Romain Dardour is the Founder and CEO of Hull, an open platform for social applications. He also co-founded Creaktif, which is an award-winning creative studio located in Paris, France. In this interview he talks about the startup scene in Paris, and the lessons he learned shifting from a service company to a product company.
Romain, who are you?
I had a long windy road to get to where I am. I was in medical school first. Then I started building websites. At some point I realized I had a passion for it, and wanted to make it my job. I started a creative agency, and a few companies.
Let’s take a moment and talk about those companies you started after school.
It was really natural.
I was in medical school, and I succeeded at an average level, but It was not a passion for me. However, I did have a passion for the web.
I started doing it for fun, but soon people were willing to pay me. I was basically doing everything—I was the designer, the developer, the project manager.
It grew. I founded an agency, and we started hiring people. We ended up having customers like Chanel and Universal Pictures.
While you were building sites, what was your favorite project?
It was for a movie advertising agency, Silencio. They do half of the movie posters and media buys for movies you see in France.
These guys came to me with a budget and told me “do whatever you like.” And that ended being one of the most awarded, and visited projects that we had.
Let’s segue into Hull. You guys recently graduated from TechStars. Tell us a bit about your experience there, and how that has shaped Hull.
We were in France, and had the vision for the company in December. We knew that if we were building a tech company, we needed to build it in the United States. Not to say that you can’t do it elsewhere, but it does maximize your chances of success.
We wanted to get into one of the best accelerators. We applied to TechStars. It has been a long an windy road, but we entered TechStars Boulder in May. It has been the most exhausting three months of my life, but it brought us ten years of contacts and experience all packed into a few months.
Aswin, an associate at TechStars said the mentor network was probably the best thing in a previous interview.
The mentor network has tremendous value because it is full of successful entrepreneurs. They don’t necessarily know the answer, but they know how to ask the right questions.
It is full of amazing guys like David Cohen and Brad Feld. We had really profound and enlightening discussions with these guys.
When we built Hull, we wanted to create something that we would want to use.
Let us talk about Hull specifically. You guys provide code and documentation that allows developers to easily add comments and other applications. Tell us about some of the features you guys are working on.
Maybe I’ll backtrack a bit and talk about the problem we are solving.
The problem is that in any application you are building, there is a small core of code that is unique to the application. Around this you have all the UI and UX, which packages everything and creates an experience people love. Then you have a huge amount of fluff that connects to Stripe, Twillio, or SendGrid. Then you still have to build features like user login, comments, ratings, whatever.
Amazing code frameworks like Ruby on Rails, Firebase, Meteor, Parse, all these help a lot to make things faster. They allow you build faster, but you still have to build them. And when Facebook changes an API, you have to go back and maintain it.
If you scale to a level that cannot be solved by gems or the code bits that you have, you have to change all of it. That is where you will spend 70 percent of your time.
We remove all of this from your application. Your application will only be the core and the UI, and you can outsource all these features to Hull.
We allow you to basically build your application without any backend code. You don’t even need to think about features, you just pick them up and drop them in your application on the client side.
As a developer you have full control to adapt and customize the code as you see fit. The client-side code is completely open source.
Earlier we were talking about pricing and how you guys are planning to grow. Earlier you mentioned using hackathons to reach customers. What other things are you doing?
It is simple. We’re all developers. When we built Hull, we wanted to create something that we would want to use.
So, we tried to come up with a model that does not limit you in any way. We have a free plan that has every single feature of Hull. We only start charging when you start succeeding.
Your startup was located in Paris. One of the very first interviews I did was with a guy named Vaib Puri. He is the founder of Taggito, which was in Madrid. I’m always interested to hear what the startup scene is like in cities outside of the US. So, what is the startup scene like in Paris?
The startup scene in Paris is great. The developers there are really good, but it is small.
When I’m talking about the startup scene, I’m not talking about the wantrepreneurs, I’m talking about the startups building products to change the world. These guys are really, really good. This is why we kept an office in Paris, and are hiring developers in Paris.
The problem is it is very small. There are only 50 to 70 startups in a given time.
As a CEO of a startup you are also the janitor, copywriter, QA guy, and then you turn off the lights at the end of the day.
What is access to capital like in Paris? Are people trying to raise money, or are they trying to bootstrap?
I can tell you, access to capital is not the same as it is here in the US.
Risk is a word that is frowned upon in France. Of course it is not a general thing, we’ve met amazing VCs that understand risk. But many of them want to invest money in a sure thing.
Either they want the numbers of a series B round, or they exhaust you with meetings to weed the risk out. Of course in the end they will say no, because they cannot weed the risk out.
Also, there are fewer VCs in Paris.
That is in line with what Taggito Founder Vaib Puri said about Madrid. Access to capital will always be an issue for entrepreneurs unless you are in the Valley. I’m very familiar with the rising startup scene in Atlanta, and even they have issues with raising money.
It is quite simple. It depends on the size of the community.
Boston, New York or The Valley have many startups, and some of them exceed to an incredible extent. Here the VCs know what success looks like, in France successes are fewer, because there are fewer companies, so it just appears riskier.
Romain, what does an average day look like for you?
During TechStars an average day included eight to nine meetings—then you had to go work on things. As a CEO of a startup you are also the janitor, copywriter, QA guy, and then you turn off the lights at the end of the day.
I am a product guy. In the beginning I was spending much more time building things—demos, writing things on the website. These days I don’t have that much time. We’re raising a round, so I’m doing a trip in the US to meet people.
I hope in a few months I’ll be able to keep money in the bank, make sure the vision is shared among everyone in the company, and to always be hiring. Three jobs.
How big is your team right now?
Our team is five people today. All of us or technical, and four of us are developers. My cofounder Stephane is an amazing CTO. He built the framework that you can find in any big social network. He previously worked at a social gaming company with 20 million in funding. He led a team of 15 and for three years they built the framework to handle millions of users, but they never released.
He was ready to ship, but things were changing around him, and he didn’t get a green light. So, he learned that shipping every single day of every single week is the most important thing you can do as a startup.
You talked a while ago about vision. What is the endgame for Hull?
The endgame for hull is not limited to social, although that was our first step.
What we are realizing is that the way we are solving a problem for social can be applied to almost any feature in an application. We’re working on a payment system right now.
We see the future of Hull as the place where you can just shop for features. You can put them in the app on the client side.
If you are an agency and want to solve twice the problems, you need twice as many people or twice as much time.
You guys should open up a marketplace for different app features.
That is in the works.
It sound like you are on the right path. Before you were on that path I bet that you had a few failures.
Yeah we failed. We failed a lot.
The biggest failure as a startup founder was not understanding what a startup is. The difference between a startup and a company is that a startup grows fast.
The very first product we built was for our agency customers, movie studios. We built a product that solved issues for them, but did it in a way where we needed to work on every single project.
We had a great meeting with a VC at some point. The very question he asked was if we could sell 1,000 of those tomorrow. The answer was no, because there is work involved. VCs don’t invest in things that don’t scale. A VC’s job is to make a return on investment.
The mistake we made, was failing to think about how we could scale.
Agencies provide a service. You only grow depending on how many people you have and how productive they are. If you have a product, it works on its own to generate revenue.
The difference between an agency and a product is that the agency solves thousands of problems for thousands of customers. If you are an agency and want to solve twice the problems, you need twice as many people or twice as much time.
The good thing about agencies—And I can tell you because I loved what we did at Creaktif—is that you can solve the problem in a unique way. As a product you have a different set of constraints. You are solving a problem that everyone has in the exact same way.
We’re reaching the end of the interview. What thoughts would you like to leave entrepreneurs watching the show?
You are going to read many, many things on the web.
You are going to find thousands of pages of advice. Most of it is true, but you aren’t going to understand what they mean. You are going to make the same mistakes—you have to make them to understand.
The only thing that has value at the beginning of your company is time.
I actually worked for about six months on my first product before showing it to a customer. We thought it was really amazing, even after the customer told us he didn’t need it.
You think you know something and you are deeply, honestly convinced, but you are wrong. And that is something you just have to learn.
You need to test it, and discover why you are wrong, and fail faster.
Failure is definitely a requirement as an entrepreneur.
Failure if you learn from it, is a success. Failure if you don’t learn anything, is a failure.
Romain, where can people follow you?
On Twitter at @rdardour and @hull. On our website hull.io, we have a live chat, GitHub, plenty of places.