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Getting Out of Your Own Way: On the Path to Startup Success with Potloc Co-Founder and CEO Rodolphe Barrere 

Photo-Rodolphe Barrere
Rodolphe Barrere

[00:00:00] Rodolphe Every six months, my work entirely shift. So what I'm trying to do is I'm trying to fire myself. So it's an interesting concept where you see all the things that you're doing, where you are a component of a chain, and you're trying to remove you from that chain for that chain to work without you. 

[00:00:19] Michael Hello, I'm Michael Hainsworth, the CIBC Innovation Banking Podcast explores the world of startups, growth stage companies and late stage companies that have made a big splash in their industries around the world. Montreal based Potloc has more than 500 clients served by three offices around the world. If you've ever filled out a survey online, chances are you've used Rodolphe Barrere's technology. He co-founded the company in 2014, raised more than 58 million in capital, and says unicorn status is on the horizon. He tells me the secret to his success is firing himself every six months and seeking advice from entrepreneurs who have recently walked his path. But COVID 19 was a path no entrepreneur has had to walk in 100 years. I began by asking the 2021 Forbes Top 30 under 30 cover boy to explain what Potloc is like he's explaining it to his mom. 

[00:01:25] Rodolphe We're a survey company, so I'm a pollster. I'm asking people questions. And instead of calling them over their landline, like people do to you, mom, and it's annoying, I'm using social networks. So imagine, mom, that you're on Facebook, which is usually the case, where you're going to see a cute little picture of kittens, and I'm asking you to insert couple of questions regarding your grandchildren. And you're going to click on the link and answer these questions for you, because the time is right, because the topic is interesting for youth, and because there might be an interesting incentive for you to get. Could be a donation to a charity of your choice. Could be the fact that we're going to plant a tree or something. So this is what we do. We replace phone interview, telephone interview, people who intercept you in the street by leveraging social networks. 

[00:02:16] Michael And so you can ensure that the survey topic is relevant to the person who sees it. 

[00:02:21] Rodolphe Exactly. Well, to a certain extent, because we on LinkedIn, we know what you do, but we do not necessarily know if you're, you know, you must have a big budget or small budget, etc., etc.. So basically what the algorithm is doing is you're going to have a couple of qualification questions, things that are interesting for us that say we want to know if you own a chihuahua. Of course it's impossible to say on LinkedIn if you own a chihuahua. So the one of the first question will be, do you own a chihuahua? And the algorithm, if we're trying to get you well, owners, the algorithm will push populations that the advertising towards population who have a greater propensity to answer yes to chihuahua. So, for example, we'll make correlations like if there is a creative with the blue car, it tends to attract more chihuahua owners than people who don't own a chihuahua, etc., etc.. So this is basically what we do. We both use the social media targeting capacities and we create our own capacities in a way by using qualification questions to refine the targeting. 

[00:03:19] Michael What's the biggest change in social media that underlying power for your polling capability? What's the biggest change in social media you've seen since 2014 when you launched? 

[00:03:31] Rodolphe First of all, a huge increase in usage, like people do not realize how much the usage of social media has increased between 2014 and 2022. People tend to, you know, think that they created their Facebook account in 2010 or whatever, 2011, and that we had the same social media use age back then, but it was absolutely not the case. The like button did not even exist at that time. The videos where we're not even on Facebook, Instagram was not even there. The world has drastically changed over the last, we're almost ten years now and over the last ten years. So of course we need to adapt. We've seen the rise of Snapchat. Most recently, we've seen the rise of TikTok. We've also seen the rise of LinkedIn. LinkedIn has been booming over the last couple of years. Same for Instagram, the rise of reels, of videos, of live. All of these are new things. The different reactions you can, you know, you can do on different posts. The fact that the browser is now within, you don't have to leave the Facebook app or the Instagram app in order to, you know, when you're directed to to a new link and think I got everything has changed over the last ten years and we've been, you know, nimble enough to actually adapt our technology to all these new realities as they were coming. 

[00:04:55] Michael The rise of video is fascinating. You know, social media companies are continuing to evolve. So how has video evolved the way you poll people? 

[00:05:03] Rodolphe To be very honest, video has never been the main thing for us to bring response on surveys because we believe that, you know, people who are actually scrolling videos, even on TikTok, we are not super strong on TikTok. We do have, you know, cool videos and we're able to bring a couple of Gen Z respondents thanks to video. But the thing is, people who are actually browsing videos and watching seven seconds video are not necessarily in the path where they want to take five, six, seven minutes to answer a survey because it's too long. However, we've always preferred static ads, because static ads actually refer usually to articles, things like that, that are a little bit longer to actually consume. As you can guess, like a 10 minutes long article is longer by definition than a seven second video. So we tend to attract more people who are in that pace versus people that are consuming video. So, you know, just to recap where we're able to attract respondents thanks to video, specifically young demographic. But overall, we've always been better with static images. 

[00:06:11] Michael Is it fair to say Potloc has grown along with social media? What stage is the company at right now? 

[00:06:17] Rodolphe We're 230 employees were deployed over 30 different geographies, different countries where we're generating millions and millions of revenues. So we've grown a lot. And in the last series B, which is a which is a public number I can share, was 35 million, six month ago. So we're two series B stage, scale up stage, growth stage. You can use different semantic here to call our stage, but yes, we've grown with social media, that's for sure. I would say more than that, that eight years ago people thought we were completely crazy to think that one day we could source survey respondents over social media. And today, as we advance and we move forward in the industry, it becomes more and more obvious that this is the future, that telephone interviews will die, etc.etc. or so to us. Eight years ago, it sounded like like something completely obvious. But it took a while for our industry, the 100 billion dollar survey industry to realize that it's actually an obvious move. So now a lot of different big companies within our space are trying to replicate what we're doing, but the sad truth is we're not only were nimble because we were a start-up and we've been able to pivot several times in order to nail our product market fit. But we also have eight years of R&D and financing and a very specific and specialized team able to work on our technology. So we're at a point where we're uncatchable in terms of the technology we've developed. 

[00:07:52] Michael Okay. So technically you would be considered a growth stage company, but you're also well on track to be called a unicorn. How has the financial crisis affected that timeline? 

[00:08:02] Rodolphe So unicorn, a mythical animal of the start-up world. So yeah, we're on track to become a unicorn. We're not a unicorn yet. So the current financial crisis is, of course, something we're paying a close look at several things. So first of all, we are in an industry which is the market research industry that historically has a negative correlation with an economic downturn. Why this? Because when there is more uncertainty on the market, people need to bag their decision with market research. People need job security, so they need to bag their good feeling with the market research. People need to spend less money in more focused areas. So they need to make wise choices and they use market research to make these choices. So we are in a good industry. Once again, so that's pure luck, was the same during COVID. You know, we weren't in the travel or even the industry, we were in the market research industry. All the consumer consumer habits were changing. So we thrive during COVID. And this will be this will be the case again in this financial crisis. So just the fact that we're a research technology is almost something that makes us recession proof. And the second point is we've been lucky or visionary enough to to raise that just before the crisis. So we're in a very good situation in terms of our balance sheet, in terms of our runway, etc.. So we have room ahead of us to see things coming in to and to adjust with the wind. So we are very confident with the approach of that crisis. Of course, I can tell it's a good thing. The last thing is, you know, in terms of you've got a couple of companies that defended a crazy valuation just because the market was highly competitive over the last couple of years and who need to grow in their valuation, otherwise they'll be forced to do a down round in order to extend their runway. We're not in that situation. I've always been a [00:09:51]burned all the penny [0.0s] kind of approach. I've always been quite European, quite cautious in my approach. I've never burned all the money I've raised in the next six months. Like a lot of the moves that I've done in the past were judged way too cautious, but by a lot of American VCs. And to today, acting the way I act, doing the things I do, is what the VC firms are asking their entrepreneurs to do. So in a way, we've always acted more reasonably than the vast majority of other startups, which is actually paying off as we speak, entering into that economic crisis. 

[00:10:29] Michael So Potloc finds itself in an enviable position among pollsters. With more than 1.7 million respondents and growing, it's leveraging social media in ways others never thought to do. But the biggest challenge this startup turned growth company faced prior to COVID 19 was scaling. Barrere tells me that the biggest challenge to scaling that a founder can experience isn't about valuation and meeting key performance indicators, it's about scaling oneself. 

[00:11:01] Rodolphe That's really true, actually. Everything starts from the co-founders. So we're two. I'm not alone. But yes, killing myself has been and is still one of the most complex challenge I'm facing. Because the CEO you have to be when you're company of two, then the CEO you have to be when you're a company of ten, when you're a company of 50, when you're a company of 150, you're in your company of where 230 people today, these are different profiles. And I'm always asking, am I the right guy for the next job? Am I let's it were, again we're 230 people today. Let's forecast ourselves and say we're going to be thousand employees in a couple of years, will I still be the good guy if one day we become public? Am I a good CEO of a public company? And it's not, you know, false modesty or or certain like I have close to zero ego. I just want to make sure I'm not becoming the bottleneck of the of the growth of my own creation, because that's my worst nightmare. I don't want to hang on to my job and to my title if it can destroy my creation, like Potloc to me. My baby company, if you will, is way more important than my personal career. So all of this to say that philosophically it's something hard to do, but it's very, very important. I've always put what's good for Potloc first versus what's good for me. So scaling myself means a lot of things, and I don't have time to disclose all of that because it will be it's eight years of of work, of course, on myself and personal development and so on. But I've got a few tricks that I'm using all the time. I consider my work is almost addressed, like entirely changing every six months. So it's, it's quite intense. But every six months my work entirely shift. So what I'm trying to do is I'm trying to fire myself. So it's an interesting concept where you see all the things that you're doing, where you are a component of a chain, and you're trying to remove you from that chain for that chain to work without you, basically. So I'm trying to fire myself, which is a good way to empower my, you know, the middle management, my leadership team as well. I'm a very good innovator. I'm very good at creating things. And the thing is, if I'm locked into operating things that I've launched six month ago, well, I don't have the bandwidth in time. And even like intellectually speaking, to actually create the next things, which is my role. My role is to create the next things I create, the next financing, the next innovation, the next product, the next go to market strategy, attract the next big talent at Potloc and so on. So I have to be constantly working on what's next for a long term, and I can't do that if I'm sticking to the operations. But in the meantime, you can't really not be in the operations because you have to go into the details as well. So it's a balance you need to find because you need to start operating things, nail things down, and then once it's nailed and you think you've brought to the table everything you could have brought to the table, then it's time to pass it to someone else and to delegate it and then go to your next innovation. So that's what I call scaling yourself. And it's something that I see way too often, unfortunately, like people get stuck into operations because they are adding value, but they're not adding more value than anybody else. And they should try to fire themselves as quickly as they can in order to keep producing innovative content. 

[00:14:23] Michael So at some point you have to make a decision. Do you continue to grow yourself or do you just turn things over? You've clearly decided to keep growing. Why not just turn things over and buy yourself a boat? 

[00:14:36] Rodolphe We've had a couple of acquisitions of hers in the past, so I could have been, you know, 30 years old, millionaire. I had several opportunities to do so. I've decided not to take these opportunities. So it's so first of all, it's a long, long thinking process. But basically, you know, it's pretty simple, you know, writing down the things that make me happy versus the things that have close to zero importance to me. And things that make me happy is the capacity to gather people I like around me on a common project, the capacity to do whatever I want, whenever I want, when I think it's right with close to zero control. Well I do have a board but basically, you know, people trust my execution skills. So I have tons of freedom. I have one of the work in the world where, where, where you have lots of freedom, which is super important to me. Freedom of move. Then I can work with the people I want. And then my personal driver on a day to day, what makes me get out of bed every morning and with the same energy to hustle every single day in the last eight years is that capacity to to learn new things. Every single day I'm learning new things. I'm meeting with pretty incredible person. My title, my role, my position, I should say it gives me the opportunity to meet with outstanding individuals that I would have never been able to meet without being the CEO of scale-up. So all of these aligned, you know, the fact that you can grow, that you can learn new things, that you can surround yourself with the people you choose, the fact that you have freedom of move, which is close to be perfectly absolute, the fact that you're meeting with outstanding individuals just because of your situation, you know that what makes me continue versus exiting the company and buying myself a boat which I could have done in the past. Well, the thing is boat is fun in week one, maybe week two, but with three, what's the point? So I'm very happy. And maybe you can tell it by the tone of my voice. I'm very happy and genuinely accomplished. And I'm embracing my role very much. Very happy to actually employed 230 happy employees that fit our culture and give professional happiness to 230 people, that drives me. And money is a driver that a secondary or tertiary driver to me. 

[00:17:08] Michael So how do you keep yourself growing? 

[00:17:10] Rodolphe First of all, I read a lot. You've got plenty of books. You know, mastering business is less complex than mastering architecture or arts or music, or you have way more books on history than you have on business. On business to me, you have maybe 50 books you have to read in your career in order to have a complete view of how you should scale, let's say, entrepreneurship. That I call business, but it's the entrepreneurship. So I've not even read these 50 books, but I must have read 20 or 30 of them, and I've learned a great deal. Thanks to many of them. So that's point number one. I'm reading a lot. Point number two is almost more important. I've always been surrounded by amazing mentors. So, you know, there is a say that  you're the sum of the or the average of the five closest individuals you have around you. So I'm really trying to surround myself with with amazing entrepreneurs, amazing mentors that are making me grow without necessarily realizing that they're are making me grow. So I've got a couple of mentors like [00:18:15]Guillaume Jacquet, [0.0s] who have been there from day one. Who are actually elevators for my career. And they helped me a lot to grow. And lastly, I must say that it's not only my brain, we really have two brains. My co-founder and I and we share every single learning on a daily basis. So I've got one where my routine morning routine is one hour call with my co-founder who's based out of Paris. So we start by one hour call and we share everything we've learned in the last 24 hours since last time we spoke. So a lot of things are, of course, linked to to the company and different decisions and different things we're doing. [00:18:54]But team [0.2s] and I were reading a lot, reading a lot of articles, speaking with a lot of people, etc. So we're two brains and we're sharing all that content. So we're basically absorbing content of two brains and sharing it. So I must add that the amazing relationship I have with my co-founder, who is literally my office wife, also contributed a lot to my my personal growth because I've been able to absorb what, what like two individuals can absorb, basically. 

[00:19:25] Michael Firing yourself to handoff day to day responsibilities of the next big thing to the smart people you've hired just makes sense. And if you're going to be a founder who fights the founders dilemma of when to hand over the reins of the company to someone else, you're going to need support not just from those below you, but from those above you, too. Barrere turns to mentors who can challenge his assumptions with credibility. And over the last two years, he's had to challenge his assumptions about the company's strategy and the so called great resignation. He tells me, surrounding himself with other entrepreneurs helps ensure continued growth, but experience isn't the only criteria. 

[00:20:07] Rodolphe So people who are at least one stage ahead of me, but not ten stages ahead of me. Like people who are ten stages ahead of me, tend to forget what it was at stage seven, because there are stage 17. So it was a while ago and they don't really remember the difference between stage six and stage eight and it's actually matter. So people who are like a couple of stages ahead of me are usually the best mentors, first of all. Secondly, mentors need to be my friends. I've got that weird relationship with my work where I need to have fun. It needs to be good moment. I genuinely enjoy my work and mentors are people I see over drinks at night, etc.. And I need to like, everything is mixed actually. I need to be able to have fun and chat about life on top of chatting about business can be only about business with a mentor. It has to be it has to be further than that. That would be the second point. And third point is my mentors all have this. They all because we all have our own experience, because I'm trying to mentor myself, so I'm trying not to fall into the classical traps. You have a given experience at Potloc, let say scaling, the compensation of the sales team, all right. A good mentor needs to really understand the difference between the theory. What worked at he's previous or current company and what would work, and the little tweaks that needs to be done in order for that very sales compensation plan to be efficient in the business you're mentoring. Because there is nothing like like there is always 80 percent of theory that works everywhere and 20 percent of adaptation. And if you trying to fit a square in a circle, you will it will never fit. It's very important to realize that every single business is unique by a sense and you need to adapt a little bit. And my mentors, I've always understood that. I've always understood that there is the theory and then there's the theory applied to Potloc with the little tweaks that make the magic happens. And they and they've all understand that, and it's super important. 

[00:22:16] Michael How did your mentors help you through the course of the pandemic? There was so much talk about the revenue drying up during the pandemic, a wave of resignations, the great resignation. How did you address all that? 

[00:22:29] Rodolphe So, first of all, it was a couple of very interesting years, difficult but interesting years. I named myself chief COVID officer for a while because, you know, we had several things to deal with. We had, of course, the economical downturn, but all the sanitary guidelines like, you know, I didn't have any office management or hr resources at this time. So people were asking me like, should we come back to the office? How many, should we wear a mask? Should we do wash? And if I'm not vaccinated, can I come? Like I had to be to decide all these things during, now it's pretty much done, but I had to decide all these things almost on a weekly basis. We were changing the rules of office presence of, you know, meeting in person, of recruitment, of free modes, etc., etc.. So that was the first challenge we needed to address. For this one, for the one like office presence, etc. I followed my own path because we've fought like crazy to reopen the office and keep the offices as open as we could during the crisis. So we've been really closed, like fully closed over, like, say, we had two years of pandemic. We've been really closed for like two month April-May 2020. And since then we've been open with tons of different conditions, a number of people masks, social distancing, vaccination, but we managed to keep the office open to keep our culture, which is super important, which is instrumental to our growth, to keep our culture alive. So that's point one. Point two, will try to speed up point two was around, you know, the economic downturn and the economy crashing and all these boosters in the economy and so on. So we had to pivot in terms of business model because we pre-COVID, our main client vertical where was actually real estate and retail. So suddenly our entire clientele collapsed overnight. And the last thing shopping mall owner wanted to do was to survey the clientele because they didn't have any. Right. So we had to shift entirely. And this is when we did a shift that ended up being an amazing pivot. We shifted towards selling to consulting firms and big brands instead of only selling to retailers and real estate. And that move paid off. Big time is still paying off big time two years later. And then the last piece, because you mentioned and use this terminology, the great resignation, we didn't have that at Potloc fortunately, because I think it's really linked to point one. I personally strongly believe that we have an amazing and unique culture at Potloc. It's not a universal culture. It's not made for everyone. But we recruit people that are matching that culture where it's a match in heaven. So we know we have an amazing fit between our culture and the people working at Potloc. We call it Potlocers, sometimes. And basically we put like crazy to keep our offices open in order for us to be able to nurture and keep that amazing culture. Another thing that I do is I give a weekly all ends where I gather all the troops every Monday morning, we do a 360 view of the company, we have guest stars and we give everything we put everything on the table. So we've been very transparent in our in the way we manage the crises at Potloc. We had a couple of COVID clusters as well. So we had to manage all sort of things. But I think what, what really made us thrive was fighting like crazy to defend above all things, our culture, based on transparency, based on over communication and so on. 

[00:26:08] Michael If there was one thing you'd like a start-up entrepreneur to take away from our conversation, what would it be. 

[00:26:13] Rodolphe Culture to be? The most important thing is your main competitive advantage and so on. And a lot of people, you know, you've got you can find a lot of theory around the culture. The thing is a lot of people for a lot of people, it's not natural what you should be doing. Like culture is intangible. Like, what do you do if you're studying with this toxic culture? It's like your, you know, your starting point is a toxic culture, how do you cross correct, etc., etc.. And I've got one tip for that which has worked wonderfully, and I'm giving that tip to a lot of people that that I'm advising on the culture aspect is to take you know, a lot of people are trying to to determine values for the company. So what you should be doing as an entrepreneur is to be really honest with yourself, look at yourself in the mirror and take your personal values and make them the values of the company. This is what I've done with my co-founder and I. We're super friends. We've taken our values, the things that are the most important for you, the things that we know we won't have to fake, the things that we know that's even when we're going to be super tired and not able to play a persona or character or whatever we know will be a role model of these values because this is really who we are and we made them our corporate values. And then we've hired and laid off, etc. based and promoted based on these values. But that's the best advice I can give, is to take your personal values. In our case, it's my values are our learning. I've told that actually earlier in in the call, it's one of my main if not my main driver, learning. Then transparency, pretty sure you can tell I'm a very transparent person. Like you don't have to read between the lines. There is nothing to read between the lines. I call a spade a spade period. And I tell what I think and I think what I do, what I tell, period. So I'm very transparent and blunt sometimes for some people, but that it it's just me. Thirdly, I'm very ambitious that you can tell as well. And so ambition is a third value of the company. I want to do huge company, and I'm proud to tell that. So people who are joining us need to be ambitious. If they're not ambitious, they won't feel the value. And lastly, I'm a team player. I have a huge team spirit. I love people. I love being surrounded with people. I love having fun. I love partying. I'm a party animal. All of this defines who I am as an individual, and I made them the company corporate values. And if people feel that look as real values today and that we're embracing those values, it's just because they're were my personal values, first of all. 

[00:28:48] Michael Barrere was named one of Forbes magazine's top 30 under 30 in 2021. Just under the wire, he turned 30 in 2022. But the co-founder of Potloc still believes that the secret to his success lies in turning to those older or wiser than him, while trusting those younger and more junior to him to take his ideas and run with them. Unicorn status is still a few years away. In the meantime, he'll just keep doing what he does best, firing himself and looking for the next big thing for him and the company. I'm Michael Hainsworth. Thanks for listening.