In the head of Thomas Serval, CEO of Baracoda
Today, for this fifth episode, we hear from a serial entrepreneur in tech, who not only sold his first startup, but then bought it back after working at several Big Tech companies in between.
If you don't recognize him in this description, our guest is Thomas Serval, co-founder and CEO of Baracoda.
In this podcast, we've had serial entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs in healthcare who didn't come from healthcare, entrepreneurs who had taken over other businesses to grow them. Today, for this fifth episode, we hear from a serial entrepreneur in tech, who not only sold his first startup, but then bought it back after working at several Big Tech companies in between.
If you don't recognize him in this description, our guest is Thomas Serval, co-founder and CEO of Baracoda.
Baracoda started with the invention of Bluetooth-enabled barcode scanning in the early 2000s. Today, Baracoda offers technologies to augment everyday objects, allowing users to take control of their health in a purely preventive way. To do so, Baracoda targets a room in the house: the bathroom.
In a few figures, Thomas' company, which joined the first Future4care class, generates 20 million in turnover, has 250 employees, engages 60 million users and has won dozens of awards at the famous CES in Las Vegas.
Through this podcast, we share with you some inspiring and surprising information about the mindset and journey of Thomas Serval, a pioneer and expert in the fields of machine learning and connected objects.
To listen to the entire podcast, go to Spotify. If you want to listen and watch at the same time, visit our YouTube channel.
Code and internet bubble, an infinity of possibility that is taking shape.
To tell us where he is today, Thomas starts by telling us about his childhood.
As a child of the 80s and 90s, he confides that having a computer at that time was something rare and precious. Fortunately for him, he had this chance and he decided to take advantage of it. That's how he acquired his computer skills, created his first games, developed his first software and CRM, for fun, then through internships.
He tells us that at that time, "the world was yours" if you could code.
Later, in the early 2000s, he finished his PhD in Internet Economics.
At the same time, the internet bubble burst and generated an infinite number of new opportunities for digital entrepreneurs. Thomas confides that it is in crises that some of the best opportunities are born. In any case, for his partners, Olivier Giroud, Matthieu Delporte and himself, we can consider that this was the case, since it is at this very moment that Baracoda was born.
Already motivated by the idea of creating a product that meets a real need, based on technology, the three technophiles decide to professionalize Bluetooth, which was booming at that time, to give it the ability to connect to barcode readers. Today, this may seem completely obsolete, more so at the time of the COVID where everything is done by QR code and our camera, but at the time it revolutionized access to websites in particular, since the WAP3 protocol, available even on the smallest mobiles, did not work as expected.
That's how Thomas and his partners created the world leader in Bluetooth barcode readers, Baracoda.
Thomas gradually became a reference and expert in technology and digital, which is why he was coveted not only by the government, but also by large players that will later be called the GAFAM.
Change of plan
Thanks to his experience, training and commitment, Thomas became an advisor on digital sovereignty to Jacques Chirac's government.
At the same time, at the dawn of the new quinquennium, in 2007, he decided to withdraw from the Baracoda adventure and with his partners, they decided to sell the company.
For Thomas, it will be the Minister of Digital Affairs!
Nicolas Sarkozy is freshly elected, but there is no minister of digital for this five-year term, which totally annihilates Thomas' plans. However, he was quickly contacted by a headhunter, on the recommendation of the CEO of Microsoft, Steve Ballmer.
In 2008, he joined Microsoft as Director of Innovation and Platforms and thus became a member of the group's executive committee. These two years were extremely formative for Thomas. He discovered the world of a large group and in particular the difficulty for a giant to work with smaller structures. Until now, he was convinced that it was only a matter of willingness on the part of industrialists to invest in startups or scale-ups, but he became aware of the difficulties that the different hierarchies, processes and dynamics can cause.
He also realizes that working within a large group requires a lot of effort, especially for an entrepreneur who has always acted as he wanted, following his instinct and his own strategy. However, Thomas is aware of how lucky he was to be at Microsoft at that time, as he was at the very heart of the digital and technological transformation. He is one of the people who have influenced our use and understanding of digital today.
But although aware of his luck, he feels once again that the next step in his career is elsewhere. In 2010, he is again contacted by a headhunter and this time again, for another GAFAM ... Google!
With a lot of misconceptions about the company and a hint of betrayal towards Microsoft, he goes to the interviews without expectations. However, Thomas tells us about meetings, extraordinary personalities and luck. He tells us that his recruitment process was a succession of encounters that he will never forget. He confides to us that this is one of the things that convinced him to join Google, because, according to him, no matter the size of the company, what counts are the people, the people who gravitate around you and the project.
He then became Director of mobile, media and platforms. He tells us about 3 absolutely extraordinary years. It was like an entrepreneurial adventure, but with Google's resources. We had to create a team from scratch, not just recruit, but recruit the best in the world in the fields of artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Two billion in earnings in just 18 months, the launch of YouTube in 113 countries, the integration of Google X, a body in charge of transforming the world by finding and developing the most innovative technologies, a completely crazy adventure for the technophile that is Thomas Serval.
Three years of learning, developing skills, unforgettable encounters, but for all that, the desire to undertake has never left Thomas.
In 2013, he dives back into the world of connected objects and evokes his desire to develop this through his current position, at Google, where he knows that the means will be up to his ambitions and that a universe of possibilities is open before him.
However, the door is closed to him, reminding him that his role is not there, that his perimeter stops at mobiles, media and platforms ; innovating and creating are not part of his role.
Give up his idea? Let things happen? This is not at all in Thomas' DNA. So he decided to leave the internet giant to start again in entrepreneurship and not in any way, since he decided to buy Baracoda, sold 6 years earlier.
Baracoda, the comeback
Baracoda yes, but differently. It was a brand new company that was born that year. The name and the brand were similar, but the concept had matured.
Within 6 months, Olivier Giroud and Matthieu Delporte joined the adventure again, then some former employees came back. "There are many ways to tell an entrepreneur that he has succeeded, one of them is when the employees come back," says Thomas.
An expert in connected objects, machine learning and cloud, Thomas wanted a strong concept that would change people's lives. He and his associates tried their hand at different fields, but in the end it was insurance, and mainly health insurance, that caught their attention and fueled the project.
The goal? To develop a connected object that would provide users with information about their health and well-being, even before they become concerned about a potential problem. Clearly? to prevent and not to treat.
On the other hand, the 3 partners were in phase on one thing: not to develop a medical device.
That's when the idea of the Kolibree connected toothbrush came up. An object with a playful interface for children in particular and which, with each brushing, collects data (duration, number of brushings, ...) to always improve the health of its user.
In France, the dental line represents 12 billion euros. The toothbrush is a product at the limit between regulation and absence of regulation. It is used daily by everyone and yet it is not a medical device, it does not require CE marking. However, used correctly, it can prevent up to 40% of the most common dental diseases, including the one we all know: cavities.
It didn't take long for the idea to become a real, reliable and viable project. The 3 partners and their teams then started the development strategy. Among the whole process, Thomas looks back at two key steps.
- The product market-fit: 1000 toothbrushes put in the hands of users, collecting their feedback. (Improving or evolving the games for children, connection problems, ...) with the aim of creating a product that would completely meet their needs.
- The alliance with an industrialist: Colgate.
In 2015, when Baracoda announced the launch of the first connected toothbrush, the industrial giant Porter & Gamble, which was also going to announce the launch of the same device, accused the startup of not being as advanced as it wanted to say and decided to stand against it.
Baracoda, although more agile and advanced, is still smaller and less financially comfortable than the industrial giant. The three partners were looking for a solution to this size problem.
That's when Colgate entered the startup's history. A story of men and women that continues to this day2. A partnership that will make Baracoda's sales explode and will even give them the legitimacy to be the first (and only to date) connected health object in Apple Stores.
Thomas tells us this story with a lot of gratitude for the people he works with who made this project what it is today. He talks about marriage, about sharing values. He tells us that the strength of this partnership lies in the ability to have and continue to support a very strong R&D team in France.
Creating the connected bathroom
With 30% of its turnover dedicated to R&D, Baracoda has become the reference startup in terms of connected objects, at the service of users' health. What do all these objects have in common? They are all in the bathroom.
The initial observation is that we all spend a certain amount of time in our bathroom every day. It's a place where we take care of ourselves, so it's the ideal place to develop tools and devices to take care of our health and well-being. On the other hand, this space is usually GAFAM free, we don't want to have to share moments of intimacy via our smartphone or another device, which could be hijacked without our knowledge.
So Baracoda has decided on its strategy in this sense: not changing anything to the users' habits, while taking care of them. This is how the BMiror and Bbalance devices were born, the connected scale integrated in the bath mat, which allows both to follow the evolution of the BMI of the whole family and to measure the balance (back, hips,...) of the users.
The startup Bbalance, in charge of the development of this bath mat, is accelerated within Future4care. Thomas confides that despite his years of experience, working with the most competent experts and the most prestigious companies, initiatives like Future4care are necessary. They allow meetings, to learn new things about the evolution of the market, the standards, all these essential points to improve technologies and projects.
Baracoda has a string of successes and awards, including at CES in Las Vegas.
When we ask Thomas how he got there, he talks about organization.
Indeed, Baracoda is not only a startup, it is also a design office, Bracoda solution, which is at the origin of the ideas. It's also Baracoda tech, a common platform for all connected objects, to follow their functioning very closely. To know what works and what doesn't. It is also a big knowledge of regulations, RGPD for example, but also of the Chinese and American markets. Finally, it is above all a human adventure, and that Thomas keeps telling us. What counts above all for him is the will to transmit and to see employees become experts and innovate in their turn. He confides to us that he too is always learning that humility must be part of entrepreneurship, without which there would be no innovation.
It is because they created their connected toothbrush that industrial giants came to them to ask them to develop other products, other objects. Proof that even the biggest need smaller structures and that these same structures can also grow thanks to these collaborations.
By the way, if Thomas were to be a member of parliament one day, he would pass the 'small business act', which would force large companies to buy from smaller ones.
Through this article and this podcast, we want to share with you the life and the journey of an entrepreneur, in perpetual search of innovation, of disruption, but who has also been part of a very corporate and processed world, which finally brought him a lot to his life as an entrepreneur.
Thomas does not reveal the next projects in progress, but he guarantees that we will not be disappointed. So see you at CES in Las Vegas in January 2023 to know the continuation of the great Baracoda adventure, which seems to have no limits.
To listen to the podcast in its entirety, go here. To watch the whole podcast, go here.