Q+A with Jonathan Anguelov, the Co-founder of France’s 16th unicorn company: Aircall

Jonathan Anguelov

For our latest interview, Business Leader chatted to Jonathan Anguelov, the Co-founder & GM EMEA of Aircall. He told us about his career as an investment banker, how Aircall became a unicorn company and much more.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and your time as an investment banker?

I’d say my background is quite unusual; I grew up in Paris after my mother emigrated from Bulgaria. I never knew who my dad was and by the time I was 13, my mother wasn’t able to take care of me, so I ended up living in a foster home.

I always had very little money as a child, but because I was from a more challenging background, I was driven to make a living by any means necessary. Throughout my teenage years, I did paper rounds and pizza deliveries, worked as a cashier, and did any other odd jobs! Eventually, I had the funds to start investing in real estate, one of my other passions. I continued this throughout my time at university, where I studied finance, using my student loans to invest in more properties – I was always a risk taker in that sense.

I then followed the traditional path that many other finance graduates follow: moving into equity analysis. However, the truth was that it just wasn’t for me; I didn’t feel right and I felt like I was trying to be someone else. All the other graduates didn’t understand why I was always on the phone managing my real estate or doing several things at the same time, while most graduates focused on one thing: their job. I was focusing on all the other business I was doing on the side, especially the real estate.

What led to the formation of Aircall and what was your inspiration behind the company?

We started Aircall in 2014 to make it easier for businesses to manage and elevate their customer experience. That’s because we found that – even in technology companies – phone systems and call centres were incredibly inefficient and were using clunky, outdated phone systems in the middle of a smart technology boom. There simply wasn’t a modern phone system call centre software in place at the time.

We also realised these inefficiencies left both customers and representatives feeling dissatisfied with their call experience due to the lack of personal connection between each party. Recurring problems were passed around different representatives without being resolved, and the value and personalization of conversation were entirely lost.

So, it seemed obvious to us that we needed to develop our own software for call centres that used software, smartphones and modern technology, to bring the industry to the next level. This meant building an interface that was not only cloud-based but also integrated with the tools companies were already using, such as Salesforce, HubSpot, Slack, Monday.com, Intercom, Zoho, etc. so that customer-facing teams could glean 360-degree, data-driven insights of each and every customer that they interacted with and share the customer service journey with their team.

And now, here we are almost eight years later and we’ve managed to achieve exactly that! Of course, the way is still very long, but we are confident in our ability to execute and in our product strategy that will bring more and more value to our customers.

How was Aircall able to reach its unicorn valuation ($1 billion)?

Simply put, this growth is due to us being ahead of the times and launching the right product to secure product-market fit at the right moment. In 2014, phone systems had not evolved for years. Businesses were crying out for an innovative SaaS solution that was easy to use and connected to their existing business tools (CRMs, help desks, etc.). This is especially true in recent years with more businesses evaluating the current economic environment and looking for simple phone systems and call centre software. Ones that are easy to implement, increase efficiency and productivity, and improve customer experience.

The last few years have caused companies to experience major changes in how they operate (be it remote, onsite, or both) which has shone a spotlight on massive SaaS adoption, including Aircall, that can support this. What’s encouraging though is that our continued growth points to a long-term mindset shift in how businesses are working. We are only one of 150 private companies in the cloud industry to have reached the centaur status ($100m ARR) – a milestone seven times more rare than unicorn status. So, as long as we continue to refine and update our product to suit customer demand, I don’t see why we can’t continue growing beyond where we are now.

What were the biggest challenges you faced on your journey to reaching this milestone?

Our own success has come with many failures. In 2017, we started to experience high levels of growth by bringing our product to the global market so quickly. This was exciting but also very challenging. Specifically, we began to face a lot of difficulties when it came to call quality – the very foundation of our business. We continued to add layers to our business without focusing on the fundamentals and, as a result, our NPS began to suffer.

We, therefore, made the bold decision to stop selling the product for a few months and focus on solving these issues. We were fortunate that our investors, partners and clients were supportive of this and it paid off! Now, call quality is behind us and our main driver is being “Customer Obsessed”!

We want to help others with these challenges on their own journey though. And that, for us, means being transparent in our struggles and how we reached $100m in eight years. It also means encouraging the industry to move on from thinking about unicorns only and move to a more tangible measurement, such as revenue. This can hopefully smooth the road ahead for other companies and help avoid challenges in what is, right now, a volatile industry.

Should business owners prioritise customer satisfaction over everything else? Why?

As I’ve previously mentioned, I have a passion for real estate and a few years ago, I decided to translate that into owning hotels. Many ask me why, as on paper, Aircall and my hotel, Maison Barbès, bear no resemblance to each other as businesses.

However, I always say the same thing: customer satisfaction brings me joy. I treat my clients the same way I treat my guests – they are where I direct my care and they deserve the absolute best every time they use our service.

So, for me, it’s absolutely essential. By prioritising customer satisfaction, businesses can instil confidence in their buyers, through visible growth that is tailored to the feedback customers have shared. As a result, businesses are able to build loyal customer relationships that last.

In fact, recent research from Zendesk revealed that 77% of customers are more loyal to businesses that offer top-notch customer service. So, as we say in France, “le client est roi”, (the customer is king) and the data supports that.

How have call-centre platforms changed over the last decade?

A lot! Call-centre as a service hardly existed 10 years ago. The phone was seen as a legacy business technology, and yet no one was doing anything to move call centres forward into the new era of smart technology.

In terms of the most important development within the last decade, I would say that the concept of ‘application ecosystems’ has had a huge impact on call centre development. Whereas once it was impossible or extremely long to integrate one application into another, now the technology space is aware that this is the only way forward, and so businesses are developing their product so that it can be built into both partner and competitor software.

Companies are, therefore, able to house all of the information that they need on one user-friendly platform, regardless of the tech stack that they use.

What trends are you currently seeing in this sector and what trends do you expect to see in the future?

The past two years have brought a great level of human estrangement, and it’s no surprise that now people are craving genuine connections. This has always been an expectation of Aircall’s when it comes to how we think about customer experience. But now, it’s truly a point of differentiation – with those companies providing an emotional connection, outperforming the sales growth of their competitors by as much as 85%.

We’ve seen the rise of channels such as chatbots, instant messaging, forms, etc., but compare them to the phone, and there’s no substitute for the human voice in real-time. If they haven’t already, we expect to see more of the industry coming to this realisation and recognizing just how powerful, personal – and profitable – a conversation can be.

Another trend we’re seeing is the rise of integrations. We’ve always championed our customers having the tools they need to add value to a conversation, and we even passed 100 integrations on our marketplace earlier this year. Tech stacks are known for adding personalization and autonomy to a team and it’s great to see more companies catching on.

You recently raised more than $120 million in your latest funding round. How are you planning to use this funding?

Since our last funding round in June 2021, which catapulted the company to a billion-dollar valuation, we have moved forward to make our long-term vision a reality, focusing on the strategic priorities that have seen us recently reach centaur status.

The funds we have raised have gone a long way to developing deeper partnerships that offer smoother workflows and increased productivity to customer-facing teams, helping people make the most of our connected platforms.

Aside from this, we will continue to improve our service and build new AI capabilities through R&D, before reinforcing our infrastructure and customer experience through partnering with major telecommunications companies.

Last year, we also opened new offices in London and Berlin, and plan to open offices in Singapore and Madrid later this year. This shows our continued global expansion and determination to meet the customer needs specific to each region and local market. It’s a very exciting time for us!