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.

I’ll Show You My iPhone Apps If You Show Me Yours…

A while ago, I bought a netbook – a Sony Vaio, to be specific (mainly for price, removable battery, size and pixel reasons as a traveling blogger). I tweeted my purchase, not really expecting anyone to care all that much. It was more just to pass time as I waited in line at the FNAC. But turns out quite a few people did care. Perhaps there are also people that also care that I use Jolicloud as my netbook OS (virtual hi-five to Tariq), have a Nikon Coolpix digital camera, that I don’t own an iPad (yet) or an iPhone4 and that I have actually purchased songs off of iTunes – sad, but true.

Now, maybe you’re wondering what apps I have on my iPhone?

So here are the stats: I currently have some 108 applications on my iPhone and I delete and download rather regularly. I prefer not to pay for the app unless it’s really something special – which means yes, I have purchased apps. The most expensive app I have ever bought is probably in the €4.99 range.

Back to basics.

I’ve got a number of apps for news in English and French, including The New York Times, Le Monde, Les Echos, Challenges, NPR News, The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, etc. Then I’ve naturally got to keep up with my tech blogs in French and English, which means I’ve also got a few names like TechCrunch (naturally), VentureBeat, Presse Citron, Korben, Journal du Net, Journal du Geek, Guy Kawasaki, etc. And then I’ve got Facebook, Linkedin, Skype and Yammer (to communicate with the TechCrunch gang – by the way, I just adore Yammer). I recently added Viadeo, even though I’m not particuarly active on that network, because it is hard to tell whether Linkedin or Viadeo is the network of preference for the French scene.

Birdy Nam Nam.

For Twitter, I use Twitter’s app – I actually tested a whole ton of Twitter client apps (Echofon, Seesmic, Twitterific, etc.) on the train from Marseille to Paris and happened to like Twitter the best, even though there are still a few missing features and it just started crashing on me yesterday (bad Twitter, bad). Seesmic was a very close second – so I keep it on my phone just in case. The Twitter app that disappointed me the most was Echofon, which happened crashed on me when I was at a conference. As a blogger, that is perhaps the 2nd worst thing to forgetting my laptop charger. I should keep this in mind if the Twitter app I currently use doesn’t get its act together.

An American in Paris.

2 apps that have dramatically changed my life are Pinger Textfree and iConvert. I use Pinger to text everyone in the US for free when Orange was trying to slap on extra euros to my monthly bill for international texting (I’m a huge texter). And iConvert I use for anything from keeping tabs on the euro/dollar exchange rate to properly cooking in grams and milliliters.

I get around round round get around I get around.

Apps I use to get around Paris and such include the standard Google Maps and RATP lite – a free application which maps the Metro lines. I’ve also got the Voyages-SNCF application on my phone for TGV tickets and the Velib’ application for the nearest bike-share stations – even if I’m not the biggest Velib user on the planet. 2 more apps I recently added just to make my life easier are Comuto‘s carshare application and Taxi Bleus for taxi reservations – but I haven’t had an opportunity to actually use either of their services yet. And of course Pages Jaunes, aka the Yellow Pages, is always good to have if you’re looking for an address.

I’m the Mayor of nowhere.

Travel and news-related apps are probably the 2 biggest categories of applications on my iPhone. I’ve also got a few geo-social apps, like Submate, Foursquare and CheckMyMetro – which is the Foursquare for the Paris Metro. I should have Plyce too but the truth is, I’m just not a huge user of geo-social. Well, not yet. Anyone who is my friend on Foursquare knows this. It’s kind of like how I’m not a huge user of online chat (Gchat, Skype, Facebook, etc.) – it’s nothing against the service but more the fact that I use it for one-off situations rather than on a regular basis.

Paris, Paris.

When it comes to exploring Paris, obviously I love the MyLittleParis app  for discovering hidden places and things to discover (yes,  I covered this for TechCrunch). For more classic touristy info, I downloaded Paris à Pied – the free app is supposed to provide info on museums, parks, etc. but hasn’t really done much but crash on me several times. Not très cool. Then again, there are other paid apps that are probably better quality but I didn’t bother to look into it. I do find it odd that the Louvre is one of the few local museums that actually has its own app though. I guess when it comes down to it, there is really no better app for discovering Paris than the Guide du Routard’s app (€4.99) – I especially like section on free stuff to do in Paris.

Not exactly in the bag.

If you’re thinking to yourself: wait a minute, she’s got no shopping apps on her phone – you’re right. There are naturally tons of apps for shopping (Vente-Privée‘s app is a huge hit) but this hasn’t really sunk in to my system yet. If I’m going to buy anything on my phone for now, it’s probably going to be a TGV ticket.

Oh là là, c’est oh-so-French.

I did download a few apps that are pretty much France-only apps. One of them is the Ticket Restaurant app, which lets you see which places near you accept Ticket Restos (which I discussed in an earlier post). There is also Clopclop (which recently came out only for iOS4) – a similar idea but for finding cigarettes or open tobacco shops. I’ve also got iPharmacien for finding a near-by pharmacy – but haven’t used it yet (PS: if anyone has good medical apps, let me know).

Yum yum.

French food is a must so I’ve got a few apps for restaurants and recipes. I bought Marmiton’s application because I just love the recipes on the site. The application is also just beautiful and insanely helpful while grocery shopping. Then I’ve got the Guide de Restaurants (by lintern@ute). And for reservations there is TableOnline (am I going crazy or are Restopolitan and La Fourchette MIA from the App Store?). I’ve got Qype, Yelp and Dismoiou on there too but haven’t really dug into using them yet for social recommendations – but I will. According to Alloresto’s website, there is an iPhone app for take out but it isn’t in the App Store…

Pass the time away.

Of course the geek in me has a few games and rather stupid apps too – I naturally have Tetris and Fat Booth and a couple other random games that I hardly use. I have a few education apps as well – one on sushi, one on French sign language and the Corsican language app I cannot stop talking about. I’ve obviously got dictionaries, translators, a few quiz apps (history, geography, etc.) and Wikipedia on there as well.

Why, Europe, why.

The one app (and service!) that I am perhaps most sad about not being able to use in Europe (aside from Netflix, which has very little to do with iPhones) is Pandora Radio. I was a HUGE Pandora user in the US. So then you’re probably wondering what music application I have on my phone – Deezer? Spotify? Answer: both. Although I’ve been a Deezer user longer than a Spotify user, I’ll admit it. I also have an iPod for my iTunes – which I don’t play on my iPhone to keep it’s rather pathetic battery in shape.

The price is right.

2 great little apps that I have on my phone, Pikadeo and Mobiletag, let you get more info on what cinema is playing a movie by photographing a poster or which store sells a particular item for the best price by identifying the bar code. Both French companies, both fabulous applications. But not 100% fool-proof, FYI.

It’s showtime.

My all-time favorite application is Allociné’s iPhone app – for movie times, locations, tickets…and previews ! Even if I don’t have time to go see a movie, at least I can easily keep up to date with what’s playing and effortlessly watch the trailer.

A very-close 2nd-favorite application is either Shazam or Melodis’s Soundhound – which identify random songs you hear playing in bars, restaurants, etc. I hate that they’re both capped at 5 free songs/month so I like to switch between the 2 (*insert evil laugh here*) to get 10 songs for free. 🙂 Between the 2, I actually prefer Soundhound because at least there are ways you can EARN more free songs without buying packages or subscriptions. Clever.

That’s (not) all folks!

Obviously I didn’t name all 108 applications on my phone – but I definitely covered a fair chunk of them. I’d be interested to know what absolutely essential applications I forgot – especially for someone living in Paris. Feel free to add to the comments and let me know…

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.

Attack of the MyMajor Clones – a French Malady?

Seems everyone these days wants to be another Groupon, Foursquare – or even Chatroulette. And I can’t blame them. When a model works in one country or industry, why not just modify it a bit, apply it to a new market and hope for it to take off? Sounds like a game plan to me.

Enter MyMajor.

In France, one group of clones has sprung off of the success of MyMajorCompany (MMC). For anyone who doesn’t know, the company is essentially a participative music label. Translation: crowd-sourced funding for music production. Yes, that means any old nobody with a bank account and a minimum of €10 can essentially become a music producer once the total funding for an artist hits €100k. And to make a long story short, the model took off in France, is now distributed by Warner Music France and has produced some local best-sellers, like Grégoire (don’t ask my opinion on his music please). FYI: this is yesterday’s news in France, as the company has been around since 2007 and started making headlines shortly after.

Cut, copy, crowd-fund.

So OK, I’ve seen a lot of clones of all types of companies and to be honest, I’m not against it. Plus, for the crowd-sourcing/crowd-funding models, I actually think they often capture the beauty of the internet/web 2.0 – and I’m fairly certain this trend is unique to France as a direct result of MyMajor’s success. Another French company that has done a brilliant job in leveraging the crowd via internet is MyFab (obviously a slightly different model). But now I see this model being applied left and right to every last product or sector you can think of – from furniture to start-ups. A majority of the ideas are actually quite interesting but seriously, what’s next? 

MyMajorVC?

I’ve recently seen several companies try to pitch the MyMajor model for crowd-funding start-ups (I told you French companies were creative with funding) and I’m particularly skeptical of this idea. For music, the model works because it’s more or less a B2C market; consumers know what they like so by funding, they are essentially pre-selecting and confirming a future purchase. Oh, and the ROI is not too shabby. But for a silly bypasser betting €10 on a random B2B start-up – I’m just not sure that would amount to anything other than, well, €10. Then again, with all the ISF funding floating around in France, I’m not sure it’s really all that different.

YouFund, iFund?

Still, I actually think that this model could be refined for a specific type of product or start-up and work very nicely. It just needs to be well-implemented and not addressed to all start-ups as a whole. Crowd-fund something small. Like an app. Perhaps this model could give KPCB’s iFund a run for it’s money? Oh, and that’s $200 million, to be exact.

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.