Welcome to our ‘Voice of the Month’ series, in which we highlight the experiences and views of leaders in tech and real estate. Today we meet Gaël Soulat, Director and Chief Sales Officer at POLYPUS. With 25 years’ experience in business development and management in the tech sector, Gaël Soulat offers us his perspective on tech, start-ups and large companies. In this interview, we will take a look at his background and experience, as well as his thoughts on the future of tech in the real estate industry. Without delay, let’s dive into our conversation with Gaël Soulat, our Voice of the Month.
Could you briefly introduce yourself?
In a few words, my name is Gaël Soulat and I live in the Lyon region. I’m a fan of board sports and enduro mountain biking – in short, I’m quite keen on freeriding and riding by instinct.
On the professional side, I’ve been working in sales for 25 years, mainly in the tech sector, marketing solutions with a technological component. I’ve done a lot of work with engineers facing technological challenges and my job has always been to popularise the technology, make it audible to its market and finally market it.
Can you tell us about your background?
I graduated from business school (IAE). As a teenager, I was drawn to the “information superhighway”: connections, broadband, video, computer systems – all subjects that promised to open up the world.
At the end of my studies, I naturally wanted to discover this sector and companies like Microsoft, Cisco, Alcatel… that were making these new technologies accessible.
I joined the Alcatel group as a regional sales representative (large enterprise sector), working closely with the engineering teams. In 2008, I tried out the startup environment, but that adventure quickly came to an end with the subprime crisis. Back then, there was much less support for innovation than there is today, with fewer grants than there are today.
In 2011, I joined Orange, as customer account manager for large French companies worldwide. My role was to articulate Orange’s teams at customer sites and monitor their development.
In 2017, after 20 years of experience in Tech and business development I had the opportunity to co-found Polypus with 2 associates. Our combined expertise and skills enable us to support and challenge start-up and scale-up managers on the road to structuring and acceleration.
More than a catalyst for innovation, Polypus is a committed company that passes on to its members all the best practices that its managers, employees, customers and partners have experienced. Above all, it’s practical and operational.
Can you tell us more about Polypus?
Polypus was created in 2017 by three 45-year-old managers.
We don’t have the same goals as young entrepreneurs aged 20/25: we don’t want to “climb to the sky”, we want to create a sustainable business for the next 10 years.
We want a business at our image: community-based, free and fun (the freeride spirit).
That is why we have decided to create a “reef” around Polypus, so that the people we work with feel at ease, and find what they’re looking for in our support.
What set us apart ? We think collectively before we think individually, and we want our customers to be fulfilled and enthusiastic.
Today, Polypus employs 12 people. We have opened a subsidiary in Nantes and in Switzerland. There are 12 of us in the field. We challenge, we carry the briefcase to test models with our customers.
Our areas of expertise are: governance/ strategy, marketing/ communication, business and management, finance and international. We define an operational action plan with our customers and encourage them to develop their business models and structures.
We bring our employees on board to set a vision and a course for the company’s growth. It’s Polypus’ vision to get everyone on board towards a common goal where everyone benefits.
How would you describe POLYPUS’ approach to innovation? ?
To sum up our approach, I’d say we innovate by testing and practicing in the field. A Test&Learn philosophy where we learn by iteration. We explore new avenues and see what works and what doesn’t.
We help start-ups and scale-ups to structure and develop, as well as large groups to innovate collectively – which sometimes means taking risks and reinventing ourselves!
What kind of mentoring and support does POLYPUS offer startups to help them succeed?
The startups we work with have reached a certain level of maturity (first customers, first teams, ready and proven tech) and are facing scaling issues (finding other customers, pivoting, finding financing).
We don’t work with incubated startups who haven’t had a taste of the field, but rather with scale-ups who have proven problems such as: “I want to accelerate but I can’t” or “I want to delegate but I can’t”…
We’ll help them in their transition by providing process and structure, along with our development expertise. You have to be ready to open the book and share with us what works and what doesn’t, to be ready to change and to challenge.
We have a four-step approach:
- We assign each startup a referent. All Polypus managers can be referents.
- We map out strategic needs in terms of business, finance and marketing.
- We then look at timeframes: 3 months, 6 months… to create notions of urgency and thus classify objectives. For example, we might work for the first two months on strategic marketing, then the following months on building a sales team: recruiting, hiring, making sure they feel at home with the company…
- We define an action plan that orders these pillars according to our customers’ priorities.
The method is unique for each customer.
We have 6 pillars:
- Strategy, governance – shared with the executive.
- Strategic and operational marketing: why do we exist? What is our value proposition? What is the service offering? What support do we need?
- Business: How do I onboard sales teams? How do I incentivize? How do I talk to a customer? How do I talk to a partner? A partnership contract?
- HR: sourcing, recruiting profiles and onboarding
- Finance: dilutive, non-dilutive (Réseau Entreprendre, BPI, tax), how do I approach investors? M&A? Reselling my company?
- International: organizing learning trips, international deployment in Switzerland, the US and Canada
You also work with major retail companies like Nhood. How does Polypus support these major groups?
Of our 3 partners, 2 have worked in CAC 40 groups. We have a good understanding of the corporate world: we know its strengths and weaknesses. We understand the two sides of the French economy: start-ups that are arriving very quickly and dreaming of working with major groups, and major groups that are ultra-profitable and find it hard to innovate and open up.
These two heterogeneous models look at each other, without understanding or talking to each other. Our strength lies in bringing them together. One of our promises is to act as a bridge between startups and major corporations via our network.
Our first corporate clients (like Nhood/Auchan) asked us to help them reconquer their market. For Nhood, it was a matter of introducing them to startups serving the retail sector and hosting them in a gas pedal. We reversed the approach, going out to meet the startups with the companies’ specifications in mind: companies that have an impact on the daily lives of their employees, that change the customer’s vision and that make sense for the planet.
In a difficult context for retail and tech, how do you feel about the market today?
Today, there’s a strong focus on the economic viability and meaning of projects. Gone are the euphoric days of the last few years, with fund-raising after fund-raising: the end of entrepreneurial anarchy!
Before, the situation was rather ubiquitous, with money being given to startups on the basis of a “feeling”, by measuring the ability of the managers to pitch. We saw the development of solutions that made no sense, startups with no solutions and even no customers. This situation worked as long as cash was flowing in.
Today, the crisis has highlighted two types of startup:
- The bullshit startup (“fake it until you make it” but never actually makes it)
- The startup that makes sense and responds to a real problem
We need convincing innovations in industry, agriculture, healthcare, the energy transition…
We’re already saturated in other service sectors, where we don’t need yet another application (e.g. collaborative work) – Tech is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
Innovation means looking at and trying to provide answers to problems. Just because you digitalize doesn’t mean you’re innovative!
In reality, the first priority is simply to respond to problems before thinking you’ve got the idea of the century.
A word of advice for retail players wishing to launch an innovation initiative in collaboration with startups?
Having the desire to do something is an important first step. You have to keep an open mind and avoid the “it’s impossible for us” attitude. Willingness is the 1st quality.
If you want to launch an innovation initiative in a large group, you first need to find ambassadors who will support you despite the obstacles you’ll encounter.
It’s also important to break down the idea that innovation means breaking everything. Innovation is about adapting to what already exists, not reinventing everything. We also innovate to consolidate, not necessarily to disrupt.
Finally, to be successful, we need to create independent innovation units, uncoupled from operations and attached to general management. Test, test, test and don’t give up at the first failure. You have to give yourself the opportunity to do things differently, keeping in mind the theory of small steps: do things to make the ball grow little by little.
Gaël Soulat is CEO and CSO of Polypus. He offers his retail customers the chance to innovate by working with startups (the best of both worlds).
After 25 years’ experience of seeing the good and bad practices of developing organizations within major groups like Orange, he and two other managers decided to found Polypus.