Why One French Female CEO Is Causing Corporations To Budget For Connection
When 23-year-old Marie Schneegans began a corporate internship, she didn’t know her co-workers. Her solution: knock on doors and invite people to lunch. Within 16 months, Schneegans had completed her internship, hired her own staff of 15 people, and transformed her desire for connection into a company.
Her cofounder Paul Dupuy describes her as a visionary. “It’s very rare in your life to encounter people that have such positivity, such great ideas, and such an affinity of putting people together. In terms of the vision, I just follow Marie.”
Where did that vision come from? And how has it created a multimillion-dollar business?
“When I was at UBS, the large Swiss bank, I didn’t know anyone, and I wanted to meet colleagues. There was no easy way to meet people from different departments. There were no mobile apps,” says Schneegans. “So I started knocking on doors and asked if they want to have lunch with me. They were very surprised, but more and more I had lunch with employees from different departments. I [had more success with] my projects, and I loved to go to work for these lunches. And I ended up having lunch with the CEO. More and more employees came to me and said ’Marie, how do you do it? I would love to come with you! I would love to meet new colleagues!’” It gave her an idea. Schneegans had never worked in a startup or built an app, but she knew people who had. She got in touch with her now co-founder, Dupuy, and asked him to help her create a solution. “We were thinking: Let’s make tools so that employees can meet inside big companies so that they are more connected and happier at work,” says Schneegans. That’s what they did. Together, Schneegans and Dupuy built Never Eat Alone, an app with a b-to-b and b-to-c business model. That means that it’s owned by the company who subscribes to it and they license copies for each of their employees. (Never Eat Alone makes money by selling software as service.) Within the app, each employee has a profile for their department and within the company, listing a few hashtags about the activities they love and wish to learn about. For instance, Schneegans explains “I like tennis, and I would love to know more about big data. We have a matching algorithm. If someone else also likes tennis in your company, your profile will appear at the beginning of the main screen, and then you can click on ‘let’s have lunch’ or ‘let’s have a coffee.’”
Beside the chat window, there is a scheduling system that enables users to send and receive lunch invitations—making the whole process of connecting with and inviting coworkers simple. It is designed so both digital natives and people less familiar with technology can easily use it. And quite often, as Dupuy explains, the app is most beneficial to more senior employees. Many of the relationships being formed are focused on “reverse-mentoring where older people can be connected with younger people to receive advice about how to be more innovative.
That said: getting companies to adopt this wasn’t easy at first. Historically, corporate HR departments haven’t had a budget line-item for “connection.” Schneegans is helping to change that, and she is doing so using unconventional sales techniques—one of which is both old-fashioned and brilliant in this world of email. When Schneegans finds a company she believes she can help, after reaching out to various employees if she doesn’t get a response, she takes a more direct and personal approach. She handwrites a letter to the CEO expressing how important it is to have more connected employees.
“There is a big pharmaceutical company, Sanofi. We’re in the process of launching with them because Marie sent a letter to the CEO, who sent it to the CIO, who called us and asked to make it happen,” says Dupuy. “We’ll really do whatever it takes because we’re driven by a mission.”
The early success of Never Eat Alone points to the fact that there is demand for happier, more connected workplaces. On an annualized basis, the company is already billing more than a million dollars. By the end of 2017, they’re projected to be at $3M.
Schneegans signed her first two corporate clients in 2015—she now has 60, including most of the Fortune 500 in France. “We have companies in Switzerland like Philip Morris. We have Lloyd’s Bank in the UK. We have half of the French stock exchange index. We’re going to start working soon in New York with L’Oreal,” Dupuy says.
“At this rate, we’ll be at 200 [corporate clients] by the end of the year. We always hear what makes a company is not its ideas, it’s its people. We go further than that. We say it’s not even the people, it’s the connections between the people.”