Rachel Delacour on Zendesk and the art of start-up maintenance

15 Sep 2017

Zendesk start-up evangelist Rachel Delacour. Image: BIME Analytics

European start-ups don’t always have to take the well-travelled road to Silicon Valley, Zendesk’s start-up evangelist Rachel Delacour tells John Kennedy.

Delacour speaks with the pace and the passion that is characteristic of the French start-up founders I have met in my time.

It is the pace and passion of young company leaders who build companies that have to grow internationally rather than locally from the get-go. It is a pace and passion I recognise in Irish start-up founders who also think globally, not locally.

‘It’s on you as a founder to test yourself’

With her spouse Nicolas Raspal, she left a high-flying tech job in Paris to start BIME Analytics, a pioneering cloud-based business intelligence (BI) platform for SMEs.

To start BIME, they moved to Montpellier in the south of France where they grew the company steadily until it was acquired in October 2015 by Zendesk for $45m.

Delacour will be in Dublin on Monday night (18 September) to speak at the Bank of Ireland-supported Startup Grind event at Google’s EMEA HQ on Barrow Street.

Intelligent business

Delacour began her career at FM Logistics in Moscow where she audited logistics hubs in Moscow, Kiev and Siberia. After returning to France, she worked as a controller for Carrefour, one of the world’s largest retailers, and later set up the controlling department at Bata, a Czech shoe manufacturer with a global presence.

Early on, she began building BI solutions from scratch. However, it was her experience as a young, female controller who had to wrestle with an all-male IT department over unfettered access to fresh data that led her to the decision to start her own business.

“I built BIME into a modern-day analytics and SaaS platform, and it included real-time connectors to dozens of data sources out there.

“It began as a test product but it became very good for building enquiries, dashboards and other visualisations. It had to be a business,” she said.

As start-up evangelist at Zendesk, Delacour said that the start-up phenomena gripping France is manifesting itself into such ventures as the world’s largest start-up campus, Station F, where Zendesk runs a workspace.

She pointed out that New York Stock Exchange-listed Zendesk – which trades as ZEN and is a leader in customer service software – is only 10 years old and pretty much grew up alongside Silicon Valley start-ups such as Airbnb and Dropbox.

“Zendesk was one of the first companies to establish a workspace at Station F to focus on start-ups in the customer relationship industry and we are incubating start-ups right now. Zendesk is also growing our office in Montpellier, which is good news for the region.”

Just like Ireland, regional companies in France had to struggle with perceptions about not being located in the capital or large regional cities. Not only that, but just like Ireland, young French software companies traditionally struggled to have their technology sold locally to government or businesses.

We are cloud

However, with the advent of the internet and cloud, all of that changed.

“I think that until 2010, you had no real choice, if you wanted to develop or scale your company internationally, other than to go to Silicon Valley. But with the cloud, the world really is your playground and there are many successful companies today that began in bedrooms and many being founded right now in bedrooms.

“Even if you are developing an app or a new business, because of the cloud and new technologies, we have this global reach. And because there are so many new ecosystems trying to fill the gaps between Silicon Valley, Paris, Dublin, Berlin and London, there is no reason why Europeans can’t believe they cannot bet on local companies becoming the next Google.”

Despite the glamour associated with tech and start-ups, it is really all just an illusion. Most founders struggle and most don’t make it. In places like Silicon Valley, failed founders merely melt back into high-paying tech jobs before either trying again or never again. Outside the Valley, in countries such as France, Ireland or the UK, where entrepreneurship is viewed with a certain conservatism and failure with disdain, it takes a special kind of bravery.

For Delacour and her husband, the reality of start-up life came early.

“We left our jobs in Paris and went home to code and build a minimal viable product. We had no money to stay in Paris, no salaries, so we went home.”

From the get-go, selling software locally in France was impossible. “French companies were saying, ‘No, it would never work, a cloud BI agent, are you kidding?’ So we just kept going and soon we found markets in the US, UK and Australia, who were much more attuned to the value we added.”

Take the road less travelled

Delacour and Raspal made the decision early on to stay in Montpellier and incubate, and tapped into the local area’s engineering schools as well as attracting talent from overseas, including the UK, Vietnam and Turkey.

“Our portfolio of US customers began to grow and we realised at some point, we would need to put boots on the ground. When you start to get that kind of traction, you need to realise if you are sitting, you are sleeping – so we decided to establish a sales team in the US.”

In terms of investment, BIME raised $1m in seed capital, and a further $4m in investment came from a Series A investment by Alven Capital.

“Instead of going to Silicon Valley, where we would have to compete for sales talent and just be a small fish in a big sea, an opportunity came up for us to take a path less travelled and we opened our first US office in Kansas.”

At the time, Kansas was the first US city to benefit from Google Fiber, and the decision to go to Kansas gave BIME the pick of US colleges and businesses to establish a go-to-market team.

“We chose an unconventional route. But we have always been very practical people. The goal was to generate revenue, not to network in the Valley. If we went to Silicon Valley, we knew we would be swallowed up. Instead, in Kansas, we were the big fish and we received the red carpet as a European company investing locally, creating jobs and enabling the Silicon Prairie dream.

“It was a no-brainer. Google had just put in this infrastructure, the city was attracting news attention and the reality is, there are good people everywhere. There are good universities everywhere. Kansas was a good fit and we were able to assemble a team of 15 people by the time we were acquired by Zendesk, whereas in San Francisco I would have struggled to find one person in that time.

“We focused on growing revenue and delivering value to customers. We were able to show the rest of France that it was possible to build a global tech company from Montpellier and none of the founding team had to leave France to do it. For us, it was a chance to show community, and help other communities, too. It was a step-by-step journey calculated to steadily build revenue. Could other European cloud start-ups do this too? Of course they can.”

Delacour said the value of the cloud for start-ups today is the ability to test and build products at a relatively low cost, something that would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago.

“The hardest part is building the product and the engineering team, and we decided to keep that at home in Montpellier. Once we had traction and the first customers, this led to investment and we were able to think about where to go next to tap into the bright young salespeople.

“It was a way for us to test our tech, grow a transatlantic business and, as a founder, it was thrilling to be able to learn how to manage people in a global business.”

She concluded that the most important investment of all in a start-up is not money, but human capital. Growth can’t just be measured in metrics, but how you grow as a person as well.

“The biggest lesson of all is, you have to respect your people. It’s on you as a founder to test yourself as well.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years