We talked to Guewen Loussouarn, co-founder and managing director at Haigo, about the improvement of organizations and this is what he said about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Guewen Loussouarn: We’re lucky to be in France with a great healthcare system, schools that are open, and massive economic support from the government. As remote working is now universally accepted, my wife and I used the opportunity to move out of Paris and make our holiday house our everyday house. To be very fair, we’re doing fine.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Haigo.
Guewen Loussouarn: Back in 2000, I learned how to code websites because I wanted to make my rock band famous (it didn’t work). That led me to create my first agency in 2004 with a friend, building websites for other bands and small businesses. As no one was visiting our Flash experiments, I decided to learn marketing by doing so, in 2006, I joined a pioneer in the field (NetBooster, now called Artefact). In 2009, I created my second agency, Napkin, with 2 friends to help brands embrace social media and content marketing, then joined digital agency Nurun to get some experience working on award-winning worldwide campaigns, before coming back to NetBooster as Group Social Media and Video Director.
In 2014, I landed a Sales Manager role at Google and realized I was terrible at Sales. I thought about getting an MBA, but a friend asked if I wanted to help on one of his freelance projects. This side hustle became a real company, Haigo, in October 2015.
We’re now a collective of 25 inventive talents who help big corporations (AXA, LVMH, Dior, Air Liquide,…) and startups (Ledger, Owkin,…) create meaningful products and experiences by embracing Design and Lean methodologies. In 2020, Sid Lee and Kyu acquired a majority stake in the company to help us accelerate our growth in France and abroad, which is my main focus today.
How does Haigo innovate?
Guewen Loussouarn: I’ll be honest: we don’t innovate in a disruptive way. We’re good at understanding how people behave and interact with things so we can find opportunities that tech and sometimes just common sense can solve, quickly. One internal motto we have is “Unscramble it. Now”. This sums our approach pretty well and better than whatever fashionable jargon is trending right now. When you map the experience of any product, service, workplace, process, or organization, it’s very easy to find problems. I challenge anyone to name a perfect experience. Everything can be improved. This is how we use User Research.
Be humble, and keep in mind that there are talented experts outside your and your client’s companies. They can help you imagine and design new pragmatic solutions that you can prototype, test, and turn into something useful. This is how we use Design in its broadest and most inclusive sense.
Finally, you can turn ideas into reality by working in small cycles with an obsession for the quick delivery to the end-user. With this perpetual sense of urgency and constant contact with all stakeholders, you can launch something in a few weeks instead of months. This is how we use Agile. We don’t create anything new or revolutionary, with years of devoted R&D, but we do find solutions that aren’t always obvious and make them happen in a few weeks.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Guewen Loussouarn: At the end of 2019, we started a pivot towards more “pure product design” projects, versus our high margin, high resource-consuming transformational consulting projects. We assumed Q1 2020 would be bad, the time for us to switch the business and that Q2 would be back to normal.
When the pandemic arrived in Europe in February 2020, we were just rebuilding our sales pipe. The markets started to panic, new projects were canceled or put on pause, our revenues dropped dramatically. Q1 was indeed bad, but we had no visibility on Q2 and the rest of the year. It took us several months to pivot back, hire a new sales team and recover in Q4.
After 4 years of double-digit growth and good profitability, it was a punch to the face. But we learned a lot, and the energy we put into building back our business has created a nice momentum. It made us realize how great it is to have partners like Sid Lee and Kyu who supported our moves and investments.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources and what are the lessons learned?
Guewen Loussouarn: We lost 33% of our business, and we have reduced our staff by 33%, it’s as straightforward as that. We learned that managing growth is easy: you are always looking to bring in great people, you invest in your teams, you can explore new opportunities… But as Ben Horowitz brilliantly said, a good peacetime CEO is potentially the worst wartime CEO which proved to be true for me.
Making and communicating decisions that deeply affect people’s lives during a never-before-seen crisis is hard. Managing part of the process remotely is even harder. There is no good way to lay someone off. When you’re in the business of improving people’s experience like we are, it’s terrible to accept.
We never conceded on our principles around transparency, honesty, and kindness, and that might have helped a bit. Everyone knew why we were doing it because everyone had the figures. That increased the collective responsibility to work harder and focus so those decisions wouldn’t be in vain.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Guewen Loussouarn: As our sales pipe was dry and the market was very weary, our primary focus was to be even closer to our clients, and we saw a kind of solidarity. None of them took the occasion to launch an RFP and challenge the prices, some even accelerated the payment process.
We never really had a CRM, and we started to build it, alongside a proper sales management process, all in Google Sheets. We also invested in our marketing and communications strategy, with more content, webinars… and it’s now a source of leads, talents, and discussions with our clients.
Regarding efficiency, before the pandemic, we used to work at our client offices 4 days a week with many team rituals and workshops around physical boards, with post-its, etc. We’re now more active on their Slack or Teams and everything is even more digitalized with new tools like Miro or Notion, which makes it easier to reuse and activate.
We strengthened some management rituals as well, with shorter, more regular catch-ups and weekly All Hands. This crisis forced us to prioritize these kinds of non-core business topics, many of which will stay in the long term. In the end, those experiments and learnings are interesting for our clients and are now part of our service offering.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Guewen Loussouarn: In France, we have many grants, and we leveraged 2 of them. The first gives us the flexibility to reduce full-time employees to part-time, with the government covering the majority of the wage gap, so for them, they end up with nearly the same amount. That reflected the reality of our activity and we used it to make some savings.
The second one is a bank loan guaranteed by the government that you start to reimburse in 1 year, over 5 years. This helped us secure some finances early on. The government has also given us more flexibility in paying social and state taxes. Those measures, coupled with the economic measures we took, helped us weather the storm with more confidence that we were going to be able to stay afloat and be ready to rebound.
Your final thoughts?
Guewen Loussouarn: We should remember that these are exceptional times, and they won’t last forever. We don’t know when, or how, but the pandemic will end. We’ll need to change, and adapt some of the things we’ve since put in place.
Nobody could have predicted the crisis and it was like nothing we’d ever seen before. We still don’t know what the mid-and long-term effects the crisis will have from a social, economic, or financial perspective.
So let’s stay humble, and keep working that adaptation muscle we’ve all trained so heavily over the last 12 months. We might need it again.