“WTF am I doing with my life?” You probably ask yourself this question recurrently but, like many, are not sure how to find the answer. In the case of Bénédicte de Raphélis Soissan, former consultant, she looked for inspiration in other people’s career paths. Bénédicte manually analyzed hundreds of profiles similar to her own in terms of skills and background to search for inspiration for her own career path.
And that’s how the idea of Clustree was born.
Clustree is an AI-based career platform that leverages bias-free algorithms and machine learning to detect skills and wishes and to deliver recommendations for employees in the workplace (jobs, careers, learning etc.). While searching for an answer for herself, Bénédicte has found a solution to help many others. She has raised over €10 million and has surrounded herself with reputable data scientists to build the Clustree platform. The Clustree team today counts 35 people that are deeply involved in the company’s mission. Bénédicte has come a long way with no technical background; we ask Bénédicte to share with us some of her best startup tips.
What are the key things that you look for when someone pitches you an idea?
I have recently started to meet with the founders of young startups that approach me for mentoring or angel investment. I have thought about building some frameworks for myself and about formalizing the things that I look for in a founder. There are in fact many 😊
When looking at an investment opportunity as a business angel, I look for the obvious following things: big idea, great team, initial traction.
There are hundreds of reasons leading to startup failure. I think that risk analysis is misleading at an early stage. What I care about is a risk/reward ratio which makes sense. So, I want a big idea, a big market. Every startup has many chances of failing. But if it succeeds, can it be really big?
I don’t think it is a great idea to invest in a sole founder. I have been a sole founder (now, I totally consider some members of my management team as my “cofounders”). It’s very hard emotionally and you don’t benefit from the diversity of problem-solving approaches, personal networks and intellectual ping-pong. I would be looking for a great team and also a great leader because speed is of the essence in startups and you need an identified, clear, ultimate, decision-maker in the team.
In that team, I would be looking for complementary personalities, diversity, cohesion, ability to disagree and avoid groupthink. I would be looking for self-awareness, passion, intelligence, experience and network, courage, some sort of contrarian state of mind. I would also be looking for listening skills, zoom in/zoom out capabilities (ability to focus on details and have helicopter view as well), tendency to go out of their comfort zone, ability to take feedback and confess weaknesses.
In a more pragmatic way, since you might need to find 100 talented people around you in the first 3 years of your company (including many developers), I would want a top CTO onboard and a proven ability, from the founders, to attract, retain and engage top talent.
And then, I would be looking for signs of early traction. Early sign of product/market fit and also some proof that the founding team is being down to earth and actually looking for that market validation early on.
Last but not least, as an investor, I want to actually have the chance to work with entrepreneurs. It’s an investment for me but also an experience. So, I would be looking for a human, emotional connection. Something telling me that we will respect each other, bring something to each other, build a meaningful and rewarding relationship, and have an adventure together. I would not get involved with a top entrepreneur if I don’t feel connected to him/her.
In choosing a co-founder to start a business, what matters most?
I don’t think you choose a cofounder. You just recognize him/her. In the same way, that I don’t think you decide to build a business. It is simply a calling. I might be wrong but that’s how I view things.
I think that, with a cofounder, the most important thing is to have aligned interests. Working like crazy or work/life balance, taking crazy risks or not, be all in for the unicorn or take good salaries and exit at a reasonable valuation, etc. That part is extremely important.
Then, I think that the second most important thing is total trust and loyalty. Ability to disagree and tell things to each other like it is. You also need to enjoy spending time together.
Then of course, you should have a complementary set of skills, complementary networks, roles, etc. But that comes afterwards.
Last but not least, once again, I think it needs to be clear and accepted by all cofounders and actually appreciated by each cofounder that at the end of the day, there is one ultimate decision-maker. Every founder needs to have their own role, clearly defined and be fine with this.
What is your top piece of advice for entrepreneurs starting out?
There are so many…
Maybe, build your own “personal board” with people who genuinely like you, care for you and give you unbiased, relevant pieces of advice.
Be focused on the right thing. Focus on your work, the very first key hires which will shape your culture, focus on your team, your product and your market. Don’t focus on PR, events, vanity metrics, etc. But when you do leave your office or your customers’ office and go networking, be crazy about learning one on one from top guns and knowing your market in/out.
Have a story to tell. Storytelling is critical, in the early days, to attract employees, customers, investors. You need a product and you need to be pragmatic, but you also need storytelling. That’s an essential part of leadership.
Sort out and formalize decision-making processes with your management team and cofounders early on. What requires unanimity, what requires 2 or 3 people. What can be decided by your CTO by himself, etc. This will make you faster, create accountability and will also avoid resentment between people down the road.
What have you learned from your experience as an entrepreneur?
You need a CTO as one of the cofounders if you are building a Tech startup. It will help for Tech recruiting that is a key success factor in our market today with the insane capital overhang we face.
Have a perfect understanding of your market. Entrepreneurs have a vision, believe in it, and focus on it. It should not prevent them from understanding everything that other people in their industry are doing.
When you feel there is something wrong with a customer, one of your employees, and so on; listen to your gut. Don’t wait. Don’t be afraid. Address problems immediately. They will only grow bigger otherwise.
Trust your people. Be transparent. They are stronger and more engaged than you think. At times, I might have been scared to share bad news or difficulties with my team. I was afraid they would run away, be less motivated or scared. But then they should not be around anyway. Every time I decided to confide in my management team, I have been amazed with the level of support and creativity I got.
You need to take decisions in a data-driven, sophisticated and educated way while remaining fast. But then, you need to accept the outcome without being too hard on yourself. Startups are a fast-paced environment in which you need to make thousands of decisions with very little information and you need to accept that you can’t control everything.