The Truth About French and Belgians

If you don’t already know, the French and the Belgians have a bit of a love-hate relationship. Kind of like the Americans and the Canadians. Who better to poke a bit of fun at than your northern neighbors, eh ? Plus, given Belgium’s rather intricately over-complicated political situation, the southern, French-speaking half of Belgium – yes, Wallonia – is often half jokingly considered a French département. So where better to head as the Editor of TechCrunch France than Belgium’s HQ ? (Yes, that means Brussels.)

Startup baguette or startup with fries ?

Before leaving, I honestly throught that Belgian entrepreneurs probably wouldn’t really be that different than French entrepreneurs. I was pretty sure that I’d find a smaller-scale France but perhaps with a bit of a Belgian twist – like site translations in French and Flemish or something. And that would really be about it. I mean, we’re all in Europe, half of Belgium speaks French and we’re all looking across the Atlantic when it comes to inspiration, right ? But, even though I was only in Brussels for something around 24 hours, what I saw made the Belgians and the French look about as different as, well, cats and dogs.

It’s beginning to sound a lot like Europe.

So first off, I attended an event run by the infamous Betagroup (@betagroup) upon arrival. Seems like this is THE local event, there must’ve been something like 200 people in the room and apparently half the gang was missing because of some simultaneous event at Google. In addition, I was rather surprised to find such an international crowd – I think something like 1 or 2 of the 5 startups we saw were actual Belgians. Even better though is that everyone pitched their startup in English. Guess that naturally makes sense though, if you consider the hostility between the northern Flemish speakers and the southern French speakers.

Belgium, you look so cute in the morning.

But even though Belgium has a king, lots of beer and chocolate and is the home of the saxophone, let’s not forget its also an itty bitty market compared to France. We’re talking a country that’s the size of Paris that doesn’t even speak a common language. Or at least they don’t like to admit it. But English pitches aside, I also found that more entrepreneurs pitch their ideas as “the next European this or that” from the get-go. The Belgian market is too small so naturally they think beyond the +32. French entrepreneurs definitely think international as well. Yet, as a general rule of thumb, I find that French entrepreneurs tend to think France and then an English-speaking market, like the US. Some launch in several European markets but very few actually pitch as THE European je ne sais pas quoi. Well, other than Meetic.

Ladies first.

I was a bit disappointed nonetheless to see that there were even fewer women in the Belgian tech scene than in France.  There were something like 3 women in the room at Betagroup. Thankfully there was Getyoo‘s Marie du Chastel and Brussels Girl Geek Dinners‘ Clo Willaerts, amongst others.

Money in the bank.

The other thing that I thought was rather interesting was the funding scene. Belgium seemed a little void of funding possibilities compared to France, which sometimes seems like its kind of full to the brim with cash these days. Many Belgian entrepreneurs were self-funded or angel-backed – and looking to raise with foreign VCs, because there are hardly any Belgian VCs (other than Gimv) that fund over 1 million euro rounds.

(For any French speakers, this is an excerpt from a terrific Belgian movie, Dikkenek)

“Chaude comme une baraque à frites.”

Ok, so Belgian lingo is a little different from French lingo as well. One Belgian expression, “elle est chaude comme une baraque à frites”, even compares a hot girl to a hot fry stand. Cute and not sure how this would go down in France. Anyhow, even though this idea may sound a bit ridiculous, some of the startup ideas I came across were surpringly original and well-executed. I actually saw very few start-ups that relied on the social web – which I found unusual – and more that seemed to have rather classical e-commerce or standard business models in place.

“The Belgians are coming.”

Like the French, the Belgians also have their eye on the Silicon Valley. They’ve even teamed up with SF New Tech to put on an annual event called “the Belgians are coming”, which is essentially a presentation of Belgian start-ups in the Silicon Valley. I guess the nearest French equivalent would have to be the French Tech Tour, which is organized by UbiFrance and run by my dear friend Gaetan Gachet. But we’re talking about 2 very different events in terms of orientation and scale.

Ne me quitte pas ?

Ultimately, I found there to be certain aspects of the Belgian entrepreneurial scene that were extremeley positive. But it also solidified by pre-existing belief that French entrepreneurs do have it easier than other European markets – especially when it comes to market-size, funding and what not. Yet, some Belgians also leverage the French market to their advantage – like Jacques Brel, Cécile de France, René Magritte, etc. Sometimes, we forget they’re not French because they are as sensational in France as in Belgium. But hey, it’s not like French entrepreneurs don’t do this for French-speaking markets (Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, etc.). I mean, there may be slight differences but it’s all one language after all.

Name a famous Belgian.

I met quite a few interesting companies – all on Twitter and added to my Twitter list @roxannevarza/belgiantechstartups. There’ll surely be more to come and feel free to suggest names to add. Now, who can name a famous Belgian ?

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A Tale of 2+ Cities

It’s been exactly a year since I arrived in Paris to go back to school, 8 months since I started silly ol’ Techbaguette, 7 months since I started writing for TechCrunch Europe, 5 months since I relaunched TechCrunch France and 3 months since we launched Girls in Tech Paris. Man, oh man, time has sure gone by fast.

It was the best of times. It was (never) the worst of times.

(Yes, that’s modified Charles Dickens quote from a Tale of 2 cities.) Initially, I started TechBaguette just for fun – to shed a little light on the local tech scene in English for any passing readers and to remind myself that there was life after Sciences Po. And somehow, that little project magically transformed into turned into TechCrunch France and Girls in Tech Paris – translation: a nice little bridge between Silicon Valley and the +33. In my opinion, France has come a long way since I arrived – several seed funds, the Founder Institute, Startup Weekend, tons of company launches, some mega acquisitions…and I know that the best is yet to come. I should give credit where credit is due: I wouldn’t have a blog without content and my content is the vibrant French tech scene.

Next stop: London Town.

That’s right, it’s a tale of 2+ cities – or should I say countries ? The US, France and now I’m headed to the UK – because I still have to finish up my degree for the next few months (boo, yes, I thought about dropping out but I haven’t thought of an invention like the iPod or Facebook yet). I’m not about to abandon the French tech crowd. And to prove it, I’ll be back every month – next week, in fact, for several (not all) of the events on my events page. With TechCrunch, Girls in Tech, the Potrepreneurs meetup, Startup Weekend, LeWeb, Midem, etc., I bet that I’ll be back so often that nobody will really notice that I don’t live here. Neither will I, for that matter.

“I’ll be back.”

(Yes, that’s my governator.) Whatever you do, please don’t ask me what will happen to TechCrunch France – it will hopefully only get better. Let’s not forget I also have a fabulous team – Cédric and Clément. Plus, Ouriel managed to do a fantastic job with TechCrunch France while in Israel and I’m fairly certain that I am capable of doing the same. Try me. Plus, the way I’m looking at things – it’s only temporary. I’ll be back.

But still, I find it incredibly important to be available for the local community, even while I’m in London. I’ll be sure to post the dates under the “events” tab on my blog and distribute the info via Twitter for anyone who’d like to arrange to meet. And of course I’ll also be 100% available by all forms of electronic communication and for anyone who passes through London ! Hello TechHub !!

“INSULARITY IS THE EUROPEAN STARTUP KILLER.”

This is a quote that an American VC friend of mine in London (did that give it away?) recently said. It’s brilliant and oh-so-true. My experience in San Francisco inspired projects for France and London will inevitably do the same. Even though my heart may belong to the French market, the next few months will be dedicated to expanding my knowledge beyond the Hexagon and getting a better idea of what is being created out there. And maybe I’ll go to class once in a while too. 🙂

No, tech woman, no cry.

I usually try to keep most of the info on my blog free of personal jargon. But it’s perhaps the right time to say thank you to each and every entrepreneur who has been supportive of the TechCrunch relaunch and Girls in Tech. It’s only reinforced my affinity for the local tech kids and my belief that there is a lot of talent and innovation that deserves to be seen and discovered. I’ve learned an incredible amount from every last person that I’ve met. Know that it’s a pleasure being your sounding board and English-speaking voice. Vous m’inspirez, tous.

(Start chapter 2 here.)

I’ll Show You My iPhone Apps If You Show Me Yours…

A while ago, I bought a netbook – a Sony Vaio, to be specific (mainly for price, removable battery, size and pixel reasons as a traveling blogger). I tweeted my purchase, not really expecting anyone to care all that much. It was more just to pass time as I waited in line at the FNAC. But turns out quite a few people did care. Perhaps there are also people that also care that I use Jolicloud as my netbook OS (virtual hi-five to Tariq), have a Nikon Coolpix digital camera, that I don’t own an iPad (yet) or an iPhone4 and that I have actually purchased songs off of iTunes – sad, but true.

Now, maybe you’re wondering what apps I have on my iPhone?

So here are the stats: I currently have some 108 applications on my iPhone and I delete and download rather regularly. I prefer not to pay for the app unless it’s really something special – which means yes, I have purchased apps. The most expensive app I have ever bought is probably in the €4.99 range.

Back to basics.

I’ve got a number of apps for news in English and French, including The New York Times, Le Monde, Les Echos, Challenges, NPR News, The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, etc. Then I’ve naturally got to keep up with my tech blogs in French and English, which means I’ve also got a few names like TechCrunch (naturally), VentureBeat, Presse Citron, Korben, Journal du Net, Journal du Geek, Guy Kawasaki, etc. And then I’ve got Facebook, Linkedin, Skype and Yammer (to communicate with the TechCrunch gang – by the way, I just adore Yammer). I recently added Viadeo, even though I’m not particuarly active on that network, because it is hard to tell whether Linkedin or Viadeo is the network of preference for the French scene.

Birdy Nam Nam.

For Twitter, I use Twitter’s app – I actually tested a whole ton of Twitter client apps (Echofon, Seesmic, Twitterific, etc.) on the train from Marseille to Paris and happened to like Twitter the best, even though there are still a few missing features and it just started crashing on me yesterday (bad Twitter, bad). Seesmic was a very close second – so I keep it on my phone just in case. The Twitter app that disappointed me the most was Echofon, which happened crashed on me when I was at a conference. As a blogger, that is perhaps the 2nd worst thing to forgetting my laptop charger. I should keep this in mind if the Twitter app I currently use doesn’t get its act together.

An American in Paris.

2 apps that have dramatically changed my life are Pinger Textfree and iConvert. I use Pinger to text everyone in the US for free when Orange was trying to slap on extra euros to my monthly bill for international texting (I’m a huge texter). And iConvert I use for anything from keeping tabs on the euro/dollar exchange rate to properly cooking in grams and milliliters.

I get around round round get around I get around.

Apps I use to get around Paris and such include the standard Google Maps and RATP lite – a free application which maps the Metro lines. I’ve also got the Voyages-SNCF application on my phone for TGV tickets and the Velib’ application for the nearest bike-share stations – even if I’m not the biggest Velib user on the planet. 2 more apps I recently added just to make my life easier are Comuto‘s carshare application and Taxi Bleus for taxi reservations – but I haven’t had an opportunity to actually use either of their services yet. And of course Pages Jaunes, aka the Yellow Pages, is always good to have if you’re looking for an address.

I’m the Mayor of nowhere.

Travel and news-related apps are probably the 2 biggest categories of applications on my iPhone. I’ve also got a few geo-social apps, like Submate, Foursquare and CheckMyMetro – which is the Foursquare for the Paris Metro. I should have Plyce too but the truth is, I’m just not a huge user of geo-social. Well, not yet. Anyone who is my friend on Foursquare knows this. It’s kind of like how I’m not a huge user of online chat (Gchat, Skype, Facebook, etc.) – it’s nothing against the service but more the fact that I use it for one-off situations rather than on a regular basis.

Paris, Paris.

When it comes to exploring Paris, obviously I love the MyLittleParis app  for discovering hidden places and things to discover (yes,  I covered this for TechCrunch). For more classic touristy info, I downloaded Paris à Pied – the free app is supposed to provide info on museums, parks, etc. but hasn’t really done much but crash on me several times. Not très cool. Then again, there are other paid apps that are probably better quality but I didn’t bother to look into it. I do find it odd that the Louvre is one of the few local museums that actually has its own app though. I guess when it comes down to it, there is really no better app for discovering Paris than the Guide du Routard’s app (€4.99) – I especially like section on free stuff to do in Paris.

Not exactly in the bag.

If you’re thinking to yourself: wait a minute, she’s got no shopping apps on her phone – you’re right. There are naturally tons of apps for shopping (Vente-Privée‘s app is a huge hit) but this hasn’t really sunk in to my system yet. If I’m going to buy anything on my phone for now, it’s probably going to be a TGV ticket.

Oh là là, c’est oh-so-French.

I did download a few apps that are pretty much France-only apps. One of them is the Ticket Restaurant app, which lets you see which places near you accept Ticket Restos (which I discussed in an earlier post). There is also Clopclop (which recently came out only for iOS4) – a similar idea but for finding cigarettes or open tobacco shops. I’ve also got iPharmacien for finding a near-by pharmacy – but haven’t used it yet (PS: if anyone has good medical apps, let me know).

Yum yum.

French food is a must so I’ve got a few apps for restaurants and recipes. I bought Marmiton’s application because I just love the recipes on the site. The application is also just beautiful and insanely helpful while grocery shopping. Then I’ve got the Guide de Restaurants (by lintern@ute). And for reservations there is TableOnline (am I going crazy or are Restopolitan and La Fourchette MIA from the App Store?). I’ve got Qype, Yelp and Dismoiou on there too but haven’t really dug into using them yet for social recommendations – but I will. According to Alloresto’s website, there is an iPhone app for take out but it isn’t in the App Store…

Pass the time away.

Of course the geek in me has a few games and rather stupid apps too – I naturally have Tetris and Fat Booth and a couple other random games that I hardly use. I have a few education apps as well – one on sushi, one on French sign language and the Corsican language app I cannot stop talking about. I’ve obviously got dictionaries, translators, a few quiz apps (history, geography, etc.) and Wikipedia on there as well.

Why, Europe, why.

The one app (and service!) that I am perhaps most sad about not being able to use in Europe (aside from Netflix, which has very little to do with iPhones) is Pandora Radio. I was a HUGE Pandora user in the US. So then you’re probably wondering what music application I have on my phone – Deezer? Spotify? Answer: both. Although I’ve been a Deezer user longer than a Spotify user, I’ll admit it. I also have an iPod for my iTunes – which I don’t play on my iPhone to keep it’s rather pathetic battery in shape.

The price is right.

2 great little apps that I have on my phone, Pikadeo and Mobiletag, let you get more info on what cinema is playing a movie by photographing a poster or which store sells a particular item for the best price by identifying the bar code. Both French companies, both fabulous applications. But not 100% fool-proof, FYI.

It’s showtime.

My all-time favorite application is Allociné’s iPhone app – for movie times, locations, tickets…and previews ! Even if I don’t have time to go see a movie, at least I can easily keep up to date with what’s playing and effortlessly watch the trailer.

A very-close 2nd-favorite application is either Shazam or Melodis’s Soundhound – which identify random songs you hear playing in bars, restaurants, etc. I hate that they’re both capped at 5 free songs/month so I like to switch between the 2 (*insert evil laugh here*) to get 10 songs for free. 🙂 Between the 2, I actually prefer Soundhound because at least there are ways you can EARN more free songs without buying packages or subscriptions. Clever.

That’s (not) all folks!

Obviously I didn’t name all 108 applications on my phone – but I definitely covered a fair chunk of them. I’d be interested to know what absolutely essential applications I forgot – especially for someone living in Paris. Feel free to add to the comments and let me know…

Man, Those French Rappers Love Their Startups

This is just a random post on something that crossed my mind rather randomly the other day. You may’ve heard of Snoop Dogg’s gig with leading social games publisher Zynga. And if you didn’t, well, all you need to know is that it involved Zynga hiring Snoop Dogg to blow up a car for the launch of a new game, Mafia Wars. Whether or not you love the idea, Zynga did it. And it got noticed.

Orelsan is to Facebook what Snoop Dogg is to Zynga.

So if Snoop Dogg is out there promoting Zynga and Kanye West is showing-up for random concerts at Facebook headquarters,we might as well put French rapper Orelsan in the same boat. It’s not exactly the same because – unlike Snoop & Co.- Orelsan and Toxic Avenger probably weren’t approached by Zuckerberg or Ternovskiy to feature Facebook and Chatroulette in their video for the song N’importe Comment (yes, I translated Alexia Tsotsis’s post for TechCrunch France on this).

To any French-speaking readers, I apologize for the agressive and degrading lyrics – and pokes. It’s not any worse than Snoop Dogg. But I would like to give Orelsan credit for the game-console necklace bling, which is almost chic for geek. If he can wear a Nintento console around his neck and make it look cool, heck, I’d expect to see the Minitel as a fashion accessory and a vintage Freebox as interior decoration in no time.

Oh but wait, there’s actually a French electro-pop group (from Nantes!) called Minitel Rose – check out their video for Magic Powder. Maybe French musicians find tech cooler than one would think.

Je suis un Chatroulette-o-holic.

But even better than Orelsan, Toxic Avenger and Minitel Rose is French rock group Je Suis Un Chien. These kids actually used Chatroulette to make their video for the song Hologram.

I saw your mom on Chatroulette.

Calm down, it’s just a lyric from a song comedian Max Boublil wrote about Chatroulette (in French: “J’ai vu ta mère sur Chatroulette). His song is about as goofy as the Entrepreneur State of Mind / New Dork. But a little less mature and thought-out. Oh well. And in all honesty, Mr. Boublil’s song doesn’t really have much tech in it other than the word “Chatroulette”.

Je t’ai Googlisé.

But to my knowledge, no French rappers have written the Skyblog song or the Meetic melody. Do they have a strange preference for US technologies? Is that what it’s about? It seems kind of natural to throw US company names and technologies in ridiculous songs because 1) yes, they are insanely widely adopted and 2) the company names often become verbs in the English language – which is definitely not as common in French. Then again, I have heard lyrics that tend to reflect what is being used locally – for example MSN Messenger rather than AOL IM (wow, that was ages ago). I’m not suggesting that local startups should put their energy into inventing buzz words for a market they are already saying is too limited in size so that some rapper can come along and potentially help the brand. But could it help user adoption especially in the B2C space in some cases (I’m almost inclined to put out a few examples here). Then again, I could also point out that there are American companies – like Linkedin, for example – that didn’t exactly go this route either.

Nonetheless, it’s really quite telling that French rappers and rockers and whathaveyou are using social media in their group names, their music videos, their clothing, etc. – and regardless of the language. I’m sure there are other examples out there that I haven’t included too…

PS: all of this is way better than Miley Cyrus rapping about killing her Twitter account.

And over in the US, not all stars are Tweeting and going to YCombinator Conferences à la Ashton Kutcher. For example, there’s Miley Cyrus who killed her Twitter account very publicly and bashed the service (and essentially most online services where one could spend a lot of time). I’m not going to go into details because from what I understood it was all just insanely stupid – which is also reflected in this horrible rap music-video she made to match.

Thankfully no French rappers or rockers have done this – to my knowledge. Actually they seem more or less in tune with the tech trends, from what I’ve seen so far. Then again, very few of them actually have verified Twitter accounts – but who cares. Maybe it’s the French social media music video bunch that will be the type of “innovation ambassadors” I was trying to get at in an earlier post on French Hollywood being MIA from tech.