Neil Patel

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Rodolphe Ardant is the cofounder and CEO of Spendesk which is a smart spend management software designed for both finance teams and employees. The company has raised over $60 million from top tier investors including Index Ventures, Kima Ventures, FundersClub, Eight Roads Ventures, Financiere Saint James, and eFounders to name a few.

In this episode you will learn:

  • How to raise money when VCs don’t get your product
  • Strategies for getting your first customers
  • How Spendesk works

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About Rodolphe Ardant:

Rodolphe Ardant is the cofounder and CEO of Spendesk.

Furthermore, Rodople Ardant is the former COO of Drivy and founder of Wozaik.

Rodolphe has a background in engineering with a degree from Ecole Polytechnique.

Connect with Rodolphe Ardant:

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FULL TRANSCRIPTION OF THE INTERVIEW:

Alejandro: Alrighty. Hello everyone, and welcome to the DealMakers show. I’m very excited about the founder that we have today because I think that we’re going to be learning quite a bit on polishing and getting to product/market fit when you didn’t even know that there was the direction to go – building, scaling, dealing with COVID challenges, and you name it. So I think it’s going to be interesting, and I don’t want to make our guest wait any longer, so without further ado, let’s welcome our guest. Rodolphe Ardant, welcome to the show.

Rodolphe Ardant: Hi, Alejandro. Thank you for having me.

Alejandro: Life growing up and being born in Paris, you moved quite a bit, so tell us how life was for you, and how was that environment of jumping from one place to another?

Rodolphe Ardant: I was born in France, in Del France, actually, and spent my childhood in Paris. My parents, my dad was in the commission of [02:13]. He was working in a bank and was moving from country to country, so as a kid, I lived five years in Italy, then three years in Greece, and back to Paris. It gave me this will to travel and live abroad a lot. Then Tunisia, Morocco, and I stayed with my studies. I lived in India during my studies and in New York in the U.S. for my Master’s Degree. I think it’s a big part of my childhood moving from place to place and having new relationships every time. It’s not something you like as a kid, but then when you get back on all the things you learn and everything that is going on, it’s something that sheds light on my personality.

Alejandro: Your personality and perhaps the way that you are as an entrepreneur too. I’ve interviewed a lot of people, and some of those founders traveled quite a bit with they were younger. Perhaps that allowed you to be a little bit more comfortable with uncertainty, with starting from scratch, and all those things that make human beings quite uncomfortable. So how do you think that perhaps it helped in shaping that entrepreneurial mindset and way of being?

Rodolphe Ardant: Yeah. Potentially, I agree? I think when you’re traveling like that, as a kid, you have to rebuild everything every time. One of the skills you learn, and it’s a hard way to learn this, but skills to adapt to a new environment, new language. I remember being in Greece, even reading what needs to be read because it’s not the same letter. I think the ability to go into ambiguity and be okay with that just because you don’t have any other choice as a kid, and so it’s part of who you are.

Alejandro: In this case, in your own case, what got you into engineering? How did you develop that love for addressing problems?

Rodolphe Ardant: It’s a question of mindset. Initially, I was always good at math and science fascinated me, and physics, etc., as a kid. I was quite enamored, actually. Creating things – when I entered engineering schools, the creating of things, solving problems, trying to find creative solutions to think that – you didn’t think we could solve these things, but something that always excited me. I remember all the different projects that I was doing at school at the time with friends. We were trying to [00:05:02], and we were like, “Can we stop [5:05] that is better shared or that there can be more performance. So, trying to identify the different problems and what we see and being excited about finding a way to solve them is a hunger-drive for me. It’s something that I really like in this entrepreneurial journey, not only with the product that you’re building, but the problem first, but also because building the organization and building the company, building everything is actually like a new problem coming in every time something needs to be solved. That’s what I like about being an engineer.

Alejandro: Going more into problems and mindset, after school, you met your co-founder of your first baby, your first company, which you met him in school, and then you guys decided to go at it. Tell us what that process was, how you guys encountered that specific problem that you were excited about, and then how you decided, “Let’s go at it, and let’s bring this to life.”

Rodolphe Ardant: I think we made so many mistakes in this adventure. The first was technical. We were most excited by working in technology and solving technology problems, the way to cope at that time other than just the solution that we built. This was one of the key mistakes that we made back then. This was exciting to be able to work on technology that you are going to master and build a framework around this that would be exciting as computer engineers. The first mistake we made there is during two years, we built a very, very strong technology, but it was not actually solving a business problem. We learned the hard way. We had this technology; we had this fantastic product that we built that was of no value. No one was going to pay for that. We were not serving something that was essential for people. On this journey, we built about three business models, and every time included this capacity to understand what people want, what problem we’re solving for them; are they going to pay for that? Is there a business? And technology being a [7:30], I think that was the main learning for this.

Alejandro: For this journey, what was exactly the business model?

Rodolphe Ardant: The first one, UBIFRANCE, we were spending a lot of time on the internet, and most of the time, we were navigating into the same website on the same PCs of the website. Is it possible to build the technology that I was to cut a piece of this website and allocate it into a place where you go, and you have a general view to what this says without having to ruin them? So it was all about we can [8:16] part of the website and keep the way of working in a [8:22] environment and the technology for change, and that was fantastic for us. In the end, it was solving something which was not very essential. We thought it could be very useful when you have a lot of bookmarks, or we could serve marketing with that, but there was no business model. Initially, we were thinking okay, but maybe we can share revenue with this website when someone is looking at an ad [8:52]. It was a lot of inexperience from us. We felt ashamed, but the technology was great even though it was useless. Then the decision we made when we understood that it’s not going to be a business for us was starting to be more business-oriented. The problem we solved, in the end, was old people can access part of the internet that they love, and where they repeatedly go. So what we started building then was a search engine in partnership with Google that was going to dig into your favorite website so you can easily find what you found before. There was a business for that based on enterprise. It started to work well. We started to feel great traction from customers, business model working well a partnership with Google, and Google banned us. It was a tough time on this situation. When you rebound a certain time, we were thinking, “What we can do is we know how to match a product or service with a search engine, and we built a technology that was about to go to advertisers asking them, “Give me a product that you want to advertise, and we’re going to find all the search engines for them, and we are going to automate all the iteration from [10:20]. These last projects took up 18 months to build a technology, a product, that worked where we had customers with a strong traction, and we got acquired by a French media group called Solocal Group. It ended very well, but the learning curve we had, I call this reiteration, which was, for me, the most valuable at the time.

Alejandro: Tell us about the acquisition. How did that come about?

Rodolphe Ardant: It came at a point. We understood that if we were to go with this company, we had to change the DNA, so we were in India, that is in space, basically, and we had to change the DNA of the company from a technical one to a sales one, and we knew nothing about sales. At that time, it was not something we wanted to start building with my co-founder, so we started to think, “If we want to exploit the product and the technology, we need to eventually find a company that has this sales mindset, and they’re going to use this in a much-extended way and a much more powerful way.” We started discussing with our customers the one that we’re using the most technology and starting to say, “Maybe there could be a merger here and could be useful for you.” We were surprised, again, from our experience there that there was a strong interest for them to acquire this technology. Then we stopped and started changing our strategies. How can we sell? It ended super well with this customer that we had, which is a big French and European media group called Solocal making a very good bid for the company we built.

Alejandro: For you, this was the opportunity to see the full cycle of a business, so from the idea all the way to exit. I’m sure after this, you had quite a bit of time to reflect, and while you were reflecting, what were those three key lessons that you knew you would definitely apply to your next rodeo?

Rodolphe Ardant: I think the first one is all about product/market fit, saying, “Let’s focus on building something that many people want and where you have a business.” It gave me this – it’s obvious telling you right now, but for a technical entrepreneur, this is a mistake that many, many are doing – thinking that is the idea, but not really looking into the business validation of the idea and focusing most of your energy toward this. This road to product/market fit to understanding that I am really solving a problem and at the height of the solution of this problem brings – people are using the solution, and people want to pay for this solution and for this product, which has a funnel when you start, and you spend 100% of your bandwidth. That is the first. The second thing, at the beginning of this first company, we launched into “We need to get known; we need to participate in a lot of events, etc. It was fairly not anything of good or outcome-oriented; it was not going about learning more about our customers, learning more about the value we provided them. It was starting to build a brand in an ecosystem of startups, which was total nonsense. This is a time that scaling was spent and particularly at the beginning of the journey. If you’re not learning, if it’s not something that’s not making progress on your business, it’s something you don’t want to do. The third one is understanding that once the idea is there, finding cash and finding the right investors are not so hard. I knew nothing about raising capital in this business. First, like possible for me, saying, “This would work. [14:48].” It was like a very, very big thing at that time for us, and actually, it was not, so finding money when you’ve got the right idea, finding the right partners that can finance your idea and particularly in Europe. In Europe, 15 years ago, the capital environment was not what it is today. It was much harder and much harder in the early stage to find capital. There was a big gap there. But still, finding money was something that was not so hard. It changed my way when I was building a new product on a new idea. “Okay. Actually, you can get sources fast if you pitch well your vision and the problem you’re solving to be able to build a product with a professional guarantee that you want to build and is going to use the time of learning from this product/market fit.

Alejandro: After the acquisition happened with Solocal Group really taking this in under the umbrella, you stayed there for a little bit, for over a year. Then after this, you did a little bit as the role on the operations side for a startup, and then you also did a little bit of being part of a startup studio. But this was the segue into your latest and biggest baby. Tell us about that segue and how all this incredible idea of Spendesk really got incubated.

Rodolphe Ardant: That’s a good one. When we got acquired by this company, which was a big company like 10,000 employees or something like that, I took the shock of the process of the operation that I didn’t know, and I didn’t like it at all. I think I made a mistake there. I stayed so long because part of the deal was in and out, so I stayed for the money, and I shouldn’t have because the money was not worth it, but just because time is the only thing that matters. When you’re not polishing or not learning and not developing yourself, you’re losing important time. I finally decided to leave. I wanted to rejoin [17:14]. In my first enterprise, I saw a lot of stuff, so all this whole product, building the product market and this product/market fit. I was very interested about “Know that you’ve got a product/market fit, and you start scaling the team [17:30]. What skills do you need to have? Or you start the help phase of the startup. It’s a Pier2Pier kind of marketplace. There was Series A that was starting to build the team into an expansion, etc. So starting to get this part of the upstage. And I was joining and leading the operations there, so making the business model. When I was there, I had finance in my scope, and I’m a big believer of decentralized organization when things go fast when people are employed to get the job done in a trusted environment. This is something that you have mostly when the businesses are small, and when businesses start to go and bring some complexity, which is tough. I’m a big believer of this flag organization when you’ve got a lot of creativity, and people can back the business with their own decision. But on the finance side, as we started to gain, as we started to grow, it was total chaos. It was total chaos because you’ve got no credit activity towards the spending on your company. It was a problem of security, a problem of compliance, of spend. So at some point, it was like, “Stop. We need to structure ourselves; we need more discipline; we need to put some process in place. I started to do something that I really hated. I started to centralize things, and it was like you’re putting the process in place that you would have hated if you were in the teams. It was super frustrating, so I started thinking that I was the only one with a lack of agility in finance, this low-cutting process that they placed. Is this something that needs to be done, or is it something that you cannot compress?” As your company goes, it happens; they bring the value in the business in the end. It was a frustration. I stopped to think, “Is there a way to solve that? If I were to solve that, what needs to be done? If we were to allow people to access the company money for me on the finance side, I think the high-developed control to make [19:57] staff to manage this complexity. How does that look”? I started to think about this problem, and I started to interview the finance leader that had the same frustration and thought they could automate their job and that we could move more agility into their team. I started to think the potential solution was this level of control; this level of compliance inside the payment method themselves if we could start building the solution on that. I started to envision the potential solution that I wanted to explore. That was the moment where I met the guys at eFounders, and I was thinking about this idea, and I was also thinking, “You started your first company, so you know the level of resilience, the level of energy that the company has, so why do you want to do it? What’s the game in that for you?” After the scenario, I came back to “If I want to start a business, I have two clear goals in mind. Let’s try, this time, to make it something that can be very impactful that can be very big. I don’t know if I’m going to succeed, but I want the problem that I was going to solve is something that could apply to many, many different businesses or to impact many people.” The second one was, “But if I build this one, I really want to see it in the long-term. I want to build a great company, a company where every day I’m very happy to go to work, and the people around me are going to be a great part of their professional career. Thinking on that, I met the guys at eFounders. eFounders is a startup studio specialized in B2B SaaS, located in Paris. These guys were a clear answer to me on “I could use my time and 100% of my time on learning about my customers and build a product of high quality because they were providing me with the resources for that, and making fast considerations of learning toward the market that we have and the problems we are solving to accelerate this goal #1 – understanding if the problem we were serving was a right one and starts to be big.” It was perfect partnerships together, and they were working on the project where they could provide people with a virtual card in the company so they could buy online without asking for their managers. It was a clear way for me to say, “That’s a really good way to start solving the problem on that particular use case. It’s not the vision I totally have, so we can extend this later, but for now, it could be a right MVP for us.” We decided to partner and start building this company and solving this problem.

Alejandro: How did you go about building it and solving the problem? What happened next?

Rodolphe Ardant: We started from this white page with this vision: we can give access to people to the company money, something that’s so emotional, so difficult to trust with, and add a finance team to set up the right process where they thought to be hassle-free from all the tedious task of reconciliation, recurring payments, bookkeeping, etc. The first year was fully dedicated to building the first product that had the traction that could solve the problem. On that, I think we had three aha moments in the story. The first problem we shaped was all about solving online payments at work. But to stop using these products, you had to [23:50] an account on Spendesk. So, basically, the first customers, you need to picture myself going to see these people I didn’t know and understand the problem with them, and they said, “Maybe I’ve got a solution for you.” But it’s a solution you have to wire [24:10] on this account, and we know the terms of use, etc. So it was kind of an act of faith for them to immediately say, “Yeah. The solutions you provide seem to be very interesting, and we’re going to trust you with our money on that.” This was the first aha moment for us, saying, “The problem we want to solve for them is rough for them spending the time and not risking but spending some money on an obscure icon for an obscure company starting to solve this problem.” The second one was when our first customer started to use our product we saw the usage of the product grow and grow fast week after week. They were inviting more and more users from the company on Spendesk, and they were spending more and more money week after week on Spendesk, meaning that the first use case they had in mind was extending into another process in the company. So it was a very, very good signal for us. And the third one – oh, these first customers, I was not charging for them. I wanted to test the usage first and the problem [25:21] and that the solution we were building was the [25:25]. So it was about what’s the value to provide them? Are they going to pay for that? At that time, we had around 100 businesses on Spendesk using it, and we shipped our first pricing iterations as engineers – always asking yourself: is the value there or not? This was a good surprise integrating all our customers from free to paying. We didn’t [25:54]. During this year, we started to have a business. We had a product that people wanted to test and that people really used and were willing to pay for. That was when we provided the company, and that was the first day of Spendesk.

Alejandro: So that the people that are listening really understand it, what ended up being the business model? How do you guys make money today with Spendesk?

Rodolphe Ardant: Spendesk is a spend-management platform, so we are a low-finance team to set up a process in the company to get full visibility and control to us what the team is spending. Whatever the payment methods can be or whatever the use case can be, if you spend in the office or out of the office if you need to pay a supplier or need to pay an account, etc. Our business model is SaaS, so it’s a monthly subscription for our customers, which is based on a tiered plan, SaaS business model.

Alejandro: You guys, obviously, needed some money for this. How much capital have you guys raised to date?

Rodolphe Ardant: We’ve raised 55 million euros of capital in the past four years. 

Alejandro: Got it. So that’s probably a little over 60 million dollars. In this case, I know that the seed round was a little bit of a hiccup, maybe because investors didn’t understand the company. Is that right?

Rodolphe Ardant: We had the first customers loving our product and using it. Following the seed round, I started to go to venture capitalists, the early-stage ones pitching the idea and showing them the product, etc. It was really a misbelief on them about “It’s not really financed. You’ve got early customers, but a finance team that doesn’t want – they’re not going to move on that.” As soon as the stuff could be processed, I’m not going to change the way they were doing it. I remember spending three months nonstop teaching new investors, pitching the idea, and getting negative feedback. It’s tough because as an entrepreneur, the product is working, and you believe in it, and the market is not there on the investment side. I remember it was a tough time. What we decided in the end, “Okay. Maybe this money should not come from VCs, but from the lessons on this first company, so let’s try to find money elsewhere. We weren’t actually first on our customers saying, “Hey, we want to develop this company. Is there something that embarrassed you to invest in it?” Our first customers were really – funders of our company that were organizing were, “Yeah. Actually, what you guys are doing is fantastic, so we want to be part of it.” It was my first business engine and from them, from their network, we raised 1.5 million euros in three to four weeks. It was amazing compared to the time I was spending in trying to pitch to VCs at this early stage.

Alejandro: That’s amazing. It’s amazing how every round for you guys has been different. For example, the Series B was not so much of a hiccup. It was more of a discussion internally, so tell us about this.

Rodolphe Ardant: Yeah, exactly. So after the seed, one year after we were on a 1.5 million AR – I remember having a discussion with Index Ventures, which [29:23 – 29:27], they led our Series A. So, joined Bouten in 2018. For the Series B, it was quite fun for us. We were not raising money at that time, but the metrics and the traction in the business were really outstanding. I remember asking [29:48], saying, “Look. We don’t need the money right now, but if we want to further accelerate, maybe we should start raising another round – one of the classical metrics of the Series B in the SaaS business that the rest of us could expect. We are not there yet. We do not have any [30:06 – 30:12]. So I tested the idea with them, and they told me, “You just need to test the market, so start making a deck, telling the story, and come back to us so you can take our feedback.” I’m presenting to our next partner, Bob. At the end of my presentation saying, “Hey, guys. What do you think? Does this sound compelling, etc.?” They tell me, “Actually, you don’t need to look for another investor. We want to [30:40] again. These are the conditions that we have.” It was a fantastic term sheet at the end of this meeting, and they put 35 million in the Series B of the company.

Alejandro: That’s amazing. Just for the people that are listening to get an idea on the size of the company today, anything that you can share around maybe like the number of employees or anything else?

Rodolphe Ardant: Yeah. We are a team of 240 people. We’ve got three offices in Paris, Berlin, and London, and a smaller facility in San Francisco today. Last year, we were 120, so we’ve doubled the size of the team. We are serving around 2,000 customers today in Europe. The future is pretty bright for us. That’s good.

Alejandro: Very nice. Imagine if you go to sleep tonight, and you wake up five years later in a world where the vision of Spendesk is fully realized. What does that world look like? 

Rodolphe Ardant: It’s a world where payment at work [31:42] where you are a great experience when you need to spend your company money. I think that no one today says that [31:52]. I’m talking about expense reports and digital process to get validation, to submit invoices to get paid when you have [32:06]. And thinking about all [32:10] that you need to make in terms of reconciliation or to give that other finance team needs to have to make the right payment allocation. So in five years from now, I’m fully believing in workplaces where people can be trusted and employed with the company money without jeopardizing the capacity of the business to control their cost – a world where all these flow from “Can I actually pay?” to “How can I pay?” and then to bookkeeping all this expense can be fully automated and with a high developed, [32:51] that can bring much more efficiency and the analogies and where the money of the company is going. This is the world that I’ll design.

Alejandro: That’s amazing. Obviously, this is not your first rodeo. This is the second time around, and now you’re armed with a ton of lessons learned along the way. One question that I typically ask the guests on the show is that if you had the opportunity to go back in time and maybe you were in school still thinking and talking with your co-founder of what will be your first company, what would you guys want to do and what would you launch? Given all the knowledge that you have now if you were able to go into a time machine back and have a chat with that younger Rodolphe, what would be that one piece of business advice that you would give to yourself before launching a company and why?

Rodolphe Ardant: That’s a good question. I think it comes back to the thing we learned and the destination is about really understanding the problem you want to solve and how you can build a business out of it. If I could get back all these years, I would try to educate myself and to understand how the internet and technology through the web could actually pull our services that are so high-valued to people that I didn’t understand at the time.

Alejandro: It’s amazing. If all the lessons that one learns, especially during the bad times because people typically don’t learn so much from successful events, I would say. But Rodolphe, for the people that are listening, what is the best way for them to reach out and say hi?

Rodolphe Ardant: You can always send me an email: Rodolphe@Spendesk.com or just find me on LinkedIn.

Alejandro: Amazing. Rodolphe, thank you so much for being on the DealMakers show today.

Rodolphe Ardant: Thank you, Alejandro. It was a pleasure.

 

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