Hi Mette, Julien is available for a call (timezone: Europe/Paris) Tuesday 31 May at 3:30pm, Friday 3 June at 11:30am or Tuesday 7 June at 2:00pm. Which time works best for you? Please also provide a number on which you will be reachable. Best regards, Julie Desk.
WePopp was founded by three engineers from France’s prestigious École Polytechnique: Julien Hobeika, Guillaume Michiels and Nicolas Marlier. Initially funded by some of its key clients, the company recently raised €600,000 from SIDE Capital, a newly launched venture capital firm which invests in and accompanies early-stage tech startups.
With Julie’s friendly and efficient assistance, we scheduled a call and spoke to WePopp CEO Julien Hobeika about the Julie Desk story so far and the road ahead.
Q: What is the elevator pitch for your solution?
A: Julie is a virtual assistant who speaks English and French. Copy Julie on your emails, and she will communicate with your contacts and find the most suitable meeting time, freeing you from the annoying back and forth emails. If you have lots of meetings, she can save you up to half a day every week.
If you have lots of meetings, Julie Desk can save you up to half a day every week.
Q: What problem does Julie Desk solve and how does it work?
A: Julie Desk is designed to help business people schedule meetings more efficiently. The service is compatible with all standard electronic agenda formats.
When you start working with Julie, you configure the service so that your virtual assistant knows your work hours, your preferred meeting venues, travel times and so on. You then give her direct instructions via email, or copy her on email exchanges with your contacts. From there, Julie manages your agenda, suggests meeting times and venues, creates calendar entries, and reschedules meetings whenever one of the participants informs her of a change of plans.
Q: Can you describe the journey from initial idea to product launch?
A: Creating a tool for more efficient scheduling was our business idea from the start, but in the process we have pivoted twice.
WePopp, which is still the name of the company, was an app we created to help people schedule social outings, with the idea of generating affiliate revenue. The app was downloaded more than 200,000 times, but it didn’t generate the level of revenue we aimed for, so in 2014 we pivoted to a business-focused app for meeting scheduling.
Initially, the solution was loosely inspired by how Google Doodle works, but after a while we realized that there was an opportunity for disrupting the meeting scheduling process and revisiting how it is handled. By applying artificial intelligence to the problem, users can interact with the solution in natural language, which is a lot easier and more intuitive for most people. None of the company founders had any previous experience with AI, so this was a major change, but we’ve learnt along the way and today our team of 11 people keeps improving the service continuously.
The Julie Desk solution is currently email based, but the core technology can process text from any source and the long-term vision is to be able to offer a complete set of virtual assistance services using interpretation of natural language.
Q: Do you have direct competitors? If so, what do you offer that others don’t?
A: In Europe, I’m not aware of any competitors specializing in meeting planning. In the United States, where the market for virtual assistants is a lot more mature, we do have two main competitors.
“Our ambition is to offer an AI based assistant which is efficient 100% of the time. To that end, we apply machine learning: The algorithm’s response to any non-standard requests are quality checked by a human. This provides further input to the algorithm, and today we estimate that the machine is doing 80% of the work. We are continuing to improve the algorithm and our NLP (Natural Language Processing) technology in order to offer the best virtual assistant for meeting scheduling out there.
Q: What was your most challenging moment so far?
A: The decision to change the focus of the company from a social app to a business service was very exciting, but after making that first pivot we went through a rough patch. We had aimed for 10K in revenue in the first couple of months, but the reality was more like €500 … In addition, at that stage we handled every client request manually. And because we had customers in different time zones, and no other staff than us three founders, we basically worked in shifts around the clock. We didn’t sleep a lot during that period!
Q: And the most exciting?
A: Great things happen all the time and I’m sure the best are yet to come! But one memory that stands out was signing with our first paying Julie Desk customer. That was a special moment and it fueled the confidence that we could build Julie Desk into a viable business.
“Our ambition is to offer an AI based assistant which is efficient 100% of the time.”
Q: What would be your #1 advice for other aspiring entrepreneurs?
A: Get a minimum viable product out in front of your potential customers as quickly as possible. It’s absolutely crucial. Focus all your initial efforts on getting to the point where you can assess whether you have a viable business idea or not. Any detail that doesn’t work today can be fixed in a future iteration, but a flawed business idea can not.
I see it all the time, startups sticking to one product idea for too long, iterating and iterating, and what comes out of all the work is a different button color or button placement. But your startup isn’t going to fail because a button has the wrong color, it will fail if you don’t have the right idea. Get your first clients, assess the idea, and then you can focus on the details.
Q: What do you think WePopp will look like in a year?
A: In a year from now, our focus will probably be on raising additional funding, continuing our expansion outside of France, and attracting more corporate clients. We are currently working hard to tailor our offer to the needs of corporate users, especially in terms of security requirements.
Q: What are your values in terms of work culture?
A: We’re a straight-to-the-point kind of team. We’re a friendly company and having fun at work is important, but we also value autonomy and ambition.
Q: How do you handle a particularly rough day?
A: I’m a problem-solver by nature, and action is the best remedy for difficult situations. In fact, I often don’t realize that I’m stressed, because I’m so focused on finding a solution to whatever needs solving. My coworkers do notice when I’m stressed though, even if I don’t!
Q: Is there an app you can’t live without?
A: Google Maps. Besides the obvious email and SMS, it’s certainly the most-used app on my phone.
Q: Tell us something about yourself.
A: I think what most people will say about me is that I’m very stubborn. It’s hard to make me change my mind. When you have that kind of personality, you obviously make lots of mistakes, but because of that you eventually get very good at recognizing your mistakes, apologizing and moving on. And that’s a useful skill in the startup world: Set your mind to something, make mistakes, acknowledge the mistake, fix it, and move on to the next challenge.