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…

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The Truth About French and Belgians

If you don’t already know, the French and the Belgians have a bit of a love-hate relationship. Kind of like the Americans and the Canadians. Who better to poke a bit of fun at than your northern neighbors, eh ? Plus, given Belgium’s rather intricately over-complicated political situation, the southern, French-speaking half of Belgium – yes, Wallonia – is often half jokingly considered a French département. So where better to head as the Editor of TechCrunch France than Belgium’s HQ ? (Yes, that means Brussels.)

Startup baguette or startup with fries ?

Before leaving, I honestly throught that Belgian entrepreneurs probably wouldn’t really be that different than French entrepreneurs. I was pretty sure that I’d find a smaller-scale France but perhaps with a bit of a Belgian twist – like site translations in French and Flemish or something. And that would really be about it. I mean, we’re all in Europe, half of Belgium speaks French and we’re all looking across the Atlantic when it comes to inspiration, right ? But, even though I was only in Brussels for something around 24 hours, what I saw made the Belgians and the French look about as different as, well, cats and dogs.

It’s beginning to sound a lot like Europe.

So first off, I attended an event run by the infamous Betagroup (@betagroup) upon arrival. Seems like this is THE local event, there must’ve been something like 200 people in the room and apparently half the gang was missing because of some simultaneous event at Google. In addition, I was rather surprised to find such an international crowd – I think something like 1 or 2 of the 5 startups we saw were actual Belgians. Even better though is that everyone pitched their startup in English. Guess that naturally makes sense though, if you consider the hostility between the northern Flemish speakers and the southern French speakers.

Belgium, you look so cute in the morning.

But even though Belgium has a king, lots of beer and chocolate and is the home of the saxophone, let’s not forget its also an itty bitty market compared to France. We’re talking a country that’s the size of Paris that doesn’t even speak a common language. Or at least they don’t like to admit it. But English pitches aside, I also found that more entrepreneurs pitch their ideas as “the next European this or that” from the get-go. The Belgian market is too small so naturally they think beyond the +32. French entrepreneurs definitely think international as well. Yet, as a general rule of thumb, I find that French entrepreneurs tend to think France and then an English-speaking market, like the US. Some launch in several European markets but very few actually pitch as THE European je ne sais pas quoi. Well, other than Meetic.

Ladies first.

I was a bit disappointed nonetheless to see that there were even fewer women in the Belgian tech scene than in France.  There were something like 3 women in the room at Betagroup. Thankfully there was Getyoo‘s Marie du Chastel and Brussels Girl Geek Dinners‘ Clo Willaerts, amongst others.

Money in the bank.

The other thing that I thought was rather interesting was the funding scene. Belgium seemed a little void of funding possibilities compared to France, which sometimes seems like its kind of full to the brim with cash these days. Many Belgian entrepreneurs were self-funded or angel-backed – and looking to raise with foreign VCs, because there are hardly any Belgian VCs (other than Gimv) that fund over 1 million euro rounds.

(For any French speakers, this is an excerpt from a terrific Belgian movie, Dikkenek)

“Chaude comme une baraque à frites.”

Ok, so Belgian lingo is a little different from French lingo as well. One Belgian expression, “elle est chaude comme une baraque à frites”, even compares a hot girl to a hot fry stand. Cute and not sure how this would go down in France. Anyhow, even though this idea may sound a bit ridiculous, some of the startup ideas I came across were surpringly original and well-executed. I actually saw very few start-ups that relied on the social web – which I found unusual – and more that seemed to have rather classical e-commerce or standard business models in place.

“The Belgians are coming.”

Like the French, the Belgians also have their eye on the Silicon Valley. They’ve even teamed up with SF New Tech to put on an annual event called “the Belgians are coming”, which is essentially a presentation of Belgian start-ups in the Silicon Valley. I guess the nearest French equivalent would have to be the French Tech Tour, which is organized by UbiFrance and run by my dear friend Gaetan Gachet. But we’re talking about 2 very different events in terms of orientation and scale.

Ne me quitte pas ?

Ultimately, I found there to be certain aspects of the Belgian entrepreneurial scene that were extremeley positive. But it also solidified by pre-existing belief that French entrepreneurs do have it easier than other European markets – especially when it comes to market-size, funding and what not. Yet, some Belgians also leverage the French market to their advantage – like Jacques Brel, Cécile de France, René Magritte, etc. Sometimes, we forget they’re not French because they are as sensational in France as in Belgium. But hey, it’s not like French entrepreneurs don’t do this for French-speaking markets (Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, etc.). I mean, there may be slight differences but it’s all one language after all.

Name a famous Belgian.

I met quite a few interesting companies – all on Twitter and added to my Twitter list @roxannevarza/belgiantechstartups. There’ll surely be more to come and feel free to suggest names to add. Now, who can name a famous Belgian ?

Le Best Of: French Tech Blogs

I’ve had quite a few non-French people contact me regarding the best tech blogs and news outlets in the French technosphere. As my Twitter lists are far from being up-to-date (they will be soon!) I thought I’d put a few names to know here.

French Blogs 101.

First off, one very simple way to find out what’s out there and what’s being read is à la Technorati, via Wikio’s rankings (done according to number of links to the blog and apparently retweets as of June 2010).

But let me highlight a few of my favorites/names to know that are perhaps less-known outside of France (in absolutely no order whatsoever)…

Electron Libre @3l3ctr0nlibr3)

A really super blog about hi-tech, media and culture. You’ll get everything from Microsoft’s latest adventure to what Italy’s Berlusconi’s been up to – with a little twist of what’s been going on with French music start-ups.

Korben (@korben)

The best of geekdom, seriously. Korben will publish anything from a possible wannabe Social Network Google Movie (yawn) to a video game that lets girls beat up men who hit on them (yeowza). Honestly, it’s hardcore tech with a terrific twist of entertainment.

Presse Citron (@pressecitron)

Presse Citron is another blog at the peak of tech – but with more of a newsy flavor. Main topics span from the next best Twitter-based service to the war between printed versus electronic books. Definitely a must-know blog for France’s tech space.

Frenchweb.fr (@Frenchweb)

Tech and start-up news – and not just for the French tech space! Groupon acquisitions, Facebook Places launch, you name it, it’s all there. Plus, there are tons of terrific interviews with local entrepreneurs – and foreign ones too. Not a blog to overlook.

Blogomania.

And of course there are TONS I didn’t mention. You’ve also got your local ReadWriteWeb France, Mashable France – oh, and TechCrunch France. Obviously. 🙂 Ya, ok, there are obviously many more worthwhile blogs/online media publications I didn’t cover – especially for hi-tech and start-up news  (VendeDesign, Journal du Net, Journal du Geek, Accessoweb, JeanMarieGall, etc.). By no means does it mean that I don’t read them or find them insanely well done. The French tech space is FULL of bloggers.

Bonjour, je m’appelle geek.

There are also some local tech experts that have their own blogs and are really worth knowing – I’m thinking of Olivier Ezratty and Jean-François Ruiz’s WebDeux, but there are certainly more. I also really love when I come across entrepreneurs that have blogs as well. I’ve seen some really fabulous ones – but perhaps my all-time favorite is that of Submate founder, Laurent Kretz (yes, it’s in English!). Oh, and it looks like Netvibes and Jolicloud founder, Tariq Krim, may be back to blogging as well. THAT would be something.

And the girliest geek blog award goes to…

GamonGirls. I love the initiative. Yoda USB keys, iPhone news, gadgets, blah blah blah – all that with a hint of pink. Thank God it’s more serious tech and less like that horrible Valley Girl show. Don’t get me started.

By the way, anyone recognize the host ? Hint: DFJ.

Don’t be MIA.

I am not even going to try and pretend this list is anywhere near exhaustive. If you’ve got a killer blog about tech and startups in France, PLEASE add the URL below with a brief description of exactly what you cover and in what language. Merci!

My thoughts on the French Government’s attempt at a “digital workshop” #loi20

Last night, the President of the right-wing French political party UMP, Jean-François Copé, inaugurated what was supposed to be an atélier numérique participatif or a participative digital workshop. The menu of topics to be covered included a variety of issues on web 2.0 and internet regulation. I attempted to live-tweet most of the event in English with the event hashtag: #loi20.

Shut up and participate.

First things first, I realize we’re talking about the French government** but the fancy shmancy suit-and-tie atmosphere didn’t really put the “participative” in “atelier numérique participatif”. I vote that the next digital workshop attempt to adopt a more start-up feel by introducing the Google dresscode. Ah, but let’s not be ridiculous, perhaps the “participative” aspect can be casually overlooked.

How about some technology with that digital workshop?

Worse that the stuffy atmosphere was that there seemed to be a clear absence of “digital”. Aside from there being a lone iPad in the entire room (no, it was not mine – and I’m aware that the number of iPads doesn’t really prove anything), there seemed to be a really obvious lack of technological support. The TV screens, traditionally known for their motion picture capabilities, displayed a static subject of debate for over 2 hours. I’m faily certain that a good portion of people in that room wrote a thing or two on Twitter, yet none of it was displayed anywhere in the room. I highly encourage the government to consider adopting the model of tech conferences in the future – or at least to visit one just for a bit of inspiration.

Once upon a time there was a big, bad Internet.

Another thing that kind of struck me as odd was the way some of the topics were addressed, as if the Internet and all these web 2.0 companies were really out there to get us. *Insert an evil Zuckerberg laugh here* Oh, and apparently someone in the room thought that Linkedin and Amazon were in some kind of an evil partnership to distribute information regarding your sexual orientation. Hmmm…there were definitely remarkable differences between last night’s crowd and the more internet savvy gang that I’m used to. Dare I say generational gap? My favorite part was the elementary, 2-minute course on tagging Facebook photos.

Excuse me, you seem to have dropped your objective.

I had to leave early so I didn’t get to hear all the brilliant things that were surely said about net neutrality and the Hadopi law. But then again, I definitely didn’t grasp the whole point of the event. Was it to simply answer questions about tagging Facebook photos and “revealing” your sexual preferences to Amazon and Linkedin (pretty sure neither companies have any information on this, by the way)? Was it for the government to get “a general consensus” (based on the 50 or so people in the room, of which only 7 spoke) on certain topics? What? I thought there was going to be some kind of presentation, some kind of information or a game-plan to be distributed. But no. Well, whatever the objective, if the government wants to get an idea of where the Internet community stands on certain issues, they’re going to have to try a little harder.

#nocomment

Plus, did I mention that Copé left early to go “take care of” the whole banning the burka deal?

**For everyone that is going to get on my tail about using the word “government”, please note that the French translation of this word is “administration”.