As part of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jade Francine.
After studying Political Science in France, Jade specialized in Asian Affairs and went on to complete a Masters in Chinese Law at Peking University in China.
Prior to her entrepreneurial career, Jade Francine was working as legal advisor for a law firm based in Shanghai, China, helping European companies enter the Chinese market.
In 2017, she co-founded WeMaintain, a PropTech offering an end-to-end solution for building, together with Benoit Dupont and Tristan Foureur. As COO of the company, Jade manages the operations and marketing teams and was recently praised by the French President, Emmanuel Macron, for helping to drive the company’s growth.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. 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?
While working in a law firm in Shanghai, I discovered the world of entrepreneurship by helping startups launching and expanding their businesses. Most of our customers were startups. At that time e-commerce was really booming in China.
Working all day alongside so many different nationalities in China, I became convinced that diversity always brings the best of innovation and solutions. I very quickly realized there were very few women involved in the tech industry. It’s just crazy to think that in startups where everything is based on creating new solutions and innovation, you often don’t have diversity in terms of gender, background, or education. I see this as a huge risk for tomorrow’s world.
I had a clear vision in my head that I could try to make a difference and embark on an adventure, and so, I met Benoit in China and Tristan in India, and the WeMaintain project came to life.
The three of us are very different in terms of personalities yet we share the same ambitions and motivations. When we started at the end of 2017, as three Europeans having international experience, we were frustrated to only see big US and Chinese startups being successful and ambitious when expanding abroad.
Also, we have always wanted to use technology to positively impact the society we live in. That’s truly part of our DNA and of the company’s journey. When we started WeMaintain, we had a vision for something that was genuinely progressive — diverse, inclusive, tech-enabled, and heterogeneous. We wanted to combine state-of-the-art technology with great engineers on the ground. There was no other company we saw doing this, or any we looked at and thought, “we want to be like them”. We believed in our idea and we thought it could be successful. But we were also trying to redefine the grounds on which we were competing. We were saying that we could do something different by being different.
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?
I’m not sure it’s that funny. Yet when thinking about it now, it makes me smile.
For our first fundraising, we decided to get some money from business angels that had worked in our industry. We thought they could help us to expand the business. Actually, what we did not realize was that they did not share the same approach as they did not understand how a startup works. They wanted to have a considerable portion of the equity of the company, and seemingly wanted to control every decision we would have made. Thankfully we refused the offer. It was a little naive of us to think business angels would always understand how we would want to work.
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’m most grateful for my two co-founders, Ben and Tristan. Working with them really changed me:
Our CEO, Benoit Dupont who has the background expertise in building operations, having worked for the biggest elevator companies in the world for 10 years. He taught me a lot about business but also self-confidence.
Our CTO Tristan Foureur, who has a really strong vision and conviction on HR topics. When starting WeMaintain, my only experience was working in a law firm where it is not the most progressive working environment in terms of HR best practices. I’m grateful as Tristan also has a positive approach trying to make everyone progress in a very open way on all HR topics, for example, remote policies, progression of employees, and giving feedback.
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?
We wanted to put the best people and technology at the heart of the built environment. We wanted to have state-of-the-art technology and great engineers on the ground.
We saw that the elevator industry was dominated by a small number of legacy companies. For years, building managers and occupants have had low expectations for elevator and escalator maintenance, and while the technology itself has benefited from improvements, the level of service, specifically, has not improved.
WeMaintain differs from the legacy players who have historically dominated the market in several key ways. Firstly, in its capacity to align with our clients’ needs and to use data to empower our engineers and customers. Secondly, our customer-centric (rather than machine-centric) vision, which means a more human experience, but one supported by state-of-the-art technology. Thirdly, our model is designed to redistribute value to the people creating the value for customers: the engineers. They’re given more autonomy and flexibility.
Having aligned customers, engineers, and our tech teams, we wanted to create a technological solution that could work across these systems and equip building engineers to manage their own work. To enable this vision, we brought the internet of things (IoT), which is a new technology, into old infrastructures and made it easier for buildings to be costed and maintained. In doing this, we enable the creation of smart cities which put data analysis and intuitive maintenance at the center of their design and operation.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?
Launched in 2017, WeMaintain has transformed the regulated maintenance market, supplying elevator and escalator solutions, driving innovation in commercial and residential real estate. WeMaintain gives asset owners and operators end-to-end solutions for critical maintenance, using data collected by IoT hardware, supported by cloud-based proprietary technology. Asset owners get unique, real-time information pertaining to building use.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is clever software which allows materials and physical structures to be plugged into the Internet, generating a huge amount of real-time data measuring how a physical structure or asset is being used. This data improves maintenance, building efficiency and occupant experience and allows asset owners to cut costs.
In Paris, our major customers are key international accounts such as Allianz Real Estate, WeWork and BNP Real Estate. Having expanded into London at the end of 2020, we have struck deals with the co-working provider Workspace and Keolis Amey Docklands (KAD), operators of the Docklands Light Railway (DLR). We just launched in Asia with the opening of an office in Singapore.
Since our launch, WeMaintian has raised €38.8M from Eurazeo, Red River West and BPI France Digital Venture.
The WeMaintain team, based in Paris, London and Singapore, currently comprises more than 100 people.
Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive?
In I852, Elisha Graves Otis invented a safety brake, which revolutionized the vertical transport industry. This increased public confidence in elevators, making them an acceptable mode of transport for passengers, and not just freight.
What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?
We are the disruption that the elevator industry needs — an end-to-end solution by bringing engineers and state-of-the-art technology, hardware and software, to the heart of the built environment.
What truly sets WeMaintain apart from its competitors is that tech underpins everything we do. Our proprietary IoT, app, and interactive dashboard (which gives customers unfiltered information in real-time) has been conceived hand by hand with engineers and praised by our clients as like nothing available elsewhere.
What we offer is an end-to-end solution for building owners and engineers, in which elevator use can not only just be measured better, but also maintained — all off the same platform, rather than going through different suppliers or technologies.
Was there a specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.
When I lived in China, it was extraordinary to see the pace of innovation. Similarly, the pace of urban growth there is extraordinary, with new cites, almost entirely in high risers, seemingly built-in months. And in many parts of the world, cities are getting higher, both in residential and commercial real estate. It occurred to me and my co-founders that the property industry would be a reliable and investable industry that would go through considerable growth but needed 21st century technology to support it. We felt that if we could join up all the dots that go into building systems, then we really would be onto something.
So, how are things going with this new direction?
This new direction started with the acquisition of the fire safety company Shokly, and months later we secured $36m in Series B funding and have opened an office in Singapore. So, I would say things are going pretty well. We are also growing our team in London, Paris and Singapore and are proud to be employing more than 100 people.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this pivot?
The most interesting thing that’s happened to me is having the French President, Macron, comment his congratulations on my LinkedIn post announcing our Series B and Singapore launch news. It was quite surreal, but definitely interesting to me to see WeMaintain, a company in an underrated, overlooked and frankly unsexy industry, getting recognized for its achievements by people on the outside!
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
Keep in mind that innovation and solutions do not come from where you think they would come from normally. Keep an open mind and keep listening to all your team across the organization.
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?
For sure, winning new business and rewarding great work always boosts morale.
To inspire and motivate a team, a leader should reinforce the company’s values and identity. I think people like to feel they belong to a special and decent group of people.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Authenticity. Being open with the team, clients and partners about where we’re going as a company, what we can do and how we do it.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Diversity: Although it’s easier, don’t just hire people who are carbon copies of the people you already have. A too homogeneous team brings complacency, unhealthy competition and internal politics. Pursue diversity to bring a broader perspective into your business and industry. This will help you stay ahead of the next idea that could disrupt the industry.
- Empowering your tech team: Too many business leaders silo off their tech departments and software engineers. They just ask them to push some code. Make them the front and center of your business, and when hiring them, don’t just look for technical expertise, make sure they have a deep understanding of your sector and can take ownership of the business.
- Be bold: There is no shortcut and no secret — you sometimes have to make hard decisions, and you have to make them fast. I can see lots of business leaders accepting an unsatisfying status quo.
Ok. Thank you. 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 pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.
The five most important things:
- Identify customer needs. It means you need to listen to them carefully and constantly. Show customers that you understand their needs and that you have the expertise to respond to them.
- Create win/win opportunities. Nobody wants to find themselves in a situation where each has a feeling of losing something. To make a sustainable business and to last in your industry, you need to find a balance among each stakeholder.
- Have a vision — Customers do not only buy products or services. They want to feel what you sell is part of a bigger vision. In 1984, Apple described themselves as ‘the computer for the rest of us’ whether you’re a PC or Mac fan, the ability to project your vision and see it through is critical in business.
- Define your values — People will go the extra mile for a company when they buy into its values, which must be underpinned by decency. People like to feel they belong to a special group.
- Empower — Good business ideas can come from anyone in your team. You need to give full ownership and trust for your team to think on their own and reinvent your business if needed.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Imagine what you could do if you were not afraid.” What prevents everyone from doing things is usually fear. Fear of not knowing, fear of sounding stupid, fear of not being the right person…
Every time I face a challenge I think about this sentence. When I have to make tough decisions, I think about choices that people have to make because their life depends on it. All of sudden, fear disappears!
How can our readers further follow your work?