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. 🙂

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French Innovation Trends: Food, Fashion and Flirting

It’s funny how often the subject of conversation goes back to “Why is there no Google or Facebook coming out of France?” Some people like to point fingers at investors, saying French investors are too risk averse. But then there are others that say this is simply because the local exit market is, well, almost nonexistant (yes, I’m exaggerating but only slighly). But if you think about it, there are some things “made in France” that pretty much sell themselves.

It’s better when its French.

Now other than being good for a chuckle, this Hardee’s advertisement uses a twist of French seduction and food to portray the all-American burger as better when it’s French. Interestingly enough, local startups may be doing something a bit similar – at least in my humble opinion.

Food, Fashion and Flirting.

Honestly, what else comes to mind when you think of France? Ok, perhaps tourism, too. Now, maybe it’s just me but local companies do seem to be innovating more when it comes to their cultural roots. Fashion websites, food-related sites and obviously dating websites seem to be all the rage. Either that or I’m just hungry and need to go shopping.

L’amour à la française.

People who’ve been paying attention to what I’ve been writing on TechCrunch recently are probably starting to think I’m obsessed with dating sites. Let me reassure you, this is not the case. But is just so happens that recently there seems to be a lot of really creative ideas popping up. Maybe they’re all inspired by French dating giant Meetic? I’ve written about the not-so-new Adopteunmec (where women pretend to buy their boyfriends), Smartdate (for dating the friends of your Facebook friends), Attractive World (it’s all in the title – you have to be rich, beautiful or preferably both in order to be OK-ed by the exclusive VIP community), Ladieshoesme (mixing women’s shoe fetishes and dating) and most recently Loueunepetiteamie.com (renting a girlfriend) took a turn towards an online escourt service. Not sure how I feel about this last one but a little flirting never hurt anyone – and definitely seems to benefit the local entrepreneurial crowd.

Miam Miam.

Yes, that’s French for “yum yum.” And food is definitely at the heart of tons of sites across the planet – not uniquely in France. But obviously in a country where food is tied with long-standing traditions, it’s harder to find early adopters for new technologies. Getting traditional wine chateaux or restaurants to use Foodzie or OpenTable-like platforms is by no means an easy task (insert a José Bové comment here – and then check out this hilarious game). Although recently, there seems to be more companies managing to leverage the French passion for good food and wine. Companies like Regioneo (French Foodzie), LePotiron (online marketplace for locally-grown produce), the French Opentables (LaFourchette, Restopolitan, TableOnline…), Restoprivé (Vente-Privée but for exclusive restaurant deals), Vinobest (Groupon for Wine) – and most recently, Super Marmite (a platform where individuals can cook and sell food to others). This last company was one of the finalists for LeWeb this year and I think the oh-so-French pitch (seriously, Jacques Pépin would be proud) was just phenomenal, check it out:

Who is more famous: Louis Vuitton or Louis XIV?

When I was living in LA (painful thought), not a day went by when I didn’t see a Louis Vuitton handbag (another painful thought). The French are good at fashion and I don’t think I need to tell anyone that the French are good at e-commerce, that is all yesterday’s news. Vente-Privée’s acquisition chats with Amazon and PriceMinister’s €200 million acquisition helped solidify this. But while there are tons of companies in the traditional e-commerce space – like MyFab and Spartoo –  there are also some more creative companies that are leveraging French fashion. Ok, maybe the products sold on GoldenHook are not exactly haute couture but it’s definitely creative to employ the elderly to knit products, which are then sold on the platform. Then there are some more recent companies that seem to be going after social shopping, like LooknBe, or video-driven fashion e-commerce, like WallDress. The business models for these last 2 are yet to be proven but it’s definitely an interesting trend.

There’s no local Twitter – but a damn lot of tourists.

So obviously there are tons of travel sites and whatnot as well but honestly I know of fewer sites that really target an international crowd with good insider information (if you know of one, correct me and let me know). MyLittleParis perhaps but the information isn’t necessarily traveler’s info. Oh, but then again, the government went and launched that whole France.fr portal so that the whole world would be able to find travel information on France. But man, what a buzz kill. I honestly think that there are still tons of tourists that have no clue how to find the information they’re seeking. In fact, the NUMBER ONE question I get asked on Aardvark is “what is the best hotel/hostel in Paris.” Actually, some of the more innovative travel/tourist-oriented sites – like AirBnB – are not local, but they are already tapping the French market. Food for thought…

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”.

Chain reaction: French cookie cutter business models

It happens a lot. An innovative business model will work really well for one market and new companies will adopt the same model and simply apply it to different products and services. Essentially what Amazon did for books and Zappos did for shoes.

And it ends up working like a chain.

So what kind of cookie cutter business models are popular in France?

1. Vente-Privée (@ventepriveeactu)

Everyone is familiar with this French success story by now. When people caught on to the business model, the online VIP private sale model got applied to just about every product you can think of. French companies like VoyagePrivé (@voyageprive), BeautéPrivée (also owned by VoyagePrivé’s parent company), BonPrivé (@bonprive) and ShowroomPrivé (@notontwitter) sprang up – and there are a few more undercover that are likely to go live soon.

PS. Vente-Privée’s Twitter account is even VIP only.

2. Velib’

Another model that I see as a developing chain – and only recently made its cross-over into tech – is the Velib’ model, whereby a customer can essentially rent a durable good for a short period of time and allow others to use it afterwards. While the idea may not be uniquely French, the model came out of Velib‘, the public bike rental system in Paris. After seeing Velib’s success, the model was applied to cars with Autolib’ in Lyon in hopes of replicating a local Zipcar. The model finally made its transfer into tech with Weblib’ (@weblibSAS), which offers netbooks under the same system in select locations.

Behold, the internet.

While obviously it can also be interesting to take models like Etsy, Groupon or Foursquare and try to rebuild them for different niches, what I particularly like about these 2 models is that they crossed over to the web from a non-tech space.

Have You Seen Me? 9 French Entrepreneur Names to Know

Talk to anyone from Silicon Valley about French names in hi-tech and you’ll systematically get the 3 same answers: Loic Le Meur, Jeff Clavier and Pierre Omidyar – if you’re lucky.

But how about French entrepreneurs in France?

In an earlier post I suggested putting French entrepreneur success stories on milk cartons to remind us all of the home-grown sensations. So why not take a minute to consider 9 home-grown French hi-tech names-to-know ?  The list is ideally in some type of order, but then again not really.

Gilles Babinet.

This man is a French serial entrepreneur to know – creating his first company at age 22 back in 1989 (a few years ahead of Zuckerberg?). Some of his success stories include Absolut (acquired by Euro RSCG) and Musiwave (acquired by Openwave and later Microsoft). He recently co-founded 3 hot start-ups including Eyeka, Digicompanion and MXP4.

Jérôme Rota.

This guy is the mastermind behind DivX – the technology and now the company. While he later went on to co-found DivX, Inc. in San Diego, California, Rota initially developed the technology back in 1998/1999 in Montpellier as a 20-something-year-old. But I don’t need to convince anyone that French engineers are la crème de la crème, do I?

Roland Moreno.

Yes, ok, it’s not exactly hot off the press but it’s far from trivial. Wonder why France is so ahead of the US when it comes to electronic ticketing? This is the French face behind the invention of the smartcard in 1974 – now used in just about everything. The following year, he went on to launch Innovatron. And last I heard, he gave everyone a scare in 2008/2009 with rumors of a risky health situation.

Xavier Niel.

The co-founder of Iliad (who has the ugliest website ever – not like it matters) is part of the reason I pay far less for internet in France than I ever did in San Francisco – but I’ve applauded his contribution to the invention of triple-play Freebox before. In addition to Iliad, he also co-founded WorldNet, which was bought by KapTech (Neuf Cegetel) for €40 million in 2000. He recently co-founded seed-fund, Kima Ventures, with Jérémie Berrebi. Oh – and if I’m not mistaken, he’s also part of the college drop-out club. Nice.

Pierre Chappaz.

This guy was not only of the co-founders of Kelkoo (acquired by Yahoo) but has also been behind the successes of Wikio and Netvibes.

Yves Guillemot.

Guillemot is one of the 5 faces behind France’s video game giant, Ubisoft. The Guillemot brothers have also founded a number of additional companies (7 total) – including Gameloft and Guillemot, which both went public along with Ubisoft.

Marc Simoncini.

Another serial entrepreneur to know. Simoncini, like Babinet, founded his first company in 1985 at the age of 22. His first real success came with iFrance, which was sold to Vivendi in 2000. He then went on to create Meetic, which has done a great job at blowing everyone else out of the European online dating market and bought Match.com’s European activities last year. Like Niel, he also recently launched a seed-fund, Jaina Capital, with Michel Kubler.

Pierre Kosciusko-Morizet.

The brother of the current Minister of Digital Economy, Kosciusko-Morizet is one of the co-founders behind e-commerce success, PriceMinister. He, too, got an early start – launching his first company in his (incredibly) early 20’s.

Jacques-Antoine Granjon.

Anyone that gets a €2 billion acquisition offer from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (and additional offers from Gilt and eBay) should definitely make the list – 47-year-old Jacques-Antoine Granjon is the long-haired founder of French success story Vente-privée.

Educate me.

Did I miss someone uber important? There are definitely another 50 people I could easily add. The list is obviously far from exhaustive and highly influenced by my non-expert knowledge. Feel free to add to the comments and enlighten me.

I’m Putting My Money on MyFab

Sequoia and Benchmark, you may want to listen. Jeff Bezos too.

MyFab: THE next hot start-up to come out of France.

First off, let me say that I do not write this for just any old company and it is very likely that this will be the only post of its kind for a long time. I normally would be inclined not to broadcast something so incredibly favorable about a particular start-up – but MyFab is just too damn good for me not to do so.

Now, I’m no expert but personally I think MyFab is going to be the next-best-thing to come out of France – start-up wise. That is, if it isn’t already.

iWhat? MyWho?

The company is French but first made a splash in Silicon Valley in the summer of 2009 when they closed a €5 million round, including funding from BV Capital. MyFab’s unique e-commerce model is an on-demand platform that lets users buy high-quality products directly from manufacturers. Translation: up to an 80% price reduction on incredibly chic  furniture, jewelry, etc. The site also makes use of a “voting system” whereby their customers can vote for future products to be made and receive a addition discount on the items once they go into production. I think it’s just brilliant.

First Vente-privée, now MyFab.

French e-commerce must be doing something right. Vente-privée made headlines a while ago with the potential $2 billion Amazon acquisition. I’m pretty sure MyFab won’t enter the US market and go unnoticed either.

A few other unique e-commerce business models have caught my eye as well – including Sokoz and Voyagerpouruneuro.com – which integrate a timed or game-like aspect into shopping.

France e-commerce businesses may’ve had a bit of a slow start but looks like it’s getting ready to take off…

Check out my lastest article in TechCrunch Europe on MyFab’s US launch and follow MyFab on Twitter: @MyFabFrance (in French) or @MyFabGermany (in English)