Confessions of a Tech Blogger – Part 1

This past week, a friend of mine from college reached out to me from halfway across the globe. He mentioned to me that he had launched a (pretty damn cool) startup and was seeking advice on how to get in touch with the tech press – TechCrunch, Mashable and the likes. This most definitely isn’t the first time a friend has reached out for this kind of advice. I figured a  number of people could benefit from it, so I’ll just post some of the questions and my answers here. This definitely isn’t completely comprehensive, but it’s my 2 cents on some of the basics…

Not another bedtime story.

If you go on Quora, there is tons of good information for individual publications. For example, “How to get your company covered on TechCrunch” curently has 15 answers. MG Siegler is leading the answer rankings with “Do something amazing, we’ll find you.” And while this is true, I have also found that a story can sometimes get hidden because an entrepreneur thinks they need to present their company in a more traditional fashion – like a standard press release on fundraising, a new product launch, etc.

Photo credit: Eric Rice

“Chickens playing FarmVille.”

The lovely Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, who currently writes for Business Insider, published this article last week. I looked at caption below the picture and just broke out laughing. Really? But hey, it caught my eye. In the same way that the 9-year-old kid publishing magazines with MagMagz’s platform caught my attention. Often, I just want a more creative angle to present a product or a startup, rather than the old “this business does this” approach. If I can break a stereotype or turn a couple of heads with the title AND present the product at the same time, then I’m most likely in. Like the Italian entrepreneur that got funded in 19 days. Then again, don’t go forcing your cat to use your product just so some journalist can write about it. That’s just cheap.

Ride a wave.

In addition to classic announcements (fundraising, opening an international office, etc.), it’s also interesting to cover startups that are part of a larger trend. For example, if your product is related to Facebook, Twitter, Quora, Zynga, etc. Ok, honestly, this gets old after a while. More Groupon clones or French dating sites, anyone? If you’re riding a wave and we’ve already talked about the market quite a bit, your product better be rather innovative or have something special. Simply being a copycat (unless you have killer traction) will not retain my attention very long.

I say “exclusive”, you say “exclusive”.

The way you give the journalist the information is perhaps just as important, if not more important, than the information itself. “Exclusive” is perhaps a journalist’s favorite word. If you’re a little startup and you have a good story, consider allowing one or two of your favorite journalists to publish the story before the others. It probably sounds really basic but if I can publish or provide content that is not available elsewhere, then I am a happy blogger. It’s as simple as that. Consider being precise about the date AND the time of publication as well – and make sure it works for the journalist. Just as an FYI, there are some subjects that I won’t cover unless I have an exclusive. Then again, if it isn’t really hot news, adding an “exclusive” to pitch journalists won’t really get you very far…

If you poke me on Facebook, I probably won’t write about you.

Even though it may not always seem like it, bloggers are people, too. I actually would like to have a personal as well as professional use of various technologies and platforms – just like everyone else. Therefore, I have made it very clear that you can contact me via email, Linkedin, Twitter…even Quora. If we are already friends on Facebook, by all means, shoot me a message if you have info to share. But if I don’t know you and you are trying to contact me on Facebook to pitch a story, my reply will ALWAYS be “email me.” Oh, and please don’t poke me to get my attention on Facebook for an article. That’s just unprofessional (and you run the risk of me publishing something about it in an article, if I write one).

Opinionated.

Once again, this seems rather obvious but I cannot stress it enough; know the journalist you are pitching to. This means not only the subjects they like to write about but also how they are likely to present them. I have had people pitch me things that are not really in the editorial line of TechCrunch (matresses made in Greece, a Chinese wine producer…). And just because your company now has an iPhone application doesn’t mean that you belong on a tech blog (unless your application physically makes coffee – if that is the case please email me ASAP). But even within the same publication, different journalists have different preferences and topics they’re comfortable with. To give you a good example, Michael Arrington and I are probably not likely to write about France in a similar way.

Blogging in the real-time.

Blogs are different from other media because they are perhaps one of the most real-time sources of information. And they are an interactive media. So, clearly avoid snailmail, unless it is your product and there is no other way to send it. When you send information via email, consider including additional media that would be relevant other than just text: links, videos, images, screen shots. And don’t hesitate to send updates after the article is published – they can always be modified and added to.

Be nice…and realistic.

I saw the above question and thought that it is just ridiculous to ask this kind of question. Do journalists go around crowning the “worst entrepreneurs” ? I know I don’t. Journalists make mistakes. It happens. Some of us even write in a language that is not our native language. If you need to make a correction, be polite about it.

“We don’t have any competitors, either.”

I’m not even going to tell you the number of times I have been told by an entrepreneur that he or she has no competitors. It kind of baffles me. I wrote an article once where I talked about a new French startup and it’s VERY HOT competitor – and the startup was not particularly pleased. WTF? What better than to be compared to the one of the hottest companies?! If I compared you to Apple or Facebook would you be upset? And if I didn’t draw the comparison in my article, my readers would clearly point it out in the comments anyway. No need to pretend.

When I ask the question, I am not doing it to undermine the business of the entrepreneur but rather to have a better understanding of the product and the market. At the end of the day, I am going to include a few competitors in the article regardless. If names are not provided by the entrepreneur, I will include names that I feel are appropriate. Therefore, if the entrepreneur has a certain explanation as to why or why not his or her startup may be a competitor of certain companies and not others, it is definitely worth explaining rather than avoiding the question.

Survey says…

Hopefully some of this information was relatively helpful. If you have any questions, comments, concerns or complaints, don’t hesitate to include them in the comments.

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What do Louis Vuitton and Sacre Coeur have in common?

I wrote a (rather exaggerated) post a while back about how French startups seemed to be going after 3 basic areas: food, fashion and flirting. And since writing that post, I’ve discovered even more e-commerce and dating sites popping up. In fact, I’m at the point where I almost don’t want to write about another dating startup for a while. Don’t get me wrong, I love new ideas and I love innovation. But I’m kind of baffled as to why everyone is trying to cram themselves into the same little space. Are all these new sites really making any kind of a difference? Or better yet, do they even generate any revenue?

The startup help-o-meter.

At the end of that same article, I pointed out how I was rather surprised about how there were so few French sites that seemed to address the needs of tourists and international students – who flock to Paris with money to burn pretty much non-stop. If France is the world’s number one tourist destination and I’m still getting people sending me an email everytime they want to know which hotel to stay in or how they should go about renting a flat, there is clearly a need in the market for a good service that specifically addresses a foreign (cash-baring) population. But when there are still needs that are clearly not being addressed and room to innovate, why-o-why is everyone trying to cram themselves into Meetic’s space?

Chasing Meetic’s dream?

Naturally, Meetic’s success has helped local entrepreneurs realize the potential of the dating scene. And obviously, Meetic still has room to innovate. Last year, Marc Simoncini mentioned to me that 2011 would be “the year of the mobile” for Meetic – although the site has yet to bring itself up-to-date with social integration and whathaveyou. So some of the dating newcomers may in fact be addressing the needs of a developing market that Meetic may soon struggle to keep up with. Still, part of me can’t help but wonder if there is some kind of a “Meetic dream” whereby entrepreneurs hope to either have Meetic-like success or get acquired by other dating giants. Or maybe tweeking the Meetic idea is less risky than actually coming up with a totally fresh idea? Then again, perhaps we can witness a similar phenomenon in Vente-Privée’s space as well. Anytime an idea hits the jackpot, entrepreneurs innovate the living hell out of it – but sometimes get so caught up that they don’t see opportunities elsewhere.

Tourist love.

What I think is hilarious is that the government went out and launched France.fr, recognizing that tourists in fact need an online resource with information on France. Several millions were invested to make a very official-looking web portal with your standard France-promo material – but no redirection to a single business site. So I can share articles on visas and whatnot on Facebook and Twitter but I’m very unlikely to get redirected to a hotel website. It may seem odd but let’s not forget that we’re talking about the State. But hey, this still leaves a nice little space in the market for a number of tourist-oriented online services.

If you’re going to launch Groupon in France, do it in English.

Or Arabic. Or Chinese. Or Russian. In fact, if you launch an English Groupon clone with hotel deals only you’ll probably hit the jackpot. I had a conversation not too long ago about how American technology pretty much sells itself – Google, Facebook, Groupon, etc. all has a special stamp of approval just because it’s “made in the USA.” The same can be said for German cars. And for several French industries including fashion, luxury goods and perhaps tourism. Thus, in a land where you have products like Louis Vuitton and Sacre Coeur that pretty much sell themselves, maybe it doesn’t make a lot of sense to want to be a Facebook or Google. French culture has done a rather phenomenal job at marketing on an international level. Now, just add internet.

France is Putting the “F” into “Failure”

A while back I wrote a post on how the French educational system isn’t exactly entrepreneur friendly. And this is just based off of my simple observations and personal experience at a French university. Now that I have attended university in the US, France and the UK, I can say with complete certainty that French professors are by far the harshest with their students when it comes to mistakes. One would think that they get joy out of making their students look ridiculous – even when they make the smallest of errors. I’ve even heard some “feedback” from professors that could make one borderline suicidal. Not exactly what I would call educationally encouraging.

Learning imperfection ?

So, the French grading system makes it literally impossible to get a perfect score in most cases. Students are taught that they cannot be perfect – in all honesty, I quite like this approach but I cannot imagine going through grade school with the impression that I could never get 100%. This rather unhealthy relationship with mistakes, failure and imperfection starts in French classrooms and manages to breed its way throughout various aspects of life – one of them naturally being in the workplace. So when French entrepreneurs start to look a little wobbly, they’re already being told they’re failing.

Failure: some like it not, some like it hot.

What’s hilarious about this is that making mistakes is perhaps the best way to learn. I’m not saying that someone should strive for failure – but when mistakes are kindly pointed out and corrected, it makes for incredibly effective learning. Failure is therefore natural and healthy. One shouldn’t have a fear of it or be ashamed of it – especially not as an entrepreneur, where projects are constantly evolving and being adjusted.

Good job, nice try.

In the US, it’s almost to the other extreme. I remember that sometimes when we would make mistakes in grade school, teachers would still encourage us and say things like “good job” and “nice try.” It made us feel comfortable with sharing our opinions and trying things, even if they were wrong. And if someone can still respect you – even when you make a mistake – it serves as a huge boost of confidence.

Let’s talk about failure, baby.

So now it’s been a few months that I’ve been in touch with Cassandra Philips, who organizes a number of awesome conferences in the Bay Area – including FailCon, a conference dedicated entirely to failure. The last edition of the conference in San Francisco included speakers from companies like Foursquare, MySpace, Revision3, Etsy and Zappos. I imagine you’ve heard of some of those names, right ? Yes, even the best of the best make mistakes. So we are currently in the process of organizing the first European FailCon to take place in Paris later this year*. We’re hoping to get a number of local entrepreneurs to step up and talk about their failures alongside some of the American and international entrepreneurs. Oh, and obviously we’re also encouraging investors to participate and share their thoughts on the value of failure, too.

FailCon 1, FailCon 2.

So FailCon will make its stop in Paris later this year – but before then, Microsoft France is also hosting a mini-FailCon on the 1st of February with some big names in French entrepreneurship, like Gilles Babinet (he’s on my list of 9 French Entrepreneur Names to Know). Hats off to Gilles by the way for being the first incredibly well-respected French entrepreneur willing to share his thoughts with everyone in the French entrepreneurial community – that is huge. I’ll also be moderating and helping to introduce the FailCon concept to the local crowd. Participation is free and you can RSVP directly on the Facebook event page.

Best successful failure stories.

So now I’m on a hunt for the best successful failure stories. There are definitely tons of fantastic examples in the music space, like Deezer or Jiwa (who is set to relaunch very soon). If you have suggestions of failure stories, don’t hesitate to post them in the comments.

*Please feel free to contact me if you are interested in sponsoring or participating as a speaker for this event.

The French A-list

I get lots of local entrepreneurs contacting me, wondering who exactly in France has money in the bank. So just like with the Le Best of French Blogs post that I wrote-up a while ago, it’s perhaps time for a French A-list (or angel-list). Well, here it is kids. These are some names  (in no particular order) that I’d want to be talking to if I was looking to fund my company in France. Obviously, some of these people are also behind funds like ISAI, Jaina and Kima but that doesn’t mean they don’t also invest à titre personnel.

1. Oleg Tscheltzoff.

The CEO of stock photo giant Fotolia, Oleg is honestly one of the few people I’ve met that can just tear a business plan apart. He’s funded over a dozen projects this year, including Dealissime, Leetchi , Restopolitan and PeopleforCinema.

2. Xavier Niel.

Xavier is arguably France’s hottest angel. And don’t just take it from me – an article published in le Journal Du Net in May claimed that he’s invested in over 150 companies, including Leetchi, OpenERP and Deezer. Damn. I mentioned him in an earlier post as one of the 9 French entrepreneur names to know. And if you don’t know him by now, he’s not only the mastermind behind Iliad/Free and makes-up half of the Kima Ventures team with Jérémie Berrebi.

3. Jérémie Berrebi.

Naturally, if I’m going to mention one half of Kima, I’m not about to ignore the other. Berrebi is also a very active investor. Even if he isn’t physically based in France, I’m impressed by what he’s managed to do for local startups from Israel. He’s personally invested in companies like Kwaga and Architurn.

4. Marc Simoncini

Meetic’s current CEO and founder of Jaina Capital is perhaps somewhat less active than Kima’s Niel and Berrebi but still amongst the French investor elite. He’s backed companies including Ouriel Ohayon’s Appsfire, Catherine Barba’s Malinea and Zilok.

5. PKM

The famous face behind Priceminister (acquired this year by Japanese Rakuten for €200 million) is also part of the “entrepreneurs investment fund”, ISAI. He’s one of the many investors in Pearltrees, Novapost and YellowKorner.

And the beat goes on.

There are obviously many more names that I could add to the list, including Kelkoo/Wikio-founder Pierre Chappaz, Vente-Privée founder Jacques-Antoine Granjon, Allociné’s Jean-David Blanc and miore. However these last few appear to be somewhat less active in terms of investments than those listed above. Deezer’s Jonathan Benassaya is also an up-and-coming business angel to add to the list.

Too many cuisiniers.

One thing that I’ve noticed lately is that more and more of the French business angels are coming together for collective investments. Recently, Restopolitan (essentially the French Opentable alongside the likes of LaFourchette and TableOnline) announced a €1 million round with what’s being called the investor “Dream Team”: Oleg Tscheltzoff, Marc Simoncini, Jacques-Antoine Granjon, Jonathan Bennasaya…pretty much the whole gang, quoi. The photo below didn’t happen to go unnoticed on Facebook or in the press either – it’s Restopolitan’s founder, Stéphanie Pelaprat, surrounded by the company’s beautiful bank account. But still, many people are wondering if too many A-level cuisiniers or investors will spoil her startup soup.*

Young Money.

In honor of the theme of our recent TechCrunch France event, the “young” generation of web entrepreneurs and services oriented towards the 15-25 age-range, I’d also like to take this opportunity to give a shout out to 2 of the younger business angels in the space: Fotolia’s Thibaud Elziere and MyMajorCompany’s Simon Istolainen. I don’t think either of them are giving Xavier Niel a run for his money just yet, but it’s definitely nice to see the younger generation giving back to the entrepreneurial community. I could probably also include Berrebi in the youngster investor list too.

Feel free to add additional names to the comments.

*In English, the expression uses “soup” and in French the expression uses “sauce”.