Second episode of the SafeBrands saga
As we started to mention in our first episode, the beginnings of SafeBrands were rock’n’roll to say the least. Good old rock that moves, literally and figuratively… Amateur category first, like all bands that start out. Not in the family garage (we didn’t want to copy Steve Jobs), but not far from it… And then, progressively, more and more professional, but without ever taking themselves too seriously. The key to success? Maybe… in any case, these are the years that we are going to retrace in this second episode of our SafeBrands saga, on the occasion of our 25th anniversary.
A company is above all a team. We saw earlier how Charles and Frédéric met and decided to embark on this adventure, which was a bit of a mishmash and not very academic at first. They had a lot of desire and ideas. But two people can’t do much.
Very quickly, we had to recruit, although the term is not completely appropriate in this case. Did you say recruitment? One morning, while they were still in Aix, Charles arrived with a smile on his face and said to Frédéric: “I met someone last night. Her name is Marina and she’s starting next week on a sandwich course”. The rare pearl she came across at the counter? Why not after all!
Like Marina, others are gradually joining the small group: Sébastien, Michael, Vincent, Tania… Laurent, for his part, has never forgotten his job interview. He was 26 years old. Stage fright, of course. Received in offices that look more like a holiday home. The sea is not far away, nor are the cicadas. Fred welcomed him with his braid and his “offbeat” look, not exactly the idea one has of a company director, even of an SME. After the surprise effect, Laurent quickly learns to distinguish between image and professionalism. Especially when, a few weeks later, the salaries continue to fall, while Fred struggles, every day, with his cash flow problems. Laurent admits to having accepted an offer below his salary at the time, because he imagined that the environment would be technically and humanly fascinating.
A borderline recruitment totally assumed. The only criteria that counted for hiring were not diplomas, not even experience, just the feeling: do we want to work with this girl/boy? Applicants had to be nice, like to work in a good mood and have a sense of humour and customer service. This was a far cry from the ultra-tortuous employment questionnaires validated by a whole battery of professionals. Frédéric was more of the type to ask: “What would your reaction be if your superior got up on the table and started to act like a cow? Confusing, certainly, effective… maybe sometimes. Basically, if you had a good head and wanted to make customers happy, you had every chance of being validated. A chair, a phone, and off you went. The magic of a brand new industry.
An environment in which you had to be a Swiss Army knife. Everyone was doing a bit of everything in the shop, with a smile on their face, and the feeling of being part of something new, a ‘revolution’. Stimulating, galvanising.
For the next waves of recruitment, it is the ANPE which, this time, proposes candidates to them. Their contact person understood their expectations perfectly and suggested ‘different’ profiles. Like that of a system administrator who had had a serious accident and had not worked for a year. Others might not have taken his CV. SafeBrands did.
Little by little, Frédéric and Charles surrounded themselves with a team that resembled them. This is also the privilege of a booming sector.
From a business point of view, each new customer is a victory. There is no question of being difficult. The spectrum is extremely broad. SafeBrands works with an agency specialising in wine. First one vineyard, then another and another. Word of mouth works well. Côtes du Rhône, Burgundy, Bordeaux, no jealousy, we take everything!
Everything, even the most unexpected proposals. One day, Vincent, the sales manager, arrives a little wary. He had found a client called… Papy bastard (a sort of ancestor of “Jacky and Michel”). To put it in context, we were at the very beginning of the development of amateur porn sites, in search of hosts. At that time, SafeBrands was very much in demand in this specific and growing niche. It eventually withdrew from this market.
In this respect, Charles has never forgotten the day he met one of these potential clients in a Marseilles bar where the SafeBrands team used to have lunch. The man arrived with his wife, who was also his “actress”. In a very loud voice, he starts to tell some very raw anecdotes. Charles is terribly embarrassed. The conversation drifts to another project and Charles realises that all the tables around him have fallen silent. He doesn’t know where to stand.
SafeBrands will soon abandon the idea of the adult niche. The company wasn’t equipped for such a large video stream, and perhaps didn’t have the heart for it.
Customers come and go sometimes just as quickly. Many are attracted by the sirens of low-cost competitors, who not only charge lower rates but also have more technical resources. SafeBrands is clearly more expensive. But it is impossible to lower prices. You have to go into scramble mode, try everything, and above all, keep the faith. The two managers go to great lengths to ‘evangelise’. First of all, they had to convince their contacts of the usefulness of having a domain name. Create the need. To raise awareness. Not easy. Few people have heard of it. They organised trade fairs and even created a blog “MailClub.info”, supported by a former journalist from “La Marseillaise”, who, although a sports specialist, felt that there was a niche to be seized. A blog that allows them to answer the many questions that come up repeatedly.
Evangelism is good, but it requires a lot of energy. Then, in parallel, comes the call to resellers. Charles and Frédéric canvassed law firms, who found it to their advantage. The strategy was to make them prescribers, intermediaries. This allowed them to provide a service to their clients by offering the SafeBrands solution. Clients who, at the same time, were reassured because they had the validation of their lawyers.
Apart from the lawyers, one wonders whether the “Good Mother” sometimes gave them a helping hand. A major client from the beginning spoke out years later about his decision to choose SafeBrands. Not especially for your services, but for your location, he admitted. Scheduling a meeting in Marseille on a Friday was a guarantee of a successful weekend! That said, he stayed with SafeBrands, even when the Paris office opened.
Today, Charles is convinced that if French companies are more protected than in other countries, it is partly thanks to SafeBrands. Their company knew how to be present at the right time, in the right place: “It was a gold rush and we were selling pickaxes”. He recalls that DailyMotion.com, for example, was first registered with SafeBrands, which was then still called MailClub. Deezer also called on them, as did Doctissimo, “aufeminin.com” and a famous ethical shoe brand, which was not yet as well known as it is today. Many did not even imagine that they would one day become Internet behemoths. SafeBrands’ mission was to convince them of this, and at the same time, to persuade them of the usefulness of protecting this future reputation. Quite a job. You had to keep your nose to the grindstone all the time.
When asked for an example of a key stage in the development of the MailClub (for them it was THE MailClub, with a capital C, and so they didn’t say the development of the MailClub, but THE MailClub, they were keen on that!), Fred and Charles replied in unison: the day we got luncheon vouchers. That was the day we became a “real” company. The feeling of being in the big league. For them, that meant a lot. They were a bit of a tightwad on this one, however: in their haste, they decreed that the company would cover 100% of the cost! A nice advantage, resulting from a wrongly ticked box. And once it is in place, go back on a social gain…
Unfortunately, growing up also means sometimes having to deal with HR problems. In the opinion of company directors, these are the ones that undermine you the most, because they are concerned with people.
Parting with someone is always painful and the way recruitment was done at the time, more ‘buddy’ than very professional, made it even more complex. We don’t like that. Fortunately, it happened very few times. Of course, there was turnover, as there is everywhere, but the family never lost sight of each other. At SafeBrands, we stay in touch and on good terms with the ‘exes’, and we seek compromise rather than conflict. There is no need to pollute ourselves with negativity. We advocate a positive attitude.
Also unpleasant: technical problems: bandwidth or electricity failures in the datacenter. Unavoidable. On several occasions, we had to ring the bell. Alert: panicked customer, damage detected, all hands on deck. That’s SafeBrands’ strength. It always has been, and still is: never leave the customer without explanations. Talk to them, keep them informed, accept being told off, and at the same time work tirelessly, day and night, until everything is operational. Never give up, because in their business, a breakdown in service means that the client’s website and mailboxes are in the dark, with consequences that can have a major impact on their business.
Give it all away, then go for a drink, all together. Tell yourself that you’ve done it. We may be rock’n’roll, but we have to be serious. It’s unthinkable that the customer is not satisfied. Charles and Frédéric both have this conviction, which will never leave them: customer care must be the number one priority.
Their motto: have fun, but do it right with values and professionalism. No missed calls. No tolerance in this respect: the client must get what he wants, immediately. Even when, on paper, it is impossible. The MacGivers of the Internet move heaven and earth and find a solution. You should never let a customer go and see if it’s better elsewhere.
One day, for example, one of them, a real estate platform, was about to launch its new site and promote it. Everything was ready. Well, almost everything. The domain name had been registered, but in his haste, the client had forgotten a hyphen. And 4 days later, a big 4 by 3 campaign started, in the whole PACA region, without the famous hyphen, therefore with a wrong domain name. It was a disaster. It was SafeBrands who saved him. Called to the rescue in a hurry. The deadline was extremely short. Unfeasible. Not for Frédéric, who went to negotiate and saved the situation in extremis.
Being attentive to his customers, but also to his teams. The pots, the picnics on the beach. That was also SafeBrands. Drinking a beer to celebrate a contract. Meeting for lunch in the Parc Borély or at the Pointe Rouge on a bench to eat a pizza facing the sea. And one day, deciding that you can eat that pizza in a restaurant. The beginning of gentrification? Not really. At SafeBrands, the premises are welcoming, but again not very academic. The meeting room, for example, which is also used for coffee breaks, has a bad Ikea table made of chipboard, bought second-hand, which has had several lives. To get to the only toilet, you have to cross it. This has caused some problems with collisions with customer meetings. You can imagine the scene: “Please get out of the toilet, quickly! A customer is coming”. There were also a few mix-ups, moments when we had to shout: “Too late, you can’t get out, the customer is here!
Outside: a balcony, also mythical. It was used to go from one office to another. Some of them on scooters! Some clever kids had even made springboards out of filing cabinets. Fun, but risky. A flap that opened, and it could have turned into a drama. The scooter went back to the garage. The cicadas stayed behind.
With orders starting to pour in, SafeBrands had to set up a real organisation. No more Swiss knives, sales people, managers and more specialised technicians are needed. The company is growing.
In 2005: the first problem. The coffers are empty. Unfortunately, there was no other option than to reduce the team and to let go of one person. However, the order book was filling up, but the payment delays of the major accounts that were joining the ranks of the clients were putting the cash flow in the red. While SafeBrands has to pay its registries and domain names in advance, customers take four or five months to pay their invoices. Invoices which, moreover, are often managed manually.
Nevertheless, this period remains a constructive and instructive moment. Charles and Frédéric realised that SafeBrands was now a functioning organisation with a solid team. The “We’ll see” of the early days has turned into “Let’s grow up again”.
To get out of the rut, the solution would have been to raise funds. But Charles did not want to be “bothered” by an investor, the watchword of this adventure being freedom. It was not their thing to go begging. They preferred to juggle overdraft lines on different accounts. It’s OK… for a while.
There had been a few subsidies or grants, but not enough to fill the coffers. 5,000 euros here, 3,000 there. Here again, they should probably have canvassed, but “begging”, as they say, was not their thing. A five-year interest-free loan, found by a financial intermediary, nevertheless helped them out, but having debts was for them a source of anxiety rather than a potential for development.
When do these rock’n’roll years really end? When Frédéric swapped his torn T-shirts for polo shirts? When he stopped experimenting with hair? Or in 2006, when SafeBrands moved to the Belle de Mai Media Centre and its modern, glassed-in premises?
See you at the beginning of July for the third episode of our saga, devoted to the age of reason: growth, the conquest of major accounts, structuring, international development…