An interview with ifeelgoods CEO Michael Amar

An interview with ifeelgoods CEO Michael Amar

Michael Amar

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to talk with Michael Amar, CEO Ifeelgoods, a digital rewards platform, that very literarily, competes against the idea of discounts. They favor providing rewards for a variety of actions and relationships, including CRM, advertising, loyalty programs and lead generation.

An interview with ifeelgoods CEO Michael Amar

[This interview has been edited for clarity and readability.]

Karine Allouche Salanon (KAS): Why is your company so different from other companies, how do you maintain that differentiation?

Michael Amar (MA): There are many companies that do few thousands of billions of dollars, who send out discounts. And when they’re going digital like a lot of older companies they just do a copy and paste? Instead of going to Safeway, people go to Safeway.com/gift cards. But users are not going to Safeway.com/giftcards right? They’re on Pinterest, they’re on Twitter, they’re on Facebook – they have their businesses setup on Slack, on Zendesk or Salesforce. So we’ve built a solution that allows us to distribute rewards where the young consumer might be.

KAS:     So I always forget my cards. I can use your rewards for anything that I would normally use reward card for.

MA:     And instantly, that is the big difference.

KAS:     Okay, good. So you’ve won the award, and we’re talking about a lot of success of startups. I was reading and highlighting some myths, one, specifically from France: ‘Oh it’s easy to hire and fire,’ which is not so easy in France. And also the my that in America, ‘it’s going to be so easy because so many people are successful.’ Can you tell us a little bit more about your journey? Did you find it easy?

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MA:     It’s super difficult every day. We have the luck to be bi-cultural, we get the best of both worlds. That’s helping us a lot. But it’s extremely difficult. I came here, I was not that young (like 35 years old) and you know, I speak English – I’d already done business with the U.S. many times. I was, like, ‘Okay it’s not that difficult, not different, even if I didn’t know specifically people in the area.’ But then everything was different, right? If you do business in Japan, in your mind you know that it’s going to be completely different. You have no preconceived idea. You know everything will be different. In the U.S., you don’t think so. You think it’s going to be exactly the same or very similar because we think the culture is the same and the language is the same. But that’s actually a complete mistake.

So I learned the hard way. I think I made every mistake I could do, many times. But America does have culture of success. If you have kids, they listen to teachers, the way they describe success. The only thing I could say when I arrived was I sold my previous company. That actually helped me a lot. They didn’t ask me if I sold it for $10,000 or for more [Yes], so just mentioning creating a business and selling it, it actually opened a lot of doors and helped me kick off the full process.

The way VCs write the terms is very different. I found that everybody wanted to screw me. It was just the way it’s been done for 70 years, so everybody wants to screw me, right? But when you read it and they talk to you about vesting, and they say, no, it’s not your company, it’s going to be your company in four years. No, I said, it’s my company and I can give you some part of it, right?.

The aggreement langauge – the way you manage employees, partners, and clients is so different. So I think it’s actually very tough because everybody expects the best of the best? When I talk to people here they run ultra-marathons – Okay I can run 5k. But it is the same for everything, right? That makes it difficult for financing, for management, for doing the deals. The culture of success makes it so people don’t talk about the failures. Everybody, even if a guy is going to lose his company tomorrow, he will say ‘Great, everything is all right’.

KAS:     Yeah, I remember the founders from the Petit Pots, one of the other winners of French-American Business Awards — during his speech, you know, when he was there, he said ‘There is such a fine line in between failure and success. I just got my order from Whole Foods and I might get bankrupt because I just don’t have the funding to, you know, give it support’. You know that line is really a very fine.

MA:     I have exactly the same story. I closed my biggest deal in my career a few months ago. But half an hour before, my CTO, who was instrumental in executing the deal, left the company. The next day a VC with whom I have closed all the terms changed all the terms, so we couldn’t accept his terms. It was in 24 hours. You have those ups and downs. Actually with more experience and getting a little older I find I’m never super happy, but I’m also never super disappointed. I try to stay even. The reality is that if you have to eat sand every day, say it’s good and you want some more.

KAS:     Yes, it’s a good way to look at it. So what do you do to stay not too happy or not too unhappy? And eat the sand, smiling.

MA:     I think it’s the life lessons and progressing. But I like to compare with soccer. So when you come here, it’s like you played in Valenciennes and you played with Basa. It’s quite a different level. But also if you are not gifted – and I don’t have a special gift. I’m not good in tech, I’m not good in finance, so I didn’t have any specific skill. So you just have one thing – you know how to run and fight, and then you go running and fighting.

KAS:     As I was preparing, I was going to ask you about three characteristics that make you successful.  Humility looks like it woul dbe one. Just hearing you say, ‘Oh I’m not gifted, I’m not gifted’ But don’t people say ‘Come on’, you’ve achieved so much. Along with humility, determination or perseverance? Passion?  But not passion like ‘Yay, he’s excited and passionate’; it’s like passionate in what you do with others—caring about others. Do you think those are the things that make you eat the sand smiling and achieve what you’ve achieved so far?

MA:     Have you talked to my mother? (both laughing) Yeah, but I think it’s determination, yes, perseverance, it’s when you don’t have a choice, right? That’s…

KAS:     You could have the choice. You have the choice to…

MA:     of not creating companies, not being an entrepreneur, yeah. But once you’re in then…I don’t know what else to do, right? It’s my first company. It would actually be very difficult for me to comprehend not doing it and doing something else. It’s just a habit. Like, some people are comfortable in a corporate career and that is very good for them. I want to be an entrepreneur.

KAS:     It’s part of who you are. Good. So does it help to be French, or not?

MA:     That’s a good question. I thought not at all, right. Initially, but I was very surprised. I came here, got my first term sheet by a U.S. VC who could hardly understand my accent. And he came and said there were no preconceived ideas. That was pretty impressive. I came to HSBC the first time and they told me, ‘When you launch your business, just tell us. We might want to help.’ I was, like, ‘Come on’. With my previous company it was five years, you know, they wanted you to be profitable for five years before they would lend money, right? So it was very different. And there were no preconceived ideas. That’s one thing – there’s two angles to your question.

So being Frence didn’t impact me in a negative way.  But surprizingly, it also helped. We met with one of those innovation labs a few years ago. They said, ‘We want your tech. We’ll give you exclusivity and a fee, and they opened the office in France for us. The French office became most of our R&D office, and the two-thirds of our team is there. So that’s a very good angle to to the positive side of being French.

KAS:     Connections. I think that is a big value for the French American Chamber of Commerce. Is there anything you have you leveraged from the French American Chamber of Commerce that you would say helped in terms of the networking?

MA:     Yes, actually the visibility we got through the award was amazing. We got press and very good vibes that came back from the event. That’s amazing. And the activity in general. We have a special program that helps young professionals go to a foreign country, and you get a tax deduction. That actually been amazing for us. We’ve recruited people that do on to places like Facebook. I’m very proud of them—though I would like sometimes to keep them a little bit longer. Usually we hire them for a couple years until they finish their internship. But that’s amazing. You’ve got the best of the best, right? Being associated with the best business schools or engineering schools. And the format is just amazing, for them and for us.

KAS:     With so many entrepreneurs in the audience, let me ask, if you have one piece of advice to give an entrepreneur, what would it be?

MA:     So if it’s people who are new to the idea, the area, one thing that helped me a lot is actually I try to compensate by hiring a lot of advisors. I think I’ve even pushed the limit of it, ten advisors. Give them some equity and it’s one of the best decisions I took, because most of them are entrepreneurs. They helped me for hiring, they helped me for the terms for new acquisition and for funding, they helped me with strategy, they were my psychiatrists sometimes (chuckling). So that was really, really helpful, introductions in business and…So I would say if it’s so new, like it was for me, it’s very good to get, you know, people who already know the system and have already been successful.

KAS:     Now let’s open questions.

Q1:        How do you see B2C versus B2B – how was that played out for your strategy?

MA:     So we tried not to touch the B2C thing. I would love to one day to invest in B2C because the reason why, to be honest, my company, we’re only B2B, is that sometimes you want to tell the clowns to go elsewhere, and you can’t because they’re too big on your P&L, right? Or B2C if someone is not so happy that’s not death then, right? If it’s a single user among millions. So we try to help, we are very B2B, 2C actually. We sell to business who already sell to end consumers. Or sometimes there will be even more people in the chain. And we think that for the consumer if I give you a coupon, I give the same to Karine, I give the same to Etai, it’s a one size fits all, it’s over.  If I give you loyalty points, you need 50,000 miles to get a free flight to Vegas, that’s over. So we think that giving a tangible instant reward, personalized, will be much more relevant. So if you know, because you’ve liked the page, you know, Apple or Wall Street Journal on Facebook that you would like a free subscription to WSJ or free iTunes credits, then I’m sure it’s going to be a better reward than a free coffee machine. So we use the traction that consumers have for those digital rewards and try to provide the technical solutions, as well as the content. I don’t know if that was the question, but…

The ifeelgoods echo system.

The ifeelgoods echo system

Q2:      Could you tell us a little bit more about the company, the size of company, number of people, revenues, etc.

MA:     Sure. So a five-year-old company, 22 people, two-thirds stayed in France. We are mostly a product and tech company, with two business people, including me. We have live campaigns in 30 countries. Our main asset is the tech and being international. Actually, in the U.S., we’re not that strong. France and Japan are bigger than the U.S. for us, on the P&L. We do a few million dollars. We work hard to be on the next 20 million awards…[Plus] Yes. It’s going to take a couple years hopefully, no more. And we hope to be profitable by S1 next year. Yeah, we are pretty lucky to have good partnerships with Apple, Google and Amazon, and they’re helping us a lot, opening in new countries, and also they’re subcontracting some of their activities to us.

Q3:      How much money did you raise?

MA:     We raised $14M. Yeah, there’s two schools – everybody told me don’t raise too much. And at the same time, we had pivot, we had to pivot two years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to do it if we hadn’t raised that much.

KAS:     If you don’t have enough money?

MA:     Yes, if you do not have enough money. On the other hand, we’ve been throwing money out of the window. We know at the beginning, even by not telling ourselves, “Listen use the money,” right? But you get so much pressure, even if you’re in your mind, I shouldn’t do this, it’s still, ‘Oh I’m going to hire the guy from Google, right? And we made a lot of mistakes. So another piece of advice would be, like, be cash focused. Cash is king, cash is really king, even if you have the money. Until you really find the market fit, then you can pull an extra line if you need it.

Q4:      From what I’ve read, it seems that signing deals in Japan was big milestone for the company? I just want to know, how did that relation get growth”

MA:     We work Itochu, a very large Japanese conglomerate. I think they do over $140B in revenue. They own 500 or 600 companies. They also own businesses in France. It’s very typical for the Asian market. They own a large company called FamilyMart, which is like 7-11. They were already doing billions of dollars by selling physical gift cards a couple of years ago. But they also had B2B activities and they said, ‘Oh, the market is really booming. We need to do this in B2B’. So we got one of our advisors – hence why it’s good to have advisors – who connected with them. And Google was also a big supporter. So our trip was very strange. It was my first time in Asia, it was a year ago, and I’d never went anywhere there. I went with no translator. It was like a movie. I was completely lost. It took us seven months to close a three-year contract, and it’s a contract where they actually re-sell our platform. They have two people full time who are selling our technology to the Japanese market. What’s great for us, they sell it to all the verticals that we cover. So it’s distribution, partnership, they pay us a minimum guaranteed fee, and we have a revenue share. And they have very high expectations for their roles. It’s very good for us. We need more like them.

MC:      Good. If no one has any more questions, thank you very much to you both.

 

 

Three Keys to Making Every Day Thanksgiving

 Three Keys to Making Every Day Thanksgiving

Three Keys to Making Every Day Thanksgiving

As we approach Thanksgiving, I think it is important that we stay connected to the thankfulness we express during Thanksgiving all year. It is easy to be thankful when we are surrounded by friends and family, when people are giving us gifts — it is much harder when we are negotiating with a tough partner, or find ourselves in a difficult conversation with an employee, or when we face the uncertainty of global economic markets. But it is in those stressful times that we need to remember that all the love and joy we receive, and that we give back, isn’t just for a day, a month, s year or season. All of that love and joy exists all year, but we often fail to tap into it when needed.

Thanksgiving begins with perspective. If you can be vital, set high standards and be grateful for everything, you will be better able to navigate through change, and you’ll be a better person too.

1. Vitality

The dictionary describes vitality as ” the state of being strong and active; energy.”  Vitality is critical for leaders from large organizations to start-ups. Leaders need to demonstrate their passion through their energy. Leaders often need to work long hours, and if they aren’t physically capable of working those hours, quality suffers, and they aren’t available when needed.

This is one of the reasons I run. I also just like running. I know running isn’t for everybody, but everybody can find some activity that helps them maintain their vitality. Eat well, move around, at least a little.

The Mayo Clinic suggests at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week. As leaders perhaps we should mine minutes from our lack of trust. If we trust people, and don’t micromanage so much — or eliminate other unproductive work — we can probably steal 150 minutes from our own bad habits.

It is also important that we find ways to maintain our mental vitality — to think about the future, to challenge our assumptions, to solve problems that use mental muscles we don’t stretch often enough. We have to put energy into life and work if we want to achieve the goals we set for them.

2. Set High Standards

For me, an important part of Thanksgiving is taking the time to look back on how we measure success, and to challenge ourselves to set high standards. When we see family together, we realize everyone is a role model. The children look up to all of the adults and expect to learn from them. During Thanksgiving, we should ask ourselves if the bars we set are high enough, if the goals we set are ambitious or easy.

As much as setting high standards is important for those we lead or manage, it is equally important for us to believe we can meet the goals we set. We sort of have to set high standards for our high standards.

Giving thanks is something we choose to do. It requires us to be active rather than passive. The same is true of setting high standards. If we let others set our standards for us without our input, we may never achieve our real potential. Only when we become active in setting our own goals can we push ourselves forward.

When you look around the Thanksgiving table, ask yourself if you are just there, or if you have standards for the role model you want to be for your wife, your mother, your husband or your sister, your brother or cousins, to your other relatives and friends. I believe setting high standards is a responsibility I owe to myself and to those around me.

3. Be Grateful, Celebrate

Of course, being grateful is the core of Thanksgiving. Over the last year I have had the opportunity to help start-ups, inspire women working in high technology, engage in international education policy, and even visit the Whitehouse to talk about the value to English to business. All of these new experiences could be overwhelming, but I choose to replace fear with gratitude, to be thankful for the opportunities rather than afraid of the unknown. As I look to 2016 I am already thankful for the challenges and opportunities that will help me grow.

The Journey Toward Thankfulness

We journeyed a long way through life to arrive at this 2015 Thanksgiving. We made a lot of choices, overcame innumerable obstacles, experienced wonders, made mistakes and achieved many things both great and small. Thank those who helped you, be gracious when they thank you, and be grateful that you are who you are. Spend your day enjoying, and being in the moment.

Thank you to those who read this blog and to those who have inspired the posts on it.

Why Bringing Diversity to your Start-up Team is Critical

diversity

Why Bringing Diversity to your Start-up Team is Critical – A good leader seeks diversity in work and life experience, as well as in approaches to problem solving, leadership and development.

Why Bringing Diversity to your Start-up Team is Critical

Too often, we think about diversity too narrowly. Usually terms like race, gender, sexual orientation and religion come to mind. For start-ups, these diverse descriptions are a good place to start, but they don’t go far enough. Diversity is not the same as inclusiveness … and both are important.

Start-ups, however, need to think more broadly because they need to create leadership teams that represent not only diverse life experiences, but a range of mental models, problem solving abilities and relationship-building skills in order to quickly identify problems, overcome challenges and generally be agile and resilient as they navigate toward their goals.

Why Diverse Teams

I have been involved in some very diverse teams having worked in international organizations over the last 15 years. Not only did I enjoy the diversity of sharing my work experiences with colleagues from different nationalities and cultures, but I found it easy to do. Many people who haven’t experienced a culturally-diverse organization think it is difficult to blend different cultures and perspectives, but I have learned that it is much to the contrary – I found that diversity created a  thriving environment that brought with it so many new ideas and opportunities to learn. I found these diverse teams were a major contrast to being on teams where everybody shared similar life and work experiences.

Beyond general agility and resilience, I have found that diverse teams:

  • generate more innovative ideas.
  • manage through problems more effectively.
  • offer different world views and perspectives on a market.
  • bring with them varied networks of potential partners and customers.
  • make better decisions. Homogenous teams don’t challenge assumptions, debate ideas or force people out of their conceptual boxes. Diverse teams will look at a problem from many different perspectives before making a decision.
  • are a good place to start for the next round of recruiting.
  • create a more exciting place to work.

Today, I use diverse teams and inclusiveness as a key dimension for evaluating the leadership capabilities of founders. If the founders encircle themselves with like-minded people, that tells me they think they will always be right and they seek only people who will confirm their world view. Today’s markets are global and diverse, so it is important that start-ups, especially those with global ambitions, recognize this early and recruit people who can bring a global perspective.

If you are a founder, surrounding yourself with great talent is important. Don’t look into a mirror and decide that everyone you recruit should look like you. Take the time to not only design the product or service you want to launch, but also the team that is going to help you launch it.

Diversity Means Diverse Development Paths – As Leader, Celebrate All Accomplishments

To nurture a diverse team, identify individual strengths and develop the people along a path where they perform the best. This is crucial. It is important though, that your staff understand there is just one path toward success.  There are technical paths and leadership paths, as well as paths that allow people to switch disciplines either to align better with interest, or, with abilities.

For instance, I recently came across some really great technical people who did not have the best interpersonal skills. That is okay. Let them do what they are good at, the kind of work that fulfills their passion, and let others do the more customer-facing work.

Letting technical people do technical things seems counter to the development of a leadership team into a well-rounded, multi-skilled group. It is not. It really reflects the empathy and people skills required to develop and keep talent. Not all people want to be people managers, or develop customer relationships. Good leaders will create opportunities for advancement as the company grows which will offer people paths, customer paths and technical paths.

People paths lead to management and leadership opportunities, focused on nurturing the people who comprise the organization. People paths look internally. Customer paths look externally, ensuring that customers have what they need to succeed, really helping the organization develop long-term relationships with customers. The technical paths recognize technological skills and allow people to progress with those skills, developing into mentors and coaches for other technology-oriented people within the organization. This approach goes beyond the individual contributor because it asks senior technical people to be leaders of technical communities. They are still able to demonstrate their leadership, but in a way that aligns with their interests, rather than forcing them into roles that often, frankly, do a disservice to the organization because it takes them away from where they can best contribute. These technology leadership roles help make sure the organization keeps exploring the technical boundaries at the same time they ensure the quality of the technical solutions.

What Start-up Leaders Should Consider When Creating a Team

So there are some general thoughts, but I want to share some very practical recruiting and organizational design thoughts as well. I have learned these from the start-ups I’ve been engaged with, as well as those I have helped mentor.

  • Think about diversity in education, country of origin, age, travel experience, language, lifestyle — these lead to a diversity in thinking models, as well as approaches to problem solving.
  • Hire technology specialists, not generalists, people who understand deeper architecture and scalability issues.
  • Make sure you hire people with prototyping skills. On the flip side, you need people who can build prototypes that can be used for fundraising, marketing and demonstrations. These people differ in skills from the deep technical talent because they know how to make something appear to work, that may not actually work. They also possess the ability to let go of deeper technical issues, at least for a moment, while they build and deploy the demonstration system.
  • Hire sales people who can both listen to feedback and understand the feedback so they can bring it back to the technical team. Early sales people should also be very enthusiastic about the product, helping to get customers excited about the possibilities.
  • Bring in business management people as soon as it makes financial sense. Let the technical and management team do their thing. Much needed hours spent in front of QuickBooks, HR, legal and other issues don’t generate revenue or innovation.
  • Never outsource core product or service development. Start-ups need to be the team that can build something, not the team that can specify something to someone else to build. (If you outsource, full IP protection is recommended.) This implies that you know what your core product or service is. If you are offering a service, and you need technology to facilitate the service, it is okay to outsource that technology component because it is not core. Start-ups often think that technology is everything, but innovations in business model, service or partnerships don’t always need unique software to make them work.
  • If you are building a global team, hire people with global experience.

Finally, don’t get over concerned with finding leaders to take the business to the next level.  I have seen too many founders getting outside “business experience” in too early. Not only does this potentially dilute the stock for the founders and early employees, it often has the opposite effect on the company. Rather than creating a more mature company quickly, it can disrupt good working relationships and add rigidity that isn’t necessary. Spend time building a good diverse team and achieving your goals. If you do a good job, and hire adaptive learners, perhaps you won’t need to bring in outside leadership – you’ll be able to take the company to the next level with the team you have built.

Project Literacy Makethon: Technology, Literacy and How A Diverse Group Can Deliver Real Solutions

Project Literacy helps children read

I had the chance to participate in the Project Literacy Makethon in partnership with Mashable on September 12, 2015 in San Francisco, CA. Project Literacy, a major new campaign convened by Pearson, seeks to make significant and sustainable advances in literacy over the next five years, so that all children, no matter their geography, language, race, class, or gender—can grow up to be literate adults. This event focused on building new tools, web apps, websites and data visualizations designed to make learning to read more accessible, fun and effective.

As a judge on the panel, it is always amazing to discover what a newly formed team, generally strangers prior to the event, are able to create in just six hours.

I used criteria very similar to those I apply when deciding on which social ventures will receive angel funding (see My Five Criteria for Evaluating an Investment), including:

  • Gut reaction—What was my overall first impression of this app?
  • Impact—Is the app is solving a real problem in an innovative way?
  • Innovative concept—Is the app’s concept creative, forward thinking, innovative and resourceful?
  • Usability—Is it easy to learn? Can the content be quickly navigated? Does the learner receive value early?
  • Ability to scale—Is the project the start of something bigger?
  • Execution—What was the team able to deliver in just a few hours? How well did the team work together?

All in all I was impressed by each team and how they used technology to create new possibilities.

Every team included members with very diverse professional and cultural backgrounds, and a few other common themes emerged, including:

  • Leveraging an array of multi-sensory assets in the form of video, voice or text to build part of their solution.
  • Utilizing open APIs published by leading technology companies.
  • Employing rapid prototyping skills to deliver working apps.

Here are a few examples of solutions:

  • In just under six hours the second place team, YouRhyme, had a working demo using YouTube’s API for a reading learning app that employed rhyming as an education method.
  • The Winning team, Read-Write, and the third place team, GOCabulary, both turned to Google translation APIs to deliver multi-lingual context, such as those found in India with its many local dialects, and English in the US, with its many Spanish speakers.
  • Two of the three projects designed-in the ability to map images to text to help mobile learners obtain a translation of a sign they could not read.

The big difference maker between all these great projects came from the Read-Write team who made accessibility a key project feature.

While most of the projects needed access to the Internet, through either a browser or a smart phone, the Read-Write team focused on a low-cost, low-power device that could deliver as much value as the smartphone.

Something else was special about that team as well:  they had members who were close to the target audience they were trying to help. In addition, unlike many participants at this event, they combined a rich knowledge of hardware with their software engineering expertise that enabled them to design an end-to-end solution. Team diversity, and having members who understand the target population well can be a golden bullet for success.

The event was a great reminder about the need for rapid prototyping. Teams really do not need months to get a prototype working. If they concentrate on creating a prototype early, it is so much easier to sell an idea or build a case about a proposed solution. Start-ups should always include prototyping capabilities in every product team so they can more rapidly evolve their solutions from concept to value delivery.

Project Literacy logo

Read more about Project Literary here.

Read the Mashable announcement here: Join Mashable and Project Literacy for a ‘makeathon’ to tackle illiteracy

Advice for Entrepreneurs Seeking Money from Female Angels

The angel investor expects you to know they invested based not just on a great product, idea or team, but because they have or want a relationship with the company in which they are investing

The angel investor expects you to know they invested based not just on a great product, idea or team, but because they have or want a relationship with the company in which they are investing

Advice for Entrepreneurs Seeking Money from Female Angels

Every start-up needs a leadership team that can connect to its investors, leverage these investor’s knowledge and relationships, demonstrate resourcefulness, build relationships and communicate momentum. Those five areas are key to the start-up/investor relationship. Here are a few lessons I have learned as an angel investor in women-led social ventures.

  1. Connect with your investors. If you are working with an angel investor, you are in a relationship. The angel investor expects you to know they invested based not just on a great product, idea or team, but because they have or want a relationship with the company in which they are investing. When you meet with an investor, present based on that assumption. Make eye contact. Be friendly and ask about the family. Ask about other investments. Don’t read from a script. Connect, connect, connect. Be memorable.
  2. Leverage the need to be needed. Study the profile of each angel and tell her how she can personally help you, how she can bring you value. This approach will engage them more than making them feel like they are a start-up cash machine. One great way to approach this is to have at least one question that is specific to each person ready to go, even if you don’t use it. Having that question ready will help you see your investors as investors in social capital, not just financial capital. And if you do find time to ask the question, then the investor will be impressed that you connected your question to her passion or area of expertise.
  3. Show how resourceful you are. In the early years for any start-up, you will not have everything you need to make progress. How you work around your constraints, and how tenacious you are, offer a good indication to investors that they can be confident in your abilities to drive the boat regardless of the seas you encounter.
  4. Demonstrate that you are a relationship builder. We all know success is about gathering the right team to be successful. Drawing the right people around you is an early sign that you can make your venture work. If you know you need a skill, a particular competency or vertical experience you don’t have access to, consider asking an investor about an introduction. A big part of your value is your network. I can’t encourage you enough to take advantage of that valuable resource.
  5. Share progress every time you meet with your investors. Letting investors know about progress is important. It will reinforce their confidence in your ability to execute, and it will demonstrate progress and momentum. Remember you want to make sure you are creating an authentic perception of success. If you are being successful, but not sharing, then investors will worry—and no start-up wants their investors to worry unless there is really something to worry about.

My Five Criteria for Evaluating an Investment

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I have been working with the Pipeline Fellowship and other organizations that fund start-ups.  When I make a decision, I use a combination of business basics combined with what I believe is important to invest in for the world and its people.

It is important that you don’t over complicate investment decisions. I try to use five criteria consistently as a basis for my evaluations.

Five Criteria for Evaluating an Investment

  1. Confidence in the leader. Leaders need to be dependable, sociable and open. More importantly, they need to inspire. But I think perhaps one of their most important skills is the ability to listen, because if people listen, they can learn anything they need to learn to be successful. For a leader that means learning what skills the team is lacking, and listening carefully for feedback about what skills in themselves may need a complement. Leaders who spend all of their time talking and telling other people what they think don’t give themselves the time to learn from others. Regardless of how dependable someone is, if they aren’t listening and learning, it is difficult to trust that they will be able to adapt and lead through tough times. When I recommend an investment I want to meet a leader who I see is confident not only in what they know now, but confident in her ability to lead through an uncertain future.
  1. Alignment to my values. I have to be very honest, and I think it is something that most people find uncomfortable: saying that they make choices not based on some intellectual criteria (yes, like this one), but just some personal preferences for organizations focused on social venture organizations led by women.
  1. Understanding of the space and my own personal interest. Part of having confidence in a leader is her knowledge of the market. I want someone who can tell me things I don’t know, and who is capable of backing up assertions with solid research and reasoning. But a convincing argument isn’t enough for an investor because the investor needs to care about what you are talking about. I know that sounds harsh, and that quality and knowledge should be enough, but if I’m investing my money, or responsible for investing the money of others, I must care about the outcome of that investment, not just the return. It is also important that I can bring value to the organization, that I can act as a sounding board. People working with start-ups shouldn’t stop at giving money, at least for me, I want to help them accelerate their growth through connections and expertise. I want to know how they see me as a member of their team.
  1. Identifying few large scalable business opportunities with the solution presented. Understanding a market is just the first step in creating a business. The second step is creating a product or service that solves a problem in a way that either disrupts an existing market, or creates an entirely new one. This can’t just be speculation. I need to see evidence. The best evidence is a business that already offers its solution and has attracted customers—a business with momentum. Going back to the first criteria, the CEO needs to be listening to these early customers to understand what is working, what needs improvement—and even what else they might need that could lead to future, ancillary products or services that can help the business grow and sustain in the future. I get really excited when I meet a leader who can see beyond the current opportunity. Someone trying to learn as the future unfolds and is ready to take the opportunity before it really exists. I want to invest in companies where the leadership is super aware of what is going on in their markets and beyond, constantly sniffing for what’s next.
  1. Quality and completeness of business plan—and execution! It’s not easy to write a good business plan, but it is easier to write a business plan than to turn that plan into a good business. I want to see a plan that is already becoming reality when I invest. A big indicator for me is a leadership team that has brought together a team with the skills needed for success. They know what they need to be successful, and they have already recruited the people. That is a hard task for a start-up, and if they bring that to a meeting with me, I know they are serious.

These criteria are interconnected—and they need to all be there. So that means an investment must also reflect a well-rounded leadership team that can create, plan, execute and learn. That’s a tall order but a successful business needs to work on all levels, or it will limp into its future and fail the first time it gets challenged. I want to help create businesses that last, and that means applying these criteria to every investment.

Cisco Women’s Professional Development Day: My Career Journey as a Woman

Cisco Women's Professional Development Day

Cisco Women’s Professional Development Day

On the morning of August 25, I presented to the Cisco Chief Strategy Office, Women’s Professional Development Day.  I thought I would share the notes I used to prepare for the presentation. If you have any questions, feel free to ask in a comment!

Watch the video of my presentation:


Cisco Women’s Professional Development Day Overview of Talk

You have in front of you someone that many people would categorize as a rare specimen. You could think that this is because there is something a bit odd about a French women, working for a British corporation dedicated to helping people learn English. Actually, unfortunately, I am rare because I  am the CEO of a 300 person subsidiary of a public company.

When I started my career at 22, I believed I could do anything, get any job. I did not believe that women needed any special attention to have successful career.

Today, as a CEO, I am now acutely aware of the challenges women face in the workplace, and strongly believe we need to proactively help women to succeed at every level in the workplace.

What life experiences changed my mind? What lessons could I give to my 22 year old self?

My career journey as a woman

Work Before kids

My mother has always been, and continues to be, the greatest influence on my life. She was always a working mother (and a hard working mother) and despite difficult moments she always managed to get back on track and succeed, giving me a sense that she (and women in general) are invincible.

I started realizing there were differences when I got closer to motherhood. In Europe, around 28 years old people expect you to have a baby sometime soon.

I was working at Oracle at that time. I decided to make my first real-estate investment to build a house for my mother who, after she retired, did not have high income.

While planning for it, it was clear my current job would not allow me to do everything I wanted. Deep inside me I knew I was worth more, that I could bring more value. I felt I was under-valued.

I had the choice to accept the status quo and delay my life projects, or to take a risk and leave a comfortable position to join another company.

I decided to prepare my resume and post it online. It also helped that a head hunter called me with an offer to join an innovative startup. I jumped on it immediately.

When I announced to my boss I was leaving for a new opportunity, he tried to convince me to stay.  He told me that I was a great talent for the company. Then he played with my womanly fears: “We appreciate you. You have a very stable environment here to have your first child. You are welcome to stay in your current role.” I was shocked, to say the least. This was the first time someone said out loud that motherhood would keep my career as a status quo, and that men were more likely to get promotions than someone who wanted to have a child.  I realized that, my boss and still friend, while not wanting to harm me in anyway, could negatively impact my career. Sheryl Sandberg, in Lean In, put a name on it: Cultural bias.

What I would tell my 22 year old self or my daughter? Believe yourself. Do everything you can to continue to grow, and when you believe you are underutilized, make a move.

Work After Having Children

Later in my career, when I gave birth to my first child, I was fortunate to be living in France with the benefits afforded to working mothers in the French healthcare system, and funded daycare.  When I had my second child in the U.S., I had the chance to work for Microsoft which offered great maternity leave. I was advanced enough in my career to be financially independent. I did not have to ask myself the question: “Shall I quit my job because the economics don’t make sense?”

While most people cannot choose the country of their choice to have kids, they can select states, or companies to work for in the US.

What I would tell my 22 years old self?  Work for a company that cares and that has favorable benefits regarding flexibility, maternity and childcare. It could make or break a career.

However, right about that time my family expressed a desire to relocate from Seattle to California to pursue one of our dreams. As I was having my second child, California seemed like the right place to raise him. With clear a clear goal in mind, I came to my boss to announce to him that not only was I pregnant– you can imagine how happy he was–but also that I was moving to California.

I did not know if I could stay in my job working remotely, but in any case, I believed I could always find a solution. 3 months after moving to Silicon Valley, and after many hours of negotiation, I ended up bringing my family to California.

About a year later, I decided that going back-and-forth to Seattle was costing my family too much, so I started to search for a more local role. While Microsoft had my heart, most of their commercial leadership roles where in Seattle. So I started to look at what could be next. It was clear to me that it needed to be in a field where I could have social impact. When I came across the opportunity to work for Pearson, leading the team designated to deliver digital technology designed to increase access and efficacy of education, I jumped in. I started as a general manager, and 2 months after I was offered the CEO role, at 37 years old.

What I would tell my 22 year old self? Have a clear goal and go get it. Don’t always plan for everything–and align your passion to your work. You can make wonders happen.

But how can we accelerate?
As the leader of my company, I am now more empowered, and can act in my sphere of influence: I can work on the benefits for new mothers, build in flexibility for both male and female employees, and recruit a more diverse leadership team– however, there are unfortunately way too few other female executives to create the perfect storm.

As it will takes time to bring more women to the top of our public companies, I started to take a look at how else I could help move the needle. I decided to invest outside of my day job. Life does not stop when the work day ends.

First, I engaged in a support group, or what we call a “Lean In Circle.” We started by having a theme around transitions in our career. We listen to each other, we challenge each other, we offer support and most importantly, we offer a safe environment where we discuss the un-discussable. In the last three years all members changed roles to a better one, and we keep transitioning!

Second, I looked at the private companies, and specifically entrepreneurs, to work with. I was shocked by the low number of women who successfully received funding. Studies have shown that a more gender-diverse angel network encourages more women entrepreneurs to pitch.

So without any investment banking background I looked at how I could get engaged with investing. About a year ago I found Pipeline Fellowship, a program where you learn how to be angel investor, and where members fund women-lead social startups. In two days I will have another three companies presenting their projects, and probably will close some new investments.

For those of you in interested in becoming angel investors, keep in mind that this is a long-term, relational process. The investor generally plays a role in the development of the company, whether that means an opening, or a rolodex, or actual hands-on advising. If you are ready to apply your capabilities or your assets to a start-up,  you too can become an investor and help push the envelope.

I look forward to meeting, connecting and learning from this new community.

Thank you!

Start-up Lessons: More Business Opportunities With Better Talent Management

businessman writing leadership skill concept

Start-up Lessons

When I think about all the companies that I’ve worked for, not leveraging the talent already in a place always strikes me as one of the easiest things to fix, and one of the hardest management missteps to explain away.

A company at its most fundamental is its people, and if managers can’t find a way to effectively use their most important, and most accessible asset, then they need to rethink the way they approach opportunities.

When looking for good practices, I look to start-ups, which would’t survive without good talent. They need to not only center around a cool idea or cause, they need to immediately engage, continue to intrigue, and perhaps more importantly, they need to prove that they know how to build an organization.

Here are four practices that I see in all good start-ups. I encourage you to consider taking these up today, so that you can turn opportunities into business, and create a more fulfilling work environment at the same time.

Transparency

Unlike mature companies which create departments and functions, and organizational charts and job descriptions, start-ups avoid creating these, choosing instead to have different people, with different backgrounds and varying degrees of experience, rally around shared goals to just get the job done. Many times, start-up roles are filled by people without deep management experience. Big issues that require collective action get addressed as a group and not obscured by the silos. In mature organizations, people often just keep their heads down and do their work. They rarely get called upon to do something outside of their job description, and few volunteer, even if the opportunity arises.

It may be important for a mature company to create efficiencies of scale, but that doesn’t mean they need to completely abandon the idea that everybody is working toward the same goals, and if you can contribute, by all means, jump in and contribute.

Of course, this requires organizations to create practices that overcome the momentum to block the flow of information, to bottle up talent inside of functions, to ignore experience that doesn’t fit the job description, and to make work about getting the work done, not achieving anything bigger than the moment.

Bring in transparency and empowerment by making all meetings public and open to all employees who have some interests or passion on a subject. This approach to meetings eliminates silos–it gives people who really care permission to come to meetings that align with their passion and experience. It helps organizations transform meetings into collaborative experiences that find solutions.

And it doesn’t hurt if all meetings are optional. Create an environment of choice and empower your teams.

And it doesn’t hurt if all meetings are optional. Create an environment of choice and empower your teams.

Some people have a difficult time with the idea of transparency. In this context, the idea is pretty simple. Think about a one room start-up. The phone rings. It is a customer. The customer is on speaker phone. Everybody in the room hears from the customer. They hear about pricing, licensing, customer service, design and quality…all at the same time. The customer’s input doesn’t get parsed, doled out, and passed along from one function to another to treat discrete symptoms. The communication with that customer is transparent. Everybody, in every function, gets all the information.

Even the most mature organizations can use tools like collaboration technology to create transparency and make sure people are aware of opportunities when they present themselves. Individuals can subscribe to channels in enterprise social networking, for instance, to see what opportunities exist, to listen to what the customer is saying.

Hire the whole person

People looking for a job today are being told they should shrink their resume down and tailor it to meet the jobs they are applying for. Often the first reader of a resume is an algorithm looking for key phrases, phrases like years of experience, Masters in Electric Engineering, or worked in Singapore. I was talking with a recruiter for a large software company not long ago and she told me that what keeps her up at night are all the great resumes she never sees because they are filtered out by technology.

This sad situation has created a world where recruiters and hiring managers don’t really get to know the whole person. By not hiring a whole person, organizations end up not knowing things about a person that may prove valuable in future situations. Does somebody in a marketing role have a solid retail background — a background perhaps better suited to crafting messages about a new retail-oriented product than the person assigned? Does a customer service person have a strong manufacturing background so that he or she could take the lead on enhancing technical product responses by engaging with manufacturing and engineering on solutions that aren’t in the current documentation? Has someone spent most of their school years through college, playing in an orchestra — but because that wasn’t relevant, failed to be consulted on the background music for the new corporate video?

In a start-up, you do not get hired for today, nor tomorrow–you get hired so you can contribute as your company grows.

In a start-up, you do not get hired for today, nor tomorrow–you get hired so you can contribute as your company grows.

Hiring the whole person enables and empowers. It enables the organization to match emergent opportunities with people already inside the organization. And it empowers the employee to say yes when opportunity knocks.

Make work meaningful

Organizations should have a higher purpose than making profits or serving shareholders.

Organizations should build social and environmental good into their outcomes. They need to have vision that inspires employees. But organizations don’t make work meaningful, people do. People create the work environment.

Start-ups have a clear advantage when creating a meaningful work experience. Most of the time the founder is part of this process. He or she can share the vision and the passion that inspired the creation of the company. The meaning starts with the interview.

Each manager of your organization needs to translate the passion instilled by the founders into inspiration for their team. Managers need to act as leaders, to go beyond just getting things done.

Each manager of your organization needs to translate the passion instilled by the founders into inspiration for their team. Managers need to act as leaders, to go beyond just getting things done.

Managers also need to think holistically. They need to design work experiences. They need to connect people across the organization, and facilitate the discovery of meaning. Managers need to think beyond tasks and actively tie work to strategy. The book, Management by Design by Daniel W. Rasmus, suggests that organizations think about this as the rhythm and motion of the business — that work flows for a purpose and that people need to understand its destination. By creating these connections, as the organization moves forward, all of its assets stay aligned because they are working toward a common purpose.

I know we don’t all work in post-industrial organizations with innovative, co-created cultures that offer distributed deliberation and decision making with highly transparent processes and data. If we want to improve employee engagement, though, we need to help those we manage make sense of what they are doing at the highest level possible, and perhaps that will help us bring some additional meaning to our own work.

Unleash talent

A major organizational strategy should always be: find work that best fits people’s talents and passion. We need to unleash people to apply their talent. But work doesn’t always end up accomplishing this. The hiring process forces people to squeeze their talents into a job description. Once hired, they hone their work to meet the objectives they negotiated. Some people put their objectives on the wall of their cubicle so that when asked to work outside of the parameters of those objectives, they can point and say, “sorry, that isn’t in my scope of work.” In all the reduction-ism we end up under-utilizing people. We hire people packaged in boxes and then put boxes around their boxes in the cause of productivity. We tell them to eliminate distractions and to focus on what is important. And these boxes keep people from exploring the organization. And they also keep the organization from exploring its people.

If we want engaged employees in a world of rapid change, we need to get to know them, and allow them to get to know the organization.

In a startup, goals change at a fast pace. People know that today’s objectives might well change tomorrow. If we want engaged employees in a world of rapid change, we need to get to know them, and allow them to get to know the organization. We need to accept it when people leap out of their boxes and demonstrate a willingness to contribute in new, unexpected ways. We don’t need to create incentives if we offer permission. Letting people explore is good for engagement, and it’s good for innovation. Too often we try to turn businesses into machines. That makes us think about people like machines, and when we do that, we lose all hope for passion and novelty.

A concluding thought

We all get caught up in what needs to be done. There is no excuse for ignoring the value that can be realized by helping people find ways to bring their knowledge and experience to bear on important challenges and opportunities.

The seemingly insurmountable levels of employee disengagement can be reduced one percentage point at a time, one person at a time. Managers need to think beyond the boundaries of the boxes they are in, and help those they are responsible for nurturing find ways to move beyond their boxes and apply their best selves. The mighty combination of transparency, a holistic view of the employee, an investment in meaning, and employee empowerment, creates a business environment that doesn’t need to be told to succeed, it is one that just wants to succeed.

New Post at TechCrunch: ‘Turnaround Management: Does Your Company Need A New Captain?’

Turnaround Management

Turnaround Management

I’m very excited that my first article as a TechCrunch contributor was posted yesterday.

Please click here to read the entire post.

From Turnaround Management: Does Your Company Need A New Captain?

When thinking of business “turnaround,” names like McDonald’s and Samsung come to mind as they struggle to navigate the changing market and waning consumer interest. Yet, a business at any stage of growth may require a turnaround, or ‘pivot’ on its core strategy. This is a concept with which many startup founders are familiar.

I am all too familiar with the turnaround concept. I left a comfortable role at Microsoft and chose to take on the challenge of becoming the CEO of a newly acquired business within a larger corporation. Within 18 months I managed to turn around its decline into double-digit growth.

During this time I had to decide which role I would take as the leader of a troubled company. I found that I had to be both a doctor and captain, and that there are five key steps that led to turnaround success for my team, our customers and myself.

Diagnosis

The first challenge I faced was deciding whether to speak first with unhappy or happy customers. As a rule of thumb I follow an 80/20 rule, focusing my energy on the happy customers; I find it’s easier to do more of the good to turn this to greatness than focus your energy on the negative. As a leader, this is the time when you need to listen, listen, listen. To obtain the most pertinent information, I asked a few key questions: What are we doing well? What should we prioritize to fix?

I then focused my attention on the organization’s key influencers to ask them the same questions. Instead of selecting this group from company performance rankings and HR records, I spoke to the individuals who I heard had the largest influence and credibility from across the group — making sure I had representation from across marketing, sales, operations, product, support etc. I wanted to begin to build a trusted network of advisors and influencers. From this initial group I then asked them to name two further individuals they held in high regard. Here I had to analyze the various company ailments.

Then I reviewed the wider market and major trends at play that would impact future business decisions, noting any recurring themes that required more attention. For example, I found that we excelled in the level of service provided to customers — something that we would need to maintain, and also use to our advantage, through PR, awards and case studies.

Read the entire post: Turnaround Management: Does Your Company Need A New Captain? here.

 

Vive Le Petit Pot

Le Petit PotI was at a recent French American Business Awards, sponsored by the French Chamber of Commerce and I got very excited listening to Pierre Coeurdeuil of Petit Pot. His company makes gourmet puddings. That’s right, puddings! The business is so impressive with its 3-digit growth in 2014 and so far in 2015 that the French Chamber of Commerce named them Start-up of the Year, or as we say, Start-up de l’année.

Every business is a learning experience. Pierre has a great perspective on entrepreneurship. He sees it as a personal quest. If you don’t see it as a quest, then you will get frustrated by the ups-and-downs. He sees the tough times, and the good, as part of the journey. You have to keep your eye on what you want to achieve and navigate your way to that goal.

He shared that he was able to pay his first payroll recently, but he wasn’t sure he would be able to pay the next one.

The boundary between success and bankruptcy is a very fine line for start-ups. – Pierre Coeurdeuil

After college Pierre worked as a food engineer for chocolate manufacturer Valrhona in France, which is where the best chocolate comes from.  He helped the company expand its chocolate factory. And then Pierre shifted jobs completely, deciding to build solar and wind farms. Pierre then met his wife just as she was planning to move to San Francisco. Pierre followed her.

While Pierre was in college, his current business partner Max Pouvreau learned to cook at his village’s bakery. After traveling the world for a bit, Max ended up working at Le Meurice. And then Max followed a girl to San Francisco. He became a pastry chef at Coi and mastered California cuisine.

It was in San Francisco that this unlikely pair of French ex-patriots found each other, and shared a passion for French cuisine with a California influence. They founded Petit Pot and the rest is history in the making.

I wish you could all hear Pierre tell his story. I was so inspired to become an even more passionate leader, and I think, to eat a little pudding.