Hey! Justin here, Founder of Just Go Grind and Venture Partner at VITALIZE Venture Capital, and welcome to another edition of the Just Go Grind newsletter, where I write deep dives on world-class founders and share tactics and strategies to help founders succeed. Join the community to further accelerate your founder journey.
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Mathilde Collin, the Co-Founder & CEO of Front, created a company valued at $1.7 billion fueled by a desire to make work happier.
For her, this wasn’t something she always thought was possible.
And yet, through Front, a customer operations platform that enables teams to streamline communication and deliver exceptional service at scale, she’s able to do this both for her customers and her employees.
How has she taken Front so far in the last decade?
There’s a theme that comes out through her story:
As a founder, I’d choose discipline over some grand vision any day of the week.
Discipline certainly played a part.
And there’s much, much more to her story.
Mathilde grew up in the suburbs of Paris where her mother was an executive assistant and her father was an engineer, both coming from modest families.
She was more interested in playing soccer and tennis than she was in technology as a kid.
When it came to work, she noticed her parents weren’t particularly happy about their jobs, something she never forgot and that would be the foundation of her company later on.
After getting her Master’s degree from the HEC School of Management in France in 2012, Mathilde spent a year working for a software company.
It wasn’t exactly the experience she had hoped for.
I remember I would go to lunch and cry on my way back. That shouldn’t be the impact that work has on human beings.
But the experience wasn’t a waste.
It proved to be the spark Mathilde needed to pursue her own company.
After deciding to start a company, Mathilde joined eFounders (Now called Hexa), a European startup studio based in Paris.
When people were asking me about what I want to do after business school, I could hear some people say I would like to start a company. I was always like, well I wish I could say the same thing but it just feels too hard to me.
I wasn't confident at that time that I could start my own company. If anyone is listening to the podcast and feels that way then it I think it's totally normal.
There are two things that made me believe that it was possible. The first thing is joining a startup and actually seeing what it took to build a product and launch it, sell it and iterate on the product. I think that give me some confidence.
So being exposed to at least one young company I think is super helpful and the second thing is, trying to meet with one person whether it's a friend or mentor, anyone that will believe in you, was also super helpful.
So like in my case, I was dating someone who started a company at the same time and just really believed in me and today he is my husband. I think it helped me so much to know that he knew that I could start this company and just hearing that from someone, whoever it is, is incredibly helpful.
While in the eFounders program, she met her Co-Founder, Laurent Perrin, in October 2013, the two of them decided on an idea to pursue, and got a little funding through the program.
Laurent, an engineer, left his CTO role at a French online radio service he had been at for four years to pursue something new. Working with Mathilde, together they had a chance to build something of their own.
And they got to know each other quickly:
We asked each other the most difficult questions that can emerge in a cofounder relationship. Like, what if I want to fire you? What if you want to fire me? If you want to sell the company and I don’t want to, [then what]?
As Mathilde would later mention, they aligned on all the important points and built a high level of trust in only a couple of months.
It’d be built around reimagining how email is used by knowledge workers, creating a collaborative shared inbox.
When I was younger, growing up in France, it always struck me how so many people seemed to be dispassionate about their jobs.
It felt so normal for everybody around me to dread the next Monday, to complain about the long hours and to resent their boss.
I understood the feelings, but couldn’t get myself to accept the idea. I thought: if I’m going to spend half of my waking hours doing one thing, I certainly hope I’m going to like it!
That’s what I wanted for myself, and for the people around me. That goal led my co-founder and I to start working on Front in 2013.
Yet, like many great ideas, they received pushback initially from their peers:
Everyone we spoke to was very skeptical for two reasons. One was, why would a company trust you with their emails when you’re a company of three people? And the other was, if it’s a good idea, why wouldn’t Google do it?
Mathilde and Laurent pressed forward nonetheless, with Laurent writing the code and Mathilde handling everything else:
Mathilde always found something to do to make our jobs equal. That’s how I knew she was different from the previous person I’d almost started a company with. If I was working late, she would stay late, too. She would find ways to stay busy and make herself useful.
Mathilde and her early team’s lack of experience actually ended up helping them:
I think specifically with Front, working on an email product I think it was super important that I actually didn't have a lot of work experience because I think it's easy when you use email so much to get used to a specific way of dealing with email…
I actually think that the fact that I was young, my co-founder was young and most of our early employees didn't have a ton of work experience or no experience in the email space, enabled us to be pretty ballsy in the value proposition of our product and I think that led to us being quite successful so far.
Then, in 2014, a trip by Mathilde to the United States turned into a game-changer.
At the time Mathilde applied to YC, in March 2014, they had about a dozen test companies using Front.
They were accepted into the summer 2014 batch, getting a $120k investment from YC, and their company showed early promise:
At first, Front wasn’t that impressive or even that good. I remember at Y Combinator someone told me that we were the best company in the batch and I was convinced he misspoke, that he had confused us with another startup.
Mathilde also wrote about her first month at YC, sharing more about her mentors and the structure of the accelerator:
We got two mentors to help us out along the way: Justin Kan, the founder of Justin.tv, and Garry Tan, the co-founder of Posterous. We basically turn to them every time we had doubts, questions, or just want to talk. They also help us work our way through the busy weeks and the intense weekly schedule that goes like this:
- One weekly dinner with the entire batch, where a guest host from the startup world comes to talk with us. We’ve already seen guys like Mark Zuckerberg and Peter Thiel!
- One group session every other week, with six other companies to share what we’ve accomplished and what we’re struggling with amongst people that are living exactly the same thing.
- Unlimited office hours with partners and other great people like Andrew Chen, Ben Chestnut or Hiten Shah who give a bit of their free time to help us out.
Mathilde and her team ended up launching their product in June 2014.
In September, they raised a $3.1 million seed round led by SoftTech VC, with other VC firms including BOLDStart, Point Nine Capital, and Caffeinated Capital.
Angel investors in this round included Alexis Ohanian, Garry Tan, Kevin Hale and Aaron Harris from Y Combinator, Hiten Shah, Jason Lemkin, Dave Morin, Elad Gil, Geoff Ralston, Jeff Bonforte, and Paul Buchheit (The creator of Gmail).
At the time, Front cost $9 to $19 per user per month and was growing 10-15% per week for the prior three months.
How was Front getting customers in the early days?
I remember that something we did when Front was super early is I was writing a lot of content and so I think probably our first 300 customers were coming from content that I was writing on Medium and then sharing on Hacker News or guest posts or on our blog and writing about email, which I think was a topic that people liked reading about, or the communication collaboration [tool] Slack.
And then people would sign up to our beta and I would call them and manually onboard them and try to have them use the product. Then they would use the product for maybe a few hours and then stop using the product but then I would know why.
The cadence was simple in the early days - write content, talk to users, build features, and repeat.
The good thing about joining YC is the fact that they had a huge network of YC companies. So I probably reached out to a lot of them in order to know who would accept seeing our products.
We did a lot of things, we launched on Product Hunt probably seven times and we were in every startup listing that you could think of.
I was talking at a few events so that I could tell them that the Front app was amazing. I just did so much and I think there are absolutely no shortcuts. You need to hustle hustle at every every stage of the business and for what it's worth, it's still true today.
Mathilde and her team were hustling to get customers, but what made customers want to stick with them?
There are a few reasons why people would use our product and find it better than any other tool. So the first one is, we had a lot of support teams use the product and they preferred Front over a ticketing system like ZenDesk or FreshDesk because of the fact that it was an email system first. So the communication looked very personal.
You didn't have to receive your ticket number one, two, three, four, five. Reply above this line. It was also very intuitive to use. So if you wanted more people in your company to see support requests then it was easy and less expensive as well. So I think we had traction at the beginning because it was just a better way to support your customers.
Then what we saw is, all these features around collaboration and new work flows that we enabled when people were dealing with email were actually useful to support teams but also account management teams, product teams, recruiting teams. We started to see these teams don't have a ton of other solutions than Gmail and Outlook to deal with their email.
Yet Gmail and Outlook weren't specifically designed for businesses or for teams. So whenever you need to collaborate you'll CC, BCC, reply or forward. It's super hard to integrate it with any other tool that you're using, like a CRM or project management tool so then we got traction in these other teams. That's when we started to realize that there was something very unique about what we're doing.
Besides navigating fundraising and customer acquisition, Mathilde also had to get her team to the U.S.
When she started Front, she had never been outside of Europe, but after a 10-day trip to the U.S., where she made more progress than she ever had in the business previously, she told her co-founder that she thought they should move to the U.S. and apply to YC.
After raising her seed round in September, Mathilde methodically got her entire team of 17 to the states:
We raised money and at the end of YC everyone was agreeing that it was better for the company to be in the U.S.
However, moving people was at that time… we had no visa, so I stayed in the U.S. with like a b-1 visa where I'm not allowed to be paid, it's just I can do business, and the whole team went back to France and then we had to sponsor one visa at a time so it took a year and a half to move everyone.
During that transitionary period, Front didn’t skip a beat.
As growth continued, Mathilde took the next step in Front’s journey, raising a Series A.
On May 26, 2016, Mathilde announced Front’s $10 million Series A.
The round was led by Mamoon Hamid from Social Capital and included Slack’s co-founder Stewart Butterfield as well as Intercom’s co-founder Eoghan McCabe.
Mathilde shared her Series A Deck online, as she’d continue to do with all her rounds of funding. Her post about it is definitely worth reading for any founder thinking of raising venture capital, especially because she shares her learnings at this time.
For her Series A round of funding, Mathilde got 3 term sheets in only 10 days, fueled by the relationships she built after her seed round:
I started proactively building relationships with partners at firms that I liked, meeting with each of them every three to six months. Once we were raising, I could lean on those relationships to get a partner meeting right away.
But what’s more is I knew that whoever invested in our Series A would land a board seat, so getting to know partners early on meant I’d be in a better position to decide who to work with.
I was focused on about five partners. Going really deep with just one investor puts all your eggs in one basket, but cultivating 20 relationships would be distracting.
And why raise a Series A at this time, after Front had already passed $1 million in annual recurring revenue?
For Mathilde, it was about investing in the long term:
Just before we did our Series A, we had three great quarters in a row. Around that same time, I was speaking to a branding agency, but it was pretty expensive. That set off a lightbulb in my head that I could invest more in the long-term if I had more money.
With her Series A funding secured, Mathilde got back to building Front.
On December 16, 2016, my friend and cofounder, Laurent Perrin, messaged me asking if I had time to chat. We went outside and started to walk around our San Francisco block. Then came the big news drop: Laurent had just learned that he had testicular cancer, and it had spread to his lungs and abdomen.
A word you never want to hear.
While Laurent would go through intense treatment, Mathilde would also go through one of the most challenging times of her life.
To cope with the stress of running Front on her own, which was so debilitating at one point she had to stop working completely for two weeks, Mathilde started to prioritize her own health:
I realized then that I needed to make some changes of my own–for the sake of my health and the health of my employees.
During Laurent’s illness, I was taking care of the company first and myself second. After Laurent’s recovery, I started meditating daily, exercised regularly, and made sure to log off from work on the weekends to give myself some head space to recharge.
She encouraged her employees to take care of their health as well.
Then, in January 2017, Mathilde made her first marketing hire, 2.5 years after going through Y Combinator.
Mathilde also mentioned how Front got to $1 million ARR with content and PR being 90% of what they did for growth up until this point, but that was about to change.
By September 2017, she’s leading a team of 45, double where they were a year prior, and Front is growing 10% month over month.
In the 11 months prior, Front tripled its revenue from about $240k MRR to about $700k MRR. A third of this growth came from existing customers, using a land and expand strategy. Hubspot, for example, started with one team on Front and by September 2017 had 14 teams using the platform.
With a marketing team now in place at this time, Front was spending $15k per month on paid acquisition, with Google AdWords proving the most effective.
This growth led to a frenzy in Front’s next round of funding, one that Mathilde would close incredibly quickly.
Thousands of companies were using Front by the end of 2017, including massive companies like LVMH and Cisco.
Front still had about $7 million in the bank from its Series A, but also had lots of inbound investor interest and grand ambitions.
Mathilde limited investor meetings for her Series B to one week, the culmination of months of relationship-building.
Sequoia, which passed on Front’s seed round in 2014, was back in the picture this time.
Mathilde had a pitch meeting with Sequoia in November 2017, on a day just after she heard that Laurent’s cancer was in remission.
By the end of her pitch week, Mathilde had twelve term sheets and Sequoia ended up investing, leading a $66 million Series B.
What got Front to this point?
I’m sure many will disagree with me on this. But the driving force behind Front’s success is that we’ve been incredibly disciplined at every point along our journey.
And this isn’t to say that we were lacking in ambition. It’s to point out that the pressure founders put on themselves to have a far-reaching plan isn’t always helpful or realistic — and it’s certainly not a predictor of future success.
The vision I pitched in our Series B fundraise was totally different from what we presented back at Demo Day. What mattered more was that we were determined to turn this kernel of an idea into a real company through sheer will.
Mathilde would expand on this idea and its importance in an article from First Round Capital:
You can have a very ambitious, tight plan of exactly where you want go, but chances are that you’ll drop some balls or focus on the wrong things.
Working on your company’s vision is necessary, but it’s something many early teams spend too much time on; there’s a sort of navel-gazing element to the exercise. The bottom line is more simple: are you disciplined enough to make it happen or not?
At a high-level, discipline is focusing on just a handful of things, which is incredibly challenging because you’ve got so much to do and you’re pulled in so many directions — everything seems important. But discipline comes down to focusing on the right thing, which means you need to be crystal clear on what success looks like and how to measure it.
In the same article, which goes more in-depth on the importance of discipline for founders and is worth reading, she shares these questions for assessing a founder’s discipline:
Making progress: What metrics are you using in order to see if the company is succeeding? How are you orienting your entire team around them? How frequently — and consistently — are you communicating updates?
Managing time: Does your calendar actually reflect the priorities from above every single week? Is there an activity you aren’t spending enough time on? Do you have the discipline to disconnect and step away?
Fundraising: How are you managing your investors? Are you sending frequent updates on your progress, tightening your pitch and proactively building relationships?
Team building: What are you doing to consistently create a great work environment? How are you making sure that every hire meets your standards?
What I love is how focused Mathilde was with her team in the early days about the number that mattered most: Revenue.
We had no excuse if those numbers weren’t trending upwards. So I started sending a daily email to the team to bring that metric front and center. It explained how much revenue we added yesterday, what we did well and what didn't go so well.
I soon changed it to a weekly email as that was a better cadence, but ever since I’ve sent this email every single week to our entire company. It always has the same structure and is sent around the same time. And I haven’t missed a single one in the past four years.
And Mathilde is also incredibly disciplined about how she spends her time:
In October 2018, Front made its first acquisition, acquiring Meetingbird, a calendar and meeting scheduling platform with 15,000 weekly active users.
By December 2018, Front was a team of 100 with 4,000 customers and they had already gone through 17 iterations of their pricing, trying to find what would work best.
We set aside three weeks for our developers to make some internal adjustments to make pricing changes easier. We needed our software to give us the flexibility to experiment quickly and often. Naturally it cost us resources up front, but the investment was well worth it.
We went from iterating once a year to once every three weeks. Now when we make changes, we compare the new cohort to the previous ones: if the cohorts behave similarly or the new one is even better, we stick with the new pricing plan. If not, we just roll back to a pricing structure that’s worked well previously.
All of this testing paid off, growth continued, and Front was on its way to unicorn status.
Mathilde decided to do something a bit unconventional for Front’s Series C in 2020.
Instead of raising a round with a traditional VC leading the round, she brought in a number of notable angel investors.
Yes, she had existing investors Sequoia Capital, Initialized Capital, and Anthos Capital invest, but she also included Atlassian co-founder and co-CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes, Atlassian President Jay Simons, Okta co-founder and COO Frederic Kerrest, Qualtrics co-founders Ryan Smith and Jared Smith and Zoom CEO Eric Yuan.
The $59 million round valued Front at an estimated $800 million, quadruple their valuation from their previous round of funding. Mathilde, of course, shared her Series C pitch deck.
By March 2020, Front had 5,500 customers, including Stripe and Shopify. And, according to Forbes, revenue quadrupled since 2017 to an estimated $32 million in 2019.
When the pandemic hit, Mathilde wrote this post which included 25 things they’d implement at Front to keep a great culture while being remote.
It seems to have worked, based on outstanding survey scores from employees.
By December 2021, Mathilde’s team of 300 at Front would have 6,500 businesses using their platform, including Hulu, Lyft, and Airbnb.
The next year, Front would transform into a unicorn.
Unicorn Status & Front Today
In June 2022, Front announced a $65 million Series D round of funding.
The round valued Front at $1.7 billion, and made Mathilde one of only 11 women to found and hold the CEO role at SaaS companies valued over a billion dollars.
In this round, led by Salesforce Ventures and Battery Ventures, PagerDuty CEO Jennifer Tejada also participated alongside Front’s existing investors Sequoia Capital, Threshold Ventures, and Uncork Capital.
In Mathilde’s own post about the round of funding, she shared the milestones for Front at each stage of funding:
Every time someone asks for advice on how and when to raise money, I mention that it’s important to have achieved a significant milestone and have your sights on the next milestone you intend to reach with the additional funding.
If I had to sum up these milestones for Front, that would look like the following:
Seed: we’re a good team with a large market opportunity
Series A: we have proof of product-market fit ($1M ARR)
Series B: we have leverage (we know how to spend money to grow faster)
Series C: we understand our market, which unlocks new levers of growth (for example: outbound, upmarket)
Series D: we understand what’s unique about our position in this market, and why our mission matters more than ever
Today, Front has more than 8,000 customers, and its culture of transparency, combined with a high level of discipline, has allowed it to thrive a decade after Mathilde and Laurent took the leap to work together.
Mathilde Collin’s Wisdom
In each edition of the Just Go Grind newsletter, I like to include a few more quotes at the end from my research into the founder who is featured, sharing their wisdom.
On hiring (From Patrick Collison, Co-Founder of Stripe):
Advice that Patrick Collison gave me when I was hiring our first employees was two things.
One, when you hire your first employees you should think about every person that you bring with a bar that's as high as “could this person be my co-founder” and that was super helpful because then you hire people that like are already great at the beginning.
The second advice he gave me was when you hire someone you should wonder whether you want 10% [of them] existing in your company because the truth is they will hire people like them and so then if you don't want ten people like this then you should probably not hire this person.
Since I’ve started angel investing, I feel even more strongly about this practice. After a founder sends me two or three update emails, I can immediately get a sense for whether or not that company will succeed.
Some send an email and then you don’t hear from them again for four months. Others use different formats or metrics every time or they say that revenue is the top priority in one meeting and then say they’re focusing on engagement and redesigning the app in the next. That’s not an update, that’s an excuse.
If revenue isn’t where it needs to be, admit that you have an issue to your investors, your team, and above all yourself so you can start getting back on track.
On going all-in when fundraising:
I’ve always been impatient with the entire process. You have to be all in when you decide to raise; ‘kind of raising’ is a waste of your time.
For the entire 10 days I spent on our Series A, I wasn’t working on anything else at Front. We had less than 20 employees, so my stepping away to manage the fundraise had huge consequences for our productivity. I wanted to get back to work, so I put everything I had into it — and learned when to stop ‘shopping.’
There's a temptation to stuff every metric you can find in the deck. But you have to be really disciplined in the narrative you present to investors in order to boost your odds. Think of the pitch as a story waiting to be told, not a set of slides to be strung together. I’m not here to report what Front did in the past four years, I’m here to paint a picture.
I don’t even think about slides. The story mostly follows the same formula: here’s why we started this company, here’s why it's working and here’s why it could be a hundred times bigger.
Only then do I start looking at data and thinking about what metrics to include, so long as they fit one of those buckets. Metrics are important for answering investors’ questions, but they aren’t the pitch. They need to be supported by a narrative.
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