Welcome to the fourth episode of Founder's session, where I have a chat with the founders of SaaS companies on their journey building the company.
This session's guest is Sophia Benhaddou, Co-Founder of Excelway, a collaboration tool to make meetings and brainstorming more effective.
Excelway is in pre-revenue, public beta stage preparing for official launch pretty soon.
The basic concept of the tool is impressive and Sophia has a lot of interesting things to share. Let's get into it.
Hi Sophia, Welcome to Founders's session.
Can you explain briefly what is Excelway, and what is the problem it solves as a SaaS product for a business?
Excelway is a collaboration platform where teams run virtual or face-to-face meetings and manage projects.
It helps them think and build things together during meetings, making these more effective and focused. It also frees teams from busy work related to meetings, like minutes editing, sharing, finding… by automating those processes and keeping all data structured and in one place.
When did you start with the first line of code and how many were there in the initial team? Are there any co-founders?
The first line of code was written in 2013 as a side-project. We were three people working on it for two evenings per week. We left the project in a drawer for 5 years, using what we already built for our own consulting work. We got back to developing in late 2018.
Today, we are two people in the founding team.
What was your primary motivation behind building Excelway?
I’m passionate about the intricacies of the human mind when it comes to thinking and building things as a group. Whenever I could, I’d dedicate my research and hands-on work to this topic. When I started Excelway, I was just exploring a more creative and useful way to tackle this. I didn’t really have in mind to make it a business, but rather that it would help me in my workshop facilitation work and was something worth doing.
The more I was building and using it, the more I realized that it could actually solve real problems. The more I was showing it to people and making my clients work on it, the more I realized these problems were on a much larger scale than I thought.
I believe the product is currently in private beta. What are the channels you are planning to promote the product? Considering the current surge in demand for remote work and online meetings, wouldn't it be the perfect time to launch such a product?
Yes, today we are on invite-only beta.
There is indeed a surge in demand for remote work tools and we’re rolling out more seats and accelerating our capacity to respond to this demand. But we’re still at a stage where we learn from our users and we do this through high touch onboarding. We don’t want to grow at all costs.
In a way, we prefer and convert users that have been using competitors’ products more easily because they tend to be the ones that see Excelway’s added value compared to the current offer on the market. So for now, people rushing to competitors for their first-time use of remote meeting tools is a good thing for us.
What is your vision for Excelway?
Morten Hansen, in his book Collaboration, presents 4 barriers to collaboration. While most of them rely on the company’s culture, there is one barrier that can be lowered thanks to technology: the Search Barrier.
Bringing together and structuring all data related to what has been said in meetings, I believe Excelway will break the adage “If only we knew what we know”.
That's an interesting vision.
Who would you define as your ideal target customer and why? SMB’s, mid-size companies, or enterprise-level teams?
Initially, we were targeting mid-size companies. But as we test and explore the market, we realize that our users have mostly cultural traits in common: a will to structure and measure things (ideas, projects…), and a culture of collaboration and collective intelligence.
Remote teams find it particularly useful for running real-time workshops. In our current beta-users pool, we have every kind of company, although it’s more difficult to onboard enterprises unless through shadow IT.
Productivity and project management is quite a competitive space in the SaaS industry with many huge companies that have funding of millions of dollars. How do you plan to stand out with your product?
That’s a very good question. To be honest, my plan was not really to do project management. Mainly because there are so many good players around.
That’s why we decided to keep the project management part to its minimum and invest more towards integrations with existing products. But today, some users really like what we created as they can’t find some features anywhere else.
So they’re pressing us to complete the modules with more features. Whether we follow this path or not remains open.
What is the pricing model you are planning when the tool is released? Will it be based on the number of users or will there be any other pricing axis?
We’re still exploring options but it would probably be a mix of both (users and features).
Bootstrapped or raised capital? If Bootstrapped, are there any plans to raise capital?
Bootstrapped as of now, but we do have plans to raise capital.
What are the biggest challenges you have faced since you decided and started to build Excelway and how did you overcome those?
Prioritization is probably the biggest challenge. As a bootstrapped startup, you only have that amount of time and capacities.
Combine this with ambition and attention to quality, and you find yourself in a pretty tricky situation. It is an everyday challenge, sometimes you overcome it, sometimes you just don’t and make bad decisions.
One way though is to always be learning from those good and bad decisions. I do this by dedicating time daily to reflect on things, like a solo-retrospective.
Paris has a strong history of successful SaaS companies with companies like Mention, Aircall, etc. In recent times, Lemlist is one of my favorite SaaS companies which is also from Paris.
How would you rate the startup space in Paris? Is it still one of the best places in Europe to start a SaaS company?
There is a lot going on in terms of startup events, accelerator programs, and funding and I can see clearly things evolving from one year to another.
I don’t know if it’s the best place in Europe. I believe that Berlin and London are still very high up in this matter. Also, Paris is an expensive city.
Yeah, I completely agree with you on that.
Native integration could be vital for a tool like Excelway. Currently, are there any integrations with other tools? If not currently, what are the tools you are considering to connect with?
We’re currently working on integrating with Jira and Zapier. Excelway is a horizontal product and we want to integrate with as many tools as it makes sense for our users.
Jira is a very interesting integration. Can you explain more about how this integration will work and what it would achieve for the user?
The integration will allow users to create and display Jira issues in Excelway. We want to make it the easiest possible for users to go from idea to action.
Whether you’re brainstorming, having a retrospective, or a daily meeting, you leave the meeting room without anything else to do but to get to “real” work and not updating tools nor workflows.
What is the major shift in the SaaS industry in your perspective in the past 5 years and how you see it evolve in the next decade?
In terms of products and especially horizontal products, I see two major shifts: versatility and integrations. The versatility of tools, especially productivity tools, is now quite common.
Softwares such as Airtable or Notion have a clear vision of being business-agnostic and offering a true all-in-one solution.
They educate their users on use cases and allow them to unleash their creativity. With time, users get to develop skills specific to these tools and this seems like a good investment as they get the promise that they won’t have to look for another tool as the one they are using is offering many of the features needed.
On the other hand, integrations tend to take the opposite paradigm by offering a small but solid brick in terms of features, but also the freedom to use other specific tools seamlessly. It’s the Slack model.
I think the trend of all-in-one tools that are well integrated with third applications will still prevail, entailing a fierce competition in the market. Subscription prices will still go down and be a competitive edge for those targeting mid-sized companies.
Your favorite SaaS product apart from yours?
I love airtable as I’m fond of well-structured data. I use it in many areas, content projects like CRM, as well as personal life organization.
But that’s probably because I’m a former fan of excel (and one can see a subliminal blink of it in Excelway 😉 ).
Your favorite European SaaS company?
I don’t use it so much anymore but I have a lot of respect for Zenkit. To me, they were the first to introduce the different data views, from table to kanban to mindmap, long before I knew of airtable.
I also use Crisp.chat for customer support. They are French, their product is solid and their pricing is interesting.
I like what they are doing at Crisp as well. A very affordable chat solution.
What is the team size currently both on-premise and remote, and are there any plans to expand the team?
Today we are five people on the team, getting periodic help from five other people from time to time. The goal is to grow the internal team to 10 by the end of the year.
AWS or Azure or GCP? Which you used for Excelway and which would you choose if you are starting a SaaS company today and why?
AWS due to the wide-scale use of it, it just makes it easy for a new SaaS company.
Some words of advice for any aspiring entrepreneurs especially in the SaaS space? In your experience, what are some of the mistakes to avoid at all costs?
Today, we have access to billions of learning resources, from MOOCs to blogs and online communities. If you’re a bootstrapped startup, chances are you don’t have all the skills you think you need to launch. So one thing that we tend to do is to try to learn everything we can until we are “ready”.
As fulfilling and rewarding as learning is, one should be careful to not fall into the analysis paralysis or learning trap.
This is one of the mistakes I made and that I regret. I don’t regret having learned, but I regret spending so much of time-consuming resources compared to executing. It’s also easy to get lost with the amount of knowledge provided, most of them for free.
My advice would be to be conscious about the time we’re spending learning and always question what we’re looking for, how is it gonna serve us, do we really have to learn it (by reading this blog, doing this MOOC, attending this webinar, etc., or can we start executing something and get to the learning and best practice reviews later?
The best resource that I found online is the YC online startup school. Their videos are short (30 min) and to the point. I recommend every aspiring entrepreneur to sign up to their free program and start their learning journey there.
That's some really good advice to avoid getting sucked into information overload and minimal execution. That was a very informative and interesting chat. Much appreciated for taking the time and all the very best for the upcoming launch of Excelway.
Happy to share thoughts anytime, Yusuff. Thanks for having me.