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A Balancing Act: Juggling HEC Studies and Business Initiatives

Nothing prevents HEC Paris students from creating startups in parallel to their studies. That was the conviction of several HEC graduates 2016 hoping to be at the heart of France’s surge up the global startup league. Five alumni from the Grande Ecole, MBA and Executive Education share their experiences of mixing studies with business.

Charp - a startup of HEC Incubator

“Our role is to multiply, accelerate and amplify these startups.”  HEC Incubator Manager Antoine Leprêtre sees with an encouraging eye HEC students creating startups whilst completing their HEC courses. “There are far more resources for students to exploit than in my days,”  pursues the 2009 HEC graduate who created, a company aimed at bringing together “serial shoppers" . “By setting the foundations for their future startups, the students can apply HEC course theories to real-life situations. They often rely on the full gamut of services we teach, including accountancy, law and entrepreneurship, to accompany them. It gives them a huge parameter to play with!”

The young entrepreneurs are certainly at the heart of a booming local environment. In sheer numbers, Paris boasts more startups, 12,000, than London or Berlin. It is enjoying a high-growth ecosystem as capital raised doubled in 2014-2015. And in the Brexit aftermath, much of the venture capital could well find its way to the French capital.

That’s certainly a reality which will not have escaped the attention of Xavier Gisserot, cofounder of Charp. His company’s expertise lies in identifying relevant business opportunities for B2B Sales teams. “We’re doing very well just now,”  he says with confidence, “our product combines artificial intelligence (AI) with human intelligence (HI) to allow sales people to focus more time on selling and less on researching which potential clients to contact.”

Questioning Each Decision

With the recent purchase by Mixdata - the most advanced B2B smart data provider in France - Xavier Gisserot believes his company has gained 20 years in development, allowing Charp to scale up faster. It also fits into the company’s general mindset of opening out towards Europe, with customers like Google dotted across the Old Continent. Looking back at his first steps, Xavier is grateful for the support HEC Paris gave him and for the joint efforts of his two cofounders, HEC 2016 fellow-graduates Sevak Kulinkian and Ephraim Bismuth.

“The whole HEC ecosystem was extremely helpful during the early stages,”  Gisserot insists. “Mentors and teachers encouraged us to launch Charp whilst we were studying. They also helped us learn through mistakes, making us question each decision. And we were lucky: Charp took off immediately. We had a turnover of €600,000 the first year, and we’re aiming for almost double that in the second.”

HEC Attitudes Evolving Positively

Tellingly, Xavier Gisserot’s Charp company established ties with those set up by two other 2016 Grande Ecole graduates, Jérome Varnier and Pierre Magnier. “Both their startups are Charp customers,”  explains Gisserot, “which means we deliver relevant leads for their Sales team. We also share a lot of best practices that we’ve learnt on the ground.”

Founded in 2014, Varnier’s Innovorder company has digitalized points of sale for almost 300 food outlets, offering a unique program to take orders, ensure payment and follow up on customer satisfaction. “The idea came to me in my first year at HEC,”  explains Varnier. “But I wasn’t alone. Antoine Leprêtre was extremely helpful, supporting our desire to begin well before our studies were over. I think there will be more and more flexibility in HEC programs to allow burgeoning startups to replace some courses.”  Varnier partnered up with childhood friend Romain Melloul to start Innovorder. “Romain was studying engineering at ESME. The project was born in Shanghai, of all places, and we worked on it for two years. Romain focused on the engineering side of the business, I worked on the rest, taking HEC classes linked to entrepreneurship, startups, being a developer and designing the company.”

The HEC Comfort Zone

Jérome Varnier insists on the positive side of striking out while at HEC Paris: “Students should really go for it. You have a lot less to lose. You get free and sound advice for your legal questions, accounting, entrepreneurship, and so on. That gives you a unique comfort zone: if it doesn’t work the first time, no big deal.”

“Don’t forget,”  he pursues, “when you graduate, you get all the stress of having to make the right decisions or going bankrupt. So you forget your dreams, there’s less room for risk-taking.”

Innovorder appears to have hit a rich vein. New OECD norms are forcing restaurants to declare their entire revenue, so the food industry is having to turn to programs like those offered by Varnier’s company to avoid prosecution for fraud. “We were the first to guarantee a certified solution respecting French NF 125 regulations. Now there are around 20 companies, but we’ve just purchased Caisse Tactile and that’s a game-changer.” The move is another step which re-affirms a potential many saw back in Varnier’s student days when he won the HEC Best Potential Award 2015. “Obviously, people at HEC saw us going far.”

Providing a Global Vision

Xavier Gisserot’s Charp has been using Innovorder’s services from the start. And Gisserot also saw the potential in WeSlash, since been re-baptized the company Side, a startup which fellow-HEC alumni Pierre Mugnier kicked off in January 2016. “As students, we felt fellow-students had trouble finding work in the side,” Gisserot underlines, “and Pierre seemed to go about it in just the right way. That’s why Charp uses Side to hire students from top schools.”

Like Charp, Side has also enjoyed rapid expansion, currently catering for the needs of over 15,000 students. And not just in the Paris region, but in London too. “It’s been impressive to see our growth rate,”  admits Pierre Mugnier, “we’ve seen figures go up by an average of 30% a month – and that’s without any marketing.”

Mugnier currently hires 25 fulltime workers to cater with the students and enterprises such as Uber, Blablacar and Doctolib. “Word of mouth has been our best promoter as well as a sound win-win policy,”  insists Mugnier. “We guarantee a decent wage for students, cover their administrative papers and even find them insurance coverage. In exchange, companies get qualified workers with flexible hours, and little administrative paperwork to do.”

Pierre Mugnier believes HEC Paris provided much-needed support thanks to thorough courses in accounting, digital and finance. “On top of that,”  he continues, “there is the international vision and experiences necessary to create firms which seek to open out to the world.”

“These are three young and ambitious companies,”  analyzes Antoine Leprêtre. “It was important to accompany them in the initial stages. At HEC, we are still working on how best to create a degree of flexibility in our courses to better cater for the inevitable pressures of juggling studies and business ventures. But,”  he insists, “Paris is the place to be just now. The government is responding to the needs of the local ecosystem. There are plenty of role-models for our cohort, with partners like Xavier Niel setting up the world’s biggest startup university at Station F, for example. It’s a great accelerator and we at HEC Paris are going to take full advantage of it.”

An MBA Boost of Confidence

MBA graduates from HEC Paris also launched startups in parallel to the intensive teaching offered by the business school. Andrey Artemenko arrived at Jouy-en-Josas in January 2016 from Canada following a successful career in marketing with Gillette, Oral-B and Lindt. “The HEC MBA was a chance to fuel my career in marketing but it led me in a different direction, to entrepreneurship,”  Andrey admits. “An MBA is an opportunity to understand what you really want. After six months at HEC, I started my company, MusicNow. It all started when I streamed a jazz festival in Versailles – it was so popular I realized I should stream music as a business.”

Andrey Artemenko traces his decision to found the company to two HEC experiences: “First, it was the Executive Committee Program (TEC). We met successful CEOs and entrepreneurs who shared their personal and professional experiences. During these discussions, it dawned on me that starting my own company will make me happy in the long term. Second, is a Leadership Seminar at Saint-Cyr Military Academy. It was not only the perfect training session to improve team leadership skills, but also a chance to push back your limits in a challenging field exercise initially built for a French army.”

“During the seminar, I overcame my fear of failure and my decision to start a company,”  he concludes.

Since then, Andrey has not looked back. MusicNow, his global live video streaming service for musicians already has over 100 producers and artists onboard, and Germany’s biggest hip-hop label has signed up for his services. “Overall,”  he insists, “one doesn’t need an MBA to build a startup. However, an MBA is not only a lot of knowledge and useful networking, but also an opportunity to understand what you really want.”  Andrey now hopes his software can branch out beyond the music world and be used in sports, education or corporate training.

Gendarme ’s Transformation Under HEC’s Aegis

Such startup expansion is driving another former HEC participant. In January 2016, Jean-Charles Antoine was one of six French gendarmes who pioneered the first one-year Executive Education course aimed at transforming his military career into a one at the heart of entrepreneurship. The hands-on course was only six months old when Antoine felt he was ready to take the big dive and launch Arkaliz, a company devoted to training and advising professionals in geopolitical security and affairs. “The course gave me fantastic vision,”  the former officer emphasizes, “particularly thanks to its program director Aurélia Le Roy. She guided me throughout and gave me the confidence to start up the company before HEC’s course was finished. Overall, the school gave me the drive and direction I lacked after my long stint in the Gendarmerie.”

Jean-Charles Antoine is prolonging his collaboration with the business school since he has been selected as one of the startups in HEC’s incubator program. “This is reinforcing the creative side of our business. My incubator tutor, Christian Coutenceau, has been excellent in helping me make that intellectual leap towards greater flexibility and open-mindedness to satisfy clients’ needs.” Arkaliz has established contacts in 55 countries and is working on setting up an office abroad. An internationalization drive which very much reflects HEC’s own globalizing philosophy.