When Signs Become Signals with Frédéric-Charles Petit

January 12, 2023

(highlights from Episode #17 of the Gutsiest Brands podcast)

Following our exciting recent acquisition by Toluna, we wanted to get to know more about their history and their Founder and CEO, Frédéric-Charles Petit. In our latest episode of the Gutsiest Brands podcast, GutCheck CEO, Rob Wengel, sits down with Frédéric and talks about being client-centric, being okay with the unexpected, and why he relates to Rocky Balboa.  

Frédéric started Toluna in 2000, which is a very big deal considering the internet revolution was still in its infancy. After following his own gut and the insights of his customers, Frédéric has now taken the brand global. Here’s how he did it… 

Takeaway #1 Give Support & Trust

“My family was a bit [entrepreneurial]. I would say my dad was an entrepreneur. . . and he’s the example. I was always pushed to do better by family.” And Frédéric’s parents knew that the secret to pushing is support and encouragement, not beratement. When Frédéric would come home with a bad grade from school (which he said was often!), he didn’t receive the typical response. Instead of being told, “it’s not good, and you’re not going to succeed,” Frédéric’s parents would tell him, “We trust you. You’re going to do better next time. We’re sure you’re going to work very hard to do better.” Frédéric has carried this approach with him into his leadership style saying, “[It’s] something that I’ve tried to do in good periods and in more challenging periods. You have to manage people by trying to give them support.” 

Takeaway #2 The Power of Community

Toluna started their business operating just a few surveys, but when they wanted to grow “we went back to our business plan and [realized] we have tens of thousands of people, and this is a community. It’s a vivid community of people, and they post their opinions and exchange with each other, which was extraordinary for the time.” But eventually, Toluna wanted to grow past just offering surveys. “We saw that they were really answering the survey, and they loved it. We basically iterated and brainstormed, and we said, what can we do with that, that power of a community?” Asking themselves how they could monetize their community, the obvious answer was market research. Eventually, Frédéric was ready to show a potential client their system. “I showed him how we were scripting the survey, launching the survey, getting the response live in the system, and he said, ‘I don’t need to buy research from you. I want to buy a subscription to that product.’ And so, we basically built the technology legacy.” 

Takeaway #3 Listen to the Client 

When asked about knowing how and when to change, Frédéric says it’s about “really looking at the market condition and seeing where we [are] and deciding what doesn’t work or will work ultimately but not now. So how do we adapt to that? It’s listening to the client.” But Frédéric admits there’s one problem with this. “When you are a startup and you are just beginning, you’re listening to the clients you have, but you don’t have enough – your sample base isn’t big enough.” So, he says it takes a little bit of trusting your gut instincts as well. Frédéric also mentions looking for signals as verification for decisions. As he says, “A sign is just one, but a signal beeps. And when a sign becomes a signal, then that’s [when] you might want to do something about it.” 

Takeaway #4 – Be Okay with the Unexpected

Listening to clients means implementing what they say and working to give them what they need. “I believe that you have to listen to the client. Not that they tell you what to do, but they basically define their needs. And when you understand their needs, you can build something.” But you can’t get too attached to your ideas. “We also rely on the engineering team. I think that’s very important. Innovation [in our industry] without the engineering team can’t exist because after you define needs and what you want to build, you have to let the engineering team come back with a solution that might look completely different from what you expected.” Being okay with the unexpected is how Toluna moves forward. “I think that’s what differentiates technology companies from a company [that] will just send [absolute] requirements to the development team. 

Takeaway #5Define Your Talmud

In Judaism, the Talmud is the book of laws that drive Jewish theology. Frédéric believes every business should create its own Talmud. “When you’re becoming global, you have to ensure consistency across the globe.” That’s where a cohesive brand mission comes in. “I think one of the best things that we’ve done [was] to have a global marketing team. Marketing was dispersed and was mainly operational marketing. And we decided, no, we need to define value for the company [centrally]. We need to define the value for the brand, a bit like you would do for the Talmud…We need to build what the brand stands for. What’s the mission of the brand in the market?” 

Frédéric‘s Best Advice?

When it comes to listening to stakeholders in general… “it’s very hard. Even if you pretend initially that, ‘no, I don’t like the idea that you’re giving me,’ just digest it and listen to people around you. Ultimately, you have to make the decision, but you have to listen to those people. It’s very hard because when things are good, it’s easy. When things are not as good, it’s very tough. I always say an average good decision taken on time is better than the best decision taken too late. 

Keep Learning 

Catch up on Rob and Frédéric’s full interview by listening to the Gutsiest Brands podcast. If you are interested in how your brand can uncover the deep customer insights that can enable you to lead with empathy, pioneer new paths, stand behind bold ideas, and lean into ‘the power of AND’, we’d love to help. Drop us a note!

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