Show 117 – Unicorn Interviews – Adrien Nussenbaum – Mirakl

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The 9th in our special series of episodes that we are recording in partnership with the European PR agency Tyto, and their Without Borders podcast.

Joining Russell Goldsmith and Brendon Craigie online was Adrien Nussenbaum, Co-Founder and US CEO of Mirakl, a global leader in online marketplaces that just recently announced its unicorn status.

Adrien began by saying that it is a challenge trying to explain what Mirakl does because what they do is new and hard to figure out. He said that in a very simple way, Mirakl provides the expertise, the technology and the partner ecosystem that allows businesses (B2B or B2C), retailers, manufacturers and distributors to launch and run an online marketplace. He said the business model that Mirakl power is different. Adrien explained that for decades, commerce has been a very simple business model where a company manufactures or buys products and then sells them and they make money by the price. However, digital has emerged over the last 20 years, the world has seen the emergence of a new business model which people call marketplaces platforms. Adrien said that one of the pioneers was eBay, and today we all know about Amazon, Alibaba, Uber, Airbnb and many, many other platforms in all geographies. Those businesses make money not by making or buying products, but by connecting sellers and buyers of goods who then ship the products. They take a commission on those sales, which is how they’ve been growing, they are now accounting for over 50 percent of online sales in the world. So Mirakl is providing the leading technology that allows any business around the world to create their own version of Alibaba, Uber or Amazon that fits their specific business industry and customer needs. He said that in a way, Mirakl are pioneering or helping people pioneer a profound transformation in their business model.

Adrien explained that since gaining unicorn status, their capacity and velocity in recruiting talents has increased by almost 10x in the last couple of months. He said it has definitely put Mirakl more on the radar, which is hard for a B2B company, but it has created a lot of visibility and put Mirakl on the map. Adrien explained that the market Mirakl are addressing is a very nascent market because they are powering a profound and long-term shift in business models. Mirakl believe that all the traditional players in the industries that we know are at a crossroads because of the increase in digitisation of their customer journeys. Part of the changes they will have to make involve adapting their business model to a new one that allows more scale, faster growth, better ability to bring their ecosystem together. This business model is fundamentally what marketplace is and Adrien explained that Mirakl are just at the beginning of their journey. By 2025, Mirakl want to increase their number of customers by five and to achieve their ambitions, Adrien said it starts with hiring, retaining and growing great people.

When asked what has been one of the biggest factors in Mirakl’s success, Adrien said it was the great vision of his business partner, Philippe Corrot that started it all, and they’ve stuck to it. He said it was difficult at first, because they were telling people there was a new world coming and that you need to adapt to it, but people doubted this and saw them as the devil who wanted to disrupt the entire business. So, staying true to this vision was hard but they knew that it would come through at some point, Adrien said that is what’s really driven the culture of the company. Adrien explained that if you ask people at Mirakl, they all believe they are working at a company that is pioneering something new, that is disrupting industries and businesses, that are helping companies evolve, grow and survive. He said that having that spirit is a real cement to the company culture but added that it’s a very competitive market, their rate in recruiting people they interview is three percent, and that makes it hard to scale at the pace they want. Adrien said when he moved to the US to start the business, nobody cared about them and cementing a team there was difficult. So, the vision, the people and the product are really important. He said one thing which is recognised by their clients, is that Mirakl has built a product which encompasses a long experience of the founders in marketplaces and there’s a real knowhow, its purpose built. He said they try to stay true to that triangle every day. Adrien explained that they have had people come and go over the years, but the most successful people are the ones who have weathered storms, but have stayed on and engaged because they saw the vision, and it’s something that’s really shared across the team.

Adrien explained that you can split Mirakl’s customers in a very simplistic way, you have incumbents, businesses who have been around for decades, centuries sometimes, and you have new digital native businesses. The incumbents, have not led the emergence of digital because it was new, they observe, evaluate and question and then sometimes it’s too late. However, you have businesses who are going to react, that’s what Mirakl’s clients do, they want to be the consolidator of their industry. The businesses which are non-incumbent but are digital natives, are platform pioneers, for them, it’s a completely different paradigm. Adrien said the idea is not just to copy existing businesses, but to find and bring. That’s why, for example, Mirakl work with companies, digital natives, who are establishing marketplaces in a highly curated, ethically sourced fashion.

Adrien said what drove Amazon to grow so quickly was, they were trying to grow online, they were investing massively in building a brand, in bidding traffic on their website and investing in their e-commerce infrastructure. So, they were building a database of customers and realised very quickly that those customers were interested in buying more products and that there was two ways they could get those products into the hands of the customer. There was the capital-intensive way, try to buy it and source and stock the products, and the capital, not intensive way, which was to launch a marketplace. However, there was always this idea, which is something they try to preach to their clients today. Adrien explained that what Amazon did early is say, not only are we going to monetise the assets, but there are other assets that we are creating, how could we mutualise that asset in order to create new areas of monetisation. Adrien said that is exactly the concept of becoming a platform business, thinking that there is value to generate by giving access to the assets that you’ve created then giving and monetising this access.

Adrien said their initial goal was to find a way to recognise the courage of their customers and to emphasise on how proud they should be of the initiatives and risks they’re taking. He said they wanted to create a club that would really recognise the merit of people that they work with, which would help create internal alignment within their organisation. So, calling them pioneers and pioneers of the platform economy was the way Mirakl decided to anchor their communication and the way they recognise them.

Mirakl Connect is Mirakl’s platform that brings together sellers, partners and marketplace operators. Adrien said, as a business, every day you have an opportunity with digital to consolidate and be at the centre of an ecosystem because the assets you provide to it are central and the biggest common denominator. He said Mirakl, at this point of their journey, have 250 plus live marketplaces around the world. It has 40,000 sellers connected and selling on to one or many of those marketplaces. Adrien said with Mirakl Connect, they realise that the biggest common denominator amongst all those people is Mirakl and the technology they have built. He said if you’re a seller today and you want to sell on 10 Mirakl marketplaces, you need to connect individually with each one. However, with Mirakl Connect, you are now able to create one connection and automatically connect with all 10 of those marketplaces, that’s the goal behind Mirakl Connect.

Adrien explained that he works with companies of different sizes, for example Best Buy Canada, Kroger, Coravin and he said the common denominator between those businesses, is that they have created assets and they believe they can aggregate a broader ecosystem around them. He said for example, Best Buy Canada, their asset is they’re a great brand, they have great stores and years of serving customers in the electronics space. It’s a product universe where Best Buy may have a hundred thousand products, but they could be selling five million products. Coravin, for example, has unique technology to pour wine without opening or removing the cork. He said every time you have the ingredients of assets, you should focus your ability to aggregate an ecosystem around you to provide more to the customers. Adrien then explained this is where the companies decide, do they want to be consolidated, for example Coravin selling on Amazon, or do they want to be also a consolidator, for example Coravin aggregating to a community of other products for wine aficionados who don’t necessarily want to go and buy their stuff on Amazon. However, Adrien explained that people can do both. This can be as a result of a business model that results in negative experiences for its partners. When asked how important the focus on B2B e-commerce is on Mirakl’s long term future, Adrien explained that today it is 40 percent of the business and by 2025 it will be 75 percent of the business.

Adrien explained that Mirakl’s culture is anchored around a set of values. He said they created their market and are experts at what they do so they can be trusted by the people they are selling to. He explained that many tech companies say they have created their category but, when you ask them what their benefit is, they’ll say they’re helping do something faster or better compared to what exists. That is not the case for Mirakl. Adrien said you need to be very team oriented and if you try to run solo, you will very hardly succeed in convincing people to embrace the vision that you’re selling them. He said there is this notion of expertise, team and hard work. He explained that ‘work harder’ is a bit taboo in some tech cultures. At Mirakl, they don’t expect you to live in the office because they expect you to have a life. In France, they often say ‘we work to live and we don’t live to work’.  Adrien said an interesting challenge, having built a company that was born in France and now has 50 percent of his business on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean is trying to blend the best of both worlds. He said there has been difficult communication values for example, during Covid, 95 percent of the employees in France said they wanted to go to the office. However, in the US, 22 percent of them said they wanted to be in the office.

Adrien said moving to Boston from France for him was not completely new because he started his first business in New York in 2000, so there was no cultural shock. However, he said the big challenge at first was the pressure of not making any mistakes, and the uncertainty of not knowing how long it was going to take, or if it was going to work. He explained that he has made tons of hiring mistakes, lots of people joined and resigned three months later and it took a long time to cement a core team. The time it took to get to a level of business traction where he knew it was going somewhere took 18 to almost 24 months.

Adrien was then asked how, at Mirakl, they have managed to keep the same culture throughout whilst working remotely and globally. He explained that they are still evaluating the potential positive or negative impacts of the work from home phenomenon. Adrien recently asked the H.R. director what the percentage of non-Boston based people they hired before Covid and post Covid was. Before Covid it was 10 percent, post Covid it’s 52 percent. Hiring people in Boston was a core driver of their hiring strategy, and it was a constraint on their hiring. Adrien then said he misses seeing people personally and he misses the open debate. He said people have been great and fully embraced the situation, but they’ve got to breathe, they’ve got to go out and pace their time. Adrien said he looks forward to a world where people are back in the office. From a business perspective he said there’s different ways to look at it. First of all, their customers have been able to better adjust to Covid thanks to their marketplace. They have had customers who had stores shut down, even their economic operations were not functioning, and the only thing they could sell were products on their marketplace. They also had a lot of clients who shifted their merchandizing and assortment strategy overnight by leveraging their marketplace. Adrien said that was good for their clients, their employees and their customers. However, he said the trend towards Marketplace did not wait for Covid, over the last five years, marketplaces have gone from 25 to over 50 percent of online transactions, so there is a trend. He said this trend has accelerated in the last few months, and from a Mirakl standpoint, they have seen more and more businesses put marketplace up the priority chain. Adrien said that Covid is definitely a great crisis that will push businesses to accelerate their needed transformations.

Adrien then explained the biggest communications challenge he has had to face in his business journey. He said he once hired someone who always said ‘Adrien, fake it till you can make it’ and when it comes to communication, Adrien said his biggest challenge and opportunity has been to understand what that expression meant for him. So how much do you amplify your message? He said that he could describe the company as ‘The biggest transformative, greatest innovation of all time since fire in the Stone Age’ or joked that the French version would be ‘Mirakl are an SAS technology built in Java that allows them to create online marketplaces for third parties’. 

Adrien said that he is lucky to have great people in Mirakl’s team, but it’s trying to understand where they should position themselves in that. Adrien explained that in a B2B company, even when you raise $300 million and you become a unicorn, a lot of the press say ‘but we don’t like to talk about funding, we talk about products that impact people’. However, Adrien said that indirectly as a company, they are really impacting people as consumers and people who keep their jobs. He said there is this ongoing questioning of ‘how do you build a brand in B2B and in communication?’. Adrien explained that for them it’s still a work in progress. 

When asked if Mirakl didn’t exist tomorrow, would they be missed, Adrien said in the big picture the answer should be no. However, he said if you ask Mirakl’s clients, they would tell you if it wasn’t for Mirakl, they wouldn’t have such a reliable, scalable platform and wouldn’t benefit from such expertise. Adrien said that once a market exists, it needs people to be at the forefront of serving that market, that is what Mirakl does. He said during Covid, the French government reached out to them in the early weeks of March because there was a complete shortage of PPE products. He said they’re a well identified company in France and they could stand up a marketplace that connected suppliers of PPE products with demand for PPE products. So, in 48 hours, they launched a platform called ‘Stop Covid-19’ where they were able to onboard initially dozens, then hundreds of suppliers from all over the world. Over 150 million products have now been sold on that platform.

Adrien then explained that the key to successful communication, beyond being creative, is to consider it as a program and not just as a one-time project. He said if you approach it like that, it helps solve all the short-term dilemmas that you will have around ROI. He said they are working towards using this holistic approach more. He said if you involve more of the customer, the partner and the customers of your customers, suddenly your communication can be much more structured, have a broader reach and be more long lasting.

Adrien said if he were to speak to his old self and give guidance on communications, he would say, always choose surround sound instead of one direction. Secondly, when you localise, that does not equal translation if you want a formula.

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