Q&A with Mathilde Collin, Cofounder of Front

by Y Combinator10/17/2018

We put together a list of the top YC companies by valuation as of October 2018. You can see that list at https://ycombinator.com/topcompanies.

Here’s a Q&A with Mathilde Collin, Cofounder of Front, one of the companies featured on the list.

What does Front make/do?
Front is reinventing the traditional email inbox with the goal of making teams more collaborative, efficient, and happier at work. What we do is add team collaboration and integrations with other apps to your inbox so that you can respond much more quickly and effectively to your customers, partners, candidates, etc., regardless of whether they sent you an email, Facebook message, SMS or live chat.

How many employees does Front have?
We are approaching 100 employees across our offices in San Francisco and Paris.

How many founders?
Two: Myself (Mathilde Collin, CEO) and Laurent Perrin, CTO

What is your most impressive recent product milestone?
Our product development team has been hard at work for the better part of this year on a total rewrite and redesign of Front, which will be launching at the end of October. Rebuilt from the ground up on the React framework, the new version of Front will be faster and enable more intuitive workflows. There will be new features that enable better internal communication and collaboration, and other improvements designed to help you focus on getting work done. You can get a sneak peek here.

What is the larger impact / societal impact of your product in the space you work within?
We recently surveyed knowledge workers and found, unsurprisingly, that frequent context switching was a significant driver of workplace stress and unhappiness. The overwhelming rise of workplace technologies tends to be at the root of a lot of the context switching going on — despite claims that they’ll make you “more productive.” That’s because you have to navigate between many different apps to get information and collaborate with others, and their distracting notifications are holding you back from getting actual work done.

With Front, we aren’t trying to add yet another productivity tool. Instead, we believe people can be far more efficient with the tool already used by their team, customers, partners, the tool everyone already can’t work without: email.

Now of course, email causes people a lot of anxiety today. Who doesn’t dread opening their inbox in the morning to see an insane number of unread emails. Most of which, frankly, you probably don’t even need to read. That’s why the inbox needs to be reinvented.

By building transparency, accountability and collaboration into the inbox, and enabling other apps to integrate into it, Front helps people focus and take back control of their workdays.

What’s an interesting element of Front’s company culture?
There’s so much that makes Front’s company culture unique, but I think it mostly all connects back to our commitment to transparency. At Front, we prioritize transparency because it makes us more efficient and productive, which I believe makes employees more engaged and happier at work.

Here are some of the ways we operationalize transparency at Front:

  • Weekly all-hands. A seemingly simple concept, Front’s efficient weekly all-hands on Monday mornings brings everyone together, and sets the tone for the rest of the week. Key company metrics are shared every week.
  • Mathilde is free to chat. Every other week I set aside time to field questions 1:1 or in small groups. This ensures that everyone’s given an opportunity to ask questions outside of all-hands, and in a format that’s comfortable for them.
  • Wins and Stumbles. At each all-hands, team members are recognized for their successes and commitments to Front values (like completing a project ahead of schedule), and are encouraged to share their biggest stumble (like making an error when debugging new code) to keep everyone humble and learning from each other.
  • Open Calendars. Everyone’s calendars are default visible to all employees. This means information is always flowing freely and internal politics are squashed.
  • How I spend my time. As a CEO, “what you do” can be ambiguous. After an employee asked me this exact question, I put together a deck for the whole company on what exactly I do to lead Front.
  • Internal Dashboards. Real-time metrics are visible on monitors throughout the office. This makes everyone more accountable, and helps everyone understand teams’ respective priorities.
  • Executive Hiring Policies. Every new hire at Front, particularly senior leadership, must embody transparent principles; opaque behavior among leadership breeds politics and inefficiency.
  • Collaborative technology. At Front, everyone of course uses Front, a tool that allows teams to better collaborate and share information. All shared inboxes — such as support@ and feedback@ — are managed in Front and everyone has unrestricted access to their content. Since individual email is also managed in Front, employees can easily loop colleagues into a conversation using direct mentions and shared drafts.

The most important thing I’ve found with creating a culture of transparency is that it starts with the people. There is no process or tool that makes a company transparent, it’s commitment from each and every person that they will be transparent. CEOs or Founders can make this happen by embracing transparency themselves, even when it means being in the vulnerable position of sharing a mistake you made. You set the tone for the culture so it’s your responsibility to be transparent yourself if you want others to be too.

One thing I do want to note, however, is that there’s a difference between good transparency and bad transparency. If being transparent about something is just creating more questions or problems, you should re-evaluate if that information really needs to be shared.

Looking back, what motivated you to start Front?
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. We wanted to make a difference in people’s professional lives, and Front was the perfect vehicle for 2 reasons:

  1. As a company, we could improve things locally, internally, by creating a work environment where employees could thrive.
  2. As a software provider, we could improve things on a much bigger scale, by working on the most critical tool people use to get work done: email.

Is what you’re working on now the original idea or did you pivot?
We are still working on the original idea.

Were there moments where you thought the company might die? Describe one of those and anything you learned from it.
I never thought the company might die in the short/mid term. But I have certainly had doubts about whether or not Front would be successful. Nothing is ever won and there is always a good chance things won’t work. One of the key things I learned from YC is that I’m not alone in thinking this. When I was listening to the founders of Facebook, Stripe, Dropbox, Airbnb, etc. talk about how hard it was and how much doubt they had, it made me understand that all founders experience this uncertainty, no matter how successful their companies have become.

What was a particularly important insight you had about your market that made your product work?
Relentlessly talking to customers/ potential users.

What’s one piece of advice you’d share with a young founder?
Something I learned early on and continue to do at Front today is focus on one metric, make sure everyone in the company understands it, display it around the office, and talk about it at least every week. The trick is to get the entire company working on making this metric grow. It’s easy to get distracted by competing priorities, but spreading yourself too thin will lead to mediocre results all around. That’s when you’ve plateaued. I also really like the advice given by Paul Graham here: http://www.paulgraham.com/growth.html


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