The Aircall story, by founders - Aircall Blog

The Aircall story, by founders

Group photo from Aircall's 2022 Company Offsite, featuring co-founder Olivier and Jonathan taking a selfie on stage
by
Olivier Pailhès

As we hit the $100 million ARR milestone, co-founders Olivier Pailhes and Jonathan Anguelov share a reflection on the past eight years and what’s to come.

We’ve decided to open our books, YES, you read right: We are making Aircall revenue public! 

We believe that in these uncertain times, our customers, prospects, and partners deserve transparency. By the way, transparency is at the center of our values, that is why for the past eight years we’ve been communicating regularly to our entire team our most important metrics, our ARR, our NPS, our profit margins, and more. And since day one, we’ve had a Slack bot that publishes our current MRR every morning.

So today in that spirit of transparency, we’re happy to announce that we’ve recently surpassed the $100 million ARR milestone. 

It took us eight years of sweat, grit, mistakes, and successes to get there. If we look at the famous Bessemer benchmark “From $1M to $100M”; it took us exactly six years from $1M ARR to $100M like Wix, Zapier and a few others did! 

More than the vanity “unicorn” status that we reached in June 2021, Aircall is a story of hard work, resilience, team spirit, and ambition. As co-founders, we wanted to share a few stories about our journey as a source of inspiration for today’s and tomorrow’s entrepreneurs.

Aircall’s Startup Journey

2013:  The Idea

Often, entrepreneur ideas are born out of personal stories and anecdotes. But let’s cut the shit 😀 ; that’s not the case here! 

Aircall started within eFounders, the start-up studio created by Thibaud Elziere and Quentin Nickmans. They had the idea of creating SaaS softwares for all the key tools that businesses use, including email, media monitoring, professional credit cards, and phone calls.

What got us excited as product mock-ups matured is that there was a “perfect storm” opportunity:

  • Existing phone system offerings were old, commodity hardware–oriented, and if you wanted an international system, productivity, and collaboration, you had to go for complex call center software that needed months of implementation.
  • New telecommunications cloud infrastructures were emerging, offering the opportunity to build software without the hassle of building a telecom stack.
  • WebRTC, the technology behind Google Meet, was getting standardized and deployed widely, enabling any browser to become a phone app.
  • And businesses were asking for collaborative solutions more and more, coming from the ideas of Atlassian and Slack.

At the time, we had not yet figured out the breadth we would later give to the product, but we believed in these “perfect storm” conditions and knew something cool was bound to happen.

2014: The MVP

In 2014, we had an MVP: an easy-to-use phone system to get numbers all over the world and share calls across a team with collaborative features.

Our main angle, at the start, was simplicity, a beautiful UI/UX, and ease of use. Everything on Aircall had to be instant, hassle-free, and doable for a 10-year-old.

With that product, we got a handful of customers, mostly two or three users, independent contractors, small agencies, e-commerce start-ups, etc. Our ambition was huge: Reinvent the business phone. But we were merely a call-forwarding service to mobile phones.

What made the difference at that time was our ability to not confuse our grand, long-term ambition (coming from the perfect storm idea) with the small weekly steps we made by listening to our customers and our intuition.

One of the best decisions we made at the end of 2014 was to make our early beta customers pay for the service. Because at some point, with 100 customers, we received too much feedback, and it became unclear what to develop. 

We decided to incorporate the company, and funnily, upon the advice of Thibaud Elziere (“Guys, this company is shooting for an IPO in New York soon enough.Why do you want to create a French entity?”), we decided to create it as a Delaware C-corp. We’re not (yet) public, but the future proved he was right.

And so, on June 1, 2014, we made our customers pay for the service—unlimited everything at $19 per month. 

We lost 60% of our customers, but those who remained found real value in the product, and we could build on their feedback. At this point, we were doing $760 of MRR. 

2015 : The Takeoff

Early 2015, we’re having “OK” traction, but we’re struggling to raise money to accelerate.

After failing to join Y Combinator in 2014, we organize an evening with investors to create momentum. It’s a massive failure.

Now the money’s starting to dry out and all European investors have turned us down, so we are starting to have doubts. 

In a moment of despair, we take a flight to San Francisco to try to find some money. There we manage to convince our first angel investor, Davy Kestens (a $5,000 check), and then our second, Michel Meyer.

At the moment of investing, Michel told us why—and we still share this story with all Aircall newcomers:

“Guys, you’re not the smartest, and I’m not too sure of what you’re building, but I know you will never give up and you will always move forward.”

And that’s enough to get the ball rolling. More angel investors start to pitch in, and Michel brings in NewFund, a “real” early stage fund.

NewFund encourages us to join an accelerator program. We choose 500 Startups in San Francisco. In the four months we spend there, we adapt to Silicon Valley standards, triple our customer base, and most importantly, we understand that integrating Aircall with CRMs and help desks is the key to explosive growth.

At 500Startups, we built an integration every week, and results started to come (including a pitch at TechCrunch Disrupt and a fond memory of a talk with Snoop Dogg).

From there, we restarted fundraising at the end of 2015, with our usual failure rate (130 investors contacted; 129 rejections). Our last chance was Balderton, and the partner meeting went well. Balderton’s managing partner Bernard Liautaud called us to make an offer, which we gladly accepted (on the other hand, we had zero other option :), and started hiring for 2016.

The last day of 2015 remains mythical. Our goal for the year was $60K MRR. At 9 p.m., we were at $59,994—$6 to goal. We couldn’t let this happen. Our sales team started to call every single customer we had to make them add a user or a number. 

Stupid? Pointless? For us, it was a question of philosophy, of honor, and of doing what we’re supposed to do.

We got to $60K MRR before the end of 2015, thanks to the grit of Chalom, one of our first Aircallee who is now an entrepreneur and is a part of the Aircall Mafia (ex-Aircallees who have started their own businesses)!

There are many lessons from this intense year: 

  • Going to the U.S. made a difference for us. It’s now our biggest market and has raised our standards massively.
  • Cementing a core founding team is paramount and critical for any form of success to happen.
  • Once an MVP in there, success comes from a relentless growth hacking spirit and a relentless obsession to get to goal—no matter what.

Still today, these lessons drive the global ambition of Aircall, including our “meet goal” obsession and our focus on building cohesive teams.

2016: The Acceleration

We start 2016 with money in the bank and a huge momentum. Over the first six months of 2016, we grow more than 25% MoM, and we hit $60K, $80K, $100K, $130K, $170K, and $210K MRR. This is insane. It goes too fast, and we can’t keep up on hiring, customer support, or tech.

We’re dead tired, but we’ve just experienced the adrenaline of hypergrowth, and from that moment, this will never leave us! This feeling of surfing a giant wave, always on the edge of falling, gives us limitless energy.

Balderton saw that momentum and offered to fast-forward a Series A to keep up the momentum. That’s a great idea! The valuation proposed: 2x last round.

On the verge of accepting the offer, we still felt it’s worth checking with other VCs. Guess what? We grabbed a valuation 4x over last round, on which Balderton swiftly aligned. We decided to sign with them.

The deal with the Series A round was to make the ..S..a real headquarter for Aircall—not only a remote sales office. Oli moved to New York City three months after the round and started building up the team there.

In 2016, we learned about the hypergrowth feeling and got a sense of how to maintain it for as long as possible, and we learned that founders’ and investors’ interests are mostly aligned, but the key word here is mostly 🙂

2017 : The Crisis

After 2017’s New Year’s Eve, Aircall wakes up at war.

The product is broken. Nothing works as it should. Calls may or may not come through randomly.

We have no idea where it’s coming from. We can’t continue taking on new customers. We stop the entire company. It’s what we called “The Quality War.”

Oli has just landed in New York City and hired a Sales team and a Sales leader. “Welcome to Aircall. We don’t expect you to sell anything. Just call our current customers to understand what’s going wrong”.

This insane period lasted about three months and remains a still-vivid scar, as it impacted Aircall’s reputation. But it helped us go much deeper in our understanding of VoIP, call quality, our software debt, and what we need to do consistently to ensure a high-quality service.

Bad news never comes alone. Six months after building up the first U.S. team, Oli realizes it’s all wrong. We’re not getting to goals, we’re not working as a team, and we’re not even having fun. We have to reboot, and we restart with a much smaller team, but one with the right mindset.

One person made a difference in this moment: Jeff, our marketing manager (now our CMO), joins the boat. The addition to the founding team is massive. Jeff brings a great skill set we’re lacking, a capacity to scale, a U.S. mindset and network and he further enriches our culture of grit, humility, and teamwork. In short, the team of four French founders finds its fifth American “co-founder”.

Beyond learning that European companies always make massive mistakes when settling in the U.S. [sic], we learnt that creating a NYC pole to complete and enrich our Paris pole multiplied our power, in terms of talent, diversity, market access, and opportunities.

And we also realized that being obsessed with short-term growth may work at the very beginning, but we need healthy growth—not unrestricted growth. At this moment, we introduce NPS as our second “Core Metric That Matters” next to MRR growth.

2018 : The Maturity

We are five years in… pfffff!!! One lesson of Aircall is that SaaS does take time to build!

Our product is stabilized, but tech debts kicks in. Almost overnight, any new features that took a few weeks to build now take months, or quarters. Rollbacks are even happening because of dependencies.

Mid-2018, we hit the $10m ARR milestone and, as avid readers of Jason Lemkin’s posts and books, we are convinced that “the cavalry’s coming.” The last five years has at times felt like the Battle of the Alamo (or rather the Battle of Camarón, as we’re of French origin 🙃). But it turns out there’s no cavalry in SaaS.

Four years later, we realized the $10m ARR meant a form of cavalry, although not what we expected. At this level, the SaaS compounding effect starts to give you resilience, an underlying momentum that helps get through the bumps in the road. The tech is more stable, too, even if there’s more complexity and debt, and we start to be able to hire a new level of talent.

If we were to do Aircall all over again, we would probably pay a lot more attention to our product and tech architecture early on, over growth at all costs. Founders have to know that they have three to four years to build the right product, and everything that’s not a part of it by this time will cost you much more to build. That’s what 2017 taught us.

2019 : Scaling

To be honest, 2019 was a welcome walk in the park. We’re just scaling up. We have tons of issues, of course, but we can tackle them one after the other. Scaling our engineering and digesting our tech debt remain the most annoying stones in our shoes, but we finally find our CTO, set to join in January 2020, and we’re hopeful.

The lesson of 2019? Sometimes SaaS life gives you a moment to breathe. Enjoy it, but don’t forget that you’d better think early about what’s coming next, and anticipate the next cliff to come.

2020: Through Covid

Entering 2020, we have six months of runway: It’s time to get into fundraising!

We had good traction, good metrics, and we’re optimistic (hopefully these remote cases of a respiratory disease in China will not spread too fast…). 

In fact after only a few weeks, we grab a few term sheets, and start actively negotiating the two best ones.

In fundraising, momentum is key, so we are confirming to one of the investors that the term sheets would be signed by Friday, March 13, without further delay.

We’re in live discussions with one potential investor right when the Dow Jones crashes.

Forget the March 13 deadline, interested investors go on pause until further notice. Some of them withdraw their offer, while others revise their valuations down by 30%.

As founders we’re faced with making an emotional versus a rational choice. We feel insulted by people withdrawing term sheets or cutting their valuations, given the hard work we’ve put in to get where we are. At the same time, we have a limited runway, and no idea how long Covid will last. We’re only sure of one thing: If we have cash, we will continue growing the company and taking market share; if we don’t, we stray from hypergrowth and may never come back.

We decided to take what we can, and close the round of financing.

At the same time, the transition of our engineering from early stage tech to mid-stage tech is tense. Many people do not adapt to the processes that our scale requires. It’s a “little death”, like how lizards lose their skins to get brand-new ones. It’s tough, but we remain optimistic that “it has to be done” and it will get our tech debt under control.

As founders, our main lesson from 2020 is that we’re building for the long-term and we must take altitude at a stage over $30m ARR. That may imply sacrifices on shareholding or on talents, but we’re seeing the potential for Aircall ahead.

2021: The Late Stage

In a market of absolute bonanza, we’re calling for revenge. We got hammered in our last “Covid” round – it’s time to get the flip side of the coin.

And we passed $50m ARR with an accelerating growth rate, so the IPO might not be too far away.

We participate in the glorious vanity of the Unicorn craze of 2021 and close a $1bn valuation round in the summer of 2021. Even better, we’re bringing Goldman Sachs into our cap table, setting us up strong as we get closer to our IPO.

Aircall is now strong with over 300 people. We put structure, we clarify roles, we get a bit slower, but more organized.

With a lot of pride, we see many of our early employees leave Aircall to create their own companies. We’re sad, but also happy for them, and in a sense, it’s the circle of life. A journalist talks about the Aircall Mafia, and we’re proud.

But within Aircall, a lot of opportunities continue to appear. The most memorable is our bold launch of our APAC region. We manage to find a (GREAT) leader and he goes all-in (in pure Aircall fashion) building up a team of more than 50 people in 12 months. The results are massive and in as little as 18 months, we have created the third region we dreamt of five years before to complete the momentum of North America and Europe.

2021 is the year in which we realize we’ve entered the “Big Bets” age. We have to think big and look for $50m ARR bets and kill projects when they turn out to have small long-term potential.

2022: The Centaur Stage

In a couple of months, the world has changed, and the economic environment for start-ups has moved from unrestricted money flooding to dry winter. 

The illusion of 1,000 unicorns in tech has vanished.

Honestly, we’re fine with that. Since 2014, our symbol has always been a tractor. We like tractors. They’re ugly. They’re noisy. They go slow. But they grind on and never stop.

Aircall is a tractor, a story of resilience, grit, hard work, and the will to never give up.

As 2022 unfolds, we prefer the Centaur Club—SaaS companies that have achieved more than $100m ARR—and we feel it reflects much better a stage where a fast-growth start-up has impact and the capacity to become a true “unicorn” (meaning changing an industry upside down), and reflects the reality of a resilient business.

We’re excited to share that Aircall is over $100m ARR and is eagerly engaging in its next chapter: $1bn ARR, public markets, and world conquest.

It might be early to draw lessons from 2022 just yet. So we’ll draw one from the overall journey we’ve been on since 2014. Sometimes, you happen to be the co-founder of an adventure that’s bigger than you. That has the potential to rock an old industry and go beyond your wildest initial expectations. And then you realize that… It has all been built by amazing people and that without them nothing is possible. 

Yes, co-founders do the heavy lifting at the beginning, but our success belongs to all Aircallees; those still here, those gone on to try new things, and the future ones to come. We like to welcome our newcomers with one of our principles: Aircall is everyone’s journey. Whether we’re in year one,  five, or ten, we hold true to this principle. 

Thank you all Aircallees for doing this incredible journey with us.

Group photo from Aircall's 2022 Company Offsite, featuring co-founder Olivier and Jonathan taking a selfie on stage

Aircall growth since inception

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