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Scaling Up Talent In Europe

How to Scale-Up Talent was the subject of a panel that I hosted recently at Viva Technology, the Paris mega-conference that returned earlier this month. My panelists included:

  1. Philippe Botteri, a Partner at Accel
  2. Phil Chambers, General Manager of Peakon
  3. Frédéric Mazzella, Founder & President of BlaBlaCar
  4. Agathe Wautier, CEO of The Galion Project

The panel was part of a conference track focused on the Scale-Up Europe initiative that was announced earlier this year by French President Emmanuel Macron. At VivaTech, a working group presented its official set of recommendations for E.U. governments and the tech ecosystem. Macron took the occasion to announce a new goal: He wants to see 10 companies worth more than €100 billion in Europe by 2030.

During our conversation, the panelists offered a wide range of advice for entrepreneurs who must confront the scaling challenge.

Botteri said there are 3 things that he tells founders in his portfolio as they think about how to structure their startup for this new phase: Figure out how to move from a founder-led company to one that is run by an executive committee; achieve a balance in top management between people with deep experience and people who are doing these jobs for the first time and can bring more innovative energy; and think ahead in terms of key hires, particularly for roles like chief financial officer.

“Think about what you need today,” he said. “But always keep an eye on what should be my target six months from now and make the hiring decision for that today.”

Chambers said it’s important for startups to have a “repeatable process.” He advised startups to use tools like scorecards to track interviews and feedback. Startups also need to be clear about who makes ultimate hiring decisions and monitoring their success rate.

“I think one of the things that many startups find is that hiring is a bit hit and miss,” Chambers said. “As they scale, they find multiple people asking the same questions and it’s not organized.”

Culture Club

Emphasizing culture has been essential for scaling BlaBlaCar, according to Mazzella. He said the company began defining its culture from the earliest days and organized events and meetings to discuss and enhance that with employees. This included principles such employees learning from each other and not being afraid of failure.

“It creates not only a tone between everybody in the company, but it also creates a positioning and an image that will attract people to join this wonderful company which is growing with strong values,” he said. “Because the worst thing you could think of when you’re doing recruitment is to have candidates who will just send 50 resumes to 50 different companies and they don’t really care. They’re just looking for a job in any company. That’s not what you want when you’re building your company.”

Wautier also said that members of The Galion Project, a think tank of French founders, have started to talk about company culture from the earliest stages.

“When you need to hire fast, the values will be a guide for people to recruit and for when you need to welcome them in the company,” she said. “This is something really, really core to scaling. You need to spend some time on it because it makes you resilient as well as the company. Like with the COVID crisis, we saw the companies with a culture were able to like stay together even though it was a bumpy ride. And it’s a key differentiator because you can’t copycat the culture.”

Expanding Options

Firms like Accel also give their portfolio companies a boost in their talent hunts. Botteri said Accel has an HR community on Slack so its companies can share hiring best practices. And the firm has a Head of Talent in Europe to help founders identify key talent.

Still, Chambers stressed that employees remain one of the best resources for attracting talent.

“If you build a great employee value proposition and a great place to work then ultimately you’ll see this referral engine really come to life,” Chambers said. “That’s one of the things that worked really well at Peakon. At one stage, 50% of our hires were coming from employees themselves and that supercharges your hiring process.”

One tool that still remains a challenge is stock options. Relative to Silicon Valley, options are still far less common in Europe. During VivaTech, BlaBlaCar announced it was awarding options to all employees, something it did during the earliest days. But as the company expanded to more geographies, awarding such options grew too complicated because of the tangle of labor and tax laws, Mazzella said.

“Frankly, if you don’t have an entire administrative team dedicated to making sure you have stepped option schemes which are compatible to all the regulations everywhere, you’re not able to do it,” he said.

That’s why the Scale-Up Europe report recommends synchronizing the rules for options across Europe. But the other hurdle for stock options has been with founders and even startup employees in Europe who often are not accustomed to either using options or asking for them.

Several panelists said they believe that has begun to change in Europe and options are starting to become the norm. But Wautier pointed out that raises another issue: exits. Those options ultimately only matter if the European ecosystem can generate a steadier flow of exits.

As those exits are starting to increase, she said, the startup ecosystem has a better understanding of the value of options and the impact they can have.

“When there’s a lack of exits, people couldn’t see what you could get from your shares,” Wautier said. “In France, we’re starting to build some stories, legends, and people are trusting it. The ecosystem is starting to be more mature on this topic.”

This article is part of a series produced in partnership with La French Tech & the French Tech Journal.

Photo courtesy of Viva Technology

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