WMN in Tech: Annick Charbonneau on Becoming CEO of Soul.City

How do you negotiate your way into owning 33.3% of a travel app startup? For Annick Charbonneau, CEO and co-founder of Soul.City, it took an impromptu trip to Strasbourg.

Stéphane Hamilton, co-owner of web and mobile development company Jolifish, wanted Charbonneau’s insight into a new project – an itinerary app for cities. Charbonneau had previously hired his company to build her first tech business and Hamilton had plans to meet with his business partner Michael Bechler in Strasbourg, so he invited Charbonneau to join.

“I was so intrigued and such a believer that I hopped on a plane the next week and ended up in an Airbnb in Strasbourg with two men I did not know,” says Charbonneau, laughing. That leap of faith turned into a weekend of meetings in a co-working space and the founding of Soul.City.

But Charbonneau wasn’t about to come onboard as a consultant or employee. “I said, ‘If you want me in it, it would be 33.3% of the company,” she says, admitting that it was a strong push. But Hamilton agreed and together the three built their free iOS and Android app that offers curated itineraries in cities according to the user’s mood. It’s currently available for Montreal, Quebec City, New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Strasbourg, Paris, Cannes, Colmar, Barcelona, London, Tokyo and the Moon (no, there’s no Virgin Galactic flight involved, but there are some cool pictures that make you think the app could find a niche in custom VR experiences).

While Hamilton’s initial thought on monetization was to sell the app to cities, Charbonneau convinced him to put it on the app store for free and raise capital. Now they’ve raised a pre-seed round through Anges Quebec and a private investor in France and they still got to work with the City of Montreal to create custom itineraries for the city’s 375th celebrations. 

That Montreal contract – their first big contract – came through networking and good timing, as the city’s Service de la Culture was thinking of making its own itinerary app for visitors. Though it was through one of Charbonneau’s contacts that they got the contract, she says that Soul.City could never have been born, or grown to what it is today, without the input of all three co-founders. “We have very different sets of skills. The reason I was made CEO was that I had a business background and I have contacts to raise capital,” she says.

There are downsides to being CEO, she admits, like how success is collective but failures are yours. “I find in my job there are more scars than medals, but I think every single small failure and victory is a place to learn,” she says.

One challenge was making sure all the cofounders stayed aligned when the company needed to shift its focus. “The right thing to do is find a compromise that everyone’s going to be excited about, but that’s not easy,” says Charbonneau. “The question becomes: ‘How can you get the people behind your vision?’ And if they’re not behind that vision, how do you modify that vision?”

Charbonneau was also more open to going into business with Hamilton and Bechler because of their willingness to make a woman the CEO of the company. “It meant they were modern in some way. Without the CEO title, I was afraid of being “The Girl Who…the girl who does the marketing, the girl who does PR, the girl who does the shopping.“

There’s no chance of that for Charbonneau, who worked in different industries and always felt that work wasn’t moving fast enough. “I was constantly frustrated,” she said, so she launched her first business, one of Canada’s first e-commerce platforms, Chiccane.com, in 2008. “The thing about entrepreneurship is you have to be a bit faithful in the unknown,” says Charbonneau, who’s as inspired by business as she is by past trips to Bora Bora and Morocco. “I’m a traveler myself, so the idea of making something for the travel industry was exciting.”

With Soul.City, she’s learned that working with equally committed cofounders can also make a big difference. “With Chiccane.com, I was by myself and that was a mistake. I think having a team of cofounders keeps you on your toes all the time,” she says.

Now Charbonneau and her co-founders’ goals are to increase content, expand to new cities and attract more users. Bechler has moved to Montreal and flies back to France regularly to manage the European market. And while Hamilton still has his other business, each cofounder is equally as invested, says Charbonneau – though when it’s time to pitch app partners, investors and brands, she’s the one doing it. “I’m the CEO, the face of the company. And I use every opportunity I have,” she says.

For example, the Montreal “Wellness” itinerary came from meeting CEO Nathalie Tremblay of the Quebec Breast Cancer Foundation at a fundraiser. According to Tremblay, the two-, four-, or six-hour walking tour is not just for breast cancer survivors; rather, it’s for anyone who sees the value of walking through a city “while thinking about someone they care about in a positive way,” she says. Stops include places for healing and recharging, from markets, to a yoga studio, to a Mile-End park named for a Mexican-American musician who found the neighbourhood to be her creative haven. The app even links to one of her songs. “The partnership was awesome, thanks to the vision and leadership of Annick,” says Tremblay, “and we had many very beautiful and positive comments. Choosing symbolic sites is a kind of tribute to life itself and how joyful and beautiful it is to discover the city, like a big breath of energy.”

What’s Charbonneau’s favourite mood when she’s exploring a city through her own app? ‘Surprise me.’ “It’s one of our most popular,” she adds.

What surprised her and her co-founders was that most users use the app in their own city. “So all of a sudden we opened the whole lifestyle segment of downloaded apps. It’s like having a child. You have certain parameters in your head and it ends up surprising you,” she says.

One of the most positive shifts (though perhaps not a surprise) that Charbonneau has seen in entrepreneurship since she started in business 10 years ago is the acceptance of women at the helm of companies.

“In the last few years I’ve noticed that even the guys realize it’s a better thing if there are more female founders and female entrepreneurs,” she says. “That, to me, is so inspiring. Rather than us demanding change, it’s very different when guys help us make it happen and I’ve found that mindset has changed radically. Every time I see a female entrepreneur succeed, it’s like, ‘Yes! One of us did it!’”


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