In our current era of social media and WhatsApp, email is often seen as a rather outdated form of communication. Yet fifty years after the first email was sent in 1971, there are still ways to reinvent electronic messaging to help businesses improve how they manage dialogue with their customers. This is what Front cofounder Mathilde Collin has her sights set on. Her start-up launched in Paris in 2013 before moving to California a few months later, and offers professionals a tool to reply collaboratively to messages, such as requests for information, technical support, and orders.
“Our goal is to make email communication more human and efficient,” says the CEO of Front during a Zoom meeting from the company’s headquarters in a gigantic building in the center of San Francisco, which also houses the offices of Uber and Square. More than 7,000 businesses, including Airbnb, Hulu, and Lyft, use Front’s software, and the start-up employs more than 300 people in San Francisco, Chicago, Dublin, and Paris. Front has raised a total of 138 million dollars since it was founded, and business magazine Forbes put it on its Next Billion-Dollar Startup list two years ago.
A Far Cry from American Tech Clichés
While Mathilde Collin is much like other successful Californian tech entrepreneurs, this fast-talking, passionate mother-of-one actually has a very different background. Everything started with a professional disappointment after she graduated from the HEC business school. “After I finished my studies, I spent a year working at a start-up. I learned a lot, but the corporate culture was really horrible. I was miserable,” she says, adding that she had always been interested in workplace well-being and engagement. “I was lucky enough to have been a very happy, positive child, and when I saw all the people who were unhappy going to work, I thought it was a huge waste. By founding my own company, I therefore had the opportunity to build what I believe is a good work environment, and to create a product that changes the way people work.” She took the plunge with the conviction that professional emails, which are often a source of stress and frustration on an individual level, could become a more efficient, more satisfying communication tool if they enabled employees to collaborate.
At the start, neither Mathilde Collin nor the other Front cofounder, Ecole Polytechnique graduate Laurent Perrin, thought that they would leave France. “I hadn’t planned on going to Silicon Valley,” she says. “The decision was a pragmatic one; more than 80% of the businesses who signed up to test our product were in the United States. I spent a few days there meeting them, and I realized that our customers and investors would be in the U.S., at least initially.”
While in California, she discovered “an energy that didn’t exist in France at all seven years ago.” The fledgling company was noticed by Y Combinator, one of the most renowned start-up accelerators, and started raising capital in America. There were therefore several good reasons that convinced her to move to San Francisco with the tiny Front team and her husband. Seven years on, she defines her company’s culture as “50% French and 50% American. Our roots are what set us apart. It might be a bit of a cliché, but the French have a skepticism and realism that create a good balance with the enthusiasm and ambition found in the United States. That enables us to honestly say what works and what doesn’t, without just claiming that everything is awesome.”
A Committed Entrepreneur
Still driven by the desire to “make work happier” (a phrase featured in large letters on the Front website) Mathilde Collin tirelessly upholds her company’s values of transparency, care, high standards, collaboration, and “low ego” (“I have very little tolerance for arrogance”). She constantly showcases these values when speaking in public and in the articles that she writes on Medium and for Inc. and Fast Company. “I write to make entrepreneurial reality more tangible because it can inspire some people to take that first step. It also helps me to put my thoughts in order and take responsibility; if I say something publicly, I have to do it.”
This approach is unusual in California, where the cult of performance is held up as an unquestioned model. For example, she has removed a vast number of apps and disabled the notifications on her smartphone, and encourages her employees to reduce their screen time by offering them a 100-dollar reward. As a staunch believer of “switching off,” she stepped back from all her responsibilities as CEO to take 18 weeks of maternity leave after her daughter was born a year and a half ago. Her latest project is the four-day workweek, implemented through “Flexible Fridays,” which give Front employees one day a week when no one can contact them.
Her weekends in San Francisco, where she still lives, are spent with friends (“lots of French people; we’ve recreated a little community”), working out, volunteering, and enjoying the great outdoors. She returns to France every summer, “to spend two months with our families and so our daughter can experience the country we love so much.” But Mathilde Collin has no plans to leave California, a place she discovered almost by accident. “There are things that I loved in San Francisco as soon as I arrived, and I still love them today, such as being surrounded by hyper-positive people and having a clear blue sky almost every day. It has an impact on my happiness, and that has an impact on my company.”