Gilles Barbier

I invest in your touch of madness and your ability to envision elegant and simple solutions to tackle complex problems.

Science background – I did not enter the Ecole Polytechnique simply because I could, as many people do, but because I wanted to: as far back as I can remember, I’ve always been interested in science and its applications. I did my PhD thesis in parallel with my first job as an R&D Engineer at EDF. My work was primarily on instability and bifurcation of non-linear materials. This is also where I got my first startup idea: using the emerging symbolic calculation engines to implement a formal finite element code. As far as I know, this has still not been accomplished. At EDF, I quickly became involved in discussions with French safety authorities over the justifiable lifespan of vessels in nuclear reactors. There, I proposed and launched two PhD plans and a still ongoing R&D project that combines 5 different scientific fields: mechanical analysis, fluid mechanics, statistics, fracture mechanics and nuclear physics.

Backpacker background – I can sometimes be a bit slow, so it took me 6 years to realize the nuclear industry was (rightly and hopefully) way too conservative for me. So I quit EDF in 2000 to begin a one year trip around Asia. This was probably the most pleasant experience of my life, especially the classic trek around the Annapurna and its various and incredibly scenic Himalayan landscapes. Travelling is extraordinarily easy these days, and I recommend it to anyone. Just embrace the opportunities… I was recently in Argentina for a simple 3-week trip, and I was lucky enough to spend 2 weeks in Antarctica thanks to a last-minute proposal.

Consultant background – After this Asian trip, I did what you do when you don’t know what to do: I became a consultant! McKinsey hired me and I entered their Parisian office in September 2001, just in time to see the Twin Towers falling during our welcome meeting. The McKinsey guys were all brilliant individually, but the company’s culture was anything but innovative. On top of that, I found myself working on the Arcelor mega-merger of 3 steel producers. This was not a particularly exciting time for me. Nonetheless, I became quite skilled with PowerPoint and Access…

Innovator background – In 2003, a friend asked me to join his small company, an innovative subsidiary of Renault and TDF to develop new traffic information mobile services. At first, I was worried that I wouldn’t know anything about it, but I quickly realized that I knew as much as everyone else. With my small team, we got our hands dirty and developed some strange things such as a black and white traffic map for phones with 68x96-pixel screens… and later, a PHP framework to accommodate heterogeneous screen sizes and capacities (wml, xhtml, oml, i-html, java…). There, I learned the hard way how (not) to work with telcos: a dominant French telco was ready to pay us much more for a communication gadget (a hand-made prototype of a connected car) than for our main service used by millions of people…

Manager background – Two years later, I had the opportunity to become this company’s CEO. I quickly realized I was unable to sell our product to car-makers myself, and so I recruited a CMO from Valéo. This worked pretty well, and we quickly won over the market, except for PSA who chose to launch its own solution. I re-engineered the entire technical platform in order to modernize it, and launched 3 R&D programs: dynamic routing, traffic forecasts and floating car data. Meanwhile, as a side-project, I developed a chat application for Series 40 Nokia mobile phones using the Edge network. I tried to convince some investors, who told me that telcos would never allow this kind of service. I was a newbie entrepreneur back then, so I believed them. First lesson learned.

Startup background – In 2007, with colleagues from Mappy, I launched my first startup, Tellmewhere. It was a sort of Wikipedia of places, a website where everyone could describe their city. Later, we pivoted to a social/local search engine. It was quite a long journey up to the acquisition by Maximiles group in 2012. I made every possible mistakes and went through a cofounder clash, a major pivot, multiple rounds of financing, a PhD launch (again), multiple imminent bankruptcies, numerous bets and hacks, an SEO nightmare, a beginning of product-market fit, 1.3 million users, a lack of good metrics, technical difficulties, the search for a business model, a boatload of competitors, a last-minute abortion of a multi-million fundraising and an attempted coup. Today, I’m quite confident I won’t be afraid anymore.

So here is my investment thesis

I invest in your touch of madness and your ability to envision elegant and simple solutions for complex problems.