"Always try to look at what you and your company are doing from a distance so that you can adjust the strategy and the tactics. If you are too deep into the business and don’t see the big picture you don’t realise that the world you dreamed of when you started doesn’t match what’s going on now. When you start a business with venture capitalists you pitch with a business plan that you tend to follow but that can sometimes be wrong. This is especially the case with disruptive innovation because the plan has been based on assumptions. It’s important to know when to deviate. Stepping back and seeing the big picture combined with keeping the reality of what’s achievable in sight will keep you and your business healthy."
Gilbert Gagnaire, CEO and Founder
Aspart of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App or SaaS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gilbert Gagnaire, CEO & Founder, EasyMile. Gilbert is a software engineer himself and EasyMile is his second software business. In 1996, he co-founded Fermat, providing risk management and compliance solutions to the banking industry. It was sold to Moody’s in 2008 for 150 million euros. In 2014 he founded EasyMile to “change the world of mobility” bringing driverless solutions for people and goods to life.
He could do this because he knows that building a software company is about. If it’s hard for you it’s hard for everybody. And so you build differentiation and uniqueness. By tackling difficult issues little by little you build something very attractive that no one else has.
Today, with more than 250 deployments in over 30 countries, EasyMile’s driverless technology has powered 600,000km of autonomous driving.
Gilbert is also a visionary who puts people at the heart of all he does. He gave EasyMile an international dimension from the beginning, choosing its locations not only for business but for the quality of life they offer. He is accessible and likes to sit in the open space with his employees.
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Thank you so much for joining us Gilbert. What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Actually retired in 2009. In late 2013, I was coming to the end of my fifth year travelling and seeing the world and, while I know it might sound idyllic to some, I had had enough and was considering getting back to work. I was rock climbing in the Canary Islands and got a phone call from a merger and acquisitions contact about a company that was in financial trouble, looking for a new investor. They developed autonomous shuttles.
It was under administration and I spent a couple of months with the engineers and realised that in terms of methodology and process, the quality wasn’t up to software industry standards. I decided not to invest but saw huge potential in the technology and decided to make it happen my way. I wanted to start on a blank page.
The company ended up being liquidated and I recruited four of the engineers. That was the beginning of EasyMile. Me and those four guys!
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I’ve never experienced seriously hard times. Sometimes you lose a deal and you can take it personally because of course, you bear some of the responsibility for the failure. Thankfully though my companies have never been at risk. I put this down to a combination of being level-headed and convinced of heading in the right direction.
Giving up is something I won’t consider unless the business case is rationally going nowhere. I’m a long-distance runner and have been running long distances for a long time now. I know that sometimes there are downs but that they are always followed by ups. You just have to be patient and keep focussed.
My drive is very personal. I want to prove to myself that I can make it. Will each thing I do change my life? Probably not. But the ups and downs are part of the journey and I want to get there.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
EasyMile is growing fast. We have nearly 220 employees in 5 locations around the globe and our autonomous shuttles are the most deployed in the world. We have other product lines we are expanding and business is good.
I think my success today lies in my experience with my previous company. We were ‘comfortable’ for a number of years. It was my business partner and me, 15–20 people, not a lot of growth but profitable. We sold software to banks and financial institutions and I thought sales were pretty good. Until a game changer came our way, and we seized it.
In 2002–3 new banking regulation came into effect. It opened up a whole new market to us and our competitors became global players like SAP, Oracle and SAS. Our core business was market risk but the new guidelines included many other things. Because we were already credible in market risk we were able to build on that and pitch to some of the largest European banks for the big picture. We jumped into a game where the competitors were much bigger than us. We ended up winning two major deals against SAP worth millions of euros. We put our heads down and pitted ourselves against competitors 1000 times our size and we won. It made a huge difference not only to the company but to my mindset also. It changed the trajectory of everything. We got in first and managed to be the leaders.
It also changed the way we managed the company. We went from 20 people to 300. We needed to change the processes. Before, we knew everything and everyone and didn’t need a management level. But once you have 300 employees spread all over the world you have to rely on different management levels. It was a great learning curve that lends itself very well to where EasyMIle is today.
It also wasn’t just about grit and determination. It was the ability to navigate and understand the context, the market, the constraints and choose the right way to accept and reach a goal that, while not the original, became the right one.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I started my career as a software developer. I eventually became much more involved in management and business development. But, I was still able to intervene in code the last time I did that was in Hong Kong around 2006 or 2007. The team was doing a large project and were working 24/7 for weeks. They were exhausted. So I joined the team to help them develop some code in an area where I had serious skills (I had done that type of code for 10 years). The entire team took a long week-end off for the 1st of May, leaving me alone in an IT building in HK Central to monitor the batch of jobs they had launched before leaving. Definitely one of the nicest week-ends in my life! At that time I was still at their standards, but now I’m outdated. If anything I learned that while it’s great to pitch in, sometimes it’s better to know when to keep out of things and offer support another way.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
There are two main things:
- Our position in the value chain is very clear. We’re not an Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM), we don’t build vehicles, no engineering or manufacturing, nothing. We’re not a transport operator or ground handler for airports. We are specialised in supplying technology, developing technology and helping OEMs integrate that technology into their vehicles. Not many companies have such clear focus on what they offer and where they fit. Others retrofit vehicles, or operate as well etc. We know what we are and where we should be.
- We pay as much attention to the practical details as the technology. For example we realised that passengers in our vehicles in Norway had cold feet so we released a new version with heated floors. In Singapore it was the reverse, they were too hot. So, we upped the air conditioning. No matter how many engineers with PhDs you involve in the algorithm (and we have a few!) the passenger will remember if they were too hot or cold. It’s the same for seats — too slippery, too hard etc. We pay attention to everything so that not only is our technology the best, but that the experience it delivers rivals no other also.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Always try to look at what you and your company are doing from a distance so that you can adjust the strategy and the tactics. If you are too deep into the business and don’t see the big picture you don’t realise that the world you dreamed of when you started doesn’t match what’s going on now.
When you start a business with venture capitalists you pitch with a business plan that you tend to follow but that can sometimes be wrong. This is especially the case with disruptive innovation because the plan has been based on assumptions. It’s important to know when to deviate.
Stepping back and seeing the big picture combined with keeping the reality of what’s achievable in sight will keep you and your business healthy.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
For me this is definitely my Managing Director Benoit Perrin.
In my previous company I was with a co-founder who shared responsibility and ran the business with me. It was great to have someone to talk to and share my doubts, strategise with etc.
When I started EasyMile, I missed that at the beginning. I was pretty much alone to decide everything and not being able to share your thoughts and doubts is difficult.
There is a real process of doubt and testing your ideas. This is important to me. I need someone who can challenge and test the idea from a different angle.
Benoit is much more organised than I am. I’m more creative. He’s the right person to put a strategy and processes in place to really scale the company.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?
EasyMile has had more than 250 deployments in over 30 countries and our technology has powered 600,000km of autonomous driving to date. Our vehicles have carried nearly half a million people.
The three main steps we have taken to achieve this have been 1) Being consistent 2) Delivering what we promise, and 3) Finding the right partners.
What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?
Today our business model is a mix of upfront sales and licences. In the long run we want to charge the users of our autonomous vehicles a fee per hour of operations — an SAS model, pay per use.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app or a SAAS? Please share a story or an example for each.
This is a tough question! If there were a recipe for the perfect pop-song we would have a plethora of pop-stars. It’s the same with a software business. For me it’s being able to sell, put processes in place, have a model that is scalable, know that addressing difficulty is solving a problem, and to never forget the people developing and using, the technology.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
One of my biggest concerns is mobility in rural areas. Public transport doesn’t exist and taxis are way too expensive for people who can’t drive anymore, or simply can’t afford a car. We are on the path to the technology to unlock this but it’s just an enabler. There is an entire ecosystem to be built to make this a real service on a large scale. Sources of financing need to be found to make it sustainable. If you think of the success of Uber for example, there is much more involved than just technology. I see my and EasyMile’s role as an important conduit in this.