How do we create Europe’s tech champions?

Every year for the last 18 years, OVH has been put to the test. The main challenge: managing our growth over the next 12 months. It is our job to be disruptive. We are revolutionising the cloud – especially Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Platform as a Service (PaaS) – to enable our customers to harness the power of digitalisation. Increasing volumes of different types of data drive constant innovation in our products and solutions. Our aim is for our customers to extract value from their data as quickly and cost-effectively as possible, without ever fearing they might lose it. Confidence and innovation are the cornerstones of our work.   Everything we offer – every product and every solution – should be 100% digital, with the delivery entirely automated. Software should do it all. None of us should have to intervene. At OVH, it’s the code that does the work. Thousands of lines of code, developed week after week, keep our infrastructures and platforms running smoothly. Customers use our products through APIs, without any need for human intervention. They are all set up and ready to go in our datacentres. A few clicks in the API, and the customer can start using our products in seconds. This way, our teams are kept free to develop new features and products. They are there to fix any issues that arise. They are there to help customers choose and use the right product, or to find a suitable partner with the skills to get the best out of our services.

Our customers don’t even see all the elements that we have integrated into our value proposition – elements that are essential to our sustained growth. For example, we build our own datacentres. We now operate 28 datacentres in 12 countries. We build 70,000 servers per year on our assembly lines in Europe and North America. We operate our own global fibre optic network, connecting all our datacentres. What we do requires significant amounts of money. We invest more than €1 million every day in our infrastructures. We spend tens of thousands of man-hours every month working on the code that controls them all. This way, customers benefit from pay-as-you-go services, with commitments ranging from one hour to three years.   Each year, I sit down with my teams and ask the same questions... How should our operating model and management systems evolve to support the company’s fast growth, while staying true to the DNA of OVH’s success? How do we do this from Europe, preserving our European culture and values? How do we recruit the best talent on the market, asking them to challenge themselves by joining OVH and encouraging them to enrich our DNA with their expertise? Because one thing is sure: we are not like other companies. So how do we retain our distinctive culture and improve every day through feedback from customers and employees? How do we keep our ability to make lightning-fast decisions and execute them just as quickly – the agility that helps us offer products before customers even know they need them? How do we become a tech giant in our own right, strong enough to stand up to our American and Chinese competitors?   I’ve had the chance to talk to many influential people all over Europe. And I’ve realised that in fact, the European model for creating tech giants doesn’t yet exist. There’s the Silicon Valley model, which seems to work really well, given the number of giants it has produced. The Chinese model is also starting to emerge. But the European model? Well, we haven’t seen it yet.   OVH is a French company that started in 1999 with no base capital, in the rather unlikely city of Roubaix in Northern France. Today, OVH competes against the biggest global players: Amazon, Microsoft, Google, IBM, Alibaba, Tencent. In the fields of IaaS and PaaS, OVH is currently the only European company that can rival all these giants on the global stage. True, we are smaller. But I don’t feel that we are fighting alone. Sooner or later, every single company in the world will also be competing against them, if they aren’t already. It’s purely a matter of time. This means that the questions I ask myself every single day, everyone will soon have to ask themselves. We don’t yet have the answers, but we know that sooner or later, everyone is going to be searching for the secret recipe.   I think the recipe for creating the giants of the tech world is the same, whatever the specialism. Europe already has quite a few “unicorns” – privately held startups valued at over €1 billion. OVH is one of these. Pretty cool. But for me, to become a tech giant you need the stock market to agree. Proof that a European model for creating tech giants exists will only come when the European stock market confirms this level of valuation. We need these types of companies in Europe if we want to continue spreading our ideas around the world. How can Europe expect to be taken seriously in the digital revolution if it doesn’t have any champions leading the way? Europe has to be able to point to real companies and say “Look, we offer a credible alternative to the American and Chinese systems”.   I don’t know if OVH’s growth will lead us to the stock market one day. If it does, I don’t know whether it will be the American or European stock market – or even if a European validation will be strong enough. But to build up Europe’s digital muscle, we need a strong European ecosystem that can stand up to the combined might of American and Chinese companies. I don’t know if my personal story can inspire other entrepreneurs – people who will have groundbreaking ideas, or simply people who will find solutions to their day-to-day problems in what I say. I don’t know if OVH’s story can inspire politicians to create a more favorable framework – one that encourages entrepreneurs all over Europe and supports them in becoming successful giants. I don’t know any of those things. But I do know one thing: if we don’t try, we can’t succeed.

As an entrepreneur, I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life and I’ve survived plenty of failures. But I’ve also tasted what it’s like to succeed. Today, even as I lead OVH into the future, I want to help those who wish to create new things in Europe. We’ll talk, we’ll try, we’ll work hard and take advantage of our ecosystem. And with a bit of luck, we’ll succeed in shaping the European model for creating tech giants.   Managing a company is also about being able to tell a story. That’s why I’ve decided to write a series of blog posts to share a few of my thoughts and experiences. Many of them reflect on the events and excitement of the last 18 months, which have been something of a rollercoaster. Between the end of 2016 and the middle of 2018, OVH went from 1,300 to 2,500 employees. Yes, that’s a shock to the system!

These posts will be a good opportunity to present OVH’s new Executive Committee, which I set up during this period. I would also like to explain how I’ve upgraded our operating model and associated management systems to continue along our path of growth. I would like you to understand my thinking when I decided, along with my shareholding family members and operational teams, to bring in the investment funds KKR and Towerbrook in October 2016.

Of course, the stories that are both most interesting and most difficult to share are the failures. I’ve had a few over the years and I’ve learned a lot from them. In my opinion, sharing stories of failure is especially valuable. Maybe it will help others avoid the same pitfalls. I will also reflect on our successes, which are what make our customers happy and us proud. But when you manage a company, the successes and failures are not the most important thing. They happen along the way as we work to achieve our vision: that dream we are chasing and that we share with our teams and our customers. The clearer that vision, the more effectively we can achieve it.   Writing a few articles on a blog is nice, but it’s not enough. I believe we’re in need of an ecosystem for entrepreneurs. A support structure that will help them grow their revenue from €20 million to €1 billion within 20 years. There aren’t many companies who have achieved this in the digital world while remaining firmly European. Those are the types of companies I want to help. It’s not about investment, but taking the time to listen and advise. At every stage of OVH’s development, I would have loved to have received a heap of advice, even when – especially when – OVH was turning over €20 million a year. OVH’s annual revenue now exceeds €500 million, and I’m still constantly looking for guidance to help me succeed at these higher levels while avoiding mistakes. I’m sure there is a European way to go from €20 million to €1 billion, just like there is an American way. Throwing light on it would help many European entrepreneurs to succeed. Someone just has to take that first step...