What do Louis Vuitton and Sacre Coeur have in common?

I wrote a (rather exaggerated) post a while back about how French startups seemed to be going after 3 basic areas: food, fashion and flirting. And since writing that post, I’ve discovered even more e-commerce and dating sites popping up. In fact, I’m at the point where I almost don’t want to write about another dating startup for a while. Don’t get me wrong, I love new ideas and I love innovation. But I’m kind of baffled as to why everyone is trying to cram themselves into the same little space. Are all these new sites really making any kind of a difference? Or better yet, do they even generate any revenue?

The startup help-o-meter.

At the end of that same article, I pointed out how I was rather surprised about how there were so few French sites that seemed to address the needs of tourists and international students – who flock to Paris with money to burn pretty much non-stop. If France is the world’s number one tourist destination and I’m still getting people sending me an email everytime they want to know which hotel to stay in or how they should go about renting a flat, there is clearly a need in the market for a good service that specifically addresses a foreign (cash-baring) population. But when there are still needs that are clearly not being addressed and room to innovate, why-o-why is everyone trying to cram themselves into Meetic’s space?

Chasing Meetic’s dream?

Naturally, Meetic’s success has helped local entrepreneurs realize the potential of the dating scene. And obviously, Meetic still has room to innovate. Last year, Marc Simoncini mentioned to me that 2011 would be “the year of the mobile” for Meetic – although the site has yet to bring itself up-to-date with social integration and whathaveyou. So some of the dating newcomers may in fact be addressing the needs of a developing market that Meetic may soon struggle to keep up with. Still, part of me can’t help but wonder if there is some kind of a “Meetic dream” whereby entrepreneurs hope to either have Meetic-like success or get acquired by other dating giants. Or maybe tweeking the Meetic idea is less risky than actually coming up with a totally fresh idea? Then again, perhaps we can witness a similar phenomenon in Vente-Privée’s space as well. Anytime an idea hits the jackpot, entrepreneurs innovate the living hell out of it – but sometimes get so caught up that they don’t see opportunities elsewhere.

Tourist love.

What I think is hilarious is that the government went out and launched France.fr, recognizing that tourists in fact need an online resource with information on France. Several millions were invested to make a very official-looking web portal with your standard France-promo material – but no redirection to a single business site. So I can share articles on visas and whatnot on Facebook and Twitter but I’m very unlikely to get redirected to a hotel website. It may seem odd but let’s not forget that we’re talking about the State. But hey, this still leaves a nice little space in the market for a number of tourist-oriented online services.

If you’re going to launch Groupon in France, do it in English.

Or Arabic. Or Chinese. Or Russian. In fact, if you launch an English Groupon clone with hotel deals only you’ll probably hit the jackpot. I had a conversation not too long ago about how American technology pretty much sells itself – Google, Facebook, Groupon, etc. all has a special stamp of approval just because it’s “made in the USA.” The same can be said for German cars. And for several French industries including fashion, luxury goods and perhaps tourism. Thus, in a land where you have products like Louis Vuitton and Sacre Coeur that pretty much sell themselves, maybe it doesn’t make a lot of sense to want to be a Facebook or Google. French culture has done a rather phenomenal job at marketing on an international level. Now, just add internet.

French Innovation Trends: Food, Fashion and Flirting

It’s funny how often the subject of conversation goes back to “Why is there no Google or Facebook coming out of France?” Some people like to point fingers at investors, saying French investors are too risk averse. But then there are others that say this is simply because the local exit market is, well, almost nonexistant (yes, I’m exaggerating but only slighly). But if you think about it, there are some things “made in France” that pretty much sell themselves.

It’s better when its French.

Now other than being good for a chuckle, this Hardee’s advertisement uses a twist of French seduction and food to portray the all-American burger as better when it’s French. Interestingly enough, local startups may be doing something a bit similar – at least in my humble opinion.

Food, Fashion and Flirting.

Honestly, what else comes to mind when you think of France? Ok, perhaps tourism, too. Now, maybe it’s just me but local companies do seem to be innovating more when it comes to their cultural roots. Fashion websites, food-related sites and obviously dating websites seem to be all the rage. Either that or I’m just hungry and need to go shopping.

L’amour à la française.

People who’ve been paying attention to what I’ve been writing on TechCrunch recently are probably starting to think I’m obsessed with dating sites. Let me reassure you, this is not the case. But is just so happens that recently there seems to be a lot of really creative ideas popping up. Maybe they’re all inspired by French dating giant Meetic? I’ve written about the not-so-new Adopteunmec (where women pretend to buy their boyfriends), Smartdate (for dating the friends of your Facebook friends), Attractive World (it’s all in the title – you have to be rich, beautiful or preferably both in order to be OK-ed by the exclusive VIP community), Ladieshoesme (mixing women’s shoe fetishes and dating) and most recently Loueunepetiteamie.com (renting a girlfriend) took a turn towards an online escourt service. Not sure how I feel about this last one but a little flirting never hurt anyone – and definitely seems to benefit the local entrepreneurial crowd.

Miam Miam.

Yes, that’s French for “yum yum.” And food is definitely at the heart of tons of sites across the planet – not uniquely in France. But obviously in a country where food is tied with long-standing traditions, it’s harder to find early adopters for new technologies. Getting traditional wine chateaux or restaurants to use Foodzie or OpenTable-like platforms is by no means an easy task (insert a José Bové comment here – and then check out this hilarious game). Although recently, there seems to be more companies managing to leverage the French passion for good food and wine. Companies like Regioneo (French Foodzie), LePotiron (online marketplace for locally-grown produce), the French Opentables (LaFourchette, Restopolitan, TableOnline…), Restoprivé (Vente-Privée but for exclusive restaurant deals), Vinobest (Groupon for Wine) – and most recently, Super Marmite (a platform where individuals can cook and sell food to others). This last company was one of the finalists for LeWeb this year and I think the oh-so-French pitch (seriously, Jacques Pépin would be proud) was just phenomenal, check it out:

Who is more famous: Louis Vuitton or Louis XIV?

When I was living in LA (painful thought), not a day went by when I didn’t see a Louis Vuitton handbag (another painful thought). The French are good at fashion and I don’t think I need to tell anyone that the French are good at e-commerce, that is all yesterday’s news. Vente-Privée’s acquisition chats with Amazon and PriceMinister’s €200 million acquisition helped solidify this. But while there are tons of companies in the traditional e-commerce space – like MyFab and Spartoo –  there are also some more creative companies that are leveraging French fashion. Ok, maybe the products sold on GoldenHook are not exactly haute couture but it’s definitely creative to employ the elderly to knit products, which are then sold on the platform. Then there are some more recent companies that seem to be going after social shopping, like LooknBe, or video-driven fashion e-commerce, like WallDress. The business models for these last 2 are yet to be proven but it’s definitely an interesting trend.

There’s no local Twitter – but a damn lot of tourists.

So obviously there are tons of travel sites and whatnot as well but honestly I know of fewer sites that really target an international crowd with good insider information (if you know of one, correct me and let me know). MyLittleParis perhaps but the information isn’t necessarily traveler’s info. Oh, but then again, the government went and launched that whole France.fr portal so that the whole world would be able to find travel information on France. But man, what a buzz kill. I honestly think that there are still tons of tourists that have no clue how to find the information they’re seeking. In fact, the NUMBER ONE question I get asked on Aardvark is “what is the best hotel/hostel in Paris.” Actually, some of the more innovative travel/tourist-oriented sites – like AirBnB – are not local, but they are already tapping the French market. Food for thought…

Does French Innovation Need a Few More Famous Faces?

This subject has actually been on my mind for a while, triggered by the first time I saw MC Hammer at a conference in San Francisco (pretty sure it was the AlwaysOn Stanford Summit in 2008) and thought it was a total joke. The man had announced the launch of his start-up DanceJam.com and all I can remember thinking to myself, hashtags included, is:

#WTF is a hiphop celebrity from the 80s doing trying to mingle with the Silicon Valley crowd?

(Watch the video and then imagine it playing in your head as you casually see him speaking on stage at a tech conference…)

But Hammer wasn’t the only one making the Hollywood-hall-of-fame-Silicon-Valley-crossover. Ashton Kutcher showed up at TechCrunch50 only a few months later to launch Blah Girls. And regardless of what you think of his investments, U2 lead singer Bono has been doing more than just hanging out with VC firm Elevation Partners since 2004. So as much as I may want to laugh about Hammer’s online dance class site or the name “Blah Girls”, I can’t deny that these celebrities only help make Silicon Valley look sexy –  even if it’s in a ValleyWag type of way.

France has no ValleyWag. Not yet.

I’m not sure it really needs one though. There’s no reason to turn the budding tech community into a gossip rag at this point. Plus, no French tech stars are dating anyone famous à la Digg founder Kevin Rose and I-dont-know-who and if they are, well, quite frankly who really cares. But what the tech community could definitely use is a little more advocacy*, as the words “tech” and “geek” still go hand in hand.

Lights, camera, actionnaire.

Ok, that was a lame joke, since actionnaire is the French translation for shareholder. But back to the point. Some French Hollywood stars, like Thierry Lhermitte and Patrick Bruel, have actually gone the investment route. Cinema star Lhermitte invested in a anti-piracy company TMG and poker-addicted singer Bruel went for Winamax. Sure, they look more like support for personal interests and projects rather than investments in innovation but I could say the same about MC Hammer’s site now couldn’t I? Seriously, Cannes, send over a few more famous French faces!

PS/ Journal Du Net put together a list of top tier French business angels back in March but most of the faces come from the tech world.

The fine line between fame and geekdom.

In the US, I always felt that there was an incredibly fine (read: “invisible”) line between being a star from Silicon Valley and a star from Hollywood. And to prove it, Hollywood’s take on the tech world has also transformed, moving from a documentary-style take on Microsoft’s development (Triumph of the Nerds), to a TV series (Pirates of Silicon Valley) and now to a feature film (The Social Network). The 2 industries almost feed off each other now.

To be honest, I don’t know of any local equivalents to these films/shows (please enlighten me if they exist). So rather than a melodramatic version of Facebook’s history, court cases included, all the “innovation” that gets any media attention is the rather comical yet pathetic saga of France.fr (don’t get me started). But off the top of my head I can already think of at least 2 local start-up stories that would make killer screenplays.

Allez les Bleus, er, entrepreneurs !

But French entrepreneurs are making their way to prime time television, slowly but surely. In fact, one of my favorite initiatives is that of Meetic and Jaïna Capital founder Marc Simoncini, who recently began hosting 15-minute TV segments featuring entrepreneurs on Canal+’s iTele. Sure, Sarkozy may still need a verified Twitter account (Elysée Palace doesn’t count) to be officially considered an early adopter – but a fair share of French soccer players (ignoring the World Cup fiasco + underage prostitution issues) have already beat him to it. Look, all I’m saying is that if the Queen of Jordan can show up for LeWeb and find the time to Tweet, there are definitely more local faces that want to join in the fun…

*By “advocacy” I do not simply mean investment and tweeting but simply adopting certain technologies, participating in conferences, etc.