More changes have been announced in the senior leadership of French pro-privacy search engine Qwant.
President and co-founder Eric Leandri (pictured above) will be moving from an operational to a strategic role on January 15, the company said today — while current deputy managing director for sales and marketing, Jean-Claude Ghinozzi, is being promoted to president.
Leandri will leave the president role on January 15, although he is not departing the business entirely but will instead shift to chair a strategic and scientific committee — where he says he will focus on technology and “strategic vision.”
This committee will work with a new governance council, also being announced today, which will be chaired by Antoine Troesch, investment director of Qwant investor Banque des Territories, per the PR.
At the same time, Mozilla veteran Tristan Nitot — who was only promoted to a new CEO role at Qwant in September — is returning to his prior job as VP of advocacy. Although Leandri told us that Nitot will retain the spokesman component of the CEO job, leaving Ghinozzi to focus on monetization — which he said is Qwant’s top priority now.
“[Nitot] is now executive VP in charge of communications and media,” Leandri told TechCrunch. “He has to take care of company advocacy. Because of my departure he will have now to represent Qwant in [the media]. He will be the voice of Qwant. But that position will give him not enough space and time to be the full-time CEO of the company — doing both is quite impossible. I have done that for years… but it’s very complicated.”
“We will now need to focus a lot on monetization and on our core business… to create a real ad platform,” he added, by way of explaining the latest round of exec restructuring. “This needs to have somebody in charge of doing that monetization process — that execution process of the scale of Qwant.”
Ghinozzi will be responsible for developing a “new phase” for the search engine so it can scale its business in Europe, Leandri also said, adding: “For my part I take on the strategy and the tech, and I’m a member of the board.”
The search engine company is also announcing that it’s closing a new funding round to support infrastructure and scaling — including taking in more financing from existing backers Banque des Territories and publishing giant Axel Springer — saying it expects this to be finalized next month.
Leandri would not provide details on the size of the round today, but French news website Liberation is reporting it as €10 million, citing a government source. (Per other reports in the French media, Qwant has been losing tens of millions of euros per year.)
Qwant’s co-founder did trail some “very good announcements” he said are coming imminently on the user growth front in France, related to new civil companies switching to the search engine. But again, he declined to publicly confirm full details at this stage — saying the news would be confirmed in around a week’s time.
Liberation‘s report points to this being confirmation that the French state will go ahead with making Qwant the default search engine across the administration — giving its product a boost of (likely) millions more regular users, and potentially unlocking access to more government funding.
The move by the French administration aligns with a wider push for digital sovereignty in a bid to avoid being too reliant on foreign tech giants. However, in recent months, doubt had been thrown on the government’s plan to switch wholesale from Google’s search engine to the homegrown search alternative — after local media raised questions over the quality of Qwant’s search results.
The government has been conducting its own technical audit of Qwant’s search engine. But, per Liberation — which says it obtained an internal government memo earlier this month — the switch will go ahead, and is slated to be completed by the end of April.
Qwant has faced further uncomfortable press scrutiny on its home turf in recent months, with additional reports in French media suggesting the business has been facing a revenue crunch — after its privacy-respecting search engine generated lower than expected revenues last year.
On this, Leandri told us Qwant’s issue boils down to a lack of ad inventory, saying it will be Ghinozzi’s job to tackle that by making sure it can monetize more of the current impressions it’s generating — such as by focusing on serving more ads against shopping-related searches, while continuing to preserve its core privacy/non-tracking promise to users.
The business was focused last year on putting in place search engine infrastructure to prepare for scaling user growth in Europe, he suggested — meaning it was spending less time on monetizing user searches.
“We started to refocus on the monetization in November and December,” he said. “So we have lost some months in terms of monetization… Now we have started to accelerate our monetization phase and we need now to make it even better in shopping, for example.”
Leandri claims Qwant has already seen “a very good ramp up,” after turning its attention back to monetization these past two months — but says beefing up ad inventory including by signing up more ad partners and serving its own ads will now be “the focus of the company.”
“For example today on 100 queries we were sometime during the year at 20 ads, just 20% of coverage,” he told us, noting that some “iPhone 11” searches done via Qwant haven’t resulted in any ads being served to users in recent times. “We need to go to 30%-40%… We need to make it better on the shopping queries, brining new customers. We need to do all these things.
“Right now we have signed with Havas and Publicis in France for Europe but we need to ad more partners and start adding our own ads, our own shopping ads, our own technology for ads. That’s the new focus.”
Additionally, there have also been a number of reports in French media that have alleged HR problems within Qwant. Articles — such as this one by Next Inpact — have reported at length on claims by some employees that Leandri’s management style created a toxic workplace culture in which staff were subject to verbal abuse, threats and bullying.
Qwant disputes these reports but it’s notable that the co-founder is stepping back from an operation role at a time when both he and the business are facing questions over a wave of negative domestic press, and with investors also being asked to plough in fresh financing as a key strategy customer (the French government) is scrutinizing the product and the business.
The health of workplace culture at technology companies and high-pressure startups has come in for increasing attention in recent years, as workplace expectations have shifted with the generations and digital technologies have encouraged greater openness and provided outlets for people who feel unfairly treated to make their grievances more widely known.
Major scandals in the tech industry in recent years include Uber being publicly accused of having a sexist and bullying workplace culture by a former engineer — and, more recently, travel startup Away, whose CEO stepped down in December after a bombshell report in the press exposing a toxic culture.