“Technology should not separate us, but bring us back together” Interview with Totem’s CEO and co-founder, Rafaël de Lavergne

They call themselves the “closest convenience store” because Totem ‘microstores’ are located in food corners inside workplaces. Employees get to have 24/7 access to food essentials without having to leave the workplace. Companies then pay a monthly subscription fee to Totem which covers the fixed costs of running a Totem store and pay for the items themselves. In turn, they can then offer the goods for free as part of their employee perks or charge employees at discounted rates.

Since its founding in 2017 in Paris, Totem has been on a mission create ‘p-commerce’ or proximity commerce (a decentralized network of unique points of sale), gathering people through unique purchasing experiences focused on proximity, convenience & sustainability. And it is getting the attention of both companies and investors! There are now over 100 Totem stores installed in Paris. In September 2020, Totem raised €4 million from Maki.vc, along with existing investors Samaipata Ventures and Tekton Ventures, to place its ‘office convenience stores’ in more workplaces in Paris.

We spoke with Rafaël de Lavergne, Totem’s CEO & co-founder on his experiences prior to founding Totem, his advice to would-be founders, the challenges they have encountered since founding Totem, Totem’s vision, and long-term goals and many more.

Before co-founding Totem in 2017, you joined various startups in various capacity. Which of these startups/roles had the most impact on you?

Every single one of them. It was 3 startups at very different stages. The first one, I was alone with the 2 co-founders, and I was lucky enough to share all their questions and passion.

At the second one, we were 8 people and after 4 weeks there, I convinced them to actually change their go-to market. They decided to shut down the company. The founders helped me find a new internship.

The third internship was great; there were 30 people, a lot of funding, 1 new hire per week, scaling fast and I got the opportunity to work with every single business unit and got a grasp at how to do things.

Those 3 experiences allowed me to feel confident in launching my own company.

What would you say to someone leaving school now, who wants to start their own business?

If you are crazy and financially safe, launch now and start by selling not building. Build only if you need to.

If you are less crazy, go learn and the best way is to join a young startup with great founders that have a track record of succeeding. Learn from them during 2-3 years, gain some financial security, and then launch.

Do you have any advice for first time founders?

Do it because you are ready to really grow as a person. Do it for yourself. Don’t do it for the money, status, or pride.

Don’t be alone, gather a tribe of entrepreneurs, friends that are in the same boat.

What has been one of your biggest failures, and what did you learn from the experience?

There are for me 2 types of Product Market Fit. Type 1: You manage to sell your product in a repeatable manner. Type 2: You manage to sell your product in a repeatable manner and customers are absolutely wowed by the product. They are talking about it, promoting it.

Type 1 can be a bad tourist restaurant and to be honest it can’t scale to 1000 restaurants like this and a true brand. Type 2 can scale. We improved the product until type 1 and not type 2. After 3 years, we built a new product aiming for type 2.

Tell us the story behind the funding of Totem.

There is not a story, there are stories. We did 2 rounds, and both were hard. Operational heavy companies with 1st time entrepreneurs is not really what VCs look for. We managed to have a lot of warm intros, went on 20-30 meetings each time with targeted VC in Paris, London, Berlin but also just through Zoom. I went all in and managed each time to get a deal.

The second time was 100% Zoom in 2 months, in the middle of coronavirus. Never surrender.

What differentiates Totem from its competitors? Can you tell us more about the concept of “p-commerce”?

Building a brand is not enough in this world. Uber, Airbnb and so on have all created a whole new category and a brand to win it. They are capturing 75% of the category profit.

Here is the context: through technology, we have progressively replaced physical commerce (sustainable, local, social, by foot) for e-commerce & q-commerce (choice, diversity, speed).

This is not sustainable.

My vision is to create p-commerce (proximity commerce = a decentralized network of unique points of sale), gathering people through unique purchasing experiences focused on proximity, convenience and sustainability. Technology should not bring the product to the client. This creates a Centralized Network that is not sustainable for the planet, not convenient (15′ delivery) for the client. Technology should bring the point of sales to the client. This creates a Decentralized Network that is sustainable for the planet, convenient (0′ delivery) for the client.

Our mission is therefore to be your closest convenience store, where you grab, discover, and enjoy everyday essentials right here, right now at the right price.

Totem was founded in 2017. How have your objectives and goals changed since the company has grown?

Like Jeff Bezos says: Be stubborn on the vision. Be flexible on details.

Our vision is the same, but our path is changing and adapting to the situation; new brand, new products. We are now 10 time stronger than at the beginning and we are using all we know to grow 10x faster.

What do you consider as Totem’s most significant milestone so far?

Having 1000 daily users that are buying products right here, right now at the right price through our stores and mobile application.

What was it like growing your team? What are the challenges and surprises you encountered? What tips do you have for building a solid team?

Build your company culture early. Don’t let your workplace slowly become what you hate. It is not their responsibility; it is your responsibility to make it their responsibility. Hire senior people who know themselves if you want to go fast. Mix IQ and EQ. Keep an equilibrium between process and care.

Diversity in the team, yes or no? Why?

Hell yes. Diversity is not an option; it is a core value. Alone you go faster, together we go further.

Any quotes or final thoughts you would like to share or  any new launches or milestones?

Our model is based on trust and so far, we never saw more than 5% of unknown shrinkage. This means you can trust people. So do it. I truly believe communities need to trust and respect each other. This can bring value to everyone:
– Each person in the community (lower price, more social, more sustainable …)
– The community (more sense of belonging, meaning …)
– The service (less money invested in trying to control people, but more money invested into improving the service).

Technology should not separate us, but bring us back together.