Leave it to a French company to use a culinary allegory to offer a business lesson.
Perhaps playing to the perceived stereotypes harbored by his audience, Mirakl co-founder and U.S. CEO Adrien Nussenbaum shared his recipe for transatlantic startup success during the 11th annual France-Atlanta series held virtually this year by the Consulate General of France and Georgia Tech.
“We’re just in the middle of cooking, so I don’t know if the dish will turn out to be as good as we’d hoped, but at least I can share some of the ingredients,” he said during a keynote speech opening a panel on France-Atlanta tech perspectives hosted in part by the French-American Chamber of Commerce Southeast.
The Paris-based company’s software and services underpin marketplaces that connect buyers and sellers, collecting a commission for operating the platform.
It helps established retailers like Best Buy find new areas of revenue growth by opening up their platforms to third parties, as well as helps manufacturers and their suppliers create new online sales ecosystems. As inspiration, Mr. Nussenbaum pointed to the success of services marketplaces or platform businesses like Uber and AirBnB, which have become mega-companies without owning the cars or homes they sell access to.
Mr. Nussenbaum got a taste of the model first as a co-founder of SplitGames, an online community and marketplace for video games. When it was acquired by established French e-commerce player FNAC, he became the latter’s director for marketplace.
Mirakl seeks to become the platform for underpinning these other platforms, which have been proliferating of late as more and more industries digitize, especially during the e-commerce explosion that has accompanied the coronavirus pandemic. (The company in March partnered with the French government on the StopCOVID19.fr marketplace, a central online location to facilitate the exchange of protective equipment and hospital gear.)
In Septembe, the company raised what reportedly amounts to the largest single funding round in French startup history: $300 million, putting its valuation at $1.5 billion. With “unicorn” status secured (the term for privately held startups with a valuation of more than $1 billion), Mirakl even garnered a supportive tweet from French President Emmanuel Macron.
But before that could happen, the company had to hone its recipe. A foundational ingredient — beyond the core idea and the team that had worked together in various ways for 15 years — was thinking bigger than its home market. Being a French firm actually helped in this regard.
“If you want to build a really big company, you have to have a very big market, and one of the benefits of being Europeans is that we come from an old civilization who is very much aware of how vast the world is,” Mr. Nussenbaum said. “Being very early at the beginning of the Mirakl adventure we knew that we had to quickly expand outside of our territory.”
In 2012, the company raised 2 million euros from a venture-capital firm that had specific experience in taking French companies to the United States. In 2014, founders spent a few weeks in the United States on the Impact USA scale-up program to get a feel for the market, before eventually in raising 15 million euros from pan-European investors to set up an American presence in June 2015.
This solid backing was vital in a country where French firms tend to find marketing and salaries expensive. Mr. Nussenbaum also had learned that he couldn’t do things halfway — founders who led from afar without local leadership tended to struggle, and he could see that commuting every few weeks across the Atlantic would take its toll on his family and personal life.
He decided to move his wife and two children to Boston to become U.S. CEO.
“It was very important of me to rebuild a company culture locally, to build a team of early pioneers who would be key in creating the company culture and anchoring the business in the U.S.,” he said, noting that it required shelling out for a physical office even in the early days. “I also tried to very quickly to make us seem very American, but to cultivate the French flair.”
The American personality meant embracing efficient processes, targeted networking and public relations campaigns, while the French side, in his view, emphasized the “revolutionary spirit” and “how disruptive our value proposition was, how unique our technology was.”
The move created some unique organizational challenges, like whether to have separate marketing heads in each place and how to handle communications. Early on, some French staffers were taking calls until 2 a.m. from American colleagues dealing with clients. But the hard work of creating a “hybrid culture” eventually paid off, he said.
“It’s like when a plane takes off in a storm. At some point you end up seeing the blue sky if you hold tight during the climb, and that’s really what it felt like sometimes,” Mr. Nussenbaum said.
He called for more complementary engagement between European and American startups, urging them start small and raise money when it’s not urgent.
“I think we have the unique opportunity as Europeans who are open to the world to blend with the dynamism and the go-getter spirt of America with the subtlety and the richness and the depth of the European spirit. If you are able to cultivate that, when you come to the U.S. you have a chance to build very unique companies, but you need to accept both sides.”
As for whether he might set up an office in Atlanta, Mr. Nussenbaum had only one criterion:
“I promised the day that I signed The Home Depot I will open an office in Atlanta,” he said.
Even without Mirakl, Atlanta could become a more attractive location for French firms through a new effort aiming to brand the city an official French Tech hub, joining a network of that includes Raleigh, Miami and 100 other cities globally where members help cultivate ties between companies, innovators and entrepreneurs between their locales and France.