S02E35: Romain Moulin, Exotec

Our guest in this 28th interview episode with a unicorn start-up leader is Exotec CEO and co-founder, Romain Moulin.

Thanks to its fleets of robots, capable of moving in three dimensions, Exotec has revolutionized the way its customers organise their warehouses and how their logistics flows. Exotec offers a clear alternative to traditional warehouse automation solutions: elegant collaboration between human and robot workers that delivers sustainable warehouse productivity. Founded in 2015, the company has since secured $477m in funding reaching unicorn status in January 2022 with a valuation of $2bn. Moulin’s business now supports 50+ industry-leading brands spanning e-commerce, grocery, retail, manufacturing, and 3PL sectors, now employing over 300 people globally.   

Romain’s journey began as an engineer in a heavy goods vehicle company, he then moved to General Electric Healthcare. Romain’s experience in these two areas is extremely relevant to understanding how Exotec was born. That first period helped both him and Renaud Heitz, CTO and co-founder – as they share these career highlights – learn what happens inside the warehouses. On top of this, moving on to GE allowed them both to experience first-hand how a company was developing advanced robotics. They built Exotec based on these two experiences while also using their “willingness to bring something new and disruptive to logistics.”   

Romain recognises how becoming a unicorn has particularly changed the public perception of Exotec and created a lot of awareness around their brand. The company was the 25th unicorn founded in France, and that achievement was built while sticking to a plan made by the French government to establish 25 unicorns within a certain time period. This brought Exotec, the first industrial unicorn in France, a lot of attention as it made a lot of noise within European markets. Exotec has also managed to successfully establish a reputation for itself within the US market after Goldman-Sachs became an investor. 

To describe the culture at Exotec, Romain says they work with “two brains.” On the one hand, they have that quite typical software start-up mindset which focuses on going fast and delivering to the market on time. But that part, he recognises, will not work for a hardware company. If you deliver hardware, it means you are an install base and you cannot update it. That means you need, on the other side, perfect execution and an industrial grade quality whilst also being able to deploy this robot in the field that will last for at least ten years. Playing with both sides of their job is probably their biggest defining aspect as a company. They cannot only focus on the industrial quality grade, as it would slow them down but also cannot focus solely on innovation either, as it would create a depth on their install base and at some point interfere with their customer success. That balance between the two, for Romain, is key to understanding Exotec.  

When asked about his approach to internal communications, Romain states that at Exotec transparency is imperative. It can come as an obvious asset when your company is small, but Romain believes that keeping transparency in mind when you’re over 400 employees and growing allows you to move much faster in the right direction because everybody at your business understands where you are going. And, as your complexity and departments grow, having everyone on board can really help you. This, Romain explains, also works externally. Having the same stories for his team, investors and customers, makes his life easier. What he loves more than anything is talking to his end customers, and he’s more of a “personal communicator than a broadcast communicator”, because he likes to be close to the end customer to build a strong relationship.   

The interview, as usual, was co-hosted with Russell Goldsmith of the csuite podcast. 

We have distilled the most valuable, actionable insights from our first 15 interviews with leaders of unicorn companies and bottled them in our book ‘Growing without borders: The unicorn CEO guide to communication and culture’. You can download it here. 


Russ: [00:00:00] Thanks for downloading the 28th in our series of episodes of the csuite podcast that we’re recording in partnership with the European PR Agency, Tyto and their own ‘Without Borders’ podcast, where we are interviewing leaders of unicorn companies to find out about the key issues, pain points and challenges that start-ups face and how they can address them with a strategic approach to marketing and communications. My name is Russell Goldsmith. My co-host for this episode is Tyto’s Senior Partner, Holly Justice. And today we are thrilled to be joined by Romain Moulin, Co-founder and CEO of the global robotics company Exotec. Founded in 2015, the company has since secured $477m in funding reaching unicorn status in January 2022 with a valuation of $2bn. Welcome to the show, Romain. Can we start by you giving us a bit of background to the company and also just maybe talk about the area of business that you are seeking to disrupt? 

Romain: [00:00:59] Yes, for sure. Thank you for taking the time of hosting me. So, what we do in Exotec is robotics for warehouses. You have to understand that if you place an order online to an e-commerce player and you have people wandering on the warehouse to find the article, to put them in the send-box and to send them to you. And in fact, this is a difficult job. You could do 15 kilometres per day doing that. And you really need an army of people in the warehouse to do this job. So, what we propose to our customer is a robotic system based on the fleet of 3D mobile robots, which are able to go everywhere in the warehouse, but also up to the ceiling. And by doing so, the robots are bringing the articles to the operator, and the operator can really prepare your order very fast, multiplied by five, five times faster. And you can also store your article in a very dense manner up to the ceiling of the warehouse and really fill your warehouse with your articles. So, storage and speed are really what we bring to our customers. And we bring these with a lot of flexibility because in fact, if you discuss with an e-commerce player, they don’t know what they do in three or four years. So, you need to give them a system that they can modify. And if they do 20% more orders, we come back with 20% more robots. So having the best of performance and the best of flexibility within the distribution centre, that’s really our job. 

Holly: [00:02:26] And Romain, tell us a little bit about your personal entrepreneurial journey. I think, if I understand it correctly, Exotec is the first company you founded, but you’ve got a long history and experience in the robotics area. What’s it been like this time around founding a company?

Romain: [00:02:44] You are perfectly right Holly. Exotec was the first company we founded with Renaud [Heitz], we are two founders. We had the same kind of career. We started our career as engineers in an HGV company, HGV automated forklift moving pallet in the warehouse, same kind of robotic system, but for pallets and not single articles. And then we moved to GE Healthcare, and they are doing medical imaging, x-ray imager. And to understand how we built Exotec, you need these two pieces of our career because one piece is logistics, our first job. That’s where we learned what’s going inside the warehouses. But the General Electric part is also super important because they were already developing advanced robotics and product that they would send all over the world. So, we have built a company based on these two experiences and by our willingness to try to bring something new and bring something disruptive to the logistics. 

Russ: [00:03:41] I mentioned in my intro how much funding you’ve raised in total so far, the most recent of that the series D funding earlier this year was at $335 million. So impressive numbers. What I was keen to find out was in terms of where that money now is going to be used with the company. How are you investing in that? What’s the plans maybe for the next 12 months or so, but also in terms of the development of Exotec?  

Romain: [00:04:07] We now are on a huge market. It’s $30 billion. At least maybe even $50 billion market with only a few players. And we really want to take Exotec into being a major player of this field. Our competitors are six or seven. They do from $1bn to $3bn revenue. This year will do $180m. So, we must take Exotec within this big player doing robotics instead of traditional automation. That’s the way to do that. We have two axes on which we must build the R&D. We need different building blocks to be able to deploy free robotics warehouse. I talked about the Skypod system with this 3D robots, which is in the centre of the warehouse. But the warehouse, it’s nothing more than a big factory which is processing orders from the truck which are unloaded to the truck which are loading. So, we’ll build the different bricks to be able to have this value to our customer. So, a very technological in R&D expenses, I would say. And on the other side, it’s really about building our footprint on our different territories. Right now, we have systems in France, in Belgium, Netherlands, Italy, all over Europe, in Japan, in the US, in Canada. But it’s been five years that we are selling in Europe, it’s been only two years we are selling in Japan and US. So, these countries are still there’s still a lot of revenue to be made in this country. So, we will accelerate very strongly on marketing and sales on these different territories. 

Holly: [00:05:41] And just coming back to the topic of leadership for a minute, are there any individuals that have had a huge impact in your development as a leader? And if so, who are they and why? 

Romain: [00:05:52] There are two kinds of individuals and one which are more personal. Usually, my different manager or boss in the different companies have really brought me a lot. I could talk about my first boss and my first manager in BA Systèmes company. What I learned from them is that doing business in what we do, it’s a B2B business. It’s really about trust and about the confidence that you build to your end customer because this system, they are $2m for the smallest one to $30m system. And for a customer to place to you a $30m purchase order, you need to have built a very strong trust. So, you cannot bullshit, you cannot fake, you cannot lie. You must be super rigorous in what you say and give a clear answer to that question. And in fact, I was happy because I was out of school discovering the world of business. And I was expecting maybe to be disappointed. And I was not disappointed at all. And I saw that by being really right and clear, you can really be the great business and the other people I was inspired from before building I learned a lot about Jeff Bezos or people like that. Quite traditional stuff. But what we saw when we learned from this, usually a business books or stuff like that, is that the culture of the company is super important. We had that feeling also from our former company, but we saw that great businesses were built upon great cultures, and we have spent a tremendous amount of time building that culture and ensuring that the culture would be respected. Because when it comes to storms, you are more than happy to have a culture. It’s not more about the processes or product, it’s really about how your people are working. And it so far it went very well, I think at Exotec.  

Holly: [00:07:48] And I guess to build that culture and culture of trust internally and externally, you need to have some exceptional skills as a leader. What do you think are your main strengths when it comes to leadership skills? And then maybe what are some of them that you’ve got that you’ve built as part of the wider Exotec management team?  

Romain: [00:08:09] I would not say that I have exceptional strength, but I can tell you what is the culture of the manager at Exotec and how we are using that every day. We want people to be simple – our investors actually say low ego people, which I can take the example of our sales directors that we hired just a few years at Exotec. That guy was from our business. He was 55 and he has seen everything, and he knows is a kind of legend. And we had a chance of catching that guy, but yet, he had the humility to understand what we were doing differently and how we could bring to the business and keeping having people which are able to keep this humility and listening what the other have to say is super important on the on the c-level. And we take extreme care bringing c-level which have this spirit of they know what they do, they know what they say. But at some point, when they don’t know, they just listen, and they build on that. I think you can really destroy quite fast the ambience of a company if you bring someone which would have something to prove. That would not be simple. It might be the best way to sum it up. And we try to have also an extreme rigour everywhere in the company, meaning in Exotec we say ‘almost pass is fail’. It means that if you have delivered something to your customer you need to test it and all of your test plan conditions must be passed. If one of your test and condition is fail, then your test is failed. Full test is failed. So, the joke is that if I ask someone how is your test going and he tells me it’s almost passed, I wouldn’t say by definition it’s failed. And it’s extremely important to have such rigor because our systems are critical to all of our customers. And as I said, when you will, when you want to build confidence, you need to be super clean and super rigorous on what you deliver. So, we have spent a lot of time developing this mindset in the company. And as a leader, you need to be exactly like that. If you do to the people that almost pass is fail and you are just approximating what you say, then you have a problem.  

Russ: [00:10:15] That actually leads quite nicely onto an area that we were keen to focus on, which is culture. I’ll come back to that in a second because the other topic that we look at is communications as well. And what I was keen to find out, first of all, was when you came through that milestone of becoming a unicorn, did that change the perception of the company in any way at all?  

Romain: [00:10:34] That’s a very interesting question. So, at first with Renaud, the co-founder, we were telling us being a unicorn is not a target and we want people in Exotec to understand that what they must do is take purchase order and execute them perfectly. So, we did not have a plan to make a lot of advertising around it, I would say. But we saw, in fact, that people were super happy to have this recognition of the market, and this is a status that your employees are extremely proud of. So of course, we build on that and what it changes on the market. And the market was very simple. We were the 25th unicorn of France and that was sticking to a plan made by the government to have 25 unicorns in a certain amount of time. So, it made us a lot of advertising because [President] Macron just talked about us because we were the 25th and we are also an industrial unicorn. We have the first industrial unicorn in France. So, it made a big noise on the markets also in Europe and having Goldman-Sachs within the investor also made a big reputation in the US. So, in terms of awareness of the brand, that’s what was the biggest change. It created a lot of communication on the different media and a lot of awareness of Exotec worldwide. 

Russ: [00:11:55] And what about in terms of differentiating yourself within the industry and your communications? How are you achieving that? 

Romain: [00:12:00] We tend to say we are doing warehouse robotics instead of warehouse automation. And what I said about our ability to deliver a flexible system to deliver them fast, it’s really, for us, a key differentiator. Of course, we have some technological differentiators. We are the only one to have this robot which moves on the ground and then climb in three dimensions on the rack. But this will amuse your customer for a while. But in the end, he wants to know if the orders are in the truck at the right time and if he can change his logistic needs tomorrow and have a system which is still responding. So, we build a lot our differentiation on this aspect of flexibility. 

Russ: [00:12:42] Just out of interest, though, in terms of like the communication channels that you use? Is there anything that specific that you focus on at all? 

Romain: [00:12:48] As I said, we are quite a very B2B business. So, on specific medias, if you hit the right media, you know that half at least from the supply chain manager are really get. So, you can really spend your energy on a few media, very professional and specific medias. And then I would say the big channel for us is also LinkedIn, which is seen a lot by the different customer. I’m talking to you a lot about our B2B communication, meaning communication for the customers, we have also an employer communication because hiring is key for us. And then of course, on hiring, you can go on broader media, Instagram and things like that. 

Russ: [00:13:31] And just coming back to, you were talking about the c-level people that you bring in in and how you’re communicating internally, which we’ll focus on in a second as well. But the other side that we’re keen to look at is that culture within the business, how have you nurtured that? Well, how would you describe the culture within your company?  

Romain: [00:13:49] The culture of Exotec, I would say we have two brains. One side of our brains, that would be the quite typical software start-up mindset which is going fast, delivering things to the market and then seeing what happens. You can do that in software. You need a piece of that in your brain, but if you have just that brain, it will not work for a company like us because we deliver also hardware to the site. If you deliver hardware, it means you are an install base and you cannot update it. So, you need on the other side of your brain a perfect execution and everything I was thinking about this almost specific. You need an industrial quality grade and to be able to deliver this robot on the field that will last for at least ten years. So, you need to go fast. You need to be agile. This is one side of your brain, but you need extreme quality on what you are delivering. And playing with this both aspects of our job is probably the biggest aspect and challenge of the culture. Because if you are just focused on industrial quality grade, you slow down. If you are just focused on innovation and going as fast as possible, you create a depth on your install base and at some point, you create dramas on your customer. So, you need to go fast with extreme quality and balance because of course sometimes both are contradictory. So extreme quality first, but then going fast. 

Holly: [00:15:14] And as we record this podcast, there’s a lot of economic uncertainty around at the moment. How do you or how are you planning to adjust your communications approach to maintain the huge confidence that you’ve built up in Exotec?  

Romain: [00:15:31] Right now, I should say that I don’t see our feet slowing down. I know that everybody is feeling the crisis and we have some impact, for instance, on the price of raw materials. We have some in price of some availability of components. So, we have to redesign to get around this unavailability. We had no shortages so far, but I still see a very good confidence in our customer, our willingness to invest, because in fact, one driver of the willingness to invest in our system is a labour shortage. People they don’t find the people to do the job in the offices. I told you, it requires an army usually, and it’s a difficult job. So it could be in Europe, it could be in Japan, it could be in the US. I’m hearing the same story. They don’t have the availability of the workforce to do the job, so they know that even if some downside in the economics happens, they always see that problem. So, the transformation of the supply chain, which is happening, is not slowing down. So, so far, at Exotec, I hope it will last, but we are keeping the same speed on the market, and we have very good future in front of us. 

Holly: [00:16:39] And can you share any approaches that you guys have taken to internal communications that have worked really well for the business?  

Romain: [00:16:46] I’m used to say that I’m a lazy guy, so I show the same side to my investor. I show the same side to the customer and the same side to the employees. So, every month we have in fact meetings which are happening one after the other, the C-level meeting where everybody reports what’s happening. We compile that into the board meeting so that we share approximately the same stuff as we were telling the day before with the investor. And one day after we compile that into the whole employee meeting and we explain the employees where we are, where we are going. So, transparency is also very important in that company. Of course, transparency was obvious when you are 20 people or 30 people, we are now more than 400. But keeping this transparency once again allows you to go much faster because everybody understands where you are going. And as your complexity and your department grows, if they know why you do that and where you are going in that direction, avoid to put processes everywhere because people, they understand what they are doing for the end customer. At the end, you just need an end customer which is satisfied. So, I think this transparency in the internal communication saved us a lot of time and dramas. 

Russ: [00:18:00] How involved have you been? Like you said, you’ve just you’ve grown from 20 to 400. How involved were you in in that recruitment process? And do you get to meet the new starters at any point? 

Romain: [00:18:10] Until 50 people, I think Renaud and I had seen everybody, and we made the most important maybe hiring of Exotec when we hired Jules Briatta, which is the HR manager. At that time, he was a head-hunter. But by the moment we took that guy, and we took it quite soon in the company we created a war machine in terms of hiring and onboarding and then training. And without that we would still be probably 200 people and probably late on all or deployment of the projects. So yes, HR and the ability to hire and to get people on board was most of the most important function. And you cannot do it yourself for sure past 50 people. It does not work anymore. 

Russ: [00:18:59] But do you still try and get to speak to them even if it’s as a group for new starters. 

Romain: [00:19:05] Yeah. So, I see everybody in a training session. So, when they come every two weeks, I take the newcomers and I take 2 hours with them explaining who we are, what we do in the culture. We are talking about all these key aspects, which is extremely valuable, and we had feedback that the employees love it.  

Russ: [00:19:29] So that’s on the internal communication side. What about external? How do you view your role as a spokesperson for the company? However long you’ve been doing that, have you have you learned anything in particular along the way?  

Romain: [00:19:42] I must say that I learned that I’m lucky, because what I say about transparency, it also works externally. So, I managed to be the same guy inside the company, outside the company, and to have the same stories to everybody, which makes my life much more easy. And I think it would be not so very confident if I had to say another story outside than inside. But what I love more than anything is talking to my end customer and really what I was saying about building trust, I’m a more personal communicator than a broadcast communicator. And it’s super important for me to be very close to the customer to build. I’m still selling the big projects because that’s so I build an understanding of the market of what they need. And with Renaud and the others, we discuss on what we should put in the roadmap to bring them more value. So that’s really this personal communication. That’s what I love more than anything. 

Holly: [00:20:38] That kind of personal approach is really valuable, though, because even if you’re talking to a room of thousands or hundreds of people, if you lose sight of who you’re trying to communicate with, you lose the audience, don’t you? So, I’m sure it comes in very helpfully. Have you always been a natural communicator, or is it something you’ve had to work towards or formulate a plan to be better at? 

Romain: [00:21:01] I have to remind who I were when I was in school. I was at ease with a communication. Probably I was not such a good communicator and it’s within my personal relations. I would not be as good as explaining you who we are and what we do if I was 20, that’s thanks to my experiences from 20 to 40 that I understood at least what people in front of me wanted to say. Also, to listen to people I think is super important. You could say that when you assess people in our job, 90% of your job to be to listen to the customer and 10% to sell your stuff. And not the opposite. And that’s super important. And it was very well in personal relations also. So, I would say that’s what I learned from 20 to 40, which has been confirmed in my everyday life, better listen than talk.  

Russ: [00:21:51] Just out of interest in terms of that external communication, I mean, obviously we are having this conversation in English, which is not your first language. What’s the language that you use within the company for internal communications. And have you been comfortable in communicating in different languages during your time?  

Romain: [00:22:12] Yeah, hopefully. In General Electric, it was obvious the Esperanto of Exotec was English and everybody was talking English and we discovered it really here because our first company was more local, I would say. But in GE you saw that anything you write is English and you can even see sometimes people they are everybody would be French in the same room and start to speak English and it takes them 10 minutes to realize that there is no English in the room. Everybody can speak French, which is a good sign. And when we built that company, it was super important for us not to build a local company. So, from scratch, everything in Exotec was written in English, and sometimes people at the very beginning would wonder why. But after three years, when we had to start to work with an Italian, I think maybe it was the first people we worked with. It was extremely useful of course, and you get all your documentation, which is already ready. And I think a second switch has happened probably it was one year ago. Each morning we are doing a stand up at nine and we take just 5 minutes to explain to the company what different department is doing today or what are the news from different department. And that thing was in French until last year and in fact we switched to English very naturally because now half of the company is not talking French. But it’s important to put English very soon in the company and not to create a depth of things in local language. We have also very different that’s been a question because we have some people in the company which are not talking very well English, but well, you need to have everybody on board. So English is your new language. 

Holly: [00:23:59] And for you, what has been your biggest communications challenge that you face personally in the journey? And how did how did you overcome it? 

Romain: [00:24:07] I think this switch from talking to listening was the biggest challenge. When you are not confident, you want to prove something and you talk too much and yeah, you are just trying to prove something. And I could even say that this advice has been given to me by a friend during a party. And she told me I stopped to talk, listen, which I used a lot in the party, but also after in my business. And that might be one of the biggest challenges. And to come there, you need to have confidence in what you say and what you do and not being able to prove everything and just stop and listen. 

Russ: [00:24:49] Romain, we really appreciate the time you’ve given us. We’ve got one final question for you, which we’ve asked all our unicorn leaders, and that’s if you were to go back in time and speak to your old self, what guidance would you give to yourself when it comes to communications? 

Romain: [00:25:03] Oh, that’s exactly what I was saying before. This stuff about listening and talking. Well, I think that’s stuff. I learned it when I was around 35. Don’t talk and listen. And I could have been very helpful from my very early days. So, at 18 I could have already used it. So, yeah, listen, and don’t talk too much. 

Russ: [00:25:25] Perfect. Romain Moulin, thank you so much for taking the time to join us and speak with us today. Really enjoyed it. Thank you. 

Romain: [00:25:32] Thank you. 

Russ: [00:25:33] Holly. Thoughts on what Roman had to say?

Holly: [00:25:36] Oh, what a great chat. And such a likable guy that I think as a leader, you can’t help but fall under his spell, I suppose. But the thing that I think I’ll take away from that discussion is the pass-fail test that he was talking about quite early on in our chat, and they’ve clearly applied the same scientific rigor that they’ve put into the product and the robotics element that they’ve developed into their communications approach and making sure everything is transparent and thoughtful and purposeful. And I think, quite often you can easily cut corners when it comes to communications, but it has sometimes a disastrous or really negative effect. And so, I think by making sure whenever you’re making decisions from a communications point of view, you have that same kind of rigor and real tight decision-making process. I think you’ll come out trumps. 

Russ: [00:26:30] There’s a couple of things that he mentioned that I picked up on. One was I like the fact that he was saying like he’s just being himself, whether it’s internal or external or he’s saying the same story and transparency. And the thing that I was always told, which he kind of alluded to, was the two ears and one mouth and use it in that proportion. So, really enjoyed it. If you want to find out more about Exotec, then very simply, their website is Exotec.com. We’d love to hear your comments on today’s chat. You can do that by sharing them on our Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram or Twitter feeds, or you can do it in the comments of the YouTube channel version of this podcast. Those are all linked from the top of the website at csuitepodcast.com where you’ll also find all our previous shows and supporting show notes plus links to where you can follow us, but automatic downloads of each episode via the likes of Spotify and Apple. And if you’ve liked what you heard, please do give us a positive rating and review. We’re of course available on all podcast apps. Just search for the csuite podcast, hit follow or subscribe. And you can also subscribe to the Without Borders podcast from our partners at Tyto. All the details for that are on their website. Just head to TytoPR.com and click on the podcast link in the top nav bar. You can also download a copy of ‘Growing Without Borders: the Unicorn CEO guide to communications and culture’ from Tyto’s website as well. And that is a great overview of the first 15 of our unicorn interviews. If you are a unicorn leader yourself and you like to be part of the series, please do get in touch via the contact form on the website at csuitepodcast.com. Plus, of course, anyone can get in touch with any feedback you may have. And finally, you can also reach me directly via Twitter using @RussGoldsmith, or you can find me on LinkedIn. But for now, thanks for listening and goodbye. 

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