepare for a big renowned school in France called Sion School. In order to get Sion School, it’s either a prep class or university.

I said, “Okay, what university?” They said history or law. I said, “No way I’m going to be a history teacher if I can’t get to that renowned school.”

I went for law because my grandfather was a lawyer; so was my great-grandfather. I said, it sounds like an interesting job. Studied law for seven years; eventually never tried to apply to that school, because law school went very well for me. I got through my BAR exam, moved to the US to work for the French embassy as a lawyer and then started to work as a lawyer in a US law firm in Washington DC. Then went back to their Paris office and worked there.

I probably was a lawyer for four years. Funny enough, I was very successful. I brought my first million euro client at the age of 27 to the law firm. I kind of had a stupid idea about myself that I was there already. I was done, I proved my value and there was no more challenge for me.

I started thinking that what do I want to do in my life? I want to be my own boss, I want to own my own thing, and I want to live my own way. Working for a big law firm will not make me happy in the long run, because I’ll just be a number in a big-big organization.

Jeroen: But you could be a partner, no?

Emeric: Yeah. You could be a partner, but trust me my best friend at that law firm was a partner. He was 57 and I could see all his struggles — like not being heard or not feeling that he had an impact. Having to deal with this big political organization. It’s a big organization, there is politics all over the place. I knew I didn’t want politics.

I wanted to build stuff and do stuff, and create stuff and not deal with other people trying to walk on me, and get away with it, or take advantage of me. Having to get into the the same kind of ugly political games to stay ahead of the curve, was just not me.

I said that’s not what I want. Then I looked at my options, and said either I create my own law firm or I quit the legal profession and I start a company with a product. I was totally naïve about what it takes to start your own company and a product. But I thought if I create my own law firm, I’ll have all the pain of being an entrepreneur — hiring the best people, managing them, a lot of HR, paying them at the end of the month, finding clients, getting the money in, being stressed about the financial situation. I’m not going to be able to pay the rent and the salaries at the end of the month, growing that.

It’s the same problems as any entrepreneur would have when you have your own service company, lawyer or accountant or anything else. You are limited. You are limited by the number of hours you can bill. It doesn’t scale.

You can’t basically scale something big in the service business, I mean big-big. That’s number one. Number two, you are not building any assets. You cannot sell your clientele, you cannot go on vacation for six months and take some time off the grid and you are not free, basically your job is a prison. You cannot stop working. That I witnessed firsthand with my friends who were a partner at that law firm.

I saw them working their butts off all the time, going on vacation where they were on the phone all day long — answering clients while they were skiing. It was horrible. I witnessed that and I said, “I don’t want that at the age of 55 like my friend. I want to be free to do what I want.” I don’t want to be bugged by business and clients, and projects when I’m off, or when it is night or even the weekend.

Those guys used to work all nighters, and all weekends to get the deal closed and all that stuff. I said, this is not the life I want when I get older. I switched and I made a decision to quit, and start my first company in 2000 with my partner Benoit who is still my partner as of today 18 years later.

The company failed. I went back to the law firm and they took me back. I worked there for two years, and then I quit again and still with Benoit, we tried to relaunch the company that was still there — dormant, but working. It was a software helping people create their own communities, their own private space where they could share stuff, photos, and messages, and videos with their friends. Something like social media.

It was basically Facebook before Facebook. But timing is everything, and trying to build Facebook in France in 2000–2001, was not a good idea. That I learned the hard way.

We pivoted that to a B2B play where we would sell to brands and businesses that piece of software — white labels. They used it to build their own community space and collaborate as teams and stuff like that. That was also pretty hard to sell from 2004 -2006. Then we kept it there.

I took side jobs between 2005 and 2008 just to make money because the internet business was not making any money. It was making very little money and just enough to pay Benoit and to pay servers, and the basic costs. In 2008, I went back full-time with Benoit, because Facebook was becoming big. They had just launched the fan pages, there was the whole rage about it at the time. And Twitter too was becoming a big deal.

I was thinking then, “Now businesses are going to get on social media. They are going to get the community thing. And they are going to be willing to build, to invest money, time and energy in building their communities.”

We tried to push for that B2B ‘build your own community’ piece of software. The name was Affinities by the way. It grew like painfully slowly; it was horrible. After two years, in 2010, we sat with Benoit and I told him, we can’t keep trying to sell that ‘build your own community’ thing while the market keeps telling us, “We don’t want to build our own community, we just want to go on the existing ones like Facebook.” That was Facebook at the time mostly, for the French.

If we don’t accompany that movement, helping people seize the opportunities on the existing social networks, then we are going to be crushed by them.

We pivoted again for a third time, and we started building contests and promotions on Facebook. That was the only thing brands and businesses wanted in 2010–2011, and that’s how we got started by building bespoke contest and promotions on Facebook. Very quickly we realized that I left the law firm not to be in the service business, because of all the problems associated to it, and all the pain associated to that and now I was back in the service business selling bespoke apps for businesses that we sell for 15,000 euros and make 3,000 euros of profit margin on it. It was not sustainable. I knew it was a pain, I didn’t want to do that.

Industrialize all these apps into a platform so people can basically pay 49 euros a month and get their own contest started; they build things themselves. It was at the end of 2011, that we launched the first version of Agorapulse — November 2011. We iterated from that because just contests and promotions were a bad business model. There was no stickiness and the churn was very high.

We started to add statistics, and comment management — just on Facebook. And then we realized Facebook was done enough, so we added Twitter and then a year later, we started LinkedIn, YouTube and everything else.

From 2011 to today, we have been making small improvements. Small steps and small improvements, taking us from a business model that was making money but wasn’t good and transforming it to something that people need to use every day; something that has retention and engagement and a much better business model — which is what we have today.

Jeroen: That is a huge story to come to where you are now. But it has always been in social media, is there a reason for that?

Emeric: Not really.

Jeroen: You just liked it?

Emeric: To be honest with you, I was doing side jobs between 2005 and 2008. I managed a company that invented a system to empty oil tankers when they sink to avoid spillage. It’s nothing to see with anything computers, or code or web. The second company I managed for two years, was selling hip replacement devices. Hip replacement devices have nothing to do with the web or anything else either. I probably could have run any kind of business. I love the web, because it’s dynamic and it’s innovative. It’s young and energetic. That’s what I love about this industry.

I did like the medical industry. For example, the medical device industry had a lot of issues, and problems with it. That I like, but the exact product, and the exact thing it does is not what drives me. What drives me is building something.

Whatever it is, building something useful — something that people enjoy using, that solves problems for them, and that makes them do their job with more fun or efficiency or whatever, bringing something positive and useful to the market and feeling that energy, that’s what drives me!

The kind of product matters less than that impression that I’m having an impact on people’s lives. It’s a big world, but saving people time and pain, is what drives me really.

Jeroen: I totally get it and feel the same. Actually, I was also in the medical field for a while. I have the same feelings about it. It’s very slow and conservative and everything. Being in the software as a service business is just so exciting, because there are so many possibilities. There is so much that is changing and the customers are much more open for new things.

If you are selling to doctors, they see your new thing and they are like it looks new but is it better, is it really much better? They are very conservative about things.

Emeric: At the time I was not selling to doctors. I was selling to surgeons.

Jeroen: Those are doctors.

Emeric: These people are very special. They think very highly of themselves, much more than a regular doctor. They are pretty hard to deal with, to be honest with you. It’s also an industry that was not very clean; although it’s getting a lot better now.

Financially speaking, there has been a lot of scandals of surgeons asking for bribes and kickbacks. I know the whole industry has been cleaned a lot because the governments have gone against those practices. There was still that kind of atmosphere that those people were expecting things like ‘send me to the Mauritius Island’ and maybe I’ll buy your stuff. You are like, “What?” That I didn’t enjoy at all.

Jeroen: What year was that?

Emeric: It was between 2005 to 2007.

Jeroen: Yeah, because when I joined the medical industry, which was in 2010, everything was buckled down already.

Emeric: When I was a lawyer, we had a client in the medical device industry. The medical device industry was the worst, and there were scandals all over the place, and that was in 1998–1999. It took time to clean up and I hope it’s clean now, because it was really disgusting. I didn’t like that. That industry for that reason was not fun to go in.

The web is much better. It’s all about value. They get value, you get money. They don’t get value, you don’t get money. That simple! I like those kind of simple things.

Jeroen: I totally agree. In the medical sector, you have all these different players and they all have an effect somewhere and it’s super complicated as well. In web, you can offer value, someone takes it, pays for it and it is done. It’s really nice.

Emeric: Yeah. There are complexities too, but they are normal complexities.

Jeroen: Talking about complexities. You guys are on the VC funding track I think?

Emeric: We are not.

Jeroen: You are not? I misread then. Is that a conscious decision?

Emeric: No. It was not in the early days, because it was super tough to not have any money in the bank. We raised some money from business centrals that were old friends of mine. We raised 300,000 euros in 2009. Unfortunately, more than half of that money was spent on Affinities — the old business that we eventually killed because it was not working.

Probably only 100K was used to bootstrap the Agorapulse project. We raised enough of very small seed ground in 2012 of 250,000.

That’s when you say are you VC funded? No, 300K of business centrals and 250K of seed round does not qualify as VC funding. Our two main competitors — the ones I mentioned earlier, raised 165,000,000 and 60,000,000 respectively. When I look at what we’ve raised, it’s basically pocket money. It’s not VC funded.

Jeroen: Is that because VCs thought of it as yet another social media management tool?

Emeric: Yeah, of course. Raising VC money is super duper hard. People will always get confused about the fact that it may be easy and if you have a good idea, you’ll get the money. No, you are not going to get money if you have a good idea.

They actually invest in one company out of hundreds that we see pitch for it. It’s very hard to raise money. That’s also a reason why I always advise founders to try to build something that does not require raising money, because if you do require raising money, your chances to get there are diminished to tiny. There is nothing less, you have one chance out of a 100 to get your business off the ground if you need $1,000,000 to get started, for example.

We tried that in the early days — to go beyond that very little seed funding, because it was hard. I didn’t pay myself for a year and a half. Then Ben and I paid ourselves minimum wages — French minimum wage, which is 14,000 euros or something a month, for probably around a year and a half or two years. Then we increased ourselves to 25,000 euros in 2011; which is just to give you a comparison to when I was a lawyer at 27 and was making 15,000 euros. Ten years later almost, or eight years later, making minimum wage was a sacrifice — a big one.

I would have loved to have some VC money at the bank to alleviate that suffering. We did not, and the funny thing is, when we got to 100,000 euros monthly recurring revenue in 2016, we said, okay. Now, they don’t believe in us, they don’t believe in the market, but they have to believe in the numbers, and our numbers are good. Let’s go try to raise money.

We went on the third roadshow we’ve done to raise money and we eventually got a letter of intent from a VC in Paris. We had been audited by the lawyers and the accountants. Everything was almost finished. At the finish line, we basically declined the offer and said, “You know what? We thought about it. We are not going to raise money.”

Jeroen: Is that a short term decision or a long term one? Is it just turning down this one offer or you are going to keep doing this?

Emeric: Everything is a short term decision. Let’s face it. Let’s not try to say that I have certainties for the rest of my life. I will never do A or B. It was definitely a decision for now, and it’s still the decision for today, almost a year and a half later.

Who knows, maybe in a year or two years, it will make sense for us? But the decision we made was not a decision of principle. It was a decision based on a lot of thought we gave into it. I wrote a whole Medium post about that by the way. If you want to know everything I think about, all the advice I have for people trying to raise money and decide whether or not they should do it, you can search on Medium for “nine company reasons not to raise VC money.”

Jeroen: I think I read that.

Emeric: Yes, “Company reasons not to raise VC money”. You’ll find that post there. All my thoughts are summarized there. That’s the result of years and years and years, of trying to raise money and finally saying no. Go read that, but basically, the long story short is, I called 15 CEOs who had raised money in the past, and I asked them two simple questions.

Number one being, “would you do it again comparing benefit versus cost of having an investor onboard?”

Number two, “As a percentage of the money you raised, how much was used efficiently and how much was wasted?”

I think I got mixed responses, because most people said yes, because they actually couldn’t say no for some reason. On the amount of money that was wasted, the minimum amount of wasted money was 50% by zero. The maximum amount was like 75 or 80%.

What I learned is that most people raise money without a very clear picture of how they are going to be able to leverage it to the best of their abilities, and to the best for the company. They raise money because it’s good to raise money and it’s good to have money in the bank — with more money, we are going to do more stuff. They tell themselves a story of stuff they are going to be able to do, but they don’t even know if it’s going to work. They have no certainty, they have not tested it. They have not gone the extra mile to make sure that it was a good use of the money.

When they get the money, they start spending left and right, and as we do make a lot of mistakes, as we all do, but now their mistakes have more zeros to them, because they have more money. So they make more expensive mistakes.

Actually, not having a lot of money is a blessing in many instances. You make cheaper mistakes. You are going to make mistakes, whatever you do, it’s the rule. Number one base rule. If you don’t have a lot of money, you are going to test small, you are going to try small. You are not going to do things like spending 50,000 a month on AdWords.

You are going to say, “Let’s put 2,000 a month on AdWords and try to figure this out. It’s just try to see if it can work for us or not.” That’s the kind of stuff we do all the time.

Just to give you a hint, AdWords doesn’t work for us at all. It’s a mess. I’m actually happy and thankful that we didn’t have a huge chunk of money, because I know for a fact, that I would have wasted most of it.

The last one thing is, one of the motivation for us after seven years in the business to raise money was to become a member of the club, or the VC funded company. That was totally an ego thing, completely stupid. I totally gave up on that and I’m happy I grew up. The second one is because we wanted advice, guidance; basically beyond the money, we wanted to help. It’s hard to be alone, trying to grow something. It’s difficult.

When you are on your own, and you have to make a dozen decisions every day, you feel like, I know I’m going to make a lot of mistakes. If someone could step in and help me make less mistakes, and more good decisions, that would be great. It’s actually a mirage, because all the CEOs I talked to, told me one thing, and that one thing I heard from each and every one of them. “If you take a VC, do it for the money, because that’s all you are going to get. If you get something else, good for you, but that’s cherry on top, and don’t expect it, because chances are that you are not going to get it.”

I thought, “Oh my God, I’m doing this for the wrong reasons”, because we actually didn’t need the money, we were profitable at the time, at 140K a month. We were not sure what to do with the money, we were just looking for VCs to help us not waste the money, which is not something they would eventually do. It was all the wrong reasons and that’s why we said no.

Jeroen: Is this something you do often? Like, speak to other founders around topics, or was it just for this because it was a huge decision for you?

Emeric: I do speak to other CEOs and founders from time to time. But I don’t do that level of interviewing them, because it was super time consuming then. It probably took me an entire week to get that done, and nobody has the time for that. I do have a couple of CEO friends, and we try to update each other from time to time, and we every time learn a shit load of stuff from the other person’s experience. I don’t have a system for this. I just go ahead and say, “Hi Alex, what are you doing? We should talk.” Then we get on Skype and we talk for 45 minutes.

We do that twice a year or once a year. I try to be members of clubs or networks with other entrepreneurs. I’m a member of a club that’s a kite surf club, because I like kite surfing, that’s my thing, my hobby. It’s a kite surf club for entrepreneurs, and we organize kite camps five times a year. I go to one or two of them, and I network with other entrepreneurs. I try to do that kind of stuff, because you learn a lot from other people.

Jeroen: Yeah, obviously it’s always really great if you can connect with other founders and learn from them, because if you are just there alone, sometimes the questions are a bit hard to solve on your own and others have already gone through it already.

Emeric: Yeah.

Jeroen: In terms of ambitions, where do you see Agorapulse go?

Emeric: That’s a funny question. That’s also probably why I didn’t want to go for a VC funding. But it is also not funny in a way because it’s not a good question, but it’s interesting because you get challenged on your ambitions all the time. I remember listening to D.H.H., one of the two co-founders of Basecamp who said that he was challenged not to be ambitious enough with Basecamp many times.

He said, “Basecamp is making dozens of millions every year and I think I’ve been ambitious enough. I don’t need to get lessons on ambitions.” It’s funny how ambitions play a role there, especially for VCs. If you want to raise VC money, you’d better sound ambitious as hell.

You’d better sound like “I’m going to conquer the world and be the best and be the first, and be the biggest and dominate.” It’s actually pretty hard to want that and also get it. It’s very difficult to get to the 100,000,000 euros a year mark. It’s hard as hell. My ambition is not so an ambition of money.

My ambition is to do the best I can, use the best of my abilities to take this venture, this adventure as far as possible, and make it as big as possible. I want it to be as useful for the market and our clients as possible.

Am I going to make 10,000,000 a year? That’s fine. I’ll probably be in the 0.001% of the richest people on earth by the time it happens. Is it going to be 20,000,000 a year? Cool. Is it going to be 50,000,000 a year? Fine with me. Is it going to be 100,000,000? I don’t care.

What I care about is I put the best of me in that venture. I go as far as I can, I take it as far as it can be taken. But I don’t have any numbers, I don’t have any precise goals. My goal is to do the best, make my team do its best, and do that in an atmosphere, in an environment, where people are happy to do what they are doing, people on site or team members, and people outside, our clients and partners. They should be happy to work with us, they should be happy to use our product, they should be happy to be in business with us.

Our employees and team members are happy to work for this company, and for me, for the other managers in the company, everybody is seeing meaning and purpose in what they do. And we have a comfortable life. We have a car, we have a house, we pay the rent, we have some good food, we take some time off, we go on vacation and we enjoy life. Nothing else matters. Everything else is ego and your problem with your childhood that you have things to prove. You should go to see a shrink.

A shrink is not going to help you though. You’ll have a good meal, but they are not going to help. That’s my relationship with ambition. I could build a 1,000,000 euros a year business. It’s possible, maybe in 10–15 years. It’s very possible. We are at five right now. It took us four years to get from zero to one, and it took us two years to get from one to five. So things are definitely accelerating and getting faster. The business could be big.

The one thing I learned is, don’t be motivated by the end goal, and don’t put an end goal as the one thing you need to achieve. Be motivated by the journey.

Be motivated by the path; by what you are doing on a daily basis, because that’s what is going to make you happy. Because if happiness is conditioned upon making 10,000,000 euros a year, I guarantee you depression and I guarantee you unhappiness in the end. My ambition is to be happy.

Jeroen: That’s good. Otherwise, like you said, you are never going to make it anyway if you don’t enjoy the journey.

Emeric: You have reasons to be unhappy about where you are every single day if you’d put it this way. Every single day. I could be running a business that makes 5,000,000 annual revenue, that makes 100,000 euros profit every month. It gives me a good salary and an interesting life, and I could be depressed because it’s only that. You know what I mean?

Jeroen: Yeah.

Emeric: I have friends who are CEOs of SaaS companies that make the same amount of money we make, but they are losing money because they were VC funded and they have too big of a team and everything is too expensive. They make a lot of mistakes with a lot more zeros than we did and so on and so forth, but when you look at their business, it could be the same as ours — profitable and fun. They are depressed, because their dream was so much bigger, and they can feel they are not getting there.

When I talk to them I’m like, it’s all about the perspective you have on everything, because I have the same thing you have, and I’m happy. You have the same thing I have, and you are very unhappy. You either change your perspective or you sell the business, or you get rid of it, because you cannot stay unhappy like this. It’s not sane.

Jeroen: They are also held responsible for the results they are not making. It’s not like they can make a conscious decision to just be happy.

Emeric: They are holding themselves. Being held responsible, letting other people hold you responsible for not achieving a result, is also your responsibility.

Jeroen: Of course it is. It’s not like they can just easily exit it now. They took the funding and they are held responsible now. It’s not something you just escape like that.

Emeric: No, for sure. That’s why I’m happy we didn’t take too much funding. It’s the addition of hundreds of small things. I am always asked, what is the one thing that made you successful, what is the one piece of advice you’d give.

Jeroen: What are the other things that you are doing right now to improve Agorapulse, on a day to day basis?

Emeric: What we are doing right now is always based on the same core principle, first principles, if you will. It’s working on the product, on every little detail of the product to improve every little thing that is causing frustration, is not efficient enough or is not fast enough. That is focus number one.

Focus number one, is the solution you are bringing to the market. You have to constantly improve it because it’s never perfect, and you have to constantly talk to your customers, listen to the customers and have as many processes and channels to be able to hear about them, and to have that feedback from the bottom go up, and be heard by your team, and by you, as the founder. It’s key.

I see too many founders that lose that connection with their users. That’s really really key. Number one.

Number two, is you have to constantly let the world know that you are offering this great service, and that’s your second challenge. What you do to create awareness about your product. You can do two things here. You can do short term things, and you can do long term things.

We’ve always mostly done long term things. The reason behind that is because short term things are very hard to succeed at, like AdWords and Facebook ads. Everything you do that’s bringing short term traffic, and short term awareness, is very hard to do and it vanishes very quickly.

Once you’ve stopped investing in them, then nothing comes out of them anymore. I always wanted to invest in things that were compounding all the time, and that would not die the day you stopped doing that.

Let’s say you do a blog and you write one blog post every day for two years. You are going to create traffic, SEO visibility, credibility and blah, blah. When you stop blogging, the next month, you are still going to get the same traffic. You are still going to get the same visibility and awareness. And same the next month, and the next and the next, and the next.

Maybe after six months, things will start decreasing. But you’ve created something that compounds over time, that doesn’t stop once you stop investing in it. That’s the kind of stuff we’ve always invested in the most. Content being a big one.

We’ve also invested a lot in our ambassador program; which is basically gathering influencers in social media, who are using our product and showing how to use our product and are ready to spread the word about it. We work a lot with them and we try to build up that ambassador group to get more and more referrals from influential people.

Everything that’s about the brands. I know it sounds a bit vague, “what does that mean to build the brand?” We want to build a brand that people like, and want to be in business with, and that goes with very little things. Every little detail in the business is always thought through as it is going to make us look nice or make us not look as a good brand. If it’s not helping our brand, we don’t do it. If it’s helping, our brand we do it.

I think branding is probably the most important thing in a noisy, busy market. We are almost all in the busy and noisy markets in 2018. Building a brand is what’s going to save you or kill you if you don’t.

Jeroen: So it is the product, brand, content and company.

Emeric: Yeah. We launched a second blog last September that’s all about testing assumptions on social media. We spent a ton of time running tests, learning about the tests, gathering the data, writing about the tests. We created a podcast about the tests we ran. It’s a huge investment. It’s probably 10,000 euros a month investment. It’s a lot of money to invest in just a blog and a podcast just because it’s definitely not going to generate immediate, direct, free trials and subscriptions to a SaaS business.

But in the long run, it’s helping the market and it’s unique. It’s making people falling in love with the process, our testing process, the results we got, because nobody else goes that deep and far in testing stuff on social media.

That’s the kind of stuff I like to do because in the long run, it takes you above the noise. You are above the nitty gritty of what everybody else is doing. You are doing something different. That’s bringing a new type of value in a different format. I think that’s the kind of thing, when we have the means and the time, we have to invest on. Other little things like how you treat refunds to customers matter too. That’s a branding thing.

A customers comes to you and says, “I’m not happy with your product, give me my money back.” Most SaaS companies are going to say, “Look at our terms of service. We can’t give you your money back. Article number 4.7, once it’s paid, it’s paid.”

I’ve had that experience several times with SaaS products. I even had an experience with Kissmetrics, when I cancelled my plan. We’ve been with them for four years. I cancelled my plan a week before the expiration, and said, “Hey, sorry guys, we moved to our own data warehouse. We’ve outgrown Kissmetrics.”

They got back to me and said, “Article 5.6 of our terms of services, you have to give us 30 days notice.”

I was thinking, “Fuck guys, we’ve been with you for four years. We’ve been good a client. We’ve just outgrown you. Moving to a more robust solution. It’s not you, it’s us. We’ve been with you for four years, paying you 600 a month for four years. Why are you trying to take an additional 600 for the last?” Yeah, I’m gonna take 600 more from this client.

This is branding, because now their brand is tarnished in my head, and see, I just told you that story and listeners are going to listen to that and think, “Kissmetrics sucks.” This is hurting your brand in the long run.

Think about how your brand is perceived by people who are in touch with it, and how your decision on anything in the business is going to impact that perception.

Jeroen: Yeah. As you are into social media analytics and into branding, is there any way you measure branding in an analytical way?

Emeric: The only way I found, is to measure the number of times we are being mentioned as a brand on the web. It’s very imperfect but it’s a starting point.

If you are being mentioned 40 times a month, and you work and work a lot on having more people being aware of what you do and who you are, and you move to being mentioned 50 times a month, and 60 times a month, then at least you can measure some kind of progress.

You will never be able able to measure the perception of your brand. That is something you can’t measure and still is crucially important.

Jeroen: Like the big brands do with a big brand recognition survey or something like that. Does that really work?

Emeric: It’s really flat. It’s something that has to come from the top, the founders or the CEO. It has to be ingrained in the company culture. This is how we treat our customers. This is how we treat our partners. This is what’s right and not right, and you have to go very far into making everybody believe and adhere to the fact that the customer is to be treated as even better than I would treat my own family.

If you go that far, then the company culture, it becomes clear to everybody even from the outside that this company cares about me. Once you’ve been able to do that, you’ve won.

Jeroen: You just talked about how in the long run you see results from content. You’ve been at content for a while. For those who are just starting off, how does that work and what are you seeing?

Emeric: For those who are just starting off, you have to really focus on identifying the one thing you could be creating content for. Content that’s going to be super useful for your target audience, and try to think of your target audience as a subset of your ideal target audience; like try to go as niche and small as possible.

Don’t try to appeal to, if you are in social media, do not try to appeal to every social media manager. That space is already too crowded.

Maybe you can focus on an agency managing social media, because there is not a ton of content for agency people managing social media. Maybe you can target a specific vertical, or maybe you can target a specific country.

For example, in France or Belgium, where you live, I don’t feel there is a lot of influential content about social media in French, and that’s high quality. I don’t know a lot of them. I think there is room there if you wanna be big. Being small, either by localization or industry vertical or type of job is probably the starting point.

Then, try to look in to the market. Who can you find on Google when you search for those keywords you’d like to get people to come to you? Try to narrow down the target markets that way. Then once you’ve done that, spend a lot of time talking to them, and trying to understand what they like to learn, what are they wondering, what they don’t know and they need to know.

Go on forums, Facebook groups, and try to have a sense of what are these questions that remains unanswered. A lot of people have a lot of questions, how can you help them? Even if it takes me a long time to research and write, it is worth it, because that is answering a question that’s a burning question for them. That’s what we are trying to do with our social media lab, where we do a lot of test.

We go and try to understand, what questions do social media managers have that’s very hard to prove or disprove? It would take a week of work but that we are ready to invest in, to give them the answer.

Jeroen: How do you then get people to these articles? Is it mostly search traffic or is it people recommending it?

Emeric: It’s a combination of both. You have to promote on the right channels. You have to make sure that there will be enough search traffic, because it’s always a big driver in the long run. If you’ve identified those questions in forums, or Facebook group, you just have to go there and say, “Hi.”

Quora is that kind of channel. Just go there, and say, “Hi, we spent a week testing this and we wrote a blog post about the results. Maybe it’s interesting.” Little by little, stone by stone, you are going to build a war, and it’s eventually going to build an audience. It takes time.

The other thing I noticed is that people love to read stories. If you can write something about your story and how you did something and how you failed at something and how you succeeded at something, that appeals to your audience more. It’s usually a good starting point, because people don’t like advice per se, but they like to hear about how you did something and this is why it worked or did not. That’s what you can learn from it.

Jeroen: Yeah, because it’s much more tangible and concrete.

Emeric: Yeah. They can relate to that. It’s someone else’s story, it’s not a big artificial piece of advice that’s not grounded into a real life experience.

Jeroen: You mentioned a few times already that you are based in Paris. How is that? Is it a good place to have a startup?

Emeric: You know what? The good place to have a startup is the place you are currently living in. I think in 2018, there is no reason to move to start a company. There is no reason to go to the US, there is no reason to go to San Francisco, there is no reason to go to Berlin or London, or wherever.

There are already so many roadblocks in the mind of someone thinking of starting a company. There is so much fear, there are so many things I may not know, I may not succeed at, and so stressful, quitting my job.

If you have to add the need to move to a different country or a city, nobody is going create a company. Remove that blocker, it does not exist. You can always start your company in Paris, and feel like Paris is not the right place for you and move to the US, or to London, or move to someplace else. Personally, because we are not targeting the enterprise, I don’t need to have a sales team on the ground going to see the clients, and we can sell our product to clients all across the globe being in Paris. We have team members in the US, we have team members in Ireland, Slovakia, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and Malaysia.

We’ve remote work. You can have team members all over the world and provide customer support 24/7 while having your headquarters still in Paris or Berlin or wherever you want. I don’t think it matters.

Jeroen: Are all these team members across the globe in customer service and sales?

Emeric: They are mostly customer facing. Customer facing means they may do support, they may do customer success, or they may do sales.

Jeroen: You mentioned customer support and customer success. Is that different at Agorapulse?

Emeric: It used to be different, but I think that was a mistake. What we’ve decided to do now is we have one person who is responsible for the customer success framework. She’s basically in charge of putting together the processes, the assets, the content, the videos, the automated sequences within our CRM — we use Intercom for that. She’s thinking and engineering and building the customer success framework.

Remember we sell service, affordable tools, so we cannot be too hands on with everybody, because they are not giving us enough money to have an account manager or one person who is taking care of them. We have to scale everything.

She’s building that framework of customer success to identify when people need help the most — doing webinars, so new customers can attend the webinars and learn tips and hacks to use our product and get more value out of it. She’s building that framework. We initially had a customer support and a customer success team — there were two silos and I think it’s not right.

What we are doing now is that we are training our customer support people to level up and be able to identify what should be a customer success situation — when they have discussions with our customers, and when they need to try to play the customer success role with them — move away from the support role, which is “I have a problem. Here is the solution.”

Move away from that very reactive kind of role. That’s mostly what customer support is supposed to do, and try to be more proactive. “I have a question. I think the answer is that, but I’m also noticing that you are not using this feature of the product. Would you like to get on a webinar to know how to use it?”

Move from the reactive support type of work to be able to identify pieces of information on how they use the product, or what they are telling you in their message, to try to become more proactive about how you could help them, even if they don’t express it. How you could help them, go a step above, beyond what they are expressing and maybe learn something about the product that can be helpful for them, but that they did not directly ask for.

That’s what we are trying to do.

Basically, we are trying to do that with sales as well. We are trying to help and train our customer facing support team, to be able to identify sales opportunities that are coming to them. Do the first step of qualifying them, or giving them the sales information they need.

I’m a big believer that in a sales service company like ours, your customer facing team should have a broader set of skills than just doing support. They should also be able to deliver sales, a little bit of customer success with the help of someone who is fully in charge of the sales framework or the customer success framework, who can help them grow in that role.

Jeroen: So they do part of the sales. If it’s on point, it needs to go a bit further to giving demos and having discussions, and then it goes to a salesperson?

Emeric: Yeah.

Jeroen: That’s cool. Wrapping up, what’s the latest good book you’ve read, and why did you choose to read it?

Emeric: That’s a great question. I love it. I love books. I read a lot of books. I have read two books recently and I recommend them to every entrepreneur, especially if you have a team. The first one is called “Extreme Ownership, by Jocko Willink”. Jocko Willink used to be a navy seal. He was an officer in the navy seals. He was a highly ranked officer, still on the ground fighting the insurgent and stuff. He went back to the US to basically build the whole training system for navy seals. That book is about all he’s learned being a soldier, a special force soldier, what he’s learned on the ground that applies to businesses. It’s an absolutely amazing book.

If you go on YouTube and search for Jocko Willink, you’ll see the guy. The guy is amazing, is breathtaking. He is a special person, there is no doubt. That’s a great book and basically Extreme Ownership is about, not putting the faults on other people when things go sour, but always have extreme ownership of everything, and look at you and what you could have done, and what you messed up, and what mistakes you’ve made when something didn’t work in your company. I think for managers and people running companies, it’s a super important thing to know and understand, so it’s a book to read.

The second book is called “Radical Candor”. It’s a book that was written by a woman who used to be a manager at Google. She used to work for Sheryl Sandberg at Google, and she created the AdSense team. Then she worked at Apple, and she created the Management University at Apple, and she advised a lot of CEOs in Silicon Valley, including Twitter CEO.

Basically it’s about what it takes to be a manager. Funny enough, in startups, we are all first time managers. Most of us. When we grow our team, we start naming people in our teams as managers. “You’ve been with us for three years and now we have too many developers, you are going to be a manager, and you are going to manage three or four developers.” And those people have no clue what it means. It’s more difficult than it seems to tell them what you expect from a manager, what a manager should be doing. That Radical Candor book is like, it’s a playbook of what it means.

To summarize it to you and the audience, it means two things. It means you need to care personally about the people you are managing, with everything it means. They need to feel that you care about them, you care about their progression, you care about who they are as human beings, you care about who they are as professionals, and you care about helping them get what they need, and do what they want to do, and be happy about it. That’s what it means.

On the other hand, you need to challenge them directly. Meaning, don’t try to be nice to them when there is no reason to be nice. When things are not going well, you need to give them feedback. In a constructive way, of course. But don’t keep that to yourself, it’s going to lead to a horrible situation down the path.

Care about them and let them know, and make them feel that way, and challenge them when things are not working fine. It sounds simple, but it’s not easy, because as human beings we have a hard time challenging people, because we feel like, “I’m going to be mean to them. They are going to feel bad about me. They are not going to like me anymore. I don’t want to make my people feel horrible about me, so I’m just going to be nice — even if I’m not happy.” That’s not right, and it doesn’t work in the long run.

Jeroen: I’ve just bought the book while you were explaining it. You are actually I think the second or the third person that mentioned it, so I really need to read it.

Emeric: You can read and reread this book several times. You will always learn something you can apply to the way you work and the way you manage things. It is such an undervalued part of the job. It’s such a difficult part of the job to learn because you learn by screwing up basically. I still screw up on a daily basis, and my team, my managers do as well. Learning how you can improve your skills at managing, it’s something you need to do constantly.

Jeroen: Final question, if you were to start over, what would you have done differently?

Emeric: I’m going to give you a more philosophical answer than anything else. I would change everything, because with what I know today I would have avoided hundreds of mistakes that were super costly in the past, that I would have loved to avoid.

There were hundreds of choices that were wrong, and that made us waste time and money, and energy, and have sleepless nights for too long. There are hundreds of choices we’ve made — Ben and I, that if we had known what we know today, we would have made them differently and saved a ton of time, energy and stress. I would change everything.

Jeroen: That’s your journey, right?

Emeric: I would also change nothing, because all that made me arrive to where I am today and I’m happy. I’m where I want to be and I’m doing what I want to do. If I changed it, maybe I would be in a different place where I wouldn’t be happy. I don’t know.

Our human journey is made of all this. I wouldn’t want to change it, because I’m not sure it would have worked that way if I had changed it. I would change everything, but I wouldn’t change it. It’s food for thought, think about this and try to make sense out of it.

Jeroen: I will. Thank you for being on Founder Coffee, Emeric.

Emeric: My pleasure.

Jeroen: It was really awesome having you with us.

Emeric: It was awesome for me. Thank you very much.

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Jeroen Corthout
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