Meet Luc Mallinger. Luc graduated from Rouen Business School in France in 2005. He then moved to the UK to start his professional career. His experience in the waste and recycling industry started in 2011 when he joined Pellenc ST, a leading optical sorter manufacturer. In 2016, Luc joined Bollegraaf Recycling Solutions, an international recycling plant builder. During his time at Pellenc and Bollgeraaf, Luc worked on the design and sale of waste recovery and recycling solutions. He delivered projects for some leading companies in the UK and Europe such as Suez, Veolia, and Viridor. He left Bollegraaf at the end of 2019 to found SortFlow, a London-based cleantech startup.
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Let’s learn a little about you and get to experience what makes us tick – starting at our beginnings. Where did your story begin?
Luc Mallinger: I founded SortFlow at the end of 2019. At that point I had been working in the waste and recycling industry for over 8 years, working on the design and sale of waste recovery and recycling solutions. Although I loved my job and the industry, I was getting increasingly frustrated with the lack of dedicated tools for sorting process design. I also felt that waste operations could benefit from such a tool.
So I started working on a software concept in 2019. My employer at the time was supportive of my initiative and allowed me to work part-time for the company. This helped a lot because I could still earn some income while progressing with my project.
At the end of 2019, I quit my job and started working full-time for SortFlow. Dan Gershony, the company’s CTO, quickly joined the project. We first built a prototype of the application which we demonstrated to a dozen of industry players in Europe and North America. The response was overall very positive and so we went ahead with developing the MVP (Minimum Viable Product) which we launched in October 2020. Since then, we have been working with some leading industry players and our software solution has kept on evolving thanks to their feedback.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up?
Luc Mallinger: I think starting your own company is quite scary at the best of times. In our case, we had the Covid pandemic to deal with on top of that. I remember that we were just about to start the development of the MVP where we went into lockdown the first time. I had my 2 young children at home. Dan was in the same situation. There was so much uncertainty on so many levels and for a couple of weeks, I thought “We can’t go ahead with this. It’s not reasonable.” But deep down I was convinced of the potential of the project. I knew there was an opportunity for us to seize there, so we just went ahead with it, not overthinking it. I think you have to be a little bit crazy to start your own company. It’s wonderful and hugely fulfilling, but it’s probably best if you don’t know exactly what you’re getting into. Same as with having children.
What are the most common mistakes you see entrepreneurs make and what would you suggest they do?
Luc Mallinger: This is my first experience founding a company and I haven’t done it for that long, so I’m not necessarily in the best position to say what entrepreneurs should or should not do. What I’d like to mention however is related to startups operating in the waste and recycling space. There seem to be a lot of them appearing, some are led by some very talented people. What sometimes strikes me a bit is the relative lack of knowledge and understanding of the industry some people can have. I think this is something that can be sometimes underestimated. Talent alone is not enough. So my advice to people wanting to start a project in this space is: do your homework, talk to people in the industry, learn how it operates. If you want to be disruptive, you need to understand how things work in the first place.
Has the pandemic and transitioning into mostly online shopping affected your company positively or negatively?
Luc Mallinger: The pandemic has had a big impact on the amount and type of waste generated. Because people are working from home and shopping online a lot more, dry recyclables collected from households have seen a massive increase in quantity. The more time you spend at home, the more you throw at home. In the meantime, commercial waste has gone down significantly. So for our customers operating waste recovery facilities, this had a huge impact. How do you run your plant when suddenly you have 30% more waste coming through your door? Luckily this is something that our software addresses directly. So even though we are deeply saddened by the devastating effects of the pandemic, in some ways it has made our product even more relevant.
When you think of your company, 5 years from now, what do you see?
Luc Mallinger: We believe we have a unique product and we’re addressing a gap in the market. We want to become an industry standard, in Europe and North America first, and in more territories down the line. If our product keeps evolving in the right direction, as it has for the last few months, then I’m confident we will be very successful.
What do you consider are your strengths when dealing with staff workers, colleagues, senior management, and customers?
Luc Mallinger: I think it’s important, to be honest, and open with people. I don’t want to play games and I don’t want to pretend I’m somebody else. When I feel somebody is like that with me, I always appreciate the fact I’m talking to a “real person”. It doesn’t matter if that person has different interests or opinions. If anything it’s a good thing actually.
You have to be able to be yourself in the company you work for, if not, you should change company.
How would you define “leadership”?
Luc Mallinger: I think leadership is about setting a course and inspiring people to find ways to reach their destination. You certainly want people in your organization to have some elements of freedom. They should feel that they can try out things and that they won’t be blamed if things don’t turn out right every time. If all the decisions a company makes have to go through one person at the top or a committee, then it’s going to be very difficult for that company to be agile and innovative. I’ve never worked for a very large organization myself, but working with some I sometimes feel they would really benefit from having groups of people with an entrepreneur mentality working autonomously within the company.
What advice would you give to our younger readers that want to become entrepreneurs?
Luc Mallinger: As far as I’m concerned, I always liked the idea of being an entrepreneur, but I would have never made the jump if it wasn’t for the idea. I believed in the idea behind SortFlow and that gave me a lot of confidence.
When I first looked into starting my own company, I went to a meetup group in London. It seems most people I met there wanted to be entrepreneurs but they didn’t necessarily have a great idea. In that case, most of the time you end up doing a mobile app that no one will ever use. Unless you have good connections within angel and VC circles, you are probably only ever going to have one shot at this. You will put your own savings into it and hope to get some traction so you can raise money and grow. I don’t mean to put extra pressure on people wanting to start a company, it’s hard enough as it is, but essentially my advice is: make sure your idea has legs, do your homework, and then give it your best shot. Then even if you don’t succeed, you will likely not regret and you will learn so much from the experience.
What’s your favorite “business” quote and how has it affected your business decisions?
Luc Mallinger: Before founding SortFlow, I read “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries. It’s a great book that I can’t recommend enough. I could probably find a dozen of quotes there that had an impact on SortFlow. To pick one, I would say:
“All innovation begins with a vision. It’s what happens next that is critical.”
This relates to SortFlow in the sense that I knew my vision for SortFlow alone would not be enough for the company to be a success. In the end, it’s the product that matters.
Mike Weiss, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Luc Mallinger for taking the time to do this interview and share his knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Luc Mallinger or his company, you can do it through his – Linkedin Page
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