Part 1: From Saint Cyr en Val to Silicon Valley
This essay is the first of four I wrote about my path towards tech companies and a way to introduce myself to the team at Shopify.
I grew up in a small town in France. Both my parents are Belgian and moved to France a few years before I was born. My childhood was mostly spent baking cakes and drawing, but let’s fast forward to when I strongly believe my “entrepreneurship journey” began. When I was 9, my local middle school set up two table tennis tables in the recreation centre. What started as a hobby quickly became a passion that led to an obsession. Every time we had a break, I would run to these tables and play. At that time, a friend of mine introduced me to my local table tennis club and its coach. This coach was from a small village of 4,000 people, yet was competing in the highest French table tennis division. I started playing table tennis when I was 9 and by 10, training 10 hours a week. After one year of intense training, I got into the sports center for my state dedicated to young athletes. I went from 10 hours a week to 25, not including competitions all over France and Europe. To illustrate:
2009 State Champion
I consider this period of my life as a defining one. One that taught me about hard work, competition, what it meant to lose, and how to bounce back. It’s through table tennis that I also discovered project management and got my addiction to traveling. Fast forward and thanks to my coach, I had the opportunity to go to China for a five week intense training camp. With an amazing opportunity comes lots of challenges, the first one being able to afford this trip. To do so, I had my first fundraising exercise. I contacted a national program for young athletes, banks, local small businesses, and angels. Picture this: a 15-year-old coming to your office asking for backing in exchange for media exposure and sponsorship opportunities. I believe this experience played a big role in making me become the person I am today. Hearing your first cold hard ‘NO’. to one day receiving this call while in my parent’s kitchen: “we decided to fund you”. A few weeks later, I was flying to Beijing with two other fellows. At that point, I thought I knew about hard work, dedication, drive, and sacrifice. I thought, I knew. From training 45 hours a week playing against people half my age who scared me by their drive, I found out what it really means.
Beijing, Shi Cha Hai Sport Center: here I’m the “oldest” by at least 5 years.
Meeting these guys, experiencing my first trip without my parents and again this is a defining moment. While working at Rocket Internet, there were many moments where I wondered if the decision of moving to Vietnam wasn’t the biggest mistake I ever made. Yet, through terrible moments, ups and downs, it’s thanks to this period of my life that I learned that even when you’re exhausted, missing your home and social circle, if you keep your drive, things will work out.
After this table tennis period, which occupied more than a quarter of my life, there is another moment of my life that got me to embrace the startup path. When I was 15, my parents got divorced, factor this with things going south with my table tennis coach and you have the darkest period of my life. I recently watched a video from the Wall Street Journal featuring Yunha Kim, founder and CEO of Locket (now acquired by Wish). You can watch it here:
Yunha Kim tells WSJ's Jonathan Krim about her toughest moments as the CEO and co-founder of Locket.www.wsj.com
Yunha Kim talks about the time where in the early days, the Locket business model wasn’t working, and she had in a few weeks to lay off all her staff and pivot. That period of my life was similar. It is this type of moment where everything you believed in, you worked your ass off for, just falls apart. Yet you have to get back up and figure out things. What do you do when you’re an Entrepreneur, with a failed concept: you bounce back. At that time, I realized that experiencing new things through traveling and working on projects would be my next table tennis competition. Rolling up my sleeves with the incredible support of my dad, I put together a new project and ended up in San Diego, California interacting with NGOs to help youth at risk.
When you hear Entrepreneurs talk about their work, they seem to always be telling stories about how they got this partnership, what they did to get their first customers and such. The reality is that when working on disruptive projects you go from having a lot of credentials for yourself (the famous school you went to, the amazing trips you took, the sports you excelled at) to pitching something usually half-baked in the early days with zero past history. This is why you have no choice but to hustle your way through finding the first people who will believe in your project, product, or more likely yourself, and why, more by way of consequences than real will, you end up with a lot of stories. I also believe that is why, if you want to work and be valuable for a tech company, you need to have experienced this moment of extreme fragility where you put everything you had towards achieving something you really, really wanted or were passionate about.
While working to make this US project a reality, I started heavily reading stories about Entrepreneurs. This interest, led me to learn about Silicon Valley, its culture, and all of its stories. That is the reason why, I took the chance to actually visit Silicon Valley. I ended up spending three days on Stanford campus with PhD computer science students and visited some of its famous spots.
Five years before the selfie stick.
From working on projects for NGOs to diving into the startup ecosystems, I took that step and decided that I wanted to experience what I witnessed at Stanford, because this might be my next table tennis competition. Before that, I still had a few things to do:
1. graduate from high school
2. get into a good college.
I thought that stopping my favorite sport and seeing my parents getting divorced was the worst feeling that I would ever experience; I was wrong. Tech companies are hard. Hard because sometimes no matter how much effort you put in, having the best mentors, team. and environment, sometimes you fail. This is what happened to me; I failed. As the year went by, I studied like I never done before to get into my dream business school. Yet when the day of the results finally came, I looked at my computer screen only to see a big: “rejected” next to my name. Everything I worked for, all the plans I made, everything went down in just a few minutes. What was left? Going home, only to tell my family I didn’t get in. Yet, out of the Chinese experience and the project I led in the US, there had to be a way to make things work and yes there was. Again, it’s all about bouncing back and not losing your drive. Maybe I didn’t get into my dream school, but I wasn’t left without a choice. I did get in another French business school that had a double degree program with the University of Ottawa. Ottawa? How can I make it to the tech world going through this school? At that time, I had no idea that Ottawa was home to awesome tech companies, close to the Toronto and Montreal Ecosystems, and, that the University had a dynamic ecosystem with a lot of opportunities related to tech companies. Before getting to college, I had one summer left and decided to spend it on one last project, one that will teach incredible lessons on how to operate in a very uncertain and challenging environment similar to a small business. Back from the US, my passion for traveling just grew bigger, but I was also amazed at the progress I made in English. Since middle school, I took Spanish courses but still had a very mediocre skill level. Mix this with an appetite for travel and the desire to learn more about operating a small business and here I was on my way to Bolivia, alone, at age 18.
From teaching theater skills to young mothers (some of them younger than me) to starting a French bakery, I’d say that this experience was the first time I put my skills and efforts towards something that really had an impact. Things were not all beautiful: I lost 20 pounds in 6 weeks (my dad not recognizing me at the airport when I got back) to selling bread from the bakery on the street at 16,000 feet when it was -2C:
Door to door sales: The best 101 class for startup sales.
Yet, if you want to learn what it takes to start something from scratch, teach people how to do things and harass prospects to close your first contracts, I highly recommend Bolivia.
The last few pages give you a starting point about my background, but it’s still missing how I got such an interest in tech companies and why I now want to join your team. At this point, I’m 18 years old with big dreams, drive, and ambition but with zero experience at startups and no idea what it actually means to work at one.
Sum up: Played table tennis in China, bounced back from parents getting divorced, failed to join my dream college. Started a bakery in Bolivia.