Thomas Querton and Olivier Kaeser on Running for Social Impact
Thomas Querton is a co-founder and the current CEO at Atlas. He brought the idea of Atlas to San Francisco. He was an engaged scout chief for 6 years, developed a successful clothing business in Istanbul and traveled to Uganda with Muhammad Yunus who guided him to the path of social entrepreneurship.
Thomas’ main responsibility is to manage our human centred design approach and interface between the technical and non-technical team. Furthermore, Thomas is responsible to develop business opportunities and find investors in Belgium.
Olivier Kaeser is also a co-founder at Atlas, and has 11 years of experience in the financial industry where he was an integral part of establishing the Swiss Re Foundation.
Olivier was selected for an International Swiss Civilian Service Mission in Cambodia to build up a learning centre based on a social business model. The Atlas team unanimously voted that the Swiss needs to take care of finances. He furthermore takes care of operations, business development and investor relations in Switzerland.
Each of them have Masters Degrees in Social Entrepreneurship from the Hult International Business School.
Thomas and Olivier share their beliefs about the intersection of fitness and positive social impact, as well as their experiences as social entrepreneurs moving from Europe and Asia to the United States.
Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)
[Michael Keller] - Could you please share with our listeners what Atlas is and what inspired you to create such an amazing company? [1:49]
[Thomas Querton] - Sure! It's a pleasure. So, I was running the 20 kilometres of Brussels about three or four years ago and felt so inspired by the vibe of runners wanting to surpass their limits and to be there for the community. A lot of people at the race were running for nonprofits and I really liked that motivation and I started thinking, 'how can we make this last for more than a day?' So that was the beginning of how we created a platform that represents this same positivity, this inspiration, but on an everyday basis. That was the beginning of the idea of creating a community of sweaty changemakers. We call it a social network where anyone can participate on a run for a nonprofit and get inspired by other athletes.
Could you please tell us a little bit about your backgrounds prior to starting Atlas and what inspired you to dive into social entrepreneurship? [2:50]
[Olivier Kaeser] - I was mostly involved in the corporate life in Switzerland while working for Swiss Re Foundation for 11 years. But, eventually, I just got to a point when I was about 28 when I was wondering whether or not I should stay with this company forever; I really had a great job. I was building up the foundation and everything felt pretty perfect, but I just had this this feeling that I needed to try something new. I also visited Cambodia on a civilian service mission - appointed by the Swiss government - which also changed my point of view a lot. And, so, I decided to move to San Francisco and study social entrepreneurship, which is where I met Thomas and became very fond of his ideas.
So because of the deep potential of Thomas’s vision for Atlas, my CSR background and the need for companies to make their CSR programs more inclusive and visible and engaging, led to this. I really liked the Atlas team and the people from the very beginning. So we decided to go all-in, but for me the decision to go all-in came towards the end of our Masters program when we decided to start the adventure together.
[Thomas] - I came to San Francisco with a vision to build this platform. Oli definitely brought a know-how for creating a business model here, which think was crucial if you want to make a real impact in the world and have a sustainable company that can push that impact forward. Also, someone who is not here that we have to mention, of course, is Magali - who is also part of the founding team and who is definitely one of the pillars of the company. So we started with us three co-founders who went to school together. We also have our CTO who joined us almost a year ago now. And during the last year we also got Robert Lee on board. And then we have Stephanie now who is doing Business Development in Belgium. We have Joseph who is one of our engineers who is sitting in Kenya. So it's a very diverse and fun group of people and we're growing at a great rate.
So you, as a company, are championing diversity and expanding into different nations on different continents, and yet you're still so small. How is that you are able to expand your impact so quickly when you have a team of eight people? [5:49]
[Olivier] - We came to San Francisco to launch this because we thought we were going to meet people that would inspire us. And I think a lot of people in this city are living here for a reason; everybody's doing something! Everybody's working hard. So this is a city that allowed us to really grow and have that vision of “let's be everywhere.” I think this is a really specific aspect of the city now, you know, being in running challenges and having clients in Europe. But as software allows you to be really in a lot of different places. I think we're now working with challenge partners in 12 different countries. And some of these countries are where we're not even present physically - we don't have a headquarters or employees there. But we can still manage those challenges with their support. I think it made a lot of sense that we were focusing on the markets where we already had quite a good network, which is, for me, Switzerland and for Thomas, Belgium. Last year - since we launched the app a year ago - it was really about finding product market fit to prove early revenue; that was possible because of our networks in these different countries. It’s been kind of fun and exciting finding that interesting balance and having a very clear focus.
That's amazing. So let’s dive a little deeper into your personal stories and your visions about what it means to be a social entrepreneur. Thomas, you were a co-founder of a startup; Oli, worked in CSR for quite some time. So now that you both have dove into the startup space, and a B-Corp at that, what have been some of the biggest challenges for you with regards to maintaining your own sense of drive and purpose and becoming social entrepreneurs? [8:31]
I think, and this is really the core of our team, that it’s important that we are who we are as founders and hire people who share our values.
This is represented in our team’s diversity. Nobody's from the same country on our team. And, in a way, when you're working at 3:00am and you're looking at the user's feedback and data or delivering something...
I think if I was working on something that I didn't feel brought value to the world or someone's life or the environment, I would just go to sleep, right? And yet, here I am, still awake. That's the biggest thing for me. It’s just so motivating for all of us. And I think it's our competitive advantage when we hire talent as well.
I think some people choose to work on our team and earn maybe a little less salary because they believe in our vision and that we are going to grow this company. I really think it's a competitive advantage in today's world.
[Olivier] - I think we are at the stage now where the public perception of social entrepreneurship is changing a lot.
Millennials don't want to work for companies anymore that don't stand for doing something good in the world. I would say people are far more empathetic about stuff that's going on around them.
Social media has brought a lot of visibility to a number problems that are deeper than the surface. So our problem isn’t making an impact - our focus is balancing social impact and our goals of being economically sustainable. Our app tells the impactful story of raising funds for worthy causes and raising awareness and engagement around problems -
we strive to really create that community feeling because in the end of the day, that’s what’s valuable for our users.
So as Tommy said, for us, our impact is our competitive advantage.
We're super aware of the vision of the impact that we want to create, but we're also super aware that we need to make money and that we need to create ROI for investors.
Many Venture Capitalists talk a lot about unfair advantages, and it seems like one of Atlas’s core advantages is your team. Your team is so diverse and comes from different countries and cultures from around the world. Have you found that these diverse views have been valuable for you? Because social enterprise truly crosses borders. [13:10]
[Thomas] - That is exactly true... For example, Joseph's from Kenya; Stephanie's from Belgium; Oli’s from Switzerland - and everybody runs, right? This is the most accessible sport in the world. So everybody relates to the sport. And so, we bring that knowledge together and create something that works for a lot of people.
Without that diversity, you wouldn't create something really innovative.
Many Venture Capitalists talk a lot about unfair advantages, and it seems like one of Atlas’s core advantages is your team. Your team is so diverse and comes from different countries and cultures from around the world. Have you found that these diverse views have been valuable for you? Because social enterprise truly crosses borders. [13:10 continued]
But if you have someone that says, 'oh, in our country we do it this way.' In ours we do it this way. It brings so many ideas and creativity to the company. So yes, one hundred percent. I think it's super interesting. And I think it's our primary impact. Like we have on Sunday, Joseph is coming from Kenya. We are organising a party to welcome him, we'll be there at the airport and meeting him - and that's where it starts.
I think that's the number one impact we can have for our team internally - you create a culture and vibe where people feel empowered by the company.
As Social Entrepreneurs, when you're deciding to bring somebody onto your team, what kind of characteristics do you look for? Rather, what are the characteristics of a social entrepreneur that you find to be very valuable? [15:21]
I'd say one of the things we look for is for people to be driven and ambitious. So we only hire people that see themselves growing to a higher position or having ambition. A second important part is respect and being kind.
One of the things I try to see sometimes is like going to a restaurant with someone and see how they would treat a waiter, for example. So we often meet in a bar in a restaurant and observe how they treat the staff.
[Olivier] - I think it's also about diversity. Like one of the things that's very important is that we're always very respectful to each other. As an example, Tommy and I have very different ideas sometimes when it comes to design and have these arguments; but that's part of being a startup, right? If we will just look for people who say yes to everything because we're all nice to each other and we're like friends that wouldn't work as well. And I think that's also very important to mention, right? Strengthen deeper diversity goes also in a way where you are, you work with people who have different ideas and, and you respect them. And I think that's why I liked what Tommy said, right? There are certain things you look for in a person, like a good character and being humble.
[Thomas] - We also want people who want to challenge you and want to speak up to you and can have a heated argument about something. But then when the argument is over, you're back to normal. My favourite saying is, “it's not about who's right, it's about what's right.” Everybody's working for Atlas. Nobody's working for the CEO or the founder; we're working for something that we believe in, that we want to create together. We also look for people who are original. We looked for people who - when we ask about their background - maybe they started a Kombucha business when they were young. We would be so curious - why did you do that? Or if they like just randomly, like Oli and I, stopped their job and went to San Francisco. Like, oh, why did you take that decision? You know, people who don't take things the way they are.
You mentioned that you came to San Francisco to be inspired by amazing people, and to find people who are thought leaders in this space in both entrepreneurship and the social sector. Have you come across any stories or people that have really inspired you since you arrived? And how has that influenced the way that you run Atlas? [19:01]
[Olivier] - Everyday you find someone in the city who inspires you. It really is a place where you can go to an event that's just world class every single day. And I don't do it enough, I believe. There's tons of people here who are impressive and have achieved amazing feats and who have kept the doors open. For me, it’s humbling. As an example, there’s a company who develops applications very successfully for nonprofits. When we started Atlas, we didn't have a technical co-founder, right? So I wrote to this company (who is quite successful) via their website and got a response from this person who worked there. He said this sounds cool; this is an amazing idea. I would love to help you guys. And we wrote back and forth several times before we even realised that he was the CEO and the founder of the company. We had connected with him through the “Contact Us” section of their website - this was just so impressive to me that he was monitoring this portal. In his email signature, it said nowhere that he was CEO and founder. He was just a person trying to help us. And that's something you really find a lot in San Francisco. You're also a good example of someone because you have your job at Salesforce and you're like, impact is my passion. I'm going to do something, I'm going to help these guys out. I'm going to do this blog.
So Atlas aims to expand into new countries. You’re building out your product team and your vision and your roadmap, but what's next for Atlas? [22:36]
[Thomas] - I mean raising money now to grow is a priority. We’ll have our investors here next week for an annual gathering. We usually get them in here once a year for three very intensive days talking about what happened last year, what are our challenges, what are our fears, what are our hopes, what are our opportunities for people. We have people flying from Thailand, some people from Belgium or Switzerland. But with regards to long term, we want to be a sustainable company pretty fast as well. We want to build something that's working in terms of creating that revenue. And then in the next steps is continuing to grow the team and continue to develop this app. We want to be the fitness app for good; when you think about Atlas, we want you to think about a fitness app for good. We want to create the community of sweaty changemakers - you can walk, run, bike, ski, skate, dance, you know, whatever you like. We hope to connect people from a lot of different countries too. We’re launching in the Congo this summer and Ecuador in June. We’re also working with Back On My Feet here in San Francisco who tackle homelessness through running.
[Olivier] - Back On My Feet has been a big supporter of us. They helped us with something like three challenges when we first moved to San Francisco. We feel a lot of gratitude towards them.
When we think about our long term vision, it's about the win-win.
That sounds a little cheesy, right? It sounds like a corporate slide you would put with win-win situations, but we really want to embrace that and find a solution that helps our nonprofit partners and users - not only runners, but the corporations as well that believe in our vision and choose to partner with us.
Do you have any books that you'd recommend for our listeners? [26:01]
[Thomas] - How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Which is a terrible name when you're reading that in the plane and people are looking at you, but it's really excellent.
I’d also like to say that I think one of the big traits of an entrepreneur is to be a child. A child is curious. A child is positive. A child is not afraid of what other people are going to think about it and he just does stuff. Right? Children question and do what they truly love.
[Olivier] - I also read just a lot of like newspapers. I’m very interested in politics. We didn't talk about politics. That's good to steer clear of that! Let’s talk more off the record.
I really recommend the Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, which talks about how life is segmented into the habits that we form in our day to day routines.
By changing keystone habits - things like these small influencers like waking up at 5:30 in the morning to go for a run, for example - we can really change the rest of your life and your mindset and your vision about how you live your life.
I really recommend that book. But for all of our listeners, we appreciate you for listening today. We're going to hop off now. Thomas and Olivier, thank you so much for chatting with us and we really appreciate you sharing so much!