Don’t tie your happiness to the success of your company. When it comes down to it, the sheer numbers suggest that most startups will fail. And as a founder, it’s crucial to understand this. A lot of founders tend for forget, or ignore, this fact, and tie their personal happiness closely with the success of their company. Life is greater than the company you’re running, so be sure to make time for the people and activities that matter to you. Building a successful company is a marathon, not a sprint — you need to take care of yourself to be in for the long haul.
As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mathilde Collin— co-founder and CEO of Front, the San Francisco based company reinventing email for the way modern teams work. More than 5,000 companies — including MailChimp, Stripe, and Shopify — rely on Front to bring efficiency and transparency to the way their highly effective teams work. Front has raised $79 million in venture funding from investors such as Sequoia Capital, DFJ, and Uncork Capital. Mathilde has been recognized in Forbes 30 Under 30: Enterprise Tech 2017 and Inc.’s Rising Stars 2018, and has built a company named as a top place to work by both Glassdoor and Fortune.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Mathilde! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was younger, growing up in France, it always struck me how so many people seemed to be dispassionate about their jobs. It felt so normal for everybody around me to dread the next Monday, to complain about the long hours and to resent their boss. I understood the feelings, but couldn’t get myself to accept the idea. I thought: if I’m going to spend half of my waking hours doing one thing, I certainly hope I’m going to like it! That’s what I wanted for myself, and for the people around me. That goal led my co-founder and I to start working on Front in 2013. We wanted to make a difference in people’s professional lives, and Front was the perfect vehicle for two reasons:
1. As a company, we could improve things locally, internally, by creating a work environment where employees could thrive.
2. As a software provider, we could improve things on a much bigger scale, by working on the most critical tool people use to get work done: email.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
In 2017, my co-founder, CTO, and friend Laurent Perrin was diagnosed with cancer. He ultimately made a full recovery, but in his absence I needed to step in and lead the company for us both. During this period, my motto was “act fast, reflect later.” I was putting the company first and myself second, and working an unhealthy amount of hours. This was ultimately unsustainable, and I could really feel the toll it was beginning to take. This overload caused anxiety and stress to accumulate and began to compromise my ability to lead Front. At one point, it became so debilitating that I had to stop working for two weeks.
This taught me a few things, but most importantly it helped me understand firsthand the importance of prioritizing the health of both yourself and your employees. It’s so important to remember — it’s just a job! The most important thing in life is to take care of yourselves and the people you love.
I began meditating and exercising regularly, gave myself the space to recharge on weekends, and eventually deleted all apps other than texts and calls from my phone. I also talk about this in every onboarding presentation I give, and address it with our company in our weekly all hands meetings. We began offering a monthly health and wellness reimbursement policy, and made sure managers were conducting work-life balance check-ins with their direct reports. I believe bringing personal health and wellness to the forefront has made a significant positive impact, and is something I strongly encourage every founder and manager to explore, and think about how they can be doing it better.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When we hired our first employee in San Francisco (this was when our primary office was still in Paris), the majority of our team was going to be working from France for a short time before moving to SF — a point I thought I had successfully driven home during the interview process. But when this new employee arrived for his first day in the SF office and asked where the rest of the team was, it became immediately clear that this point had not quite gotten across. Luckily he had a good sense of humor about this, and in fact he’s still on the Front team today. The simple lesson to be learned from this is the importance of over-communication.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Something I’m very proud of is the company culture we’ve built at Front. This culture is built upon our core values: Collaboration, Care, Transparency, High Standards, and Low Ego. I think Low Ego is pretty unique so I’ll explain it for you. Everyone has an ego. But when it comes to making Front decisions, we put those egos aside and think first about what would be best for the company or the team. We trust each other to make the right decisions and we support each other in pursuit of our goals. But, we know we’re not perfect, and things won’t always go as planned. So when things go south, we talk about it and learn from our mistakes.
For example, at every weekly all hands we present two awards: Fronteer of the Week, and Stumble of the Week. The former is relatively straightforward; employees are nominated by their peers for a recent achievement. But the Stumble of the Week is a self-nominated award where employees can submit a mistake they recently made. They’re invited to speak to the company about their stumble and what they learned from it. It’s become a bit of a badge of honor to be selected for the Stumble of the Week. I regularly share my stumbles as does my co-founder and other members of the leadership team. By encouraging employees of all levels to openly discuss their mistakes, we create a culture of humility and continuous improvement.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re currently working on the launch of a new product: a full-fledged calendar within Front. Building on our 2018 acquisition of Meetingbird and current integrations with Google Calendar and Office 365 calendar, soon Front teams will be able to manage their calendar entirely within Front. Internally, projects like this build a lot of momentum and excitement within the company, which in turn allows us to deliver the best product to our customers.
But we’re continually working to improve our product so that we can bring efficient email to more teams everywhere. There are over 1 billion business email users in the world — many of whom are frustrated with email, tired of losing time and mental energy from switching back and forth between business tools all day, and looking for a way to supercharge their productivity. We are on a journey to solve these issues and provide teams with more efficient ways to work together. Ultimately, we believe this pursuit will help people work happier, which has been our goal from the beginning.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Transparency has been critical to both the culture we’ve built at Front and the efficiency and productivity of the team. This means being open and clear about what is expected of your team and, more importantly, what they can expect from you. Information like company goals and results, meeting notes, benchmarking information and high level strategy are all great examples of the information that’s going to help your team do their jobs better. We recently published our Culture Book, which has some tactical examples of how we practice transparency at Front.
I’ve also found the radical candor approach to giving and receiving feedback essential to building a trusting and high performing team.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Stay focused. Especially when a company is new, you should generally concentrate on moving a single metric. If that’s the only thing you’re looking at and it’s not improving, you’re failing — and it’s difficult to accept that reality. It’s much easier to make excuses or shift your focus to another area. But you have to resist that urge.
Since we started Front, I’ve sent an email almost every single week to everyone in the company to make sure we’re all aligned on our key area of focus and we all know whether we’re improving. I’ve been involved with several companies over the past few years, and I think that simple practice of regular communication is the single best predictor of who will do well and who won’t. The companies that send updates every week or month and can tell you exactly what they’re focused on and how that metric is doing — they succeed. The ones that don’t usually won’t make it.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Indeed, there are several. My husband, who works with me now at Front, always believed in me and helped me build my confidence over time. My co-founder, Laurent Perrin, has had a massive impact here at Front — the culture we have and the product we have would be nowhere near where we are without him. Patrick Collison, co-founder and CEO of Stripe, was also an early source of support for me — in 2014 he believed we were onto something big, and he believed in me.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’m very fortunate to have had some amazing advice and mentorship as we build and scale Front. I firmly believe in the power of mentorship, and wanted to pay it forward — which led me to become a mentor for aspiring female entrepreneurs through All Raise’s Female Founders Office Hours. I try to actively share my story with others, in hopes that it will be a source of inspiration for them as well.
At Front, we’ve also created the Front Foundation, where we give 1% of our time, product, and equity to charity. Effective altruism is a movement I strongly believe in, and I believe giving money to charities is one of the biggest contributions we can make.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
Prioritize your health, and the health of your employees
As I shared earlier, when my co-founder, Laurent, was diagnosed with cancer, I stepped in to handle the load for both of us and the stress/anxiety caused me to break down. This was an invaluable reminder of just how important it is for us all to take care of ourselves, and focus on our health first and foremost. Make sure that you’re taking time to rest and recharge — and make sure that your employees are doing the same. Talk about it regularly with your team, ensure that everyone understands the value and the “why” behind this.
Don’t tie your happiness to the success of your company
When it comes down to it, the sheer numbers suggest that most startups will fail. And as a founder, it’s crucial to understand this. A lot of founders tend for forget, or ignore, this fact, and tie their personal happiness closely with the success of their company. Life is greater than the company you’re running, so be sure to make time for the people and activities that matter to you. Building a successful company is a marathon, not a sprint — you need to take care of yourself to be in for the long haul.
A common theme I noticed before I founded Front was an unsettling lack of transparency across the board in the workplace. For some reason, a lot of leaders believe that insight into how the business is really doing is on a ‘need-to-know’ basis — as is their schedules, their priorities, and even company vision. From the very beginning, we baked transparency right into the culture at Front. I share my calendar, board meeting notes and slides, revenue and sales numbers, NPS scores, and our larger vision and direction with our entire company, among other things. I believe that this accomplishes two things: it gives my team access to all the information they need to be successful in their roles, and it also helps to break down barriers and minimize office politics. Without worrying about being kept in the dark, employees become more confident and everyone can unite to dig in and get their best work done.
Emphasize care rather than kindness (while still being kind)
In the early days of Front, we formed our core set of values that we would operate on, one of which was “kindness.” But we found that kindness was often interpreted as “not giving constructive feedback if it had the potential to upset someone,” so we changed the value to “care.” By “care,” we mean offering feedback and advice that is directly in someone’s best interest, not meant to tear them down, but to build them up to be the best possible version of themselves. I’ve found that it makes our office even more transparent, and in turn, a very trusting environment.
Focus on deep work and keep your context switching to a minimum
We’re all familiar with the idea of multi-tasking — and at times, it seems like that’s the only way to actually get anything done. But I would argue against that notion. Context switching (switching back and forth between different tasks and tools throughout the day) is a massive productivity killer. We recently conducted a survey that showed that one-third of people said their work is interrupted at least 10 times a day. Since it usually takes about 23 minutes to get back to your task after being interrupted, it’s remarkable that any work gets done. To combat this, I’ve disabled notifications on my phone and computer so that when I’m focused on something, I’m not drawn away by a ping. I also spend half a day once a week at home, with just a notebook (no technology), to do deep strategic thinking about the company and whether or not we’re achieving our goals.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to recently is the difference between finding happiness and meaning in your job. It seems like the overwhelming majority of the workforce falls into one of two buckets: happy employees who make good salaries, have solid work-life balance, but aren’t particularly passionate about the work they’re doing, and then those who find meaning in their work, but have sacrificed work-life balance or income to do so. A movement that I believe is worthy of getting behind is helping companies bridge that gap between meaning and happiness to allow their employees to find meaning in their work without sacrificing happiness. This is something that I will be exploring more and more, and anyone interested can follow along on Medium or on Twitter.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.” — Etty Hillesum, An Uninterrupted Life (my favorite book). This helped me prioritize my well-being, in order to give more to the world.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I would probably choose professor and columnist David Brooks, or organizational psychologist Adam Grant.
Connect with Mathilde & Front:
On Instagram @frontapp