Interview with Jeremy Le Van — Co-Founder and Head of Design at Sunrise

Interviews with European Entrepreneurs: Part 1

Key Facts about Sunrise

  • Description Free calendar app made for Google Calendar, iCloud and Exchange available on desktop and mobile.
  • Founded February 2013
  • HQ New York City
  • Founders Pierre Valade, Jeremy Le Van
  • Funding $8.2M in 3 Rounds from 22 Investors
  • Exit Acquired by Microsoft for $100M+ on February 2015

1/ How did you go from a great product to a great business?

It is a tough question because we never really turned Sunrise into a great business. From my perspective, we managed to build a great product that people love and use multiple times a day. We filled a need and improved something that existed already so we did not have to justify the use case. Everyone uses a calendar or uses an agenda and mostly knows how to use it. If you look at Airbnb, people were renting their houses or their apartment before Airbnb, Airbnb just made it better. If you take something that people are used to and truly improve it, people will use it.

We never got to a stage where we turned Sunrise into a great business, we never monetised the app. The App was free and is still free today. We wish we would had to find a way to turn Sunrise into a great business and we could but the acquisition came earlier than we thought it would. We had some ideas but it was tricky. Furthermore neither Pierre neither myself are business people. We are first and foremost engineers designers focusing on building great products. Our first attempt was to build a great company where people would love to work at and building great products. So we never got to experiment the challenges that come with building a successful business but we definitely would love to in the future.

2/ What fundraising advices would you give to European entrepreneurs ?

I don’t like to give advices but here are some things that worked for us or for myself and hopefully can work for anyone else.

Do not just look in Europe

You should open your horizons and look at what is also happening in the US or elsewhere in Europe because this could impact your developments. Raising money in Belgium is really different than raising money in Berlin or in London or even Paris. Try to relocate yourself wherever it makes sense in Europe or in the US based on where investors will be. In the US, it is mostly East Coast /West Coast in Boston, New York City or San Francisco. In Europe, you probably want to be in London, Berlin or Paris.

Be careful about what setup you’re going for and try to find the best one

I have some friends in my home country, Belgium who did not raise at the right valuation or at really bad terms where they gave away almost half of their company for not that much capital and that’s very bad.

Try to meet as many people as possible

It is kind of learning by doing. The more people or investors you meet, the better you get at it and you get a better sense. As a European entrepreneur, we have that ability to go to different countries within Europe so don’t feel constrained to your city or country. Even if you are based in Berlin, you should be talking to people in London and if you are in London you should be talking to people in other cities. Today, it does not necessarily make sense to have your investors in one place only. Obviously, you probably want them to be in cities with big startup hubs as it’s there that there are better conditions.

3/ Why did you move to the US?

We moved to the US to have a US branding but we also wanted to be recognised as a US company to look more credible when looking for press or for investors. I am not going to deny that being certain places in Europe can also help. There are recognised players in Berlin or even in London like Soundcloud or Wunderlist.

We also wanted to move back personally to the US because we really liked NYC. I think it is important to live in a city that you love and you enjoy. I see to many people moving to San Francisco just because they feel they should move there but they don’t like the city. I personally don’t like San Francisco. I used to live there but I don’t enjoy it anymore. I just go there sometimes for work.

We also wanted to approach one huge market first. The US market is usually crowded but it is a big one with big opportunities if you get it right.

4/ Why did you decide to raise money from the US and not from Europe?

We had great connections with people in the US so it made sense for us to raise money there. We raised our seed round from investors from Boston, NYC and some from San Francisco but if you look at our series A that we did a year after, our lead investor was based in London and was actually French. So we were not close-minded and restricted to US investors. We were just looking at people we really enjoy working with. Working with investors is also first and foremost about building a relationship; it is not just someone who gives you money. There are some VCs we did not get along with and some investors or VCs we got along with so it is also a matter of personal tastes or personal connections you have with people.

5/ What excited most your first investors?

Timing

You can have a great idea and a great execution but if the timing is wrong investors won’t be interested.

If you look at Instagram or even Uber, if we were not using our phone the same way we use our phones today or if we did not have the great cameras that come with the phones, these companies would probably simply not exist because the technology would not have been ready.

In our case, the timing was perfect. When we decided to raise capital from our investors, you had 3 or 4 companies in the same space trying to do the same thing…plus all the big ones: a better calendar allowing people to be more productive and manage their time better. When we were going to VCs and telling them about Sunrise, they were like well yes I also want to bet on a horse because I did not get the chance to bet on this company in this space. I think that if we had launched maybe 6 months later or maybe a year earlier it would have been harder for us to find investors because in a way the space was not enough crowded.

The team

Investors were excited about the team and our story; we moved to the US, we worked together, knew each other and were very focused on product. Pierre is an engineer but turned to be also a designer also and I am a designer so a very strong products design team.

Team is important and you have to be logical with your team versus what you are trying to achieve.

For a startup like Blue Apron or something where you sell recipes, it probably makes more sense from an investor perspective to invest into people who know about this business or this market so either business people or maybe more people into cooking.

For us, the business was about making a great experience and a great product and it made sense for them to invest in us because we were very focused on design and product.

The vision

Sometimes when you’re trying to get a job you’re going to have 5 No’s before you get a Yes. It is the same with investors; you often have to meet a lot of investors before there is one investor who is committed. Sometimes when we were speaking to investors, they could not understand what we were trying to achieve: ok this is great calendar but I have a calendar and I am really happy with it. Investors who invested in us saw the opportunity and understood what we were trying to achieve and were excited about the vision.

If you align the right timing, team and vision, it is easier to get investors excited. If you only have one of two of them it is probably going to be a little trickier but I would say that the vision and the team are the most important. You have to convince your investors that you are going after a big problem that you are going to solve and that you are the best team to execute your vision.

6/ What kind of trends do you see in the productivity space?

Collaboration

The biggest evolution I see in the productivity space is the change from a single player product to collaborative tools.

Ten or five years ago, we would each use a to do list, a text editor, a calendar or a mail app or another productivity tool and would just use them on our own. Now we are seeing more and more real time or even asynchronous collaboration in the workplace, in the productivity tools and apps. Think about Google doc or Quip.

I think that the calendar is one of the last pieces in productivity that has not been collaborative because a calendar is very personal; it is about your time, your private life or your work life, it is very sensitive data. Usually when you have an assistant, she is or he is the only person who has access to your calendar.

Today the calendar is still : I have my calendar, you have your calendar, other people have their calendar. It is still very personal even amongst friends or family members, there is no real connection or connectivity.

Pierre and I had this idea to add a social aspect to the calendar. It is so painful when you invite people to an event, you are the person who has to organise everything, add your friends, pick a time and add a location. It would be so great if people could collaborate and slowly add information to the calendar. If you organise a dinner people would say for instance, I bring the appetisers, I bring the drinks etc.

We have been seeing the first signs of this evolution in the working place but this is something we would like to add to Microsoft to make productivity apps more collaborative and therefore more productive.

Mobile first

With Sunrise, we started by focusing on mobile because more and more people are using only mobile phones and increasingly work on their phone and less and less on their desktop.

Bottom-up approach

At large organisations, it used to be the CTO or someone at the top who decides what tools will be used by the whole company. Today, people at the bottom can decide to use a tool and at the end of the day more people will use it within the organisation. Gradually, the pressure will increase and eventually the company will decide to switch to the tool everyone uses. Now, instead of the company deciding what tools should be used the individual can choose the tools he wants to use. Dropbox is a good example.

A bottom up approach allows you to convert a big organisation to the use in of your tool and this is how Slack did it. Slack became successful because they asked their friends at other startups in engineering or marketing or any small departments to use Slack for a few weeks. At the end, the engineering team would tease the marketing team on how amazing Slack is and then the marketing team ends to use it and eventually the entire company goes on it.

For Sunrise it was a trickier as the calendar tool used within a company is usually the same for every department and you cannot change it for one team. There is no way to segment the calendar in the same fashion they did it with Slack. It’s the hurdle we had, being a calendar and not a chat app or communication tool. We could not compete against Google iCloud or even Microsoft and that’s why we only focused on making front facing UI and experience.