Scaling new heights

03 July 2023

Please note: Barclays Private Bank does not endorse any of the companies or individuals referenced in this article.

Unicorns do exist. And Vincent Bieri has co-founded one of them. Driven by a different way of looking at things, the start-up investor and adviser founded Nexthink in 2004, and in 2021, it was valued at $1.1 billion1. Its innovative digital employee experience management software allows companies to monitor and anticipate IT problems, in turn boosting productivity and workforce engagement. Jean-Damien Marie, our Global Head of Investments, spoke to Vincent about what it takes to build a revolutionary business, as well as his approach to team building and the influence of interests away from work. 

Jean-Damien Marie (JM): Tell us about the Nexthink success story…

Vincent Bieri (VB): In 2004, three of us founded this company bringing artificial intelligence (AI) into the IT game. The idea was to help organisations and IT teams to better understand what was going on with their networks, devices and applications. We realised that monitoring tools in most organisations were saying that everything was fine, but lots of people were complaining that they couldn’t do their work as they wanted.

We looked at everything from the perspective of the people using the systems – which no one else was doing then. Everyone was putting technology at the centre, rather than users or employees. However, there was a challenge not only in the sheer number of data points to collect and analyse, but also in the constant changes to this data over time. For example, there was no way for our potential future customers to know how many applications they were using, and what users wanted from them. So, we brought in AI. 

Back then AI was very revolutionary in IT. It allowed us to offer the self-learning monitoring we needed to deliver on the promise of this ground-breaking user-centric perspective. At first, people didn’t want it because they didn’t understand how it worked. It was a long journey from the first set of clients, to our eventual hypergrowth trajectory. Initially, you only capture a handful of pioneers – the ‘crazy ones’, and then a few years later, we had early adopters, and then we had to find a way to clarify our product positioning and define a scalable go-to-market strategy to build growth. 

JM: When was the first product and commercial relationship milestone?

VB: The first commercial relationship didn’t take that long, repeating this at scale did! A year after we created the company, we had a little prototype to demo the concept, and quickly saw traction from this from a handful of potential clients. Then, we came up with the first potential commercial products and three of them decided to try that. Half a year later, one of them, a famous Swiss watch maker, actually bought it. It was a positive and encouraging sign but we were still far from having created a scalable business model. 

JM: How many years did it take to get to the point of building solid growth?

VB: I would say seven or eight years since our first client. After three years, we reached $1 million in revenue, and then it took another five to do something around the $10 million mark. Everything was slower than anticipated, but things were always progressing. And that’s crucial.

Everybody’s focus was on aggressive goals, but the most important thing is the trajectory of your results. What is complicated but crucial is to build a copy-and-paste way to grow a business which anyone can use.

When we celebrated our 10-year anniversary we had a party. And at this party, we had a short speech from our first client, first employee, and first investor. The first investor was VI Partners' Alain Nicod who told us that he wanted to congratulate us on an amazing achievement.

He said that we had achieved twice less than our initial business plan, using twice the money and twice the time. It sounds funny (or desperate), but what he wanted to say was that most innovative companies quickly stop expanding. In this context, continuously progressing is already a success and a sign that there is positive change ahead.

JM: To put this into perspective for us, can you tell us more about the scale of your pperations today?

VB: Yes, today the company has more than 700 employees2, and over 1,100 large enterprise clients, representing more than 15 million employees’ endpoints3. In 2021, it was valued at $1.1 billion4. On average, we are saving our customers 50 hours of downtime per employee every year5.

JM: Clearly an impressive story so far. How did you build your resilience for the journey? And what motivated you to get through the more challenging times?

VB: There are many things that, by pure coincidence, lined up and worked out. But in terms of resilience, it takes more time, energy and resources than you initially think. So, if there is one quality you need for such journeys, it’s resilience.

The original motivation was actually to get out of my comfort zone and do something interesting, something different. I was hungry for something other than a very predictable job. I needed something that made me excited to wake up in the morning. I like to explore and create. I am not afraid to fail. I prefer to try. I guess you need to be OK with more uncertainties than certainties if you want to make the entrepreneurial jump. 

JM: On that note, you were also quite competitive on the sports side in your twenties. Did that help at all?

VB: Yes, I think it did. My sporting career taught me that one day you are in good shape, and the next day at a race you can get dropped, finish behind or need to pull out, with all the negative emotions you can imagine. People see it, you can’t hide, and you can’t blame anyone else. That helped a lot because I built some resilience and endurance, not just physically but also mentally. Sometimes when you are in business, people are harsh and it’s tough too. I was ready for that. 

The big difference between business and professional sport is in terms of competition. A sports race is very well framed. In cycling, you have a start, a finish and a lot of rules. In business, when you innovate, you are creating something new, so you have to redefine the game plan. You have to focus on yourself and your clients, and not worry too much about the competition as another race has already started. And each race is without a well-defined finished line. 

Sport and business both require strong mental resilience and passion, but the way you compete is very different. Although there can be multiple winners in business, this isn’t true in a sports competition.

JM: How important would you say teamwork is?

VB: I think in everything you do, you have to gather data, experience and advice from others. And trust your intuition too. You need to collaborate and decide with some degree of uncertainty. I’m very grateful to all the people who helped to shape the success of Nexthink, whether that’s by working hard every day or providing us with one-off advice. 

Nowadays I do that kind of coaching work myself. I’m helping entrepreneurs to move forward on their own projects, and if you are not supporting the consequences, you must be very careful with advising on actions. That’s why the best advice I had was from people who were not telling me what to do but helping me think about the options available and the potential consequences of the choices ahead of us. They were asking the questions I should have asked myself or others, and highlighting the ‘elephant in the room’. I try to coach with this approach. Coaching is a conversation, not an instruction. 

JM: I’m curious to hear your perspective on the Swiss business environment, in terms of being able to build the company and any lessons learned…

VB: We can always do better but overall I think we’re very lucky in Switzerland. In terms of administration and legal stuff, it was not complicated to start a business, and there’s a lot of help. It was a very supportive environment for bootstrapping, to have an office, to have coaches and advisers. It was pretty frictionless, and a lot of good people helped.

For Switzerland, the problem is that the local market is small, so it’s hard to grow if you’re only based here. We started to go abroad after having just three or four local clients. It’s harder to expand abroad because it adds complexity and challenges – you need more resources and experienced people. There is support for that, but it’s not as effective as the support people receive to take an idea from the university lab stage and create a business. 

JM: Would you rather have gone to the us first, then tried to expand in neighbouring countries?

VB: No. We did make mistakes, and there were many things we could have done better or faster. But we had to learn about ourselves the hard way first, because when you go somewhere far away, you better be ready with everything you say, and understand what it takes to open up a market.

Going in with a stable European presence was actually a good thing because we failed to really get started three times in the States. I am not sure we would have survived these failures while we were trying to become successful in the US without a solid business in Europe and the Middle East.

So, I don’t have any regrets about the sequence. That said, we could have been stronger in our execution by taking less time and using fewer resources, insisting on what we knew to be the right approach.

JM: Back to Switzerland, is it important for you to give back to your roots?

VB: I like to advise on entrepreneurship initiatives because selfishly, it’s very rewarding and energising to learn from motivated young people with innovative ideas. I don’t have the desire or the idea myself to do it again (yet), so I’m always very excited to have those conversations and engage with new projects.  

I’m always very thankful about the ecosystem here and the people involved who helped us with advice, information, ideas, and so on when we started Nexthink. So yes, I’m happy to help share my experience. I’m not teaching lessons, but rather I’m just having a conversational exchange and I think that’s appreciated.

I can also bring a trusted network. A person can learn many things by themselves but growing a network takes time. Putting the right people in touch can dramatically accelerate sales, fundraising and the hiring of talented people.

JM: Tell us about why commitments outside of business matter to you?

VB: I am a very active mountaineer; it’s more than a sport. It has a lot of similarities with the business world, given the element of leadership, and the understanding needed of risks and uncertainties. I don’t know many other activities in which your decisions have that level of potential consequences. Every time you go mountaineering, you have to accept that you might not come back, even if you do everything you can to return safely and happily. 

In fact, there is a much higher chance that you’ll come back if you accept that you will need to turn around if the conditions aren’t safe, or too difficult for you or your partners. Similarly, when you start a business, you need to accept that it might not work as planned, or at all. But the journey is always worth it, an experience, a lesson that can help your next expedition to be a success.

In the mountains you need to have a game plan, which includes alternative routes and choices to be made. If you don’t, you make irrational decisions that can have massive implications for you and others. Without a proper plan, clear leadership and communication, you are relying on luck to get out safely. In business that’s similar, with less threatening consequences, of course.

Culture and values are also very important in the mountains. You have to define the way you want to climb. In the mountains, we use the term ‘by fair means’ to indicate we climb with ethics and integrity. In business, it’s the same – your attitude matters as much as the altitude you reach.

Ultimately, to go far or high, you need to go together. The strength of a team is in the willingness to adapt its leadership according to the context of the problem you have to solve. In foggy conditions, it’s better that the person with the best compass navigation skills takes the lead. You can then swap over during in the technical climbing section. In business, it’s also crucial to adopt this dynamic and contextual leadership style based on aptitudes and problems to address. 

JM: And finally, what motivates you to get up in the morning?

VB: Spending time doing projects in the mountains, trying to do some new lines in skiing, and helping entrepreneurs with innovative ideas. And when both worlds meet, it’s even better. Some projects can create big change and transformation in the world. It’s rewarding and fun to be involved with those, to learn what’s going on and eventually be part of something transformational. 

I am also involved in technology for sport and healthcare. In the end, only a few things matter for all of us, and health is number one for sure. Physical health and mental health. Being healthy only has advantages, and we often forget that.


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