For our third Founders Interview, we sat down with Gilles, Benedicte and Donald from Cleeng, the SaaS platform specialized in Subscriber Retention Management (SRMTM), specifically for content providers to selling videos, live event streams, and other types of media.
Cleeng is one of C4 Ventures’ earliest investments. We led their series A round back in March 2015. Today, Cleeng has offices around the globe and made its way into most e-commerce video solutions (pay-per-view / SVOD), working with 250 publishers including Sinclair Broadcasting Group and Hearst in the US, the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) in Canada, McFit and Sky in Germany, and Manorama in India…
Read on to discover their story, how they managed to bring their vision to fruition, and why entrepreneurship is like a roller-coaster ride.
Olivier and Boris
What you were doing when you decided to build Cleeng? How did it all start?
Gilles: Cleeng is somehow a mix of my previous experiences. We started Cleeng after working for the corporate industry. I worked at Apple on the development of iTunes from the very early days, then at Philips, where I met with Donald. Cleeng is somehow a mix of these two experiences: on the one side creating a white label iTunes and, on the other side, launching a corporate software or an e-commerce software for digital goods to be precise. It was quite unique back in those days.
How did you come with the name Cleeng?
Benedicte: We came up with a name in our basement one day.
Gilles: We tried different options. We wanted to find a memorable name that did not exist already, with available .com domains… and “Cleeng” with this particular spelling was not a word used in any language worldwide, which is very rare. Cleeng is the sound of a coin dropped in a vending machine and back in those days, our tagline was Instant Access to Quality Content. The idea being: You put a coin, and “Cleeng”, you get content.
How was it at the beginning when it was just the three of you and Nicolas? How did you define roles and responsibilities?
Donald: It was obvious from the start. Benedicte had been working for 10 years in marketing and communication, Nicolas was a commercial director, me in Tech… We just clicked.
Today, you have your headquarters in Amsterdam, R&D in Poland, customer support in Asia. Most of your revenue and sales team in the US… How do you keep it all together?
Benedicte: We have a strong culture of transparency. We share a lot of information, include people into meetings whenever relevant, leverage any new communication tool at our disposal, like Google Drive, Chat, Skype, Whatsapp… This way everybody has access to the information. Everybody’s very committed.
Donald: We have a real “tribe” feeling. Actually, the email address we use to send things to everybody is called the Cleeng tribe!
Why people want to join you today?
Gilles: Everybody likes the fact that we are a truly international company, even if we’re not that big. It’s very unique. In total, we have about 16 or 17 nationalities!
Donald: 19 actually!
Gilles: Yes! There’s also the fact that we work on video content, which is a really cool product to develop. We operate on a global scale. Plus we have a senior and well-established management team, which can be reassuring for a younger person joining in. They know they’ll learn a lot and they can see we have clear processes, clear organisation….
Building a start-up is like riding a roller coaster ! When something feels like it’s not going the way you want it, what helps you carry on?
Benedict: We’re convinced that we’re on a great idea with a lot of potential. We’ve been putting a lot of efforts and a lot of our lives into this project, so we won’t drop everything.
Gilles: Some start-ups start with just one founder, we started as a real team. We’ve built a positive relationship the three of us and also with our investors. If one of us is down, usually another is up. We challenge and support each other all the time and that is, I think, key for the success of a start-up.
What are you most proud of?
Donald: It’s building the team you see around you [fyi we’re in the middle of their office]. Every year, we do an offsite somewhere with the full team, the whole 19 nationalities I mentioned. Seeing this tremendous energy in the room is exceptional. It’s these moments that make us extremely proud of what we’ve achieved.
Gilles: Being able to attract some very strong talents from the industry and outside the industry is also very rewarding. You feel like: “Wow, those people believe in us, in the story and what we have built.” We’ve recruited for example Malgorzata Hofman a few months ago as VP of Human Resources. She spent 15 years at Danone, working with thousands of employees worldwide, and chose to join Cleeng as her next adventure!
Donald, you set up a company with French cofounders, then you got French investors… Are you happy now that you’ve rebalanced debate with Dutch investors?
Donald: It doesn’t matter to me. As we said, we are a global company with a truly international mindset. I’ve never considered myself as Dutch and actually I don’t consider Gilles and Benedicte as very French either. Well… most of the time anyway!
We’ve been investors for a few years now. In which way have we helped you?
Gilles: You have a number of attributes which are very important to any entrepreneurs. First you have strong expertise in media and e-commerce, so you understand what we are working on and the challenges that we can face. It makes the conversation much easier. You know the numbers, you know the market, you know the team, we actually work as a team… Having a sparring partner that we can trust is definitely important. Plus, I think you find the right balance between micro-managing and a hands-off relationship. In addition to the regular interactions with the board, we often do one-to-one meetings together and these conversations are always fruitful and practical. And last but not least, going through the ups and downs of the organisation, you’ve been able to challenge us in a constructive way to build a stronger company and achieve better results.
Is there a company within the C4 ventures portfolio that you admire?
Gilles: Many! I’m very impressed by the founders of Formlabs and what they’ve achieved. Especially Natan Linder who went on to create another company. I think the diversity of your portfolio is interesting, it brings a lot different perspectives.
Donald: As an electrical engineer by training, I’m very impressed by Nest and Netatmo and the product they’ve created. It really speaks to me!
[Gilles and Benedicte’s daughter Emma, 16, comes in the room]
Hello Emma, we’re doing a founders interview with your parents. So you get to answer a question too : how has it been to be the daughter of entrepreneurs?
Emma: It’s become very interesting recently because I took economics at school with classes on entrepreneurship and I’ve got a real-life situation at home! The other day for example we were doing the graphs on calculating breakeven and I could relate to that much better than my friends.
So, do you chase your dad to be breakeven as soon as possible?
Emma: Haha, not really, but it’s cool getting to understand my parents’ business. Also, a lot of my friends at school think that being an entrepreneur is easy, doing something that you love and making a bunch of money out of it… But I know it’s not like that at all!!
Thanks Emma. Back to the team: who has the crazy ideas?
Benedicte: Gilles of course. He has ideas every week, every day!
Gilles: Actually, I had a new idea coming in this morning and we really need to speak about it! It’s related to how we can use the technology better internally…
Donald and Benedicte: Gilles!!!
Who moans the most?
Benedicte: That must be me.
Who’s the kindest?
Who’s the Excel geek? the one who looks at the numbers?
Gilles: I think the three of us actually, we’re quite good with numbers.
Who’s got the best nickname within the company? Do you do nicknames?
Gilles: No, not really… Only for some investors, but we’ll keep those for us!
If you were in Game of Thrones, who would you be?
Benedicte: Queen Cersei obviously…
Gilles: I am not sure…
Emma: Oh Dad, it’s obvious, you’re Littlefinger! You know, you’re not manipulative but you always have very ambitious plans for the future. You really see things through, you have a vision, you want to achieve something etc…
Benedicte: What about Varys?!
Emma: No, Varys is too sneaky, and Dad’s not a sneaky person.
If you were to meet your younger self, you know, young Donald, Nicolas, Benedicte and Gilles who are about to start Cleeng: What kind of advice would you give them?
Benedicte: I would tell them to be more focused. We had too many ambitious ideas at the start.
Gilles: It’s the notion of “go fast, fail fast”. There are some products and projects we should have dropped more quickly, listening to the feedback of VCs who declined us, we could have moved earlier to Subscriber Retention Management.
Donald: Yeah, pick a market that shows super growth in the first place. We didn’t have the right market initially.
Benedicte: I’d also tell them to keep on believing in the vision.
Gilles: Definitely. You know, there’s a lot on TechCrunch and blogs about resilience but you only understand it when you actually live it. It’s like setting off to climb Mount Everest: you can be super trained, have read all the books and articles about it, but actually doing it is nothing like you imagined. The weather changes, you can get injured or something… That’s when you start being resilient and you keep going for the summit as long as you’re still alive.
Donald: But very importantly, you keep enjoying it at the same time.