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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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.