The Barcelona beachfront tower that dominates fast-growth company rankings
For years, Barcelona has served as one of the most prolific innovation hubs in Europe. More recently, and perhaps less known to the outside world, Torre Mapfre – the iconic office tower on the beachfront – has become synonymous with corporate growth.
Following in the footsteps of fellow Torre Mapfre tenants ExoClick and Criteo, Kantox recently won Deloitte’s Fast500 award. To gain insights into what it takes to win this prestigious award, we recently brought together Benjamin Fonzé (ExoClick founder and CEO), Thomas JeanJean (Criteo Managing Director Mid-Market EMEA), and Philippe Gelis (Kantox founder and CEO). We discussed a wide range of topics, ranging from business growth to work-life balance.
Let’s start with the basics, what do you and your company do?
Benjamin: ExoClick is an online ad network. We started about ten years ago, as a technology service to monetize ad spots on websites. Now, of course, this sounds very basic, but back then there was only Google and a few other guys doing that. I’m a developer and I started this company pretty organically, working alone for about a year and a half. Once I got a few clients, I quit my job and hired the first person to help me with customer service and sales. Since then, the company has kept growing year after year.
Thomas: Criteo is a technology company specialised in performance marketing. Basically, our goal is to increase the number of sales we deliver to clients thanks to relevant advertising. The main purpose of the company is to deliver incremental revenue through websites, in-app, emails, and social networks. We mainly work with retailers, but also with some travel and classified clients.
Philippe: We [Kantox] are a B2B company selling FX solutions. In other words, we work to solve one of the major problems faced by international companies: currency management. Our clients are CFOs, treasurers, and other key financial decision makers. These people give a lot of credibility to a company like Deloitte given that they are very often audited by one of the “Big 4.” For us, being a Deloitte Fast 500 is an amazing “quality stamp” since it is an objective ranking based on revenue growth. It has nothing to do with some awards that depend on people’s opinions.
Winning this award means that life is going great, but the day-to-day of a fast-growing company is not always easy. What are your main challenges?
BF: The main challenge for us is the rapid growth of our team. When you go from one person to 120, you make mistakes, you build things up, and you have to constantly review how to keep the right people, and how to keep them motivated. You need to make sure that there is a great culture that everyone can associate with. For me, technology is easy to deal with, but finding the people that fit into the ExoClick culture as well as our business is the most difficult thing.
TJ: We faced different challenges while we went through the multiple stages of a fast growing company, but I totally agree with Benjamin: finding talent is key. For Criteo, it’s also about finding the right number of people. When we won this award we were 600 people in the world, today we are more than 2,400. Keeping the right cultural mix of innovation, engagement and passion are also key. So finding how to scale a lot of people across different geographies is key, especially since the role they are going to be hired for now will be very different in six months or one year.
When you grow fast in both size and geographical footprint, you need to keep the culture that made your success before. This includes maintaining the right level of innovation, for instance, bringing a culture of empowerment, giving your employees the chance to pitch their projects and then providing the resources for their good ideas.
PG: Behind fast growth, there is always, or let’s say in 99% of cases, very hard work. When you look at our 2,331% growth rate in the past years, it looks stratospheric to people from traditional industries, but to achieve that you need to live and breathe your company.
Growth has been tremendous, but it is not linear, some periods are extremely fast growth, others are slower growth, and it is indeed when you have to work even harder to go back to rapid growth. It is a bit like when you watch FC Barcelona playing football, it looks so easy, dead simple on TV, but most of the team has been training for years following the Barça football culture and philosophy, designed by Cruyff 40 years ago.
Imagine you can go back in time and change only one company decision you took. What would it be?
BF: Well, maybe if we had to change something we would not be where we are now, so it’s a risky proposition. But, as I said, for sure we have made lots of mistakes, but in hindsight, I don’t think we have any big regrets.
TJ: It’s always hard to say it retrospectively but I wonder what would have been the development of Criteo in what we call the expansion markets (The Middle East and Africa, Russia, etc.) if we had entered them earlier. When I see the opportunity that those markets can represent, I believe that we could have even had a bigger size there now.
PG: I would invest a lot more time and resources to train people. I believe that there is never enough time for training in B2B companies. We are speaking about complex sales processes in a complex and sensitive industry: finance. There are many decision-makers and people involved, so driving sales and marketing is very challenging.
Making your firm grow demands tonnes of time and effort. When was the last time you were just chilling, disconnected from the world?
TJ: Something I’ve learned over the past two years is clearly to have a better work-life balance. So I think right now I’m pretty good at disconnecting from Saturday morning to Sunday afternoon. Then, I start working on Sunday afternoons. But, I guess the last time I was 100 percent disconnected was probably 5 years ago. You can do it whatever stage your company is at; maybe you can’t do it for one day and a half at the beginning, but at least half a day. It’s a matter of methodology. Mine is during the weekend when I shut down my phone and computer. Also, it might sound counter-cultural, but I don’t bring my phone to the bed.
BF: Maybe two years ago, skiing in Austria. I like any sports related activity, I go horse riding, so any activity that is a little bit intense forces you to disconnect anyway. That’s what I try to do at least once a year.
PG: I don’t think I’ve truly disconnected since I created Kantox. I mean, for example, I took 6 days of holiday during Christmas, and I read 2 business books: “La voix du pirate” about Xavier Niel and “The hard thing about hard things” from B.Horrowitz. The later one was the second time I read it; the first time being during my honeymoon. In my opinion, you can not really disconnect when you are a Tech entrepreneur; it is all about your company. It is very intense, much more so than what most people think.
Apart from making your company grow, what would you be doing if you had a second life?
TJ: My family is making wine. So I think I would like at some point to change my life completely and move into the wine business, operating a vineyard. My second passion is horses, so I would also love to be horse breeder at some point.
BF: I wanted to be a veterinarian when I was younger. I was actually going to start on that path, but my parents bought me a computer, and I fell in love with programming. You can imagine how the rest of that story turned out.
PG: I think I would be a winemaker too. I come from a wine region in the South of France (Corbières). My father and many of my friends work in the wine industry. It is something entirely different from the Tech industry. It is a slow-pace/long-term business.
As an April fool’s joke, Kantox ‘rebranded’ the tower as ‘Torre Kantox.’ Did you believe the Torre Kantox joke? Didn’t you ask yourself why not Torre Criteo/Exoclick?
BF: I thought it was insane. It was the “Día de los Inocentes” date, which I was not very familiar with. So I when I saw it, I completely believed it. And my first reaction was a big surprise, and then I thought, “why didn’t we try that ourselves?” And who knows, it could actually happen in the future with Kantox, Criteo or Exoclick.
TJ: I believed it 100%. I thought it was really funny, but at the beginning, I was upset. The first thing I did was to call my worldwide facility manager to understand why there was not Torre Criteo in the news and tried to push to do it if we still had time. Indeed, it was the Torre Mapfre landlord who told us that it was a prank right after I asked him “why isn’t this my tower?”