[Emmanuel M]: Hello Fabrice, thank you for this interview, could you describe in a few words your background.
[Fabrice Lenoble]: I started my career as an IT manager, working on infrastructure, network and hardware management issues, but also on software. Then I found myself as CIO in a business school, and I could not help but notice the poverty of the tools offered to the end users, especially the teachers. This experience was a founding factor in the idea and creation of geeZot and its TeachReo offer. In parallel, for more than two years, I taught in BTS, which allowed me to refine my project.
[EM]: How did you come to embark on the entrepreneurial adventure, creating TeachReo?
[FL]: As I mentioned, my 7 years in charge as CIO of a business school made me aware of the poverty of the digital tools available. Our idea was always to work on open source technologies. The initial problem we focused on was absenteeism (short or long). The idea was to build a Database (DB) of available teachers. The aim was to be able to put schools in touch with available teachers (who in exchange would have had an attractive remuneration), a sort of “Good Corner” for teachers. Contacts were made with the ministry, and we were about to launch a pilot phase, but the presidential elections came and in the end the project was shelved.
We continued to develop the platform, very EdTech oriented, we lived until 2019. And at the beginning of 2020, with the arrival of the covid crisis, we went from 200 users to 4000 in one week.
[EM]: What is your value proposition, compared to your competitors? And what do you offer in addition to the general-purpose U.S. videoconferencing tools, such as Zoom?
[FL]: It is a room management and organization interface, which offers “online course” planning capabilities, but it is an “electronic classroom” videoconferencing solution, so everything is geared towards allowing interactive work in complete fluidity and not only through the use of screen sharing (greedy in bandwidth). It is a solution built from the free software BigBlueButton (BBB) on the videoconference part. We are complementary to LMS.
[EM]: Wouldn’t the major business and engineering schools be an interesting target?
[FL]: Of course, but it is very difficult to get the right contacts. Especially, if you’re not an alumnus of the target school. Then one of the feedbacks we get: “We have deployed Zoom, we do visios with more than 300 people, so you understand… “. Already the principle of a visio to 300 questions, but in addition to that zoom is really a video conferencing tool while BBB, was developed by and for teachers / trainers. Virtual classrooms allow a fluid and robust interaction.
[EM]: Can you summarize TeachReo in a few key figures?
[FL]: Here are some key figures for 2020: 6000 users / 30 servers / 100k€. This for a staff of 2-3 people. What is important for us in the future is to gain visibility and build partnerships.
[EM]: How do you see yourself in 5 years?
[FL]: The training market is changing, and there is a development of many small training centers (eg: ITJump). This target of small, is often neglected and for TeachReo, it is the possibility to bring an affordable and ethical answer to these unmet expectations and therefore a significant opportunity for growth.
[EM]: Has sovereignty been the main driver, or could we say that it is the icing on the cake?
[FL]: This is the main engine and has been since the beginning. Contrary to solutions like zoom, with TeachReo, in addition to offering data hosting in France, the technology is powerful enough to not need to install any plugins on your PC. It works on any environment, Linux, Windows, IOS, etc…
I do a lot of self-hosting with French actors Ikoula and Scaleway in France mainly. I use Matomo as a traffic analysis tool instead of Google Analytics. And especially no Google ads. And there is no tracker in TeachReo.
[EM]: Digital sovereignty has been a particular focus of French Tech since the beginning of 2020, how do you position yourself?
[FL]: If the signals are good, there is a lack of knowledge of the decision-makers, a desire to make short term savings.
For example, the CNED which had chosen BlackBoard American solution (using the BBB techno) which during the confinement, in front of the explosion of the request, probably privileged its American customers, posing big problems of fluidity in France. This would not be illogical.
It is therefore important that there is a general awareness of the impacts of our decisions, especially in the long term.
[EM]: What do you think of the initiative that led to the creation of the PlayFranceDigital collective?
[FL]: The initial idea is good, with a label of “Made in France” it would have been more relevant in my opinion. And it is annoying to see that many French start-ups, including the collective, have their architecture on Amazon’s AWS. I don’t think we can claim to be sovereign under these conditions.
[EM]: Since I decided to run this information site on digital sovereignty, I have discovered a very rich and dynamic French digital ecosystem. Did you realize its abundance?
[FL]: Yes, indeed there is a multitude of offers with different interests. Do I have needs that could be covered? The answer is no, because I don’t necessarily have important needs …
[EM]: I dream that our French digital actors will be able to hunt in packs in order to counter the power of the American digital giants. What do you think about it? What is missing?
[FL] : What’s missing? If I only knew… A problem of ethics, of behavior. It would be desirable to be more in a logic of cooperation and to rely on our respective strengths and thus offer an offer that meets the needs of our customers. But too often, you have contractors not positioned on this segment, who come to inquire and decide to make their own instance of BBB, but without the experience and the adequate competence. This causes real damage to the technology itself and makes it difficult to sell to customers who have been disappointed. These are the kind of customers that are hard to get back because if they don’t have strong convictions on their data policy they easily go to a GAFAM or a ZOOM.
But in general, it is difficult to create this mutual aid that exists in other countries (US, Germany) where large groups rely on suppliers and partners of the SME / VSE type.
It is frustrating to see French digital actors who defend digital sovereignty using exclusively zoom or youtube…
[EM]: Free software, what is your position?
[FL]: It’s a good alternative, plus you know what you’re getting into, you don’t have the black box aspect. Moreover, if the customer is not satisfied with the service, he can take over the entire solution and host it himself or have it taken over by another player.