sylvain courcoux

internet entrepreneur

my blog

My life story in 5 minutes

So it begins in France: till the age of 10 I lived in small villages in the countryside. And then when I was 10 years old, my father was transferred for his job to Atlanta and the whole family moved to the US. There were so many cool things that I discovered for the first time: sweltering humid heat, air conditioning, computers, photocopy machines, cordless phones, VCRs, CD-Roms, and all sorts of cool toys that didn't exist in France in the 80's, or that at least weren't very widespread. I also learned English and at the time I used to speak with a deep Georgian accent. After two years in Atlanta, I moved back to France and then back to US for a year in Pittsburg and then back to France for high school and university. I graduated with a degree in economics and finance and at the time the job market for fresh-out-of-college graduates in France wasn't particularly hot but because I spoke English, there was a brokerage firm willing to hire me; but that wasn't really something I was looking forward to. So one night, right around the time I was about to graduate, I was playing chess online on Yahoo Chess with a guy from California. We started chatting and then at one point I ask "hey, if I send you my resume, do you think you can get me a job in California?" He said "sure, send me your resume and I'll see what I can do." I didn't think much of it but sure enough, two days later, I get this email that says "Dude, You owe me big time. I don't know you...I've never met you...But, I got you an internship with a firm here in San Jose, CA. The owner of the firm is a very good friend of mine, we worked together at Morgan Stanley. He is a good broker and an honest, hardworking man." This is the text from the actual email that I kept. At first, I was skeptical: the firm's name wasn't anywhere to be found on the internet. But anyway, I spoke with the person offering the internship on the phone and two months later, I jumped on a plane for Silicon Valley.
It turns out that the reason the firm wasn't on the internet was that it was a brand new company called First Cleveland Securities of California; thankfully, it was later renamed Next Advisors. The broker was looking to start a new financial services firm and thought an intern would be a good and affordable addition. His plan was simple: hire brokers that bring in business, raise 20 Mio dollars, build some technology for high-end financial services and go public. All from scratch. These were brand new ideas to me; at the time, in France, the gold standard was to secure a government job with guaranteed lifetime employment and here I am discussing about starting a business from scratch and going public to make millions. This sounded even more exciting than I thought California would be! I passed my Series 7 and Series 66 exam and started ... prospecting. However, it was unfortunate that I started at the absolute worse time: the dot-com crash with all its New Economy tech companies from Silicon Valley came crashing down, and I had a front-seat to see it all. When the market brutally crash in April 2000, people were shocked but as it recovered in the summer, optimism came back. And then came the slow bleed: weeks and weeks of drops and that was depressing. The company was still growing however and more people came onboard, in particular a small group of mortgage brokers; I had no clue what that was about. I moved from being a struggling stockbroker to a new futures division that the company opened thinking that there'd be business to grab in selling managed futures but that division didn't work out because investors in general didn't want to trade anymore. So from selling financial services, I went on to tech and started building a website for the company. I didn't know anything about websites so I learned HTML and DHTML; no jQuery back then, what a pain it was.
When 9/11 happened, I was laid off. The dream of raising 20Mio dollars had vanished and several non revenue producing employees were laid off that Friday. What a bummer! For me, that meant having to move back to France because my visa allowed me to work only for that one company in the entire US. So the next Monday, I went back and asked to join the mortgage division; straight commission. It didn't help either that at the time I was living with roommates and that we had decided to split at the beginning of October. So here I was, in Silicon Valley, with no money, no place to stay, homeless, and working a job that didn't pay while sleeping under my desk. These were tough times and that episode lasted for 6 months and I never thought it would last for that long. In parallel, the company started having serious financial troubles. I felt really sorry for the person who had stated it because I saw him put so much work and energy into it; it closed. That's when I joined a new company. Two people from the mortgage division decided to open their own mortgage brokerage firm; one of the founders had already started several real estate and mortgage companies so the company was quickly on its feet and I came in a part of the first employees; it was called American Funding. We were just 5, sitting in an old crappy little office on Minnesota Ave. The vision of the founders was very different: instead of starting a company with the goal of raising 20 Mio dollars and going public, here the vision was much leaner: start with 5K on a credit card and just build revenue. At the time, the mortgage boom was just about to start so things were working out well and after a few months, we moved to a nice office in Campbell. Working in the mortgage industry taught me a lot, especially about sales and sales management. I did OK and for a long time I really liked what I was doing. It was hard work but I really enjoyed it; once you've paid your dues, sales is probably the easiest job you can get. There's a saying that says sales is either the hardest low-paying job or the easiest high-paying job. Mortgages were hot at the time, but there was a crash coming. Mortgages were essentially becoming more and more affordable because banks were competing to offer all sorts of loan programs and payment plans that allowed borrowers to pay interest-only, or even to pay less than the amount of interest due thus enabling borrowers to add their interest payment to the principal of their balance. There was actually nothing wrong with these types of mortgages per se and in fact, they enabled borrowers to pay for their interests with the equity of their house so that they could upgrade to a bigger and more expensive house, while also lowering monthly payments which in turn freed up income and fueled consumption. But that turned out to create a huge macro-economic problem: if all of a sudden everyone can afford a bigger house then the real estate market substantially appreciates and a bubble forms until the whole things crashes. I guess Keynes was right: the economy is more than the sum of its individual parts.
My stint in the mortgage business ended quite abruptly: my work visa ran out. Now for most people, losing their job is a tragedy but imagine what it's like to lose the right to work! By the time I started doing the paperwork to apply for a green card, the lawyer simply said that there was no way to do a green card in 6 months. A green card application takes a minimum of 18 months to 2 years: why??? So my options were to either go back to France or convert my work visa into a student visa. And so all of a sudden, I found myself in college again in my 30's. The first class I took was a marketing class and part of the class consisted of a group project to create a marketing plan for a startup business. There was a debate: I wanted to do a marketing plan for solar panels and another guy wanted to do a cell phone and so the project initially started with a cell phone. But that guy left and the group realized that the cell phone marketing plan was a dud so I came up with the idea of creating a marketing plan for a company that would enable small local businesses like restaurants to connect with their customers via SMS marketing. Basically, it was about selling to businesses remote access to their customers to offer them deals. When you're on a student visa, you can't legally work but you can legally start a company, and so I started a new company with a classmate from the marketing project. It was called Krilix. The first year, we brainstormed in my apartment on functionality charts on Visio and created the specifications for a new kind of social network to connect stores to their customers and their customers' friends with the help of a software consultant. The second year, I was able to hire myself as an intern in my own company: I interned as a CEO. The second year was all about fundraising and recruiting. At one point, a friend of mine arranged for a meeting with an angel investor but that would have been my first pitch and I knew I had to practice first so there was a tree guy with a big white Hummer who hung around the same Starbucks I did and I asked him if I could practice my pitch with him. The angel investor didn't invest but 4 months later, after many casual meetings at Starbucks, the tree guy and a friend of his each invested 20K over diner. That was awesome, not to mention that they also brought more introductions and slowly I started raising more and more capital, which was mostly used to pay the software consultant who had started building the website. One day, the initial investor was going to the World Poker Tour in San Jose and suggested I come along, just to see if I could find investors there; to play at that tournament costs $10,000 so for sure I knew that each player had the money for a small angel investment. I must have asked at least 50 people the same question: "excuse me, I'm starting a company and I was wondering if you had ever invested in a startup?" Of course, most people say no, that's just how prospecting works. But one person gave me his email and a month later, I was pitching him. He invested and it turned out that he knew a lot of people. He was working for a company as a reseller selling expensive cutlery through personal selling by recruiting mostly college students. This company was actually the largest recruiter of college students and this connection enabled the company not only to raise more capital but also to recruit salespeople nationwide. My co-founder and I were flying across the country with our web designs and pitching for capital and recruits. At the beginning of September 09, we had raised 984K and recruited 20 sales managers who would in turn each recruit about 10 salespeople each. We had opened 17 sales offices and had our headquarters in the Pruneyard in Campbell. Everything was looking good but that's not how it turned out.
We didn't have any in-house developers with us; the development was all outsourced. It seemed like a good deal too, only 200K for a full web application. Unfortunately, I had also outsourced the QA. The software consultant had joined the company as CTO and when I asked if the website was ready he said it was and so we started opening sales offices. But when came time to turn on the website, I was shocked: some key functionalities weren't even built! The answer: "software can be 90% finished but only be 60% useable, we just need another 2 weeks." The problem was that there was a huge fixed cost structure running. We were ready to sell a $500 service with 200 door-to-door salespeople but nothing to sell. Even if each of our 18 offices only made 1 sale a day, that would have been 18 sales a day or 360 sales a month and with a $500 price tag, our cost structure didn't seem unreasonable. Unfortunately, it was all based on the assumption that the software would be ready; and it wasn't. 2 weeks later, at the launch, it was pathetic. I was even embarrassed to show it to the janitor so bad it was. Of course, it was barely saleable; but we did manage to generate about 20K of revenue, which was nothing in comparison to the costs involved. So at the end of October, the evening of my birthday, I had to call every sales manager to give them the bad news: we were shutting down all the offices and everyone was laid off. That was a sad moment. I learned a lot of lessons and among those, I learned that fixed cost structures just don't seem to pay back, at least not when you're at the start-up phase. But then, I came up with another idea: instead of sending salespeople to stores door-to-door, why don't we put 50 salespeople in a room and make a million telemarketing phone calls? I started looking for capital again to fund this plan but at the time, people were depressed and the company was quickly running out of funds. The bright spot was that the website was slowly improving and that many of the businesses who had joined our service were happy. In December, my time was up; people didn't want to hear about the plan of making a million phone calls. So I was fired from the CEO position in December and replaced with the tree guy who came in and put some money in the company. I agreed with the decision; I was fine with it, as long as we continued to operate and implement the inside sales strategy. However, over the next few months, I learned a big lesson about politics: it's not about being right, it's about having the votes. The vision of the company changed too: instead of building a social network that would enable businesses to reach the friends of their customers, it was all about building a pure SMS advertising company, like the dozen or so that already existed. I really wanted the company to go along with telemarketing, but I didn't have the political capital to make it happen and the team that had taken over didn't want to hear it. I started building a telemarketing tool that was based on Excel VBA and that connected with Skype; it took me 3 months and when I was finished I thought that we were going to use it to start a telemarketing campaign. Instead, the company had slowly become a social club; not much was happening, there were only a handful of people left and everyone was a director of something or a C-level executive. I wanted to grow a business and be rich, they wanted to be kings. After several arguments about the direction of the company (it ended up closing at the end of the year), I was told to "take my telemarketing application and leave" and so that was that, I wasn't even allowed to go the office. But I really thought there was a demand for our service so I started to make phone calls on my own time with the rudimentary telemarketing tool I had built, just to demonstrate the viability of the strategy. That's when I realized that the market for a pure SMS marketing strategy was much narrower than it seemed: you'd think that businesses would love to reach their customers via opt-in SMS marketing but in reality, businesses don't want to be perceived as marketers by their customers. I wanted to meet with the team and share what I had figured out but I couldn't even get a meeting. The team shut down the company and went on to start another SMS-based company; I think by now they probably also came to the realization that SMS marketing doesn't sell well and for sure doesn't scale at all. In the end, if things work out people only remember the good and if things go bad, people only remember the bad.
In the middle of 2010, I decided I was going to relearn HTML and start building another internet startup. This time however, I wanted to be involved in software development so I started reading about HTML again. It had been 10 years since I had built my first website so I basically started over from scratch. Excel VBA is pretty powerful but going from simple Visual Basic procedural algorithms that clean up spreadsheets to writing a web app in an object-oriented language and with SQL queries is a world of difference. I started to hang around the Barnes and Noble in Campbell and began reading computer books. None of it made any sort of sense: ASP.net, C#, Linq, jQuery ... all seemed Greek to me. But I slowly started doing HTML and CSS again, and I realized that instead of building another company in the local business space, I was going to build the telemarketing tool I wish I had when I was cold-calling. At first, I didn't think there'd be much of a business but the more I thought about it, the more I thought it'd be something worth building. After all, as entrepreneurs, our job is to solve people's pain and I don't think there are that many things more painful to do in business than cold-calling: I had identified the pain point I was going to address. That really motivated me to learn programming! So from casually reading a few chapters, I went to reading several books at a time. Some books are great at explaining a particular topic but are terrible at others so to understand a certain concept, it's actually better to read several book simultaneously! I also started HTML templates about the telemarketing software and from an art class I took, I wanted to make sure that the design looked stunning: I spent a week working on a color palette. I was starting to think I was onto something. On one hand, I had lost control of the company I had built, I had no money and things looked pretty bleak but on the other hand, I was pretty optimistic that I could start another company based on the telemarketing idea. At the end of 2010 however, I had to leave Silicon Valley. I wasn't going to be student anymore, no way to afford it anymore. So I drove across the country to Virginia where my parents lived. From being a startup CEO to moving back to my parents: I never thought that would happen. That's not how I had planned to leave California, but that's how things turned out.
2011 was a year of learning by building. I didn't know much about programming but I programmed every day and since you learn by doing, I was learning pretty quickly. I had started with just HTML templates and after a few months, I was writing Linq queries and doing ajax using .net's UpdatePanel. Things started to look decent and several pages were starting to work. But, there was a big problem: I was building a telemarketing tool and that meant that people would be on the phone making phone calls and they couldn't hang up and reload another page in the middle of a phone call. I had to revise the entire architecture: instead of building a web application with several pages, I had to build a single-page application with several panels that toggled from hidden to visible so that the users would actually always stay on the same page. I had many functionalities built but I learned that the hard part about software design is not building functionalities, it's making them work together in harmony. So in the middle of 2011, I started rebuilding what I done using lots of Javascript and jQuery to make the entire thing work in ajax and HTML5 without using .net's Webforms sorcery. Towards the end of 2011, I decided that I needed a fresh start and moving to South America seemed like a good idea. There was a startup incubator in Chile that was looking for entrepreneurs so I applied and I thought I had a decent chance. I had a real innovation, not so much because I had combined an auto-dialer with a CRM and an emailing tool but because I had found a cool way to pinpoint leads. When you're in sales, you have about 20 active and hot prospects that are on top of the pile and then you have thousands of prospects that are in binders or CRMs with no quick way of knowing what happened with these prospects and which ones are worth calling again. So I came up with a way of searching the database so that for instance users could find all their prospects that had called more than X days ago, talked to for more than X minutes, and sent an email to. That's what I really wanted to have when I had all my binders stacked on my desk: interesting prospects. I applied to that incubator but didn't get in. So instead of South America, I moved back to Europe in December 2011.
I landed in Warsaw on a cold December day; I was back in Europe with my laptop and lots of valuable experience. I moved to Germany, and continued programming. I've worked almost every day in cafes to build the phone for salespeople. I've written code in France, in Belgium, in Holland, in the UK and mostly in Germany. At the moment I'm writing, the software's core is finished and working and it's been an incredible journey. I ended up writing a software with 25K lines of Javascript and 40K lines of C#, and that means that you actually have to write at least twice that many lines to get to the final optimized code. I plan to launch my new business soon so stay tuned for what I hope will be a new adventure.