TechBaguette launches the Failpage

So, as many of you may already know, Cass Phillips and I are teaming up to launch the first European edition of the FailCon in Paris later this year. It’s a conference that Cass started in the Bay Area so that entrepreneurs could share stories of failure and how to recover/avoid it.

Hot topic.

Failure seems to becoming more and more of a hot topic – and not just in conferences. For example, Failure is this month’s cover story for Wired UK and the April edition of the Harvard Business Review. And just yesterday, the New York Times published an article on a “Facebook class” at Stanford with a few lovely failure stories inside. Failure seems to be popping up left and right and numerous entrepreneurs and investors seem to be popping up to talk about it.

No, you go first.

When I published an article on TechCrunch France announcing that the FailCon would finally be making its way to France, our readers didn’t hesitate to comment that one would have to be very courageous to be a speaker at such an event. But then again, one would have to be very courageous to be an entrepreneur as well, right? Once Gilles Babinet came on board (you can check out his presentation slides here and video here), it was easier to get other speakers to step up to the plate. But I found that it was a little bit like pulling teeth to get some people to actually give concrete, personal examples of failures – big or small – and how they recovered or could avoid it in the future. It was more of a “no, you go first” mindset – which is definitely not the right way to approach the issue, especially as a speaker at such a conference.

Harder than it looks.

Obviously, talking about one’s failures on stage in front of hundreds of people is harder than it looks. And I’ve discussed before how the “You Suck” mindset in French schools definitely isn’t very encouraging for risk-takers. In fact, during one of the panels of the first Failure Conference in Paris in January, someone in the audience sent a tweet asking if everyone on stage could share a personal failure story or take a risk on stage. In retrospect, it would’ve been a terrific way to lead by example but I let comment go unnoticed and the opportunity slip away.

My Failpage

The funny thing is, even if it seems that entrepreneurs and investors are reluctant to grab the microphone when it comes to this topic, they don’t hesitate to share their stories with me. Which is why I’ve decided to add a special page to my blog dedicated to “failure” stories. It’s a sensitive and personal subject, so I’m not about to go broadcasting their stories without their permission. But I definitely think that it can only help get people more comfortable with the subject. I’m going to publish stories that people may or may not already know but I’m also happy to include anonymous tips and stories as well.

Oh yes, you failed.

On a final note, I was recently talking with an entrepreneur that runs a rather large company – something like 500 to 600 employees – and asking a few questions to see if it would make sense for him to speak at the Failcon. I found it rather funny that his first reaction was “of course, but I haven’t failed as an entrepreneur, so I don’t really know what I could talk about.” Seriously? You mean to tell me that your company was an instant success from day one and that building a 600-person company is a piece of cake? Really? I almost wanted to tell him that only such a statement would make him a failed entrepreneur because he obviously didn’t learn anything or take any risks. Of course, no entrepreneur can be called a failure as entrepreneurship is simply about inventing your way out of problems; entrepreneurs are thus problem solvers by definition – the more complex the problem, the better. So to tell me that he didn’t know what he could talk about, well, that was perhaps a good example of a failure…

The un-four-letter-word.

What I realized, is that people are still uncomfortable with the word “failure” because they don’t realize that I’m actually talking about success. I’m obviously not looking for a guy that hit a problem that he couldn’t figure his way out of – but the opposite. I’m looking for the “we did this, it didn’t work, so this is what we did instead” type stories. Stories like why didn’t the first game published by social games developer Kobojo take off? How did they change the model and their approach so that the next games would attract millions of users? Or why did the initial version of Moo.com fail and how did the founders relaunch the site in 2006 and become the success that they are today? So, if you have a story or a tip that you’d like to share (even anonymously), don’t hesitate to send me an email.

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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.

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…