An Interview with Entrepreneur Alban Denoyel

Alban is a French entrepreneur living in Brooklyn. Alban is the co-founder and CEO of Sketchfab, the largest platform to publish and find 3D content online. Before Sketchfab, Alban worked for 4 years in the 2D world of photo-journalism. Alban likes to make things, his favorite mediums are wood, VR sculpting, and photogrammetry. He has graduated from ESSEC business school in Paris.

In the following interview, Alban talks about his firm Sketchfab, his entrepreneurial journey, struggles and the lessons learned along the journey.

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When did you first discover your entrepreneurial spirit and How is your entrepreneurial career developing so far?

I discovered pretty early on, around 12 years old, that I really enjoyed 2 things: doing business and making things. I started trading stuff on eBay a few years later.

I started digging more into entrepreneurship during business school. My final internship was in San Francisco, where I discovered the power of the web. I finished my studies and knew the only job that would be truly fulfilling would be a job I make for myself. I didn't have a project at the time, so I decided to join a team starting something new: Polka Magazine, a new photojournalism magazine. Quite far from the web at first, but a tiny team making something new, where you directly see the impact of everything you do. Eventually, I realized I really needed my own company, and after working on many ideas started Sketchfab.

What has been the biggest success and biggest failure stories you went through?

Our biggest successes are probably our partnerships and integrations with the biggest companies out there. In 6 years of history, we managed to partner with all the big 5: Google, Apple Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft. We are one of the very few players supported in the Facebook newsfeed. We are natively integrated with Microsoft's HoloLens. We got featured by Apple at WWDC as one of the top 3D companies in the world. I'm also quite proud of our integration in Photoshop. When it comes to failures, I would say we have been pretty lucky so far. Fundraising has been full of failures but also successes. Other than that, one of the hardest parts is recruiting well, and when you are a small team any recruitment that doesn't go well is quite a failure.

How did you come up with the idea for Sketchfab and how did it all start?

I do sculpture as a hobby, and that's how I discovered 3D programs and 3D printing. When I heard about 3D printing, back in 2011 in France, I would tell everybody about it, I found it so fascinating.

Early 2012, I was at a party, preaching the 3D printing revolution, and someone said you should go talk to this guy, he is THE 3D guy. This guy was Cedric, who had been a 3D programmer for 15 years, and was working on a prototype for the first web-based 3D player. He actually made the first demo of WebGL (the standard we use to display 3D graphics in the browser) for the launch of Firefox 4 back in 2011. We decided to have lunch the following day. He arrived 1h30min late, but I stayed and waited, as I was intrigued and didn't have much going on. He showed me his prototype, which I found cool, and offered to help out on anything that was not technical. SO we started working together but for both of us, it was a side project.

I started applying to accelerators and worked on getting press. Then all came together, we got our first press article (on blendernation.com), from which we got our first 1,000 users (which broke our servers, and it was actually the day Cedric got his first son, so he was at the maternity and couldn't fix it). Then we got accepted into Le camping (Numa) accelerator program in Paris. That's when we decided to officially team up and start the company. A few months later, Pierre-Antoine joined us as third co-founder, to take care of the web part of the project.

Tell us something about Sketchfab:

one of the most fascinating things about Sketchfab is the diversity of the content we host. There is a lot of great 3D art of course, but the platform is also used by teachers, architects, engineers, doctors... It was actually used as part of a heart surgery performed on a newborn, which helped save the baby's life. I collect some of the most unusual things posted on the platform here, including a 3D portrait of Obama, a temple in Palmyra just before destruction, a bear brain, a blue whale skeleton, the Rosetta stone...

What are your growth plans for the near future?

We've been mostly focusing on the creators and the upload side of the platform for the past 6 years. We are now just starting to focus on the demand side. We released a download API so that you can integrate a Sketchfab search bar in any 3D/VR/AR program, with the vision to become the search bar for the 3D world. It has already been integrated into tools like Facebook AR studio, to create AR effects using our library of content.

Looking back, what did you learn and what would you have done differently?

I learned a tone, wouldn't fit here :) There isn't much I can think of that I would have done differently, to be honest. I think so far we have been quite lucky with our timing and execution. We outpaced the competition early on and became the market leader with a unique product, which in turn made it easier to finalize integrations and partnerships.

In your opinion, what are the hurdles that keep people away from starting an entrepreneurial career? What advice would you give to the new entrepreneurs?

I think one of the biggest hurdles is the comfort zone you are in. If you don't start something early on, you get a job, a salary, and then a better job and better salary, then you have kids etc... It becomes harder and harder to start something because the safety you leave behind keeps getting safer. So the one advice I would have is to start as early as possible, typically when you are in school, you can live on nothing, and you are part of a stimulating environment. Other than that, I would say don't do it alone, it makes a big difference to have co-founders. Focus on distribution channels early on, ie scalable ways to distribute your product, without spending money. And don't let your costs explode before you have a plan for making money at some point.

Are you an entrepreneur looking for your MVP built? Get in touch with us at hello@devathon.com

Devathon has built software for companies backed by the world's leading investors like Betaworks, Greylock, Andreessen Horowitz, Accel, KPCB, Lightspeed and many more.