Snips’s office is a 17th century “hotel particulier” and has its share of legends, including an ancient, secret underground passageway to the Opéra Comique. The building’s grandeur and its associated history are completely unlike the slick new Station F; but nevertheless, a befitting location for this Paris-based start-up. It is here that we notice a batch of relatively young and highly competent French coders all plugged-in, redefining the frontiers of human-machine interaction. It is also here that we meet Yann Lechelle, INSEAD MBA 01, as he orders a coffee machine to brew him a strong cup – with his voice alone.
Yann Lechelle and His journey
Yann himself started coding at the age of 10 and by the time he was 17, built his very own social network on the French Minitel (a network predating the world-wide web). Building on this expertise, a pre-Facebook social-network ensued, allowing MBA admits in B-Schools to connect with peers and see ‘who’s who’, but also cleverly improving schools’ admissions yield (incl. INSEAD). One of the first iOS developers after the iPhone launch, Yann has since successfully launched and exited two major app-economy businesses – KickYourApp, an app development studio, and Appsfire, an app recommendation app business that was attracting 2 million users per day. Among other serial or parallel endeavours, that took his total number of business exits to 5.
“I was thinking: I’m going to create a portal for all the admitted MBA candidates of the world, and build advertising revenue on top of it. You know, the naïve approach circa 2000, and then in P3 in strategy I thought no, it’s not going to work and I pivoted to a B2B business which allowed me to bootstrap and break even within a month of creating the company”
AI and SNIPS
At Snips, Yann and his team are out to disrupt how people interact with objects around us, using voice. And sure, they are conscious of competition from current tech giants. What makes Snips especially unique however is the ability of its engine to operate ‘locally’ on-device, without the need of cloud computing and thereby also protecting privacy.
Snips’ ease of integration with devices opens a plethora of possible applications, from ones like brewing coffee and setting alarms, to much more advanced like premium private-banking and in-flight applications (yes, to reduce weight!). The Snips’ AI is deeply rooted in machine learning and Natural Language Understanding (NLU), allowing the engine to process domain-specific voice interactions with industrial-grade accuracy, regardless of the speakers, and in several languages. For more on Snips, listen to Yann here.
On Paris, France and Israel – Going Global
And why France, indeed why Paris for Snips, in Europe? Why not. According to Yann, even if the labour laws relative non-flexibility is a reality and the M&A market needs to be strengthened, there are also great advantages to be located Paris: a highly competent talent pool costing a fraction of that in the Valley plus a very favourable current political climate and legislations. As a co-founding member of France Digitale, a French association aiming to evangelize high tech entrepreneurship to government and large corporations, he’s actively engaged in the local eco-system. Furthermore, initiatives like the French Tech Visa will add to much needed the diversity in the eco-system – Snips already employs people from more than 10 nationalities.
And how does Paris compare to other cities in Europe? According to Yann, the only model to emulate is the Israeli one, in which people don’t hesitate to think global while using the best possible local talent. In Paris and in France in general, he’d like to see more ambition married with the use of the largely untapped local technical talent pool. All this said, he warns of too much optimism and ‘brashness’ among younger entrepreneur fresh out of school, which might lead investors to ‘backlash’ of sorts. For more on Yann’s opinion on the French scene, listen here.
How much tech is too much?
It’s may seem initially ironic when a serial tech entrepreneur talks about the follies of ‘too much technology’. However, at home the Lechelle family takes mindful decisions on how much is too much, so that technology remains the enabler and not the enslaver. And on reflecting further, this is rather aligned with the proposition of Snips itself – to get machines to learn to better interact with humans rather than the other way round. Indeed, to make technology ‘disappear’ altogether.
Taking that leap of faith
When we asked him about the doubts and fears a lot of students have when comes the time to refuse a job offer and start-up he says: “Doubting is OK as starting a business is like jumping of the cliff and building wings as you fall. But what do you have to lose?”
As everyone, he has had his own moments of doubt. But he has never regretted his choice and at his 5-year post MBA reunion, when the question was asked in the crowded Amphi A “Who has managed to build a work life balance?”, he was the only one to raise his hands.