Interview with Thomas Fauré, CEO of Whaller, this new social network is a new example of the richness of our digital ecosystem for communities that want to communicate in confidence (companies, associations, families, etc.).
[Emmanuel M]: Hello Thomas, and first of all thank you for this interview. Could you give us a quick overview of your career?
[Thomas Fauré]: Hello, first a few words about my background. I graduated from the Ecole Centrale de Lille in 2006, and I started at Morpho of the Safran group as a software integrator/project manager. Then I joined a small more agile structure, Polyconseil, which in fact belonged to the Bolloré group. At that time, I worked on the AutoLib program, but I had already started Whaller… I wanted to find investors for Whaller, and in 2013 I was lucky enough to convince Mr. Bolloré himself. So Whaller was created within the Bolloré group and became a subsidiary of the group until June 2018. Date at which I bought the company from Bolloré.
[EM]: In my mapping of French digital solutions, Whaller has been classified as a collaborative platform. Is this fair, or should we put it in the hardcore social networks?
[TF]: It is true that all solutions tend towards the concept of the workplace. Whaller started out as a social network, but a compartmentalized social network. Over the years, our solution has attracted many companies and we have added collaborative tools. So Whaller has become a collaborative solution, but without losing its initial DNA as a social network that protects data and users.
So, we define ourselves as a social and collaborative platform.
[EM] : What is the range of services offered by Whaller in a simple way?
[TF] : First of all, we are a social network, but there are many different uses, ranging from a purely corporate social network with telecommunication and sharing functionalities, but also collaborative functionalities such as those found in Slack or Teams, as well as extended social network functionalities and not only corporate ones.
[EM] : Since the conception of Whaller we can see that your concern was the protection of your users’ data, how did you achieve this security?
[TF] : This is indeed a question that I am often asked, and I will try to answer it clearly. From my point of view, there are three aspects to security: a legal aspect, a technical aspect and a functional aspect.
On the legal aspect, we have anticipated the RGPD, which goes even further. For example, when a user leaves the platform, he can decide to either delete everything, or to “leave” all his public messages which become anonymous. This is an example of how we have concretely thought about the management of user data.
On the technical side, there are cybersecurity aspects, rather than long descriptions, we have been working on the ANSSI CSPN certification for over a year and we are at the end of the process. Apart from these cybersecurity aspects of the solution itself, there are architecture aspects, and of course the choice of the host, and we are talking about OVHcloud with its SecNumCloud certified offer by the ANSSI.
And the third aspect often forgotten is the functional aspect, in other words the security functions. At Whaller, the first function is the watertightness of our spheres: elements from one sphere cannot go into another sphere. The second is security by design, for example, sending messages is not a single icon or a “send” button, but a button that specifies the sphere in which the message is published.
These three factors together make Whaller the most secure platform on the market.
[EM]: Can you give us some key figures about Whaller?
[TF]: Today Whaller has 500,000 users and over 30,000 active networks. The largest platform on Whaller has up to 100,000 users.
In 2020, with a turnover of 1 million euros, Whaller has become profitable, we have achieved 60% growth in 2019 and 2020. What you need to understand is that the first 5 years were essentially devoted to R&D, and that the commercialization of Whaller has been underway for a little over two years.
We currently have 26 employees at Whaller, and we are recruiting and aiming for a staff of 50 at the end of the year.
[EM]: What business model for Whaller?
[TF]: Whaller is based on a Freemium model. You can sign up for free on the standard offer essentially a social network, and then you have 3 professional offers that unlock a number of features like collaboration.
The entry-level professional offer is 3€ / user / month. We have a specific offer for all educational and associative structures.
[EM]: The awakening to digital sovereignty, does it have an impact on your business?
[TF]: In the market, we have seen a very strong increase in traffic and enrollment during the first lockdown and through the end of 2020. We had a great success, where the French Ministry of the Armed Forces chose us to be its telework platform (April 2020). The fact that Whaller is a French and secure solution was undoubtedly one of the key criteria for the choice. But we didn’t wait until 2020 to put forward sovereign solutions, even if sovereignty is not yet a major issue for decision-makers.
It should be noted that we are facing an invasion of Microsoft with a free deployment of Teams. This is clearly a commercial aggression that goes against all the rules of competition that should govern European law.
[EM]: Is there a real awareness of the whole population, regarding the stakes on our personal data?
[TF]: There is indeed an acceleration of awareness, with probably the end of a certain naivety on the subject. We have moved from a concept that was seen as coming from a somewhat restricted part of the political spectrum to a conception that is to become aware that sovereignty is freedom.
If we look at the media in general, the subjects of digital sovereignty or data protection are subjects that come up every week or even several times a week, which was not the case before. I think this is becoming a real social phenomenon that will be a topic of the next election campaigns.
[EM]: Is digital sovereignty a driving factor in your venture?
[TF]: Certainly, I remain convinced that digital sovereignty is not only an economic or industrial issue, but also a cultural issue. And the tools we are developing carry this French and European culture, through the way they are developed while respecting users’ data. This is a major challenge.
[EM]: What do you think of the French government’s position on a trusted rather than sovereign cloud?
[TF]: This is an admission of failure for me, it is a tragedy for our digital ecosystem. We are in a moment of “small politics”. We cannot expect everything from the State, so we must rely on the mobilization of decision makers. The mobilization of these mainly private decision-makers, but also our capacity to produce excellent products will allow us to fight effectively against the American hegemony.
[EM]: And would the creation of a “Sovereign Cloud / Sovereign Solution” label be a good way to counterbalance the flop of the “Trusted Cloud”?
[TF]: This label already exists and was created by PrivacyTech, a company operating in collaboration with AFNOR. Whaller is the first company to have obtained this label. There is another label proposed by a Swiss agency (UBCOM) run by a Frenchman, which is called UBcyber and which evaluates the players on mainly legal criteria.
[EM]: In Europe and especially in France, must we accept the impossibility hammered by the lobbyists of the gafams, that we can’t do without them?
[TF]: What you can do is like them, fight on the ground. You have to devote some of your energy to public affairs… You have to maintain relations with the political world and share with them different strategies or new lines of thinking. You should not be afraid of doing politics, in the sense of acting for the city, in my opinion an entrepreneur or a manager can take on this role.
[EM]: I have the feeling that what we are missing, to see the emergence of sustainable solutions, is a kind of what I would call “digital patriotism” on the part of medium and large French companies. What do you think about it?
[TF]: It is certain that awareness is needed. In the United States, the public order is largely reserved for American digital actors, and this is normal. We need to do the same thing. The legislative system is also built to favor the American industry, contrary to what we have in Europe or in France.
[EM]: Yes, but here we have a real problem, no? Europe obliges us to open up “trade” to avoid any “protectionism”.?
[TF]: Yes, it’s true, but we have to act, at the French and European levels, to change this. But we must all mobilize, we must be actors, otherwise nothing will ever change, each one can act at his own level. This is what I try to do at my level.
[EM]: Are sovereign wealth funds also lacking in the elements necessary for the emergence of solid and recognized players?
[TF]: In funding, getting started is not an issue, and when you’re a big company with strong growth it’s not an issue either. The real problem is what is called “Death Valley”. It’s that period when a company is not making enough sales but is still growing. This is what I went through myself with Whaller. This is quite specific to France, but in other countries, particularly in the United States, systems exist. All the phases of a company’s development are covered, which is not the case in France. There is a hole in the investment in the early stages of development, which are no longer seed capital.
[EM]: Is it that there is a lack of specific investment funds, or is it that the major French industrial groups do not play a mentoring role for our start-ups?
[TF]: No, not at all, the purchasing managers don’t want an unfinished product and that would not be good. It’s a question of investment funds or public investment banks with a longer-term vision. This is what is missing now. However, this is starting to appear, for example the Raz fund (99-year investment fund).
And for an entrepreneur like me, who does not want to be a serial entrepreneur, it’s a vision that allows us to build our business over time.
[EM]: Precisely, isn’t it in contradiction with the intrinsic operating mode of start-ups, to make the fall as quickly as possible?
[TF]: There are indeed two logics, even if it is a binary presentation, which I agree with. There is indeed a lot of individualism among start-ups, it is often the founder who gets the big prize. But there are also leaders who want to create something lasting to bequeath to their children, to society. And I think there is a balance between these two attitudes. If you are only in the perennial model, you are not putting yourself in enough danger to grow. And the risk is to stay stuck at a fairly small company size.
[EM]: We are coming to the end of this interview, what would be your conclusion?
[TF]: My final words are quite easy, and I am inspired by a man who died two hundred years ago, Napoleon, who said: “What France lacks today and what we must regain is the spirit of conquest”. Unfortunately today we have lost it, especially in the field of software, and we are subject to the American economy and tools. Yet we have excellent engineers, technical architects and designers… Our digital sovereignty can only be built by the return of this Spirit of Conquest, and above all, we have to stop doing nothing…
EM]: I would like to thank you very much for this interview which was rich and intense, and which changes the model of my previous interviews. There are still many subjects that we could have discussed and that will be discussed on a future occasion. Thank you again, and very nice conclusion. Let’s find our spirit of conquest!