By Frederic Mazella, Founder and CEO of BlaBlaCar
“Share more, Learn more” is one of our core values at BlaBlaCar. In this spirit I’d like to share some learnings from my entrepreneurial journey building BlaBlaCar over the past ten years. This month, I’ll release a series of 3 articles in which I’ll delve into the 3 fundamental elements of building a startup, or in other words, into the “Primary Colours of a Startup”.
Here is what I wish I had known when I started…
What’s the secret to startup success? There’s no magic formula but I would say that a company needs three core pillars to succeed. Just like the additive primary colours, these pillars are basic elements from which all can be created, but which nothing can replace. They are:
- Green: The Company’s DNA, built on its team, its values, its product & user community;
- Blue: The Growth Strategy, built on the right KPIs, on financing, and on a global ambition;
- Red: The Entrepreneurial spirit, driven by a resilient mindset, hard work, and passion.
This article is the first of a series of 3 in which I delve into these fundamental dimensions, and hope to shed some light on what I’ve learned from my own entrepreneurial journey. Part 1 : Green, the DNA of entrepreneurship.
The DNA is the fundamental characteristics or qualities of someone or something. In this case, the DNA of a company encompasses the team, the core values, the product and its users.
Team : complementary and collaborative
When I started imagining a platform connecting drivers with passengers looking for a ride so that they could share their long-distance trips, I had a vision and some relevant skills to turn it into a business. But I did not want to do it alone. I started with a good friend and a former colleague. We knew how to code reasonably well, but we did not have the experience of building the type of infrastructure that could support a service for a high volume of users. I then met Francis Nappez (co-founder and CTO), who had a very solid background as a senior developer for large successful online platforms, and Nicolas Brusson (co-founder and COO) who had extensive experience in venture capital, seeing many startups either strive or fail by their ability to finance themselves, structure their teams effectively and create the right cost culture.
Today, Francis, Nicolas and myself are the Founding team. We continue to benefit from our complementary set of skills and our common drive, and together we push our startup in all the directions needed to foster its growth. We have sought to attract talent with great skills and a strong culture fit, and continue to retain a horizontal structure which nurtures fruitful interactions. At BlaBlaCar, we encourage knowledge and expertise sharing across teams, so that we keep on learning collaboratively and growing together.
Principle 1 : Partner with complementary people and share the ownership
It’s key to partner with people who bring complementary skills to the table, and for their incentives to be aligned. A complementary team is always better equipped to confront the numerous challenges on the road to growth. During each round of fundraising, investors will be looking at your team first and foremost to evaluate its chances to deliver on its vision.
Values : more effective than any process
When we were 60 people, our team came together to define 10 actionable values that drive us and that act as a compass guiding our decisions across our offices worldwide, from Delhi to Paris to Sao Paolo. Values, in opposition to hierarchical processes that only require execution, foster active decision-making and encourage responsibility and accountability. BlaBlaCar Values are written on the walls of our offices, are distributed as stickers that we stick on our computers and mobiles, and are referred to in our decision-making processes. Personally, I use most of our 10 values at least once a day. They are part of what we do and allow us to grow with consistency.
Principle 2 : Values replace processes in a fast-growing startup.
As your company grows, both in size and in geographical footprint, it is important to scale your mission and values too. And the only way to do so is to be explicit. Articulate what you are about, communicate your values actively, and include them in your recruitment and operational processes. A strong culture strengthens a sense of purpose, encourages team members to take responsibility, and facilitates consistent and fast decision-making.
Product : anchored in the user experience…
The idea behind BlaBlaCar stemmed from a personal need: I could not find a train ticket from Paris to my home town on Christmas Eve as all trains were full. My sister finally had to make a detour to pick me up. On the highway, I observed that the cars were mostly empty, whereas the train, which we could see from the road, was full. That’s when I saw the opportunity to optimise this wasted capacity – empty car seats – and to create a new, affordable and friendly mobility alternative. We created a solution that we were keen to use, and that I have been using ever since, both as driver and passenger, as does the large majority of our team. To encourage that philosophy, we hire talent that truly get what we’re about because they use and love the product. To encourage this mindset, BlaBlaCar employees can rideshare for free, as long as they fill in a feedback form with ideas for improvements. We are active members of our community, fully connected to the user experience.
Principle 3 : Be your most demanding customer
To ensure that your product addresses the needs you have identified, and to understand how needs evolve over time, develop a product that you personally want to use, and improve it through the lens of its users. BlaBlaCar values say “The Member is the Boss”, and “Think it. Build it. Use it”. Have a passion for your mission and be your most demanding customer.
…and in continuous innovation
To continuously improve our product, we utilize iterative processes that allow for constant innovation. For example, when we carry out a change to our mobile app, website or the service itself, we put a minimum viable product (MVP) online to test and integrate the feedback of our members. A first version is seldom perfect (one of our values is “ Done is better than perfect “), but it allows us to confront the idea to the reality of usage, and initiate a process of constant improvement to remain in sync with members’ needs. Feedback is a gift and highly important for us. We have developed numerous feedback channels, including our Member Relations Team who reply to 100% of members’ questions and continuously support them in their use of the service across twenty different languages. Improvement suggestions are subsequently centralised by our « Member Voice » team and then conveyed to our Product team who implement the changes.
Principle 4 : To continuously progress and innovate, a startup must create feedback channels and iterative processes
In a startup, the only constant is change. Nothing is set in stone, and everything can be improved. Develop strong communication channels to gather user feedback which will allow you to identify the evolutions in user habits and needs. Create processes that allow agile iterations. This will create a virtuous cycle of continuous improvement.
Once the DNA of a startup is built and diffused through operational processes, then the startup can start scaling-up. Stay tuned for the next article which will focus, next week, on building a strong growth strategy.