In February of 2019, Gymglish celebrated its 15th anniversary. To mark this occasion, Antoine Brenner and Benjamin Levy, the company co-founders, reflected upon their entrepreneurial adventure up until now.
From advice to creative ideas to conventional wisdom, they share the 15 most important lessons they’ve learned over the past 15 years.
1) Don’t second guess a good idea
At the end of the day, it’s the idea that counts. Entrepreneurs often emphasize careful market study and creating a detailed business plan before taking the plunge. While that’s reasonable advice, some people tend to believe you should be 100% confident of your idea’s success before you launch. If you aren’t sure, and you’re still studying the market, you may never actually jump in with both feet. When creating a company from scratch, taking risks is part of the deal. Even though you can reduce uncertainty and come up with a solid business plan by meeting with industry professionals, the most important thing is to launch within a defined time frame. Unless any nasty surprises crop up, we think it’s best to trust your instincts, accept and embrace risk – after all, that’s the most exciting part! It’s impossible to get everything right from the outset. You can always adapt later – or “pivot” as they say.
2) Go to market as fast as possible
In the same vein, some entrepreneurs – especially in the tech industry – spend too much time on finishing touches before entering the competitive market. They tend to shut themselves away for months, without generating income or customer feedback to test, improve, and re-test their new product. The problem is that you may never be entirely satisfied, resulting in postponing launch dates indefinitely. That costs money, plus you run the risk of missing the bigger picture. At Gymglish, since 2004, our launches always start with a pilot phase (called a Beta), which features products that are potentially buggy, incomplete or unfinished. Despite the missing elements, we choose to release them and sell them at lower prices to “pilot partners”. In return, they begin financing the service, endorse it through word of mouth and above all, give their feedback and suggestions for improvement. As a result, Gymglish was profitable at the end of its first financial year, having obtained valuable, actionable feedback and customer references from the get-go. This idea led to the birth of Minimum Viable Product (MVP) or Proof of Concept (POC). Whatever its name, going to market as fast as possible is paramount, especially if you want to (or have to) self-finance your company. Don’t forget that you can sell your Beta, MVP or POC versions, as they already have added value and are worth something.
3) Put together a complementary team
In any relationship, conflicts can arise between partners. They say “Partnering with someone is just like getting married”. So how do you avoid conflict? How do you choose your colleagues and business associates? We don’t claim to have all the answers, but we are very proud of over 15 years of a happy and hassle-free marriage – well 18 years to be precise. Gymglish is the second company we started together. Here’s our recipe for success: beyond finding the right fit. Though people can click straight away, sometimes that’s not enough in business partnerships. We chose to collaborate because we are different, and we complement each other. We have very different personalities and skill sets. Each of us is incapable of doing what the other does. One of us is an engineer, a coder, an analytical thinker, a rational person, and a tech enthusiast. He’s in charge of the technical and administrative side of things. The other is a people person (though sometimes irrational), in charge of business development, and deals with the company’s many challenges. It goes without saying that we do have some things in common. For instance, we share the same values, but we built our collaboration based on our differences, and later on, we hired our team based on further complementarity.
4) Have fun every day
When we created Gymglish, our main goal was to have fun on a daily basis. This might as well be written into our company statutes – it’s what our company’s all about. This motto has defined our strategy over the years: to expand our business of course, all while remaining free, independent and without working ourselves to the bone (see points below).
5) Live Free
Many entrepreneurs aspire to professional freedom – a world where there’s no boss, no fixed schedule, no obligations. Yet many entrepreneurs, successful or not, must deal with restrictions and obstacles. Maybe you rely on a handful of customers that you must retain at all costs because they contribute so heavily to the company’s bottom line. Maybe you are beholden to investors, who are more like joint-owners and who, as a result, may get too involved in running the business. Employees might not enjoy working, resulting in a high turnover… Why would anyone start a business to deal with this much pressure?
After creating our first company in 1999, raising capital, selling our business and settling a lawsuit (our buyers neglected the small matter of paying for their acquisition!), we wanted to create our new company, but not at the cost of our freedom. Maintaining our independence was our main goal. For 15 years, we self-financed our company thanks to a large number of B2B customers, created different revenue streams thanks to B2C customers and refused mergers with other companies, even the big players in the industry. We limited the number of employees in our Paris office to a maximum of 20 passionate and loyal people we could trust. However, last year, we started questioning some of our processes; we welcomed investors into our capital and decided to increase our headcount. We weren’t forced to do this, we had 14 years of growth behind us and positive cash flow. We were simply looking for a new challenge, to shift into second gear so to speak. But we wanted to remain majority shareholders, while taking this opportunity to open up Gymglish’s capital to more members of the team. Our employees now make up the second largest pool of shareholders after us.
Whether we made the right or wrong choices is irrelevant, they were ours to make. Even if creating a business means taking risks, make sure your ambitions are clear from the start, and be realistic when defining your goals, taking into consideration your company size and corporate structure. If you’re going to create your own company, make sure it doesn’t mean having your hands tied.
6) Offer a paid service
In the collective consciousness, we equate the Internet with free access to information. This assumption was already strong in the 90s and only became stronger in the 2000s with the arrival of mobile apps. Nowadays, business models based on advertising and harnessing personal data have increased, not to mention the all-important phase of raising capital. As users, we are thrilled to benefit from so many free services, though we now have a much better understanding of the hidden cost (“If it’s free, you’re the product”). As entrepreneurs, too few of us consider launching a paid service, based on genuine added value and respect for data privacy. It is normal and to take into account the financial investments that helped create your product and the operating costs needed to create it.
7) Teamwork is everything
Apologies for the following cliché, but we really do mean it: our team is our greatest strength, our greatest pride and our greatest asset. We choose to be honest and upfront with our staff, we put our trust in them, and we believe we have gained theirs in return. What is our team’s greatest asset? Diversity: nationalities, languages spoken, cultures, skills, personalities, haircuts… 15 years have gone by and we’re still convinced diversity is key.
8) Share the pie
More than 10 years ago, we set up a profit-sharing plan to redistribute 50% of our net income to our employees, rewarding them in the same way we do our shareholders. Since 2009, each employee can also benefit from a Corporate Savings Plan in which we triple their contribution annually. About half of our employees are also Gymglish shareholders – they make up the second largest “pool’ of shareholders, after the founders – and ahead of the outside investors. Generosity is a value which is most commonly associated with do-goodism in some entrepreneurial or financial circles. Someone once suggested that we should be “greedy” before meeting with investors. But the world has changed. As time goes by, more of us are realizing how important it is within the business world and society as a whole, for wealth to be more evenly distributed. As a matter of fact, we found investors who liked this approach.
9) Work hard, but not too much
We believe it’s possible to create and grow a business without overworking. Even before we started Gymglish, we have strived to work reasonable hours, and that goes for our team too. We don’t work at night or on weekends. In fact, one of us spent winters in South America surfing (and sometimes working), while the other took a two-year break to take care of his newborn and complete a Master’s Degree. It goes without saying that, just like in any company, some months are busier than others. By setting clear deadlines and goals for ourselves, both from a professional standpoint (tasks, completions, launches, etc.) and a personal one (shorter working days, holidays, hobbies, etc.), we are able to maintain a healthy work/life balance and show strong growth at the same time.
10) A good product isn’t enough
Launching a new product is also about communicating and making sure it sells. This is another idea that we have to remind ourselves of over and over again. Though we never underestimated our business strategy, we did sometimes lack an aggressive communication strategy, in the hope that the quality of the product would speak for itself. But things are not that simple. We believe a good product, with a lot of added value and high quality service, is fundamental. More than 25% of our customers found out about us by word of mouth and yet that still isn’t enough. Our peers spend vast amounts of money on advertising. Within the language learning industry (and many others for that matter), advertising prevails and sets the tone. So how can we expand our business without inundating the world with advertising? A real mystery (see point below!).
11) Advertising isn’t the only way to get your name out there
In order to promote ourselves without spending time and money advertising in a traditional sense (see point above), we came across some potential solutions via our community: language schools, teachers and the press. We’re happy to share our added value and revenue with them, and in turn, they are happy to promote our courses among their customers and within their communities – courses which they have tested and approved. This is great publicity, without paying a dime in traditional advertising.
12) Don’t take anyone for a fool
As consumers, we are sometimes under the impression that everyone is trying to take advantage of our ignorance, gullibility or lack of attention. This may come in many forms: special offers with questionable conditions written in tiny print, automatically renewing subscriptions, free services in exchange for use of personal data…the list is endless. As entrepreneurs, why should we encourage such behavior?
At Gymglish, we believe in free will and transparency. We offer our users a free 7-day trial – no strings attached and without asking them to provide their credit card number – before asking them to buy a subscription. We offer subscriptions in which the customer expressly chooses to renew automatically (or not) and we present clear-cut conditions to our B2B customers and partners. We strongly believe in our product. If our customers and partners continue to work with us, then it must mean they’re satisfied. In no case do we want them to feel trapped by clauses and conditions that weren’t clearly stated or defined.
France Europe is our home
Gymglish is a Parisian, French and European company rolled into one. We are proud to be French, to be part of the French business network, and we are grateful to have had the chance to grow up in this beautiful country. However, France – as beautiful and dynamic as it may be when it comes to innovation and entrepreneurship – doesn’t single-handedly define our identity. Our team is made up of 20 different nationalities. Our company couldn’t have become what it is today without Schengen and the freedom it gives us to hire Europeans.
Just like us, many European citizens are concerned by the rise of nationalism. And yet all we seem to hear about in the French tech and startup industry is “French” this and “French” that. Pooling our efforts is essential at all levels, within and beyond the scope of one single nation. The tech industry is in a good position to endorse Europe; the technology and talents that shape the industry are eminently international. We should have a European outlook, which doesn’t take away from the energy of French startups or the skills of our engineers. Only then will we be able to follow in the footsteps of the scientific and arts communities to show solidarity with Europe.
Since creating Gymglish back in 2004, we have made sure to throw at least one major party at our office every year. Not for our clients or for PR purposes, but first and foremost for our team, families and friends, and to celebrate the arrival of spring. At some point, we started inviting our clients and partners, without changing the spontaneous and informal spirit of the celebration (no speeches, no PowerPoint presentations, nothing corporate). As the years went by, our parties grew in reputation, which wasn’t our intention. When asked by our guests “how do you manage to throw such great parties?”, we told them what we did. Invite everybody you know: acquaintances, business contacts, family members, etc. We organized some especially wild ones up until our 10th anniversary, when the floor collapsed in the middle of a concert. There were no injuries, but parties are now forbidden in our building. Luckily we’re moving in a couple of months, so we’ll be able to keep up the tradition in our new digs. Stay tuned for an invite!
* to receive an invitation to the next Gymglish party, write to us at Ilikethesoundofthat@gymglish.com.
15) Don’t listen to anybody
As entrepreneurs, we believe having your own opinions and following your instincts is crucial. Every day, we try to remind ourselves that the path to success isn’t a straight line and that it’s good to question every single piece of advice we’ve been given. So here’s our last word of advice to you: don’t take shit from no one!
Benjamin Levy and Antoine Brenner, Gymglish co-founders