MEETING WITH ANTOINE VILLATA, CEO AT PLANISWARE NORTH AMERICA, A GLOBAL PROVIDER OF SOFTWARE SOLUTIONS FOR PROJECT PORTFOLIO MANAGEMENT.
by French Tech SF
Planisware is a global provider of Project Portfolio Management software solutions designed to support product development, engineering, and IT business processes. For over 20 years, Planisware has been helping its customers to achieve strategic and innovative excellence, make valid business decisions, and increase portfolio value. Today, over five hundred companies worldwide rely on Planisware products to manage their projects, resources, and portfolios. Planisware has 12 offices in the US, Europe, the Middle East, Singapore, and Japan.
Antoine Villata has been with Planisware from the very early days of the organization and has held various positions in Professional Services, Sales, and Marketing, He is currently responsible for developing Planisware in North America across four main offices in San Francisco, Philadelphia, Denver, and Montreal for more than 170 employees. He is also a member of the Board of French Tech San Francisco.
"Working as an executive, it's not a sprint; it's a marathon. So, you need to pace yourself. It is essential to take time to absorb, think, and breathe a little."
French Tech SF: Can you tell us about your background and your US journey?
Antoine Villata: I graduated from UTC, a French Engineering School, then went to Hanoi Vietnam for a couple of years to do a VIA., which is a cooperation with Business France (at the time part of the French Embassy). This is where I got the envy to live abroad as a way to challenge myself.
I came back to Paris and applied to the then-young start-up Planisware as I knew there was a plan to open an office in the US to explore the market. I was a member of the professional services team at the time working on a lot of international projects. On one of my assignments, I was able to come to San Francisco and work on a proof of concept with a small biotech called Genentech. It went very well, Genentech signed and soon after, Planisware offered me a position in San Francisco. It was the beginning of my (long) journey there.
I came with a “pioneer” mindset thinking that it would only be a short two-year assignment before returning to Paris (or elsewhere). But I got the Silicon Valley “bug”. I was surrounded by all these inspirational software companies, and like-minded individuals, but also the amazing outdoors, and many great challenges.
At the end of two years, I signed up for another two years, and then another, and another. Planisware took off to the next level, we acquired more and more customers, and I decided that San Francisco would be a great city to further develop my career, build a family (I have two kids), and eventually become a US citizen.
FTSF: And what were your milestones at Planisware?
AV: Definitely a few key milestones in 20 years!
During my first ten years, I worked with a lot of different customers, mostly large Life Sciences organizations (fortune 100), primarily as a project manager in charge of the implementation of our software. During that time, I built a professional services team of about 50 people that I hired, trained, and eventually managed.
I enjoyed this period of my life learning a lot about how large US companies operate but also got tired of the extensive travel. So much, I eventually decided to turn my career toward business development, marketing, and sales. To do so, given my engineering background, I decided to do what a lot of Americans do and obtain an MBA. I opted for the Wharton Executive MBA (on their San Francisco Campus) so that I could continue to work and study at the same time. That was the most intense two years of my life but definitely a worthwhile experience!
After I completed my MBA, I got even more deeply involved in the Silicon Valley Tech and Executive community. I had a lot more connections (many of them are now my friends) and also a much stronger business understanding. I felt more confident and realized I had a lot more to offer Planisware. Soon after my graduation, I took over the role of general manager for the US, and a few years later I became CEO for North America.
At the time, the organization’s revenue was close to $10 million. There were still a lot of challenges to open up new offices, build the team, and scale our operations. More importantly, I had to find a way to expand our footprint into new markets, build our brand and a strong customer community and take Planisware to the next level.
Everything started to come together, and 11 years later in this role, my work is still fascinating.
FTSF: Can you tell us more about what you are doing at Planisware? What is the business model?
AV: Our business model is to be a global provider of software solutions for project and portfolio management. That means we help companies manage their projects and transform their organization or drive their innovations through project management. The total addressable market is very large as well as the number of competitors!
So, Instead of going across all verticals and working with a vast area of organizations, we decided to stay extremely focused on project management for the Life Sciences industry (specifically Pharmaceutical organizations). We developed deep expertise in how to manage pharmaceutical R&D projects, specifically in terms of cost and resource management, thus accelerating the time to market as well as the decision-making processes. That worked very well, as we managed to get 11 of the first 12 Global Pharma organizations as customers.
After a few years, we expanded our footprint to manage R&D projects outside life sciences. We worked with organizations such as Sonos, PepsiCo or Whirlpool, that are managing innovations and new products they want to bring to market. There as well, we relied on strong expertise and knowledge of each industry/vertical we were working with.
We then decided to expand to IT as well as Engineering and manufacturing firms, to manage the relatively sophisticated projects in these industries.
We are now covering the entire array of project management inside an organization. But we did that step by step to ensure that we will be able to stay focused. That was key for us as we moved forward to become a leader in the market.
FTSF: Can you tell us more about your clients? Who are they?
AV: We have two products: Enterprise and Orchestra covering a wide array of organizations from very large organizations (Blue chip) to mid-size (100 Million in Revenue).
Enterprise serves organizations that have relatively sophisticated processes with the objective of covering the end-to-end process with one solution. Typical organizations using Enterprise are large automotive manufacturers or suppliers, medical device organizations, or large B2C product firms. The enterprise solution provides full visibility across the organization and rapid decision-making. For instance, we worked with several companies that developed the COVID vaccine. They ran different scenarios, and were able, with Planisware, to decide the best method to run their clinical trials and go to market as quickly as possible. In parallel, they were able to understand what was at stake with the different options and bring compelling scenarios to the top management for rapid and accurate decision making.
Our second product, called Orchestra, is for mid-sized organizations with much more of a turnkey approach that can be deployed extremely quickly. As such, we tend to see Orchestra being used by organizations with fewer users and less sophisticated use cases.
FTSF: What are the biggest challenges in your company?
AV: One of our major challenges is recruitment. It is difficult for a relatively unknown organization with limited visibility to attract top talents in Silicon Valley. You are a small fish in a huge pond, and getting the right people on Board is time consuming. We had to rely a lot on our employee recommendations/network and general word of mouth to build the right team at Planisware.
And once on board, you need to have the right benefit and culture to retain the employees. It starts with having the right compensation structure (very different from what is done in France) and making sure that you have the right long-term incentive plan. Every single employee needs a defined career plan with specific tracks inside the organization to move every two years otherwise they will leave. Finally, culture also plays a big role and, even though we are a subsidiary of a larger French organization, we had to “Americanize” a lot of our processes and our team management practices.
FTSF: What solutions have you found and implemented?
AV: What we have done is true for customers and employees alike. It is to ensure that if people are happy and comfortable with a high level of satisfaction, they will pass the word on to others. This will create a snowball effect and attract new talents (or customers).
So specifically, when it comes to employees, we make an effort to ensure they feel comfortable in their new job and with the people around them. We have built a strong team culture with a lot of internal communication and transparency, DEI groups, regular team-building events, ski trips, as well as a yearly kickoff in the Caribbean to strengthen our team bonding.
Not only do these actions boost their motivation but they also become strong advocates of Planisware outside of the organization. They often take part in recruiting events (at their university career fair) and they take the time to write reviews on platforms such as Glassdoor or LinkedIn…
FTSF: Today, how is life in Silicon Valley? Are your employees back in the office?
AV: It's been a bit of a challenge because of what I just described to you.
Back to work is a hot topic of discussion in Silicon Valley as more and more organizations are getting worried about their employee productivity. My opinion is that people need to interact face to face to increase their efficiency and also their morale!
During COVID, we had a full remote policy, but afterward, we had a lot of difficulties bringing employees back to the office and making them understand its importance. And yet this is core to who we are, we value spending time together in the office, learning from others, sharing ideas, and ensuring that we are fully aligned. At Planisware, we implemented a three-day-per-week policy, which was, in the beginning, a bit of a challenge.
Even if it was a bit difficult to implement, almost a year later, I feel like it was the right decision. We hired more than 50 people during the pandemic, it was important for all these new employees to understand our products and the Planisware methods and processes. They have a much better understanding of our mission and productivity is definitely higher.
With our customers, we moved to fully remote (and we still mostly are), and that's also a missing link because it's more challenging to build a close level of relationship. Now, we are pushing everyone to meet with customers regularly, in person whenever possible. We are also bringing all of our customers together on May 16 and 18th for our User Summit (https://planisware.com/exchange23) in San Francisco so that they can share experiences and best practices.
FTSF: What are the next important steps for Planisware in the future?
AV: There's been a few key steps along the way. Obviously, building the team and opening offices in different cities across North America have been extremely important.
Moving forward, I think what will be critical for us is to create a strong customer/partner community. We have a lot of initiatives to ensure that our customers can exchange altogether. We created forums, events, excellence awards as well as customer advisory boards to make sure they know about what they do and we can capture the voice of the customers. We want to push them to share what they are doing and create plenty of different channels to discuss the challenges they faced. This is a way to create more value beyond our software solution.
Another big project is our global kickoff which brings our teams from Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and North America to think globally. The annual kick-off is a way to cut down on multiple travels during the year, ensure the right level of alignment between our teams, define the global roadmap/OKR for the next year, and obviously have a good time together!
FTSF: You are involved in the Chamber of Commerce, you worked in Business France and today you are a member of the French TechSF Board. What are your motivations for being part of these communities?
AV: That’s right, I've been on the board of the French American Chamber of Commerce of San Francisco for the past ten years. And I was the Chamber’s President for two years, right before COVID. I also participated in “SaaS Lander” for the past few years, an acceleration program that helps B2B SaaS founders to scale in the US.
And more recently, I started to serve on the board of French Tech San Francisco where we organize events and meet-ups in the Bay Area.
So my community involvement is an ongoing story and an essential part of my journey in the US. My motivations are very simple, I wanted to “give back” and “learn/exchange” from the community.
First, the “give back”. That's something I learned to appreciate when I moved to the United States. I like to reflect on my successes/failures and see how I can help others benefit from my experience and the different lessons learned. I believe it's pretty important to dedicate a bit of time to do so, and it is very rewarding. I have seen many cross-border start-up entrepreneurs coming to Silicon Valley without the keys and only a minimum understanding of what it takes to start a business here. Spending only a bit of time with other entrepreneurs allows them to avoid many mistakes and very often it is a good way to open some doors and share meaningful connections with them.
Second, the “Learn/Exchange”.
For me “We are stronger together” and there's no reason not to help each other (everyone else does). When you are facing important decisions on topics you cannot discuss internally, it makes a big difference to be able to rely on a strong community of peers and experts. I used the French Tech community as a “sounding board” and benefited tremendously (I still do!) for most big decisions.
The different events are also a good way to understand the business trends, the current economic challenges, or sometimes to find your next employee.
Honestly, our success at Planisware would not have been the same without our deep involvement in the community and I believe it is absolutely essential when you start or scale a business in the Bay Area!
FTSF: Is being an executive in Silicon Valley, having a family, and being a great athlete a realistic combination? What advice would you give to keep a good life balance?
AV: I think it's important to balance things out. Taking the athlete metaphor, it's not a sprint, it's a marathon! So you need to pace yourself. I see people going 200% and giving everything, working night and day. You can only do that for a certain time. But it is essential to take time to absorb, think, and breathe a little.
For me, balancing things has been done through sports. I make a point to take time during the week for outdoor sports and activities. I take advantage of everything San Francisco has to offer. I kitesurf, run, bike, swim, or snowboard as much as possible as a family activity! I pushed it to a point that, a few years ago, I started competing in triathlons and Ironmans 70.3.
I've seen many entrepreneurs drowning under the workload and things can very quickly become overwhelming. I was close to being one of them, and my advice is to rigorously split your time between work and play and block time directly into your agenda. Otherwise, it's dangerous and you may spend way too much time thinking and rethinking your professional issues.
And that’s true for vacations, I enjoy traveling with my family and I try to disconnect as much as possible during our trips. Everyone knows this at Planisware, this is important to me but also a good way to come back with fresh ideas!
FTSF: What do you think about the people saying that Silicon Valley is no longer the place to be?
AV: I arrived in 2001, and everyone was already saying that Silicon Valley was collapsing and near death, and then again in 2008 after the bank and mortgage crisis. And more recently, we saw another challenge with COVID and the numerous exit from Silicon Valley. So it's been a series of ups and downs.
But I truly think Silicon Valley is here to stay, with its ecosystem, entrepreneurs, investors, students, and “gold seeker” spirit. Obviously, there are some waves and associated challenges, but Silicon Valley is very good at bouncing back. The latest one has probably already started with the rise of generative AI.
So, yes, I have seen many people who think the model can be reproduced elsewhere. But we have yet to see it…. And I hope Silicon Valley stays such a bedrock of innovation as it makes this place so attractive and unique!