Fabrice Bernhard, CTO and co-founder of Theodo, created the company in 2007 with his friend Benoit. Growing steadily, it became a real success with 21 million turnover in 2017 and important clients such as BlaBlaCar, Societé Générale and BNP Paribas. After expanding to the UK, Fabrice had to also assume the role of UK CEO and now splits his time between London and Paris. We got the opportunity to catch him in their beautiful French offices and get him to tell us the story of his successful journey.
The entrepreneurial story of Fabrice and Benoit Charles-Lavauzelle began when they created Allomatch, a platform to find bars and restaurants broadcasting sports events. Even if the startup was very successful (200 000 unique visits per month in 2008), Fabrice tells us that they didn’t think it had the potential to be as big as they wished. Thus, Theodo was born in 2009, when they identified a real demand for web and mobile application. Fabrice is value-oriented, he does that by implementing a Lean Strategy in every aspect of Theodo’s business model, focusing on quality and continuous improvement on each project and lead Theodo’s turnover growing from 1 million to 21 million today.
You get to learn a lot of interesting fun facts about Theodo when getting a personal tour of the company from Fabrice. For instance, the story of their name: at the center of the triangle constituted by the three offices Allomatch occupied in Paris, is the Luxembourg garden and… a statue of Théodore de Banville, famous French poet and writer!
We also felt the vibe and culture of the company. Many walls there are made of white board material, as an incentive for creativity and they made sure to garnish the space with comfy chairs and workspaces all around, to cater to the needs of the 5 startups hosted there (BAM, SICARA, SIPIOS, Theodo France and Theodo UK).
Each gets a conference room named after them, with others called Allomatch, Luxembourg (a reference to the origin of their name), and one connected live to the London’s office. We got to record this interview, sitting comfortably at the raw wood kitchen table on a typical rainy Parisian day of March. (Transcript below).
Hello my name is Fabrice Bernhard. I’m 35 and I’m the cofounder of Theodo. Now acting as UK CEO, based in London.
Who is Fabrice Bernhard?
One thing you need to know about me, is that I’m a passionate programmer. I discovered programming when I was 10 and I was very lucky to live in the same village as the founder of the World Wide Web: Tim Berners-Lee. I actually got to discover the internet as early as 1995 and as soon as I discovered the internet, I knew that’s I wanted to do. So I went on to study Computer Science at Polytechnique with the idea of creating a Tech Startup.
What Brought you to Create Theodo?
The first startup that we launched at the end of our studies with Benoit was Allomatch. Allomatch is the website to find venues to watch sports in bars and restaurants. It was an amazing project and we started in 2007. But after 1 year and a half we realized that it wasn’t as big or it couldn’t become as big as we expected. So we started thinking about the next step.
One thing we had, was an amazing engineering team. We were surrounded by other startups that didn’t have that kind of capability. So that’s when we decided to launch Theodo and help startups build web and mobile applications.
Did you Meet any Challenges?
We were quickly recognized for our tech expertise which helped us grow, not only with startups but also with SMEs and Corporates. One thing we realized fairly quickly was that IT services is very hard and it’s a very long process. The normal way of doing it is usually to spend a lot of time doing specification and then trying to build these specifications and then realizing that’s not exactly what you wanted. So we were very frustrated with this and we also realized that our client were not amazingly satisfied even though we were putting a lot of energy in the project. That’s when we discovered Lean and completely changed our way of working. We started completely removing the specification phase, went directly into the building phase but with the client inside the team, releasing every week. That was not only so much more effective from our point of view but it also made the client super happy. That’s really when the growth of Theodo started at the time we were doing 1 million turnover and now, five years later we are doing 21 million turnover.
My second challenge is when we decided to grow abroad and grow the company internationally. Until then we had actually achieved all this growth together, Benoit and I. And when we decided to open an office in London, we decided to do it in a bit more separate way so I became the leader of the UK office and Benoit stayed in Paris. I had been, until then, the CTO, so primarily focused with tech, tech related things, including recruitment. Being the CEO of the UK was a big challenge for me. I had to learn and discover all the things I had to learn about like management and sales. It took me some time but it was a very rewarding journey.
London is very international but it is still also very British. So in terms of management it can be quite a surprise specially if you come from a Latin country like France. The kind of management style that we are used to in France can make Brits go completely red. Be careful about that and learn to say things with a bit more subtly then you might have been used to.
Any Entrepreneurial Advice?
I can give three tips. The first one, I would say, is trying to find networks that you can join. It can be the network of people of the same nationality, same country or it can be networks about common passions. For example for me, because I’m French I jointed French Connect London, it is an amazing network. I also joined the British Chamber of Commerce which was also a very good network and then I joined a few other networks that were more tech related.
My second advice once you start having a network and therefore can find clients and partners, it’s certainly to live on site. Even though London is a very international city it is also a very British city, which means that you need to understand the British culture and that it’s impossible if you don’t live on site and interact with British people on a daily basis.
My third tip, once you understand how the British culture works, then you are ready to hire local. The UK is also very international but having British people on your team will make a huge difference in signing clients and growing the company there.