As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Viatte.
Christian Viatte is the founder and CEO of Mila, the European leader of on-demand technical support operating in five EU countries and the UK. As the former Head of Service Experience and Innovation at Swisscom, Mila was a startup Viatte brought into Swisscom’s Innovation Center which he eventually spun off as his own “scale up.” With a global team of over 10,000 Mila technicians, the company’s corporate and retail partners include Bosch, Amazon, Otto.de, Sonos, Ring, Netatmo, Eve, AXA, and Swisscom. Mila is venture-backed by Alpana Ventures, Oriza Ventures, and Silicon Valley’s Plug and Play Ventures.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’m the former Head of Service Experience and Innovation at Swisscom, I oversaw an innovation center where outside companies came in and pitched us new ideas. I was responsible for shifting Swisscom to an online focus and finding innovations that would reduce costs and increase customer satisfaction and NPS at the same time.
We tested new concepts and services and decisions were made swiftly regarding their fate with Swisscom. Mila was a service company that pitched us in 2013, it was a marketplace platform similar to TaskRabbit for services such as cleaning, errands, and massage, very different from the Mila of today.
At this time, Swisscom was deep into rolling out their broadband initiative and the volume of inbound tech support requests from customers was skyrocketing. ‘How do I connect to the internet?,’ ‘how do I install a Sonos?,’ or ‘how do I manage my computer?.’ We saw potential in Mila’s software to build a neighborhood tech service force.
In 2014, we did a small pilot in Zurich and saw there definitely was a market for informal residential tech services. I saw the potential to create an Uberized on-demand tech service with Mila, and in 2015, I joined Mila as CEO. I thought I was leaving Swisscom and would be independent, but they ‘got me back’ by coming in as the lead investor at 51 percent along with a board seat. There was other VC support along with Swisscom, but Mila was now mine to continue to grow as I envisioned it.
Unfortunately, as 2015 unfolded, the TaskRabbit model began to unravel. People wanted to make sure they got the “best” technicians to come to their homes and they wanted guarantees for the technical work. They wanted to book an exact time for the technician’s visit, but we just couldn’t execute on all of this with the TaskRabbit model — worse, our NPS scores were suffering.
We ditched the TaskRabbit model and adopted an exclusive on-demand, Uber model. Rideshare customers don’t get to choose their driver or set the fee, it’s all handled by an algorithm, and that’s how we rebuilt Mila. In crowdsourced models speed and price are very important, we were able to deploy technicians quickly and the customer didn’t have to search for someone and compare pricing.
Now we could manage the entire ecosystem and determine which Mila Friend had the proper set of skills for the customer and type of service and what their compensation would be. We paid competitive wages and set the skill level of the technicians through standardized testing and training, we created Mila Pros for jobs that require a licensed electrician so we could book complex installations for both residential and business customers.
In May 2020, while we were dealing with COVID lockdowns and pretty much pivoting everyday, Swisscom decided that they wanted to depart from the Mila brand as an investor. They gave me a very tight timeline to find new funding, it was more a matter of weeks than months — it was a process of twists and turns worthy of a screenplay, but in the end, I pulled off the final buyout from Swisscom complete with a new set of investors, critical to our international scale.
Our current business model has deeply resonated with our customers. NPS scores are more than 80 and we average 4.8 out of 5 stars in customer reviews. COVID lockdowns have actually benefited us, resulting in an over 25 percent increase in business overall.
We’ve expanded and now serve customers in Switzerland, Germany, France, Austria, and the UK and have multiple enterprise and business customers and retail partners including Bosch, Amazon, Otto.de, Sonos, and of course, Swisscom — still a major customer of Mila services in Switzerland.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
The first lesson is that there is no way to own and run a business without making mistakes. Without mistakes, there is no chance you’re going to scale your business.
One time I had a meeting with a large smart watch vendor, it was a big customer win for us and the European manager invited me to be part of their photo shoot for the press photos. I proudly marched in not realizing that I had worn one of their competitor’s watches to the event. I was very peinlich — in English it’s ‘embarrassing’ — but they were very gracious and kindly asked me to switch to one of their brands.
To make matters worse, I was the one who asked them to do a press release and then I showed up with a competitor’s product on my wrist. This company had a strong corporate culture and a strong brand. I realized that I had better pay more attention to these things and really prepare myself when I meet with partners and customers in the future.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I consider myself lucky, I’ve always met people who’ve helped me during my business career at different times. I worked in several startups before Swisscom but when Mila came along I had to change everything that I’d learned.
Building a company is messy, you’re constantly cleaning up messes and trying to keep things under control. Working in startups helped me with Mila, but this was the first time I was building something by myself. Luckily, I had people around me that showed me how to lead and how to structure Mila at all the right times — even the people who may have helped me with one small thing made a huge difference.
Besides my wife Tina, the one person who really made a difference and has contributed to my success is Alex Fries from Alpana Ventures who’s supported me over the last three years. First, he’s an entrepreneur and has an entrepreneurial mindset. He constantly reminds me that you have to take risks sometimes and then just move on, no matter what the outcome.
His trust and his belief in my vision for Mila was important, he saw the vision and trusted in my vision. He helped extend my network by sharing his own network, he talked to me about investors, how to resonate with them, and what to say. He opened doors for me, he is not just talk — there’s no shortage of people who just talk.
It sounds simple, but this is very important — having someone you trust that believes in you — the rest you can learn. With someone else’s trust, you can fight all day for what’s needed, knowing someone really understands what you’re fighting for, is huge.
Of course, there were many others who supported me for the buyout, no single person achieves success without the help of other people, for me, Alex was key to all of it.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Our vision is very simple, we provide people with people who can help them.
The good news is we still have the same purpose and the same vision as we did in 2015. The motivation and the “why” of what we do has stayed the same.
In the next five to ten years more and more devices will be connected to the internet in your home — it’s all digital and it’s all connected. Most of these are plug and play and fairly simple to set up, but if everyone has 50 connected devices in their home it will become more complex. If you introduce a new device or buy something new and there is a problem, managing this is going to become more difficult and require more complex troubleshooting.
Our mission is to empower people by giving them access to someone who can manage all of their tech stuff. When people need help, they click a button and someone is there — remotely or onsite. We see Mila as a type of assistant for the future as technology continues to evolve and IoT explodes.
Very soon, Mila or a similar service will intuitively know about your home tech and any issues, it will be proactive and troubleshoot your home or business about potential problems. It would know when your batteries need to be changed or what conflicts you might encounter after introducing a new device based on your existing devices and systems.
In the future people won’t be bothered with things like when it’s time to change the batteries because they’ll have a smart home assistant like Mila, and that’s why we’re here building this service platform for on demand tech services.
We are still a small company and we’re taking small steps, but in the end, we believe that everybody should benefit from technology — even if they don’t know how to manage it, they don’t have time to manage it or they just don’t want to deal with it.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
As a founder and CEO, you need to believe in what you do, and you need to be clear on the why of what you do. You need to communicate and share with your team all day and check in with where they stand, especially in uncertain times.
I found that I needed to be closer with my team and check in on them more frequently during the pandemic. Without this bond, I don’t think we would have fared as well as we did during the lockdowns with all the uncertainty.
As a CEO we’re often offsite handling other matters and we’re not there all the time for the day to day stuff. But you need to be there for your team’s questions, their concerns, we need to constantly demonstrate what our purpose is to them by being an example of the “why” of what we do.
When you’re working in a very dynamic service environment communication is key, without it the business will suffer. If you’re not close to your team, always talking and listening to them, it’s going to be difficult to keep communication open.
Last year we had the pandemic and a buyout. Fortunately for us, the pandemic part was manageable. We trained our technicians on how to behave with customers for social distancing and safety protocols if they had to go onsite.
We never had to force anyone to work because with our business model the technicians are free to accept or reject any job, and that includes if they were afraid to work due to COVID, so this aspect worked out very well.
Then there was the buyout. We were trying to get investors at a very difficult time and at the same time we were evaluating everything we did and every member of the team. We had to take a hard look at what was working, what needed to change and this probably brought uncertainty to a lot of people.
During times of radical change, you have to be the rock for your people. We had to assure our team that we were getting new investors and that it was going to be a positive thing.
We had to build team spirit and convey to the team that everyone was an important part of the team — and we had to keep everyone’s spirit up in the middle of all of this change and in the middle of a pandemic.
In times of uncertainty, people need to know that they matter, you have to tell them that they matter and then tell them again. We had to assure our team that they didn’t need to worry about us parting ways with Swisscom, that every single person was as important as the other one, we tried to make sure they knew that we cared about them.
We tried to explain that we were not really a start up, we were more like a “scale up” and a young company with very ambitious goals, but it was also a wake up call. It was an opportunity for everyone to decide if they wanted to continue on this new journey with us or go in a different direction.
It was also a wake up call for me. I learned that when you move on in your journey, with your vision, you will always have people who will be with you for a certain amount of time and then leave you because it’s not their journey.
But you also have people who stay, they stay because they want to be a part of something and that’s great because it means they share the vision. But I had to reflect on this — are they staying because of what we do or because of me? Are they leaving because of what we do or because of me?
It was a very powerful dynamic and I learned I had to look at myself and that if certain people had to leave, then we both had to move on and I did not have to take it personally. There can be so many mistakes on a founder’s journey, but that’s how you learn.
In the end what gets a business and a team through times of uncertainty is genuinely caring about your team, making sure they know that they matter, and constant communication so that problems can be addressed before they become unmanageable.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Giving up was something I never considered even though I had many opportunities to walk away last year. We had the buyout, the pandemic, but to give up was never on the table. I see Mila as the role of my life.
My wife plays a huge role in Mila and my life and she wondered why I didn’t want to take an easier path where I could earn more and not work so hard. But it was clear to me that this was my job, I had such a clear picture that this business was going to become important to people, there were never any doubts.
If I saw that Mila wasn’t needed I’d give up, but the world needs Mila. This is why I wasn’t so upset about the pandemic, every situation has opportunities and the pandemic was ours, COVID gave us a chance to change the way we do things. Every obstacle we had to deal with somehow worked in our favor.
COVID increased our business but it wasn’t easy to scale from day one, we had to keep investing and innovating to stay on the right path. We re-invented how our service people work remotely and we became more efficient.
We couldn’t send our technicians through the usual retail channels due to the lockdowns, so we reinvented this and built a remote service portfolio so we could serve the customers of our retail partners. The people love Mila’s remote services and it consistently receives high ratings and NPS scores.
We had to think fast and determine what’s the best thing for the customer because that’s what really matters in the end. When there’s a crisis you always have to be willing to rethink situations. Of course, this is not what we planned, but if you aren’t open to change and adapt quickly, and you don’t manage the crisis, the crisis will manage you.
There’s also another element of this that’s more about the Swiss culture — we don’t talk about failure like they do in the US where it’s normal. I don’t know how the rest of Europe is, but deep inside the Swiss is a tendency to not reflect.
Failure is a great motivator, but if you just make mistakes you’ll never be a success.
Alex told me that I needed to take risks and fail every day — and sometimes we did.
I want to be an example of a Swiss business that learned from failure to become a success, like when we switched from the TaskRabbit model to the Uber model. We could have given up back then when the low NPS scores came pouring in, but we didn’t, we reflected and did what we needed to do to make it work.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
People always want to see a plan and they always want someone to lead. When COVID hit, people weren’t panicking but there was uncertainty. For us and for all businesses, their people wanted an assessment of the situation from their leaders, and then they wanted that person to lead.
You need to assess and determine the extent of a crisis and evaluate the potential for all possible scenarios. You need to know that your team will be watching your behavior and they’ll want to see how you react to challenging situations.
You need to be definitive and show people that there is a way, that we have a plan to manage this — this is what we’re going to do, this is the reason we’re changing it, this is the next step and this is how we’re solving the situation.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
In times of uncertainty, people need to trust you and know that you believe in what you do, they need to feel that they can follow you. You need to convey to them that what they do is very important to the mission and that they are needed.
When the lockdown began we all had to work remotely and this created fear, no one was sure of what was happening so we set up daily video exchanges with the team. This is ongoing, even though we are all working from home everyone had to feel like they were part of the team.
When you lead a team in an office you see behavior and direct outcomes, but when you are leading a team with everyone in a home office it’s all about trust. You have to pay more attention to leading when you’re in a remote setup, you realize it’s even more important to reach them, to inspire them, and keep them on track working remotely.
We always used video, that face-to-face is really important in a remote situation. We had coffee over videos. We didn’t want to hide from the situation but we also knew we couldn’t talk about the pandemic all the time, so we found a balance.
We focused on outcomes, how the future might be without the pandemic, what was next — there was a lot of communication. I personally called people even if it was just for five minutes, I wanted to give them my personal attention.
I wanted to be close to them, reassure them and convey as much information as possible in a personal manner, this was very important to me and was how I engaged with my team during the pandemic.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
For difficult conversations, the best method is always face to face. If it’s not physically possible then definitely have these conversations by video. Difficult news is always something that requires a lot of attention from you and should always come from a personal place and not be delivered in a formal or business tone.
You have to be ready for, and expect different reactions, and then be respectful of them.
When something is not going well with a Mila partner, I call them directly just to go over the situation and have an exchange. If there is anything that can be construed as negative that you have to convey, never send this type of communication by email, never convey bad news any other way other than in person.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
A leader has to be making plans all the time, especially in this time of COVID. If a leader can’t make plans, is he or she a real leader?
Even if you can’t plan in your usual manner, at the end of the day it’s your job to make a plan to get your business through any storms that come your way and for what situations that might come up. You have to constantly be thinking, how can I keep my company moving forward? How can I get my company out of this situation?
There are some limits to this, such as restaurants. It’s not fair to expect them to be able to plan because they have no way to plan themselves out of mandatory government shutdowns. But most other businesses are not constrained and can and should plan. You owe that to your team, to think about the future and what’s next.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Number one is to always have an open door and value clear and honest communication. Always keep the company purpose in mind and continually communicate that.
Communication is also understanding, you need to know how people feel and what they are thinking.
You need your people, never forget that you need the team, they are your power. You need to understand the issues that are important to them, you need to be honest and they need to know the truth from you. This is very important and you need to work very close to your staff and the team, always.
Also, how you appear to them is important. You need to be calm, clear and focused.
Your team will be watching your behavior and if you make a mess you’ll lose them. You need to lead.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
One thing that will always cause problems is short term thinking. Mila works with many small businesses and the ones who were able to pivot during COVID and had a plan are the ones who survived.
Even during these uncertain times, you need to think ahead and have a plan, even if you can’t execute it immediately. Short-term planning might be all that some businesses are able to do right now — like restaurants — but they still need to have a plan.
Second, you need to be creative and ready to reinvent when things change.
We had some great small businesses here in Switzerland but they did not have an online presence. For example, clothing stores that sold directly to customers — they had a chance to sell online before COVID but didn’t. Now they have big problems with their businesses because they never thought they would have to reinvent and they didn’t think creatively.
The last and most important thing is to treat your team well. This is a mantra for Mila, but during difficult times you need to be extremely careful about how you treat your team.
Businesses should also share their vision and their plans with their team, even if it’s just short-term. In the end, your team is key to your success.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
As we just mentioned, the ability to reinvent and pivot is the most important quality for a leader. Every entrepreneur needs to be able to change and reinvent, this is part of being a leader and it’s in our DNA.
You always need to increase your traction in difficult times, the pandemic forced us to pivot to remote services because that was the only way we could offer tech support to our customers during the lockdowns.
We realized that we could implement remote services through different channels so we pushed it. We looked at it from, ‘where is the need and how can we support this?’ Just like work from home (WFH), remote services and support have been normalized and people want it, it’s also one of our most highly-rated services.
I can’t stop saying to never forget the purpose because that drives everything. Building Mila is not just tech support, it’s building a whole ecosystem that helps people.
We’ve been able to serve our customers and kept over 10,000 people employed across five countries during COVID. Mila Friends range from students to parents to retirees and everything in between.
They attend the Mila Academy so that all of our services are standardized at a very high level. If they haven’t installed a Ring doorbell at the Mila Academy, they can’t book a Ring installation. Your workforce is the face of your company, no matter what the circumstances are you have to keep very high standards of service.
We never compromised our standards during the pandemic — if anything we raised our standards in complying with COVID safety protocols across all five countries. We kept our technicians and our customers safe without delivering a reduction in services while at the same time seeing our business increase well over 25 percent.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
For me, there is not a big difference between how I work or how I act during good times or during turbulent times, but you should always be prepared for turbulent times by having a plan … did I say ‘have a plan’?
- Never forget your purpose, the “why,” the reason you started your company, what problem you wanted to solve by creating it and what impact it would have on the world. You must have a clear vision and be able to state clearly, ‘this is what we do and this is why we do it.’
- Love what you do. This should be the main reason for everything you do even if there are no guarantees. If I wanted a guarantee I would have stayed at Swisscom but I loved Mila and know what its place is in the world, it’s the reason behind everything that I do.
- Dream big and make it happen. To do this you have to establish your principles and know what motivates you. If you don’t have this as a guiding force you won’t be able to motivate others and you won’t be able to share your dream.
- Learn to trust yourself and trust those who trust you. You can’t trust everyone and you can’t worry about the people who don’t believe in you. Focus on the ones who trust you and believe in you, focus on them and everything else will fall into place.
- Keep your energy levels high. Stop drinking coffee. I had to stop drinking coffee as part of a dietary change and though I would have never believed this until I quit — without coffee I get more things done. My energy levels are more powerful without it. Try it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Versuchen Sie nicht, ein Mann mit Erfolg zu werden, sondern ein Mann mit Wert.” In English this is, “Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value” from Albert Einstein.
For me, it’s not about being a successful person but being a valuable person. It’s always been about thinking big and following your dream, but more importantly, the way you treat people. Because at the end of your life this will be all that matters.
People will want to follow you on your journey if you treat them well, even if it’s only for a small part of your journey, you still need to treat everyone well.
I want to believe that I tried to create something of value, something that’s important for society — to make tech easy so people can enjoy it.
I believe it’s not just about tech support, it’s an ecosystem that changes the way people get help which changes the way people will experience their tech, it adds value.
I want to see Mila become the number one global tech services player in the world, but I want to see Mila on top, not me — to me, that’s the only way this idea makes sense.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can find me on LinkedIn at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/chrisviatte/
and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/chrisviatte