Russell Goldsmith
Russell Goldsmith 22 September 2021

Podcast - Interview with Felix Van De Maele, Co-Founder and CEO of Collibra

Part of our special series of episodes that we're recording in partnership with the European PR Agency, Tyto, and their own Without Borders podcast, this interview is with Felix Van De Maele, Co-Founder and CEO of Collibra.

Felix Van De Maele, Co-Founder and CEO of Collibra joined Russell Goldsmith and Tyto's Founder, Brendon Craigie online to record an interview for the csuite podcast’s special series on leaders of unicorn companies, produced in partnership with Tyto.

Collibra is a data intelligence software company that help typically large organisations better find, understand and trust their data through data intelligence. Felix said they believe as data becomes more important and foundational for any large organisation, treating data in the right way and really being compliant to these privacy regulations, is important.

Felix explained that over the last 10 years, the importance and volume of data has only increased. He said they saw the whole shift towards the Cloud and Big Data, so more volume, more complexity and the number of people that consume, produce, and use data to do their work, day to day, has increased.

He said the combination of all these factors has led to that data chaos and organisations have started to understand that they need to be able to tame the chaos and get to valuable outcomes.  

Big Data

Felix said Big Data is a lot about the volumes and complexity of data but with the move to cloud, we've seen a lot of advancements and people are now realising that just having more data is not necessarily the answer. He said building that foundation around data where it's easy for people to find it, trust that it’s correct and work together on it is becoming more and more important.

Felix said you've seen the trend where people are building data lakes, which was all about the volume of data and they quickly became data swamp's, you can't find anything anymore. He said that Collibra believe that data is much more than a resource, it's almost a human emotion, they really think about data as creating a shared language that can bring people closer together, help people understand each other better and at want to help people become data literate.

Felix said over the last 15 years, the shift from big data being about volume and technology, is now something much more human, it's about collaboration, trust, and confidence.

Becoming a Unicorn

Felix explained that in 2019 they became a unicorn, but never used valuation as a target. It's really how you build the business and the result of that is the valuation. He said the good thing as a high growth company, is the faster the flight goes, it almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and the recognition you get as the unicorn allows you to hire more people and better talent, which gets you more credibility in the market.

Moving from Belgium to the US

Felix started in 2008 in Brussels, Belgium and from the very beginning realised they couldn't build a successful company in Belgium, given the customers they focused on there just weren't enough - they were very internationally focused from the beginning.

They followed their customers not their investors and that's why they ended up in New York. He said it was an important decision and they wouldn't be where they are today if they didn’t do it.

Raising Awareness and Differentiating the Company

Felix said communication is not something that came naturally to him, it's something he had to learn over time. As the company grew from 10 people to a thousand, the focus on internal communication, especially during Covid, became more important and part of his growth as a leader was to understand how you best do that.

10 years ago, they were one of a few data companies, but as data has become so mainstream, now it is hundreds, if not thousands and it's harder to rise above the noise. Felix said they are quite unique in their beliefs and their obligation to humanise data and they believe that we need to make everyone data literate, so we can democratise data.

He said surrounding yourself with the right people, the right team is important and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. The other thing that he’s learned is that authenticity is so important because people have to believe who you are personally and who the company is.

Internal Communications

Felix said he’s always been very approachable, and he’s enjoyed connecting directly with people. He said as the company grows, it's harder to do that, so they need to find a way to connect with people in a more effective way.

He’s always enjoyed visiting different offices, in New York, Belgium, Poland, France and London and it was great to actually connect with the people, you get a sense of the culture, of how people are doing, and people really appreciate it.

However, during the pandemic, that wasn't possible anymore, so they had to think of alternatives especially because connecting and communicating has never been more important. Felix said they did a number of things:

  • Listening sessions with the management team
  • Regular all hands meetings
  • Biweekly vlog
  • A coffee with Felix

Company Culture

Felix explained that due to Covid, there's quite a big percentage of people that have joined recently that have never been in the office and it just makes the culture so much more important. He said at the beginning, culture came naturally but as you grow, you have to be much more thoughtful about it. They made their cultural values explicit and reinforce them all the time.

External Communications

Felix said it's not something that came naturally to him from the very beginning, but over time he realised how important it is. He said it's important externally to put a face to the company. He said he underestimated external communications and big part of that actually helps with internal comms as well.

Felix added that it's a much bigger part of his role versus a couple of years ago and he expects that only to increase. He said during Covid, there was so much going on internally that he felt the need to make sure they focused on employees however, now that there's light at the end of the tunnel, they see the business shifting to be much more externally focused.

Felix said they see themselves as a category defining company, 10 years ago they defined data governance category and now over the last two years they’ve expanded that to data intelligence, it's all about external communication.

Felix said he can’t stress how important it is to surround yourself with a great team, he said he’s a big believer in a growth mindset, understanding what you're good at, what you're not good at, and always wanting push yourself out of your comfort zone.

Biggest Communications Challenge

Felix said from the very beginning, the hardest part is explaining what they do in layman's terms, so people get why it is important. In the beginning, people didn't realise how important data was and over the last ten years people have started to understand that now.

Future Predictions

Felix said digital transformation is fuelling the need for more data, that market awareness is increasing and will fuel a lot of their growth. He added that ultimately data can bring people close together and it's clearly an enormous market opportunity and they're really strongly positioned given their history.

He said Collibra recently acquired a data quality company, which is a great extension of their platform and they’re very much looking forward to what the next years are going to be.

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