France's Cloud Startups (series): A closer look at We Are Cloud – BIME


We Are Cloud – BIME is one of the fast-growing success stories in the space of cloud computing in France.  Founded in 2007 by Rachel Delacour and Nicolas Raspal, their objective was to transform the world of business intelligence (BI) by creating a simple-to-use, accessible, analytically sophisticated, cloud BI solution.  They’ve had quite a few impressive achievements thus far such as winning numerous awards, being selected to join Google’s Cloud Platform partner program (the only French company represented), and, most importantly, building a truly international business from early on with 60%+ of their customers outside France.  I recently sat down with their charismatic co-founder Rachel Delacour to discuss We Are Cloud – BIME’s evolution and their plans for the future.
What is We Are Cloud – BIME’s background? 
I started developing the idea with my co-founder Nicolas Raspal at the end of 2007 after working several years as a financial controller.  Although I had a lot of experience working with various BI solutions as a controller, for quite some time I was unaware of how painful and expensive it was for IT departments to put BI solutions in place.  When you are just a user, you don’t know all the painful work that goes on (behind the scenes).  I learned this lesson when I was hired by a big retailer in France.  Upon joining I inquired about what BI tools were available.  Unfortunately, I was informed that there was nothing available and was told that I’d have to go to IT everyday to ask for whatever data extracts I needed.  So, I figured that I would develop a solution myself and asked for a budget to put a BI solution in place.  Eventually, I was able to develop a traditional on-site solution, but I was still very frustrated because the development process was very long, it was very hard to train people and encourage them to adopt the solution because they felt it was too complicated, and the IT department was reluctant to help because they felt I was somehow stealing their work.  This experience motivated me to approach my co-founder Nicolas, who was a BI architect, about working on a side project to develop our own BI solution.  For us, it was most important to develop something that was as easy to use as excel, but very collaborative, cheap and highly visual.
What were some of the key choices you made during We Are Cloud – BIME’s development?
First, we looked at all the technology tools that were available and although it was in 2007 (so, very early), we quickly saw that cloud computing was the best way to go.  As a startup, the cloud services aspect was particularly interesting for us as we wanted to focus first on developing a product with true added value, rather than focusing our efforts on complicated infrastructure issues or investing and managing in servers.  Also, it was really interesting for us to work with professionals who are experts in dealing with these types of issues (we used Amazon Web Services from the beginning).  All of this, allowed us to focus entirely on the UI, calculation engine, and ease of use of the solution.
As for the solution itself, we wanted to make something available in the browser, that was light enough to handle sophisticated calculations, and could develop something very visually appealing.  We also wanted the product to be able to connect ‘new world’ data services (i.e. web services such as Google analytics, Saleforce, Google spreadsheets) and ‘old world’ data services (i.e. relational databases, excel, flat files) as well as visualize and merge data coming from various data sources and BI solutions.  Our current competitors, mainly traditional BI vendors, are still not doing this nor offering true cloud BI solutions.
Finally, we also knew early on that it would be very difficult to ask customers to put all of their data in ‘our servers’ because the user would be required to put their information in our format and in the cloud.  As a former user myself, I knew that we couldn’t ask that of our potential users.  So we developed a particular architecture to avoid the need for this (as it runs in the browser).  We figured that if customers wanted to put their data in the cloud, it would be mainly for collaboration and performance reasons.  Interestingly though, we’re now getting more and more clients who want to put their data in the cloud as many don’t want to deal with the technical issues or the costs of managing data.
What about your customers?  Are there any particular types of companies that are more likely to use your service?
When we started, we had some ideas about who our customers would be which has actually been proven wrong.  At first we said SMBs would probably be our first target, but we now have more and more large customers who are using our solution.  This is because they see that it’s secure (we have regular diligence and security reviews with Google and Saleforce), effective, and that it helps them to reduce cost, which due to the financial crisis is an increasing concern.  These customers aren’t likely to put all of their data in the cloud tomorrow, but they’re getting there.  Naturally, we have many customers in consumer focused sectors such as digital marketing/advertising and online gaming, however we’re now seeing new profiles.  For example, we also said early on that we probably wouldn’t get financial, banking and insurance sector customers, but now one of our biggest success stories is a micro-credit financial institution.  The fact that we’re seeing other profiles coming to us that we didn’t anticipate initially means that cloud BI is really growing now and becoming more mainstream.  We’re happy that these large companies are coming to us, but even if they didn’t this wouldn’t mean that cloud BI is a failure.  It’s already a success for all those companies that couldn’t afford BI solutions before, who can now share information all over the world and don’t have to deal with all the problems of of traditional BI solutions (maintenance, upgrades, etc).
 Why did you choose Montpellier as your base?
Remaining in Paris from a financial point-of-view would have been very difficult as it’s quite costly…for example the rents are quite high.  We’re both from Montpellier, so decided to return.  It has turned out be a good decision for us as the region (Languedoc-Roussillon) feels we have a lot of potential due to our (innovative) technology, the positive exposure we’ve received internationally (in the press and the international tech community), and our proposition which has proven to be very interesting to the US market.  As a result, the region has really given us a lot of support.  From a development point-of-view, being in Montpellier hasn’t been an issue for us.
How did you expand internationally so quickly?
Since the beginning, our first potential customers as well as others interested in what we were doing (ie bloggers, Microsoft) were actually in the US.  When we were starting out, I spoke first with several people in France about our idea and many said ‘cloud BI will never work’ or that ‘companies will never put their data in the cloud’.  Now, however they’re starting to show more interest in us.  The fact is that the US and Northern Europe as well didn’t have the same barriers about cloud computing and cloud BI and, thus, were the first to use our solution. In fact, 60 – 70% of our customers are now outside of France. As a result, we had a real need for native English speakers in our company and today, 50% of our staff are from the UK.  Our biggest challenge (with having so many customers in the US) is dealing with the time zone differences and customer support, so now we’re considering opening an office in the US.
What is the biggest challenge you’re dealing with at the moment?
We now have all the infrastructure scaled to the point that we can play on a global level and handle a large volume of users.  However, our biggest challenge is definitely in the area of marketing and business development as we want to continue to make enough ‘smart noise’ about what we’re doing (to continue to drive our development).  We manage to do a lot with the staff we have, but we have a lot of ambition and want to go big.  We haven’t had to raise money from VCs yet and we don’t have plans to at the moment. If we do though, I want it to be because there’s a good opportunity there and to enable us to expand (more aggressively).
What are your thoughts on France’s support of entrepreneurs?
I think France has good support for young entrepreneurs.  We were, for example, very proud to have received the award from the Minister of Research in 2009.  There are also a lot of subsidies that are a big help in the beginning.  Although it may not seem like very much money from a US perspective, 30k€ in subsidies is a good amount of money in France and is definitely a real help.  However, once you get above 100k€ in revenues it seems that there’s much less support.  We actually turned instead to angel investors, mainly in the US, to help fund our development.
And what are your thoughts on the cloud in France and/or Europe?
There are great initiatives like Eurocloud that are trying to do a lot of good things.  However, I think from a public and governmental point-of-view we’ve wasted a lot of time.  The fact that the US government said that they’d turn to the cloud from the beginning of Obama’s mandate, shows how far behind we are.  I think we have a good minister though in  Fleur Pellerin who is quite open, but we’ve still wasted so much time.  I’d like to be more positive and say that we can close the gap, but it will be very difficult.  This is because we tend to focus first on the wrong things.  For example, in France when we are talking about cloud, we  focus first on bringing together various big companies to agree a set of rules for the cloud. This isn’t the right approach…we need to just get going and make it happen.  Sure there will be some mistakes at first, and when that happens we can focus on controls and rules.  But it’s most important that we focus above all on how to make it work and how to make it consumable.
We Are Cloud – BIME are doing a great job of effectively building on their success and setting aggressive, but attainable goals.  He’s to hoping that as they grow, they’ll emerge as the clear leader in cloud BI and will help to put France firmly on the map in the world of cloud computing.