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.

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15 thoughts on “Dear French Entrepreneurs : Please get out of line

  1. It’ not really that the French are afraid to fail, they are probably more afraid of what other people would think of their failures, not of the failure per se.

    Our whole scale of values is wrong, we value status more than actual acomplishment, theory more than practice and, worst of all, management more than engineering.

    People in France seek a status, most people studying engineering don’t do it because they want to build great things, they do it because society as a whole values the engineer title more than others, and sadly doesn’t care if you’re a bad engineer in the end.

    That’s why French people don’t do startups, because French society needs to have its values shifted first.

  2. Exactly! But obviously nobody is going to even bother taking a risk if the slightest failure is looked down upon.

    Americans don’t “value” failure – but scars always seem to prove you’ve learned and that you’ve tried, which naturally gets you brownie points amongst your peers.

    The American value system is also screwed-up in the same respect – just look at the medical industry.

  3. How it’s true! Besides, I always remember what Gilles Babinet told me one day, a talented French serial entrepreneur (Mxp4, Eyeka, Musiwave, etc.) : “If I had to start setting up companies, I do it again with even more simplicity, being more naive”.
    I like this !
    The French have a tendency to be too “prise de tête” and to exhaust all their energy in sterile discussions…

  4. Après avoir travaillé dans plusieurs sociétés IT en France, je ne me retrouve pas du tout dans ce billet, désolé ! 😉

  5. Roxanne,
    I believe this reflects quite well French education and society, though things are changing fast. Very interesting post, thanks for sharing your opinion.
    Hope to meet you on Tuesday.

  6. I’m graduating from a US university this year and also have a degree from a Grand École.

    I don’t agree with hbs. I feel like engineers in France are not valued enough. Yes, engineering schools are. But look how many students then goes to consulting, banking. They flee engineering because it doesn’t make enough money. They flee it because they don’t want to be too technical.

    Look how French IT companies interview people: plenty of stupid behavioral questions + “Do you know Java” and yes, you’re in. On the other hand, US companies take a long time to find the best people for a specific task.

    If people in France didn’t fear to go into technical first, then only talk about being manager, there would be much more people creating startups.

  7. Hmm @Marc, why do you disagree with me as you’re saying exactly what I said, French people think of engineering as a mean of acquiring a status, not skills, and it is valued as such.

    Prove that you can execute tremendously well as an engineer doing engineering (i.e. building stuff) and nobody will pay attention, say at a party that you’re an engineer (even if you’re a lousy one), and everybody will admire you…

    On a technical standpoint I agree with you 100%, engineering is not valued and that’s why this nation is slowly going down.

  8. @hbs Ok we are on the same line then.

    “Prove that you can execute tremendously well as an engineer doing engineering (i.e. building stuff) and nobody will pay attention, say at a party that you’re an engineer (even if you’re a lousy one), and everybody will admire you…”

    Actually I feel like if you say you are a consultant or a trader, you will get much more admiration. Only in the US did I get a lot of “admiration” from people when I said I was doing a Master in Computer Science. In France people will look at you as a “ingénieur informaticien” which has a bad connotation unfortunately.

  9. Roxanne:

    I’m an American (ex-SV, ex-Seattle) trying to start up a company in France.

    I have to agree with most of the comments about engineers not being valued enough. Whether this is status-in-society based I will leave to the French commentators as I’m really not qualified to say. What I can say is this

    1) French companies don’t pay engineers enough to keep people doing it. Especially at a startup, you need people to BUILD things. Usually at the beginning you have nothing to sell until you build it yourself, thus engineers are vastly more valuable than sales and should be compensated as such.

    2) French companies don’t create a career path for technical people to gain status (and pay!) while staying technical. This is something that any tech company in the US does if they want to keep their top talent and allow them to continue to thrive. Consider that companies like Intel, IBM, Sun/Oracle have titles like Staff Engineer, Distinguished Engineer, etc for people that have shown to have the technical chops and want to stay at the top of the game.

    3) French engineers are not involved in “the business” enough. Engineers, at least in software, make literally dozens of product decisions everyday that affect not just the product but the bottom line. To not have them understanding (and buying into) the way the business model works, the sales model works, and kept up-to-date about “business results” is seriously mistaken.

    I do think you are being a bit harsh with the copycat complaint. The copycats exist everywhere–they are so numerous in SV that you just stop paying attention. 3rd tier VCs have to fund *something*. Honestly, it actually makes sense to attack markets that are isolated (by language or whatever) with a product/business that already is proven elsewhere. It’s not something I would want to do, but it makes some amount of business sense.

    The question that I worry about (to which I have no good answer) is this:

    Are the “US-style” responses to your problems #1 and #2 “teachable?” Can people *learn* to keep it simple and stay focused on one thing, or is it too culturally ingrained? My sense (and I’m doing a startup here for a reason!) is that is teachable and that they are plenty of talented folks who would be happy and productive in a different kind of environment.

  10. @Ian:

    I couldn’t agree more.

    But there are some stuff you need to know about France and the french education system.

    Can you believe that right after high school (lycée), the best students go to a prep school where they are already split in two groups : future business people and future engineers.

    Business people have no way to get back to some serious maths, physics or computer science if they went with a prep school to apply for a business.

    Those who thought that being an engineer was cool – back when they were 18 years old – can take interesting business classes in a business school but often only after their graduation, at least 5 years later.

    If you followed me here, that means that the smartest students of this country are split and forced to grow miles away from each other, siloed in a business/engineering oriented way of thinking for at least 4-5 years. When are all those great ideas and projects going to spring if they are locked into this absurd system during the most prolific period of their lives?

    France has a great education system to “produce” A-level executives. Entrepreneurs are the outlaws.

    It helps explain 5 very important points to me:

    1) why everyone in this place thinks he’s only good at doing one thing right, so we end up with teams where you have one guy for “business” and one guy for “code” which I think is a very bad idea, specifically during the product definition phase.

    2) why most (successful) french startups were not founded by engineers, since most of them don’t believe themselves capable of managing a business before they’re old enough to have a family and give up on risks.

    3) why most french startups are all about “cool ideas” : groundbreaking ideas require a fair amount of rock solid exclusive technology.

    4) why startups don’t receive the help they need from larger companies : because they’re not trusted enough by those who tried to convince their founders that a “career” was the rightious path to success.

    5) why the F-word (failure) is so dramatic here : people see you as an outlaw who just lost the respect of his community for the second time.

  11. Those 2 last comments are at least as valuable as the post.
    Ian, You are so right when you say : “French engineers are not involved in “the business” enough”.

    One theory I have as well, is that the business people don’t want to share the business with the engineers. It’s their domain, and they don’t want those computer geeks to put there hands on it…
    Probably not everywhere, but it is well known that in France, the management takes a lot more money than the engineers, the craftmen of their business. That alone draws a line between the 2 environment.

    Now Mohammed, you definitely score when you explain it by the way the education system split great business minds apart from the great engineers. It becomes just so obvious once you say it :).

    One encouraging thing is that some private schools, on the other hands, seems to try to create hybrid students, engineers, but with a good business mind as well. But is that better? I’m not sure.

    Stéphane

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