In this series of ShopBack People, we speak to ShopBackers who previously carved out their own paths as entrepreneurs. What inspired them to join us? How is life as an entrepreneur different from working at ShopBack? Read on to find out their stories!
In this part of the #ShopBackPeople series, we will deep dive into the adventurous learning journey of our Head of Operations, Francois, from how he worked in a large corporation, started his own business, to joining start-ups after understanding more about himself.
Hey Francois! Tell us more about yourself.
Hello, I’m Francois and I come from France. I’ve been living in Singapore for the past 8 years, on 3 main jobs. Before that, I was working and living in India for a year, and doing an internship in Paris. I did 5 years of study including a double Masters in Hong Kong, which was my first experience in Asia.
I started my career as a Business Analyst on a software licensing project in an MNC and then moved to Product Management for about 6 years under a different contract.
After a few years in various Product Management positions, I switched from MNC to startups and joined Honestbee as a Product Manager. The role was actually very operational in nature - I was working on Honestbee catalogues on their groceries offer, for 2 years. Currently, I’m in full-time Operations at ShopBack.
What was it like for you to work on something in its early stage?
I think the most relevant experience would be my last adventure in Honestbee. I joined the company only three months after they first officially launched their services. Being a part of such an early stage startup made my first year there an absolute bliss.
In fact, the rate of expansion at the time was extremely fast - we launched in one new country every 6 weeks! I remember that we had to translate all the catalogues in Mandarin for launching in Taiwan, and even handled expansions in a country that didn't even have postal codes (the team had to segment delivery maps with polygons instead). There were specific aspects to certain countries that we had to manage, we had to adapt quickly in order to move rapidly, from one country to another. We did all that while developing new features along the way.
In early stage startups, you’re on adrenaline all the time and you’re always giving your 100%. I remember staying up until 5 AM to launch in every new country. This type of fast-paced environment keeps you on the edge all the time. Although it was a bit insane, it was a good experience overall, and I made a lot of friends there.
Tell me about the time you started your own business.
I ran my own company in Singapore for 3 years. It was a service company, serving large companies on their web projects. My first and main customer was my former employer, and I grew the team to serve that key account.
During this experience, I learned how difficult it is to manage complex sales. When you’re selling outsourcing contracts, it's sometimes difficult to convince senior decision-makers to choose your company over the competition. My main contract was with Schneider Electrics, but I also had contracts with some logistic companies and smaller accounts.
I learnt a lot about my strengths and weaknesses during that experience. For example, I realised that I’m a lot stronger on execution than on sales… Well, there's a reason why I'm not running BD (laughs)!
After I ran my company for three years, there were a number of factors that led me to stop and move over to Honestbee. I discovered that there was a big leap between the world of MNC and that of startups, and making that transition can be a challenge. You need to meet people that can trust you in taking that leap. I am thankful for Isaac from Honestbee for trusting me on managing something totally different, despite not coming from a startup environment.
What were some fun moments you had during the time you were an entrepreneur?
When my team of consultants were focusing on the contract with Schneider, we were showing up at their office in suit and ties every day. The funny thing was, we dressed like that but always worked remotely with everybody from China and India sites. I thought to myself that perhaps we could have worked from home in underwear and no one would have known!
How did you come across ShopBack?
ShopBack has always been quite strong on its external communication. At the time, I was reading a lot of media pieces, including articles about ShopBack and Joel. ShopBack was in the list of my dream companies. I told myself that since I wasn't doing what I loved anymore at Honestbee, maybe it was time for a change. Also, I was looking to handle Operations, and it was a bit difficult at Honestbee since my title at the time was still Product Manager.
One morning, I went for a coffee with a headhunter, and I could feel she understood my profile and my aspirations. I thought that maybe I can work with her, so I sent her my CV on WhatsApp, for the role of Head of Operations at ShopBack. The next thing I knew, I joined ShopBack a few weeks later. When I said a few weeks later, it sounds kind of simple, but it was actually anything but that. I met Henry, I met Joel, I had quite a number of other interviews. On the final round, my first interview started at 7 PM, and I left the office half an hour past midnight. I was wondering if the process was part of the question “can you really work hard?” (laughs).
Why did you decide to join ShopBack?
A big part of my decision in joining ShopBack was because of Henry. He’s a master dealmaker, and I thought I will learn a lot from him. I can almost imagine the scene from the movie ‘The Godfather’ where he says, “I will give you an offer that you cannot refuse” - that sums up Henry very well. He’s very good at understanding what motivates people, detecting what makes sense for people. He also takes inputs from the leadership team, so the direction won’t be driven solely by his own decisions. Henry gives space for the best ideas to surface, and sets clear strategic directions.
It's been about 2 years, how have things changed that still excites you?
When I first joined ShopBack, I started as a Customer Agent for one month. Henry proposed this so that I get a good exposure to all ShopBack operational aspects. He put CS and Operations under the same team so if a problem happens on any Operations scope, there is an immediate feedback loop through CS. It also makes everyone accountable.
Being a CS Executive is one of the toughest jobs in ShopBack. On any day, each CS Executive solves about 60 tickets. On a bad day, this number can spike to hundreds of tickets. CS often handles tough cases, for which the solution requires collaborating with many different teams, to provide solutions to customers.
At ShopBack, we can define the scope of Operations in four areas: Customer Service, Integration & Networks, Validation, and Business Processes.
Initially, the regional team covered the full region without distribution of Operations across countries. In the first year, we structured Integration and Validation to be separate teams. I could see that the team was struggling with requests from all countries, so we also started distributing the Operations team. We trained and empowered an Operations Executive in each country, and today they are fully autonomous.
That worked very well, as it enabled ShopBack to run more campaigns. Each team is able to do more in terms of upsized rewards, and other campaign mechanics… It also translated in tracking improvement. This new organisation contributed to reduce our Missing Cashback rate from 3% at the time to 0.5% today.
On the CS front, when I joined ShopBack, our CSAT was 75%, now we are north of 85%, with the target of being at 90% by this year. Ammar and his team made a huge contribution to this improvement. Shortly after he joined, Ammar restructured CS between Level 1 and Level 2: The Level 1 is communicating with customers and resolves most cases. The most complex cases are escalated to Level 2, who liaise with various teams to resolve these. Level 2 involves more expertise about ShopBack’s products, and they are working closely with other Ops teams. This two level system is very efficient to deal with issues in a scalable way.
Those were the initiatives that kept me busy in my first year. At the end of that year, we had a tough quarter where one of our major merchants migrated their affiliate system. They informed us a week before, while usually such projects require several months to execute. For a quarter we basically struggled to complete the migration and solve all the tracking issues. That kept me busy until the beginning of the second year.
When this major was finally resolved, I was feeling a bit down because suddenly there’s not much more that needed to be fixed. For a period it was a bit demotivating for me, as I was not sure what was next for Operations. I knew it was my responsibility to define what ShopBack Operations is, and will be in the future.
I realised that there are still many activities at ShopBack that were done inefficiently, and the company needed to be on a system that shares the information seamlessly, across all teams. We started exploring solutions that could help us do that. I remember having a conversation with Justin, our Head of Products, on how we could actually rebuild some of the company processes on Salesforce. That became the Iron Gate project, which was rolled out recently in Australia.
This year, we hope to increase the productivity of most ShopBackers by more than 50%. There is huge potential to make a lot of processes run much faster. This is a part on which our Operations team is now very involved, as it requires a lot of new process definition.
What was the toughest part for you during your time working with ShopBack?
I think it would be the last quarter of 2018, when I was searching for inner motivation and looking into myself for new areas of contribution to ShopBack.
What was the best part for you during your time working with ShopBack?
The best part was the first ShopBack offsite I participated in Phuket. I remember that during the KICKON award segment, I could feel the immense passion and pride that ShopBackers pour into their work. I also met a lot of ShopBackers that I didn’t really come across every day, because they are from different countries.
Many companies have their values printed on walls or posters… but the difference here is that ShopBackers really live through these values and it translates into everything we do. On the day of the offsite, I realised that people are actually celebrated for these values. The moment when each of our KICKON stars walked on stage to be cheered on by every ShopBackers really wow-ed me.
The next offsite was even bigger, organized in Bali. There was this huge party in the ballroom and over 200 ShopBackers were gathering. That year, I received the “Inspire, not Require” award. Though I must mention I wasn’t dressed for the occasion as I had pyjamas on while receiving it (laughs).
How have your entrepreneurial days shaped your work at ShopBack?
I think my entrepreneur journey helped me in a way that made me know my strengths and weaknesses, as well as understanding how larger organisations operate. It helped me knowing what I can achieve, and where I can contribute the most.
What kind of advice would you give to your younger self?
“You should quit!” (laughs)
Not to my entrepreneur self, though - that part was a powerful experience that shaped me. I mean that I should have quit the MNC world sooner than I did. Don’t get me wrong, I value my time in an MNC - it helped me understanding large organisations and complex processes.
I value these learnings but I didn’t need six years in an MNC to acquire it. I would advise fresh grads to find a suitable startup environment as you can learn and experiment faster. I’m not saying that people should only work in startups. Working in an MNC is also very important for learning. Every job you take is in some sense a school from where you learn a thing or two. Hence, it’s better to choose your school wisely.
With startups, you have a lot of chances to fail and learn. When you’re younger, you can fail and start over, it’s easier than when you have a family to take care of. As long as you are able to take risks, you should take it.
Another advice I would tell my younger self is that you should make plans for yourself, which to me are one-year plans. You should define different categories that matter in your life. If you don’t do that, one category will take over the rest, making your life unbalanced. I have personal objectives and key results that I review every year. Of course I would leave out some, but if it’s still important, I would carry it forward to the year after. That being said, it’s very important to know and understand what you value most in your life.
Thank you for your sharing, Francois.