Olivier Simonis launched Qualifio in 2011 with his partner Serge Rappaille. Today, their interactive marketing platform has more than 400 clients and employs 59 people in 5 offices (Louvain-la-Neuve, Ghent, Paris, Amsterdam and Madrid). In the meantime, Simonis also co-founded 87seconds (video agency) and Javry (fair trade coffee). This entrepreneur who made the leap at 40 gives us his testimony, in which humanity and corporate culture are the key elements.
Eight years ago, Serge Rappaille and I decided to launch our start-up. Over the years, we’ve experienced obstacles, successes and failures. Ultimately, I was able to draw a number of lessons that would have helped me a lot when we started. Above all, I have learned that the key to the success of any company lies in the human factor and in the values advocated and disseminated daily by the management. Developing a business is above all a human adventure!
1- It’s never too late to start
Serge and I were 40 years old when we launched Qualifio. It is a bit unusual in the world of tech start-ups, but it is by no means an obstacle. There is no age to take the plunge!
Truth be told, setting up a business later in life has its perks: I already had a network, professional experience, and above all a good vision of the corporate culture I wanted to build. I knew what I wanted —and what I didn’t.
Of course, it also has some disadvantages. Personally, I already had a lot of obligations (a family, a loan, etc.). Therefore, I had to have a salary ASAP, however small. I could not afford the same things as if I had been 20 and living with my parents, for example.
2- Two is better than one
“Alone, we go faster. Together, we go further.” This sentence might be a cliché, but it reflects the need to find one or more complementary partner(s) to start the adventure.
In the case of Qualifio, Serge took care of all the technical aspects; I was responsible for the rest (sales, marketing, finance, etc.). For us, it was the “ideal” situation: if you want to develop a software, you better involve an IT profile in the company from day one. As a tech company, outsourcing IT means putting yourself in great danger.
So there must be complementarity and there must be differences, but there is one thing you should never compromise on: your partner(s) must share your values! Which brings us to the next point…
3- Write down your values from day one
From the start, you need to have a clear idea of the business you want to build. At Qualifio, key values include respect, kindness, friendliness. Contrary to what one may think, it is compatible with excellence, quality, proactivity, growth!
Values, once written down, can become a good filter for recruitment. If your values are shared by the new recruits, the corporate culture will set up naturally and unite your team. When hiring, always consider the candidate’s cultural fit and mentality, rather than hard skills, which they can learn on the job.
These values will also naturally guide the actions and decisions of the company as it evolves. The coherence of management actions in relation to shared values allows for the harmonious development of a company in which people take pleasure in coming to work on a daily basis.
4- Human first
A business is above all a human adventure. This is especially true in today’s knowledge economy. If you want to progress, the only thing that really matters is your ability to recruit, motivate, inspire, build loyalty, give confidence, grow and develop your team.
As CEO of a growing company, it is still my priority today. I devote nearly 50% of my time to recruitment. It is essential. A good recruitment will make the difference and work miracles in terms of business, innovation, and impact on culture. When recruiting, I always ask myself this question: “Will the person in front of me make the company stronger?”
On the contrary, poor recruitment will slow down the business and be time-consuming and costly. This is even truer when you’ve just started: if there are three of you and you hire a bad rookie, the impact can be huge. The first recruitments are the most critical.
5- Be rigorous
“The greatest freedom comes from the greatest rigour,” said Paul Valéry. From the start of your business, do not be afraid to be uncompromising. Set up accurate dashboards on the evolution of your business and keep track of history, document your executive boards, concrete your contracts and general conditions, add clauses of transfer of intellectual property and GDPR to your contracts, register your trademarks, establish a business plan, an organisation chart, etc.
Although some things may seem superfluous, you will find that they will prove essential for the future, especially in the context of a fundraising or takeover. Your prospective investors will conduct a due diligence and will want to review everything… So why wait? Be rigorous from the start because the more the company grows, the more complicated it gets. An idea to go around the tools, documents, contracts to set up is to draw on a due diligence checklist.
6- You don’t have to work 80 hours a week to be successful
In the same way that kindness and respect are fully compatible with the world of business, the balance between private and professional life can rhyme with excellence and quality. It is essential to stay alert and serene. I know of communication agencies where the daily is made of emergencies, rushes, pizza dinners, night work… People do not stay. They are “burned” in a few years, or even a few months.
7- Sell quickly and don’t overengineer!
When we launched Qualifio, we quickly found our first customers and sold them a product that was initially little more than a proof of concept (POC).
Conversely, I see companies working on a product for years before placing it on the market. They wait for the product to be “perfect” (which it will never be) and then confront it to the use of customers. This is what can be called “over-engineering”.
Serge and I chose to do the opposite. We launched a product that was far from finished and whose evolution has been made (and continues to be made) on the basis of user feedback. I wouldn’t do it differently today if I had the chance. It probably saved us from taking a direction that would not have been the one our customers wanted.
8- Focus, focus, focus
In an entrepreneurial journey, you will be tempted to do something else every day to develop a parallel project, or to extend your product beyond its basic mission. You will probably be told that this is a great idea. Be careful! In my opinion, it is essential to focus on one goal, one mission. If you have the chance to find a niche that works, carve it, exploit it thoroughly, but whatever you do, do not give in to the temptation to extend it. It is important.
Of course, you have to listen to your customers, but stay focused on the niche you have found. You have to try your best, even if it is at the expense of other projects. Simplicity and focus will pay! For example, Qualifio is not an e-mailing tool. We prefer to be the best in our niche (data collection through interactive campaigns) rather than being “average” in more features.
9- Be paranoid (but not too much)
Andy Grove once said that only paranoids survive… and he was not entirely wrong. Nothing can ever be taken for granted. You have to listen to your customers and to the market, stay humble, constantly question yourself and accept criticism. Nokia was still the king of the world of telephony in 2007! Two years later, after the launch of the iPhone, they had lost almost everything… Conclusion: never rest on your achievements. Don’t get arrogant or overconfident. It is critically important!
10- Don’t feel like you have to raise funds
Starting a business without raising funds allows you to be very pragmatic, effective, realistic and focus directly on a vital goal: selling, bringing money into the company to cover your costs (and have a salary!) At Qualifio, we conducted our first fundraising six years after the launch of the product. We were ready to scale, and the market was mature enough. The fundraising mostly allowed us to move up a gear and especially to make people grow (human first).
11- Don’t be obsessed with competition
Of course, you need to pay attention to your competitors; they are an important part of your business. If you do not have any, ask yourself the right questions: perhaps is there no market or is it not profitable? Having competition is beneficial: it prevents you from making mistakes, gives you ideas and helps you educate and evangelise the market. You just have to find a way to be better than them 😉
In conclusion, when starting your business, you should know that nothing will work as planned. To succeed, you have to be able to adapt, deviate, rotate, etc. The only thing that really counts is your optimism, your desire to get there, your voluntarism, your tendency to see the glass half full, your adaptation capacity, your ability to move forward. If you are looking for a reason to give up or not to start, you will always find one… Keep yourself as far away from defeatism as possible; hang in there! At the end of the day, success in business creation is a bit like “going from failure to failure with enthusiasm” (Winston Churchill).