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Business in focus: Freespee

Interview with Anne de Kerckhove | November 2018

Anne de Kerckhove, new CEO of innovative phone and messaging platform Freespee, describes herself as a ‘tech start-up addict’. 

Over 15 years, Anne has helped to lead five tech start-ups to profitability and IPO. She’s personally invested in 25+ new tech companies, mentors over 10 founders a year – and is one of the rare female executives to sit on the boards of two public companies (in the tech and gaming space).  

As Freespee enters hyper-growth, we caught up with Anne to discuss the challenges of diversity in business, how to drive a culture of innovation – and how to manage a rapidly scaling business while holding on to your sanity…    

So what’s Freespee about?

Freespee is a cloud communication platform that helps marketing, sales and service teams deliver a better conversational experience to their consumers. Our platform ensures a frictionless experience, from the moment you pick up the phone to speak to someone in a company. How is it possible, after all, that this can still be such a terrible experience so often – that you’re forced to wait on line as you’re re-routed through a succession of clunky decision trees? 

We’re helping consumer-facing brands to do away with all that through contextualised conversations with their web and app users informed by combining multiple data silos into a single digital function. We help them to create unique journeys for their callers based on browsing behaviour. No more automated-menu hell – callers can be directed fast to the right person, someone who already has a good idea of your priority and requirements and is well placed to address them. And of course when that happens, for users it’s quite magical. 

And what made you want to take up the CEO role?

I’m addicted to high-growth companies! I love taking over when the velocity is picking up and the business needs to make the jump to the next level. Specifically, there were three things that really attracted me. 

First, the vision of the two founders [Carl Holmquist and Tobias Lindgren]. They are really, really passionate about this space and about improving customer experience. 

Second, the founders themselves. It’s a very delicate time for them to hand over to a CEO. But when I met Carl, we clicked instantly. Within 5 minutes I knew we’d work really well together. The gut instinct was there for both of us from the outset. Of course there was a massive due diligence process on both sides, because at this key point of transition – on the verge of high growth – there’s a danger that companies can self-implode. So we really took the time to make sure we were a really good fit for each other. We got on very well and complemented each other – we share the same ethos and the same values about putting a laser-like focus on the impact everything has on the client.  

Third, the team itself. We’ve been very lucky in terms of the quality and diversity of the team members. I love working in environments that promote diversity of all kinds – and I passionately believe that businesses benefit as a result. We have a rich mix of different countries represented, with no dominant nationality in any of our offices. 

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And how are the numbers looking?

We’re on track for our target of around 80% growth year on year, aiming to grow to be a $500m company over the next 3-5 years. We’ve got a fantastic pipeline, and the companies that we serve are growing with us exponentially every year. 

So the next year is going to be one of investment. My role is to give the company the foundations to manage hyper-growth over the next 3-5 years. We’re adding around 45 people across different offices – we’ve on-boarded 20, and we’ve got another 25 to go. We’re putting in lots of investment in the team to really build it up.

What are the challenges of managing such rapid and intense growth?

Hyper-growth periods are very hard to manage because things get very intense and if you’re not careful a sort of factory-like experience for the staff can set in. Lots of new businesses fail at this point, because they start to lose their DNA in the rush to keep on top of delivery.

So you have to spend lots of time every day thinking about how we improve the lives of employees – you have to equip them to cope with change, to embrace risk, and get them to push the boundaries of what we can do to impact positively on clients. I have a bunch of techniques to help me do this. I’ll use a silly or surprising game or some creative play to take people out of their comfort zone in safety. My made-up dragon-breath exercise is a trademark of mine – I once got a roomful of 400 people doing it! 

Of course, it’s also about how you structure incentives and motivate teams. For example, my new performance manager came to me recently and said, ‘We’re looking at marketing plans for Q4 – we’ve got a conservative plan and an ambitious plan…’ My immediate response to her was: ‘There is no such thing as a conservative marketing plan here. When making plans here, there are only ambitious ones, so go for it!’ By saying that I’m empowering her to take that risk, but also letting her know that I embrace and accept the risk with her, and will support and accompany her on that journey.  

Another thing we do here are regular hackathons. We’ll get the tech team together for a day, set them an interesting challenge, and encourage them to just go wild on creativity, with prizes at the end for the best ideas. By doing that, we’re saying to them: We are dedicating an entire day where you will not be productive in the traditional sense, but this matters because you will be massively productive in terms of creating new ideas. 
I want the message from the CEO to be – you have the freedom to innovate. And there’s no blame culture here. If something fails, we learn from it and we move on to the next challenge. Why? Because we took the risk together. 

Why do you think Freespee is proving so successful? And where will it go next?

I think we’ve re-thought the boundaries. We’ve been going to fairly traditional clients and getting them to look hard at that classic call-centre experience of their consumers – you know, it starts with an IVR script, and then you press 1, 2, 3 or 4, and then maybe you’re hit with another decision tree and so on... There’s nothing individual about it – we’ve helped our clients to rethink the idea of a customer journey like this as something that doesn’t have to be static and generic. 

Gradually predictive routing is becoming AI driven. You can push the easy questions to bots and divert the more complex questions to experts. Text to speech is also growing. One of our clients, a tyre manufacturer, does just that – recognising certain words and directing customers as needed. We’re even starting to respond to tone of voice – where the system recognises an angry tone, for instance, and escalates the call accordingly.

Do you think customer experience is becoming the great differentiator in business?

Absolutely – and this cuts across B2B as well as B2C. As Mary Meeker’s latest report shows, B2B customers expect the same slick, seamless experience when buying enterprise software, say, as they get when using Netflix or Airbnb. We’ve gotten so used to it we expect to see it everywhere. The customer experience almost is the product these days. 

You’re poised for rapid growth – how do you manage that on a personal level? 

Very important question! When you’re doing this kind of high-speed growth, you always have to be aware of what it takes from you personally and not neglect the other areas of your life. This is a typical error in high-growth businesses – you’re on a high, the work is all-involving, you’re seeing great success… so it’s easy to get arrogant, obsess only about your business and lose track about everything else. 

But if you are doing that to your family, chances are you are doing that to your teams and your clients too, and you’ll start to see burnout and churn. Growth can make you lose perspective, so you have to be super aware of one another. My job will be to make sure that we all watch out for each other, that we stay kind and positive. If, for example, a presentation doesn’t go well, let’s just chill and realise that this is totally normally in this kind of hyper-speed environment – let’s just regroup and move again. 

I firmly believe your personal life is a mirror of your professional life, and vice versa – the days of pretending they are completely separate are gone. So I have two kids – and my first priority is to make sure they have a good breakfast, get ready for school on time, brush their teeth etc. Now if I start reading my work emails before all that, my kids just know, because however hard I try I’m no longer present to them in the same way. So I’ve trained myself never to look at my emails till after the school drop-off, to have the discipline to give the my kids my full attention.  

Ditto, I travel a lot between our offices, and it’s tempting when you get off the plane to go straight to your Mac, open up your messages and start typing away. But that would be to overlook the main reason I’m here – which is to engage with people you haven’t seen in a few days. So the emails can always wait. 

It’s the same with how you react in those first few seconds with your teams when you see each other in the morning. We laugh constantly in the office – we’re always making fun of each other, we have lots of running gags. There’s nothing better than laughter for restoring a sense of perspective and re-engaging with people. That joyfulness – that not taking yourself too seriously – is something I literally manage with. 

You’ve done a lot to encourage diversity and especially women in tech. Where are we now – and how far is there to go?

Well, I’m on the board of 2 public companies, but I’m the first female board member on either. I’m the only woman on my current board. In fact, I’ve been the only woman on all the boards I’ve sat on throughout my career. So there’s still there’s loads to do, though at the same time things are moving in the right direction. 
If you look at Freespee, for example, women are prominent right across the organisation at every level and function, including testers and coders. You do have to construct environments where women feel comfortable working, but actually that’s not so hard because in my experience most men don’t want to work in a very all-male macho culture either. 

Do you think women bring a different perspective to leadership?

Not just women but people from different countries, cities, cultures… If you hire people from the same background every time, you end up with the same results, and that’s not how creativity and innovation happen. With CVs, I never look at where people studied – there’s 100 different ways of learning. Some people are suited for university, some need a more technical route, and some are self-learners. 

I want a big mix of different backgrounds, because that’s how you get the interesting connections and the new ideas. 
 

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