Mathilde Collin on Feature Prioritization and Employee Retention at Front
You can check out Front at frontapp.com.
Mathilde is on Twitter @collinmathilde.
00:00 – Tuomas Grannas asks – What’s your favorite LEGO theme?
1:00 – What is Front?
3:25 – Google Inbox shutting down
5:00 – Prioritizing features
7:25 – Features that have increased Front usage
9:25 – What Front looked like at launch
12:20 – Early user acquisition
15:15 – Starting Front and meeting her cofounder
18:45 – The idea for Front
20:00 – When her cofounder was diagnosed with cancer
22:55 – Hardest moments running Front
25:00 – Employee retention
30:30 – Transparency
32:15 – Front’s office in France
33:05 – KP asks – What is the one unique insight about the problem you didn’t have at the start but only discovered later after your launch?
35:50 – Did she consider other ideas Front?
37:15 – Jordan Jackson asks – Email at least for me – has taken on a different meaning in a life of messaging apps and chat platforms. It is more serious in a way. How do you see email evolving and the ecosystem that encompasses in peoples lives?
39:30 – If she could remove any email feature
40:55 – When did they hit product market fit?
44:40 – Meditation
Craig Cannon [00:00] – Hey, how’s it going? This is Craig Cannon, and you’re listening to Y Combinator’s podcast. Today’s episode is with Mathilde Collin. Mathilde is the co-founder and CEO of Front. Front is a shared inbox for teams, and they were part of the YC Summer 2014 batch. You can check out Front at frontapp.com and Mathilde is on Twitter @collinmathilde. Alright, here we go. The most pressing and important question is this first one from Thomas Granas about Lego. He asks what’s your favorite Lego theme?
Mathilde Collin [00:34] – My favorite Lego theme is something that not a lot of people know, it’s called Ideas. Basically you can submit if you have an idea of a new Lego set that should be built, then people can vote, and then if it gets enough votes, then they build it. One of the set that I just got is three birds, it sounds boring. But they’re actually super beautiful.
Mathilde Collin [00:57] – And they came from a random person submitting this idea.
Craig Cannon [01:00] – That’s so cool! I was just reading an AMA the other day with a Lego master builder, did you see that one on Reddit?
Mathilde Collin [01:06] – Yeah yeah, I looked at it.
Craig Cannon [01:07] – You probably knew all that stuff. What kind of birds are they?
Mathilde Collin [01:11] – That will be really hard for me to not tell you in French. Yeah, that’s next level in my learning of English.
Craig Cannon [01:20] – I know what Front is just because I’ve been around YC, but for the average person who doesn’t know what it is, how would you describe it?
Mathilde Collin [01:28] – I would describe it as a shared inbox. You can think about it as what Gmail or Outlook does, but with added collaboration features and workflows, so it works better for teams. We have a few different kinds of teams that are using the product, from recruiting teams, support teams, account management teams, client services teams, operations teams, and what they have in common is they have a lot of emails coming in, and inside their company, a lot of people inside the team that needs to handle these emails and they struggle managing that as a team because email wasn’t made for teams. So that’s what we do.
Craig Cannon [02:05] – When did you add the personal email to it?
Mathilde Collin [02:07] – Actually pretty early on.
Craig Cannon [02:09] – Really?
Mathilde Collin [02:10] – Yeah, the thing is it wasn’t working that well.
Craig Cannon [02:14] – Meaning you weren’t getting users?
Mathilde Collin [02:16] – Yeah, meaning in order to have a product that people will use for their individual emails, you need to get to a level of feature parity with Gmail or Outlook, that’s pretty intense. Even if you could do it four years ago, it’s only about two years ago that we started having the features that would allow people to manage both shared inboxes and individual inboxes as well. Today we have 40% of our daily active users who are using Front both for shared inboxes and individual inboxes. We’re releasing a brand new version of Front at the end of October that we’ve been working on for nine months. The goal is to make sure that people can enjoy the individual inbox as much as they enjoy the shared inbox.
Craig Cannon [03:04] – Can you be more specific?
Mathilde Collin [03:06] – Meaning, so today when you have a shared inbox, let’s say support@, sales@, it’s obvious that they require collaboration, otherwise you would not have a shared inbox. But for individual inbox, so email@example.com, they also require collaboration, so I will collaborate with my assistant, with our sales team on specific deals, with our recruiting team on specific candidates, with our product team on product feedback, and if, so tomorrow with Front, you can also add your individual inbox, like mathilde@frontapp, and then assign messages, have inter-log conversations around these messages, integrated with whatever tool you’re using, so GitHub, Salesforce, Trello, Asana, et cetera, so it becomes a full replacement for Gmail or Outlook.
Craig Cannon [03:48] – How do you feel about Gmail, or rather, Google, wrapping up inbox?
Mathilde Collin [03:54] – I think it’s zero surprising. First of all, I wasn’t a huge fan of Inbox, I think Inbox brought a few things that were great. The direct notifications, they had great snooze features, but I think that if you want people to change how they deal with email, the amount of innovation that you need to bring, needs to be super high. Because it’s very disruptive to change, then the value proposition need to be 10X better. I didn’t feel like Inbox was 10X better than Gmail. I’m not surprised. When they rolled out their new Gmail version, and you could see that it was pretty similar, then I knew that, that was coming.
Craig Cannon [04:35] – It kind of brought over the better stuff.
Mathilde Collin [04:37] – Yeah, and then also if you are going to have two different products doing the same thing, then they should be super different. They weren’t super different.
Craig Cannon [04:46] – Did you find that when you started to integrate individual emails into Front, that people were asking for all these vestigial features of Gmail that this is going to be ended at some point, but they still want it?
Mathilde Collin [04:58] – Yeah, they want a lot of features, but I think that’s normal and we should provide them. There are a few ones that are harder to implement, just because I can’t be convinced that they’re better for the world. For example, sub-sub-folders. You can try to build Outlook again, and maybe it’s the best thing, and maybe it’s not.
Craig Cannon [05:21] – How did you end up weighing that out? Was just if enough customers complained, or enough people gave you friction about signing up, you would build it?
Mathilde Collin [05:34] – The question I saw that a lot of people asked on Twitter were questions about how do you prioritize features. I can talk a little bit more about that. There is one thing unique that we did, which is so we did YC four years ago. We built a Trello roadmap and we made it public. We’re like here is everything we’re thinking about building, and you can vote the thing that you want and you can see what we’re working on and you can see what has been shipped. That gave us a ton of insight on what people wanted. The second thing that we did was, so obviously we use Front to manage incoming inquiries, but any tool that you’re using should be able to provide analytics on the kind of requests that your users have. You should be able to see in the past month, for example, 20% of incoming inquires were about folders, or better analytics, or whatever. Then we can look at that. Then arrives the moment where you have so many inputs plus there is also what I personally believe we should build and you need to make a decision. I feel like the decision will be, will be based on two things. One is what’s the intensity, or how much complexity, it is to build a certain feature? And then is what’s the uptake, what can we expect from it? Will it, I don’t know, increase our market? Will it make our current users happier? Will they pay more, et cetera? You always need to balance these two things. For us, we just have a scale of one to three, so in terms of how good it will be for our users, one two three, like game changer,
Mathilde Collin [07:13] – or like slightly better, nice to have. How complex is it to build? Then, you have nine different scores, depending on these three things, and that’s how we can prioritize what we build. We should always put that into perspective of what, one, what our vision is and making sure we’re not doing something that’s against what we want to build. Then making sure that we remained focused, because I think that one of the biggest thing that you need to achieve when you’re small is being super focused.
Craig Cannon [07:43] – Of those features that you’ve rolled out in the past four years, were there certain ones where you really noticed a giant uptick in usage or growth?
Mathilde Collin [07:52] – There is one that we released where it’s really changed how Front was used. It’s specific to what we do, but basically the concept of Front is, whenever you have a message that comes in, you can comment on it. You an email, and you can have internal discussions about it, you have a tweet, you can have interal discussions about it. Before you could comment on one specific message. If you had three messages, you could decide to comment on message one, or message two, or message three. The bad thing about that, it was really had to have a conversation that was flowing. Because you could comment on message one, and then someone comment on message three–
Craig Cannon [08:31] – But then a new email came in.
Mathilde Collin [08:32] – Yeah, exactly. We wanted to let people have conversations that were fluid around. So we decided to do two things. One is reverse the order of conversations. Now the most recent is at the bottom and not at the top, and then that would allow us to have conversations not associated to any message anymore, but that would just flow into the conversation. That was a huge disruption. Because when people use email, like five hours a day, and they build workflows around commenting on messages, and you’re introducing a huge change, then they’re pretty upset. But then what we saw is the number of comments that was made per daily active user, that was growing that way, and then it grew that way. I feel like most of the decisions, prior decisions that we made, that led to a significant change in behavior were the most painful. Another example is were releasing a new version of Front in October. I can’t tell you how upset our customers are going to be.
Mathilde Collin [09:38] – I can’t tell you how excited I am that we’re rolling this out. But it’s going to be super disruptive.
Craig Cannon [09:44] – A bunch of people had questions about how you guys were getting customers in the early days. What would be helpful, for context, what did Front look like when you launched? Because I’m sure it’s different now.
Mathilde Collin [09:58] – Front sucked when we launched it. I remember we were in YC and our batch mates would come to me and ask, “Can I use the product?” I was like, “No, you should use a competitor. Our product is really not that great.” It wasn’t great, but you should launch it as soon as possible, because that’s how you’ll get feedback, and you want feedback in order to make sure that you’re making something people want. The product was bad. Now what I remember is building an MVP in the email space is tough, because people expect a lot of features. They will expect attachments to work, they will expect tags to work, you should be able to cc people, bcc people, forward, emails, et cetera. Basically what we did was we had the most basic version of Front without attachments. We would still try to see if some innovation that we had brought, where you could assign emails to people and have comments, would be enough for people to give up on a few of the features. I remember that something that we did when Front was super early is, I was writing a lot of content, and I think probably our first 300 customers were coming from content that I was writing on medium, or sharing on Hacker News, or guest posts on our blog.
Mathilde Collin [11:19] – And writing about email, which I think was a topic that people like reading about, or like communication, collaboration, Slack, things. Then people would sign up to our beta and then I would call them and manually involve them, and try to have them use the product. And then they would use the product for maybe a few hours, and then stop using the product. But then I would know why. Then I would talk to my co-founder and tell him we’re one feature away, like at entrance, and then we’re good. Then we would build it, and then I would talk to customers, and they would be like, no, that’s missing, so then one feature away. Really the only things we did for the first year, at least, was just doing that. It was writing content, onboarding users, and building features. Every other destruction that you could think of, we didn’t do.
Craig Cannon [12:11] – I was emailing with Wade from Zapier about their content marketing. Kat and I are doing a class, startup school this week. One thing he said, which I thought was really interesting, was in the beginning they found themselves getting trapped by writing content that would do well on Hacker News, but not actually convert to users for them. Were you able to differentiate that in the beginning, or were you just trying to get any kind of attention?
Mathilde Collin [12:41] – It might be true. The truth is, first of all, I had no other idea. Yes, in an ideal world I would find a legit source that’s as effective as possible. I knew nothing about paid acquisition. Shared inbox is not something people are looking for, so I felt like that wasn’t working. We had a horizontal product and we weren’t sure who was going to use it. Outbounding wasn’t necessarily the best thing, because we have this general tool. For me, yes, the truth is I would agree with him. From our beta we had 3,000 companies that signed up to our product and, I think, 10 of them ended up using our product. The conversion rate is not high. But anytime I was onboarding someone, and the person was not interested, I learned a ton. If I were to do it again, I think I would do it again just because that was my best guess to have a lot of people signing up. Then I had a few tricks, like whenever you were signing up, you had an auto-reply that said, “Why are you interested? What problem are you trying to solve?” Even if they don’t end up converting, then you get a ton of information.
Mathilde Collin [14:00] – At scale, content is not at all how we get users today. In the early days, or at least it’s still some of the way we get users, but not the main source.
Craig Cannon [14:12] – Which is?
Mathilde Collin [14:13] – Which is paid acquisition. Versus in the early days, it was the main source for us to get users, and I don’t regret it. I don’t think it was scalable, but I think it was do-able, and confronted us with the market.
Craig Cannon [14:27] – What was the most successful piece?
Mathilde Collin [14:30] – It’s like “Email will last forever.”
Craig Cannon [14:33] – Okay, so it’s this opinionated, essay type thing.
Mathilde Collin [14:35] – It was a lot of thought leadership and a lot of sharing my journey as a founder.
Craig Cannon [14:41] – How far did that get you? You said out of 3,000 companies, you got 10 maybe, how did you get to 100?
Mathilde Collin [14:50] – We hired our first marketing person in January 2017, two and a half years after we launched the product, so that’s were it got us. PR and content was 90% of what we did in the first two and a half years.
Craig Cannon [15:08] – Which is how many customers roughly?
Mathilde Collin [15:11] – It got us to probably one million in ARR, and so that was probably 1,000 customers maybe? Something like that.
Craig Cannon [15:22] – That’s great. Wow.
Mathilde Collin [15:25] – Less than that, less customers, yes, 500.
Craig Cannon [15:29] – You guys started making this in some kind of startup-lab thing, right?
Mathilde Collin [15:36] – Oh yeah, yeah.
Craig Cannon [15:37] – Can you talk more about that? Beause we haven’t had someone on the podcast that’s been through one of those.
Mathilde Collin [15:41] – Yeah, so when I graduated, I joined a startup. Then I knew that I wanted to start a company. But for me, the main thing is I had to borrow money to go to school, and then I had to give back the money. Starting a company was pretty tough, so I took a job in a sales company, and I was doing sales because I feared that I could probably make a lot of money if I was doing my job right. Two things happened. One is I made some money, so that was good. Two is I learned more about SaaS and software and I loved it. I really loved the idea of building a product that could then be used by some people and then their life at work would be drastically different because of the product that we had built. It was at that point I was working on contract management software. Contract source, super archaic, and then they had this beautiful tool, and I thought it was wonderful. But I was not using contracts, I was using email, and I was as frustrated with this tool that had not evolved in the past 10 years. It clearly wasn’t made for businesses. A year after I joined the company, I was lucky enough to meet with this, so they’re called eFounders, they’re a startup studio. What they do is they either find technical co-founders or business co-founders. They try to have people meet, and then if a great relationship comes out of it, then they are happy to fund them. That’s where I met with my co-founder, Laurent. When I think about my journey at Front, where I got most lucky was meeting with them, with him, and with them five years ago.
Mathilde Collin [17:28] – I met him and for two months–
Craig Cannon [17:31] – How did you meet? Was it some kind of like speed-dating situation?
Mathilde Collin [17:35] – No, they host events. I eventually quit my job, and so I spent a lot of time in their startup studio helping on lots of different projects and Laurent was there. And he was same thing. He had quit his job, was working on one specific project. Met him and then really liked him. The thing that we tried to do for two months was asking ourselves all these tough questions that can happen in the journey of two founders. What happens if I want to fire you? Or you want to fire me? Or you want to sell and I don’t want to sell? Or like whatever. Should we have the same ownership in the company? Things like that. Would you move to San Francisco? We agreed on everything, so then after two months, we’re like, “Okay, let’s do it.” It worked out so well, so it was super lucky.
Mathilde Collin [18:31] – But I think for us, a startup studio was great for two reasons. One, that fact that we met. Two, the fact that we got initial funding. Now a few months after we met, we decided to go to YC where we got additional funding. So then we weren’t very close to them. It was super great in the first few months. Then YC was great, and then other things were great.
Craig Cannon [18:54] – Everything’s great.
Mathilde Collin [18:56] – A different stage of the company.
Craig Cannon [18:57] – Yeah, I’m sure things were painful too.
Mathilde Collin [18:59] – Yes.
Craig Cannon [19:01] – Did the idea come about before you even joined?
Mathilde Collin [19:06] – So Front is at the intersection of two things. One is I was willing to innovate in the email space. Laurent, my co-founder, had been in two companies before where they had a lot of users. They were forced to implement help-desk solutions, like Zendesk, or Freshdesk, et cetera, hated them. What he wanted to build was a lightweight support tool. In fact, Front started as this email tool, but with a go-to market being shared inboxes. The reason was because Laurent wanted to do that, I wanted to do that, we thought okay, but email is impossible to start from scratch. No company has managed to build a business starting with an email product, because it’s super hard to build, super hard to have people pay for it. So I was like, okay, what if the go-to market is shared inboxes? But then we expand, as we discussed, into a full email client that can be used by individuals and teams. That’s why Front is this combination of this very big vision, but this very simple pinpoint that we addressed at the beginning.
Craig Cannon [20:20] – Just to go back really quickly, what have been the hardest moments so far?
Mathilde Collin [20:25] – Of Front? I can share one that’s business related, and one that’s more personal. 18 months ago, my co-founder was diagnosed with a cancer, so that was the hardest moment by far. When I reflect on the journey, it’s really hard to say, “Oh this moment where, I don’t know, we didn’t get the term sheet we wanted, or this big customer churned,” it’s really hard for me to tell that it was the hardest moment, because that’s far harder than anything you can conceive. Now he’s great, and so all of it turned out in a super positive outcome. When that happened, it was my lowest. Then you start to realize, founders are always very committed to making their company work. Yhat’s good, but they should also realize that their company is just a company. You have a life outside of your company that’s also super important. You should enjoy every moment that you have because things could be very different tomorrow.
Craig Cannon [21:37] – How do you maintain that balance? You like goof around with Legos, play soccer?
Mathilde Collin [21:44] – I’m super deliberate myself, and I try to implement a lot of things at Front to promote this healthy work-life balance. Clearly it’s been influenced by the fact that Laurent got sick. I personally meditate everyday. I logout of every app, Slack, Front, et cetera, every weekend. And anytime I’m on PTO, I don’t have any notifications. I’m never distracted by work. Then I exercise, like I play soccer, I run, I kite surf, I bike. I just make sure that when I stay late at the office, it’s an exception, I sometimes do it. When I work during the weekend, it’s an exception as well. That’s what I do, personally, in order to make sure, and I sleep at least eight hours a night, every night.
Craig Cannon [22:36] – That was like the biggest game changer for me, actually. In terms of feeling better. I know it’s so dumb and obvious, but just prioritizing that.
Mathilde Collin [22:42] – Yeah, for sure. I’ve always done that, and I’ve always felt more proactive. At Front there are a few things, last week we had health and wellness week, and everyday you could meditate so you could understand what it does. Then we had lunch and learn, explaining the impact of eating healthy on your emotions, and, I don’t know, we organized a few runs. Also whenever people join, I explain what Front is about, and I explain that I care about it, so that’s in our culture as well.
Craig Cannon [23:15] – You just try and kind of lead by example.
Mathilde Collin [23:17] – Yeah, exactly.
Craig Cannon [23:17] – The hard moment for your company, what was that?
Mathilde Collin [23:23] – The thing is, every single moment is super hard. One of my biggest learnings from YC four years ago, when the company was super small, every Tuesday we had people coming in talking about all kinds of things. We had the founders of Stripe, of Facebook, of Optimize, we have Dropbox, which are super successful companies. They were telling us how hard it was and how many times they’ve wondered whether the business would go anywhere. Yhat’s the story of my life. It’s super easy to think about Front as this company that has, you look at our metrics, because I’ve published everything. We’ve consistently been doing well in terms of revenue, our retention of employees is high. You look at our funding stories, we’ve always raised money super easily. Okay, cool, like that’s what you can read about. The truth is, every single day I wake up, and there is a list of 10 questions where I don’t have answers and I need to figure them out. I know that the more we grow, the more is at stake. I absolutely need to find the answers. Every single day is hard. And we still have customers that turn, and I’m extremely sad about it. We still have employee situations that are not easy to deal with. I still have moments where I’m wondering if we should do what we’re doing. Yhat’s true for every single founder I’ve ever met, as successful as they are. Nobody should wonder whether it’s hard or easy, it’s just consistently hard.
Craig Cannon [24:58] – Do you need help reminding yourself of that? Or were the dinners enough?
Mathilde Collin [25:04] – No, so I read, you know The Hard Thing About Hard Things? A lot of founders have read the book, but for me it was really game changer to just read about the fact that it’s hard. You should stop wondering about it. It’s just a given, it doesn’t mean anything about the health of your company. I just need to remind myself that it’s normal. It’s just a job.
Craig Cannon [25:24] – Absolutely. You said something interesting about retention, I know that’s something you guys are particularly good at and proud of, I’m sure.
Mathilde Collin [25:34] – Yes.
Craig Cannon [25:35] – Do you have pro tips in that category?
Mathilde Collin [25:38] – Yeah, so I’m preparing a talk about that. I’ve been thinking about it. It’s a super complex question, because if the answer was–
Craig Cannon [25:50] – Snacks.
Mathilde Collin [25:50] – We have super high retention and super high NPS inside the company. I think that there are three categories of things you can do within your company to make sure that that’s happening. The first one is how do you hook people. I think that’s by having a mission-driven company. At the end of the day, so I was asked to do a talk about retention. Yhen I emailed our employees and I was like, at the end of the day, why are you engaged, motivated, happy, why do you work hard? A lot of them were saying because we care about the mission. You need to make sure that you have a mission, it’s clear, people can interpret it in the way they want, our mission statement is work happier, and it means different things for different people. But if people can relate to it and can feel like they have purpose when working on Front, then it’s good. Making it super clear, and as your company skill, just making sure that you say it over and over, and everyone knows what it means, everyone has examples of what it means, it’s super important. Then, I think that then there is the push, what will enable them to go above and beyond. I think that for that, it’s really the quality of coworkers. One advice that Patrick Collison gave me when I was having our first employees was two things. One, when you hire your first employees, you should think about every person that you bring with a bar that’s as high as could this person be my co-founder?
Mathilde Collin [27:31] – That was super helpful because then you hire people that are already great at the beginning. The second advice that he gave me was when you hire someone, you should wonder whether you want 10 person like this in your company. Because the truth is, they will hire people like them, and so then if you don’t want 10 people like this, then you should probably not hire this person. We did a really good job in the early days at hiring super talented people that were a really good match with our values. Then as we grew the team, the team became really good, and good meaning they’re talented, but also they are, we have same values, they are low ego, high standards, collaborative, caring. I think that making sure that even when you are desperate to hire people, you don’t lower your bar. You’ve heard it so much, but it’s so important. That’s something that contributes to us having a really good culture. I like to think about every single employee that we bring as someone bring something new, on top of all the baseline, baseline being here. Then the third thing is people want to see and understand that they have an impact. Because if they care about the vision and the mission, and they have great coworkers, so they want to do their best, but they’re not sure how to contribute, then at the end of the day, they will probably not do as good of a job or be as happy. For that, there are a lot of things you can implement within your company. One of them is transparency.
Mathilde Collin [29:08] – It’s a word that is being used a lot. But it’s super easy to claim that you are a transparent company and super hard to implement, and it just gets harder as you scale. For us being transparent means you have dashboards that show everything. Every Monday morning we go over all our metrics. Every quarter I do a presentation. Last quarter at Front, I reviewed everything that has been going well, not going well. Every board meeting I send a board deck. Every inbox is accessible in Front, so you want to see what customers want to say, like good things and bad things, you can access it. If you want to see why a candidate didn’t accept an offer, you can know why, whatever you want to. If you want to know what’s our runway, you can also know what’s our runway.
Craig Cannon [29:53] – When you say every inbox is accessible, does that mean personal inboxes as well?
Mathilde Collin [29:57] – No, so personal inboxes usually they’re, so if you’re a manager, you have access to your direct reports’ inboxes. The truth is, I tried, we tried to make as many inboxes as possible public. But the truth is you have to implement some rules. Because there are HR emails that should not be shared, there are financial emails that should not be shared, so we try to share as much of the personal emails, like name at company dot com, as possible, but not 100% are shared.
Craig Cannon [30:28] – Not everything.
Mathilde Collin [30:31] – I think transparency is just a really good way to have people understand what’s the impact of their work is on all these metrics that are displayed. These are a few tips.
Craig Cannon [30:44] – Yeah, what else don’t you share?
Mathilde Collin [30:47] – The way I think about transparency, is if something is going to create more problems and raise more questions, then bad use of transparency. If something is going to answer a lot of questions and solve lots of problems, then good use of transparency. What don’t we share? We don’t share the salaries of everyone, why? I can give you an example. There is a person at Front that might have health issues and our insurance doesn’t cover it, so we might pay this person an additional, I don’t know, a few hundred dollar a month, instead of paying for the insurance. Then if everything was public, then people would be like, whoa why is this person paid this much, and then I would have to explain. I don’t care, it doesn’t bring anything great to the company. The way I think about compensation is if anyone knew everything tomorrow, I could explain, and it’s fair, and that’s what matters. Now it doesn’t mean that I will share it because it’s actually not super helpful. Another example is when people leave or are let go, usually we don’t share why. We try to be super transparent about our performance process, making sure that people understand why someone might be let go, and making sure that it’s fair. Now, privacy of employees is more important than transparency. Then transparency doesn’t mean that I’ll share this person wasn’t good at doing this and that and that’s why we let this person go.
Craig Cannon [32:28] – Do you guys now have employees overseas as well?
Mathilde Collin [32:32] – Yes.
Craig Cannon [32:32] – You have an office in France?
Mathilde Collin [32:33] – Yes, so we decided to open an office in Paris in January this year. So now we have about 20% of our team in Paris and 80% here.
Craig Cannon [32:40] – Okay, now how do you go about making them feel included?
Mathilde Collin [32:45] – Same thing, we’re super deliberate about it. Every employee in France starts with an onboarding in San Francisco. Twice a year we have company-wide offsites, and everyone is coming. We have all hands where we make sure that it’s a balance between SF sharing insights and Paris sharing insights. My co-founder went back to France, so having one founder in each team is super important. We have a lot of people from SF who go to Paris.
Craig Cannon [33:10] – Gotcha.
Mathilde Collin [33:13] – So that they can also share more about the culture here. So far it’s working really well, I mean we’re still improving a lot of things, but–
Craig Cannon [33:21] – And he’s there full time now? Oh, okay, that’s great.
Mathilde Collin [33:24] – Yeah yeah, that helps, a lot.
Craig Cannon [33:26] – Yeah, it helps a ton. You got a ton of questions on Twitter. There was one that I wanted to bring up now. KP asks, what is one unique insight about the problem, meaning the problem you’re working on, you didn’t have at the start, but only discovered later after launching?
Mathilde Collin [33:45] – There are a few things. One thing that I always find interesting is one of the reason why I think we were successful building an email product, I mean successful so far, is because we actually didn’t have a lot of insights. I had been working for a year, so it’s not a lot, and so I think, and my co-founder was very technical, so didn’t use email many, many hours everyday, or had not built any email product. Having a new pair of eyes on this problem that has has existed forever, I think was something that was really good. When people sometimes ask questions about the insights you have, and other people don’t have, sometime the fact that you don’t have any insight and you have a new pair of eyes is actually super insightful. Now the truth is, everything that we discovered about Front is things that I didn’t know before. For example, we have these use cases where logistics companies and travel companies love Front. I knew nothing about these industries. Now I’m going to trucking conferences and I understand exactly how they work. It’s just we’ve been super, super honest with ourselves, on what we knew and what we didn’t know. Then talking with our potential customers so much to understand their insights. The way I would answer this question, is the truth is, 99% of what I know today, I didn’t know when I started.
Craig Cannon [35:24] – Right.
Mathilde Collin [35:25] – I just felt like, for sure, something could be improved in that space. I thought we had a good team to do it, that’s the only thing I knew.
Craig Cannon [35:34] – I mean you were committed to the problem, right?
Mathilde Collin [35:37] – I was committed to the problem, but I care more about… I want people to be more efficient at work, and I feel like email is the tool that people use to get work done. I care about that more than, you know, adding collaboration to email, or assigning emails, or commenting on emails, like no. I care about, people spend their lives in their inbox, and this tool has not evolved in the past 10 years, and it was not made for businesses, so for sure something can be improved. TBD how, let’s start with shared inboxes.
Craig Cannon [36:10] – Did you guys consider other options before you really started building Front?
Mathilde Collin [36:15] – Ah, no.
Craig Cannon [36:15] – No? Oh wow.
Mathilde Collin [36:18] – We knew that we would start with shared inboxes. One funny story that I sometimes share when I go to YC for dinners is we try to have these insights, we were looking for them. For example, PB who created Gmail is one of the founders at YC, and so when I joined YC, I was super excited to meet with him, and I was like, “So here are all our ideas. So we can go in this direction, this direction, this direction, what do you think we should do?” He was like, “Follow your growth.” And I was like, “Okay cool, thanks.” I’m glad I talked to all my friends about the fact that I was meeting with the person who created Gmail. But at the end of the day, that’s the best advice he could give us. Because he has some insights on what problem Gmail was trying to solve, but that’s very different from what Front is trying to solve and that’s a different time in history, and a different set of terms.
Craig Cannon [37:20] – Well there are multiple ways to tackle this. There’s so much pattern matching that happens at YC, that it’s almost like you don’t want to get too prescriptive with this stuff because you can negatively pattern match.
Mathilde Collin [37:31] – Yeah, yeah, for sure.
Craig Cannon [37:31] – And build the wrong thing.
Mathilde Collin [37:33] – Yeah, exactly.
Craig Cannon [37:35] – There’s another question. Jordan Jackson asks, email, at least for me, has taken on a different meaning in life, in the context of messaging apps and chat platforms, it is almost more serious in a way, how do you see email evolving, and the ecosystem that encompasses it, in people’s lives?
Mathilde Collin [37:53] – It’s a good question because you hear so much from companies like Slack, for example, email is dead. The way I think about email, is first of all, for your personal emails, you’re emailing friends and families, I don’t think that email will last forever. If you look at the growth, year over year, it’s actually decreasing every year. Whereas if you look at work emails, its increasing year over year. I believe that email will remain in a work environment. I’m not convinced about your personal life. I think WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger and all these other tools can actually be better. Or be used far more than they used to. Now, in a work environment, I feel like email, the protocol, is actually perfect. Beause it’s the only protocol that you can use to communicate with people outside your company. Even if you have great tools like Slack that enable you to message people internally, the truth is it will not solve 90% of your communication, which is happening externally. And, however, I think the interfaces for email are not perfect. The protocol is great, interfacing not great. If you have a tool that has a good interface and can be inspired by other apps that are doing amazing, like Slack is great because they have a really delightful product that’s really fast, that works cross-platform. And I think if you can apply some of the thing that made these companies or these tools successful, and apply them to a protocol that, in my opinion, is the best, then I strongly believe that people could spend 90% of their time in their inbox.
Mathilde Collin [39:35] – Versus today, it’s probably not as high as 90%.
Craig Cannon [39:39] – No. If you could wipe everyone’s memory of email context and restart, what would you wipe out and create anew?
Mathilde Collin [39:50] – If I was to start a new email product?
Craig Cannon [39:52] – If you could just delete email from everyone’s mind and just have, alright, this is the new email product.
Mathilde Collin [39:58] – I would probably wipe out most of the structural features. Because when you think about the main things, you have a subject, you have a signature, literally carbon copy, and blind carbon copy. I think I would remove all of that. I don’t think you need a subject, I don’t think you should see cc, bcc, forward, reply, all these things, but I would keep the fact that it’s universal, and you can have a message that’s being sent somewhere else. That’s what I would do.
Craig Cannon [40:34] – So it would be similar to SMS?
Mathilde Collin [40:37] – Yeah, but then the tricky thing is, SMS has zero concept of workflow. You still need workflows. For example, everything around the fact that you can assign messages, you can share a message, you can collaborate on a draft, you can comment internally, you can create automation and say if then, that’s super important, that doesn’t exist in SMS. But today these features, cc, bcc, forward, are used as workflows, whereas really they’re not designed for that, so then that leads to a lot of inefficiencies.
Craig Cannon [41:10] – Okay, so there were just a handful of other questions about product-market fit. It’s funny because based on the startup school lectures, I think the questions are changing with every week, and there were just a bunch on product-market fit. When did you guys feel like you hit it?
Mathilde Collin [41:27] – Yeah, so it’s a good question. Very late, actually. When we raised our seed, we had just a few numbers. We were doing like 10K MR, so not a lot, we might have, I don’t know, 100 companies using the product. Clearly, I didn’t feel great. It was ultimately a good investment, but I didn’t feel like we had product-market fit. When we raised our Series A, and so we raised our Series A, we were making, I think, 1.5 million in ARR, so a little bit over 100K MRR. I think that’s when I felt like some companies were using the product, and even if I had demoed all the alternatives, Front was actually a better solution for them. Then I felt like the market was big, but didn’t really know how big, but at least big enough. That was three years after we started, so a pretty long time.
Craig Cannon [42:39] – Yeah, it took a while. When founders, I imagine like you’ve given talks and stuff now, people are asking you for advice. When they’re looking to find it, what do you tell them? Or what do you even point them to, to read?
Mathilde Collin [42:52] – Like advice on product-market fit, or advice in general?
Craig Cannon [42:56] – Product-market fit.
Mathilde Collin [42:57] – The thing is, at the end of the day, you need to be convinced that you’re doing something that people want. I feel like, you need to be, and it’s a piece of advice I share in general, you need to be so brutally honest with yourself and with your team about what’s working and not working. It think startups are so hard, that there is almost like, as a human being you want to be happy, and so you don’t necessarily want to face every reality, because it can be really hard. If you’re working 12 hours a day, and the thing that you keep hearing is, I’m not super interested in your work, whatever, and then at a point someone says oh, it’s pretty good, then you ignore so much on the fact that someone said it’s pretty good. Then you tend to ignore the fact, that yes, 95% told you that it was not good. And so I think making sure that the only things you do is talking to people using the product, talking to people that might be interested in using the product, and then building things, so that these two things can change, and then communicating that or sharing this information with your team, and having one metric in place that will show you whether you’re making progress or not. For us it was revenue, because we felt like if people were willing to use the product, they would pay for it. That’s the only thing that matters. That’s the focus you need to have, both in your head, you need to make sure that you’re super honest, and also from just a process and communication standpoint, you should make sure that every single day you share
Mathilde Collin [44:40] – how many more users, revenue, like whatever you have. Every single week you can calculate your growth, and you can look at it, I think it’s PG who said that. The first way to have anything increase is to look at it, and just be super honest about it.
Craig Cannon [44:55] – That’s true across the board. You’re scared of the truth. I’m curious about all this in the context of your meditation practice. What does that look like on a daily basis, and have you been doing this for a long time?
Mathilde Collin [45:10] – I’ve been meditating everyday for, I think, 500 days. It’s not forever, but now quite a long time. 500 days is when my co-founder was sick.
Craig Cannon [45:26] – You literally started that day?
Mathilde Collin [45:27] – It was a more challenging period of my life where I think I was overwhelmed, but I think whether I was overwhelmed for that reason or other reasons, I think when you’re a founder, in general, I’m pretty convinced that 99.9% of founders would benefit from meditating everyday. That was the trigger, but I wish I had known before. The good thing about meditation, is that, as boring as it sounds, and I have an active mind, so I don’t like not thinking about anything for 10 minutes, I do 10 minutes every morning.
Craig Cannon [46:00] – That’s it, so again, your process is you wake up and you just begin it?
Mathilde Collin [46:05] – No, so I wake up, have a shower, because otherwise I fall asleep when I’m meditating. So I wake up, have a shower, and then meditate for 10 minutes.
Craig Cannon [46:14] – Do you meditate, do you have a pillow, you sit down on something, what do you do?
Mathilde Collin [46:17] – No, I have a couch in my living room. And I just sit there.
Craig Cannon [46:21] – Great.
Mathilde Collin [46:23] – So I meditate. 10 minutes.
Craig Cannon [46:24] – And you just sit?
Mathilde Collin [46:25] – Yeah I just sit, and I have an app, Headspace.
Craig Cannon [46:29] – Okay, so you do a guided meditation?
Mathilde Collin [46:32] – Guided meditation. 10 minutes and then put my stuff on and then leave for work.
Craig Cannon [46:38] – How long did you have to do it before you felt that it was effective?
Mathilde Collin [46:42] – Many weeks. I think it’s nothing magical. It’s really a muscle that you’re training. As anything, you will not see the results in probably a few weeks or a few months, not if you are sore a few days. But really, the thing that I get out of it is now when an issue arise, it’s like, “Okay, cool, the issue is here.” Before it was 90% of what’s in my head. It’s taking all my attention, I’m super upset, nothing can make me less upset, just ’cause I constantly think about it. Now, I feel like though there is a distance. Headspace is the name, and really what it gave me is more head space. I can identify all the things that I need to do, and there are different elements, and doesn’t prevent me from being upset, but then I can, I feel like, context-switch more easily and be in another state of mind for another set of problems. Fascinating, right?
Craig Cannon [47:45] – It’s awesome. No, I’ve gotten into a little bit. I’ve always found that exercise has been my go-to strategy, but I’ve done some meditation, it’s a little bit different.
Mathilde Collin [47:58] – It’s very different, I do both.
Craig Cannon [48:00] – You do both.
Mathilde Collin [48:00] – Yeah, it’s very different.
Craig Cannon [48:01] – Yeah, there are only so many hobbies and habits that you can motivate yourself to keep up.
Mathilde Collin [48:05] – True, but 10 minutes a day is something that you can do.
Craig Cannon [48:08] – Of course.
Mathilde Collin [48:09] – I feel like, at least everyone should try for a few weeks, because I feel like it can be such a game changer. But it’s clearly a discipline that you need to have that’s really hard to have.
Craig Cannon [48:21] – Yeah, absolutely, but you just got to want it, and then you do it. This has been great, thank you for coming in.
Mathilde Collin [48:27] – Of course, thank you for having me.
Craig Cannon [48:30] – Alright, thanks for listening. As always, you can find the transcript and the video at blog.ycombinator.com. If you have a second, it would be awesome to give us a rating and review wherever you find your podcasts. See you next time.