Partner article by French Tech SF –Antoine Villata has been with Planisware, a global provider of project portfolio management software from the very early days of the company. Over the last 20 years, he has held various positions in Professional Services, Sales, and Marketing. He is currently the CEO of Planisware North America based in San Francisco, but the company has offices in Philadelphia, Denver, and Montreal and more than 170 employees. Today, over five hundred companies worldwide rely on Planisware products to manage their projects, resources, and portfolios. Planisware counts 12 offices in the US, Europe, the Middle East, Singapore, and Japan.
Antoine is also a board member of the French Tech San Francisco.
“Working as an executive, it’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon. 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 Université de Technologie de Compiègne (UTC), a French Engineering School, then went to Hanoi Vietnam for a couple of years to do civic service (VIA) with Business France. This is where I got the envy to live abroad as a way to challenge myself.
When I came back to Paris, I applied to the then-young start-up Planisware as I knew they had a project to open an office in the US. 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 worked on a proof of concept with back then, 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.
After two years, I signed up for another two years, and then another, and another. In the meantime, Planisware took off to the next level, we signed 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 now two kids), and eventually become a US citizen.
FTSF: And what were your milestones at Planisware?
AV: During the 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. 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 prepared an MBA. I opted for the Wharton Executive MBA based in San Francisco 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 developed my professional network and had a much stronger business understanding. 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 and build our brand and a strong customer community.
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: We are a global provider of software solutions for project and portfolio management in Saas mode. 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!
To get started, we decided to stay 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. Today, we count 11 of the first 12 Global Pharma organizations as customers.
Over the years, we expanded our footprint to manage R&D projects in other industries, including IT as well as manufacturing firms. Relying on strong expertise and knowledge of verticals, we worked with organizations such as Sonos, PepsiCo or Whirlpool.
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: 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.
Once on board, you need to provide the right benefit and culture to retain the employees. It starts with having a relevant compensation structure (very different from what is done in France) and making sure that you have an attractive 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 is true for customers is true for employees. We believe 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.
We make an effort to ensure employees 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, Diversity Equality Inclusion (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. 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. Back to work is a hot topic in Silicon Valley; 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. 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, almost a year later, I feel like it was the right decision.
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. For instance, we are 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: Moving forward, I think what will be critical is to create a strong customer/partner community. 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. 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. I also participated in Business France’s “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.
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.
“Giving back” is something that 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.
For me, “We are stronger together” and there’s no reason not to help each other, this is where my “learn/exchange” makes sense. 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 for most big decisions.
The different events organized by the community are also a good way to understand the business trends, the current economic challenges, or sometimes to find your next employee.
Honestly, Planisware’s success would not have been the same without our deep involvement in the community; 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: 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 and 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. 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 too! 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. 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 its “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!