Maxime de Couëssin (MSc Business Management, 2014), General Manager at Réseau Entreprendre Paris

Published on 16/10/2020
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The EDHEC Alumni community includes a great many entrepreneurs. Maxime de Couëssin (MSc Business Management, 2014) is not one himself, but he finds himself at the heart of an entrepreneurial adventure whose intense human dimension he explains in this exclusive interview.

 

Tell us how Réseau Entreprendre came about.

It all started in the 1980s with an intuition among business leaders in northern France who faced a massive wave of layoffs. Prior to that period, Roubaix and the surrounding area had been the global centre for wool and the textile industry. Nowadays, of course, one wonders what that trading hub has become. But when you see the size of the former factories still in place, now transformed into museums, it is easy to imagine them full of workers. Trade has become globalised, and competition has intensified. A certain number of business leaders were laying people off but didn’t want the emerging trend to take hold. They felt they were inherently job creators, that they should help people set up businesses and take staff teams with them to gradually inject a new dynamic into the region. The way Réseau Entreprendre now operates is the same across all of the regions it covers. I look after the Paris branch, but there are around 130 sites across 10 different countries.

How does this network work?

It’s a community of business leaders (or mentors) who join an association to offer support, in a given region, to entrepreneurs (mentees) in need of help, whether in start-ups or taking over existing businesses. On a global scale, we’re talking about 14,000 mentees; in the Paris area, the figure is around 400. Réseau Entreprendre serves as a link between these two communities (mentors and mentees) and helps keep them dynamic. Even though there are certain aspects dedicated to mentors and others dedicated to mentees, our role above all is to help business owners. Whether you have 1 or 30 years’ experience, the fact is the subjects that interest people are often the same. Sometimes a mentor might come to see me with a question and we get an answer from a mentee who happens to have expertise in the area.

What is the economic model of Réseau Entreprendre?

It’s quite a specific economic model because the beneficiaries are not our clients. Those who benefit from the tangible value we create are the young people we support. But they’re not the ones we have a financial relationship with, we don’t take a share in their capital and we don’t bill them for anything. That means we can speak very freely and offer a disinterested perspective. So the model is based on the support of mentors, with whom we have a contract built on 2 pillars: they give up their time – no doubt the rarest and most valuable of commodities for business leaders – to support the selected mentees and finance the association through donations. Réseau Entreprendre exists to help entrepreneurs progress in their profession and develop their business to create jobs. The legislature has recognised Réseau Entreprendre as a “general interest association” because it draws on the participation of philanthropic business leaders who support entrepreneurship with a view to creating jobs. These people make donations as they might to the Red Cross, and Réseau Entreprendre can offer them certain tax advantages.

Does Réseau Entreprendre Paris have the same model as the other branches in France and abroad?

The philosophy underpinning Réseau Entreprendre is the same everywhere: business leaders are engaged on a voluntary basis for the purpose of creating jobs within their region. There are minor regional specificities, such as in the way entrepreneurs are financed or given loans. It’s a bit different abroad because the notion of “general interest” is not the same everywhere you go. Some associations are run by sources of funding other than the subscriptions of mentors.

Are operations always 100% local?

The people offering support are always based locally. The support programme is structured around the entrepreneur, but there is also a collective dimension, with multiple contact points. But if an entrepreneur in Paris wants to export to Spain, of course I can put him in contact with Réseau Entreprendre in Madrid or Barcelona, and I’ll try to find someone in my network who can help. But if I limited myself to people creating jobs in Paris, it would be very restrictive. A lot of the mentees we select create jobs all around France, and it’s great to be able to help them outside of our home region.

How are successful mentees selected?

The team at Réseau Entreprendre Paris receives 1,000 applications each year and offers support to around 50 candidates following the different selection phases. Three criteria are considered when looking at each candidate’s background:

- The founders: “What’s their capacity to receive support, their ability to listen, their level of maturity? Have they got their two feet firmly on the ground?” This is really about focusing on the individuals involved.
- The model, the project: “Is it viable or on the way to being viable?” This is very important because we are not really in the ecosystem of unicorn fundraising (highly risky models), but rather operating in the real local economy. “Is this a model that will create jobs?” Some models intrinsically have the capacity to create jobs, others less so. As we see it, the more the entrepreneur recruits, the more value he creates.
- Social and regional impact: this is necessarily linked to job creation, but other markers such as the quality of relations with staff, suppliers or the public authorities are now emerging as important considerations. We look at the entrepreneur’s entire value chain and where he’s at in relation to it: how he intends to transport, whether he’s willing to transport or whether his model is built on foundations that are not structurally virtuous.

Our role first of all is to call all 1,000 candidates. We spend 15 minutes talking to them on the phone. We then have one or two meetings with around 300 of them. We make sure the key balances are being respected, that there is no fault line in the model. Once we’ve done the analytical groundwork in respect of the 3 pillars, we send a preselection to the business leaders in the network. Each candidate then individually meets with 7 business leaders. These are not theme-specific meetings, but rather discussions between two entrepreneurs. And if everyone agrees, we put in place a traditional jury panel where the project is presented collectively. The 300 candidates that the team meet with are whittled down to 150, who are then introduced to the business leaders and 50 are ultimately accepted. The follow-up period then lasts two years.

How would you define the entrepreneur of 2020?

I think today’s entrepreneur is someone with an irrepressible desire to change the world, to make a contribution and break the mould. Entrepreneurs make a decision to fight, to reject the status quo. They seek to fill a gap, to meet an obvious need on the market. What is fascinating is that you can see 15 companies do the same thing and then number 16 comes along and that entrepreneur just changes one thing in the value chain and suddenly the business takes off. There are always companies to create, even on a highly saturated market, because there will always be a model, a technological or social innovation, that will change the whole structure of the business and the value chain. You need energy to be an entrepreneur! At the start you feel as if everything is against you because you’re working against the status quo. You’re trying to bring something new to the existing balance.

What character, qualities and skills does an entrepreneur need?

Not everyone can be an entrepreneur. Our role at Réseau Entreprendre is sometimes to tell people that their project has too many grey areas and to encourage them to revise their model or abandon the project.

Although there is no single entrepreneur profile, you do need that capacity to have a vision, which I feel is the entrepreneur’s most essential quality. Those who make it are those who know which direction they’re moving in, those who persevere and always endeavour to ensure that the whole company (HR, finance, marketing, etc.) moves towards that vision. Behind any vision, there must always be a range of dimensions that give it structure.

I fundamentally believe that setting up a business alone is very challenging. We don’t hear enough about the solitude of entrepreneurs, but when you need to take dozens of micro-decisions and big strategic decisions every day, you need a really robust temperament to resist. Of course there are many entrepreneurs with abundant reserves who’ve made it alone, but we really believe in the value of relationships to overcome challenges. The best quality an entrepreneur can have is the people around him, his capacity to seek the support of a partner to get the project off the ground and quickly attract various skillsets.

In your career you have spent time at BNP, Engie and later Selency, and now Réseau Entreprendre. What made you want to take on this adventure in entrepreneurship?

I come from a background where I didn’t have any entrepreneurs as such around me, but a lot of freelancers, so it’s a temperament that means something to me. I wanted to learn a lot, to work in major firms to understand how they operate. Later, at Selency, which was just starting out, everything had to be developed from the ground up, which was fantastic. I left after two years because I felt frustrated seeing only one model. We are all a bit curious to know what goes on elsewhere. Selency received support from Réseau Entreprendre, and Maxime Brousse, one of its co-founders [and candidate for the EDHEC Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2019], is a former member of the permanent staff team at Réseau Entreprendre. So when – with full transparency – I started to express the idea of leaving, it was suggested to me that I should look in this direction. And suddenly the stars aligned with Réseau Entreprendre: my desire to discover loads of new things, entrepreneurship and a very strong structure with incredible values. I felt right at home!

Entrepreneurship is a long-term vision and takes place across different timelines: entrepreneurs supported by Réseau Entreprendre have already launched their business, you have to monitor the problems they face and see how their business can create jobs in the future. How do you train entrepreneurs to tackle the challenges of the future?

The positioning of Réseau Entreprendre is quite unique and can be summed up in terms of 4 relationship levels around the entrepreneur:

  • The entrepreneur’s relationship with himself: sleep, burnout, energy, nutrition, etc. This is where it all starts! If an entrepreneur’s health is fragile, he won’t succeed as easily as one who is in good shape.
  • The entrepreneur’s relationship with his partners (founders, investment funds, business angels or project associates). One’s associates are the primary cause of success or failure in any business!
  • Relations with staff: commitment, vision, management, etc.
  • The relationship with the social system: this is about the entrepreneur’s responsibility in relation to contemporary challenges and the contribution made to society.

With this approach, we are never outdated or outdone: these are the timeless issues that are the foundation of any business. As for the rest, such as marketing strategy or financing, new developments regularly emerge that make it more difficult to offer support. Our positioning, with its focus on the human dimension (the company’s core), was valid yesterday, is valid today and will still be tomorrow, because it will never be possible to overlook one’s staff or associates. Even someone with 30 years’ experience will always have topics to discuss with a young graduate in relation to the human dimension.

To get back to the different timelines, even for projects that have been running for several years, the question is to determine the entrepreneur’s relationship with the present, in terms of his business. Some people are telling me at the moment that they’re not worried about the 3-year timeframe but rather 3 months from now because of COVID. You can be confident about a really strong project yet still face difficulties in the present. And the way you support those cases is by always keeping in mind that vision that trumps everything else, whether structural or operational.

So for you the real foundations of entrepreneurship are the human aspects, rather than business or strategy?

In any case that’s the view of Réseau Entreprendre, but one that is complemented by other visions – fortunately! Particularly in Paris, where there are a lot of different structures offering support to entrepreneurs. The two are not mutually exclusive, you always need specific tools to develop your business. We position ourselves at the heart of the core: human beings. If the business owner is sleeping badly and arguing with his associate, nothing he puts in place will ever work! The common denominator in a community of business leaders is their life experiences. If we were to aim for a very targeted intervention, we’d lose a lot of them.

Has the follow-up for mentees been different since the beginning of the COVID crisis?

What has struck me is the gratitude of entrepreneurs. Sometimes we deploy a lot of energy for entrepreneurs who already have considerable support elsewhere (investment funds, incubator, alumni network, business angels, family members, etc.). During the COVID crisis, we have sensed that entrepreneurs have a tremendous need for support and are more than ever committed to the formats we offer them. And we received quite a few spontaneous offers of support from mentors, while some of those already involved before the pandemic gave up even more of their time. Nearly all the support sessions were held by videoconference, which was not exactly straightforward at the start because we have a very strong culture that values person-to-person encounters. Many of our mentors are business owners but are also suffering from what’s happening. This is one of the great strengths of our model! When a mentee looks to a mentor for support, they’re both experiencing the same legal or logistical difficulties. Their situations closely reflect one another. That’s why nearly all of our digital events have been aimed at our two communities (mentors and mentees) for the last six months. It wouldn’t have made any sense to take the mentees to one side and give them advice about a particular situation, because all entrepreneurs are affected!

What is your view of the proximity between an alumni network and Réseau Entreprendre? How can they combine forces for today’s entrepreneurs?

As I see it, the proximity between these two structures lies in the way the community dynamic is maintained: how to solicit people, how to get people on board, how to get mentors and mentees to stick with it, how to get everyone to interact with one another. You might say that Réseau Entreprendre is like an alumni network for entrepreneurs. Sometimes I put myself in the shoes of an alumni network administrator and wonder what entrepreneurs expect from a network. Different networks have things to teach each other. At Réseau Entreprendre, for example, we haven’t yet managed to put together a directory with the contact and business details of each member, unlike alumni networks, and we have a lot to learn about the ways such a directory can be made useful. There are a lot of similarities between networks, and the actions taken by one can be rolled out on another, with adaptations to a particular make-up or mission.

Is it necessary nowadays for entrepreneurs to cultivate their professional network?

Yes it’s quite fundamental, even though you need to carefully choose where to spend your time (time is money!), relying on those structures you feel close to in terms of identity. We all want to feel supported, but it can be time-consuming to open up all the different available networks without taking into account the ways in which they differ. So yes, it’s important to contribute to your network and expand your horizons, but you need a clear strategy. Réseau Entreprendre requires real commitment and may even exclude its members from other networks to some extent. There are moments in your life when you need one network more than another.

How can the EDHEC Alumni network help entrepreneurs?

First of all, just feeling they belong to a network that can offer support saves valuable time for entrepreneurs. Then there’s the role of the community, getting people to spread the word. In the spring we put in place a very simple initiative known as “café-roulette”: two people randomly put in touch with one another talk by videoconference once a month and learn about and from one another, co-opting each other into their respective networks. It was a really powerful initiative during the lockdown because people needed to establish links and open up new prospects! There’s a spontaneous dimension when you’re put in front of someone you haven’t chosen. The most fundamental aspect is bringing people together in this very rich network. But sometimes it can be necessary to “force” meetings on entrepreneurs who are solicited from all sides.

There is also probably an intelligent way to use the EDHEC Alumni network as a commercial address book. The big difficulty facing entrepreneurs is to be able to identify the right interlocutors to develop their business. From a highly pragmatic perspective, the EDHEC Alumni network has that capacity to bring “commercial” support because there’s a form of trust.

In the EDHEC Alumni mentoring scheme, students and graduates take on the role of mentor more than that of mentee. Do you think that mentees are increasingly turning to structures like Réseau Entreprendre?

I do, because EDHEC Alumni is not directly identified as a support network. But it could also make its mentors available to other structures, diversity entrepreneurs for example, and that’s another way to contribute to entrepreneurship. It also helps enhance the EDHEC brand! I’m sure mentors who have not been in contact with EDHEC mentees would be delighted to use their time for the benefit of other people and associations. Because it’s consistent with EDHEC’s society-focused project.

Do you think mentoring is more a question of chance than criteria?

It’s a highly complex business. An entrepreneur sets up a company, but what did he do before that? What does he do in his personal life? That’s the limit of trying to match up two CVs that appear similar: you don’t take into account what’s under the surface. Sometimes loosely connected projects bring two people together without there being any similarities at the outset. One of our entrepreneurs is a triathlon world champion and will be defending his title this year in Hawaii. The information isn’t on his CV, yet it’s proof of his huge capacity for physical and mental preparation. Being aware of that facet of his life is of great value when it comes to putting him in contact with another entrepreneur. Another one is the copyright manager for a Spanish artist separate to his primary business; he even set up a foundation. That opens up whole chapters in his life that I had never imagined and so now I can introduce him to mentees working in the cultural sector. Sometimes you just have to let things happen naturally...

Career change? Moving house?