Should France even want to be another Silicon Valley anyway?

If there’s one thing I have a low tolerance for, it’s France-bashing. Sadly, it seems to be a default sport for many journalists. Whenever they have nothing better to write about, a little critique of the oh-so-traditional French Republic will surely fill up the sapce. Take The Economist, for example. It’s a magazine that I actually still highly admire. But I remember reading this one article not too long ago about how London was just all the more attractive for the young, French population – because “France itself is hardly booming.” Uh, right.

Having second thoughts ?

(Some  anti French-bashing humor to lighten the mood)

But then, as if the magazine had suddenly woken up to reality, it decided to follow-up with an article on how startups are actually helping to jump-start reform in the economy. Yes, the media actualy finally picked up on what the article refers to as France’s “silent majority.” This is “the France that does not go on strike…” the France that casually gets ignored whenever the press discusses anything even mildly France-related.  And even better, the article even includes a nice little interview (in English with a twist) with Vente-Privée founder Jacques-Antoine Granjon to prove that yes, good ideas and determination can make big companies – even in France. Now, I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but if the rather traditional Economist is going to change its view of France (even ever-so slighly), maybe it means something.

Still not your average piece of cake.

That being said, France is still not an entrepreneur’s heaven. It’s got its fair amount of administrative headaches and complications. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: US entrepreneurs have it easy. Sure, there are some that think that France will never be like Silicon Valley – but then there are some, like serial entrepreneur Gilles Babinet, that would argue that it is in fact possible.

More than on the right track.

Gilles published a fantastic article in Les Echos -just after the French Government awoke to the fact that Internet companies were responsible for over 700,000 jobs in France -where he made some bold suggestions on how France could help local entrepreneurs make the country an industry leader. Some of his suggestions include developing official university courses dedicated to the Internet industry and multiplying public and private partnerships between universities, research centers and small and large companies. Most of what he proposes actually isn’t foreign to France – it just isn’t as developed or valued as it should be. For example, 3 of France’s top entrepreneurs obviously recognized the need for university cirriculum dedicated to the Internet industry – which is why Xavier Niel, Marc Simoncini and Jacques-Antoine Granjon are launching the Ecole Européenne des Métiers de l’Internet. But in such a centralized State, some of these initiatives may need to be actively promoted by the local administration.

No longer dreaming about Silicon Valley.

But Gilles doesn’t just draw on inspiration from the US to make his suggestions – but from other international models as well (like the Ministry of International Trade and Industry in Japan). Silicon Valley, as incredible as it may be, is not necessarily what France should be trying to be. In fact, France – like all other European countries, currently including the UK – has already tried to make its own Silicon Valley (see the video below, in French).

Fortunately, the country seems to have now recognized that you cannot just cut and paste what works in California on the sunny French Riviera. Therefore, some initiatives – entirely unique to France – have been put into place and prompted innovation and investment in their own way. Some of these include the Crédit d’Impot Recherche, the Statut Jeune Entreprise Innovante – and maybe even the weath tax (ISF) credit for investing in a startup. It takes a little bit of trial and error but I can’t say that these initiatives haven’t had a positive impact in one way or another. But if there is one thing I don’t get, it’s why the Government likes to change some of these startup-oriented benefits on a rather regular basis.

If at first you don’t succeed…

Sure, the Silicon Valley does seem to provide a lot of inspiration for the tech world, whether it be product innovation or stories of rags to riches. France has definitely taken some of the models that have worked abroad and tried to adapt them to the local environment – it’s only natural. And slowly but surely, they seem to be tweeking them to fit the local environment.

Euhhhhh, it’s better when it’s (not only) French.

If there is one thing that the French often take a lot of heat for, it’s being “too” French. I remember in the US, many entrepreneurs used to tell me “but isn’t France is only for French people?” As a foreigner who has known many foreigners in France, the answer is simple: no. There are some hot-shot US entrepreneurs that have left the States to launch projects in France. I also know of some very successful local entrepreneurs and investors that are not of French origin (Spanish, Moroccan, etc.). France may seem somewhat less cosmopolitan than London, but the integration model is also very different and mirrors that of other continental European countries. The entrepreneurial crowd is unique and recognizes the value of being more internationally oriented.

LeBridge.eu

I’ll leave you with a quick word on a new initiative I recently got involved with – because I think it’s a nice way to show how the local tech scene is coming out of its shell. It’s called Le Bridge and it’s an organization that aims to help connect the various European entrepreneurial scenes through events (in English!) and whatnot. For now, it’s primarily targeted towards bridging Paris and London but additional European cities will likely follow. And I wouldn’t be surpirsed if an interconnected European startup scene doesn’t catch the eye of our friends in Northern California…

PS/ Yes, Axelle’s article is what prompted me to write this – but I think deep down inside she was trying to communicate a similar message 🙂

I Left My Heart in San Francisco. But Then I Found it In Europe.

It had been some 20 months since I’d been back to the Homeland, the Mothership,  the land of the free and the home of the brave – or so they say. The birthplace of the oily Big Mac and sugary Coca-cola. But above all, the El Dorado of hi-tech. Yes, it had been almost 2 years since I’d been back to good old Silicon Valley.

Finally putting a little tech into Silicon Valley.

First off, I think I need to congratulate the Bay Area for finally coming around with a few technical improvements.When I first started TechBaguette, I suggested 3 things that Silicon Valley could learn from France. To my knowledge, none of them have been successfully implemented yet. This was later followed by a rant on how Silicon Valley – the Holy land of tech – was still printing paper tickets for public transportation. Yes, paper. But apparently, a lot has changed. The Caltrain finally got its act together and started implementing an Oyster Card-like service – called Clipper #wtf – where users can pay electronically. YAY!

But the fun doesn’t stop here. Another major cool improvement was the credit card-enabled parking meters. Not that I love to pay for parking or anything but I guess the city finally woke up to the fact that the days of carrying mounds of change in our pockets were officially behind us. Double yay.

And of course, what better than selling Facebook Credits in giftcard format alongside pre-paid cards for Amazon, iTunes, Ebay, etc ? I haven’t seen this in either Paris or London yet, but I’m sure it’ll show up sooner or later – if it hasn’t already.

Think different?

Many people say that the difference between entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and elsewhere is that entrepreneurs in the Valley want to change the world. Uh, maybe I took a wrong turn somewhere but I found some of the entrepreneurs I met to be less interested in making a difference than one would’ve thought. The local discourse is still very focused around making money – and more overtly than in Europe (obviously because Europeans are more discrete when it comes to the taboo subject of money in the bank). Oh, and I always tend to find the Silicon Valley crowd to be a bit more arrogant. Just me ? Sure, I did come across a handful of very innovative ideas. But this also means a rise in the bad ideas, too. Then again, if there is one thing those Valley kids know how to do, it’s pitch. Pitch, and sell.

Pride and prejudice.

Then again, I think that when European tech all-stars do go to Silicon Valley the experience can be very humbling. The place is packed with top-notch people – entrepreneurs, investors, you name it. I spoke to a number of people who said the number one myth about Silicon Valley is that things will be easier for foreign entrepreneurs. When the place is swarming with competition, it’s hard to imagine hiring good people, scoring tons of cash and getting tons of traction without putting in mega effort.

E=MC² and mega effort = mega stress.

The one thing that I had forgotten was the stress. Everyone is stressed to the point that nobody bothers to even mention it. It’s a given. In fact, kids and students in Silicon Valley are also stressed out of their minds. For example, I’ve taken a number of trains throughout Europe and not once did I see a sign making a reference to suicide near the tracks (OK, the Paris metro does have an image of a guy getting electrocuted or something, but that’s just your everyday safety tip à la française). In Silicon Valley, the number of people who attempt to kill themselves by jumping in front of a train is apparently so high that they now put up these signs (which I had never seen before, but could’ve very well been there). And every year, I hear about more and more high school students attempting to end their lives this way- many unfortunately succeeding. Not all is cash and smiles.

No man’s techland.

Silicon Valley kind of reminds me of a no man’s land dedicated to tech. There isn’t really that much to do (ok, this is a relative statement), especially if you don’t live in San Francisco. Which I guess kind of lends itself to people working non-stop, just by default. Or trying to pass time by testing and trying new things…

Living Color.

I guess I had kind of forgotten how the local tech community just devours new technologies. They’ll try anything – and I mean, really try it. Not just download the app and forget about it. For example, I went to a dinner where everyone got very into the latest rage, Color. Everyone at the table was taking pictures and posting. I thought it was just because we were at a geeky tech dinner. Then, in some random bar a few days later, we discovered that there were 14 people in that very same bar using Color as well. Using it to photograph their drinks and food, pictures on the wall, etc…and really getting into it.

Madame Michu is not Joe the Plumber.

In London and Paris, your average Joe would probably prefer to have his phones switched completely off when he goes out for a drink. Unless he has to coordinate plans. It’s not polite, classy or cool to pull out a phone, unless you’re in a casual environment with a bunch of techies quoting Star Wars. I’m exaggerating, but you get my point. But all this is just more reasons why entrepreneurs outside the Valley should get more credit. Where it’s more difficult to innovate for legal, political, cultural, financial or whatever reasons, the entrepreneurs are even more dynamite. And when those entrepreneurs succeed, it makes one hell of an impressive story. Not just another dude in a garage in Palo Alto.

Comment dire “bootstrapping” en français ?

One thing that became very apparent to me when I went to stay with some friends in San Francisco was that some European startups – especially those seeking funding – may want to familiarize themselves with bootstrapping. Ironically, I hadn’t really paid too much attention to how much bootstrapping was done by European startups because I assumed it was kind of a given. I do know some stories of French entrepreneurs who gave up foie gras and champagne to eat strictly Cup-o-Noodles in order to launch their companies. But I also know some entrepreneurs that get a luxury, all expenses paid flat in San Francisco when the company is trying to secure funding. Hmm, that doesn’t sound right…

The American Dream. And nightmare.

Still, people in Silicon Valley are not all geniuses and not all the conferences are oodling with people. I was rather surprised (read disappointed) by the Web 2.0 Expo this year. In 2008, that conference had been one of the better conferences I’d attended. This year, it seemed half empty and with little to discover. And this made me realize just how quickly things happen in Silicon Valley. With the same speed that some company can come in, get funded, get bought or announce an IPO, others can flop entirely. I was talking with one entrepreneur friend of mine who brought up the fact that the only reason that the American Dream works is because the American nightmare is so bad and so powerful that entrepreneurs are somewhat flung into a do-or-die situation. I bet seeing the masses of homeless people wandering up and down Market Street in San Francisco serves as a reminder to some.

So while I may’ve left my heart in San Francisco, here are just a few reasons why I found it in Europe. 🙂