Mathilde Collin, CEO of Front – Why Front Moved their SaaS Startup to Silicon Valley

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So I think the reason why we’ve been able to raise that much money in two weeks is because the idea of Front is big enough to sound exciting to a lot of people. We don’t know yet if we’ll become like a big company but at least the idea is big enough to sound attractive.

Mathilde Collin is CEO and Co-Founder of Front, a collaborative inbox for email, SMS, and Twitter built for teams. It’s been called the Slack for internal communication. Mathilde joined Alex Theuma on The SaaS Revolution Show Podcast which you can listen to on iTunes or SoundCloud. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the podcast.


Hi Mathilde, what’s the idea of Front?

So really the idea of Front is whether you have like a team inbox,  it’s an inbox where multiple people need to access the messages then Front makes sense. Then we try to integrate this inbox with other softwares that you use like GitHub or Trello or Salesforce or any other software.

How old is Front? About two years or a bit more?

A bit less than two years. We launched a year ago.

Within those two years you’ve been through both a startup studio in eFounders and also the world-famous accelerator Y Combinator. What’s the difference between a startup studio and an accelerator? Would you recommend other founders to take the approach to do both?

I think the two are very different. The startup studio was really a way to get started more quickly. So for example, we had help from like SaaS experts and we had design and marketing help. The product that we’ve decided to build is very longer to build and the MVP is very hard to achieve. So if you’re in a space where it’s hard to get to your MVP, I would definitely recommend going to a startup studio.
Then Y Combinator is quite different. I think it’s useful for any company. The idea is that during three months it will accelerate your growth. The way to do that is to have people that will tell you exactly what to focus on, that will give you press coverage, that will introduce you to the best partners or customers you could have. And that’s useful for any company at any stage.

You moved the team out to the U.S. whilst you were doing Y Combinator. Then afterwards you’ve permanently stayed and made San Francisco your HQ?

Yeah, it’s right. I think I would recommend to any European company that want to come to the U.S. to do an accelerator whether it’s Y Combinator or something else, because I think for us that was the easiest way to move the whole team. It was not an easy task because we had like some people that had children and their wife and they all moved here. I think part of the reason why we were able to make this move is because we were part of Y Combinator.

You said that you recommend to the European SaaS companies to certainly do an accelerator and to come to the U.S. Do you think that European SaaS startups they really need to do it or can they make it in Europe?

Oh, no. I think you can make it Europe. I just said that if you want to come here, that’s the easiest way. And then it truly depends on your business.
I think the reason why we made the move is because from the beginning, the first customers that we had were from here. Being close to your customers and not 9 hours ahead was very useful. Then also the first investors that were interested in helping us were from here.  As soon as your customers and your investors are here I think you should be close to them that’s why we decided to make the move.
But I think there are like awesome companies that are either just in Europe or in Europe and in the U.S. and I think that works too. But we’ve decided to move the whole team here.

You mentioned being closer to investors, being closer to customers. How else has the move impacted the business in a positive way? And also are there any negatives as well from the move that you care to share?

Yeah, sure. So I can highlight like one positive thing and one negative thing that are very important to me.
The first, so the positive thing is I think people here are more ambitious and tend to be more excited about your ideas and less skeptical. I think when we moved to San Francisco, the ambition that we’ve had for Front was like 100 times bigger. I think it’s good for your business, I think it’s good for your employees, for your investors etc. So I feel like I’m happier doing this company here than in France.
The negative thing is hiring, which is core for your company where the competition is far harder here. I think you’ll just spend far more hours to find one person than when you’re in Europe.

Front raised around $3.1 million in just over one year. Is that right?

Yeah. In October last year.

The product has been launched one year. The company is less than two years. That’s quite a quick time to raise $3.1 million. how much time have you spent just around fundraising itself?

We spent two weeks to raise.

Wow! That’s quicker than the normal cycle. I guess in Europe,  it’s perhaps 3-6 months to raise a seed round. Two weeks! that’s quite a short time.

Yeah. I think the process is quite different. Before we went to Y Combinator we tried to raise money in Europe. I’ve found the way to raise money here and in Europe very different. I think as a general idea that people in Europe will invest if your company is already growing and is already getting bigger and bigger, whereas in the U.S., people will invest if your company could be big.
The biggest fear of a European investor is to do an investment and the startup fails, whereas the biggest fear of a U.S. investor is not to make any investment and then the startup succeeds and is like a unicorn.
I think the reason why we’ve been able to raise that much money in two weeks is because the idea of Front is big enough to sound exciting to a lot of people. We don’t know yet if we’ll become like a big company but at least the idea is big enough to sound attractive.

I’ve read something that you’d written where you talked about the fear of missing out and you talked about Peter Thiel’s biggest mistake was not necessarily in a company that he’d invested in but a round that he’d missed out on, referencing the Series B of Facebook.

Yeah, exactly. That was in Reddit and I think that was a good example of the mentality here.

As CEO and founder of a startup, I guess everything is not always awesome. referring to your blog post on Medium with “Startup Founders: Embrace the Hardship!” 
You talked there very openly about the hardships in starting a business which I know of course people like Ben Horowitz have done before in his book. But if you wanted a job to make you feel happy, you said this is not the one. Can you elaborate further on that? Would you recommend being a startup founder and are you having fun now despite the hardships?

Yes. I think you can distinguish two things being like fulfilled and doing the job that you truly want to do and then being happy and always have happy moments. I think I’m fulfilled but there are not only happy moments. That’s what I wanted to describe.
The reason why I wrote this post is because when I read The Hard Thing About Hard Things from Ben Horowitz, I think it was extremely useful for me to understand that it was hard for every company.
I think Front App today is considered as a successful company and we are doing well in a sense that we have more customers, we are growing the team, we moved to San Francisco, we have lots of interest from investors. But even for a company that seems to do well, it’s extremely hard. It’s normal because if it was not hard, everybody would do it.
I just think that you need to distinguish these two things. Like I’m fulfilled because I’m doing exactly the job that I want to do, creating the culture that I want, and building this company with the people that I like. On the other side, emotionally, it’s very hard.

Okay. I guess kind of switching gears a little bit, talking about startups coming out of France, SaaS startups in particular, there’s some very cool SaaS companies coming out of France such as Sunrise acquired by Microsoft, Algolia, Aircall and of course yourselves, Front.
Why do you think that is that you’ve got this wave of great SaaS companies coming out? 

I think something that I found amazing when I came in San Francisco for the first time is that when you start a company in France, you always feel like companies in the U.S. are like 100 times better than what you’re currently doing. Part of the reason is because I think American people are really good at selling themselves and their marketing is probably like 100 times better than the marketing that you’re doing.
But the products themselves when I came here and I showed what Front was, and that was like a year-and-a-half ago, so it was almost nothing, people were like, “Oh, that’s amazing.” I was so surprised to see that people really liked the products that we were doing. We perceived it as not as good as the one who had amazing websites and who were doing lots of PR.
I know the Algolia guys really well. I think they have an amazing product. For a long time they’ve not been able to do any sales or marketing and now they’re doing it. They came here to be inspired by the best people and they are doing great. The same thing happened for Sunrise.

When you launched the company, you were on TechCrunch, Hacker News and also Product Hunt as well, which seems to be a kind of strategy that a lot of companies certainly try. 
Going further, Front App made it to #1 on Product Hunt at some point. Is that right?

Yeah. Last week, I think.

Any tips on how you made it to #1 on Product Hunt or is it just because you’ve got an awesome product?

I think there were two recommendations that I can… the first one is I think people when the company is early they are always scared or they always want to postpone the PR that they would do because they want to wait for the product to be a little bit better. Or they want to ship that feature or that feature or they want their website to be better. I think there is no good moment. I think your product will always be buggy, your website will always be bad.
As soon as you have the opportunity to make a PR you should do it. That’s why we launched both on Product Hunt, Hacker News and TechCrunch. That’s why also last week we got featured on Product Hunt.
Then I think the second thing is it’s very important to keep a momentum. That’s how you can hire great people, that’s how you can get press coverage, that’s how you can keep your team excited. To do that there are like a few things you can do.
Part of it, and that’s the one that we’ve chosen, is to always release new stuff and to always have blog posts about something important so that people keep hearing about you. I think the reason why we got featured is when you look at the comments that have been made on the product there were always two things. First, they iterate so quickly it’s impressive or they have an awesome product or some support. I think that’s something you can have an impact on.

What can we expect next from Front? 

Probably two things on the team and on the product.
On the product first, we’ve decided to make our roadmap public so you can see what we’re working on right now and what we’ll be working on. That’s a choice that I would recommend to any company.
There are different things that we’ll do next year. One of the things is adding more channels into Front so that you can really have all your communication in one place. The second thing is integrating Front with as many softwares as you can so that information is never silo-ed and you never need to jump from one software to the other.
And the last thing, which is like more ambitious, is to make Front work for your individual emails as well.  A lot of people that have tried Front have told us that it’s good for team inboxes but it would be also amazing for your individual emails because commenting emails and signing emails could also be useful for email that you receive on your individual email address. We will work on Front as a replacement for Gmail or mailbox or any other email client.
And on the team, we are still hiring. Every talented person that we find we try to hire them.

Now, here’s a quick quiz for you as we come near to the end. You only need to answer if you can about who said this quote:

“Front is like Slack but for internal communication.”

Hiten Shah from KISSMetrics.

That’s correct. And next one:

“Front is the multiplayer version of Gmail.”

Patrick Collison from Stripe.

Yeah. That’s some good people here:

“Front is like a beautiful Lego box with every possible feature you need to improve your email workflow.” This might be a bit tougher.

Oh. I think it’s Romain Dillet from TechCrunch.

Yeah. Good one. Okay. This one might stump you.

“What Marc Benioff did for CRM, Mathilde Collin is doing for team communication.”

I don’t know.

I just said that now, but you can put that quote up if you want onto the website.

I will. We’re doing a new website. I will definitely do.

Final question. Do you still have time to build Legos as a CEO?

Oh, of course. You should visit our office.
Every time we have a new employee this employee is able to choose one Lego from the Lego Store. So last week we built a Ferris wheel and we have, I don’t know, at least 50 Legos, big Legos in the office. There are Legos everywhere. There is a train on the floor. There is a huge tower bridge on the printer, etc. So, yes.

The office isn’t built with Lego, is it?

Not yet.

Mathilde Collin spoke with Alex Theuma on The SaaS Revolution Show, available to listen to now on iTunes or Soundcloud

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