Does French Innovation Need a Few More Famous Faces?

This subject has actually been on my mind for a while, triggered by the first time I saw MC Hammer at a conference in San Francisco (pretty sure it was the AlwaysOn Stanford Summit in 2008) and thought it was a total joke. The man had announced the launch of his start-up DanceJam.com and all I can remember thinking to myself, hashtags included, is:

#WTF is a hiphop celebrity from the 80s doing trying to mingle with the Silicon Valley crowd?

(Watch the video and then imagine it playing in your head as you casually see him speaking on stage at a tech conference…)

But Hammer wasn’t the only one making the Hollywood-hall-of-fame-Silicon-Valley-crossover. Ashton Kutcher showed up at TechCrunch50 only a few months later to launch Blah Girls. And regardless of what you think of his investments, U2 lead singer Bono has been doing more than just hanging out with VC firm Elevation Partners since 2004. So as much as I may want to laugh about Hammer’s online dance class site or the name “Blah Girls”, I can’t deny that these celebrities only help make Silicon Valley look sexy –  even if it’s in a ValleyWag type of way.

France has no ValleyWag. Not yet.

I’m not sure it really needs one though. There’s no reason to turn the budding tech community into a gossip rag at this point. Plus, no French tech stars are dating anyone famous à la Digg founder Kevin Rose and I-dont-know-who and if they are, well, quite frankly who really cares. But what the tech community could definitely use is a little more advocacy*, as the words “tech” and “geek” still go hand in hand.

Lights, camera, actionnaire.

Ok, that was a lame joke, since actionnaire is the French translation for shareholder. But back to the point. Some French Hollywood stars, like Thierry Lhermitte and Patrick Bruel, have actually gone the investment route. Cinema star Lhermitte invested in a anti-piracy company TMG and poker-addicted singer Bruel went for Winamax. Sure, they look more like support for personal interests and projects rather than investments in innovation but I could say the same about MC Hammer’s site now couldn’t I? Seriously, Cannes, send over a few more famous French faces!

PS/ Journal Du Net put together a list of top tier French business angels back in March but most of the faces come from the tech world.

The fine line between fame and geekdom.

In the US, I always felt that there was an incredibly fine (read: “invisible”) line between being a star from Silicon Valley and a star from Hollywood. And to prove it, Hollywood’s take on the tech world has also transformed, moving from a documentary-style take on Microsoft’s development (Triumph of the Nerds), to a TV series (Pirates of Silicon Valley) and now to a feature film (The Social Network). The 2 industries almost feed off each other now.

To be honest, I don’t know of any local equivalents to these films/shows (please enlighten me if they exist). So rather than a melodramatic version of Facebook’s history, court cases included, all the “innovation” that gets any media attention is the rather comical yet pathetic saga of France.fr (don’t get me started). But off the top of my head I can already think of at least 2 local start-up stories that would make killer screenplays.

Allez les Bleus, er, entrepreneurs !

But French entrepreneurs are making their way to prime time television, slowly but surely. In fact, one of my favorite initiatives is that of Meetic and Jaïna Capital founder Marc Simoncini, who recently began hosting 15-minute TV segments featuring entrepreneurs on Canal+’s iTele. Sure, Sarkozy may still need a verified Twitter account (Elysée Palace doesn’t count) to be officially considered an early adopter – but a fair share of French soccer players (ignoring the World Cup fiasco + underage prostitution issues) have already beat him to it. Look, all I’m saying is that if the Queen of Jordan can show up for LeWeb and find the time to Tweet, there are definitely more local faces that want to join in the fun…

*By “advocacy” I do not simply mean investment and tweeting but simply adopting certain technologies, participating in conferences, etc.

Advertisements

My thoughts on the French Government’s attempt at a “digital workshop” #loi20

Last night, the President of the right-wing French political party UMP, Jean-François Copé, inaugurated what was supposed to be an atélier numérique participatif or a participative digital workshop. The menu of topics to be covered included a variety of issues on web 2.0 and internet regulation. I attempted to live-tweet most of the event in English with the event hashtag: #loi20.

Shut up and participate.

First things first, I realize we’re talking about the French government** but the fancy shmancy suit-and-tie atmosphere didn’t really put the “participative” in “atelier numérique participatif”. I vote that the next digital workshop attempt to adopt a more start-up feel by introducing the Google dresscode. Ah, but let’s not be ridiculous, perhaps the “participative” aspect can be casually overlooked.

How about some technology with that digital workshop?

Worse that the stuffy atmosphere was that there seemed to be a clear absence of “digital”. Aside from there being a lone iPad in the entire room (no, it was not mine – and I’m aware that the number of iPads doesn’t really prove anything), there seemed to be a really obvious lack of technological support. The TV screens, traditionally known for their motion picture capabilities, displayed a static subject of debate for over 2 hours. I’m faily certain that a good portion of people in that room wrote a thing or two on Twitter, yet none of it was displayed anywhere in the room. I highly encourage the government to consider adopting the model of tech conferences in the future – or at least to visit one just for a bit of inspiration.

Once upon a time there was a big, bad Internet.

Another thing that kind of struck me as odd was the way some of the topics were addressed, as if the Internet and all these web 2.0 companies were really out there to get us. *Insert an evil Zuckerberg laugh here* Oh, and apparently someone in the room thought that Linkedin and Amazon were in some kind of an evil partnership to distribute information regarding your sexual orientation. Hmmm…there were definitely remarkable differences between last night’s crowd and the more internet savvy gang that I’m used to. Dare I say generational gap? My favorite part was the elementary, 2-minute course on tagging Facebook photos.

Excuse me, you seem to have dropped your objective.

I had to leave early so I didn’t get to hear all the brilliant things that were surely said about net neutrality and the Hadopi law. But then again, I definitely didn’t grasp the whole point of the event. Was it to simply answer questions about tagging Facebook photos and “revealing” your sexual preferences to Amazon and Linkedin (pretty sure neither companies have any information on this, by the way)? Was it for the government to get “a general consensus” (based on the 50 or so people in the room, of which only 7 spoke) on certain topics? What? I thought there was going to be some kind of presentation, some kind of information or a game-plan to be distributed. But no. Well, whatever the objective, if the government wants to get an idea of where the Internet community stands on certain issues, they’re going to have to try a little harder.

#nocomment

Plus, did I mention that Copé left early to go “take care of” the whole banning the burka deal?

**For everyone that is going to get on my tail about using the word “government”, please note that the French translation of this word is “administration”.

Dear French Entrepreneurs : Please get out of line

Your average American probably seems like a good rule follower. They stop at red lights, know how to wait in line and are smiles-all-around. On the other hand, not-so-much for your average French. A little striking and complaining screams probably screams “trouble maker” across the Atlantic. Plus, they’re not good at waiting in line. Just ask French start-ups like DelivrMe and JaimeAttendre.

JUST DO IT ?

So you’d think that with all that noise, French entrepreneurs would be the first to throw themselves in the deep end. But no. Seems the Nike slogan still has some work to do. Actually, there are a few things that everyone seems to point out when it comes to comparing French entrepreneurs to their American counterparts:

1. Too much theory (also known as too much text).

I’m pretty sure this comes from the education system, the administration and the fact that it’s not really a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type of culture. My general impression is that often too much effort goes into over-preparation and that this delays execution. I realized this at a conference I was just at, when it seemed that an insane amount of hesitation was going into launching a simple corporate blog or Facebook Fan Page. Granted, the crowd wasn’t your average tech bunch but still. Sure, it’s important to prepare before launching – but in most cases, it’s not rocket science. A little less paperwork, a little more lights, camera, action. Launch first, tweek later.

2. Too much complication.

For anyone who doesn’t know this, the local general rule of thumb for everything is “why make it simple when it can be overcomplicated ?” And I love this. Except when it comes to launching a company. Numerous VCs have confirmed this for me, but foreign and French – French entrepreneurs have a talent for pitching overcomplicated ideas. I’m not saying that the Americans don’t do this because they do it too. But the KISS rule (“keep it simple, stupid”) could really go a long way here. Take a fraction of your business plan and do it really well. I’m fairly certain Larry and Sergei pitched a simple search engine – not the Google Empire.

3. Too much copycat.

I can’t tell if its an inferiority complex or an attempt to beat the system. Maybe a bit of both. The minute an idea gets big in the States, it immediately gets scooped up and spit back out in Franco-form. Chatroulette, FourSquare, now Groupon, you name it, the French versions all exist. They’re even modified for local taste, kind of like the BigMac. For some US companies – like Yelp, Etsy or Mint – where there is a definite space in the market but no local offer, a local copycat makes total sense. Or in the case of OpenTable , where the US company came but couldn’t crack the French code right away. But fewer ideas of French origin are really making waves à la Vente-Privée. Maybe because all the eyeballs are looking abroad for inspiration ? Either that, or because French VCs feel more comfortable funding ideas that are getting funded in start-up Disneyland, aka Silicon Valley. (That being said, the French really know how to do e-commerce and VCs are way more at ease funding clear revenue models.)

The F-word.

But ultimately, the theory, the complication and the copycat seem to be symptoms of something that is a huge problem for French entrepreneurs to face. Yes, I’m talking about the F-word: failure. Culturally, a failing start-up is much less accepted than in the Valley – but this isn’t news to anyone. But I think that within the start-up ecosystem, this is changing. French entrepreneurs are at least aware of this aspect and talk about it openly. As for talking about their actual failures openly – well, that seems a little too far off in the distance for now. I’d love for one of the future tech events (LeWeb?) to bust out a panel of entrepreneurs to talk about their failures in front of the French crowd. Fail damnit, #fail. Maybe once the French tech crowd gets more comfortable with the idea of failure they’ll get a little more adventurous and out of line.