​​​​S2E6: Leadership Lessons For Challenging Times: Christophe Collet, CEO, S4M

S2E6: A conversation with top CEO Christophe Collet

In this episode of Leadership Lessons for Challenging Times, Christophe Collet, Chief Executive of S4M, a high-growth AI-powered drive-to-store platform, talks with Xquadrant's Founder Richard Medcalf.

Christophe Collet is a results-oriented French entrepreneur, with a proven track record of creating successful start-ups: Followcom (Acquired by SBW-Paris in 2008) - Adenyo to Motricity (Acquired by Motricity in 2011) and S4M (2011).

Learn these leadership lessons for challenging times...

In this discussion we cover a wide range of topics and benefit from Christophe's longstanding experience as a chief executive.

Listen in and you'll learn:

  • The different phases we go through in times of crisis and how they impact business  (19'01")
  • Why now is the time for brands to talk about their values and the keyword for years to come  (21'30")
  • The biggest mistakes to avoid as an entrepreneur when going international   (23'25") 

TRANSCRIPT (Click to open)

Note: this transcript is automatically generated and only lightly neatened up. So this should be used  only to get the gist of the conversation and any transcription oddities should be ignored!

Richard Medcalf
Hello, my name is Richard Medcalf, founder of Xquadrant. I coach some of the world's top executives in management, helping them achieve bigger and more meaningful results than ever before. In this season, I'm speaking with C suite leaders from around the globe to find out what the COVID-19 pandemic has taught them, and what wisdom they have to share for other leaders. Welcome to Leadership Lessons for Challenging Times. Today I'm speaking with Christophe Collet who is a French entrepreneur who lives in London and who has built a global tech business called S4M serving the retail sector. He's an interesting person because he's got an international perspective. And he's a true entrepreneur having really build a successful business from nothing. And in this discussion, we dive into what COVID-19 has meant for him serving retail customers who have been profoundly affected overnight by a lockdown. We draw out of him some of the leadership lessons, which has helped him survive and navigate this challenging time. So, enjoy the conversation.

Christophe Collet
Hi Richard.

Richard Medcalf
Hi, great to have you here. 

Christophe Collet
Thank you for having me.

Richard Medcalf
So hey, before we get started, why don't we just take just take two minutes, one or two minutes just to explain a little bit, you know, your elevator pitch, who you are, and what S4M is.

Christophe Collet
S4M is drive to store, drive to store technology, or platform is capable to optimise in real time your marketing budget towards that true KPIs and true ROI which is incremental visitors. So, so platform is able to drive your visitors online. But that's quite common. And I think the specificity of our technology is also to bridge the online and the offline world and to be able to by using digital ads, to by using sorry, digital ads to drive people to your physical stores. Because bear in mind that 90% of the global sales worldwide are still happening in physical store, meaning in normal time.

Richard Medcalf
Okay, so what you're doing is you're linking for retailers, the physical world with the online world.

Christophe Collet
Yes, exactly. We are bridging both worlds online and offline.

Richard Medcalf
And you founded this company, is that right in about 2011? Something like that.

Christophe Collet
Yes, late 2011. So let's, first of December 2011. So we have we are eight years now. And so we are about 200 in the company we are. We have eight subsidiaries covering more than 50 markets. So today we are huge presence in the US, let's say North America which is our first market in terms of revenues. And obviously, we are European base we have a large footprint in Europe. So two offices in France, which Paris is our headquarter and we have an office in London, Brussels, Milano, Roma, Madrid, and also a small office in Singapore, just to cover South East Asia.

Richard Medcalf
Fantastic. So in whatever that was eight or nine years, you know, you've expanded 200 people global footprint, and obviously you're serving retailers. So obviously at the time of recording, we're in the right in the middle of the COVID-19 lockdown of 2020. It must be a tough market, right serving retailers in this time. How have you had to adapt as a business to this dramatic change in your customers' reality?

Christophe Collet
Well, that but again, I think we need to be at least optimist because it's going to be temporary. Half of the people worldwide are locked down today. But I think in a month's time, or maybe two, we'll all be released. So at some point, we, and also people will be keen to go back to the street and to go back to their favourite retailers, etc. So, obviously, we have to protect the company and protect our talent, because we have a very good team and we want to keep it so this is my main challenge today is to do everything I can and we can to protect both the company and the people and again, thanks to that, and without people were able also to adapt our technology so again what I said before technology is not just about driving people from online to offline but we can do also offline to online so it works both ways. So what we are doing now which also we are telling our retailers that even if you are not able to sell your product in your shops, maybe you can find new channels and so Amazon etc so we can sell them some drive to site platform and then we can also because you have still a lot of brands that you can buy in supermarkets etc. So we will use our technology if you take an example of Uber Eats. So because it's a massively used today, but they have a problem. So problem is as they don't have as the same offers that they have before because a lot of restaurants are closed. So using our technology to just advertise in areas where they can deliver where they have access to restaurants and they can actually pick up meals in restaurants and drive them to customers. So using location data also to help people to understand more about opening hours about also to governments in Belgium for example, just to cover young people just to divert them on specific medium and we are using not only display but also audio and video on Spotify for example, or Deezer. Just to say guys, you're young, you need to be logged on as safe life by staying at home. So we are using also we can with all the capabilities of hyper targeting and we can be very sharp and accurate to help let's say clients to spend wisely their money especially during that kind of crisis, it's important to protect the cash save, save money just to be ready for the rebound. So again, we are adapting ourselves and meanwhile loads also we are preparing the future. So just because we are obviously running less campaigns than before, because we are just taking, taking hit about it. Our entering team and team in general are working on improving on our roadmap, etc. So on delivering new features, just to be ready for the rebound and the rebound will happen. Let's say hopefully, starting of July, I think we will get all of us except some specific brands will all of us will put a cue to enter BM and starting on July 1 is going to be a new year. You need to be ready for this new year starting on July 1.

Richard Medcalf
Absolutely. So what was the most difficult decision that you've had to make in the last few weeks, as businesses kind of dried up and you know, your customers have been trying to rethink their strategy.

Christophe Collet
Business, obviously is what it was, I think it was not very, it was a difficult decision because when you are an entrepreneur, what you like is to hire people. So when you have to put 80% of your staff on partial employment or reducing hours, etc, worldwide, it's I took a hit personally because it's not my mentality and my mindset and but again, at the end of the day, and this is why I said to the team as well, we need to protect the company and we need to put a queue and because we are just making some savings to and to protect your jobs and to give you a job when you when you're going to go once your rebound will happen. If you look at the US, maybe all of my competitors have done a lot of lay off. We have, we didn't lay off anyone except, and we actually we did. But for two people it was not because of COVID it was because of performances. But we want we wanted to keep our team and so we offered them to reduce the hours and all. So we're very keen about it because they have a job and that is our fate 80% of the salary know what can be the social compensation to US or in the UK. So I think the team is behind is is appealing, not happy of the situation but at least feels secure with us and are confident that we will be again will be stronger than before maybe also because the team would be more I can how can I say more not committed but working together. Sorry, I don't have the words in English. But that in this kind of crisis, obviously, it's the first time I'm seeing this crisis. I remember 2008 and 2009 I was not that impacted. Here, we have we are really impacted, but what we see is that people are working together and are committed to the company now, maybe more than before. So in terms of values is very important. And I hope we'll be able to build on these new values of solidarity community etc. to work harder when the rebound will, will come. And because that's our reality, we'll have to work much more than before just to make it happen starting july 1st.

Richard Medcalf
So thank you. You've actually moved on to my next question, which was really what was the most what's been the most surprising outcome for you of this challenging time?

Christophe Collet
Team, I think again, it's all about people. Even if, let's say, if you read by the book see the metro asset of S4M it's technology. For me it has ever been my team. And because it's a company, it's a team working together to achieve one objective. And, again, I was quite surprised. And I'm grateful about all the people because a lot of them are, even if they are, paid less, because working less in terms of hours, they're still 100% committed and even maybe more than before. If I've one thing to say it's my team in again, I'm very grateful about it.

Richard Medcalf
Absolutely. So what in terms of as you've managed your team, how's it kind of forced you to grow as a leader? Have you felt stretched to the leader Have you had to grow in new ways during this challenging and different, you know, different uncertain time.

Christophe Collet
Obviously, we are learning new things because it was my first time that I was putting people on partial on I was furloughing people or reducing hours, etc. But at the end I'm more, I'm taking advantage of this crisis. Because I'm travelling. I'm not travelling anymore. I have much more time. And I try to spend this time with my team. When you have 200 people, unfortunately, you don't know everyone. So what I'm trying to do is to have one to one with everyone who wants to have in my team want to have a one to one with me, just to to know more about about them and also to answer the question because we have questions they asked questions and my job is to answer the question, not to say anything to please them, but at least to give them an answer. Clear, honest answer.

Richard Medcalf
That's great. I think there's very few leaders who, at the end of a time of crisis or difficulty, say I over communicated, right. I mean, it's hard to over communicate in these times. So I think that idea of actually using that moment of reaching out to speak to people we don't normally speak to is, you know, it's fantastic.
Yes, you get new insights. Absolutely. What's the balance that you've had you found between top down kind of command and control in this time sometimes need to make quick decisions, versus kind of more bottom up collaboration, empowering people in different regions of the world to make them to make their decisions? 


Christophe Collet
Again, I don't see everything, just because we have country managers and country manager responsible for the team. We have central managers. So HR was overloaded, I would say for the last month, on since but from everything and again, every market has been impacted in different ways or in different timelines. So, again, I think country manager, it also very good experience for them to step up as a manager, because not to be on yourself leader or margin leader, but just to be a leader and a leader means also to lead people to achieve the objective. So I think some of the leaders will learn from that and and that will be and so will be stronger than before and so we'll be stronger than before. So that's good. So then after it's about what was hard for us is because we have eight subsidiaries in eight different countries. It's eight different laws and different approaches about partial employment, etc. Why HR was very overloaded it because it was also sometimes too we had to take some decision without having the answers about what our employees will have been impacted etc. So, it was so over communication was not too much what just said guys we have to do it just be sure that we are backing you so we will do some maximum to to compensate or to minimise the impact for you guys, but we have to do it. And so that was I think the hardest thing for us and it was not top down or bottom up it was just we didn't know that just because even look at what Macron said yesterday two days ago, okay we are all we normally would be really starting on May 11. But no one knows how and to government we will have four weeks to define the how we will come back to work but can imagine that employees are already asking questions. Am I coming back on May 11? I hope so, but I can't tell you if you would be able to reopen the office. Because we are all chasing masks. I think my new job now for the last week is to chase mask. So it's a it's a lot of uncertainty and we need to manage with that.

Richard Medcalf
Yes, one of the things I say to my clients is, you need to be clear about what you can be clear about and you need to be clear about what you can't be clear about.

Christophe Collet
Exactly. Actually, you have to be transparent. And people understand because people are not fools and understand why, when it's clear, it's clear when it's unclear, you have to say it's unclear and I will give the information to you as soon as I have it.

Richard Medcalf
Yes, absolutely. And it's actually when you admit that it's unclear that your respect and credibility goes right up because people know as you said, they know when when it's not clear. And, Christophe, I know that you're a big fan of numbers and business outcome KPIs, and I know you implemented OKRs across your entire company a couple years ago. And how do you use those in these times of uncertainty? Do you kind of do you use those to pilot the business? Or do you actually put them on hold to rapidly readjust? Or do they help you?

Christophe Collet
We are adjusting them, obviously, because we don't have the same workforce. And again, we also, OKRs are good because they're giving you a line and a way to, to follow but now, we have to adapt, we have to change our offers as well. So, obviously, we are adapting ourselves. And so but still, again, I think it's important to use that time where we all have more time. Okay. That's reality to think about what's going to be future. So in terms of numbers, one of my, let's say target before May 11 is also to release a new dashboard to help my country managers to monitor better the business and to to have clear, clear and real time KPIs to examine on a daily basis to manage better the business.

Richard Medcalf
Great. So let's talk about the retailers that you work with. As you said their world has suddenly changed very quickly, right, I mean, to close down their physical stores, and what's been your advice to them, to help them navigate through this time of uncertainty and rapid change?

Christophe Collet
Again, I think to answer straight over to questions you need to communicate because you still need to be top of mind for your clients. If you don't communicate at the end you will pay the bill and you will lose market shares. But also we need also to understand that we have phases. First of all we have what I call the sideration phase. So you are a series of shock and you need to okay to admit it and you need to organise your organisation to face it and depending on the size of your company it could take time. And then after when it's you have after the organization's phase starts the adaptation phases. And so I think you need at least four weeks and this is what we what we saw in Italy, for example, who have been locked on for more than seven weeks now. And after four weeks, see advertisers, so four weeks, so first four weeks, we adapt ourselves in Italy as well. And after four weeks, we started to receive, new campaigns, new signings, etc. So it was Interesting. So it's four weeks. And I think now so this is what we are, again, saying to our customers, guys you are reopening on May 11. Are you ready? And again, and what's going to be your communication you need to adapt your message you need to communicate about because there will be an after this. And I think it's and that's why I think our position is good because we let's say the centre for technology is about local and everyone will want to have a local live communication because you want to attract people who are coming from around you. So from the mass media, we'll come back a bit more for more customised and localised media. And so this is what we are telling our retailer say, Okay, guys, that would be an after be ready for the after.

Richard Medcalf
Yes, what's the biggest mistake that they could make as a retailer in this time?

Christophe Collet
I think not communicating because all the studies you know, four years if you look if you look back in, in history for the crises 1929, 1972, 1945 or 2008 for the most recent one, so brands who didn't communicate has lost market share, went the rebound came back. I think it's a very good timing also for brands to communicate around something new and I think communicating about your values, it's something that would be appreciated by your customers. And I think you need to, because a brand is not only product to buy it's also you are buying a story you're buying values. Because I'm not sure we are all able to make a difference from I don't know from milk A and milk B, it's the values around milk A and milk B that are making the difference, right? I think it's important for retailers to communicate about their values and how they will manage the after and how they will manage and how they will be perceived as sustainable by their customers, I think sustainability will be one of the key word for the coming years.

Richard Medcalf
Yes, thank you, it's great. I think you're right. I think people are going to have they will be questioning and to some degree of values. Probably not as much as we think sometimes people get back into their usual way of life. But I think that in some probably areas we don't even know yet, people will be quite profoundly affected by this period. And there will be a shift I think, definitely in values and priorities that we'll see in people. What if you're looking back at this period, if you had to give yourself a Leadership lesson it might even be from other things. If you were to give yourself a leadership lesson, say back at your start of the journey with S4M back in 2011. Not necessarily just about this particular COVID-19 period, but just about what you've experienced as an entrepreneur. What would that leadership lesson be? What would you have loved to have known about management and people and leading a company?

Christophe Collet
I think it's all about culture. Because S4M was launched in late 2011 and we went international in 2015. But we decided at first to, to expand but by staying in France, we hired a country manager, local country managers, etc. And we were monitoring the international activity from Paris and I think that was the biggest mistake we've made. If you want to launch a country, you need to be there to understand of future, to bring the DNA to the local team you're hiring etc. You can be lucky we were lucky we have been very lucky with the Italian team because we recruited two top guys and they did it perfectly. But in other markets it was tougher just because we didn't understand the culture and maybe we wanted to apply our French culture to the US culture, to the Britain culture etc, which doesn't work at the end. So it's important to go there to understand the culture and to adapt yourself to the market. And it's not about translation, it's about localization. But at the end, you still have golden rules and golden rules is hard work and such why when a founder is going to this is what I'm I'm advising to startupers etc. If you want to open a new market goes there. One of the founder has to go there just to bring with him or her, the DNA of the company and to give the DNA of the company to the local employees.

Richard Medcalf
Yes, absolutely. One of my phrases is that leaders create the culture, right, they define the culture by your very nature, right? If you're a leader, that's what you do you create the culture if you're not there, and if you haven't created yet the mechanisms in your company, it is possible, but it takes a while to create the mechanisms whether other people start to propagate that culture. But I think in the early years, the founders are the embodiment.

Christophe Collet
Yes, and I think the advice I'm giving startupers also choose the market, because the energy and I think it's a question of size of the market, because the energy you will give into it and put into it would be the same, get the same results. So if you are so when you are in France and you want to consider International, if you think your product has potential to go abroad don't go to Germany goes straight to the US because the US is 20 times bigger. So, energy you will put into it and to convince people to buy your product, when it will be done in the US the scale will be much more quicker than it will be in other European market and that maybe the second mistake is to have decided to try to go a bit everywhere not to focus on one market and after it's because we have so experiences etc. But we should have retrospectively, we should have opened the US focus on the US put all our energy into developing this attack in France and to expand it to US. And once the US will have been down and biggest market then you can maybe consider other markets as well. So that it's an Israeli strategy actually all IT Israeli guys are developing the tech in Israel and launching it commercially in the US. And they are right. And it's that's very clever. We should, or maybe in China, you pick up one of the two largest markets and you do it.

Richard Medcalf
Yes, it's that question of focus right as entrepreneurs often we like to go and see all the opportunities everywhere and just focusing down and saying right now, this is the rallying cry for the company, right? This is the focus, do one thing and nail it and then move on.

Christophe Collet
You know when you are entrepreneur and because you want to go everywhere, because you think that UK, Germany, Italy and Spain, but they are a small market. I think Italy is smaller than Texas.

Richard Medcalf
Yes, it's great.

Christophe Collet
France, Italy, Uk are sizable and we are way lower than California.

Richard Medcalf
Yes, it's a great point. And when I'm working with exec teams often that's the thing. It's like, how do you take the founder who has loads of ideas often and wants to go in a million directions, and probably your COO, who is trying to say, let's just try and do one thing and, and there's a bit of both, it's important, but it's trying to help everybody get to an agreement everyone's comfortable about where do we actually focus.

Christophe Collet
It's a question of balance?

Richard Medcalf
Yes, absolutely. Well, a few quick questions just to kind of wrap up our time. So these are just a few favourites that you might have. So just in a sentence or two, what's your favourite book?

Christophe Collet
Good to Great.

Richard Medcalf
Good to Great. Fantastic, it's a great book.

Christophe Collet
For books, you have the hedgehog strategy is very important subject these days.

Richard Medcalf
Yes, the hedgehog strategy, right. So just for people who don't know, the hedgehog strategy is, the hedgehog just does one thing really well, right, which is to curl up and have spikes and mastered that as a defence mechanism and a survival mechanism. And if companies need to know, what's that one thing, so yes, thank you for that. And what are your favourite productivity tip? How do you stay productive?

Christophe Collet
I think it's individual productivity KPIs, I think it's important to monitor closely the individual productivity, just because I think people need to have work and it's not part of the human nature to go for more work. So and I think it's part of human nature that people wants to have a lot of things to do arises out of nothing to do so it's important to monitor that closely and with that you will be able to also monitor your profitabilityat the end, even if you're growing a lot, and maybe that's something startuppers are forgetting is profitability is key at the end. So growing is good so we need to grow but you need to grow safely. Look at we work as it grew massively, but at the end they are not profitable and they are in a very so in danger. So it's important to, to have again, it's always a question of balance, and to look at, for me individual productivity is a key and twice the OKR is interesting as well because your company objectives, events, and every departments are declining okrs etc, but has to go to individual.

Richard Medcalf
How do you keep yourself productive? What's your own personal effectiveness, tip or strategy? Do you have a routine do you how do you plan your day? You know, whatever tool you use?

Christophe Collet
Not really. I would say it's when I look at means a window, if nearer, if I'm happy or not, I don't know how to manage my productivity. My productivity would be maybe to managing to lead well the team and to help others to achieve their productivity and target if they have achieved that I can say that I've achieved mine.

Richard Medcalf
Great. Who's your most, who's a leader that inspires you?

Christophe Collet
A lot of them. I think you can. It's Steve Jobs was a great example. Not in everything he did. But I think he had some great words: I don't hire people to do the job, if I have people, they have to learn me something. And I think that's totally true. Otherwise it's useless to hire people. I did a lot of sports when I was younger and I think it's a team play. And I think a company's a team plays like a pro team where you have a lot of different players at the end, we don't ask people to be friends and to share everything but at least to work together and to be it has to be very fluid and to trust each other. So in terms of leaders, I would say just maybe all the sports captain of the winning team. Some of people you need only to follow.

Richard Medcalf
What about your favourite quote or motto?

Christophe Collet
Quote, I don't I don't let me check it in English because it's a it's something coming from Saint Exupery so I know it in French so can you give me a sec... Okay, so if you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea. Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.

Richard Medcalf
Yes, beautiful vision. Get people's eyes up. Beautiful. Thank you. And that was really, I think all I wanted to ask Where can people find more about you? Or about S4M and everything that you're doing and helping retailers bridge the online and the physical worlds?

Christophe Collet 
Can you repeat this question? Because I didn't get it.

Richard Medcalf
Sure. And so, Christophe, thanks for this discussion. Where can people go to learn more about you and about S4M and everything that you're doing to bridge, the physical, and the online world for retailers,

Christophe Collet
Actually can go to our website S4M.io and I strongly advise you to join our Academy where because we during that crisis we are, we launched an academy, about 20 minutes webinars where we are trying to give insights to people about what is drive to store to drive a impactful drive to strategy, but not only it's more about additional content, etc. So I'd strongly advise you, if you want. It's a 20 minute session. It's every Thursday at noon, I think, where you can join it, but obviously it's recorded so you can have access to it.

Richard Medcalf
Perfect. Well, thanks very much for joining Christoph and speak to you soon.

Christophe Collet
Thank you, Richard.

Richard Medcalf
Hope you enjoyed this conversation. Now let's turn to you. If you're a top performer, who has already accomplished great things, and yet knows that there's a whole new level of impact and potential open to you and why don't we get on the phone and strategize on how to get you there. Head over to Xquadrant.com/speak to find out more. Until next time, be bold and be purposeful.


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