Ilana Strauss: Remember the 90's when email was fun? The little white envelope that would appear on your screen. “You've got Mail.” Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan even made a rom-com about it. But today, email is hardly ever described as fun. There’s so much spam, and so many repy-alls. It all adds up to hundreds of unread messages each week. For most of us, email means work— with a tool that hasn't changed much in the last thirty years.
Chris Schwass: I think there's a lot of companies that try to redo email or kill email, but it's just too, too entrenched.
Ilana Strauss: In the last year alone, it's estimated three hundred and twenty billion emails were sent and received worldwide. Yet it took a twenty-something from Paris to see the opportunity in building a better inbox .
Mathilde Collin: And it was crazy to me that all this innovation happened everywhere, except for the place where most of your work gets done.
Ilana Strauss: I’m Ilana Strauss and you’re listening to When It Clicked - an original podcast from ClickUp.
On this podcast, we meet the people behind the businesses you think you know - and share the secret history of how it all came together, to the one moment when it all, finally, clicked.
Today, how frustration with email led two entrepreneurs to start a company to make it better --- at a time when tech giants were trying to kill it. This is When It Clicked… for Front.
Ilana Strauss: Paris. The Eiffel Tower. The Louvre. The pastries. The City of Light is one of the world's most popular places to visit. But growing up there, Mathilde Collin saw a different side.
Mathilde Collin: I was a happy kid, and most of the people around me didn't like their jobs as much. I really wanted to make sure that when I would grow up, I would enjoy the five days a week, 50 weeks, a year that I would spend working.
Ilana Strauss: Mathilde didn't want to punch the clock. She wanted to love her job.
Mathilde Collin: So after I graduated, I joined a startup. It was a contract management software, and it was a really great product, but a really bad culture for me, like a really bad culture fit. I was so miserable and really didn't want to go to work, and I was like, okay, I've criticized my parents and everyone in my family for not enjoying the job that they were doing and then now I'm doing the same.
Ilana Strauss: Mathilde was frustrated. Not just by how the company was run, but how she had to do her job. So much time was wasted every day. Email was the biggest problem.
Mathilde Collin: So the main tool that I was using to get work done was email and we were a very small team and we were receiving emails and people were asking me, “Did you get back to this person?” I was like, “Yeah, I got back to them, that's my job.” And just the fact that I needed to say this, it bothered me.
Ilana Strauss: As someone who always wanted to start her own business, Mathilde began to see everything that was wrong with email as an opportunity.
Mathilde Collin: It was crazy to me that all this innovation happened everywhere, except for the place where most of your work gets done. And you're still using a tool that hasn't evolved in the past many, many, many years. It was both a huge market, a huge opportunity for impact and a pain point that I had experienced.
Ilana Strauss: Mathilde was convinced she could build a business around making email more efficient. But she was still paying off her student loan. She needed funding and a partner who understood technology. The French founder of Fotolio provided both. After hearing Mathilde’s pitch, he provided project funding and an introduction to software engineer Laurent Perrin.
Mathilde Collin: It was not this typical co-founder relationship where you've been brothers or best friends, and all of a sudden you're deciding to start a company together. With Laurent it was, we are having dinner together and let's try to see if it would work out. And you know, we don't have a year to figure that out, so we were literally asking ourselves the most difficult questions.
Ilana Strauss: Turns out, Laurent and Mathilde saw eye to eye on how to run a business. They decided to become partners, and started working on different ideas for software to improve email.
Mathilde Collin: We needed to have a clear pain point to start with because email is so big. It’s used by many different industries, teams, size of companies, and if we're not clear about the pain point we're going to solve first, then I think we will fail. So the way we approached the market was we're going to build a shared inbox tool. So any company that has a shared email address, we'll add it into Front, bring in the teammates that need to see these messages or respond to these messages and it will be better than any either ticketing system or mailing list or email client.
Ilana Strauss: The idea they came up with was software that would help people collaborate on email, through a shared inbox. When an email came into a company, teams would be able to see it, comment on it, and share the work of drafting a response -- all within the inbox. All the forwarding, or cc'ing or reply all that Mathilde found so frustrating in her old job wouldn't be needed.
Mathilde was convinced it was a solid idea.
And the pieces she needed to start a business in Paris were falling into place. She had project funding, she had a partner, she even had office space. But just four months later, a new opportunity appeared for Front – on the other side of the ocean.
Mathilde Collin: It's a funny story. I hadn't planned on coming to San Francisco. It was already a big deal to quit my job and start this company. And I had never traveled outside Europe before.
Ilana Strauss: At the time, Mathilde’s boyfriend was applying to Y-combinator. He urged her to apply too. In Silicon Valley, Y-combinator is legendary – the place where big tech companies like AirBnB, Door Dash and Redditt all got their start. Thousands of companies try to get in each year. Mathilde figured a tiny start-up from France was a real longshot. But what did she have to lose? So she applied to the 2014 program. And much to her surprise, Front was accepted.
Mathilde Collin: The first time we went into the YC building, one of the YC partners said, “Oh, you're the CEO of Front, such a cool company. I think it's one of the coolest things we've been funding this year.” And I was like, “Oh my God, you must be thinking about another company.”
Ilana Strauss: That uncertainty didn't last long, though. During Y-combinator, Mathilde met other founders and investors who encouraged her to keep pursuing her product idea. Just a few months after arriving in the US, Mathilde became convinced that Front had a future. And California was the place to make it happen.
Mathilde Collin: So our first employee had three kids and I literally asked him “Okay, can your wife, uh, quit their job? And, uh, can you come with your entire family? We don't have any revenue. We don't have any proof of product market fit, but trust me, it's going to be amazing.” And he did, and it was terrifying, and the funny thing is I actually never said goodbye to my friends or to my family, because at the beginning it was just for three months. And then we stayed just to see, and so there's never been this moment where I decided, “Well, I'm moving to San Francisco.” It just happened organically, which I think made everything less scary.
Ilana Strauss: In the months after Y Combinator, more than three thousand companies signed up for the beta version of Front.
Mathilde Collin: Everyone can see that cc’ing and bc’ing, or replying or forwarding is not very efficient for so many reasons.
Ilana Strauss: Businesses immediately understood the value of a collaborative inbox, and the importance of email in their work.
Mathilde Collin: But then what we realized was the minimum viable product is not that easy to build because people have so much expectation with what an email client should do.
Ilana Strauss: Front had found a massive market for making email better. But to sell, they needed people to believe in the product and in the company.
Mathilde Collin: Am I going to trust a company with four people for something that's probably the most sensitive information in my company, which is my emails. And so very early on we had to work on making sure that we were a very secure platform, making sure that we're a very scalable platform, um, because otherwise I think customers would have not trusted us.
Ilana Strauss: Culture Amp is one of the companies that signed on with Front. They build software for employee management, with tools for staff surveys and performance management. Email is how they communicate with customers around the world.
Chris Schwass: Whether it's technical questions, strategy, questions, adoption questions, we use email constantly, and I'd say that's probably the majority of where a lot of our customer facing teams spend their time
Ilana Strauss: Chris Shwass is the director of customer revenue for Culture Amp. He says before they switched to Front, responding to customer email took a lot of juggling.
Chris Schwass: So they'd be writing to a specific person. That person has access to other people within the company who can get the answer, but they have to go chase that information down outside of email. They either have to email that person and create more emails or go on Slack and track someone down to get the answer. So there's a lot of time just sort of chasing or collaborating, coordinating across a number of different unrelated systems.
Ilana Strauss: Chris says when Front entered the market, there was really nothing like it. Email was not a space where a lot of innovation was happening. In fact, lots of tech companies were creating products to replace it.
Chris Schwass: I think there's a lot of companies that try to redo email or kill email. It just feels like something that we've wanted to dislodge from our daily lives, because it takes so much time, but it's just too, it's too entrenched.
Ilana Strauss: The truth is, even if people didn't like email, it's a tool many businesses were using to get work done. In 2016, 215 billion emails were sent globally -- and more than half were sent by businesses. This reliance on email gave Front a guaranteed customer base, and guaranteed growth. As more and more companies signed onto their service, Front hired more staff and raised more money. With the founders of Slack and Intercom signing on as early investors, the company was turning into a Silicon Valley success story.
But in December 2016, Front faced a hurdle that forced the company to take stock. Co-founder Laurent was diagnosed with cancer. He needed immediate surgery, and then treatment. His recovery would take many, many months. Mathilde stepped in to run the start-up solo.
Mathilde Collin: When Lauren was going through chemo, I was taking care of him because his family was in France, his friends were in France and he was in San Francisco and then taking care of the company at the same time in telling both of them, “Yeah, everything's great.” And the thing that happened was a few months after all of this started, I woke up one day and I couldn't get work and I don't know how you want to call this like a burnt out or a deep anxiety. But I think I had pushed myself, uh, way too much.
Ilana Strauss: Laurent's diagnosis was a turning point for Mathilde -- and for how she approached her work at Front.
Mathilde Collin: The probably most important thing I realized is it's just a job. As you can imagine we were, and still are, so passionate about what we're building for our customers and the company we're building. But when something like this happens, everything is put in perspective and we had worked really hard, but maybe not you know, in the most healthy way and everything changed after that.
Ilana Strauss: Laurent’s cancer diagnosis and her own breakdown led Mathilde to re-assess the culture they were creating at Front. And she started to make alot of changes. Employees got 200 bucks a month for staying off their phones. Fridays became work anywhere days. Mathilde even deleted all the work APP's from her phone.
Mathilde Collin: I was happy running Front the first three years. Like everyday I would wake up and enjoy going to work, but I don't think I was such a happy human being. I am way, way, way happier today after all of this happened than I was prior to him being diagnosed with cancer. And obviously I wish it never happened. It's also, you know, a blessing in a way.
Ilana Strauss: Make work happier became the company motto. And keeping employees healthy and engaged became a goal on its own for Mathilde. But it also translated into real business growth. By 2017, Front had 160 staff, and thousands of paying customers. And just one year after Laurent’s diagnosis, the company raised 66-million in Series B funding. Nate Abbott heard the buzz.
Nate Abbott: A couple of people who I really respected had said, “You know, what do you think about this company Front, a great leader and CEO, you know, you really ought to talk to them.” And it was like the third person, I was finally like, okay, you know, I'll, I'll just take a meeting with Mathilde and see, see what's up here. You know, it's one of those, if there's smoke, there must be fire. But to be honest, they didn't totally understand the product. I didn't really get the market or anything. And so it was a little bit of a lark.
Ilana Strauss: In the end, Nate left AirBnB to become head of product for Front.
Nate Abbott: When I met Matilda, I just believed that she was going to be a generationally, great CEO. You know, I've worked for some crazy, amazing people, like Brian Chesky is definitely up there at Airbnb, but what was different about Matilda is it was clear that she really cared about building the company for the long-term
You know, how are we going to make this a place where people can grow their careers, that they feel successful, that the work-life balance is going to be there for the long term and not just sort of this traditional Silicon Valley sprint and die, you know, two year average tenure thing.
Ilana Strauss: Nate believed in the vision for Front. And he also saw a huge customer base.
Nate Abbott: So it was anything from small startups to, you know, media agencies to anybody else. But we had an incredible diversity of customers. I can't even tell you like, oh, we spiked here. We spiked there because at the beginning it truly was anybody with a shared inbox, which is almost every company on earth, you know, could possibly use our application.
Ilana Strauss: Everyone on earth seemed like a pretty good market to Nate.
Nate Abbott: And I think for a time, most people thought that, you know, Front, eventually they'll take on Microsoft or Google, and, you know, be another email provider or something like that. And that really was the product.
Ilana Strauss: Nate and his team kept evolving the product, adding new features and new integrations with tools like SMS and What's App. They even re-launched the composer, the place where customers actually craft their message.
Nate Abbott: Our product thesis was, “Hey, let's simplify it. Everybody loves simplicity, you know, Dropbox paper, all these good things.” And so we removed a lot of the formatting options in order to have a default style that looked really great.
Ilana Strauss: But instead of getting kudos from customers, Front started getting questions.
Nate Abbott: And so immediately when we started hearing from customers, we jumped on the phone to try to figure out what was happening. Um, and obviously. You know, we realized we'd actually broken customer's workflows.
Ilana Strauss: Front quickly reverted back to the original composer, and started to assess what they'd missed.
Nate Abbott: What we missed is that, you know, we hadn't actually thought about what communication people were doing. And it turns out they were doing really complex stuff. They were issuing billing, quotes, and wanted tables. They were reviewing and sending legal documents in their communication. They needed indentation and formatting options that we had taken off the table. You know, that's a great example of where actually curtailing the amount of formatting was actually the wrong product decision.
Ilana Strauss: This failed launch led Mathilde and Nate to start thinking differently about the market Front was trying to reach. They took a deep dive into their customer data – to try and learn more about their biggest users.
Mathilde Collin: Here's the problem, like growth hides, everything like as long as you're growing, you don't have an incentive to go really deep and look at every single thing that explains your growth. So, because we kept growing, we just never spent enough time looking at the behaviors of the different customers across different sizes of companies and industries. And once we did. It was pretty obvious that some customers were a better fit and behaved differently.
Nate Abbott: You know, sometimes I think the best way to tell this is actually through a customer story. So, you know, one of my favorite customers that I work with is McQuilling and they are a ship broker. So, you know, if you need to move a million gallons of oil from Dubai to Louisiana, You need a tanker and you'd call McQuillan to move all that oil.
Now, obviously each one of their transactions is very important, uh, customers are incredibly valuable, right? These are big contracts and they're complicated. It's not like, you go on and say, you know, one click buy for this oil tanker. It's something where you've got to exchange contracts. it's a lot of back and forth. And so that's why McQuillan is using something like Front.
Ilana Strauss: Shipping companies, legal services, accounting firms, logistics companies. These were some of the biggest users of Front.
Mathilde Collin: The more high stakes the conversations were, the more they needed Front.
Nate Abbott: And I think that's really, for us, you know, when it clicked was, “Hey, I think there's a new part of customer communications at a CRM market that these people are using Front for, that nobody else is servicing.” We are in a market that's actually much bigger than these small use cases or even a shared inbox. It's a huge chunk of the CRM market. That's actually being underserved.
Ilana Strauss: Mathilde remembers the meeting where Nate and the director of marketing made this strategy clear. They showed her a market map, and with two axises for customer communication, inbound and outbound, high stakes and low stakes. Front’s best customers were all using its software for high stakes, inbound communication.
Mathilde Collin: And just seeing that market map and where we fit. It just clicked, you know, it was, it's obvious that this is where we play. It's obvious why we're better than email and ticketing systems for that part of the market. It's obvious that our best customers are in this quadrant. And so the decision we made was we're going to stop talking about email because email is everything for everyone. And so that led us to making the decision of this is how we're going to talk about the product. This is how we're going to build the product, and this is how we're going to go to market
Ilana Strauss: This decision to double down on customer communication looks like it is paying off for Front.
Today, more than 200 million people are served by companies using Front. Tech giants like Shopify, Air BnB, and DropBox are customers. And the company expects to double in size by the end of 2022. But Mathilde admits it hasn't been all smooth sailing.
Mathilde Collin: One thing I would have done sooner with France is being clear about where we want to play and where we don't want to play. And I believe that who have saved us some time and some energy,
Ilana Strauss: With this focus on creating the right product, for the right customer, Mathilde is convinced Front has a long future ahead. Email is not going anywhere. And by committing to a work culture where people feel fulfilled, she's built the company she dreamed about working at during her childhood in France.
Mathilde Collin: I'm French. I'm very critical. It's not a cliche. I can spend an entire day telling you everything that I think we could do better.
But then if you ask me, “Think three years ahead, where is Front going to be?” It's going to be a huge company. I've always been convinced of this and I've never doubted this. So it's almost like, you know, I am critical on the current state, but I've never lost confidence on the future state. I trust the team we have, I trust that we will hire great people, I trust that there is a huge market opportunity, and it's the right moment to do this, and I think that's what gives me confidence.
Ilana Strauss: You've been listening to When it Clicked an original podcast from ClickUp. I'm Alana Strauss. Like Front, ClickUp is committed to making tasks simpler for entrepreneurs and making the world more productive. For more information, visit clickup.com.
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