Matthieu Vaxelaire of Mention

Founder Coffee episode 024

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 twenty-fourth episode, I talked to Matthieu Vaxelaire, co-founder of Mention, a leading social media monitoring application.

Matthieu started off his entrepreneurship journey by launching a shoe brand, spending four months in Brazil to get it produced, and then started a marketplace for experiences. After that he joined eFounders as a Junior Partner, the Belgian B2B SaaS startup studio that ended up launching Mention.

Last year, Mention got acquired by Mynewsdesk and Matthieu is now working on a new chapter in the growth of the company and the product.

We talk about the model behind eFounders, how he found the balance between business results and caring for his team, the startup scene in Brussels and Paris, and his future plans after the acquisition.

Welcome to Founder Coffee.

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

Matthieu: Hey, thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure.

Jeroen: You are the founder of Mention. For those who don’t know Mention yet, what does your company do?

Matthieu: Mention. We call ourselves a Google Alert on crack. Basically, we help companies know what is being said about them on the web and social media in real time.

Jeroen: What kind of use cases does this have?

Matthieu: The first use case is for a company, let’s take Coca Cola and they launch a new product. They want to know everything being said about that product and to manage their brand awareness on that product. Then, a secondary use case is a question about what your competitors are doing, so you can get some insight into what’s working, what’s not working.

Jeroen: Yeah. Also, kind of to track what your customers are saying? In the sense that you can monitor your brands.

Matthieu: Yeah, of course. It relates to what I described as the first use case.

Jeroen: The first one.

Matthieu: It’s to know what people are saying about your brand, whether your customers, or not.

Jeroen: Cool. How did this come about? Is this from a personal pain that you had, or did the company get started in a different way? What is the backstory?

Matthieu: A bit of the backstory is that it is not a usual story. We first built a company called PressKing, that was a press release distribution company. What we realized is people that were using the service were super interested in the monitoring part. You would send your press release to a couple of journalists, and they were willing to track what was being said online, after those journalists potentially shared those press releases. That’s how we got to the idea of building Mention, a stand-alone product that would focus only on that part of the money trail.

Matthieu: That’s how we got the idea.

Jeroen: About when was that idea, and how did that come about?

Matthieu: It was 2012, and the particularity is that all this happened within the eFounder startup studio. Basically, eFounders is a startup studio that builds B2B SaaS companies. Usually for SMBs. PressKing was one of the companies that was launched by eFounders in 2012, and we discovered the need around monitoring pretty early on into the PressKing journey. In 2013, we officially launched Mention.

Jeroen: So, you were part of eFounders when it started.

Matthieu: I joined eFounders in 2012. eFounders was created one year before that by two Belgian guys, Quentin and Thibaud. But most of the startups that are created are launched from Paris.

Jeroen: Oh, why is that?

Matthieu: It’s a good question. The reason I think, both in terms of talent and network. Thibaud, as the founder of Fotolia, built a huge network of talents around him and good visibility. It’s much easier for eFounders to get those talents in France. But, now they are launching companies in Belgium as well.

Jeroen: Oh, yeah? What is the model of eFounders? Is it the mother company that takes a stake, and then there are people who work in it as well?

Matthieu: Yeah. It’s a bit of an in between a VC fund and an incubator. In a sense. The particularity is the eFounders, they have their own startup ideas that they want to develop. They basically pick their ideas that they want to develop, then they build a team around it by looking for a CEO and a CTO to launch it. Of course, they put the financing, they put the ideas, and this is reflected in the equity of the company, in the sense that eFounders is a strong shareholder in those companies. Of course, they give ownership and equity to other company-founders, the CEO and the CTO.

Matthieu: It allows them to launch three to four startups per year. They have been very successful doing so.

Jeroen: Yeah, do I have to imagine them being a minority or majority stakeholder at the beginning?

Matthieu: I’m not an eFounders partner anymore, so I’m not the right person to answer this. But, frankly, they understand and it is their vision, that to make a company successful, founders needs to be at stake. They give away a strong stake for the co-founding team.

Jeroen: How did you actually end up at eFounders in this kind of a B2B space?

Matthieu: The startup seemed to be pretty small in Brussels. Pretty early on I was in contact with Quentin and Thibaud, while I was launching my own startup with one of my friends. We were doing an incubator in London. We decided again, to kill the startup, and then I was looking for my next opportunity, and I fell in love a bit with the mother. The energy and the vision of eFounders. That’s why I joined in 2012. So, I’ve been a partner there for two years. Then, that’s where I co-founded a couple of companies. At one point in time, we were looking for a new CEO for Mention, and that’s where I decided to leave the partnership to become the CEO of Mention.

Jeroen: So there was someone, and you replaced him?

Matthieu: Correct.

Jeroen: What was the startup you did before Mention?

Matthieu: Briefly I did two. The first one nothing to do with technology. I created a shoe brand, from scratch. I lived in Brazil for four months to build and produce shoes that we sold in Belgium and France. Worked well, but definitely discovered that you need to be in love with your market to do this for the long run, and it was not the case for me. I’m not a fashion guy, nor a shoe guy. So, we decided to stop after one or two years.

Matthieu: Then, I launched another startup, it was called Kick Table. The idea was a marketplace of experiences but, we did not find the right way to execute on that idea. That’s why we decided to stop. That’s when I joined eFounders.

Jeroen: That’s actually an interesting point you just made. One that probably, a lot of startup founders overlook. The fact that when you start something you need to really be in love with the idea. Not only that, but also with the customers and the market and all that to be able to keep pushing on the project.

Matthieu: Yeah. It’s a bit of a counter argument here, when I reflect on my mention journey. We sold the company, just four or five months ago. When I reflect on those four years when I was the CEO, honestly, I’m not extremely passionate about the social media space. I’m definitely super interested. For example, I killed my Facebook account, I killed my Instagram account. I’m interested by the dynamic of the market, but I’m not a heavy user in some sense.

Matthieu: I think if you don’t have the strong market passion, you need another passion somewhere else. And for me, what kept me going is definitely on one side the passion of building a business. I’m basically, passionate about building what I think is a good business, or sustainable business where I need proof of every operational aspect. As well, a passion for building great teams that can deliver amazing things. Those two things more than potentially, my interests in the social media market, made me go in. Even during the hard times.

Jeroen: Yeah, and you didn’t have that same thing when you were doing the shoe business.

Matthieu: Correct. Shoe business was the early days, and my interest there was basically no interest in the market. I’m interested on social media, I’m not gonna say I’m passionate. I’m interested, not passionate, but in the shoe business, I disliked the market. It was not a good idea to stay there.

Jeroen: Yeah, I can imagine. You seem quite the entrepreneurial guy. Where did that come from? Did you study a certain way, or were you influenced by your parents or your friends?

Matthieu: Good question. I’m a bit of a boring guy. I studied economics, I studied finance. Worked in investment banking for one year. Then I quickly realized that it was not fulfilling for me. I could not see myself doing this for my entire career. I’m coming from an entrepreneurial family where my parents, my grandparents, every generation has been entrepreneurs. To me it’s very normal to take the entrepreneurship path. Very naturally, I left the investment banking world to launch my first company, and I’m super happy I have done so.

Jeroen: You said that Mention has been sold, four or five months ago. What are the ambitions you guys are having now with Mention, and how does this function under the new owner?

Matthieu: The idea was not to sell the company last summer. We were actually going for fundraising, but we were in touch with who are now our new owners. The more we discussed with them, the more we discovered that we were very aligned. Their objectives were super aligned with us, basically for the next chapter of Mention. What I think we did for the first four years where I had been the CEO of Mention was that we went from basically zero in terms of revenue to six million of ARR. We built a core team of 50 people, having offices in New York and Paris.

Matthieu: Now, the next chapter is about accelerating our growth with new acquisition channels, being more aggressive on the product and expanding. That’s where our acquirer, which is Mynewsdesk and their holding company were looking for a global player with global ambition to keep their brand. We keep Mention, and keep their product very aligned with us. That’s why we decided, at the end of the day, to go with this option instead.

Jeroen: Yeah. In what kind of way are they helping you now to internationalize more?

Matthieu: Mynewsdesk is a leader in the field of the PR persona for the PR workflow, which is press release distribution, mostly. They’re a leader in the Nordic countries. They are number one there. Those guys definitely cracked one market. There are 200 people company, basically five times bigger than us, on the revenue side as well. They’re extremely experienced in how to scale something that is working. This is where were are now.

Matthieu: We have something that is working. We now need to accelerate. They have done so on the marketing side, on the sales side, and on the customer success side. This is where they bring value, in terms of experience that they can share with us. To make sure we don’t make too many mistakes, I would say. So, that’s a bit of a win-win situation, for them and for us, because for us, as well, they are now integrating the Mention product in their product. It delivers a needed value to their customers. Very positive as well, and we are definitely looking at how we can integrate more than two products together to make it a stronger product for our customers.

Jeroen: That’s cool. Are there any plans then to raise additional money for it? Or is everything going to be funded now through Mynewsdesk?

Matthieu: Yeah. On the funding side we are on this very high-gross journey, at the moment. So, yes it’s going to be funded by Mynewsdesk, and the owner behind Mynewsdesk, a holding company in Norway that’s called NHSD. That will be investing money in Mention.

Jeroen: For you as a startup founder, what are your ambitions at this moment? Where do you see things go for yourself? Why are you on this journey?

Matthieu: I’m definitely on this journey. I’m super excited by this chapter that we are building with Mynewsdesk. For me, at a very individual level, what are my key challenges and objectives for the upcoming year? I would say, we are at a stage where we need to have this top management in place. Where we have key leaders in every part of the company, in every team, which is basically tech product, sales, marketing, and customer success. To drive this group more than everyone, which I was doing before. And, to execute on the strategy that we have.

Matthieu: It’s definitely a stage when you cross the 50 people in the company. We’ll be 70 by the end of the year. I need to have this strong management team that will help the company and myself better execute on the vision.

Jeroen: Right. How does your day look like right now?

Matthieu: My days. As you can imagine, no days look the same. But, I still try to spend time with the head of every team to have regular updates and catch up to see if I can help and if things are moving in the right direction. This is on the very operational side, so this is one part. The second part in my day/my week is to make sure that on the long term, on the vision, and the strategy, on the bigger questions, that we are up to date and we are communicating this very clearly to the team. Which, is super important.

Matthieu: Then, finally, of course, there is a good amount of time spent on recruitment. Which is key for startups, and for us as well, of course. To make sure we have the best talent joining our journey, to make sure we execute it well.

Jeroen: In short, you do one-on-ones, you set out strategy, you communicate and you spend time on recruitment.

Matthieu: Correct.

Jeroen: Are there still a few operational things you are doing in the business? Are you building certain things that are not building the team?

Matthieu: No.

Jeroen: It’s because I hear different founders, and there are different opinions about this. Some people still prefer to keep some part of their work, a bit more of the initial work they love to do. And, some people just really delegate everything and completely grow with the business.

Matthieu: I try to make myself not like a piece on the running operation. I’m there in the sense that I’m following up. I’m always trying to be super proactive to discovering what could break when we do something like a marketing campaign. Or, when we launch new features. You have to be super proactive on what could break so we make sure to fix it before so we can execute on the deadlines that we communicate and that we commit on. But, I’m not part of the operations side.

Jeroen: Right. What do you think it is that you, as a founder, bring to your business? The special skills that you are more known for?

Matthieu: My team would be the best to answer this question. Definitely, what comes to mind, I wrote a bit about this. Two things. First, I would say in this order, the most important. I bring, or at least I try to bring this constant energy and positivity in everything we do. It might sound obvious or nice to have, but I’m actually a big believer in setting the right environment, the right energy, the right drive to make things, and make things the right way. Something that I take very seriously. It costs me a lot of energy in what I need to put in. But, I think it’s definitely worth it, and when I hear back from my team, this is something they value a lot.

Matthieu: This is one, and the other thing is, of course, defining. As much as defining, it is also communicating the vision and where we are going. This is super important, because of course we’ll have ups and downs and we’ll have doubts, but as long as we can all remember why we are doing this we will keep on moving forward. So, this is super important.

Jeroen: Yep. Are there also things that you are less good at, where you’re looking for strong people to compensate in those parts?

Matthieu: Yeah. I’m definitely making tons of mistakes, and have tons of weaknesses. For sure, the one thing that I am very self-aware that I have it and I still make the mistake sometimes, is that I under invest in people and in culture. This is a mistake I did when I became the CEO of Mention, for the first year. I was very driven by hard work and execution, commitment and deadlines. I overlooked that yes, this is important, but it is equally as important for everyone to have a path to grow in their individual career, as well. So, this is something I’m paying particular attention to, because people need to work and grow together, alongside the company. This is super important.

Jeroen: Yeah. I understand that the energy you’re bringing is mostly an energy that we’re going forward and we’re doing stuff. But, you sometimes forget the individual needs of people.

Matthieu: Correct. That’s why pretty early on, when we were 15, I think in the company, we hired a talent acquisition person, and this person also took on responsibility of career development and employee finesse. This was one of the best, recruitment done for Mention. Something I am super happy to have done at that stage. I should have done it earlier. Something that really transformed the company.

Jeroen: So how do imagine the workdays at Mention? Are they long workdays, medium, short?

Matthieu: It depends. I would say it’s medium days. We are not looking at numbers of hours you spend in the office, more on delivering on what we commit that we will deliver. It’s pretty normal days. Of course, we have an office in New York. They have cultural differences, like working hours are also different. But, it’s something that people enjoy. We are a very international team, so we adapt on this. As well, of course on the determination, their commitment, and the deliveries are there.

Jeroen: Yeah. How do you manage your own work/life balance? Where do you set the limit for your work and your life? I know there’s work/life integration and all that, but how do you actually keep the two balanced?

Matthieu: That’s something I’m really not proud of, and something I’ve not been good at. Definitely I’ve put too much, in terms of effort, time and priority, into the company instead of my personal life. I’m super lucky I have a wife that understood this. But, for sure I need to re-adapt this, as it can work on short-term, even if the four year period here was not really short. I need to be better on this and not always making the company the number one priority on top of the family time and all that.

Matthieu: This is something I’m working on now. I also think it’s important to kind of include outdoor activities or some sport. I’m really trying to balance this, and I’m confident I’ll make progress in 2019. It’s actually one of my personal objectives.

Jeroen: Do you have kids already?

Matthieu: Yeah, I have two kids actually. I have twins. It makes the whole having a balance, even more interesting.

Jeroen: Do you have any way that you stay mentally and physically fit for yourself?

Matthieu: I would say it’s nothing that I do on purpose. I don’t really drink. I guess not much, so I don’t usually drink during the week. I try to exercise. I love to have one physical challenge per year. Last year I did a marathon, this year I will do a triathlon. Having this as an objective, otherwise I don’t take the time to do it. Having a physical challenge once a year is definitely something that keeps me healthy.

Jeroen: What do you like to spend your time on, in general, when you’re not working?

Matthieu: My kids and my family. I wish I could spend a bit more time with my friends, but no. My kids and my family are, of course, number one.

Jeroen: Right. You are based in Paris, right? How does the startup scene in Paris look right now?

Matthieu: I guess as everywhere, it’s booming. Or, at least it’s growing. I’m super impressed with the companies and the growth rate we are seeing on some very unusual but very successful companies here. It’s definitely growing, it’s very exciting, a lot of stuff happening. I think all the ingredients are there to make it a strong startup place worldwide. For sure, at least on the European scene.

Matthieu: It’s something I miss a bit when I come to Brussels. I’ve been out of Brussels for the past four years. Now that I’m doing a bit of remote and working from Brussels, I’m still trying to see what is the startup scene in Brussels today. But, I can for sure feel a lot of energy on the Paris side.

Jeroen: Coincidentally, I used to live in Brussels, as well. I remember Brussels being a sort of vibrant, small community that seems to be very promising. But it has been kind of quiet compared to the rest of Belgium, over the last five to ten years, I would say. Where Antwerp and Ghent have really flourished, Brussels still seems kid of the same. A bit more, perhaps, but it doesn’t seem to boom really.

Matthieu: Yeah.

Jeroen: Do you have the same feeling?

Matthieu: Yeah, a bit of the same feeling. I’m not back in Brussels, but my wife and my kids did move back to Brussels. I’m spending a bit more time there, so it’s too early to say. My first impression is yes, it’s definitely less activity than in Paris, but it’s growing as everywhere else.

Jeroen: Yeah. Are there any other cool startups from Paris we should look out for?

Matthieu: There are tons. There are tons, and the one thing that I did when I was in the first chapter of Mention, I tried …, potentially too much. I think sometimes people forget this. You need focus, you need to be on your business, so I was super focused on Mention. I did not really participate in meet-ups, or spend too much time reading stuff online. I’ve been too excessive in this attitude. But I’m now starting again to take a bit more time to look at what’s happening, the trends, and meeting other great stuff. I’m definitely seeing some cool stuff.

Jeroen: Yeah. One you can mention, perhaps?

Matthieu: One company I can mention on the Paris side? There is one I really like, and that we extensively use at Mention. A company called

Matthieu: It’s sort of a second Segment. Similar to Segment in some ways, but they offer you much more flexibility on how to manipulate, or transform your data. We rely a lot on it in Mention. I’m a big fan of the solution.

Jeroen: Seems like something in between Segment and Zapier, in a way.

Matthieu: Exactly. You’re right.

Jeroen: Cool. Wrapping up slowly. What’s the latest good book you’ve read, and why did you choose to read it?

Matthieu: Not complaining, but my wife kept saying I was reading only business books. So I decided to start reading other types of books. Nothing related to the business. The first one, actually I just finished it, an audiobook from George Orwell, the famous ‘1984’ book. It’s a book, I don’t know, I’ve heard so much about it in the sense that it was visionary, a lot of things. I really appreciated it. Definitely a great book that I recommend.

Jeroen: Is there anything you wish you would have known when you started out with Mention, or with other startups, in general?

Matthieu: What I wish I’d known. The biggest mistake I made at Mention is what I already discussed or shared. Definitely that people that are part of your journey are also part for their individual self and so you need to take care of this and to make sure that those people will develop and grow alongside the company. Finding the right balance between people and the business. This is something I wish that I’d known when I started, so I would have taken different decisions, invested more into this. In training, in career growth and in building all this. This is definitely something I made mistakes on, and I wish I had known before.

Jeroen: Definitely. Finally, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever got?

Matthieu: The best piece of advice I ever got? It’s actually something I got when I studied in Belgium, at Vlerick Business School in Ghent. This sentence resonates a lot with me. It sounds super obvious. “High expectation will lead to high results”. If you start with too low expectation, the effect of the result will be lower. Never be afraid to have too big an ambition and expectation. Even if you don’t reach it, you will aim high and you will end up somewhere higher than if you had started with lower expectations.

Jeroen: That’s some interesting advice. Thank you again for being on Founder Coffee, Matthieu. It was really great to have you.

Matthieu: With pleasure.

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Jeroen Corthout