Experiencing Bankruptcy and Founding a Unicorn - With Aircall's Founder Jonathan Anguelov

It’s not easy to run a business in the current context. Securing funding is only part of the struggle; the real struggle is using that money optimally to realize the company's vision. For many, the magic ingredient is resilience which can come from within or through life experiences.


In the 25th episode of Leaders of Growth, we sat down with Jonathan Anguelov, founder and managing partner of Aircall. Aircall is a phone system and a call-center software that can be integrated into CRMs and Help Desks. Aircall has over 100 software integrations.


While Aircall is the 16th French unicorn, the company's founder has seen his fair share of difficulties in life.


From seeing bankruptcy in his family when he was a teenager to working menial jobs, Jonathan Anguelov has seen it all. But with his hard work, resilience, and business savviness, he managed to create Aircall, which employs over 700 people and built a real estate business on the side.


He has a great wealth of knowledge to share with other prospecting entrepreneurs.



How did your experience in the Financial industry help you founding Aircall?


It’s quite a jump. I realized how important to do financial planning. Many startups with successful products go bankrupt because of poor financial plans.


Looking at P&L all day and deciding which public companies to invest in is very close to building companies, deciding on which ratios to look at, which I should take care of, and how to invest properly. At Aircall, we always had one motto: “One dollar spent, one dollar of ARR met.” And that’s what we did until today. All the money spent in the company represents ARR. We still maintain that 1:1 ratio.


Today our focus is growth rather than cash efficiency, even though we look very carefully at our cash, and we are not overspending.



How can you find a balance between growth and cash efficiency?

This is something the leadership at Aircall discusses very often. We use the rule of 40. This rule is straightforward. Take your growth percentage and add the EBITDA margin in percentage. Ideally, this should give you a number over 40.


If, for example, you grow 100% YoY, you can lose a maximum of 60% of EBITDA. If we want to grow 50% you can burn a max of -10% of EBITDA. If you're doing +10% EBITDA, you need to grow at least 30% YoY, which is already hard.


We implemented this rule from early on (post-Series A), but in all honesty, it was a bit difficult to track in the early stages of the software company. It's a critical metric at Aircall to this day and one that we know we need to be successful at.


What are some of the dos and don'ts of scaling?

Hire ambitious people because it's all about the people. Do not underestimate the importance of quality in recruitment, especially in the early stages.


At Aircall, we still have some of our founding team members after seven years, we support them, and most of them are at the top management level. They shaped the company with us. The first 30 or 40 employees are like co-founders, and isn’t it amazing to have that many co-founders making the company grow together?


Some of the don’ts are: do not underestimate financial planning and your product. Focus on the product as that will ultimately make your company successful.


Don’t forget what your original product and value proposition are. Many companies change their product constantly according to what some of your first customers are saying. You risk building a product just for a specific customer. You don’t want to end with a full legacy product. So just don’t follow that big customer and destabilize your product. They are probably going to churn anyway.



What recommendations would you give to hiring early employees?

I look for resilience and ambition when hiring someone. Are they going to fight when things are going bad? During the first four years of Aircall, we had many product quality issues. There was a time around 2016 or 2017 when we stopped selling to any new customers and took the time to evaluate how we could make our product the best in the market.


That kind of approach does not work with people who are not resilient. In Aircall, there was a time in which we decided to stop selling for two months. Imagine not selling for two months? Not resilient people would just leave, as they might not get a bonus or promotion with no sales taking place.


Looking for ambition, self-drive, and loyalty in those early employees is very important. That's what we still value at Aircall. Many of the first employees at Aircall are in senior positions or have moved on to start their successful ventures. We support ex-Aircallers and we’re creating our own “Aircall maffia.”


Most of our first employees were fresh out of college and aged 22-24 years. So I can’t say I hired them because of their experience, but their look in the eye and their “fire.”


I remember that just after one year and a half of the company's existence, I told them: “Guys, one day will be a unicorn. I can tell you that.” When you’re doing $3M ARR, it’s hard to think you will do $100 M one day. But if you, as a founder, believe it, you will make your team believe it as well, and that’s your work as a founder. Having a vision and making sure everyone goes towards it.


Jonathan Anguelov, Founder of Aircall
Jonathan Anguelov had lived in a foster home from 12 until he turned 18.

How did you develop personally as the company grew?

Honestly, it was difficult. My co-founder was much more experienced than me, bringing in 10 years of experience. I challenged myself to be the best in what I do.


I wanted to be more proactive than the others, more hands-on than the others, and make sure that we were going in the right direction. I love challenges!


I was overseeing the European and Asia-Pacific region, which represented 70 percent of the Aircall clientele. I developed the most amazing team. And finally, we were lucky to have a good product that any company in the world could use. Everyone needs a phone system to communicate with their customers and suppliers.


I have learned a lot over the years, and sometimes I miss the thrill of it. I see people going off starting their venture and feel the FOMO of wanting to start all over again with all the knowledge that I have now. Sometimes I wonder where I would be without Aircall. I think I would be lost!



How did Aircall get to $50M ARR in the early days?

At $10M ARR we started to look at new channels. We historically relied on inbound, and we had also outbound from even before. The third channel was Partnerships. It was about how do we partner with all those companies we integrate with, for instance, Salesforce and HubSpot.


We started reaching out to these companies when we were just at $5M or $6M ARR to ensure they knew us, and offer Aircall. It was a challenge, but we had resources dedicated to this channel, offering other companies to become resellers promoting Aircall to their customers.


We even partnered with Telco, which has historically been a competitor. Our biggest partner came in the form of Deutsche Telekom, which is a billion-dollar telecommunication empire. By partnering with companies in the industry, we could grow to the $50 million ARR.


It's important to create partnerships to grow. Such partnerships take a long time to get to fruition. It's easier to find them and sign contracts, but it's challenging to make them sell your product. It's important to train the sales channel partner to better equip them to sell your product. Share with them as many sales and marketing material as you can to enable them to do a good job, essentially treating them as your own employees. There was a Pareto with our partners as well, 20% of the partners bring above 80% of the revenue that comes from partnerships.



How did you approach selecting your partners?

When we started we were shooting everyone. I don’t know if it was the best approach because we probably wasted a lot of time. I think it’s better to interview the partners rather than hunt them. It’s okay to reach out to them, but I would take a different approach now: It’s better to have fewer partners and be able to give them more attention and power. At the end of the day, going after many people, convincing them to work with you negotiating long contracts, to then have 80% of them bring close to 0% revenue, it’s a huge waste. It’s all about the focus. Pick a few wars and make sure you win them.



How can you align the different departments with the Sales team?

It's all about communication. In the early days of Aircall, there were two offices: one in Paris and one in New York.


The sales team is usually way ahead of the product, but you need to make sure that you communicate with all the teams and departments. Talk about the expectations of the customers and what features we need to add.


At Aircall, it took us three years to improve the product and get out of the legacy technology. You have to communicate with the departments and support them, especially when they are frustrated. The technical departments usually have a tough job, so more communication should be done.


Make sure you share the company vision with everyone. Transparency is also key. Each morning, we publish our ARR and MRR on Slack. People need to know when it’s going well and bad. Overcommunicating is never a problem.



Can you tell us a bit about your side project and how you ended up in real estate?

I have been involved in real estate, buying a boutique hotel and other buildings. I'll tell you why I got into that.


I was raised by a single mother who got scammed and went bankrupt when I was just 12. One day the State people came and took my mother, and I was sent to a foster home until I was 18 years. It was not a good lifestyle for such a young boy.


They took everything away from my mother except her apartment, which was registered on her parents’ name. So from that time, I became obsessed with real estate. I had the idea that real estate is the only thing that could save me.


Years later, I ended up buying a very tiny apartment in Paris. I even bought real estate through student loans, which is not technically legal. From there, I just kept growing. At some point, we realized we had too many flats all over Paris.


Today, I have a four-star hotel called Maison Barbès. I only dedicate my weekends to it, never a weekday. And I'm lucky to have a co-founder in real estate who manages everything for me the rest of the week.


It was a tough path, but when you’re young you don’t see the hard part. Living almost in the streets, having no money, having started to work at 16 doing any job just to make money, built something strong in me. It build my ambition that no matter what, I would fight until the end and go to the top.


The only advice I have for entrepreneurs is to believe in themselves. If you don’t believe in yourself, nobody would do it for you. Life can be unfair. But the only thing that can make a difference is your ability to work. The more you work and dedicate to a project, the more chances you have of being successful. It’s annoying to think like that, but it’s very simple math.


If you want to listen to the full episode with Jonathan Anguelov, click here.



About Knight Capital

Knight Capital is a leading venture capital firm based in Amsterdam. We help B2B SaaS companies scale across Series A to C and beyond through funding, growth expertise, and by giving access to our SaaS ecosystem of partners.