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.

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Dear French Entrepreneurs : Please get out of line

Your average American probably seems like a good rule follower. They stop at red lights, know how to wait in line and are smiles-all-around. On the other hand, not-so-much for your average French. A little striking and complaining screams probably screams “trouble maker” across the Atlantic. Plus, they’re not good at waiting in line. Just ask French start-ups like DelivrMe and JaimeAttendre.

JUST DO IT ?

So you’d think that with all that noise, French entrepreneurs would be the first to throw themselves in the deep end. But no. Seems the Nike slogan still has some work to do. Actually, there are a few things that everyone seems to point out when it comes to comparing French entrepreneurs to their American counterparts:

1. Too much theory (also known as too much text).

I’m pretty sure this comes from the education system, the administration and the fact that it’s not really a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type of culture. My general impression is that often too much effort goes into over-preparation and that this delays execution. I realized this at a conference I was just at, when it seemed that an insane amount of hesitation was going into launching a simple corporate blog or Facebook Fan Page. Granted, the crowd wasn’t your average tech bunch but still. Sure, it’s important to prepare before launching – but in most cases, it’s not rocket science. A little less paperwork, a little more lights, camera, action. Launch first, tweek later.

2. Too much complication.

For anyone who doesn’t know this, the local general rule of thumb for everything is “why make it simple when it can be overcomplicated ?” And I love this. Except when it comes to launching a company. Numerous VCs have confirmed this for me, but foreign and French – French entrepreneurs have a talent for pitching overcomplicated ideas. I’m not saying that the Americans don’t do this because they do it too. But the KISS rule (“keep it simple, stupid”) could really go a long way here. Take a fraction of your business plan and do it really well. I’m fairly certain Larry and Sergei pitched a simple search engine – not the Google Empire.

3. Too much copycat.

I can’t tell if its an inferiority complex or an attempt to beat the system. Maybe a bit of both. The minute an idea gets big in the States, it immediately gets scooped up and spit back out in Franco-form. Chatroulette, FourSquare, now Groupon, you name it, the French versions all exist. They’re even modified for local taste, kind of like the BigMac. For some US companies – like Yelp, Etsy or Mint – where there is a definite space in the market but no local offer, a local copycat makes total sense. Or in the case of OpenTable , where the US company came but couldn’t crack the French code right away. But fewer ideas of French origin are really making waves à la Vente-Privée. Maybe because all the eyeballs are looking abroad for inspiration ? Either that, or because French VCs feel more comfortable funding ideas that are getting funded in start-up Disneyland, aka Silicon Valley. (That being said, the French really know how to do e-commerce and VCs are way more at ease funding clear revenue models.)

The F-word.

But ultimately, the theory, the complication and the copycat seem to be symptoms of something that is a huge problem for French entrepreneurs to face. Yes, I’m talking about the F-word: failure. Culturally, a failing start-up is much less accepted than in the Valley – but this isn’t news to anyone. But I think that within the start-up ecosystem, this is changing. French entrepreneurs are at least aware of this aspect and talk about it openly. As for talking about their actual failures openly – well, that seems a little too far off in the distance for now. I’d love for one of the future tech events (LeWeb?) to bust out a panel of entrepreneurs to talk about their failures in front of the French crowd. Fail damnit, #fail. Maybe once the French tech crowd gets more comfortable with the idea of failure they’ll get a little more adventurous and out of line.

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.