My Startup Story: Mike Ymele-Leki, CTO of Singulier.
What makes us Singulier? Our people!
To find out more about some of their most important experiences and how they apply them to their work, we spoke with Michael Ymele-Leki, CTO of Singulier and Code Studio by Singulier.
Singulier — (Fr) — Something unique or particular. A person who attracts attention by their surprising or curious character.
Mike is the CTO of Singulier and Code Studio, our tech studio which builds robust digital solutions for clients. He began working for Singulier after an intense two years building his own startup, Hi Mike.
We asked him to talk about his experiences with Hi Mike: why he created it, what he learnt and how he applies that in his day-to-day work, and building his tech team.
What prompted you to create your own startup?
We all know the world isn’t perfect and I had a problem that I wanted to try and solve. At the time, I was working in an environment where I didn’t feel like my ideas (and I have a lot) were being heard. So I quit and decided to work on this problem. At the time, I wanted to find a co-founder but it wasn’t so easy so I figured I would start and then see if I could find someone along the way. Eventually I had a co-founder and having experienced both solo founding and with someone else, I’d definitely advise anyone else to work with a co-founder. Startup life is tough and often quite lonely!
What problem were you trying to solve?
Many of us subscribe to lots of different services. It can be a mess of signups and payments. You need to be organised to manage everything and not spend money on services you don’t need, and this problem will probably get worse.
The solution was quite simple. To manage all your subscriptions in an app that notifies you when you have ‘unused’ subscriptions. It also makes suggestions for better choices and offers you the option to switch on and off whenever you don’t need them.
Did you secure any funding? If so, from who?
I started with personal funds and convinced my friends to give me some ‘love money’, so I was quite bootstrapped. I also secured some funds from an incubator at my alma mater Ecole Polytechnique (a selective public university with three former French Presidents as alumni) and public funds from BPI, the French public investment bank.
Were you part of an accelerator or incubator program? If so, which?
Why did you call it Hi Mike?
It was basically an accident. I presented my idea during a hackathon and I was the first to pitch. Just before they introduced me they said “tell us what it’s called”. I wanted a name that sounded friendly, as if someone was ready to help. As I was meeting a lot of new faces as the hackathon started, I heard “Hi Mike” many times. I thought it was an easy solution so I started presenting with “everyone.. say ‘Hi Mike’ to your new assistant…”
What did it do exactly?
I’ve mentioned the service, but to explain it further you could connect your email account and it would detect all the subscriptions from that email and include details such as invoices, type of service, date of subscription, etc. Everything was organised on your Hi Mike portal and you would receive new suggestions such as “you paid 30% more than the average on your Spotify plan”, just because you purchased on the App Store, for example. Next step was to be able to switch subscriptions on and off. I also had an option with details from users bank accounts, but it wasn’t used as much and could have been considered intrusive.
Tell us about the process to create the application.
The biggest challenge was to prove it was achievable, which was a technical challenge. I worked a lot on the POC.
The first service was the automatic scraping of offers including price and descriptions on different offers such as phone and Internet plans, media subscriptions, insurance services, online banks and energy.
The second service was to be able to detect and organise data from emails, and then all of this needed to be accessible via a web portal.
What were the numbers like at their peak in terms of active users, downloads and revenue?
When I created the POC I found my first 10 users for feedback and help with new feature ideas.
That told me enough to stick with the plan and continue the product development. After a few presentations and pitches during events I managed to get 3000 beta users.
I realised that insurance subscriptions were the most profitable but also required the most operational work. We then had our first client who accepted subscriptions from our proposal which meant we started generating recurring revenues.
Was there a moment where you felt you’d cracked it? Tell us about it. What happened and then what happened next?
The pitch was getting better and the feedback from beta users was good. We saw that people would love to use our service and we could be onto something. At that stage I had also found a co-founder (luckily also called Michael!) and we were contacted by some US investors who were interested in our idea, but wanted to see more advanced development. A French bank was also interested in developing our features within their apps but we simply weren’t ready yet.
Was there a moment you felt you were never going to crack it? Why and what did you do about it?
As CEO, but also technical expert, I often needed to be everywhere. My co-founder was focusing on user acquisition and management and we needed investment to build a bigger team and finish the MVP.
Even if investors were interested in the idea, it felt like they always wanted more progress than we had made at each point.
Why did you stop?
I looked at our bank account and estimated the best case of how much funding we could find at that stage. Then I looked at the cash burn to reach the next level and the time we needed to find the best team (as you may know, finding developers is quite difficult). I thought about when I’ll need to find more money (again), when I could be paid and of course the personal situation where my family would need to endure a lot more. So I decided to stop and search for a better environment than building a technically challenging B2C business.
What was your greatest achievement?
- Inspiration — when you have comments like “omg! yes! I need this app!” and you see your idea come to life in the mind of users
- Creation — when you see the app working with first results, it’s like a baby coming to life thanks to you
- Validation — when you benchmark your startup and you find other companies struggling with the same objective, you feel less alone
- Pride — when you see that your product is more technically advanced than your competitors, you’re proud
- Happiness — when you see that they put a lot more effort and money than you to reach a point (that you think) behind you, it makes you very happy
What was the lowest point?
After hearing investors say “no” several times, you feel like you’re missing something even if you only need one “yes” to move forward.
I spent a lot of time searching for developers with multiple interviews and technical tests. And I finally found the best I could. But then after weeks of work, the tasks were less advanced than I had achieved with my interns. I was horrified, AND I had less money in the bank. I knew I would never make it without an A+ team.
My last pitch was for another incubator the same day I had decided to stop and to pivot. It was a disaster. I didn’t want to be there but felt obligated. I had to endure someone on the selection board — who had never created their own business — telling me I “wasn’t smart enough”, that I should stick to the original plan, that I should do this or that. Thankfully, my mother raised me well… and… I was still able to answer politely.
All this said, it wasn’t my first experience, so I was better prepared. The first time I stopped working on a previous startup I was almost in tears.
If someone came to you and asked for your advice about creating a startup, what would you tell them?
- Go for it!
- Do not think it is a love story. It will be painful!
- If it works… it may be even more painful!
- Do not neglect your personal life. You may be ready, but be sure your family is as well!
- Do not think too much, experience it!
- Theoretical experts are not entrepreneurs
- You need to learn to be (the only) optimistic one in the middle of the storm so you can always encourage and motivate your team.
- Your job is to find the way through when no one else does, before you run out of fuel. You need to be efficient and not waste your time!
- If you succeed you will see that the story is always better than the reality. You will have to sum up several hours of work in a few words (like I am doing here!) and the reality is that very few people will understand what you’ve been through.
Tell us four simple things you learned from this experience?
- We’re not all dealt the same cards and it’s useless to blame the situation. We just need to deal with it. As Kanye West said “I ain’t play the hand I was dealt, I changed my cards”.
- You need a lot of expertise in your team to succeed, and if you don’t believe that to be the case you will find out very quickly..
- You will be better if you always remain positive in every situation. You’ll have better results, a better experience, see better performance, maintain hope, keep an elevated mood. So always be positive!
- There are different types of business, so know yourself and what suits you and your team the best! Don’t mimic what you see on TV or the news.
Who are your greatest mentors and/or inspirations when it comes to being an entrepreneur?
I cannot say “mentor” but great sources of reflection (not inspiration) include Octave Klaba (Founders of OVH, French Cloud provider) and Simon Sinek (American thinker and advisor).
And of course my dad who give me great advice, even though he tells me he was “too much of an engineer to be an entrepreneur”
Would you do it again?
I’m already doing it with Singulier, building Code Studio by Singulier. Come and join me!
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