Today we are welcoming Lucas Bertola, CTO and co-founder of Agicap, Start-up or even Scale-up, of a company from Lyon which was created in 2016 by three talented co-founders, Sébastien, Lucas and Clément.
For those who follow the FrenchTech, you already know Agicap, for others, the name may not mean anything to you, but surely know the subject they address, Agicap is a Saas platform that allows European SMEs and VSEs to manage their cash flow, and that, especially in these times, speaks to everyone!
So Lucas, you are therefore co-founder and CTO of Agicap, can you remind us in a few words of Agicap’s positioning, and give us some key figures?
Agicap is a Saas solution that we created in 2016 with Sébastien and Clément, which is in B2B. It’s a solution that is extremely simple to help small and medium-sized companies manage their cash flow more effectively. The product is accessible on 3 main axes :
– Providing a comprehensive and complete view of all our clients’ cash flows in one place
– Be able to automate their entire cash management, which until now has taken up a lot of their time.
– Be able to be a decision-making tool, for example, the manager will be able to simulate what happens if there is a third re-confinement, what happens if the containment lasts 2 months longer, what happens if I invest in a new machine.
Our story is working well, we are moving fast. We’re growing 20% every month, it’s called hyper-growth. We have 100 employees today. We managed to raise 2 million euros about a year ago, 6 months ago we raised 15 million euros. We’ve passed the milestone of 3000 clients in France and we’re beginning to develop internationally.
Who are you addressing as a type of company, as a type of actor?
The idea is that cash flow affects everyone. The small craftsman will need to manage his accounts as much as the huge company that will have subsidiaries all over the world.
One of the challenges of Agicap’s product is to keep it simple, although the range of features remains different depending on the topology of the customers.
What impact has Covid had on your business, I have the feeling that it has revealed even more the need to manage your treasure and therefore to use a solution like yours, no?
It has indeed had quite an impact, both positive and negative.
The first impact that is obvious is at the organisational level. We had to organise ourselves differently in order to be able to continue our growth despite the fact that everyone is remote. This was important so as not to slow down.
The second impact is from the client’s point of view, how we were going to succeed, despite this pandemic, in always responding as best as possible to our clients’ priorities.
Therefore, the cash flow issues were all the more important during this Covid crisis. But there were also other issues, issues of raising awareness of the different business lines. For example, a restaurant owner didn’t always have the awareness that he could do something other than wait. He could take decisions to be sure and be serene tomorrow.
All of this meant that we were able to continue and increase our growth.
I have the impression that you also have a coaching role, a role of support beyond the tool in cash management?
Exactly, we have also created a community called CashisKing where we invite the different company managers and professions to get together so that they can give each other as much advice as possible on how to successfully manage their daily problems. And we are going to bring them our knowledge and expertise in business management.
It interests me personally to understand your background, going through university or SupInfo, you’re not really trained to launch yourself into entrepreneurship, how did you get this desire to set up your own company?
I’ve always really liked the idea of carrying out a project, which is something I’ve always liked a lot, in other words, to review my background, I learned how to develop when I was 10 years old. I spent my evenings learning; I even went so far as to print the documentation I learned during my classes. I learnt very early and very quickly I realised that it wasn’t the development itself that made me vibrate but the realisation of a project using this tool, which is development. I was able to create a lot of small projects in my childhood and adolescence and at the same time, even when I played video games, what interested me in these games was the alliance system. I liked to spend time creating alliances, recruiting people, finding the right people, organising teams… I had this passion for the project and being able to federate people.
After my baccalaureate I went to maths college and then SupInfo, both went very well but these years taught me a lot about entrepreneurship because I spent all my free time creating entrepreneurial projects. I created a lot of them, I learned a lot, I also wonder how I could have made such big mistakes.
Agicap is a continuity of projects, for me it was a certainty that I would spend my life as an entrepreneur. I spend a lot of time making sure that Agicap continues to grow and that things go well internally.
If we look back to 2016, how did you come to want to address this subject of the treasure trove of SMEs and VSEs? And when you decide to start, concretely how do you start? by what? how do you go about your MVP?
It all starts with Sebastien and Clément meeting. We had known each other through one of my former entrepreneurial projects. They are extremely talented people; I knew right away that I wanted to do something great with them. The feeling was mutual.
Our way of doing things is to have an idea and prove to the world that our idea is the right one. We didn’t know what we wanted to do together but we knew we wanted to answer a problem and find a solution.
We spent a lot of time interviewing a lot of companies. I created a lot of small front ends, mocking the back. We gave this to the managers according to the problems they said they had every day. The more time we spent, we realised that there was a subject that came up very often and the solutions we brought worked. When we showed people our front end, they were frustrated that we didn’t let them.
So, we really started to capitalize on this idea, we started to build something real this time. There we knew that this was the right direction, that we had touched something when we started getting feedback from our clients who were telling us ‘we can sleep at night again’, it was very powerful to be told that.
Tell me about the main phases of the company’s growth, between the launch phase and the more mature phases?
In the beginning there were only three of us, we did everything at every station. We had mini-specialisations, Clément and Seb did the sales and product and I did the development and product. The more we started to have other actions, the more we had to start specialising, and we started recruiting. Today, I only deal with the engineering part.
When we started recruiting, the first recruitments were crucial. What makes a company successful is above all the people who make it up. If people are talented, your company will be much more exposed than if people are more traditional. We took the time to recruit the right people at the beginning, the more we started to have good recruitments, the more we had to structure the company. We created different departments: the engineering department, the product department, the support department, the marketing department, the sales department and the acquisition talent department. As the company grew, the challenge was to succeed in getting organised despite the fact that people were arriving faster and faster. In the beginning, there was one person every 3 months and now there are 5 people every 2 weeks. In spite of this arrival of new talent at Agicap, you have to manage to keep this same agility on a daily basis, so that you can do your work as well.
What is the roadmap for Agicap’s geographical deployment?
We started in Germany about a month and a half ago, we have our first customers. The idea is to be able to become a global player in cash management. We also want to roll out in Spain and Italy, we want to expand as much as possible throughout Europe.
We have done quite a lot of market research in all the different countries in Europe and beyond. Germany seemed to us to be an important country to start with for several reasons. First of all, the German market is very big, bigger than in France. Also, because we saw that if there was one country in Europe that suffered even more than France in cash management, it was Germany. It was a country that had everything it needed.
When you roll out Germany or Spain for example, how do you ensure a product market fit with these new countries?
We’re on a cash scale, not an accounting scale. So as much at the accountant’s when he wants to switch from one foot to another, everything changes.
There are still adaptations to be made, in the mentality of how one manages a company, mentalities change but for all that, the main lines remain the same. We have to adapt for each country, but we are really in the detail that makes it work and not in the complete restructuring of the product.
Tell me about Agicap’s technical team, what does it look like? I mean, how big are the teams, and how are they organised?
Today the people who make it up are mostly seniors. We are organised in full remote and face-to-face.
The teams are organised in squads, teams that have the full range of skills needed to create a feature. It will go through the front end, back end, the stacks, product managers and designers. People can make a feature on their own and the teams are split up by business perimeter. The idea is twofold, so at the same time the teams must be able to develop without stepping on each other. That is to say, not to find themselves in a situation where to develop a feature I have to wait until the team has made the feature, which itself is waiting for another team to do something else. It must be independent. Also, so that each team can be integrated in what it does, each team’s perimeter must have increased competence in the product in order to be able to make proposals. The squads are very well separated, I think it’s important that people can change squads if they want to, so every quarter we give people this possibility if they want to. This allows them to see new things or meet new people.
People don’t change squads very often because they are usually happy with their team and the people they work with and are willing to change their habits.
As far as the daily work is concerned, we are on a 2-week sprint in agility with classical ceremonies, planification, delivery and retro.
As far as the retro is concerned, it is really our ceremony that is the most important. That is to say that change is at the center of our way of working. In a context of hyper-growth, there are problems and there will always be problems. It is normal. On the other hand, it is not normal if the problem persists. That’s what retro is for, to constantly find solutions to improve and better organize ourselves on a daily basis.
Otherwise, as I said, there are people in the squad who are part of the product. Like the product manager and designer, in fact the relationship with the product on a daily basis or in the team is very strong because we think that to be able to understand the profession and be able to reproduce it well in the code and architecture, you have to be close to the profession. It should not be just someone who will describe a spec. The relationship with the product is very important.
Human relations are important, with the product but also with the people in a team. You can have the most beautiful project in the world with the most beautiful technologies, but if people don’t like working together it’s just not worth it. We try to keep the best possible atmosphere, if it wasn’t for the recruitment process. When we feel that a person is not going to fit in well even if they are technically good, we prefer not to integrate them.
At the time when there was no Covid, we used to do a lot of aperitifs together, gaming evenings, we ate together remotely. We try to be a team.
There are 8 or 9 of us in the tech teams, and there are 3 squads with one new squad per semester.
You told us that some people are on remote and others are not, how do you make people on remote feel integrated? What are the routines or the organization?
It’s going really well. I think the secret is to make sure that there is no first-class citizen that is local and a second class that is remote. Everyone has to be integrated in the same way. There are a number of optional things that have been put in place to make it work:
– There is an optional invitation for people to come for a whole week when they arrive. So with travel and accommodation expenses reimbursed. This allows them to immerse themselves in a company and see all the different services in person and be able to say they are part of Agicap.
– They are encouraged to come at least one or two days a month to Lyon to continue to maintain the links.
– We have set up a coffee break, so instead of taking your smoking break or a coffee alone at home, if you wish, you can be automatically matched with a person from the company from any other department to take your coffee break with them. This will allow you to have a social link.
– We have set up BBL (Brown Bags Lunches), so someone will come in visio to present an area they want to teach others. Typically, the two areas that were presented were one on the learning machine and another on the language F# so those interested could eat while learning.
– We want a very transparent system for the company. We communicate a lot. Once a week we bring together everyone from all the departments and we make a global company review explaining our strategy, why we’re going, what’s going well and what’s going badly. We also give the figures, the new revenues, and we leave time to ask all the questions that people might have.
– We have a code review system. That is to say that when someone has finished a feature, another developer will reread it to make sure it is well done. Our code review is made in peer reviewing, when a developer finishes a feature, he will contact another tech on his team who is available. They’ll have a video and screen sharing, and together they’ll talk and discuss the code that’s been done. Not only to check that everything has been done well but to learn from each other. This creates a social bond, and between the times when you get the worst reviews or give some, everyone is in touch, so the social bonds are huge.
It is for all these reasons that the remote control is going very well at Agicap.
I assume that as you grow, you have to constantly make changes both in your architecture and in the technologies you use. Who makes these decisions? How can you be sure to make the right choices?
At Agicap, there is not one person who is going to tell others how to do it. Within a team, everyone has a say in everything. There is no architect at Agicap, we are all architects for those who want to be.
All the technical decisions that are important for the future of Agicap are made in an optional meeting where people who want to join it participate and discuss the goal and how we will reach our goal.
At Agicap, we want our recruits to be talented, competent and intelligent people. I want the person I recruit to be able to say, ‘we’re going to do this’.
Because it’s the employees who make the choices and say where we’re going, it makes everyone accountable.
Which technologies are present in your world, on which technical stack and which tools do you work with?
On the Back side, we are on .Net Core, Patern CQRS.
A lot of conception in DDD, DOmain Design Driven, we are today in migration micro service.
On the Front side, we work with Angular, with a store on NGRX with Angular Material.
We are in continuous integration with classic tools. Testing is Key for us, with unit testing or acceptance testing with Jenkins for BDD, some of us are using TDD.
On DevOps and server side we are in continuous integration using a classical stack with Docker, Kubernetes and Terraform, Antibug
On the Cloud, we use Azur, we’re in strong reflexion to move on to GCP, the Google Cloud Platform.
I know there’s one element that stands out in your speech: I have the impression that you’re hyper-sensitive to quality, can you confirm this? Why is it important?
Quality is super important, it’s part of our culture. We have such great growth, and such high ambitions that today we can’t afford to make very short-term choices. Our goal is that in the years to come, we want the application to work as well as ever. We don’t want to find ourselves in a situation where we spend more time fixing bugs than creating features and we want customers to be satisfied.
We want that in 5 years’ time, adding a new feature will be as simple as it is today. We want the developer to be satisfied with his work at the end of the day. We want everything to be done to get the job done right.
How does this attention to quality in your organisation or in your management translate into practice?
We make clean code, we test, we apply good development practices. But it goes further than that. We want to embed our culture at all levels at Agicap. We want everyone to feel this culture, we want everyone to be there to create the best product.
At the beginning of the sprint when the product comes to announce the new feature to be created, there is no embarrassing moment when you have to negotiate with the product to have a little more time, you don’t have to spend energy to save time. The question you ask yourself at the beginning of a sprint is never what you are going to do with the quality, but how you are going to do it.
The complicated subjects that will have an impact, we work together to make sure we do it well. When we develop our features, they interact with the code of other team members. If we feel that the code is not great, we try to improve it. We are all in the same boat, it’s the principle of boys’ scoot. We try to improve everyone’s code all the time. There are 20% of the time in each sprint where we don’t do features and the members of a team decide among themselves what are the important technical subjects where we can improve.
How do you manage to evaluate your candidates to make sure they are compatible with this software quality culture? What does the recruitment process look like for someone who wants to join your team?
At Agicap, we test the different candidates. We are interested in in-depth knowledge, whether the candidate will master the principles of objects, architecture or the creation of a scalable application… We are not very interested in techno per se, I receive people every day who do a lot of tech. Our meetings are divided into two large towers:
– A theoretical part where the candidate will have a discussion with us. We will explore together all the major development principles and fundamentals. This allows us to see if from a theoretical point of view everything is ok.
– The second round is much more practical. We’re going to give the developer a practical case to develop, he’s going to develop it in front of us and have a discussion. So everything he’s going to do we’re going to invite him to discuss with us why he did it. We’re going to understand how the person thinks.
We will also judge the human point of view. The fact that the person is well integrated into the team is very important. If I feel that the person doesn’t have the same mentality as us, it’s useless and I know that the candidate won’t be happy with us. The human side is very important at Agicap.
Our interviews are conducted remotely and are very quick.
A word about the future of Tech and R&D at Agicap, what are the future challenges for you on an organisational and technical level?
Our ambition is to have great international growth, which implies many things. First of all, features, we want to continue to hear our fields of values. There is also a range of scalability issues, being able to approach 18 users is not the same as having 1 million users. Also, it’s about the organisation of the teams, so we have to succeed in finding solutions together so that we can work and communicate well together despite the fact that we are going to be more and more numerous.
Personally, as a young CTO, which subjects have given you the most trouble so far?
The subjects of culture are really not easy to set up, people have difficulty understanding our way of working. People often prefer a now rather than a tomorrow and manage to make people understand that this is how we work and how we want to work. It’s not always simple and the right way to do it is after the fact, taking by the hand and saying look at the choices we’ve made, that brought us to this today. This can be a dirty one who doesn’t understand why a feature takes so long to come out, it has to be clear to everyone. We’re not slow because it’s not. We do very little bug fixing, so in the long run we are very fast.