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Front’s Mathilde Collin on radial transparency and company culture
   

Front’s Mathilde Collin on radial transparency and company culture

Mathilde Collin is pioneering the fight for radial transparency among SaaS businesses around the globe.

Her shared inbox startup, Front, is reinventing email for the way teams work by introducing team collaboration, workflows, accountability, and transparency so that every worker can work more efficiently. And in just 4 short years, Front has grown to over 4700 paying customers including HubSpot, Shopify, and General Assembly. 

Find out how transparency has made employees happier at Front (Read Front’s Glassdoor reviews if you don’t believe me), built greater trust within the company, prevented thousands of unnecessary meetings, and created a culture of trust between Front and their customer base.

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In This Episode You’ll Learn:

0:00 — Introduction
1:30 —Backstory about Front
2:25 —Pioneering Transparency and building company culture
14:48 — What have been Front’s big channels for growth
22:53 — Learn about future business plans at Front
26:01 — The Salty Six

Full Transcript:

DR: What’s up Growth Nation, welcome back to Scale or Die, the show where we uncover proven growth strategies from CEOs and growth experts behind some of the world’s fastest-growing startups.

I’m your host, Dave Rogenmoser, CEO and co-founder of Proof, and today we’ve got a new friend of mine, Mathilde. She is the CEO at Front, and if you’ve paid attention at all you’ve probably heard of her. You’ve probably read a Medium post, maybe you didn’t know it was by her, but her company is growing really really rapidly and it’s one of the most exciting stories that I’ve been following over the last couple of years. I first heard about Front when we were in YC a year ago, and we’re in the batch and everyone’s trying to figure it out.

And over and over, partners would say look at Front for an example of how to do things well, and I think we watched their demo day presentation and then just kind of started following them from there.

And I personally, from afar, have never met her until today. I have learned a lot and become a better CEO from her writing. So Mathilde, welcome to the show, I’m so excited we finally get to chat in person.

MC: Thank you so much, I actually didn’t know about YC so I’m super happy to hear.

DR: Yeah, yeah, totally. It was a great experience and they pumped you guys a lot, which is cool and well-deserved.

MC: Great, thanks for having me.

DR: I want to first give you a chance, tell us what is Front, when did you start, where’s the business right now as far as some of the metrics that you guys track?

MC: So what is Front?

Front App

Front’s gorgeous shared Inbox software

So we’re reinventing email for the way teams work, so what it means is we’re introducing collaboration, workflows, accountability, and transparency in the new inbox so that every worker can work more efficiently.

We started five years ago, we launched the product about four years ago and today we have 110 employees in San Francisco and in Paris. We have over 4700 paying companies using the product, so these are some metrics, I’m happy to give you any metric as I’ve been sharing pretty much everything about the company in the past few years, so just ask me anything interesting.

DR: So let’s talk about that then because I think that’s really interesting and you’re kind of pioneering transparency conversation that’s kind of happening among SaaS and startups. I think a lot of the other people I see doing this are more of the bootstraps, Buffer, and the people that kind of have a little bit more of this like fully remote type company.

But then you’re this venture back company, a kind of traditional Silicon Valley company, but you’re also very transparent. What are your thoughts on that?

Why do you choose to be so transparent in what you do?

MC: It’s a good question. So I think the reason why I’m transparent internally is different from the reason I’m transparent externally. So I can talk about both, because some companies may choose one or the other, and we choose both.

So internally we’re a very transparent company and what it means is every employee knows pretty much everything about the business, so you know, how much revenue do we make, what’s our runway, what’s the feedback of our customers, just what am I doing on a daily basis, when are we raising, like all these things.

So why am I transparent?

One, because I think that it builds trust.

Two, because I think it creates engagement and I think any engagement makes people happy at work.

And three, because I think it creates efficiency. I am very obsessed over making sure that as we grow, we remain efficient, and I think transparency is a good way to prevent a lot of meetings from happening, to sync because you don’t need to, the information is accessible everywhere.

So that’s why I am very much into transparency internally. I think externally it’s different. I would say so we’re transparent with our customers, so for example, our roadmap is public, so if you go on frontapp.com/roadmap you can see everything.

Front trello board

Front’s public Trello product roadmap

I think the goal is to build trust with our customers and that’s really the reason why we’re doing it. I think when I decide for example to publish all our series A, series B decks online or how I share my time — it’s more to give back.

I don't have a special goal, but I just feel like I've been helped a lot and I'm very grateful for everything that I've learned through other people that enabled me to be where I am today. Click To Tweet

So if I want to give back a skill, then I’ll just share everything I’m learning along the way.

DR: Do you have people externally that tell you, “Mathilde, maybe don’t share that, don’t talk about the numbers, that’s gonna hurt you” or are people fine with it?

MC:

I think transparency is always scary, and so I do have people that tell me that, yeah. Most people will tell me that.

Like one example is this public roadmap that we have like everyone has always told me, oh, but it’s dangerous because you’re just telling your competitors what you’re working on and I think for me it’s always a balance between what’s the cost and what’s the benefit. So in the specific example of a public roadmap, the benefit is:

1) I gather a ton of information from our users and what they want, because a roadmap, you can put items in it. I get feedback.

2) It builds trust, and I think that is far more valuable than people that might copy what we want to do. And I knew when I started a company that it’s not about the idea but about the execution so it doesn’t matter much. But just in general, yes, transparency is super scary.

Any time I am doing an all-hands meeting and I am super transparent about everything, there is a little voice in my head that’s telling me, ah, maybe you shouldn’t share that, and then I share it and it’s always better because you know that people trust you. People are working on the right things, they know why they’re working on what they’re working on.

DR: Absolutely, I’ve found internally — we’ve got 14 people right now and if we get the right people in the room, transparency is easy.

But if everyone’s wanting to hold stuff back and kind of like, “Do I have the right people, what is this little voice in my head that stops me from doing that? But it always does pay off, I feel like, to be transparent, particularly internally in my experience.”

MC: Yes, for sure, and for sure you need to have the right people that will deal with the information in the right way, but as soon as you have that then you should be good to go.

One thing I would add is over the past few years, one of the things I’ve realized is transparency is not always great, so as much as we’re transparent I do think that there is good transparency and bad transparency, and I think good transparency is everything you can share that will help people have more answers to their questions, and bad transparency will raise more questions.

And so one example of that, and that’s different from Buffer, for example, that shares pretty much everything, but one of the things we’ve decided at Front is we don’t share the salaries of everyone, and other companies do it.

Buffer salary calculator

Buffer’s public salary calculator

The reason why we don’t do it is not that I’m not comfortable with what other people are paid, if it was public tomorrow I would be comfortable, but I think if it was public then people would pay a ton of attention to it and then you know.

There are sometimes some exceptions that you will make because someone is sick, they need different health insurance and therefore they will be paid more but then if you need to explain to everyone every exception, then you’ve really lost time and you’ve raised more questions than you’ve actually answered questions.

DR: Yeah, absolutely. So I want to talk about team-building. That seems like a big reason why you do transparency.

How do you create a happy team and a team that’s thriving?

And I was kind of reading your Medium post and I think the first thing I ever saw was your series A deck, was reading through that, but then I went to your Glassdoor and that’s when I got hooked. I saw there was like over 50 five star, 100% five-star reviews from your team. I care a lot about the culture, I care a lot about our team. I care a lot about, internally, are we doing well? Are we thriving?

Front glassdoor reviews

And I saw it and that’s a really hard metric, to create and create a team that is that happy, so how do you create these happy teams and does that come naturally or has that been hard for you?

MC: I think, so I think it’s natural in a sense that that’s always what I cared about.

Now it’s hard and I can explain to you some of the things that we’ve done. It’s always hard to know exactly why people are happy and I think there are a few different things.

One is I believe that people are happy when they believe in the mission you have, so having a mission that’s clearly stated and they care about what it is and they understand that the work that they’re doing is impacting this mission, I think is super important.

Two, I think that, so that’s usually how you attract people in your company, then you want to retain them and make sure that they are happy in order to do that, there are a few things you can do.

 I’ll go back to transparency, but at the end of the day, one of my biggest beliefs is people are happy because they’re engaged and they care about what they’re working on. They understand what they’re working on and they understand that what they’re working on will impact the business, and so to me that’s where transparency around how will we get there, where are we standing, what are the goals of the company, what are the goals of every individual, how are they doing, everyone knew about it inside the company.

I feel like this transparency around the strategy and how everyone’s goal relates to it is super important, so I think that’s something that makes people happy. I think there are quite a lot of things that we’ve done to create a better culture, so, for example, we have an off-site, we used to have every three months and then every six months and now every year, but it’s a company-wide off-site.

So the Paris team comes here and then we travel somewhere. So February, last month, we were in California and I think that people spending time together is also a really good way to have a good culture. We do a musical every year and it’s something where people have to accept to be very vulnerable in order to play or sing in front of a lot of people, I think that helps us build a culture.

DR: How did you start having a musical as part of the company culture?

MC: It started because I think one of our first employees, so she’s our head of recruiting, she’s just a super good singer and she’s passionate about musicals so she said let’s do it, and it was easy when we were 15, and the last one was 100 people so it was slightly harder to scale.

But I think the thing I want to say here is there is not one thing, there is no one magic recipe that will lead to your company being better. One thing I did last month is publishing a book.

So there is a culture book, where we explain exactly what our culture is like, what our values are, what they mean, how we live them, and I give a lot of concrete examples and at the end of the day, I think that’s what people need.

I can give you one last example of this, so one of our values is low ego and so every week we have a company all-hands at nine AM every Monday, we go over all the metrics of the business plus a few other things.

Fronteer of the week

I’ve also published how we do All Hands, there is a template you can use for your deck, and at the end you have awards so some people can be nominated for Fronteer of the Week, and there is a Stumble of the Week. So someone will say here is a stumble I’ve done and this is what I’ve learned from it, and so that’s a really good way to have this low ego culture within your company, but I didn’t invent that.

So one of my mentors is Jared Smith, the co-founder of Qualtrics, and I was chatting with him and he said at Qualtrics, we do this stumble thing and I thought oh, it’s great, it really fits with the culture that I’m trying to create and therefore I will implement it.

So a lot of things, some of them are in the book we’ve published, some of them I’ve just shared and some of them I’ve written about on Medium.

DR: Yeah, I looked at a recent Medium post where you’re kind of breaking down All Hands that you have every week, and I think we’re going to implement that stumble of the week and a few other things from that, so again thanks for posting that stuff.

Yeah, I’m curious about the two offices, why’d you decide to have one in Paris and one is San Francisco? 

MC: So we started the company in Paris, then we moved everyone here because we went to Y Combinator and then we moved. And for four years, I decided to have everyone in one location and at the beginning of 2018, I decided to open an office in Paris and I think it was for two different reasons.

paris front app

The first one is we wanted to scale engineering, we have recently raised our Series B with Sequoia and so we could afford to invest more in EMEA, so we have a huge network in France, the tenant market is great and so that allowed us to scale product.

And then 40% of our customers are outside of the US so if we wanted to get more of them, support them better, and expand within these accounts, it was better to have people there as well so now we have an office in Paris where every production is represented, you know, we have sales, success, support, marketing, product, engineering, and we’ll keep scaling both offices.

DR: Do you think you’ll just have those two for quite some time, or is there thoughts on when you would do a third or a fourth? 

MC: For the moment we’re just planning on having these two, and then we’ll see but at least it made me confident that we can scale, you know. We have a really good tool called Front that allows us to be on the same page.

DR: It makes it so easy to just run multiple offices.

MC: So easy, that’s the secret.

DR: I believe it, I love it. Okay, so I want to talk about growth and for context, who are you guys competing with?

Like who are companies switching from or what various tools are they switching from when they come over to Front?

MC: So Front is in between two markets. So, on one hand, you have email products, like Gmail, Outlook. On the other hand, you have helpdesk solutions, like Zendesk, Intercom, ServiceCloud.

And today there is a gap in the market between these two and the reason there is a gap is because a lot of different teams or companies need the workflows that are enabled by helpdesk solutions but they need it in an inbox.

For example, because they need email features like collaborating on an individual inbox and not a shared inbox, or like the ability to compose a new message or adding so many in Cc, Bcc et cetera.

So the question about like who do you compete against is pretty tough because it will be 50% helpdesk solutions, 50% email solutions. But we exist because of this gap on the market and then their entire industries, so some of the verticals that we target are logistics companies, brokers, real estate companies, hospitality, travel, and customer industries, et cetera, and these teams or these industries are people that need better workflows but really need them in their inbox.

DR: Do people get rid of both of those typically when they come to Front or do they kind of keep those for any extra tools?

MC: So it depends on the size of the company — like we work with huge companies and in general we won’t tell them, replace Outlook from day one, so in that case, we would land first in one team and expand in other teams. But for smaller companies, they use Front and they don’t use the helpdesk or ticketing system and they don’t use Gmail or Outlook anymore.

DR: Okay, got it. And so you’ve been around five years, launched it four years ago, what have been the big growth channels that have worked for you and have those shifted over time? Anything that’s been newer as of late?

MC: Yeah, so for sure they’ve shifted.

At the very very beginning of Front, it was mainly word of mouth like everyone else. I think for us content worked really well, and I’m sure YC might have told you about this because I know they always tell people about Front’s content stretch in the very early days where we kept publishing content either on the topic of email, because people really like reading about email, or on the topic of starting a company, and that got us pretty far.

We didn’t have a marketing team until 2017, so it’s been two years. So content helped us but then every stage of growth, you need to diversify the source of growth that you might have and so I mean, I can tell you right now, for example, there are a few things that we are doing.

One is, for the first time since the beginning of the year, we are doing outbound and so we have a team of SDRs that will contact the verticals where we have strong product-market fit.

For the first time, we have a growth team within product and engineering where they are looking at expanding within current accounts, having the products include more virality than it currently has.

So those are just two examples of something we’re doing right now but literally every quarter we need to think about new strategies that we can implement in order to sustain our growth and in order to be in control of our destiny because no growth channel will just scale in an unlimited way.

DR: And so you’ve only had marketing for two years now, how big were you when you added that first marketer?

MC: I think we were probably 25 people in the company.

DR: So how did you know that was the right time for you guys?

MC: So marketing hiring is probably one of the biggest mistakes I’ve done. So I had been trying to hire marketing for a while, and the mistake I thought I did like many years ago was thinking, okay, so now we need to generate more awareness, more leads, I don’t know how to do that so I’ll just hire someone that will figure it out, and one thing I learned is usually if you’re the founder and the CEO and you don’t know something, it’s going to be super hard for someone to figure it out. And also, marketing is so diverse.

You have content, you have direct, you have brand, you have product marketing, it’s just super hard for someone to know all of these things and then just implement them in a new environment.

So I hired a few people, it didn’t work out, and then at the beginning of 2017 I hired people that were more specialized. So we hired someone in one dimension, just because we, saw that paid acquisition could lead to some high-quality leads, and so we wanted to scale that. Front integrates with tools like Salesforce and Slack and Stripe and others, and so we hired a Product Marketing Manager because we knew that we could do some cool marketing and that would work out.

And so I think I just did a different review, which was what are things that I think can work and scale, and let’s hire people for this, and then, later on, let’s figure out how we can bring the right leader on board, but that was a better solution than trying to find someone that would just solve all of these problems.

DR: So you were just willing to roll up your sleeves and be like I’m gonna run marketing, I don’t know how to do the nitty-gritty day today but I can figure it out, the strategy or at least take some bets.

MC: Yes, and I guess that’s the story of my role is just I have been doing all the different jobs, then I’ve hired people better than me so I became the head of every function, then I hired people better than me, so now I am just making this team work really well together and bringing more people to this team because there are always gaps in the organization.

DR: So one thing I remember reading in I think it was the Series A deck, this idea of land and expand, we’re going to get into these organizations, then we’re gonna get revenue expansion that’s gonna be net negative, ideally. Has that been a big part of a strategy and what does that look like, for you guys to come in and expand in these organizations?

MC: Yeah, so that’s been a huge part of where our revenue comes from, and you know I’ve published these numbers that our retention year over year, net attrition is around 140%.

So it means that a lot of revenue comes from existing customers. I guess there are a few things you can do to make this happen, so the first thing is you should have a good product. If you don’t have a good product, then your product will not expand, but that’s not enough.

You need to have the right structure of teams, so once you have someone as a new customer, how will you organize your account management team or customer success management team in order to make sure that you can expand to more teams?

That’s one, two is how do you design pricing that allows for expansion without being cost-primitive?

And three is, from a product standpoint, how do you make sure that if one team is using it, that it can spread to more teams more easily, and I guess we’ve made, along the way we’ve made some investments in these three categories so that we can keep expanding within existing accounts, whether they’re four years old or four days old.

DR: It doesn’t just happen, you guys have engineered this to happen on top of a great product.

MC: Yeah, and I guess it kind of happened by itself in the early days, but as your overall revenue number is increasing then in order to sustain this, you’ll have to be deliberate.

DR: Interesting. So what does the future look like at Front? Where are you headed, what’s next?

MC: It’s a good question, so one is from a team standpoint, we always try to have this balance of we want to grow super fast but we care so much about our culture and we enjoy this period just because being small enables you to have so much efficiency and engagement. So I think just from a people standpoint in Paris and in San Francisco, we’ll keep growing but we’ll also be very deliberate and thoughtful about how much we grow.

From a product standpoint, this year is super exciting because last year, we decided to do a full rewrite of our app. So we launched a new version of Front at the end of 2018, and it’s wonderful because the app is much better. But it was also frustrating because we couldn’t develop any new features, so now literally every week we have new things going out and so we’re excited about that.

I think for this year, we’ll just be in San Francisco and Paris so we don’t have any plan to expand internationally and more people in the team just means different functions can be created and we can do new things.

DR: So just keep grinding away and keep doing what you’re doing. Why’d you decide to do the app redevelopment when you did?

MC: So the main reason is because when we started Front, I don’t think I, I mean I actually know that I didn’t know Front would be as successful as it is. And it’s relative like we’re still super small but the technology choices that we made wouldn’t scale to millions of users.

Also, we’re doing an email product so the app needs to be insanely fast and super delightful and we had reached what Angular would allow us to do so at the end, the main reason we did it is because we just wanted to lay the foundations for a large user base and the most delightful product you could think of, and with the existing technology we had chosen.

DR: And would you do that again, looking back?

Would you build a really scrappy, lite version at the beginning and then redo it all four years in?

MC: I would, yeah, I would do the same.

I think it was, and also we had our board meeting last week and one of the things that the board said was they’ve never seen a rewrite being executed so fast. It was like, I don’t know, nine months, so still, long time so the danger is, the moment you do your rewrite you’re too ambitious and it never goes out and it takes two and a half years or it never ends. So I think I would do the same thing but being very very disciplined when you do your rewrite to not just change every single thing that can be improved, because otherwise, you’ll never shape anything.

DR: Yeah, totally, very cool.

DR: All right, well we’ve got to wrap up here and we’re gonna wrap up with what I call the salty six. This is six rapid-fire questions just to get to know you a little bit more, some about work, some about outside of work. That sound good?

MC: That’s perfect.

DR: All right, so number one. When you’re not running Front, what do you do for fun?

MC: So I do two things. One is I do a lot of sports, so I play tennis, I play soccer, I bike, I climb, I go kite-surfing and two is I play board games.

DR: Which board game are you playing right now that you like?

MC: So I have a few different ones, my favorite board games, strategy games, right now is called Puerto Rico. My favorite chill game is probably Codenames and then my favorite cooperative game where you’re all in the same team is called Hanabi.

DR: Okay, we’ve been playing Codenames with the team here recently, I’m a big Settlers of Catan guy, but I’m gonna check out those ones you said, that sounds good.

MC: I mean, Settlers of Catan, there is too much luck. It’s frustrating.

DR: I disagree, I think it’s all strategy, but you know.

MC: I disagree, you can have the best strategy and then the dice don’t agree with you and you lose.

DR: That’s true, sometimes that does happen where everybody else gets the rolls after like the first five rolls and you’re just out of it.

MC: Yeah.

MC: I’ve seen that.

DR: Okay, cool, I think I know the answer to this one but do you have a morning routine, and if so, what is it?

MC: Yeah, so I wake up, I shower and then I meditate and then I go to work.

DR: Cool.

MC: That’s it.

DR: Cool, cool.

DR: All right, how do you focus during the day? How do you block out time to get deep work done?

MC: So first of all, every day I know exactly what I’m gonna do because the time is blocked in my calendar, so whether it’s in meetings or working on something, I know everything that I’m gonna do.

Two is, I don’t have any notification, either on desktop or mobile because it’s so distracting, I would be disrupted every single minute otherwise and three, one thing that I’ve been doing that has been super helpful to me is every Thursday afternoon, I go home, I just have a notebook and no computer, no phone, and the only thing I’m thinking about is what are my priorities, am I making progress, what opportunity am I not seeing, what risk am I not seeing, and it’s been super productive. So that’s how I spend my days and weeks.

DR: Cool, okay. What’s a book that has impacted you deeply over the last few years?

MC: So I’d say it’s a book called Doing Good Better so it’s part of a movement called effective altruism. Summary of the book is if you care about the most good you can do in the world, then you should choose something you’re really good at and then usually you will create wealth because of that and then you can reinvest it in whatever you think is most important to you.

DR: I like that, Doing Good Better?

MC: Yeah.

DR: All right, I’m gonna look that up. Okay, what’s the best purchase you’ve made recently under 150 bucks?

MC: I would say it’s a board game, it’s called, I have this new board game, you should buy it if you like Codenames, it’s called Decrypto.

DR: Okay.

MC: It’s very similar to Codenames, it’s a new game, it was one of the best games in 2018 and it’s just like Codenames, slightly better.

DR: Okay, cool, Decrypto. I’m gonna buy that, I’m gonna buy that right after this. We’ll have it at the office.

Codenames

DR: Okay, and finally, what’s a trait or characteristic that you have that has lead to the success that you have today?

MC: I would say I think self-awareness. So I think I’m super self-aware, I know what I’m good at and not good at, and I have enough confidence to tell everyone what I’m not good at and just accept it myself so I can work on it. I think the biggest mistake you can do is not accepting it and therefore not working on it.

DR: And how did you develop that confidence, where does that come from, to just be okay with being bad at a lot of things?

MC: So I think confidence, unfortunately, is not something that you can work on by yourself. It will always be other people that will give it to you and so being surrounded by people that believe in you is insanely important and you should just keep meeting people until you find people that believe in you and stuff. I’m lucky enough to have people in my personal life and professional life believing in me and I think that’s where my confidence came from. It’s not one day I woke up and I was like, yeah, of course I can do this, and if that’s what you’re expecting, it will never happen.

DR: Love it, I agree. Awesome, Mathilde, thank you so much for being on. This has been incredible. If people want to find out what you’re doing, where you’re writing, where’s the best place to find you?

MC: So they can go on our website, frontapp.com, or they can go on Medium and type Mathilde Collin and I publish a lot of things, or they can go on Twitter.

DR: Perfect, and we’ll link all that in the show note too so you guys can find out what she’s posting and also what I’m reading as well. So very cool, thank you so much for being on, really appreciate it and wish you guys the best as you keep growing.

MC: Of course, thank you so much for having me.

DR: Thank you, thanks for watching guys, we’ll see you in the next episode of Scale or Die. 

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This interview has been edited and condensed.