Interview with Alex Negrea of DocTrackr
"At TechStars, I sometimes thought: well, we're not thàt shitty, look how shitty THEY are"
DocTrackr is one of the European startups that lead the way in thinking global from day one (well, day two maybe as you’ll see in the interview). DocTrackr started out in Paris in april 2011, but today – less than two years later – it already has operations in Bucharest, Paris and Boston.
Bucharest is where the development team is. Founder Alex Negrea leads the product team in Paris, while cofounder Clement Cazalot is in Boston to work on business development and investor relations.
Investor relations recently became a very important job at DocTrackr: a few weeks ago the company announced that it had finished a 2 million $ seed round led by Atlas Venture and Polaris Venture Partners, along with funding from investors like Philippel Langlois (CTO, Qualys) and John Landry (former CTO of Lotus).
DocTrackr was born while Alex Negrea and Clement Cazalot worked in the innovation labs at Gemalto, a company specialized in digital security. “If you have a credit card in your pocket,” says Alex Negrea, “it was probably made by Gemalto.”
Alex Negrea: “When I met Clement, we were both working in different departments at the company. I was responsible for fast prototyping of new products that were to become new products within a year or two. Clement was in the business innovation garage, an innovation lab to see if they could come up with new business ideas for Gemalto that could be spun out.
I have an engineering background, Clement has background in informatics and business school. As technologists both, we were troubled by the issues of security and privacy in online tools. Before we started DocTrackr, we looked at the privacy of photos on the internet. How do you share a picture on Facebook, and make sure your friends see it, but Facebook has no access? We tried something there, but that never took off. It’s still a problem, though (laughs).
But then we said: why not do the same thing in documents? Online collaboration tools make it easy for teams to communicate effectively, but it also makes your confidential information very vulnerable: the moment you share a document with someone, like on Google Docs, or when you e-mail them a Word doc or a PDF, you lose control over it. If you ever want to stop the collaboration, there’s no way to get that info contained again. You can delete the shared folder, but if the other person downloaded it, it’s out of your control. There’s a last mile problem that you just can’t solve down with the current set of tools.
We thought businesses would probably be inclined to pay for a solution for that problem.
So then we set ourselves the challenge: let’s make a tool, that lets people control documents, regardless of who they share it with. You protect it, share it in the same format, and you can control it, wherever the file may be. You can disable the file, you can see who accessed it and when, you can see when it was printed, etcetera. We provide you with analytics on the document, and help you make sure it doesn’t fall in the wrong hands.
But all inside the document, you see? People sometimes ask us: what’s the difference between DocTrackr and Google Docs? Well, we’re not a document management tool. We secure the documents of users once they go outside the platform. If you share something on Google, or Dropbox, and the other user downloads the document: you lose control. With DocTrackr, you keep control, even after they download it. We solved the last mile problem.
Sounds like a steep technical challenge.
It was, and it still is. Because we also decided that we don’t want to present users with a new document format. People know PDF and people know Word, so we wanted out solution to be inside those formats. It has to be intuïtive. It has to fit into the way that people already work.
You were both employees at the time: can you talk a bit about your transformation to entrepreneurs?
Alex Negrea: I didn’t have any entrepreneurial experience at the time, but I had had a lot of other experiences: academia, research, corporate work. Clement had more entrepreneurial background than me – he infected me with it and it turned out to be an unexploited part of my personality (laughs). Just at that moment a Paris incubator was starting – LeCamping. And since we really needed an incubator at that time, the desicion was pretty easy. (ed: the feature photo is a photo of Alex and Clément on the first day of LeCamping)
You went to not one but TWO accelerators: first LeCamping, then TechStars. Were you bad students?
Looking back, I see that we really needed to go to both.
We did LeCamping because we needed an incubator to guide us in our plans, and it was near to us in Paris. It’s also the only one in Europe which has a nonprofit model – there aren’t many who do incubation as a nonprofit. Not in Europe, not even worldwide. LeCamping offers mentorship, networking, office space, everything you find in an accelerator, all for free.
They get startups at earlier stages than Techstars, and they have a very good network available of French investors. That really helped us mature as an entrepreneur, because we didn’t know al that much about what meant to be an entrepreneur at that time.
Then after we finished LeCamping, we found our first client. We saw that there was a market for our product, but there were still a lot of things unclear for us. We were very aware that the path we were on was not the path to build a global business.
We needed to ask ourselves whether we would focus on the French market with good enterprise clients, and maybe build a European enterprise solution. The corporate market can be very lucrative, but it also has particularities and headaches.
Or do we want to become a company with millions of users, which you can’t do when you do enterprise, because it’s too cumbersome. We wanted to figure that out, so we went to Techstars. We heard from alumni that the secret sauce of Techstars is the deep engagement of mentors at a personal level – the fact that they understand the unique challenges of companies.
TechStars really helped us to pivot from our early business model to what we think our business model should be today.
Did you fire any clients?
No. We kept our early clients, because they were our first, and because they helped us. And because they’re happy with our product.
What’s the most useful thing you learned in those accelerators?
The value of an accelerator is that when you come there, everything is blurry. We didn’t know the path to take, the business that we wanted to build.
But we emerged with with more clarity and focus. During mentorship sessions, you keep telling people what you want to do, how you want to monetise, where you want to take the company. And they give lots of feedback, lots of it that you need to digest. We called it mentor whiplash, because it’s also contradictory sometimes. But all of that helps you decide a path to pursue.
And I think that’s one of the most valuable things you can have as a young company: a focus and a direction. If you don’t have focus, you’ll try to stuff too many features in your product, or try to juggle with different business models. And that’s not good. You should choose a path and execute. Put all your energy in to that one goal that you set for yourself, and ultimately fail or succeed fast.
A company – especially a young company – is basically a force pushing outward, looking for a path of least resistance, with market forces pushing back or pulling to other directions. How do you deal with that?
To be honest: we’re still struggling with these forces. There’s still demand in both at the enterprise level and the small and medium business level. There’s also different ways to use DocTrackr. Some people are interested in the analytics: who accessed the document and when? Others are more interested in the security, to remotely disable the file or control the printing rights.
Some enterprises tell us that they love the product, but they want it on their own servers because they don’t trust the cloud..
But we do have this clear focus: our mantra is that we help you control your documents without disturbing your workflow, in whatever third party solution that you already use – Box, Dropbox, Sharepoint.
In his recent book, Mikko Järvenpää says something to the effect that “accelerators are brutal”. According to his survey, founders don’t always feel the level of support that they say they need from the accelerator program.
I never had that feeling. But TechStars wasn’t our first accelerator, and I had already moved to another country.
I think it’s typical for a startup: you go through a lot of psychological challenges. For some of them, you can find support somewhere. Others you need to power through alone. There were times at Techstars that me and cofounder were having issues that we couldn’t solve by talking and needed someone else. When you’re in an accelerator, you should usually find someone who can give their opinion.
There were also weekly or bi-weekly talks or social events with all the startups, which helps you keep motivated. Sometimes you say: well, I’m not so shitty, look at how shitty THEY are (laughs). And other times it’s: damn, they’re doing so well, I must be doing something wrong.
The entire lean startup movement focuses so hard on the first steps that you could forget that a startup is actually a very young company. What is the toughest thing about building a company for you?
Alex Negrea: The biggest challenge for us is to build an awesome team. The product, the market, any business opportunities are important, but without a good team everything else doesn’t really make sense. We’re seven now, and already we’re working very hard on building a company culture that can sustain itself.
Do you sometimes feel that great businesses don’t need accelerators or startup events? Sometimes a company pops up out of nowhere, doing millions in revenue, without ever attending a startup event. I get the feeling that for some people “doing a startup” is something of a lifestyle choice, like being in a rock band in secondary school.
Yes, I see your point. Startup meetings are useful to a certain extent, but only that much. Networking is good, you need relationships. But you also need to work and build your product, think about the idea, build your startup. You need a balance. I would definitely advise people to be conservative with the networking efforts at first, or at least have someone do the networking and another person build the product. When you have to build, you build, you have to work your ass off. Then later you’ll have time to do the fun networking stuff.
DocTrackr is active in three countries: Romania, France, the US. What’s the difference between Europe and the States, for you?
There are differences. One of the reasons we went to the States was business related. I would say that Europe is not mature enough to digest our product, the need is not as urgent.
When we spoke to people in the States in the ecosystem of document management platforms, we immediately got very positive feedback. We could feel an immediate need, more than in Europe. I think the US is a few years ahead in thinking about cloud and security. And the scaling of business in the States is definitely bigger, it’s a much more homogenous market.
In Europe, you really need business cells in each country, and as a startup we just don’t have the resources for those. I’m not saying you can’t do good business here, but it’s much more difficult to attack the different markets. If you want to go global as a European company, I would definitely advise startups to go through the US first.
You just raised 2 million dollars in seed money. What does it feel like when that hits the bank account?
It definitely feels like having different responsibilities than before (laughs). It’s not that we need to report a lot now. But you have a responsibility, you need to make something happen.
I’ve heard Edial Dekker of Gidsy argue pretty convincingly that it’s not your money, and it’s not even the VC’s money…
Alex Negrea: Yes, but it’s SOMEONE’s money (laughs). Also, not all our funding is from VC’s.
So you do feel a certain pressure to arrange a huge exit?
Well, it’s no secret that VC’s expect a return of at least 10x their initial investment. Everything less is considered a failure. We don’t look at exits ourselves at this time. We’re still in beta, so we want to mature our product and start doing business now. We started doing our first integration with Box.net – the largest document management platform with 40 million users and serving 130 000 businesses. That would be a perfect first entrance on the market.
Introductions thanks to Whiteboard contributor Vlad Ciurca. Thanks, Vlad!
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