We recently caught up with Bénédicte de Raphélis Soissan, founder of French startup Clustree and finalist for the 2015 edition of our startup competition for women founders in Europe, the StartHer Awards. Here is the interview.
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StartHer: In October 2015, you came in second place at the last Lady Pitch Night (now the StartHer Awards). Two years have passed, tell us what Clustree has done since then!
Bénédicte: We raised rounds of 2.5 million euros, and then 7 million euros, and we’ve grown the team to 25 people.
We’ve also signed some great contracts, with L’Oréal, Sanofi, Crédit Agricole, Carrefour, etc. We also won several prizes: the Wired prize for the hottest 100 European Startups, Forbes 30 under 30, and Gartner’s Cool Vendor award.
On the product side, the interface was opened directly to all employees, whereas previously only HR teams could interact with the Clustree interface.
What are the biggest challenges you have faced over the past two years?
One of our biggest challenges on the tech side is the standardization of data, which must be done continuously as there are always new jobs coming up in several countries at the same time. It is a considerable challenge, and one we’ll always have.
Our current biggest challenge is to grow our team, to double the number of employees to fifty people within a year, and to attract international profiles.
Working with big companies is also an ongoing challenge. We’re getting better and better at it with experience, but both sides have to learn to work together.
Precisely, your clients are large corporations. We read a lot of articles citing contradictory experiences about relationships between startups and big companies. What has Clustree’s experience been like so far?
Well, as we knew from the start that our clients would be big corporations, we structured the company so that collaboration would work best for customer relations, our commercial approach, product deployment, and customer satisfaction.
This allowed us to build close relationships based on trust, and in that way we managed to find our footing.
I think the difficulties are generally more upstream, in contract negotiation and product building. There are still some adjustments to make in France so that big companies understand what it is to work on Saas, as well as with startups. Each has very different requirements.
You raised funds so that you also could expand internationally. How do you envisage this next stage of your business?
First, we have to consolidate our position in France; we’ll focus on international expansion after that. The objective is to recruit in France, to grow the team. We still don’t have anyone in marketing, and only two people in sales. When we expand internationally, we will recruit teams in the target country. Cultural differences can be significant, and make it important to have local teams. It will also be necessary to set up partnerships upstream, to work with locally well-positioned players to sell the product.
You are a female entrepreneur, and the lone founder of your startup: do you think you’ve had additional struggles because of your profile?
Not at all. I often say that I do not approach anything with a gender filter. I know that some female entrepreneurs say they have struggled to raise money because they are women, but those issues have never been a problem for me. Alven has a really smart approach to this: they really were “venture capital”, as there was neither product nor team at that point. We were able to (surround ourselves with Business Angels) build a team very quickly.
To get back to your experience at Lady Pitch Night: what were your takeaways from the event?
The fact that women everywhere in Europe are working on a great variety of projects. While there is a tendency to think that women always work on startups in the same subject areas (fashion and children), I met entrepreneurs working on very technical projects, and other female solo founders. The vision of women’s entrepreneurship is changing. It’s important to give it visibility, and to show that it is possible.
What is your most striking memory of the event?
We pitched not all that long ago, and it was quite impressive to see that the room was full of people who’d come to hear women pitch their startups —and there were many men there as well!
The subject of female entrepreneurship concerns men just as much
The subject of female entrepreneurship concerns men just as much, and there should be as many male ambassadors as female talking about the subject. In order to change women’s place in entrepreneurship, and in technology, we should have mixed initiatives, and there should also be events hosted by women for women.
What advice would you give to future candidates?
Be authentic when you present your startup. People think they have to follow a set structure, but in the end, what counts most is to be authentic in your pitch. Someone who is energetic and funny must be herself, just as a shyer person must stay true to herself.
We must stop thinking that it is up to us to adapt to the ecosystem; the ecosystem also needs to adapt to us! The more authentic we are, the more the environment will shift, and the easier it will be to get our message across.
…and to female entrepreneurs more generally?
I would say to stop putting up barriers. There are so many stereotypes today about a variety of things: 50-year-olds worried about age who say they’re too old to work at startups (editor’s note: the founder recruited a 58-year-old Managing Director for Clustree), biases about the school you went to, and obviously about gender.
These stereotypes compartmentalize us, just as things are changing. Today, if you’re a woman and don’t have strong tech skills, you can still bring together the right people to create something great!
You can find more informations about the StartHer Awards on this page.
For this edition, the startup competition will take place at Station F on October the 19th. It will be preceded by workshops during the afternoon, conferences and meetings with the ecosystem and the 10 finalists, opened to the public!