Sebastien Provencher has 20 years of experience in the tech industry, a well-rounded product-focused senior executive with horizontal experience in many industry verticals such as AI/ML, Marketplaces, Enterprise SaaS, just to name a few. Over the last 12 years, he’s been a key member of senior leadership teams and in roles that report directly to the CEO. Since 2011, he has been paying it forward in the startup community by advising & mentoring emerging entrepreneurs, recently named All-Star Mentor by Techstars.
#4 Sebastien Provencher – Senior Tech Executive (Ex-Element AI, HomeAdvisor, Yellow Pages and Ubisoft) on the growing need for product operations – Get Your AI On!
Ciprian Borodescu: I’m here with Sebastien Provencher, Serial Startup Entrepreneur and Mentor, Ex-Element AI, HomeAdvisor, Yellow Pages, and Ubisoft. I’m super excited, and it’s an honor to have you on this podcast. Thank you so much for being here.
Sebastien Provencher: Thank you for inviting me.
Ciprian Borodescu: You have 20 years of experience in the tech industry. You are a well-rounded product-focused Senior Executive with horizontal experience in many industry verticals, such as AI and machine learning, marketplaces, and enterprise software as a service, just to name a few. And we met last year during Techstars Montreal AI, where you are a mentor. Tell me a bit about your experience mentoring startups in general. What drives you to work with founders and startups?
Sebastien Provencher: So, my experience mentoring startups has been amazing. I’ve been doing it for close to 10 years and not only do I feel I can contribute to the conversation when I talk to founders – I can help them in a very modest way because a lot of these startup entrepreneurs are quite smart and they have the intuition already – but I get a lot out of it as well. Just by having these conversations, just by sharing problems that the companies might be facing or opportunities and bouncing ideas, it keeps me very fresh, it helps me stay grounded, and really it helps me see a very broad series of opportunities and challenges that startups are facing. So, it’s actually useful to me.
Sebastien Provencher: The reason why I started doing mentoring is quite simple. When I launched my first startup in 2006, in Montreal, the startup ecosystem was quite small. In fact, it was very difficult to find mentors then; there were no accelerators, just a few VC funds, no events, nothing. And so, I had to find a mentor in the US – a good friend of mine, a Canadian who lives in the US – and he helped me put together my pitch deck, and the documents, and so on, and so forth. So he gave me a lot of good advice. And after a couple of years, the startup scene started to explode in Montreal and I realized that a lot of the new entrepreneurs actually had the same questions that I had. And so very, very quickly, I realized that I wanted to give back and pay it forward in the ecosystem.
Ciprian Borodescu: Excellent, nice. And over the last 12 years, you’ve been a key member of senior leadership teams in roles that report directly to the CEO. I have to ask, what are some of the most important traits or skills of the leaders and CEOs that you’ve worked with, that you would recommend startup founders or first-time CEOs you meet in your mentoring sessions?
Sebastien Provencher: So, I think the key skills that I’ve seen that are always quite useful, I think the first one – and I’m sure you’ll understand it in the current times – is resiliency. So, being a startup founder is very hard and there are lots of ups and downs, and it’s a roller coaster, sometimes, on the same day. And compounded with the current situation, with COVID-19, I think you need even more resiliency, you need to be even stronger mentally. So I think that’s the first thing. Obviously, having founders and CEOs that are problem solvers, that are quick thinkers, that are able to learn as well and iterate and be able to test their own hypotheses and be open-minded, I think those are all very important skills as well. But I think the most well-rounded founders or CEOs that I’ve seen over the last few years are the ones that have…In French, there’s a word called, we call it bienveillance – so, it’s a little bit like benevolent, but it’s not exactly that; it’s taking care of other people. It’s making sure that the people you work with are feeling good, they are feeling safe. And I think, given the high stress of startup environments, I think it’s critical that the CEO or the co-founders actually enable people to feel safe within their work environment.
Ciprian Borodescu: Yeah, that’s very interesting that you mentioned the third point. That got me thinking of a book, The Servant Leadership. I think, nowadays, leaders and CEOs need to serve people around them – customers, colleagues, and members of the team – first of all, before anything else, before the profit, right?
Sebastien Provencher: Indeed.
Ciprian Borodescu: I want to change gears a little bit and talk about your experience working at Element AI. And taking a step back, probably it would be useful to tell people that Element AI is an artificial intelligence company based in Montreal, Quebec, founded back in October 2016, and one of the founders is the renowned Yoshua Bengio, co-recipient of the 2018 Turing Award for his work in deep learning, referred to by some as one of the godfathers of AI. Tell us a bit about the life before Turing and after Element AI.
Sebastien Provencher: Thank you for asking that question because it was such an interesting ride to be part of this Element AI rocket ship. So, just before Element AI, I was working at Acquisio, which is a Montreal startup that offered a search engine marketing platform. And in that platform, there was a machine learning component that could be used to optimize your bids on Google AdWords and Microsoft Ads. And it was the first time I was working in product management around a machine learning component, and I realized that a very small implementation was actually quite powerful. So, I started reading about machine learning and deep learning. And then I was approached by Jean-Francois Gagné – who’s the CEO and co-founder of Element AI. Before the company launched, Jean-Francois and I knew each other from Founder View, where we were both mentors as well. And we had coffee, he shared with me the vision for Element AI, the team he had assembled, including Professor Bengio. And I mean, within minutes, I was convinced that this would be an amazing thing. So he asked me to come in as one of the first few employees because I can wear many hats. So, I joined as employee number three, just as the company had launched.
Sebastien Provencher: And so, what an incredible ride it was! We got a lot of inbound – as soon as we announced the company, we got a lot of inbound from Fortune 1000 companies, governments, large organizations throughout the world, wanting to talk to us about what we could do for them. And so, I was on the phone and in meetings and in planes for the first 15 months at Element AI, meeting with these companies trying to understand what were the AI needs, what were the challenges, and how we could fix them. And so, that allowed us to create kind of our product thesis. And then, I moved to the product operations team – and I know you want to talk about that later, so I won’t spoil it too fast – that was also quite interesting to me, because that’s a role I didn’t know and that I learned about how important it was. And so, overall, I spent two and a half years at Element AI, I helped the company scale from about eight employees – so five founders and three employees – to about 500 when I left.
Ciprian Borodescu: Oh, wow!
Sebastien Provencher: Yeah, I had dreamed for a long time to join one of these hyper-growth companies. You read about them in magazines and blogs. You know, usually, they’re in Silicon Valley. And I’ve been dreaming of being part of this, to see what were the opportunities and challenges of being in that kind of environment. And so, for me, it was kind of a bucket list I checked, that thing that I wanted to do for a long time. And after Element AI, you know, at 500 people I thought at the time it was the right time for me to go and do something else. And my wife and I, we’ve been talking for a long time about spending time in the south of France, in Provence, enjoying a nice winter where I could ride my bike and read philosophy books, that typically in startup mode, you don’t have time to think over the long term; you’re often thinking about the short term. And so, that’s what we’ve been doing over the last few months, basically enjoying life, getting in shape, getting my brain recharged as well. And so, it’s been a nice change of pace.
Ciprian Borodescu: Yeah, I can imagine. But how do you go about scaling from eight, five, three people to 500? How do you wrap your head around that?
Sebastien Provencher: Obviously, you need to have some sort of staffing plan, i.e. where do you need people, when. And so, as you scale, you need to scale equally between, at one point, soft devs, and AI researchers and product managers, and at one point marketing and salespeople, and customer service and delivery. And so, it’s almost like you’re scaling all these pillars at the same time, or serially, depending on when you need someone. Obviously, you need a very strong pipeline of candidates and you also need to understand that recruiting and doing these interviews is critical to the future of the company. And so, I was part of the interviewing team for a lot of the product positions. Even though we spent a lot of time interviewing candidates, it was really important for the company, in order to scale. And I think one of the biggest learnings for me is when you are in hyper-growth mode like that, obviously, it’s controlled chaos. And so, you need to make sure that you’re bringing people on board that are extremely resilient, that understand that there’s going to be some chaos, there are going to be ups and downs, as I mentioned earlier, and that they actually will feel good about that, that they will feel that they can be empowered. And so, for me, that was probably one of the big learnings in hyper-growth mode: making sure that the people that join the company actually understand what they’re getting into.
Ciprian Borodescu: Yeah, that’s a good one. That’s a good one. Okay, so, like you mentioned, you’ve been involved in building cross-functional AI teams. What are some of the most important roles you believe such a team should consist of? And maybe talk a bit about these teams as relative to the stage of the company from the early-stage startup to scale-up company, to an enterprise the size of Element AI.
Sebastien Provencher: What’s interesting about building an AI team is that it’s not that different from building a typical technology startup team. So, when you’re at the beginning of the process, when you’re just starting your company, obviously, it’s very heavy on technology, so you have your typical either frontend developer, backend developer, full-stack developer, sometimes you have a product owner or not. Then, you have your CEO, you have the co-founding team – again, very tech-heavy at the beginning; tech and product heavy. And then, as you start de-risking the product through your discovery and validation cycles, then you start adding new people. Obviously, for AI startups, I wanted to mention as well, you need either data scientists or applied research scientists. So, I’ve seen there are two theses about that; some people say one is enough. Other people say two is better because they can exchange and challenge each other. But obviously, you need that kind of talent as well, right on the ground floor of the company.
Sebastien Provencher: And so, as you start scaling, you add more technology people; at one point you start maybe hiring your first salespeople, your first marketing people as you prepare for product market fit, as you prepare for the growth phase. And then, you start building other departments of your company and you start scaling them. Obviously, as you know, when you’re building a company, typically you hire only when it starts to hurt really badly, but you need to have a funnel of great candidates ahead of that so that you can bring people very quickly if you’re starting to feel hurt about the amount of work you’re doing and things like that. And so, it’s a question of making sure you have good candidates lined up, that you have a plan for your discovery phase, your validation phase, your growth phase, so that you’re always a little bit ahead of the game, and that you’re ready to bring the people on board at the right time.
Ciprian Borodescu: Somebody told me – I think it was a mentor during Techstars last year – that as a startup CEO, you want to be always hiring or at least always interviewing people.
Sebastien Provencher: Yeah, one mentor of mine actually told me, as a CEO, you always need to be what he called ‘working the bench’ – so making sure you have a bench of players that’s ready; they are ready to step on the field whenever you need them. And so, you need to identify people six to 12 months in advance, the people you’d like to work with, and approach them ahead of time and say, “Hey, I don’t have a job for you right now. But I’d love to work with you, eventually, when we’re ready. Do you want to get a coffee so that we can get to know each other?” So that’s obviously something that’s very important. And not a lot of startups are doing well.
Ciprian Borodescu: Yeah, that’s true. I bet that mentor was from the US because I think that’s a metaphor from baseball, right?
Sebastien Provencher: Exactly. Or football, yeah. Or American football, yes.
Ciprian Borodescu: Awesome. Okay. So, one of the things that I wanted to share is last year during Techstars, we got asked a couple of times, who is the Chief Product Officer, or who’s the product person. And since we are an early-stage company, well, the product is basically whatever comes out from my conversation with Alexandra and with the team. So we do not have a dedicated person to deal with a product. Where do you think a product manager comes into play? When it’s critical to hire a CPO, let’s say?
Sebastien Provencher: I think typically, what I’ve seen is the CEO will own product management because the CEO, on one side, is the person that’s having often sales conversation or customer conversations, and then, it also gives a bouncing board with the CTO so that the CTO can focus on technology, and can also have someone to challenge a little bit the market needs. When do you need to bring in a product owner? I think you need what I call a Head of Product – I think you need to bring that person when the CEO feels a little bit overwhelmed, i.e., you need to start professionalizing the product management effort, and the CEO needs to focus on either fundraising or recruiting or sales – as I say, keeping the lights on for the company. And so, I think the best way to bring in a product management person is not to call that person Chief Product Officer. I think that person should be called Head of Product. And again, we’re getting into titles, but the challenge is if you bring in someone very early, and you name that person Chief Product Officer, and they’re more junior, it’s very difficult to downgrade that person if you need to bring in a senior person eventually. And so, the safe way to bring in people at the beginning is to call them Head of their department, and that way, you’re able to bring in a VP of product, let’s say, at one point where you need to start scaling the product.
Ciprian Borodescu: Very interesting. Very practical. Head of Product or Head of Marketing.
Sebastien Provencher: I can tell you, I’ve seen it myself, because I’m often approached by startups to come in as a Senior Product Management member, but they often had already an existing VP of Product Management who’s reached the maximum that they can do, which is normal when you’re more junior, and it starts a conversation that’s very awkward with that person because they’re basically being told, “Look, you need to become Director of Product.” And so, they feel hurt. It’s normal, it’s very human. And it’s not because they’re not good. It’s because the company is at a point where they need to level up and it’s easier if you use this title mechanism – you can solve a little bit of that problem.
Ciprian Borodescu: This is interesting. But I was wondering, at some point, how often do you see CTOs moving into a Head of Product or Chief Product Officer as a role?
Sebastien Provencher: It’s not unusual. I mean, I see it quite often as well. I think the challenge there is a lot of CTOs, unless they’re very business-oriented, will focus on technology, as opposed to focusing on customer pain points and problems to solve. And so, that will create a product that’s actually a tech demo, as opposed to a product that’s solving real problems. So, that’s the unfortunate consequence, often, of having a CTO managing product and technology at the same time.
Ciprian Borodescu: And then there’s also the matter of finding another CTO, I guess.
Sebastien Provencher: Yeah. Well, at one point, it’s the same kind of thing. So, the co-founder CTO becomes overwhelmed because there’s too much to do, but then you bring a Head of Technology and a Head of Product.
Ciprian Borodescu: Got it. I can see a pattern over there.
Sebastien Provencher: Yes.
Ciprian Borodescu: What are some of the challenges in the road from proof of concepts to piloting the various use cases? Probably you’ve seen this a lot during Element AI because you’ve built a lot of proof of concepts, and then you piloted them.
Sebastien Provencher: I think the first challenge is making sure that you can orchestrate both the product development sprint and also the research sprint. So, on the one side, you have the typical dev team that’s working on your app or your software. And then, you have your data scientists or research scientists working on training the algorithms, making sure the data is right, and then reconnecting both teams at one point. So, that’s an execution risk. The second thing, obviously, is the quality of data which is always a problem or a hurdle to clear when you’re working on an AI product. And then, I think one thing as well, which is kind of the expectations of the customers. So, making sure that customers understand that you’re working on a proof of concept, that the results might not be super good for a V1, but at one point, you think you have a path to making it more robust and more precise. And then, the last thing is agreeing with your customer about what defines success for a proof of concept. I think if you don’t do that, you have your own assumption of what success looks like, and your customer has a definition of that, and if you’re not aligned at the end of the proof of concept trial, you might be surprised that the customer is not happy with the results and they won’t go forward. So I think these are kind of the high-level things that I’ve seen typically with AI products.
Ciprian Borodescu: So you mentioned two parallel tracks: the product development and the research team or the research track. And you also mentioned the fact that these two have to be connected. What is the role within the company that connects these two worlds?
Sebastien Provencher: So in my mind, the product dev team and the research team, they’re actually part of the product squad. And typically, it would be the product manager of that squad that’s making sure that these things are well orchestrated. So, it’s kind of a matrix. Obviously, it’s a matrix approach. So, obviously, the Product Manager doesn’t manage these people but he or she is certainly the maestro behind the scene, making sure that the trains are arriving at the same time, basically, or at one point they reconnect together.
Ciprian Borodescu: It makes sense. Okay. And as a follow-up to previous questions, let’s talk about the growing need for product operations. Why is this such a critical function when you have product managers? We already discussed the stage of the company when hiring a Product Manager, but when does Product Operations become a bottleneck?
Sebastien Provencher: I think the first thing is to define what Product Operations is. So Product Operations is a side team – so you don’t necessarily manage product managers or product owners – but you come in with two big mandates. The first one is making sure that the product team and the product management team is well-equipped to do their job. So, do they have the right tools? Do they have the right process in place? Do they have everything they need to be successful, to do their work in a frictionless way? So that’s the first thing. So, it’s very tooling-oriented and process-oriented. The second portion is more of a coaching and mentoring aspect where you share best practices. So, at Element AI, I created the product management guild so that we could meet every week and share learnings. And so, it’s kind of a support role to a Head of Product or a VP of Product, who manages these people, and you come in to help the VP of Product and the product management team in a horizontal fashion. Typically, product operations will only happen once you start to have a very complex product organization. So, you have a product portfolio, let’s say maybe more than three or five products. And so, a VP of Product is really looking at the roadmap and making sure everything’s orchestrated, and that person might not have as much time to worry about processes and tooling, and also coaching and mentoring – so, obviously there’s coaching and mentoring happening as well on the executive side – but it also helps to kind of create a horizontal layer of help there.
Ciprian Borodescu: Okay, it makes sense. Product Operation makes sense where you’re at the product level the size of the Element AI or something like that, right?
Sebastien Provencher: That’s right. A big company like Google, for example, has also a product operations team.
Ciprian Borodescu: Okay, so we’re talking about a team now, not just one person.
Sebastien Provencher: Indeed. At Element AI, there were three of us.
Ciprian Borodescu: Okay, good. What about AI, in general? Do you see companies being more willing to embrace and adopt AI after this great lockdown due to the Coronavirus crisis?
Sebastien Provencher: It’s difficult to tell because AI is such a general word. In fact, every time there’s a new wave of technology, at the beginning, we think it’s an industry, but eventually, it trickles down into software in general. And so, at one point, we will stop talking about AI or the AI industry and we will talk about software. We’ll go back to talking about software. And so, it really depends on the use cases. Obviously, the current crisis has created opportunities to accelerate some digitalization. And so, some use cases that are powered by machine learning will see an increase of adoption. But in other situations, I don’t think it will change anything.
Ciprian Borodescu: That’s correct, yeah. I was mostly referring, you know, when you’re in a crisis, innovation is not one of the things that you want to do and focus on. Most of the companies, at least from what I’ve seen in the retail industry today, are focused on the fundamentals – getting the fundamentals right – and then probably in one, two years focus on the innovation side.
Sebastien Provencher: Well, it depends. If you can solve an acute problem today with your AI software, then they will listen to you. If your software is still at the proof of concept, then obviously, yeah, they’ll wait until the house is not on fire anymore. But I think it becomes extremely important to revise your customer pain points. So, do user interviews, again, to understand if new pain points have emerged that you could solve and maybe your pain point has changed completely, and you should be changing the positioning of your product, or you should be working on new features to solve today’s pain points, as opposed to yesterday’s pain points.
Ciprian Borodescu: Okay, Sebastien, what’s your plan for the second half of this year?
Sebastien Provencher: We’re just finishing a sabbatical in Europe and we’re flying back to Montreal in a few weeks. I’m right now interviewing for my next role, my next challenge. So, I’m talking with half a dozen companies right now, for very interesting challenges. Most of them are along the line of Senior Product Management leadership roles. So, the future looks bright for me, but I’ll be in Montreal by that time, probably not traveling that much and probably working remotely. And one of the things that I’ll continue doing – and I haven’t stopped while on sabbatical – is mentoring, and coaching, and helping startup entrepreneurs. Even though I was in France over the last few months, I still took weekly calls with entrepreneurs who wanted to pick my brain. I really love doing it.
Ciprian Borodescu: So now, for the fun part of the podcast, starting this episode, I’m introducing a new section on the podcast: lightning questions and answers – a series of fun, short questions that you have to answer really fast. Ready?
Sebastien Provencher: Ready.
Ciprian Borodescu: Okay. So, here it goes. Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings?
Sebastien Provencher: Without hesitation, Lord of the Rings.
Ciprian Borodescu: Okay. Star Wars or Star Trek?
Sebastien Provencher: Today, Star Trek.
Ciprian Borodescu: Okay. Now, I’m curious about this one: Joe Exotic or Saul Goodman?
Sebastien Provencher: I haven’t watched any of these shows. I know where these people come from – the real or fictional – but I haven’t watched any of them.
Ciprian Borodescu: Perfect. Favorite movie?
Sebastien Provencher: The Matrix.
Ciprian Borodescu: The Matrix. That’s a good one. Which part?
Sebastien Provencher: The philosophy behind The Matrix. And I think you want to talk to me about philosophy a little bit later, and you’ll see the link right away.
Ciprian Borodescu: Okay, okay, I’m gonna get to that. Cats or dogs?
Sebastien Provencher: Definitely cats.
Ciprian Borodescu: Okay, that’s awesome. That’s awesome. Favorite startup?
Sebastien Provencher: My favorite startup today – and full caveat, I’m an angel investor in the company, but I loved them before angel investing in the company – is Crescendo who was part of Techstars AI. They’re doing a D&I, so diversity and inclusion software. And for me, they’re doing such an important part of making sure that the tech industry is, again, a safe place for everyone to work in. So, yeah, Crescendo, a Toronto startup.
Ciprian Borodescu: Awesome. The last book you read?
Sebastien Provencher: So, I’ve been reading a series of novellas called The Murder Bot. It’s a science fiction novel about a killer robot that is socially conscious. And so, it’s actually not at all about being a Robocop. It feels more like the robot from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, who is actually a killer robot. So, it’s quite a lot of fun and it’s good Sci-Fi.
Ciprian Borodescu: Interesting. And did you read that book during the Coronavirus crisis?
Sebastien Provencher: Yeah, I’m reading it even as we’re speaking. I’m finishing the fourth book.
Ciprian Borodescu: Awesome. That’s a bit scary. Okay, so now, the bonus question. I know you’re passionate about philosophy, and this is something I also started to study recently, specifically the stoic philosophy. So, my last question to you is, if you had the chance to travel back in time and have dinner with a philosopher, who would that be?
Sebastien Provencher: Without a doubt, Jean Baudrillard, a French philosopher. He died about 15 years ago. He wrote a book called Simulacra and Simulation, which I read a couple of years ago and it was really my first taste of complex French philosophy. And what’s interesting about that book and that philosopher, he actually influenced the Wachowski sisters and the creation of The Matrix.
Ciprian Borodescu: There we go.
Sebastien Provencher: There we go. And so, Baudrillard’s thesis is that simulacra and simulation today are actually seen as more real than reality. And so, it’s quite fascinating to put that frame of mind into the way we consume social media, the way fake news are believed by a lot of people. I mean, so many things can be analyzed through that lens. I find it extremely fascinating.
Ciprian Borodescu: Excellent. Sebastien, it was a pleasure to have you, and thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with me and with us.
Sebastien Provencher: Thank you.
Ciprian Borodescu: How can people reach out to you for ideas and comments?
Sebastien Provencher: They can find me on Twitter @sebprovencher, and they can also find me easily on LinkedIn as well.
Ciprian Borodescu: Awesome. Thank you so much, Sebastien!
Sebastien Provencher: Thank you.