Université PSL welcomes, encourages and supports, via the PSL-Pépite program, about a hundred student entrepreneurship projects each year. When lockdown came suddenly into effect, for these young companies, regardless of their level of development, the business model completely turned upside down. Solidarity initiatives, implementation of teleworking, repositioning of the work… four young entrepreneurs relate their actions under quarantine.
An interview with:
- Antoine Moulin, co-founder of Parlapapi, a service to connect grandparents and their grandchildren.
- Clothilde Perez, founder of Koya, tailor-made solutions for ecological transition.
- Hang Chen, founder of Deconseil, website which compares energy providers
- Fati Mrani, CEO Avekapeti, social and environmental-friendly meal service for small businesses (supported by PSL-Pépite in 2016 – 2017)
PSL: How did you feel when lockdown became effective?
Antoine Moulin: Parlapapi is a solution to send news between people of different generations; for us the quarantine started when retirement home closed: one week before everybody else. Like everyone else, we had to get organized… Very quickly we wondered what we could do to help. The purpose of our company is to fight against isolation, we couldn’t stay passive! So, we decided to make our service free during the whole duration of the lockdown. Despite the whole economic trend, lockdown meant a surge in our business. We had 1,000 subscribed families then we gained 4,000 new subscribers and for each one we made a free mailing!
Fati Mrani: Like many others, lockdown caught me off-guard. Avekapeti delivers meals prepared by chefs to employees in companies, I’d heard the rumors of a lockdown, but I honestly thought I could maintain our services anyway. On March 16th we only made 3% of the usual turnover and unsold goods accounted for €1000. I had to close down, put the nine employees on part-time work and above all think about what to do next. It was a difficult decision, but it also made me deal with fundamental issues. I’ve spent this time preparing a new business offer for individuals. I had never thought I would be able to reach this customer base so soon.
Hang Chen: I was in a different situation. I had to deal with quarantine as early as January during a trip to China. Upon my return to France I was quarantined again for 14 days. This experience enabled me to anticipate. I suspended the current recruitments and started to analyze our founds with my tutor Jean to avoid any risk. Onboarding with teleworking is very difficult, but we discussed it and found ways to implement it. As a precaution and for the safety of our employees, I also bought a large quantity of masks in advance for Deconseil.
Clothilde Perez: A few days before lockdown became effective, we saw that many companies were anticipating, and we decided to adopt telework for the whole team and to leave the PSL-Lab, we took the equipment we needed most. We made sure that everyone on the team was in good working conditions, including our future interns. On Monday March 16th, before the lockdown was officially announced, I left my small 16 m² student studio to spend the quarantine in the Pays Basque with 4 friends. We installed a real coworking space. The teleworking went very well, we collaborated easily thanks to Zoom, Slack, Google drive, Trello… Moreover, despite the general trend, Koya’s team grew: from 1 to 9 people between the end of January and now. 4 people joined us during the lockdown: 3 interns and a graphic designer. Internet allows extraordinary things in these conditions!
PSL: Did you need to reposition your business?
Fati Mrani: As my entire team went on part-time work, I was alone. I had the impression that I was restarting a start-up, it was a strange feeling! However, I wanted to help, and I had a very clear feeling that Avekapeti, as a company in the food sector, could be useful. I was also worried about our chefs. They are self-employed and could not benefit from the part-time working benefits like the employees. We helped them get the €1500 bonus, which was a real relief, but was not enough for some. Thanks to my network, I got in touch with the association Protège ton soignant (“Protect your carer”) which delivered meals, equipment, etc. to hospitals. Launched during the lockdown period by several successful entrepreneurs, the association raised more than €4 millions. Their main asset was their contact with the hospitals and they had the necessary logistical infrastructure, which is exactly what I was lacking! I asked our chefs and identified those who would be interested in cooking meals even with smaller profit, and almost all of them responded yes! We delivered between 800 and 1000 meals a day. The chefs kept a reduced activity and most importantly we managed to make ourselves collectively useful in this very special time.
Antoine Moulin: Yes and no… Parlapapi has been designed for isolated elderly people who have families. Suddenly, however, regardless of their age or work, a large part of the French population found themselves isolated. Like Fati, we took our commitment further by joining two new solidarity initiatives: Anosplumes and Nos vieux. Thus, the letters sent to isolated people by “A nos plumes” or the children’s drawings collected by “Nos vieux” for the elderly were sent thanks to the Parlapapi service. Partly with the support of a Ulule fundraising campaign.
Clothilde Perez: We are fortunate because we work mainly on the development of a digital service, with a lot of preliminary work to be done before commercialization. Our launch is scheduled for September, and whether it involves R&D, red tape, web development or human and material resources, everything has been done remotely. However, we’ve had to postpone sending out the compensation of our crowdfunding campain and postpone the start of the test of our solution from April to the end of June. Moreover, like Fati, we took advantage of the quarantine to develop other processes of the project, such as communication. We have launched special lockdown and ecology series on social networks.
Hang Chen: Deconseil.com was launched last September. During the 6 months before lockdown, the growth was really fast, turnover soard from 0 to 200k and we started with 1 collaborator at the beginning to gain 6 new employees, without fundraising. Fortunately, Deconseil is a digital solution without telecom advisors; unlike other comparative websites, we did not have to dismiss our team or ask for part-time work. Our growth remains stable and we have even launched our new website. It now includes automatic data analysis functionalities for Linky meters with only a simple electricity bill. Everything was developed by our team during the lockdown period.
PSL: As young entrepreneurs, what resources have you found to deal with the difficulties?
Antoine Moulin: The PSL-Lab was closed but the team was still very active and sent us weekly information on calls for proposals, course of studies… very interesting. The whole community continued to discuss with our groups on What’s app, Slack…Feel like a team made it easier to adapt to this new context. We also received directly proposals for help and volunteering on the Parlapapi mailbox. It is really rewarding, it encouraged us to continue our solidarity actions. Moreover, I would like to take this opportunity to thank them all because their help made it possible to distribute our 4,000 letters.
Clothilde Perez: We took advantage of this period to answer numerous calls for proposals. As our structure is not legally existing (I only have a self-employed status), I’m not eligible for the state or local government subsidies. With the rise of Covid-19, the finals of the contests for which we were in competition were postponed. This event made the financial projection difficult, but we have decided to change our plans and to consider them only as bonuses. We received many newsletters listing all the resources available to ESS companies, PSL Pépite, Makesense, Ticket For Change, the Moovjee, etc. The support enabled us to answer some of our questions, identify experts and participate in online events such as workshops, Q & A sessions, entrepreneurial meetings… With this support, we felt less isolated, and we were still part of the entrepreneurship system.
Hang Chen: We obtained an Innov’up subsidy from the BPI, i.e. €30k. This aid is not related to lockdown but it enabled us to develop our new website. In addition, the PSL Lab team reacted very quickly and efficiently and provided us with a lot of information, particularly on applications for bank loans. We are waiting for an answer, which I hope will not be long in coming.
Fati Mrani: Avekapeti has developed well in recent years, and logically, I have moved a bit away from incubator networks. I have carried out a large part of the steps myself and I have been able to rely on a few services for some very technical actions. I really want to commend government help such as the guaranteed business loan. The crisis could have had very serious consequences, and the measures taken really helped me get through it. Our banks were also available to help, our business angels sent us useful information. I am very grateful.
PSL: What do you hope as work resumes?
Hang Chen: Success for our new website! Moreover, even if we lockdown is partly lifted, it seems important to me to remain on our guard and to anticipate to event of a new lockdown plan.
Antoine Moulin: We wish everyone to be able to visit their loved ones again, in complete safety. Above all, I hope that this solidarity will not collapse with the return to normal life.
Fati Mrani: Success for home delivery! We make a big bet on the future and launch a new marketing offer for teleworkers. Everyone has a lot to do with their work and home life, we offer a delivery system of meals prepared by chefs week-round.
Clothilde Perez: Have positive feedback on our compensations and our tests! We worked hard during the whole quarantine to develop those projects as well as possible, we are preparing everything so that our future customers will discover our solution and we can’t wait to have their opinions!