Female Founders: Clémentine Lalande of ‘Once’ On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
You CAN (and should) learn every skill possible. Marketing was probably the most nuanced among the 2.000 jobs I learned while launching two startups and selling one. Coming from industrial engineering, I thought that marketing was only one topic (hahaha). I learned branding, performance marketing, engagement, offline marketing, pr, and more — all in approximately 18 months. The point being, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. But once I knew what I needed to know, I learned.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Clémentine Lalande, Founder & CEO of Once and Head of Growth at Dating Group.
Clémentine Lalande is the founder and CEO of Once, a post-swipe era “slow dating app” that delivers one match per day to its 10 million (plus) users. Founded in 2015 in Paris, Once quickly gained in popularity globally and was recently acquired by Dating Group for $18 million. Lalande holds dual roles, serving as the CEO of Once and Head of Growth at Dating Group.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
As a child growing up in France, I have always been a nerd. I studied hardcore maths & physics, then engineering. I started my career in one of the most famous global consulting firms and I was known as the consultant with two laptops — because I always had heavy models running. (see, I told you I was a nerd).
However, after five years of working in the trenches, I soon realized that I wanted more than just slides or excels. I actually wanted to build stuff myself. So I went to work in the business development, venture capital and social investment space. I built seed investment funds in five developing countries, leading local teams to develop great investment pipelines & portfolios.
Inevitably, working with so many outstanding entrepreneurs (both business and social), and being on the journey with them, made me realize that I, too, wanted to be an entrepreneur. That’s when I launched my first startup Pickable, which eventually sold along with Once (my second startup) to Dating Group for $18 million. I now serve as both CEO of Once and Head of Growth at Dating Group.
So my background is ⅓ strategy consulting, ⅓ venture capital and ⅓ entrepreneur. And I wouldn’t change it for the world. Having learned all three areas has helped me navigate in so many situations. Not to mention, being an engineer by training teaches you that no problem is unsolvable. It drives me every day.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
In 2019, Once was quasi bankrupted, and it was in rough shape, but there were some fundamentals that I knew we could realign to create a healthier organization. And I managed to help the organization turn things around.
We had to make some difficult decisions during the process, including eliminating some positions. It was a challenging time. However, we eventually became profitable. From there, we continued developing our product and our brand.
Eighteen months later, we sold the company for $18 million to Dating Group and now we are getting ready to scale even more.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This might be more on the “hard lesson” side of the equation than the funny side. But now I can look back on it and laugh, thankfully.
I joined my first startup as a late founder, so I wasn’t one of the very first people sitting at the table. Somehow, psychologically, that put me at a disadvantage when it came to negotiating my terms. I didn’t negotiate equity hard enough. I’ll never make that mistake again because, in hindsight, I was worth far more than how the terms of the deal came out.
The lesson learned was that you should never cut yourself short. Know your value, show others your value and don’t settle for anything less than what you are worth.
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 about that?
I have been fortunate to have worked with some truly brilliant and fabulous people over the years. Each of them has shaped me and I continue to learn from their lessons every day. But I have to admit that my parents have had the most significant impact on me. They encouraged me always to chase my dreams, no matter how big or small they seem to others.
In terms of life-changing experiences, the work I did with Yunus Social Business, a social impact investing fund, made me see the world in a whole new way. My work with Yunus Social Business took me to Haiti. And then, for two years, I oversaw social investments in Uganda, Brazil and Colombia. It was a fantastic journey, and I will never forget it.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience, what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
The good news is that we are starting to see more female founders within the tech industry. However, there is still a long way to go. One of the biggest reasons for this is gender-related cognitive bias and its impact on risk appetite. Men still control the VC world very much, and that world lives and dies on perceived risk and reward.
But it’s not necessarily the fault of our men; it’s the way they are hard-wired from an early age. We teach our boys to be brave and adventurous, and we teach our girls to be pretty and nice. Even in 2021, this is still very much a reality.
Even though some progress has been made, women still face stereotypes. There are zero skills or talent differences between the genders, and anyone who thinks differently is mistaken. That’s why, at an early age, we need to teach boys and girls that we are all equal.
Not to get too deep into the sociological and psychological aspects of this, but it’s time to rewire our thinking as a society.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
As stated above, we need to rewire our thinking as a society. We need to stop telling boys that “to be a boy, you must be brave and adventurous.” And we have to stop telling our girls that, “to be a girl, you must be pretty and nice.” This means training everyone on cognitive bias.
Secondly, we have to teach everyone (girls and boys) how to code by age 13.
And third, VC firms need to reshuffle their investment teams to reach at least 40% women. Don’t hide behind your partnership where your general counsel, head of HR or marketing director is the only woman.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
From a societal perspective, more women founders equal more financial opportunities for everyone. If there were as many women founders as men, there would be twice as many talented people for VC firms to back. Twice as much value creation and twice as many jobs. And twice as many innovative ideas.
Not only that, balanced and diverse teams are more robust, and they hold longer, can navigate with broader vision and bring a unique perspective to challenging situations. Think of it this way: if you want to innovate, you don’t want a team comprised of all the same types of people with the same backgrounds — this usually results in more of the same old thing.
For women, being a founder can help them achieve financial independence. And it’s a fantastic way to develop your natural superpowers. There is also no better way to acquire more talents.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
Many of the headlines in today’s tech and business publications are all about the money raised. Raising more isn’t always better. If you have a high valuation, that’s a different story. But if your valuation is moderate or low, more money only means less control of the company.
Another myth is that the only success stories are those of cisgender young white males and first-time founders, achieving j curve growth and then selling to Google. This is impressive, no doubt. But it also doesn’t represent the reality of the world today. There are as many success stories as individuals and startups, and they all can teach us something. I am thankful that this publication celebrates those unique, diverse stories.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
I believe that anyone can become a founder; you just have to tell yourself that you can do it. We are only limited by what we tell ourselves we can and can’t do. To be a founder, you have to be willing to take the risk. And you have to check your ego at the door and be open to learning some tough lessons every day.
With that, there is one skill that I feel is a must for being a successful founder. You have to be an ultra-fast learner. That is the ultimate skill because, in a startup, you have to know how to do everything.
The main question of our interview.”What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example” for each.)
- I thought I was fast because I was part of an elite strategy consultancy working with sophisticated clients worldwide. And I also thought my analytical skills were at the top because we delivered advice to S&P 500 and COMEX clients. Haha, the joke was on me. Wait until you run a startup. You learn that you have to be 100 times faster in everything you do. In my first four months of joining as a late founder, I had to build financial plans, rebuild a BI system, optimize marketing, and raise a round of funding. The first thing I thought was to do a few slides to structure my thoughts — the way I did when I was an advisor. But there was no time for that, and I realized I would never do that ever again.
- You CAN (and should) learn every skill possible. Marketing was probably the most nuanced among the 2.000 jobs I learned while launching two startups and selling one. Coming from industrial engineering, I thought that marketing was only one topic (hahaha). I learned branding, performance marketing, engagement, offline marketing, pr, and more — all in approximately 18 months. The point being, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. But once I knew what I needed to know, I learned.
- Build an advisory board of people that don’t have any stake in your business. You need people that aren’t emotionally and financially tied to your business that you can ping pong ideas with. Some high-value people are happy to help when they are asked to. When you go through tough times, they will be there.
- Believe in your management style. Don’t try to imitate others (men). And caring is a real superpower, don’t let others fool you into thinking that it isn’t.
- “Fake it until you make it” is a real thing. But you need to know what you are ready to fake. The dating industry is prepared to fake a lot, and I’m not.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Dating technology has traditionally been a man’s world, but I think I have helped clarify that we (men & women) all need a lot more care in how dating apps are designed and managed. From dickpics to emotional matching. Also, you don’t need to be a man to succeed in the dating business.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Over the last few years, I have been iterating on solutions to help stop street harassment. A tool that helps women report it and create a dissuasion around it. The frontier for name and shame is tough, but women from all over the world have very few tools to get help. That is not acceptable.
So please, if you want to work on this topic with me, get in touch.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Oh, perfect, thanks for asking! I have been investing in businesses with massive scale and a social impact for the past seven years. This is near and dear to me, so I would love to share views with Vanessa Nakata on business models. Or Greta Thunberg on social impact.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this!