Don’t miss the second edition of the conference “How startup CEOs can benefit from mentor’s experience” on May 16 in Luxembourg, co-organized by BusinessMentoring association and Silicon Luxembourg. We reached out a mentor, Isabelle Saint-Antoine, CEO of Agilis Engineering to learn more about his entrepreneurial journey.
How did you get started?
Nothing predestined me to become an entrepreneur in my career as a manager in large companies. Perhaps it was the small seed sown by my parents who were responsible for the running and development of their farm and for the well-being of our large family. I learned from their example – that entrepreneurial spirit and work ethic – and it has influenced me in the various roles I have held.
As often happens, it is a meeting that brought me down the path of business creation. It was also my colleagues who, just like me, bubbled with ideas and energy, and were also very complementary in terms of skills. The desire to innovate in the graphite market for high-temperature industrial applications was not one of the priorities of the group for which we were working. We therefore took the plunge in May 2009 and decided to create Agilis Engineering to implement our innovative approach. We started our activities in August of the same year. We were supported in our journey from the very beginning by Luxinnovation, which prompted us to take part in the 123 GO contest and supported our efforts with the Ministry of Economy and the Chamber of Commerce. We were winners of the 123 GO contest and immediately invested the €5,000 in Agilis. As of August 2009, we were able to integrate the Ecostart 2 incubator, which became Technoport. We benefited from the Business Mentoring program in 2010 for 18 months, during a crucial phase for the company, the creation of its production workshop in Ecostart 1 in July 2011.
The whole support system for startups, which has greatly improved since 2009, and the kindness of the people who surrounded us both professionally and personally have made it possible to reveal our entrepreneurial spirit and to realize it with the launch of Agilis.
What was the most significant experience for you?
The journey of an entrepreneur does not lack of significant experiences and adventures! If I had to choose one, I would pick the endangerment of the existence of Agilis barely a year after its creation, when we had already reached our breakeven and succeeded in our sales strategy.
As a result of our innovative approach early on, we were able to concretize our commercial efforts by signing an important contract. However, we could hardly celebrate our success because at that time we used a subcontractor to produce our parts. In autumn 2010, the subcontractor went back on a commitment he had signed, increasing his prices by more than 30% and endangering not only our contract, but also causing us losses.
We worked immediately to find a temporary solution to satisfy our customer, limiting our losses. Then we started the process of creating the workshop, seeking funding, authorizations… We were fighting against time, the challenge being to start the workshop in nine months at end of the first half of 2011 in order to reap the benefits of the investment and to return to seeing profits before the end of 2011. At the end of all of our hard work and with the support of our mentor, we opened our workshop in July 2011 and went from – €85 K to + €12K in five months.
What lessons have you learned from your entrepreneurial journey? Could you give us one or two?
In light of the experience I just mentioned, I quickly realized that we had to be able to savor, celebrate successes and thank those who contributed to them. The path is not all traced. It is changing, sometimes predictable and sometimes not, with leaps forward and steps back. What makes the beauty, complexity and hardness of this path work is that it is above all, like every human being, very alive.
This entrepreneurial journey is also that of the freedom of ideas. Not to self-censor, to give free rein to one’s ideas is an unheard-of richness. This rediscovered creativity is a real source of intellectual energy. Without realizing it and even with having this entrepreneurial spirit, I realized that in my previous duties I naturally eliminated ideas and proposals that were not in the direction or vision of the company for which I worked. My mind was still creative but somewhat formatted. I quickly noticed from the beginning of my entrepreneurial journey that my mind was not only more creative but also richer in terms of its diversity of ideas.
Certain ideas will never succeed and others are discarded, but some of the ideas germinated are what lead to success.
What are the 3 keys to success for you?
Complementarity, energy and innovation. I would also add never resting on one’s laurels and always having in mind the next step, as well.
A frequent practitioner of rowing, I have often made a parallel between success in this sport and that of entrepreneurship. I have found the keys to the success of Agilis to be the complementary nature, energy and focus of its team members. We never rest on our laurels, but we do know how to celebrate our successes together.
Register for the conference “How startup CEOs can benefit from mentor’s experience” on May 16 in Luxembourg.
This article was first published in the Spring 2017 issue of SILICON magazine. Be the first to read SILICON articles on paper before they’re posted online, plus read exclusive features and interviews that only appear in the print edition, by subscribing online.