15 years and 15 questions with Simon De Baene

May 13th, 2021 12 min | , ,

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We turn fifteen this year. Time to take stock of a ship still afloat after all this time, as it heads towards new waters. A perfect time, then, for a chat with our captain and CEO, Simon De Baene.

From topics such as what made GSoft what it is today, to the culture of remote work, some cheeky facts about our origins, and how we’re excited about creating the future of work, you’re going to want to read on.

Q. How did you handle starting a business while still in university?

S.D.B: The idea had always been in the back of my mind, even before 2006, while I was in Cégep. It was vague then, but the startup path seemed ideal for building something meaningful. My dad was actually starting a business at the same time and when I saw that I asked myself, why not me?

After that, the challenge was to start the business while still doing well in school.  Guillaume Roy and I had a tough time committing to the academic side of things. GSoft was taking all our energy and it showed in our coursework. Let’s just say we weren’t always the most dependable when it came to group projects.  Kevin Borduas can definitely attest to that!

But at least it’s nice to look back and see that we formed solid enough bonds to end up working together again a few years later at GSoft.

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Q. If you had to give some advice to that Simon of 15 years ago, still at ETS, what would it be?

S.D.B: I think we could have been more curious, had a more open outlook to see what was happening around us and let ourselves be inspired. Sometimes I had the impression that we were alone on an island, head in the sand trying to work everything out through trial and error. It worked, obviously, but with a bit of hindsight you realize that you can also learn a lot from what’s going on around you.

Q. What’s a funny story from GSoft’s beginnings that few people know about?

S.D.B: There’s one particular anecdote that always makes me smile. When we first started GSoft we didn’t know the first thing about management or accounting. We were so naive, youths thrown into entrepreneurship with no idea of what it entailed. And it showed! A few months in I was talking with my mom and she asked me how we were managing our business expenses. I remember looking at her like a deer in the headlights: “what are you talking about?” We had a company and we were spending money from personal accounts; the government would send us papers and we had no clue what to do with them so we just ignored them.

She just said, “Ok, so you’re completely lost. Let me do you a favour and take care of it.”

My mom was a VP at a big firm but spent her nights and weekends doing GSoft’s accounting. It just goes to show you how far we’ve come.

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Q. What’s been the most significant change happening in the business world over the past year?

S.D.B: We’ve all had a rude awakening. Seriously. Before the pandemic, businesses had a hard enough time standing out. Now, there’s so much more to think about and no more time in which to do it.

But I’ve been so impressed watching how different organizations have handled these new constraints and kept thriving. I think many have realized that their business models have so much more potential than they could have imagined beforehand.

This is the start of a massive transformation of our organizations. It’s no longer a question of bringing in a few small changes here and there. We have to rethink the entire work experience. These are big questions.

Q. And what’s been the biggest change for GSoft?

S.D.B: I think the pandemic has just cemented what it is that GSoft has always been trying to accomplish. It’s validating to see that we’ve been moving in the right direction, that the things we’ve been doing for ages are worth continuing and that we should stay inspired for the years to come.

It’s really great to see how certain priorities we’ve had since day one are gaining momentum.

Take ShareGate, for example, which for a decade has been transitioning organizations to the Cloud, allowing them to stay relevant with better, more efficient technologies. In the past, clients were doing it because it seemed like everyone else was, but nobody was asking too many questions. Today, if you want your business to succeed, you have no choice but to leverage the Cloud. And the ones who'd already made the move started to understand just how important that transition was when the pandemic hit.

Today, how are managers supposed to know how their people are feeling? If their team is in good shape? Officevibe is such a powerful tool in providing visibility to all that. It was useful tech when everyone was sitting next to each other, but now that they can be anywhere it’s indispensable.

The relevance of our products has never been more obvious, even for folks who aren’t plugged into the tech industry like we are.

Q. What role do we want to take on as a product company vis-à-vis other organizations?

S.D.B: The pandemic was such a tipping point in the sense that tools that once seemed like a luxury are now critical to the success of a company.

Being a player at the heart of building this new generation of tools is the perfect fit for us. Building tools that will reconfigure the work day around better communication, collaboration, management and company culture.

Tools that will bring a new perspective on aspects of work that we used to take for granted.

Rethinking the world of work is a vast enterprise; there’s so much to do but at the same time, we can do anything we want. This has always been part of GSoft’s DNA: creating products that bring people together, that serve their needs directly and fine-tune their work experience.

Q. Speaking of new products, you’re now very involved in GSoft’s innovation lab. How has your role evolved?

S.D.B: I used to have a very traditional CEO role. In recruiting Martin Gourdeau

to direct our business operations, though, I was able to return to where I believe I can have the greatest impact.

I have a good instinct for the type of products we can build here at GSoft, and how we can go about crafting them. I want to work on the creation of new products, our business strategy and our vision. All things I had to do in addition to the operations aspect, which admittedly wasn’t my forte.

Today, GSoft’s challenge is to make our two products stand out and create new ones that can stand alongside them. Whether it’s one, two, eight or fifteen, it’s up to us to make the right choices!

Making sure existing products keep doing well is a colossal task. But creating new ones, finding a place for them in our ecosystem, commercializing them, finding new clients, it’s another level of challenge. That’s where I want to be spending my energy.

Q. What motivates you to get up in the morning?

S.D.B: Since January my work life has changed drastically. I dusted off my old notebooks, even stole my daughter’s sketchbooks.

I have a table full of papers where I scribble and imagine what our new products could be, how they would operate, who they would be designed for, etc. It’s incredible how creativity is like a muscle: if you don’t keep training, it will atrophy. It can be uncomfortable to start stimulating it again after so long.

Sweating every little detail of every scenario imaginable can be exhausting, but it’s also the reason I get up in the morning and why I can’t wait to get to my office. When your work is your passion, everyone wins, and that’s what I’ve been doing since January.

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Q. Can you define what innovation means for GSoft?

S.D.B: Type ‘innovation’ into Google and you’ll see a bunch of teams in a conference room filled with post-its. It might sound boring, but most of the great innovation that surrounds us came from far more banal moments of inspiration. Innovation doesn’t always have to be big; sometimes it’s the little details that make all the difference. It’s a lot less sexy than we often think.

Our desire for innovation has always come part and parcel with our desire to do good. The mistake we made was to throw ourselves at innovation above all else. It’s super idealistic, but we thought we could rebuild the business world from the ground up. With time, I realized that there are things that exist for a reason. There are great companies that have been able to accomplish tremendous things with very traditional approaches.

The type of innovation we target now is the kind that directly impacts our clients’ actual needs. We’re lucky enough to have access to our ShareGate and Officevibe client base and to see exactly how we can help them continue to succeed. That’s where we want to focus our attention.

At GSoft, we see innovation as the ideal vehicle for creating value for our customers – both current and potential ones – by tackling issues from a new perspective and ensuring that existing problems are solved with an eye for future growth.

Is there another approach that we might be ignoring because it feels uncomfortable? Is there an angle we might have overlooked?

As a business, we have to plan for the incremental improvement of our products,all while adding large chunks of value that address emerging needs from a new perspective.

Q. Do you have any examples of how innovation comes to life at GSoft?

S.D.B: Everyone contributes to innovation in their own way. If I had to identify the key pathways at GSoft, though, they would be:

  • Our Innovation Lab: we have a team dedicated to experimentation, prototyping, the creation of new products and their market niche.
  • Innovate: a challenge we’ve given ourselves internally. We’ve formed teams to address certain challenges and goals here at GSoft, inspired by the open innovation framework.
  • Recruitment: we look for people who have the drive to bring new ideas to the table and become part of solutions we have yet to imagine.
  • Also, several of our product management practices are based around innovation. It’s all about finding a good ratio between investment in small increments and larger changes that need to be implemented.

Q. What are you working on at the moment?

S.D.B : S.D.B: I’m working on a new employee experience platform, Softstart, that aims to create a more human onboarding experience in the context of remote or hybrid work. It’s a product that responds to an emerging need with the new realities of work, one that is likely to be with us long after the pandemic ends. 

How do we cultivate human relations, how do we connect people together, especially when they’re new to the company? When you’re a new hire, it doesn’t come as naturally to maintain those connections remotely. Our goal is to transform the onboarding process into an experience in which you can really get to know your team, understand the organization and ensure that your first day is as memorable as the weeks and months that follow.

For example, when you join a new organization you’re asked to read through security policies and such. Let’s not beat around the bush, that stuff is boring. With Softstart, we aim to bring a human touch to the process: having that same document be accompanied by the head of security explaining the ‘why’ behind the policy, so you can really understand its impact.

This is the kind of human experience we want to create for workers. We believe it will have an enormous impact on their engagement and on employee retention. It’s a big challenge.

If I change jobs tomorrow, I’ll still be going to work at the same keyboard with the same screen in front of me. Same desk, same office; the only difference is the experience happening behind that screen.

Q. GSoft’s heart and soul used to be its office space. Now that we’ve been remote-first for a year, how have things evolved?

S.D.B: Everyone is experiencing the pandemic in their own way, so it can be difficult to gauge the impact of remote work on people.

That being said, I’m happy to no longer have the stress of making sure the office is central to the proper functioning of the GSoft experience.

We’ve put the office aside, despite our old habits, and I don’t see any other way that could have happened. It was a great space, we were proud of it, there isn’t another one like it! But I strongly believe that our teams come to work for the people they collaborate with, for the projects they work on. It simply isn’t true that a culture can be defined by a physical space. And as we’ve understood that, it’s been a real test.

A culture is the people, the human connection, the behaviours, communication methods and work habits. The day that the office is accessible again, it will no longer be so central: we want to create a balance that’s healthier and to the benefit of all. Today, everyone realizes how important flexibility is.

It also promotes a managerial maturity that allows us to focus on results, on cultivating autonomy and on ensuring that our people continue to grow. These conditions have been great for professional development. So far, the experience has been full of great surprises.

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Q. Speaking of culture, if you had to describe ours in three words, what would they be?

S.D.B: A human culture, respectful and authentic.

A culture of go-getters who are ready to keep pushing for 15 more years.

A company that isn’t scared of reinventing itself, that considers it a mandate.

A culture of straight-talking, of professional maturity and of respect for the things we’re trying to accomplish.

It’s something I’ve noticed over these 15 years: people care, they want us to succeed. I’ve always been impressed by our drive to keep pushing forward.

Q. If you were face-to-face with someone who was hesitating to drop us a CV, what would you tell them?

I would stress that you’re not coming here to rest on past laurels, but to hunt for future success. It’s like surfing: you ride a wave but you’re always looking for the next one. And yeah, you’ll probably take a few falls along the way. We’re far from perfect, we never will be, but that’s what keeps us hungry. If you’re ready to put in the effort, GSoft is as good a ride as you’ll find on your professional journey.

That’s what I’d tell someone thinking of applying.

The last 15 years have been one hell of an adventure, but today we’re laying the groundwork for the next 15 years of adventures. And we need people who can help us create something special, potentially completely different if that’s where our path takes us.

Q. GSoft 15 years from now, what will it look like?

A company that continues to create products.

A company that succeeds internationally, as we do today.

A company that doesn’t stand out because of its size but thanks to the impact of its products. If there’s still just 300 of us, that’s because we don’t need 1,000 to leave our mark.

We’re not following a set path, like so many tech companies do: an IPO after X time, selling our stake after Y years… we’d rather stick it out for the long term. And sure, that means a lot more question marks, but it also means a much better work experience, if you ask me.

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