Jonathan Benhamou (H.07)
The Guy who never had a boss
New York. Jonathan has never had a boss and you can feel it: he is unconventional, autodidact and ambitious. He started his company, PeopleDoc, just after graduating from HEC Entrepreneurs. After moving to New York in 2014 and raising $45 million, PeopleDoc has become a very bright face of the French Tech. French President François Hollande even came to see PeopleDoc’s offices during a visit in New York in April 2016.
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HU: Let’s start with our little Proust questionnaire. So, if you were… a color?
J: A rainbow, because of what happened today in Orlando.
HU: An animal?
J: An octopus, because I have to put my hands on everything!
HU: A meal?
HU: A song?
J: Imagine. I am kind of an optimistic person.
HU: A movie?
J: It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra’s one.
HU: An object?
J: My phone, actually, people will understand why. (laughs)
HU: A sport or a game?
HU: That’s the first time we hear it! A book?
J: The last book I read, Dream Big. It’s the story of the private equity fund created by 3 guys in Brazil, who bought Brama, and ended up buying Budweiser. That’s an amazing story.
HU: If you were a bad habit you would like to get rid off?
J: Dream big!
HU: A (super)hero?
J: Super Dad! I want to be a supper daddy with my kids.
“Even my wife doesn’t understand what PeopleDoc is doing”
HU: Now, can you sum up your professional background in just 30 seconds?
J: I think it’s going to be very easy for me. I have never worked besides PeopleDoc, the company I have founded and which was my first job. I have never been employed by anyone other than me! (laughs)
I finished HEC in 2007, I started PeopleDoc right after and here I am!
HU: if you had to explain what PeopleDoc is doing to a 5-year-old kid, what would you tell him?
J: That’s hard, because even my wife doesn’t understand what PeopleDoc is doing and I think I wouldn’t be able to do that! (laughs)
But I have 2 kids, one is 7 and one is 4, so when I told them what I am doing, the youngest one understood that I am selling computers… I tried to explain last year to the oldest one by telling him that we scan paper sheets and that we put them in the cloud, so now he think that I am taking all the paper sheets in the world and that I scan them to put them somewhere online…. (he seems a bit desperate) But that’s hard!
But If I had to explain it to someone who knows what HR is, I would say that our goal is really to enable HR to go paperless by digitalizing every single document or process an HR department of a company can have.
HU: It’s a S-a-a-S platform right?
J: Yes, we are software vendors and we our solution is cloud-based.
“The most important thing in a company, when you are a CEO or a manager, is to be transparent when you make choices”
HU: Can you tell us about your entrepreneurial journey? How did you come to PeopleDoc?
J: I started in 2007 when I was still a student at HEC. I met with Pierre Kosciusko-Morizet and he became my coach, or more precisely my tutor at HEC Entrepreneurs. I started with one of his ideas, which was to create the new postal service in France. Our idea was to put your physical mailbox online.
We realized that what we had to sign deals with the largest postal companies in France but we were four 23-year-old guys without money or credibility and we didn’t realize it was going to be so hard at the time. We were fools and even if it was a great time, it didn’t work out and we decided to pivot in 2009 in the HR world.
Our first idea was to digitalize the payslip in France because it was impossible to send payslips in an electronic way in 2009; it had to be paper based. We found a way to digitalize these payslips and we started from there, with a very specific product in a very niche market. That’s how we started to understand the HR market and from this point we launched a document management solution focused on HR, then an electronic signature solution, a case solution management solution and we ended up having this platform that we call today HR service delivery.
HU: What kind of risk are you ready to bear as en entrepreneur?
J: I am not really what you can call a risk-averse and I can take all risks as long as I really understand what they mean. I would not jeopardize my family nor my employees but you need to take risk if you want to have a reward.
“We have a stock-option plan for every single employee, because every job matters.”
HU: Have you coped with a difficult choice since you started this adventure? What have you learnt from it?
J: When you are an entrepreneur, you make difficult choices everyday and I had many difficult choices to make: about people or about your founders – we were 4 at the beginning, we are only 2 now – for instance.
In my opinion, the most important thing in a company, when you are a CEO or a manager, is to be transparent when you make those choices. They can be hard to make, but if you remain true to yourself, to your employees and to your family, you can make them.
HU: Do you have a little story to tell us regarding that topic?
J: The first one that comes to my mind and that I can talk about is when I had to ask one of our first employees to leave. He was our very first employee actually, he was 40 years old and I was 25 at the time.
It was really hard for us to do that, all the more because he himself believed in the company. What was my credibility? How would I find the courage to tell him? I waited and waited and waited until we had no other choice. The day after, everybody came to me and asked why I waited so long!
What I understood is that when you don’t make those tough choices at the right time, you are losing your credibility in front of your team.
HU: How would you define success, for you and for your company?
J: I would say happiness, honestly. It sounds trivial, but it very important to come to the office with a smile on your face, and to go back home with it. It’s not that easy.
HU: What makes you happy to go to work every morning?
J: What makes me happy is really to see the people that work with me being happy, enjoying what they are doing and understanding why they are doing it and why they are working here. It’s really important to understand why you do what you do. Seeing all these guys sharing the same experience and going together from a point A to a point B it’s amazing.
Of course, the fact that the company is working well helps. We are growing really quickly, we are hiring a lot and getting new customers: its exciting!
HU: How do you motivate your employees?
J: That’s the hardest part in my opinion. But we found different ways to do so.
The first one is to keep a good spirit and a good mood at the office. This is our mind-set, we want to be like a family and you can ask anyone here, they all have this feeling. It’s a really flat organization and we don’t really care about hierarchy, as management only comes when you have a problem. When there is no problem, people can make decisions and take initiatives.
The second one is that every single employee owns shares of the company. We have a stock-option plan for every single employee, because every job matters.
Finally, we organize a lot of events, we go out together all the time and that’s important as well, because we are a young company and we want people to share things outside of the office.
J: Yes, I think that it’s cool to work for PeopleDoc! (laughs)
“Every day, I want to come back home and to see my kids when I come back. That’s my work/life balance.”
HU: How do you select your key markets? Why did you decide to come to the US two and a half years ago?
J: As you understand we started in Paris 7 years ago. We became the leader in our sector in France, but as a software vendor, you need to be in the US if you want to become a global leader. It’s a mandatory path.
We decided to come here in 2014 because we didn’t have the choice, as our ambition is to become a global leader. If we want to go where we want to go in 3 or 5 years from now, we need to be in the US.
HU: Why New York and not the Silicon Valley?
J: San Francisco is too far. As we have all our R&D in France, the time difference – 9 hours – would have been too big.
Our market is really global and our solution can be sold to anyone, anywhere in the world. But we decided to come to the US to be closer to the huge American market and to be closer to capital. It’s really expensive to move your company to the US but the fundraising process is easier here. We had raised $7 million before coming to the US; we have raised $45 million since 2014 and our arrival to the American market. There is a big difference as you can see!
The important question was more about the timing than about the decision actually. When you decide to move your company to the US, it can be too early or too late.
HU: Did you decided to keep the R&D in France to protect your innovations?
J: In the software industry, you can’t protect your innovations. There are no patents and what matters in the software industry is the execution, not the innovation. You can have the most innovative software in the world, but you won’t succeed if you are not good at execution.
Protecting our R&D is not even a challenge for us. We are focusing on the execution.
HU: How do you come to the best execution?
J: That’s a good question! (laughs)
I don’t know because I have never worked in another company so I don’t know if we have the best execution, but I think that it relies on hiring the best people. You shouldn’t be scared to hire people who are smarter and better than you. We are 30 in this company, we don’t know everything and we need to have people who come from other companies because they bring good processes. We have been able to bring experts to PeopleDoc, they are managing entire departments of the company and thanks to their work, we have a good execution. Execution comes with people.
HU: How do you see your company in 10 years from now?
J: It’s hard to see where you are going to be in 1 month, so 10 years… (sighs)
We want to be a global leader in what we are doing and I hope that we will keep our start-up mindset for as long as possible. Google has 30,000 employees but looks still a start-up!
HU: What’s your typical working day? What are your days full of?
J: I wake up at 7:30 and I drop my kids to school every morning when I am not travelling. It’s really important for me. I arrive at the office between 8:30 and 9:00 and then it depends. I like that. When you are an entrepreneur, you can have Sales meetings, press meetings, internal meetings, networking meetings with other entrepreneurs during which we share ideas… But every day, I want to come back home and to see my kids when I come back. That’s my work/life balance.
HU: Would you advise to an entrepreneur to come to the US?
J: It’s hard. Everybody think the US are an El Dorado, that Sales circles are shorter and people smarter, but that’s not true.
First, it’s very expensive. Second, it’s long to build a company here. So be careful and take time to understand the US market before moving here. If you try to apply what you have been doing in France to the American market, you will probably fail. You need to rethink your strategy, your management skills and everything else. You need to start from scratch actually, and you are not prepared for that.
If you move to Africa or to Asia, you will adapt because people look different there and you naturally assume you will need to adapt. But when you come to the US, you think people are like in Europe, but they are not. That’s tricky.
HU: Let’s talk about New York now. Where do you hang out on Sunday afternoons?
J: Riverside Park or Central park. We live between these two parks and we go there quite often.
HU: If you had only 24 hours left to live in New York, what would you do?
J: I would go to Central Park and I would spend the day there with my kids. It’s an amazing place.
HU: What do you like about New Yorkers?
J: Their ambition and their kindness. People really think they can go to the top here, they don’t have any limit. But they are also very nice and open! You can speak with them anywhere in the street, in restaurants, in the subway…
When I arrived here, I sat down in the subway and people started talking to me and I found that a bit weird actually! (laughs) I thought they wanted me to give them something, like a cigarette or so. But they are just nice!
HU: In your opinion, what is the USA’s main challenge?
J: The answer is easy: Donald Trump. I don’t even understand what’s happening. But seeing Donald Trump where he is now shows many things about this country. The American society has a problem. People can literally die in the street here, even in New York. They don’t have a good healthcare system, the rents in big cities have become incredibly expensive and there is a huge problem with social inequalities.
“When you go out of HEC and you compare your knowledge and skills with people coming from other schools, you understand that you actually learnt a lot, in finance, marketing, management… I couldn’t spot one precise thing I learnt there, but it’s a whole package and a great one.”
HU: Let’s talk about HEC now! What is you best memory from your years at HEC?
J: I really enjoyed my 3 years at HEC and I would pick 2 memories.
The first one is the BDE campaign. I was the president of a list in 2003 and we had a great time together, even if we lost!
I also loved my year my the Entrepreneurship Major. It’s a fantastic program during which you learn a lot and you meet a vast array of people. I loved it.
HU: What was your favorite places on the campus?
J: The Kfet obviously! (laughs) I think everybody enjoys what happens there on Thursday night.
HU: Would you advise someone to go to HEC today?
J: HEC is an amazing school but it has one issue: no one knows about HEC outside of Europe. If you talk about HEC to someone here, he doesn’t even know what you are talking about! Some Americans know La Sorbonne, but they don’t know HEC or Polytechnique. We need to communicate more on our brand.
Back to your question, I would advise a French guy to go to HEC, but I am not sure I would tell the same to a young foreigner.
HU: For which reasons would you like to be contacted by an HEC alumnus?
J: The biggest strength of HEC is its network. Every time someone from HEC contacts me, it’s for business purposes: people looking for a job or for advice. I always answer because when I arrived to the US, I used the HEC network to find my first customers and it worked!
I don’t think there is any bad reason and I think that people should always answer. Most of the time they do, as I do. Even if you say no, you need to answer to show some solidarity. This solidarity will help us building the brand awareness I talked about before.
HU: Well, get ready to receive many emails coming from young HEC students then!
J: That’s cool! It would only make me happier to see more HEC alumni here in the US.
“Professional life is hard, but that it is normal. You have been told or you have imagined that it would be easy, but it’s not. And it’s normal! If it was easy, why bother?”
HU: In a few word, what would you recommend to future entrepreneurs?
J: Dream big and follow your instinct. Listen, but not too much! You need to strike a balance between what people tell you and what your ideas are.
HU: What key learning from HEC have you implemented in your business?
J: Party! (laughs)
HU: Ok, no problem, it’s going to be reported to the HEC administration!
J: (laughs) That’s interesting actually and I asked myself the same question earlier this year.
When you are at HEC, you tend to think that you do not learn a lot because you are young and you don’t really understand what’s happening. When you go out of HEC and you compare your knowledge and skills with people coming from other schools, you understand that you actually learnt a lot, in finance, marketing, management… I couldn’t spot one precise thing I learnt there, but it’s a whole package and a great one.
HEC allows you to understand the economic world and you will never be lost when you start a company or when you join one.
HU: Do you think the extra-curricular activities, like getting involved in associations, help you to do so?
J: That’s the most important part in my opinion. Everything is about network and even if you think it’s a shame, that just the way business works today. If you have a good network, you hare more likely to succeed. It’s a fact.
Of course, it is important to get hard skills by going to the classes, but being involved in the community, in associations or partying in the only way to find friends, but also to find your next colleagues or your next clients.
HU: Which associations were you involved in? You already told us you were the president of a BDE list, but did you do something else?
J: Yes as I told you, I only was the president of a BDE list, it means we lost!
HU: What was the name of your list by the way?
J: Citizen. Out of that, I was part of Videcom, I was playing volley and the rest I don’t remember… Waow, it was a long time ago…
HU: In 2 words, what do you think you should have learnt at school but you didn’t?
J: The “follow your guts” part was missing. And another thing I would have loved to learn is that professional life is hard, but that it is normal. You have been told or you have imagined that it would be easy, but it’s not. And it’s normal! If it was easy, why bother?
HU: Last question. HEC’s motto is: “the more you know, the more you dare.” What would be your own motto?
J: I would say: “Fortune favors the bold.”
… or pick a category…
…or an Alumnus
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