Will The Real French Administration Please Stand Up ?

It’s pretty paradoxical what is happening in France’s startup scene at the moment. On one side of the spectrum, the entrepreneurs, investors and the entire ecosystem seems to be gaining momentum. Several new seed funds were created in the beginning of the year – filling a very obvious gap in the local market and visibly fueling the development of quite a few startups. Then came the various mentorship programs, like the Founder Institute. Followed by the sprouting of regular startup events, like StartinParis, or even Startup Weekend – which is conquering the whole country. The infamous Paris-based co-working hub, LaCantine, is also spreading its wings and setting-up outside of Paris, in addition to a new acceleration program they’ve launched as well. And to top it all off, we’ve now got some of the big-name entrepreneurs talking about potential YCombinator-like programs for local startups. Call me crazy but I truly believe something incredible is going on.

And then the government* showed up.

Let me preface this by saying that I am probably the last person to ever critize France (in case this isn’t already obvious). I’ve even been called France’s cheerleader and community manager at times -probably because questions like this make my blood boil. I’ve always been a fan of the stuff people usually find rather ridiculous – the former 35-hour work week, the strikes, the vacation, etc. Yes, it’s true. So even if I love complaining, I’m not just going to start bashing the French state for the hell of it. I actually think France has a hell of a lot going for it, which surprisingly many people often overlook because they love to grab on to stereotypes and focus on the negative aspects.

But Bercy is apparently out to lunch.

If you’re wondering what the hell I’m talking about, read this. Honestly, it’s something I cannot wrap my head around. If I’m here complaining about it, it’s not at all because I want to bash the government but rather because I want to defend the French entrepreneurs. Plus, wouldn’t the long term effects of such a reform do more harm than good ? I am aware that the deficit is a damn good reason to want to make budget cuts,  but someone needs to wake Bercy up and make it see all the good that the entrepreneurs do for the local economy. The tax breaks that France grants startups – namely the JEI – are probably less well-known abroad but thousands of French startups benefit from them. Startups have been able to put more ressources into hiring and innovation as a result. We’ve already got investors in France that are ever-so-slightly more risk averse than in the US. So in my mind, it should be one of the last things the State should ever want to touch.

Puting Joseph Schumpeter on hold.

Alright, so France wants to ignore Schumpeter for a while, fine. Funny enough, it has also had a positive impact in a way. I have noticed that a majority of the entrepreneurs are really coming together to speak out against it – which is perhaps giving rise to solidarity and bringing them even more together. Some startups and organizations are even offering services for free if it relates to defending the JEI. And this in its turn is also giving more media attention and visibility to certain entrepreneurs and startups. So, France, put Schumpeter on hold all you want, because in the end it’s still producing a positive output – as minimal as it may be…

Shut-up and innovate.

In the end, it may sound a lot like France is telling it’s blossoming entrepreneurial community to shut-up and innovate. And well, that is kind of the case. But France would have to be really disconnected from reality to continue its current path. Once it remembers why it put the JEI in place, I’m sure it’ll come to its senses.

*And as you all know, I’m using “government” to mean “administration“.

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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.

You Suck! Entrepreneurship and Elite French Education

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry published an article in Silicon Alley Insider today on the negative impact of the hierarchical French education system on entrepreneurship. Let’s take a look at his argument for “Why France fails at start-ups”, shall we?

Is “Grande école” French for “Ivy League”?

For all the Silicon Alley Insider readers that saw the term “grande école” and went searching for their dictionaries, grande école refers to the prestigious schools where acceptance is done via an entrance exam. No, it is not a standardized, one-size-fits-all test like the SAT.  Instead, each grande école has its own, très special entrance exam. For the rest of the (essentially free) public universities, they admit anyone. So we see why it’s quite chic to say you went to a grande école.

You mean La Sorbonne?

So we have quite a few grande écoles and quite a few categories of grande écoles by subject or sector. Most of the ones that date pre-French Revolution have names that a majority of people outside of France have never heard of. But we have several categories of grande écoles, including business schools like HEC – and then Polytechnique, the ParisTech schools, Telecom Paris, etc.

Grande école, no école.

As a current Masters student at Sciences Po (perhaps the farthest thing from entrepreneurship after La Sorbonne), I obviously have to give Gobry a bit of credit for recognizing that, yes, as a whole the education system does not exactly glorify start-ups and entrepreneurship. That is, unless you’re at HEC. Or ESCP. Or Telecom Paris.

That was then. This is now.

But wait, did I mention that even Sciences Po has a start-up incubator now? Contrary to the expat rants I heard in San Francisco, I think France is actually starting to embrace entrepreneurship. As for Sciences Po, they’re slacking on the marketing front so they don’t exactly have a website or anything,  but the essential bit is that there are companies coming out of the Sciences Po incubator. Ever hear of Ykone? Or perhaps Weblib? Considering that the incubator is still in its infancy, I’m going to go ahead and say that this is most definitely not a bad start.

Life after the diploma.

I do agree, however, that there is a lot of value and prestige attached to the name of your university – but this is not unique to France. In fact, it is no different from the way that kids come out of Stanford and Harvard and get hired at the drop of a dime. Google, for example, used to and may still go and recruit masses of Stanford students before they had their diplomas – not exactly sure they did the same for public school UC Berkeley. If people didn’t want job security on the other end with a fancy name to go with it, Stanford,  Harvard and Princeton would not be making $40,000+ per student.

You suck!

At encouragement, that is. I could go on for hours; when it comes down to it, what bothers me the most is the idea that France “fails at start-ups”. Is this even a fair statement? If so, why is failure such a bad thing? You live, you learn. If anything, the problem I see in the French education system is that when a student makes a mistake, a French professor is jusified in making this student feel like an idiot – literally. And the overly ambitious, idealistic or visionary? Well, they’re unrealistic and egocentric – so they’re labeled as idiots, too. Now you tell me French VCs and entrepreneurs are risk averse – well, guess why. Think Steve Jobs would’ve dared to make a comeback in France?

Failure is sexy.

Now, I recognize that Americans are the complete opposite,  high-fiving and slapping each other on the back non-stop to avoid a lawsuit. But please don’t tell me you think that Silicon Valley is void of failure. In fact, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are all college drop outs. Let’s not forget, however, that we’re once again talking about Stanford and Harvard. That’s $40k in annual tuition, down the drain.

Darwin, is that you?

At the end of the day, it’s a self-selection process. People who become entrepreneurs have to do it for the right reasons and are not likely to be those seeking a simple cushy job at the end of the grande école tunnel. The proof is that there are elitist schools that produce top entrepreneurs. Like Pierre Chappaz, the founder of Kelkoo – which was bought by Yahoo in 2004 for $475 million.  So, not only is the elitist school system is not unique to France but entrepreneurship is slowly but surely creeping into the elite crowd.

Kind of off topic but not really.

Before I left San Francisco, I heard about an event called FailCon – where top entrepreneurs would get together to talk about their failures. Speakers included: Meebo, Aardvark, Zynga and Slide. Hey France, this doesn’t sound like such a bad idea…

Smart Money: French companies get creative with funding

I’m considering starting a weekly tradition where I give a shoutout to a French company that is doing something I find particularly innovative. Well, this week that company is Lyon-based Regioneo – who launched a user-investment campaign, which I detailed in TechCrunch Europe.

Why is there no translation for “bon appétit” in English?

In case you are unfamiliar with Regioneo, they’re essentially the French equivalent to Foodzie. I thought the idea behind Regioneo was dynamite even prior to this week’s innovative investment initiative, because obviously local artisanal foods in France have an appeal and quality that their American substitutes don’t.

Have your cake and eat it too.

But as much as I like their platform, I’m applauding the innovative way they decided to raise funding this week – which brought them to just under €50,000 in 5 days. Plus, not only did Regioneo raise money, but it brought together a group of high-profile entrepreneurs (or “ambassadors”) to support their cause. Money plus marketing. Yum. Translation: they can have their cake and eat it too (avoir du beurre et l’argent du beurre, en français).

Keep your friends close and your investors closer.

This is not the first company, however, that is leveraging social means for funding. In fact, FriendsClear is another example of local company that is putting a new spin on investment; the P2P lending platform is oriented specifically towards investors and entrepreneurs. Maybe something for Sprouter to consider?

Investitude.

Surely if Ségolène Royal was allowed to make-up words during the last presidential campaign, local entrepreneurs can also invent their way out of roadblocks. In Silicon Valley where it rains VC money on Sand Hill Road, entrepreneurs are possibly less-likely to get creative with funding. And while funding in France is not the monstrosity that everyone makes it out to be, the local VC scene is simply less developed. Which is why I’m sure we’re likely to see more innovation in this space along the lines of what Regioneo and FriendsClear are doing.

Smelling French: Not Such a Bad Thing

Paul Carr published an article in TechCrunch a few days ago and naturally the title caught my eye: Cherchez la fame – or why the media’s obsession with Twitter campaigns will make customer service smell French.

A word on smelling French.

What I think is a little ironic in this article is that “smelling French” is phrased to sound like a bad thing – when in fact, it isn’t. What the article refers is simply equality and egalitarian customer service as a result of everyone having an equal voice on Twitter. Carr even concludes by saying that as a consumer, it’s about time for this so-called French influence to set in.

The upside of down.

What caught me even more off guard in this post was that Carr was suggesting that the French potentially have good customer service – that they essentially had the Twitter system in place before Twitter. Now isn’t that a bit odd, since most of the planet doesn’t exactly rave about their customer service experiences in France? Was that an insult via compliment?

Made in France.

It’s funny how adding a twist of French to marketing can almost go both ways. In the US, anything French is considered classy and potentially of better quality; just by adding a “le” or a “la” to any product name, you can smack a few dollars on the price. Hardee’s agrees:

But every now and then a supporter of the “freedom fries era” reminds us that Pépé Le Pew also belongs in this category.

Napoléon who?

What I’ve been noticing recently is that more and more French tech companies and start-ups want to shed their patriotic colors. They don’t want to be associated with France, per say, because they’re worried it will make them seem small and franco-centric.  As I mentioned in a previous post, French entrepreneurs are largely concerned with the limitations of the local market. If a French company writes “everywhere” as their location on Twitter, I question whether or not they would’ve done the same thing had they been in San Francisco. And more often than not, French companies I talk to for TechCrunch ask me to concentrate on their US or international activities and not to draw too much attention to their French roots.

Global is the new black.

In a way, I think it’s healthy and very reassuring that French entrepreneurs are adopting a more global perspective and that their strategies are international from day 1. I even stumbled upon 2 French start-ups – Silentale and Plyce – that don’t even have their sites translated into French (except for the job/recruitment section), and I’m certain there are others.

Vive la France: don’t be a sell out.

While I don’t think French companies need to preach the Marseillaise, I do think they should remember that being French is not something to hide. Having a Twitter account in English is fine but there is no reason to hide a France-based corporate address just to appear more in-line with tech trends. Plus, let’s not forget the tons of crap comes out of Silicon Valley – not everyone there is Google or Facebook.

More than just Loic Le Meur.

I remember when I first started showing Deezer to people in San Francisco, they seemed to think it was just another Silicon Valley music company to add to the list of Imeem, Pandora, etc. But when they found out Deezer was French, well – it stood out. That’s right – the US may be coming around slowly but surely but they’ll ultimately realize the French tech scene is more than just Loic Le Meur.

Dear US Entrepreneurs, You Have it Easy.

Everytime I meet a new entrepreneur – French, American or otherwise – the topic comes up:

What are the differences between being an entrepreneur in the US and in France?

In my former job, I was constantly confronted with the opinion from the other side of the Atlantic vis-à-vis doing business in France: “The French are always on strike, it’s impossible to fire someone, 35h work-weeks, 2h lunch breaks, blah blah blah…”

US, you need to get your facts together.

Revolution by Gilles BarbierA majority of the stereotypes are downright incorrect. The rest are negotiable; I’m not saying that there are NO strikes or that firing someone is a piece of cake – but it’s all relative. Strikes probably tend to impact tourists more than local residents. For example, strikes at the baggage claim at Charles de Gaulle Airport aren’t really going to affect a majority of local start-ups. Obviously a metro strike is a little more annoying but not all the metro lines are affected and there are other ways to get around. And if you want to talk work contracts – naturally it’s not the hire and fire system of the US, but it’s definitely not impossible to let someone go.

The proof is in the pudding.

It seems that Americans entrepreneurs are coming around and discovering the truth first-hand. Here is a tweet from Michael Schneider (CEO of MobileRoadie), from when he stopped in Paris before the Mobile World Congress last week:

A non-issue.

Oddly enough, many of the French entrepreneurs I have met have actually not complained about the issues that their American counterparts seem to fear in the local market – but they do understand their concerns. Correct me if I am wrong, but either the French know how to navigate their own turf well-enough that these things are simply a non-issue  – or they accept these aspects of doing business as a fact of life. So what then do the French complain about most in their local market?

The problem: 63 million French people.

It’s a recurring theme in all my conversations: the difficulty for French entrepreneurs is not the administrative red-tape but rather the market size. Being number 1 in Europe is NOT the same as being number 1 in the US. A French company is limited to a market of 63 million, whereas a US company automatically has access to a local market of 308 million. Europe may be looking more and more like the US but at the end of the day, a French company wanting to take on a leading US company needs to do more than just translate a website into a bunch of different languages.

It’s not easy being green.

Americans love to give the French a hard time (maybe they’re jealous of the food?). I think the annual Europe-US showdown at LeWeb is a good example of the malentendus that exist between the 2 sides of the same coin. But all things considered, American entrepreneurs have it easy. Rather than bashing a French company for not having an English Twitter feed, they should realize the difficulties of French entrepreneurs and give them a little more credit.

Trying to Make Sense of the French Job Market

Yesterday, Marc Thouvenin (Regioneo founder) posted a tweet that caught my eye:

“Can interns make good community managers” with a link to this blog post by Benjamin Rosoor of Web Report.

Traditional recruitment meets realtime web.

For anyone that can’t read French, Rosoor’s post argues against younger employees – and more specifically, interns – doing the job of community managers. Naturally, you don’t want your average slacker representing your company and your brand on live, social internet. But Rosoor’s post ties in the fact that the job of a community manager isn’t well defined and that many companies don’t put a lot of money on the table for their social media strategy. The result: putting an intern behind the Twitter account could be fatal.

But aren’t we forgetting something?

I think that Rosoor’s post raises a good point – that community management is in fact an important job that should be given to someone with a good grasp of the product, the company, the business, the industry and what have you. And if the person is to be trusted with such an important task, it should be reflected in their paycheck too, no?

But the issue should not be reduced to a question of age or experience.

This is a typical mistake I see in traditional French recruitment practices. The French torture themselves at school (believe me, I am living it) and get diplomas from top universities. But when they graduate, nobody trusts them with anything because they lack experience. What on earth kind of ridiculous logic is that? 10 years of experience to become an engineer? Forget it. I’d understand if it involved a History major trying to become a brain surgeon but that is usually not the case. Plus, how is anyone supposed to get any experience if even as interns they are reduced to doing purely trivial tasks?

Is “trust” a four-letter word?

Maneuvering new web applications may come more naturally to the younger Web 2.0 generation. Would it be so wrong to perhaps trust someone with less experience? I’m sure that with a little training and a bit of trust, the right candidate would hardly set-out to ruin a company’s reputation on the internet.

The French Evolution.

Fortunately, I do feel as though the French tech job market, in particular, is evolving – embracing Twitter, Facebook and the likes for recruitment purposes, thus finding a younger, geekier candidate pool. But it is still not necessarily the norm.

Need experience? Start a company.

Starting a company has possibly become the answer to unemployment and entering the over-hierarchical job market. Once more people realize that online community sites – like Facebook, Deezer, Creads, etc. – were founded by 20-something-year-olds, perhaps they’ll reconsider giving someone with less experience a community management (or other) role.