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Hey, I'm Nicolas, Co-founder and CEO of Algolia. 

I'm a firm believer of “culture-first” companies and am focused on building just that at Algolia where team empowerment is how we accomplish our goals. Prior to co-founding Algolia with Julien, I spent over 12 years working on information retrieval at Exalead and Thales.

At Algolia we believe every website and app deserves great search! We offer a hosted Search API that helps developers deliver an instant and relevant search experience. We’ve seen that search is a great touch point to optimize – we regularly see double digit increases in engagement on sites when they improve their search UX.

When we founded Algolia in 2012 it was originally going to be a local SDK for mobile app search. We changed direction and realized that we needed to offer search as a hosted SaaS service, but it was those early mobile optimizations that gave us our unique advantage. We are one of the few search solutions that has been developed from scratch, and we never would have gone that direction if we hadn’t originally been focused on mobile search.

My focus has been first and foremost on making Algolia a great place to work. We have a unique culture here that values ownership as its pillar. We want to create a company where every team member takes initiative, gets out of their comfort zone, is empowered to make decisions; in short: be free to be their best.

I’ve recently spoken at SaaStock on the challenges of running a company based in both Paris and San Francisco. My priority lately has been on scaling our growth and ramping up our team size.

Looking forward to answering all your questions on search, scaling, culture, and APIs!

You can follow Nicolas on twitter @dessaigne or find him on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/nicolasdessaigne.

He will be live on Oct 25 starting at 930 AM PT for one and a half hours during which he will answer as many questions as possible.

  • AL

    Arsene Lavaux

    7 months ago #

    Bonjour Nicolas,

    Et merci for doing this AMA.

    1) Do you only drink French wine?

    2) How do you best scale search?

    Merci encore.

    • ND

      Nicolas Dessaigne

      7 months ago #

      Hey Arsene!

      Both a super simple question and a super complex one :) I love wine, wherever it comes from!

      For your second question, there are many ways to interpret it. I’m going to assume you mean how to technically scale search. Two things can scale and have an important impact on your search engine: the volume of data and the volume of queries. It’s pretty easy to scale as long as you fit on a single server (or I should say on a single cluster of 3 servers for fault tolerance). Once you go over the machine’s limits, you have to distribute your load across several servers.
      - Scaling the volume of queries is pretty simple: just add replicas of the servers and load balance the queries among them (you can also leverage our distributed search network to locate these servers close to your users and be even more efficient).
      - Scaling the volume of data can be more complex as you need to shard the data between servers. Depending of the distribution of your data, queries may need to go to only one server or you may need to aggregate the results of several. A bit more complex at that stage, but we’re here to help and make that as seamless as possible :)

  • MM

    martín medina

    7 months ago #

    Nicolas,

    Thanks for coming on here and doing this AMA!

    What do you think is the most important thing to consider when creating a strong corporate culture?

    What are some technologies you are particularly interested in?

    • ND

      Nicolas Dessaigne

      7 months ago #

      Hey Martin,

      The most important for me is to be deliberate in building the culture. Whatever you do, you are going to end up with a culture. So better to choose what it’s going to be instead of incurring a culture you may not want.

      In our case, we actually spent a lot of time with Julien, my co-founder, discussing the culture before even creating the company. We wanted to make sure we shared the same values. For us that was creating a workplace where everyone has the level of trust and ownership that lets them do their best work, and then figuring out what type of people would thrive in that environment. The rest will vary depending of the kind of culture you want to create.

    • ND

      Nicolas Dessaigne

      7 months ago #

      About your technologies question, while I haven’t coded for too long (my co-founder was the true genius!) I’m still super interested in everything related to information retrieval (search of course, data structures, text mining, machine learning, speech to text, etc.) and… space travel :)

  • SA

    Shaker A

    7 months ago #

    Hi Nicolas,

    Thanks for doing this AMA!

    1)What are some of the resources you used to learn and stay up to date on building culture, managing people effectively, and business in general? Books, podcasts, blogs, courses etc?

    2) What are the most valuable lessons you've learned in your career when it comes to growing a business?

    3) In your opinion what are things early stage startups have to do to not only survive, but thrive? Conversely what do you see startups messing up that they can't afford to, and how do they fix them?

    4)What are the biggest challenges you've faced growing Algolia, and how have you overcome them?

    Thanks

    • ND

      Nicolas Dessaigne

      7 months ago #

      Hi Shaker,

      1) Here are a few great sources of inspiration:

      - Freedom, inc. https://www.amazon.com/Freedom-INC-Employees-Business-Productivity/dp/0786756357/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1475883502&sr=8-1 Both Julien and I had read it in the months before founding Algolia and really loved its content. It served as a reference in our discussions to make sure that we were completely aligned. It is a really inspiring book and to this day we still recommend it to every new employee so they can better understand how the culture came to be.
      - Creativity, inc. (a lot of inc books!) https://www.amazon.com/Creativity-Inc-Overcoming-Unseen-Inspiration/dp/0812993012/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1477411986&sr=8-1&keywords=creativity+inc That one is about Pixar’s culture. It was the first time I saw someone use “Candor” as a key concept.

      - Radical Candor post by Kim Scott http://firstround.com/review/radical-candor-the-surprising-secret-to-being-a-good-boss/ That post basically coined the term that would become a core part of our culture.

      • NR

        Neil Richler

        7 months ago #

        Creativity Inc was one of the books I read before joining. Highly recommended to anyone thinking about how to add elements of the creative process to their culture.

    • ND

      Nicolas Dessaigne

      7 months ago #

      2) So many lessons learned! And still learning! Let’s focus just on a couple:

      - Be deliberate in building your company culture. You’re going to have a culture whatever you do, so better to choose it and embody it. It will help attract people with the right talent.

      - Learn to listen! While you need to have strong opinions, you have to be able to listen to feedback and review your position. You cannot be right all the time and your ability to recognize when you are not and change is what will help you to adapt to every situation.

      - Hire experienced people faster. You want to feel the “pain” of needing someone before hiring for a new position, but don’t wait too long. And when hiring, focus on what you’ll need in 6 months, not today.

    • ND

      Nicolas Dessaigne

      7 months ago #

      4) Hiring the right people and scaling the culture. We haven’t really overcome it. It’s still a challenge and it will probably be our biggest challenge forever!

    • ND

      Nicolas Dessaigne

      7 months ago #

      3) Listen to feedback (see above), empower your team to take initiative, have a plan but be ready to reconsider it, forget your ego, try to hire people you think may not be ready to join you yet (even if you don’t convince them, it will help you learn and you’ll end up with better people!), and overall always be ready to get out of your comfort zone and learn.

  • AA

    Aldin A

    7 months ago #

    Hey Nicolas,

    Great to have you here.

    1)What, in your opinion, are the top qualities founders need to succeed?

    2)How do you go about empowering employees? What does empowerment look like at Algolia? How do you instill an ownership mentality in them?

    3)What do you think are the top skills/traits that a manager needs to have to bring out the best in their employees?

    Thanks

    • ND

      Nicolas Dessaigne

      7 months ago #

      Super questions Aldin!

      So for 2)
      We consider ownership as the pillar of our culture and all our values relate to it. Being accountable for our values is a great way to encourage empowerment. For example, trust is a key one. We trust every team member with all our data, from cash in bank to the compensations of everyone. I even share our investors’ updates with the team.

      Devs have the freedom to push things into production quickly and easily. Ownership grants you freedom, but it also comes with accountability, which is fine, because failures are the only real way to learn.

      Another example is what we call our advice process. Basically, the owner of a topic has to take feedback before making a decision, but doesn’t have to find consensus. They are the owners, we trust them to make the best decision for the company.

    • ND

      Nicolas Dessaigne

      7 months ago #

      1) Grit, Trust, Care, Candor and Humility. That’s actually our company core values but I think it works for founders too :)

    • ND

      Nicolas Dessaigne

      7 months ago #

      3) Managers need to actually care about their team members personal growth and be candid in their feedback. The role of a manager is not to dictate what to do but to empower them to do their best. They need to explain the goal or the vision and not the task.
      We actually don’t like the term “manager” much, we prefer to think about them as mentors and coaches.

      2 Share
  • RB

    Ry B

    7 months ago #

    Nicolas,

    Thanks for doing this. Excited to learn from you.

    1)How do you look at hiring? Can you talk about some of the mistakes you've made hiring (and also seen others make)? What have you learned about hiring A+ talents?

    2)How do you look at balance in your professional and personal life? When it comes to work, how do you decide what you have to work on today (I'm sure you have a lot of fires to put out every day)?

    3)How do you look at competition, specifically when you're going up against bigger, and better-funded competitors? How does that affect your strategic plan, if it does at all? What is your mindset when you go to compete against the 800-pound gorillas in your space?

    • ND

      Nicolas Dessaigne

      7 months ago #

      Hi Ry B! Also excited to learn from you :)

      1) I cannot stress how important hiring is. I’m probably spending a third of my time on it /o\
      One mistake we did is hiring people that are too junior without having already someone in the team experienced in the job. You want people that are autonomous. Especially considering our culture where we really dislike micromanaging.

      In the end we always try to hire people “better” than us.

    • ND

      Nicolas Dessaigne

      7 months ago #

      2) I don’t really like the wording “work-life balance” as it implies that you only work to “live”. It’s more a synergy that I’m looking for. Of course, building a startup has a big impact on your personal life, especially when you have a family (3 kids for me!). To make sure I’m there with them and be part of their daily adventures, I have a “family first Saturday” where the kids know they have my full attention. The most important is to be in the moment, fully focused. Spending time with them but thinking constantly about the next email you want to send is really bad. Quality time over quantity.

      About work, deciding what to spend your time on is actually the most difficult part of the job. There is always something to do and I can easily spend hours in my inbox without realizing it. I don’t have a recipe here and am still struggling with that. I’m actually trying to be much more conscious about where I spend my time and carve time out for important but not urgent topics.

    • ND

      Nicolas Dessaigne

      7 months ago #

      3) We are lucky to have a very unique positioning and while of course we look at competition closely we don’t worry too much about it. When we’re up against bigger competitors, we just focus on our value proposition and ideally identify internal sponsors who can help us.

      More globally, we focus on building trust, day after day. It’s super easy to lose the trust of your audience and so difficult to get it back. We recently introduced for example a premium SLA (99.999% and 1000x refund) and used the opportunity to educate the market instead of going for the “easy” 100% uptime marketing #bs SLA… (https://techcrunch.com/2016/08/10/algolia-wants-to-bring-transparency-to-service-level-agreements/)

  • AE

    Anas El Mhamdi

    7 months ago #

    Hey Nicolas,

    Thank you for this AMA !

    What has been from your experience the most striking culture difference between French and American recruits ?

    Merci !
    Anas, a fellow frenchman

    • ND

      Nicolas Dessaigne

      7 months ago #

      Hey Anas,

      Easy one, Americans don’t eat cheese!
      More seriously, there are many differences. For example, one of the surprises when I moved here was the way people give feedback. We are overall way more direct in France than in the US, especially in California. People here are super nice and never want to hurt others’ feelings. It’s cool but sometime it’s limiting the help they can offer. It’s better to be open and candid to help them grow personally.

      In the end, I love these differences as they make us stronger. We want as diverse a team as possible (we have 8 non French-speaking foreigners in our Paris office for example) and at the same time we want to build a single company culture, whatever the number of offices we have. We don’t consider ourselves as Americans, nor French, but as a global company!

  • SK

    S Kodial

    7 months ago #

    Hi Nicolas - thanks for taking the time for this AMA.
    I have two questions for you.

    1. What is Algolia's user onboarding process and what is that one thing (or message) that you aim to drive home during that process that raises the odds of conversion?

    2. What feature(s) of Algolia do you think are super valuable that most users still don't use/dont use as much/derive as much value from as they otherwise could?

    • ND

      Nicolas Dessaigne

      7 months ago #

      Hi there!

      1) We have a 14 days free trial. During that period users have access to all our features and support. They can choose to play with the small dataset we provide but we try to have them upload their own data and experience how easy it is to build a great search. It is also key to provide the best experience and support possible during the trial. Feel free to try for yourself on www.algolia.com

    • ND

      Nicolas Dessaigne

      7 months ago #

      2) Let’s go with two!
      - Our Distributed Search Network, that enables our users to put replicate of their search in many regions around the world. The idea is to limit latency so that end-users can benefit from a true search-as-you-type experience wherever they are in the world. Check it out https://www.algolia.com/infra :)
      - Highlighting results. We always include the highlighted version of what was matched in the query (even if there were typing mistakes or if a synonym was used). We think it’s important for the user experience to indicate the reason a result matches but many customers skip that part :( We actually published a blog post on the topic recently: https://blog.algolia.com/inside-the-algolia-engine-part-5-highlighting-a-cornerstone-to-search-ux/

  • DH

    Dani Hart

    7 months ago #

    Hi Nicolas,

    Thanks for joining for this AMA. :)

    Are there any protocols you follow during hiring or employee onboarding that you can contribute to "culture success" at Algolia? Is there anything that you tried that didn't work as well as you hoped?

    Can't wait to hear what you have to say.

    Thanks,
    Dani

    • ND

      Nicolas Dessaigne

      7 months ago #

      Thanks Dani!

      Yes! We are constantly trying to improve how we hire and onboard but I think we already have a few great things in place that are helping culture. A few of these:
      - Embody the culture during interviews. For example one of our core values is care, it’s important that the candidate feels cared for instead of going through a tedious list of questions.
      - After initial screening and assignment, candidates have to come on-site, usually for a day (we pay for the travel expenses in case there are any). The goal is not so much to evaluate the candidate’s skills (we should have a pretty good idea at that time), but to have them meet with as many people of the team. It goes both ways: we get to know them better, and they get to know us and especially our culture better. Receiving a consistent message by everyone about the culture and its importance is a rare and valuable experience for candidates.
      - Once candidates accept their offer, we follow up and keep them engaged until they join. We send them a welcome email with a photo that team took specifically for them. We want to make sure they feel part of the team even before they start on their first day.
      - We have a pretty strong onboarding process where culture is one of the main components (intensive the 2 weeks and regular checkins)
      - We have formalized the culture and our key values in a deck that everyone can share and discuss.

      Nothing ever really failed but we can improve on many things. We have for example a buddy program going well but we’d like to emphasize more on regular checkins. We are also working on an onboarding handbooks where new hires can easily find all they need.

      3 Share
  • SN

    Simon Nung

    7 months ago #

    Thanks for doing the AMA. Here are my questions:

    What in your opinion makes a website a great search? - I'm talking about startup companies, which are self funded.

    What are your tips on targetting a niche target audience say for example an flask or retro phones?

    Thank you.

    • ND

      Nicolas Dessaigne

      7 months ago #

      Hi Simon,

      Ideally you want your users not even realising they are searching. You want to guide them to their results as they type, very interactively. For that you need to be fast (so users feel like it’s a conversation) and relevant (you can leverage your business metrics like #views, #likes, #sales, to make sure you return the best result with just a few keystrokes).
      Great search is not reserved for big companies!

    • ND

      Nicolas Dessaigne

      7 months ago #

      For niche targeting tips, knowing who is your target audience, and knowing where you should connect with it.

  • AA

    Anuj Adhiya

    7 months ago #

    Hey Nicolas - super to have you on!

    Having gone through YC, what advice would you give startup founders that could raise their odds of being accepted when it comes to:
    a. things like progress, traction, team etc
    b. the application itself

    Thx!

    • ND

      Nicolas Dessaigne

      7 months ago #

      Hey Anuj,

      Most important when applying to YC is to avoid bs. As usual, the team is the most important and traction can help. But also critical, you need to show ambition and ideally a path at becoming a $B company. YC acts as an investor and they are completely ok to take huge risks on crazy ideas (they invested in a fusion company!). They however are not going to be interested by a good chance of having just a nice success. You don’t need to have everything figured out yet and can definitely start by a niche, but showing that you have a long term vision is going to help ;)

      2 Share
  • JF

    Javier Feldman

    7 months ago #

    Hi Nicholas, it's great to have you here today!

    With respect to your current focus of scaling growth - can you talk more about where you think the biggest opportunities are and why?

    Thanks in advance!

    • ND

      Nicolas Dessaigne

      7 months ago #

      Hi Javier,

      All user-facing use-cases are important of course, but one of the interesting vertical we see today is actually SaaS applications! It’s kind of being B2B2B for us :) Their users are very demanding and search is often a key part of the experience. They have specific needs that we want to make sure we answer well (seamless scaling of the infra, control on the quality of service depending of customers, etc.)

  • AA

    Anuj Adhiya

    7 months ago #

    One more - a search question.
    For anyone thinking of a search related startup - what have you learned that is not obvious/"traps" you are likely to encounter etc that is specific to search?

    • ND

      Nicolas Dessaigne

      7 months ago #

      Starting from scratch! The only reason we built our own engine from scratch is because we wanted at first to build a search engine able to run locally on mobile devices without relying on a server. App developers could embed it in their own apps to search for local content. Because of the hardware constraints of smartphones like low memory and slow processor, especially back when we started in 2012, we simply couldn’t use existing technologies like Lucene. We had to reinvent search. The hardware limitations led us to make completely different design decisions. Things we actually would never have thought of.

      We later pivoted to SaaS and a server based approach, but the choices we made while focusing on mobile really helped us to differentiate our product and are critical to our success today.

  • DO

    Danielle Olivas

    7 months ago #

    Hi, Nicolas!

    Great to have you on here today.

    Earlier, I used to see a lot of sites powering their search with Google (I'm sure many still do). For any that migrated away from that solution (or from any other solution for that matter) to Algolia, what was the "aha moment" in which convinced these sites that Algolia was the superior solution?

    Looking forward to your answer.

    Thanks!

    • ND

      Nicolas Dessaigne

      7 months ago #

      Hi Danielle,

      I guess the “aha moment” is simply when they see a demo or our search running on other websites :)

      Google site search is a pretty cool tool but it is simply a filter on top of the Google web index and that leads to many limitations (no control on updating the content, ranking, etc.). Another “aha moment” may come when someone signs up and goes through the onboarding, and sees how simple it is to leverage their data to deliver a better experience!

  • PB

    Pascal Borreli

    7 months ago #

    Bonjour Nicolas, Thanks for doing this AMA.

    Two questions :

    - What is the number one thing you look for when considering possible new employees ?
    - What is your number one mistake you made creating/scaling Algolia team / product ?

    Thanks in advance !
    Pascal

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