First episode of the SafeBrands saga
SafeBrands is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. A quarter of a century! On the Internet planet, that’s almost called a dinosaur. It deserved a look in the rear-view mirror, a little retrospective of this adventure launched by Charles Tiné and Frédéric Guillemaut, in 1997. An adventure that we wanted to relive with you throughout this year 2022. For the pleasure of it, and to thank you. Customers from the beginning, and those who have joined us since, partners from all walks of life, and of course you, the SafeBrands girls and boys, who have experienced the rough beginnings and the long road to success.
Between now and the end of the year, we will regularly offer you several episodes retracing our modest saga.
Let’s first go back to that distant time: 1997, prehistory… The French still think that the computer will never be able to compete with the Minitel. Ill-inspired, it must be said, by France Télécom, which does not give up: we are the strongest. Lobbying is in full swing. The Internet, oulala, it’s scary, there’s no security, you’re in danger! At that time, France had only 30,000 subscribers.
Elsewhere, far from the French blinkers, the world is starting to get into battle. The Americans of course, but also the Scandinavian countries. As for the French, they continue to shop at 36.15 La Redoute and the Parisians still have their old BiBops. Paradoxically, it must be admitted, we were ahead of the game in some respects, but totally closed to the revolution that was taking shape.
A revolution that the young Charles Tiné saw coming a little before the others. At JP Morgan, where he was working at the time, e-mail had already been used internally, on the financial markets, since 1993. The American bank was even beginning to use it in B to B with certain clients. It was the beginning of the end of the fax era.
In Paris, Charles is bored in finance. His work is appreciated, but his motivation is waning. Last in, first out. He arrived at 9 a.m. and left at 5 p.m., while everyone else was there at 8 a.m. for the sacrosanct “morning meeting” and often stayed very late. One day, he went to see his boss and said: “I’m leaving, I want to see what I’m worth in real life”. He had one fixed idea in mind: to set up his own company. If possible… while he’s at it… in the sun. His friends think he’s a sweet dreamer: give up a comfortable and lucrative job and leave Paris, the city of business!
No matter what. He headed south. In December 1995, Charles created the very first social network, “le Pari de Marseille”, which in 1996 received the Web d’or des Associations (the largest international competition for French-speaking Internet sites). The “Pari de Marseille” was intended to bring together the many Marseillais “exiled” to Paris, San Francisco or Tokyo. Charles also published one of the first newspapers on the Internet, a digital version of the local Marseilles newspaper “l’Eveil Hebdo”.
He also launched his own company, which he called “Planète Marseille”, with the aim of facilitating the use of the Internet for thousands of people throughout the world. His flagship product, MailClub, is an e-mail address redirection service. Its ambition: to replace the addresses offered by access providers (free, wanadoo, aol, etc.) with identifying addresses, through generic domain names, linked, for example, to professions. The idea was to alleviate the problem of changing access providers, and to avoid having to notify all your correspondents each time that you have changed your address.
A service charged at 99 francs per year, excluding tax. A pittance, considering that it often took hours to convince a single customer. And to explain to them what an e-mail address was, and how this service would be useful to them, in anticipation of things that would change in the future. It was as much to say that it was necessary to get out the oars, and that the profitability was not there: 3.000 francs the first year of turnover…
Charles hung on. He found in the Internet what he had loved when he started in finance. This blank sheet of paper on which there is everything to write, with people from all walks of life. It was at this point that he met Frédéric Guillemaut, one of his very first clients.
On paper, there are many things that oppose them. The Parisian and the Provincial first of all. Their backgrounds are also different. Both have been to London, even if Frédéric has been to the concert halls more than the trading floors. The connection between them was made. Not on the first try, but on the second. For these two are complementary.
Frédéric knows the mail order business well; that can be useful. He tried his hand at it during an internship in a record shop, before he too set up his own business: selling and distributing records. Not easy. Not much money. A modem, rather than a fax, because it’s cheaper. A first Internet subscription, then the creation of a site and a second one. Confidential. The paper catalogue still holds the line. He never forgot his first customer: a Finn who sent him francs by mail in exchange for a vinyl. The business took off slowly in 1996. Just imagine: 10 sales per month! When the FNAC started up, Frédéric’s little business made more sales than it did! For only one month…
He then needed addresses that were more practical for his customers. He hears about MailClub and becomes a reseller. His private life takes him to Marseille. He thought it might be time to find a “real” job and earn some money.
The first meeting takes place at a service provider’s. Without much interest. A month later, the two of them meet again in a bar. This helps them to bond. They talk about their respective lives and say to themselves that if they are going to lose money, they might as well share the adventure with someone nice. Zero divided by two is still zero. This is the only time in the life of a company when sharing does not pose a cash flow problem.
The adventure really began in Aix en Provence, at the home of a friend, a software publisher, who lent them an office, or rather a cubicle, where boxes were stored. The two friends quickly realised that they had to move up a gear. They had many business meetings and tried to sell their concept, notably to Orange, Caramail, Le Parisien Libéré, etc. Without much success. Without much success.
They understand that they will have to be more targeted. Not so inspired by email, they decided to switch to domain names. Network Solutions was in the field for .coms at the time and had a monopoly, but the rules were changing and the competition was moving in.
To sell .coms directly, it was necessary to have an accreditation, which was too expensive for the MailClub’s means at the time, provided by ICANN, the UN of domain names. Not obtaining it was a handicap, particularly in terms of image. They then decided to look at something else: the possibility of registering addresses with extensions. The procedure for obtaining these accreditations is indeed much less expensive, especially for .fr. They had the idea of listing the countries for which obtaining accreditations was the most affordable, such as Belgium or Switzerland for example. Little by little, they filled their “basket” and gained legitimacy.
The next objective was to target large companies. As there were not many competitors in this target group, it was possible to charge fairly high prices. Prices that smaller companies could not afford. But in order to justify these high prices, the two company directors understand that their added value must be service and customer satisfaction. A motto that would later mark out their entire career and become their priority to this day.
Among the first major accounts to place their trust in them are Alcatel, Gaz de France, Marseille Provence Métropole, La Poste… Charles has a network. That helps. A good address book too, and an incomparable tchatche. He is capable of spending hours on the phone to convince people.
To make themselves known, they also go to trade fairs. Sometimes they are a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, as when they decide to build an interactive terminal for their stand themselves, with panels made of 22 mm chipboard. It weighs several dozen kilos. There was no other way to transport it to Paris than to stow it on the roof of Charles’ old blue 305 GT. Frédéric and Mikael take care of it. Charles is clever and takes the train.
The night before, someone had had the good idea of siphoning the car, causing a hole in one of the hoses. It was a bad start, but they managed to fix it, filled up the tank and set off. They don’t get very far. The gauge drops at an unusual rate, the tank empties. A tow truck is called to the rescue. New repairs. This time it works. They arrive in Paris exhausted, with a bollard they will never manage to assemble!
It’s the era of system D, for everything, all the time. When we have to go to a client’s place, in Toulouse for example, we manage to find a friend who knows someone who can put us up. There’s no question of sleeping in a hotel. And sometimes, no question of sleeping at all.
In parallel to their activity, the friends continue to make a few websites, and even some referencing. It is necessary to put a little butter in the spinach. First hires. After Mikael, Lionel, Sébastien and Marina join the adventure.
Charles still doesn’t get paid. Frédéric gets the minimum wage. His mother tells him that it’s worth it to have studied for 5 years! But they both believe in it. It will work. And they are right.
August 2000: after a first move to the Les Milles business park in Aix en Provence, this time to Marseille… Real offices with the beach and the Velodrome just 400 metres away. So much for paradise!
We are in the middle of the Internet bubble. Everyone is trying to raise money to become a millionaire. But not them. They continue to hunt for clients, relentlessly. The business is starting to take off. Slowly…
2002: Fred becomes a partner. That’s it, it’s starting to look like a real company, with luncheon vouchers, the great pride! From 2, they grow to 10. Turnover increases by an average of 25% per year.
Charles has an idea every minute. It’s always going off! Frédéric is more Cartesian. Ideas are fine, but only if they are feasible. He doesn’t get carried away, he analyses and filters the wheat from the chaff. Good farming sense.
On the financial side, it’s still not good. Every euro earned is a victory. Frédéric goes to the bank on Saturday mornings to deposit the cheques and pay the staff. He became a specialist in obtaining deadlines. The debits must be delayed at all costs to finance the ever-increasing growth, hiring, the first servers, accreditations, etc. Because MailClub does not raise funds and has chosen to pamper its customers and win them over one a year, by hand, for a better relationship!
Once again, we need to put this into context: this was the time when banks refused loans and overdrafts on the pretext that the Internet would not work and that it was too risky.
We had to wait 14 years to put an end to the race for cash. 14 years sometimes rock’n’roll, but that… drum roll… we’ll tell you about it in the next issue!
See you at the beginning of May for the rest of our anniversary saga!