Working remotely has been good for Roxanne Varza. But the coronavirus pandemic brought a new management challenge: how to turn Paris-based tech hub Station F, centred around a physical building, into a remote support service.
Six years ago, Varza received an email out of the blue from French billionaire businessman Xavier Niel that led to him offering her the job of running Station F, a former railway terminus in the centre of the French capital, which has grown under Varza’s leadership into Europe’s largest hub for tech start-ups.
When she received the email, Varza, 36, was working with start-ups at Microsoft and knew Niel only a little through her previous roles as a charges d’affaires in the US office of the Invest in France agency and then as editor-in-chief for the French bureau of Techcrunch, the online IT industry publisher.
“He asked me whether I had trouble with jet lag and I didn’t really know what he was getting at,” she says.
“Then he asked me if I could go visit some comparable start-up spaces around the world and come back with some ideas. He said, ‘Well, if this project interests you what do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’d like to do everything’. And he said, ‘OK, well, why don’t you?’”
Station F is now home to 1,000 start-up teams, providing meeting space for investors and laboratory space to make physical product prototypes. It is all done on a scale unrivalled on the continent.
It also offers a roster of more than 30 start-up support programmes to help nurture the ambitions of its tenants Their rent provides half of Station F’s revenue and the operation broke even just 12 months after it opened its doors in July 2017.
After six years of growth and success, however, the coronavirus pandemic meant Varza had to rethink how the hub could operate off-site.
We first talk over video during the first French lockdown, where she was temporarily based at a friend’s holiday home in the Loire Valley. From the image on the screen, Varza seems relaxed. However, she also says she has many concerns about the months ahead.
“It’s definitely tough,” she says. “The problem really is that there’s only so much that you can cut back on. We have had to cut most of our events and halt building-related projects, which actually is a sizeable investment for us. But there’s really only so much money you can play with in this situation.”
This new challenge pushed Varza to learn from Station F’s entrepreneurs. Crisis is often a good time to start a new business, but success means keeping operations lean and focusing on matching costs to whatever revenues you can generate.
“The message is the same for us as it is for the start-up teams, shifting from growth plans to crisis containment and remaining in operation until this passes,” Varza says.
“We’re actually just doing the same thing but scaling down. We’re just really slowing down anything that’s not urgent at the moment and just trying to reorganise the team.”
With the physical site at Station F closed during the first lockdown, Varza made the meeting space for members virtual, converting as many of the events as she could into online gatherings and providing support for the tenant entrepreneurs through video calls to their homes.
“We’re still hosting a number of workshops online, we’re especially trying to work with our start-ups to help them navigate the difficult time and talk to them. So, we’ve done a lot of online workshops and things like that.”
Varza grew up in Palo Alto, a San Francisco suburb in the heart of Silicon Valley, but says she had no interest in technology entrepreneurs during her childhood and had no ambitions to enter the tech sector while at school.
Her epiphany came when she graduated from university and got a job at the Invest in France agency in San Francisco.
“The job involved talking to companies like Facebook and Twitter about setting up offices in France,” Varza says. “As soon as I came in touch with these tech entrepreneurs it was infectious. They were so optimistic.
“Now I love talking about the tech too but it is really the stories that these people tell about building their businesses, and the ambition in their ideas, which is most important to me.”
She adds that she has also learnt to value the benefits of being surrounded by entrepreneurs at a time of crisis when people need to co-operate more closely.
“Our entire community has come together to share different offers,” she says. “A lot of them provide their own products at free or reduced pricing to the Station F community.”
Part of the challenge of managing Station F during the lockdown is balancing different needs of different start-up teams. The pandemic has been devastating for many small businesses, but Station F also contains new ventures that are developing services and products well suited to current circumstances.
“I have some start-ups that probably will be really negatively impacted and probably have to stop their activities, probably reduce their teams quite a bit.
“But we’ve seen others that have actually seen an uptick in their business because their business actually really serves a need during the crisis.”
Station F has been able to remain sustainable by ongoing support from programme sponsors, including Facebook, Microsoft and Adidas, but has also had to cut its investments and focus on survival.
The need to keep switching roles is a necessity for entrepreneurs, building a business from scratch. It was the same with Station F before the Covid-19 lockdown happened, according to Varza.
“I have never had a day at Station F that looked the same,” she says.
Varza had to manage her own time differently while working from home alongside her husband, Ning Li, co-founder of online home furnishings retailer Made.com, such as sharing childcare for their young daughter.
Three questions for Roxanne Varza
Who is your leadership hero?
I would have to say Xavier [Niel]. I love his leadership style. He is not very present in real life but he is very present online. He does everything by email, he usually responds with one word and responds within five minutes of you asking him. I find him very effective. He is always very clear. You know where you stand.
What is the most important leadership lesson you have learnt?
Having things that are measurable is very important. In the early days of Station F I only had a team of 10 people and we had one main objective: to get the site open.
As we have grown to a staff of 40, we have many objectives so it is important to be able to measure how we are doing on each item.
What would you be doing if you were not working at Station F?
I couldn’t do anything outside the start-up universe. I would probably be working at a start-up.
We speak again on video after restrictions in France have been lifted sufficiently for Station F to readmit its start-up teams, although social distancing means that only a proportion of them can be in on any day.
It is hard to read Varza’s mood because her expressions are hidden by the mask she must wear indoors, but the return to the office has had an impact on her.
“The most difficult moments were not going into that first lockdown, but coming out of it and opening a massive space like this when you don’t really have all the information you need from the government,” she says.
She is glad to be back in the office, but her home life is clearly also a support during this time.
“I know, in my mind, it’s temporary and I know it’s necessary, but when you start talking about the crisis nonstop, obviously, it brings everybody’s mood down a little bit,” she adds. “It helps having an entrepreneur around the house, lifting your spirits.”