I had the pleasure of interviewing Jean Hamon. Jean grew up in and has spent most of his life in France, though throughout his life he studied and worked a few years in other European countries as well as the US and Singapore. Jean’s studies focused on engineering, and he later worked for 8 years in IT at a time when cloud technologies were transforming the industry. In particular, Jean saw how the revenue model of SaaS vendors allowed them to capture more value and to keep innovating. That’s what pushed him to want to start his own B2B SaaS business.
Before jumping in the deep pool of entrepreneurship, Jean completed a 1-year MBA at INSEAD Business School, where he enjoyed learning with and from people with very diverse backgrounds. There he decided to build a white-label SaaS solution to enable institutions to offer their alumni a platform to connect and to network and share business opportunities in a trusted environment. Facebook and LinkedIn did not offer the type of interactions or sense of community he was looking for.
Hivebrite was launched commercially in 2015 and the platform quickly found use in many more industries and market segments. Today, Hivebrite serves hundreds of customers in over 40 countries.
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 a French guy, I grew up in a tiny village an hour drive south of Paris with my parents and two annoying yet lovely little sisters. I recently turned 40, currently live in Paris and got married last year.
I grew up in and have spent most of my life in France, though throughout my life I have studied and worked a few years in other European countries, as well as the US and Singapore. My studies focused on engineering, and then I later worked for 8 years in IT at a time when cloud technologies were transforming the industry. In that time, I saw how SaaS vendors were having fun innovating and making tons of money that they could then re-invest to innovate and expand even more, while most IT consulting & professional services firms were working for them, not really innovating and generating low margins in comparison.
That’s what pushed me to want to start my own B2B SaaS business. I applied and was accepted at INSEAD Business School for a 1-year MBA, where I met tons of people with very diverse backgrounds. After graduating, I found that I was having a difficult time finding and connecting with alumni of his university, and that platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn did not offer the type of interactions or sense of community I was looking for.
This led me to launch Hivebrite in 2015 to enable institutions to offer their alumni a platform to connect and to network and share business opportunities in a trusted environment. The platform quickly found use in many more industries and market segments. Today, Hivebrite serves hundreds of customers in over 40 countries.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
In 2012 in France, the startup ecosystem was still in its early days. Any startup CEO raising 1 million and above was lauded as a national hero in the news. I wasn’t much of a hero by then, not even in my own head.
I was feeling lonely and we had no cash. While my MBA friends were going from one job promotion to the next, making good money and calling me a rockstar because I was the cool guy taking risks, I was wondering every morning what the hell I was doing with my life. However, I had to put a smile on my face and keep going because I had a small team to run, relatives that were supportive yet worried, and I needed to find investors and customers crazy enough to give us their dollars.
My takeaway from this story is:
- Find an idea that you can bring to market fast in order to prove the potential and raise enough money. If you can’t do this, your life is going to be tough for a little while.
- Uncertainty combined with loneliness kills you. You can be lonely for a long time if you are sure it’s going to work for you in the end, and you can fight uncertainty for a longer time when you’re not alone, as there’s always someone to bring the other up. But you can’t be both lonely with deal with uncertainty for too long. It’ll burn you out.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
In my first years, I mostly got advice and inspiration directly from entrepreneurs and investors I’ve met along the way. I wasn’t really into books or podcasts then. When told I don’t read enough, I usually defend myself by saying that people are my books.
It has only been in the past 2 years that I have started reading and listening to business-related content — I feel that I need it more now that our organization is bigger and our challenges more complex.
· Best Book (by far): The Hard Thing About Hard Things, by Ben Horowitz
· Best podcast: Masters of Scale, Reid Hoffman
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Our initial plan was to create a SaaS solution to help people build trusted, actionable communities that revolved around structured information, knowledge and opportunity sharing. We wanted it to be less about ego and endless feeds, like most social (and even professional) networks are, and more about getting the right info to the right people and achieving more together. We started with Alumni communities and then extended to any type of community.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
I don’t have a number one principle, but I tend to relativize a lot. Entrepreneurship is a marathon — you need to avoid being excessive or you’ll burn yourself out. Being too negative will harm your team’s morale. Celebrating too excessively will make you look like a fool.
In a down time, I generally tell myself the following: ups and downs are part of life. This is just another down — we will look back at it with a smile in the future. I have defined what I need to consider myself happy, and I have it. I’m a privileged person. Once again, we are going to do the job, stay positive (being negative doesn’t help), take things one step at a time, and what happens, happens.
In an up, I usually tell myself the following: hard work pays off! We are a strong, unbreakable team. However, it’s important to remain humble: many people work hard on this planet, but few of them get rewarded as they deserve.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I recently got married and we don’t have kids yet, so I have to be honest: being at home has been easy, both from a logistical and from a time-management perspective.
However, I have realized that you can easily end up spending upwards of 95% of your conscious time in front of a screen if you aren’t careful. So after a couple of weeks of lockdown, I’ve tried to reduce unnecessary screen time and started to exercise more, read real books and call family and friends while outside on the balcony.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Luckily, we haven’t faced any major challenges so far. We’ve met our targets, and haven’t had to let anyone go.
We had also reorganized some of our departments a few weeks before the crisis, which made things easier. For example, we split our tech team into smaller squads. Each engineer is now part of a 4–5 person squad, which makes it easier for people to work together and ensures no one is left or forgotten on the side of the road.
One small challenge is that we’re onboarding new people almost every week, and they haven’t had the possibility to meet the team yet, so we’ve had to adjust and strengthen our onboarding processes. But thinking about it, it may actually be less overwhelming to join a new company in these conditions. I guess it depends on the people, and on the company!
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I really dislike hearing the same things over and over again, especially when they are negative and/or shallow. COVID is too easy a target for some media.
I put myself on a news diet years ago, and I pick my readings carefully (I’m busy, and a slow reader!). I only read the news on weekends and use the app Pocket to save pieces I may want to read later.
I’ve been constantly focusing on and reminding my close loved ones about the positives. This is an opportunity for us to call and see each other more, the home office is working for now and we’ll be able to spend more time together in the future (working from our parents’ house from time to time as restrictions ease, etc.). I don’t think we’ve ever spent this much as a family!
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the Post-COVID economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-COVID economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-COVID growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-COVID economy?
At our business level, I see three types of opportunities:
- Easier access to talent: some businesses in our field are letting people go, which allows us to recruit qualified talent more easily. This is already happening, and we expect it to continue.
- Mergers and acquisitions: some businesses (complementary products or competitors) are taking a hit, which may lead to M&A opportunities.
- A broader market: we may see a stronger need for online communities in the post-COVID economy as more people will have moved online.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
That’s a broad question — let’s say that I have somewhat of a COVID-related wish list.
We’ve all seen that the home office can work pretty well for lots of businesses. But what I’m hoping to see is a long-term positive impact for rural and semi-rural areas, where people may be tempted to relocate as big cities have become really expensive over the past two decades.
I also hope to see a real, positive impact on education and healthcare, which I believe are the two core pillars of any good, sustainable society. It all starts with this in my opinion — although COVID is a terrible event, one interesting thing about it has been that it reveals the weaknesses that countries have in healthcare and education and forces us to rethink both. Nurses, teachers, firefighters and more aren’t rewarded or compensated as they should be, and we need to fix this.
I also hope to see more conscious travel. It’s hard to tell people to travel less when you’ve already been lucky enough to see the world yourself or when they have got family far away. But in the business world, we travel far too much. If some people doubted it before, COVID made it extremely clear that we travel far more than necessary.
At a macro-level, I liked to see European countries help each other on some occasions (transferring patients from a country to the other, etc.). I’d love to see more of such collaboration in the future.
I’m also curious to see how COVID is going to affect data privacy.
But to be honest, I think the real, fundamental question is: “will French people still kiss on the cheek to say hello or goodbye?” If you really want to understand what I’m talking about, watch this short video called “La bise” by Paul Taylor. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T-VWbV6TJxU
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-COVID economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-COVID Economy?
We’re currently assessing where opportunities may be in our market.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
It will probably sound obvious, but I’d simply encourage people to make sure they have a solid plan for what to do if such an event were to happen again in the future. This can translate into raising more cash than you think you need when you can afford it, rethinking your product or business in such a way that it can accommodate a similar situation, thinking twice about long term commitments/contracts and more.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“One condition to happiness is to define what the minimum is that you need in order to consider yourself happy. Another condition is to stay away from the comparison game.”
This is important to me because as an entrepreneur, it takes years, sometimes a decade or more, to know if you’ll be successful or not. You’ll probably go through lots of downs. In order to keep going, you need to be able to relativize. If you have good health, nice colleagues, people who care about you and have a bit of fun (and some good food!) from time to time, you will have enough to make you happy. When things get tough, remind yourself of this, take a deep breath, smile and go tackle your challenges.
Also, remind yourself that comparing yourself to others is pointless. Social apps such as TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook are comparison machines. They have the potential to do a lot of harm because they are in great part targeting young people who haven’t yet defined their system of values and structured themselves as individuals. You don’t want to compare yourself to others, you want to see each individual as unique, with their own story. Each individual is a book. You don’t compare books.
How can our readers further follow your work?