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…

Bienvenue en France: Welcome to Exitland

Alright, it’s high time we set the record straight. I met with yet another French entrepreneur this morning that seemed to think France was void of decent exits. Well, guess again.

Have you seen me?

In the US, whenever a child or a person goes missing, his or her face shows up on a milk carton (or at least, it used to). Perhaps we should do the same with French companies –  not because they are MIA but because French entrepreneurs seem to forget that there are home-grown companies that make acquisitions. Ok, maybe French companies are somewhat less carnivorous than Microsoft and Google, but that doesn’t mean their acquisitions get to be ignored.

So, let’s take a minute to look at some fairly recent opposite-direction acquisitions from French Exitland:

1. Vivendi.

French Vivendi threw $18.9 billion at Californian Activision in 2007. Let’s not forget they also own American Universal Music Group and 20% of NBC Universal. Not too shabby…

2. Publicis.

A step down from the billions but still a rather heavy price tag: France’s Publicis spent $530 million to acquire Razorfish from Microsoft in August 2009.

3. Dassault.

In 2005 and 2006, French Daussalt went on a shopping spree spending $413 million and $410 million on American Abaqus and MatrixOne respectively. And in case you missed it, they also just spent $600 million to acquire the PLM activities from a little American company called IBM. Hot.

And the list goes on…

French entrepreneurs: stop trashing your own turf.

French entrepreneurs love to tell me that Americans are good at selling themselves and the French are – well, not. Ok, point taken – Americans are possibly the closest thing to genetically modified salespeople. It’s almost weird. But why the French continue to trash their own turf is beyond me. Plus, half the statements French entrepreneurs make about the French techosphere are either founded on thin ice or gross exaggerations: “France is the third world of tech”, “there is no real tech ecosystem in France”, blah blah blah. Oh, the irony. 

Want to see the third world of the tech industry? Go to Wyoming.

Smelling French: Not Such a Bad Thing

Paul Carr published an article in TechCrunch a few days ago and naturally the title caught my eye: Cherchez la fame – or why the media’s obsession with Twitter campaigns will make customer service smell French.

A word on smelling French.

What I think is a little ironic in this article is that “smelling French” is phrased to sound like a bad thing – when in fact, it isn’t. What the article refers is simply equality and egalitarian customer service as a result of everyone having an equal voice on Twitter. Carr even concludes by saying that as a consumer, it’s about time for this so-called French influence to set in.

The upside of down.

What caught me even more off guard in this post was that Carr was suggesting that the French potentially have good customer service – that they essentially had the Twitter system in place before Twitter. Now isn’t that a bit odd, since most of the planet doesn’t exactly rave about their customer service experiences in France? Was that an insult via compliment?

Made in France.

It’s funny how adding a twist of French to marketing can almost go both ways. In the US, anything French is considered classy and potentially of better quality; just by adding a “le” or a “la” to any product name, you can smack a few dollars on the price. Hardee’s agrees:

But every now and then a supporter of the “freedom fries era” reminds us that Pépé Le Pew also belongs in this category.

Napoléon who?

What I’ve been noticing recently is that more and more French tech companies and start-ups want to shed their patriotic colors. They don’t want to be associated with France, per say, because they’re worried it will make them seem small and franco-centric.  As I mentioned in a previous post, French entrepreneurs are largely concerned with the limitations of the local market. If a French company writes “everywhere” as their location on Twitter, I question whether or not they would’ve done the same thing had they been in San Francisco. And more often than not, French companies I talk to for TechCrunch ask me to concentrate on their US or international activities and not to draw too much attention to their French roots.

Global is the new black.

In a way, I think it’s healthy and very reassuring that French entrepreneurs are adopting a more global perspective and that their strategies are international from day 1. I even stumbled upon 2 French start-ups – Silentale and Plyce – that don’t even have their sites translated into French (except for the job/recruitment section), and I’m certain there are others.

Vive la France: don’t be a sell out.

While I don’t think French companies need to preach the Marseillaise, I do think they should remember that being French is not something to hide. Having a Twitter account in English is fine but there is no reason to hide a France-based corporate address just to appear more in-line with tech trends. Plus, let’s not forget the tons of crap comes out of Silicon Valley – not everyone there is Google or Facebook.

More than just Loic Le Meur.

I remember when I first started showing Deezer to people in San Francisco, they seemed to think it was just another Silicon Valley music company to add to the list of Imeem, Pandora, etc. But when they found out Deezer was French, well – it stood out. That’s right – the US may be coming around slowly but surely but they’ll ultimately realize the French tech scene is more than just Loic Le Meur.

The Aardvark Hall of Fame

This is just a quick post in honor of Aardvark (@vark) and my experience with the service that was apparently worth 50 million Google dollars.

Think before you Aardvark.

In the beginning, I was utterly annoyed to get rather irrelevant questions from Aardvark flooding my inbox.  “What time is it in France?” would get my blood boiling. Are these people just trying out the service or is Aardvark going to be the answer for lazy internet users? In short, I replied “10:46am. Time to quit Aardvark.” 

Just don’t make me repeat myself.

While the company definitely needs to  fine-tune its service, I’ve actually grown more and more fond of the silly questions I receive. The subjects I have signed up for are France, San Francisco and Sushi – thus, a majority of the questions I receive are: “What is the best hostel in Paris?”, “Where is the best place in France?”, and “Where can I get the best sushi in San Francisco?” – hopefully Aardvark will eventually recycle my response for repetitive questions (or make the answers public) so that I stopped getting harassed. 

An Aardvark a Day.

But I’ve grown fond of the sillier questions I receive to the point where I now look forward to Aarvark questions.

Here are some of my favorites:

1. Why is it snowing in Paris in February?

Because it is cold.

2. Where can I rent a Castle in France?

It’s called a château. Ask King Albert II of Belgium if you can borrow his in the south of France.

3. I just discovered sushi and I really like it. I eat it a lot. If I eat too much sushi, will I die?

(I actually took the time to explain a little about mercury and food poisoning for this one. Sushi is close to my heart.)

4. What is the goal and/or meaning of life?

Not to ask impossible questions on Aardvark.

5. “Will ya help meh with how/which sports should I do to lose weight and gain height.which sport or which positions(exercises) do you suggest me?”

This question was my all-time favorite and it includes the original spelling errors and everything. Although I didn’t answer. I’m still trying to figure out why I received it in the first place.

France goes to Silicon Valley: French Tech Tour 2010

Just a quick note for French tech companies interested in developing activites in Silicon Valley or establishing relationships with some of the big US tech stars:

La Mission Economique and UbiFrance are now accepting applications for the 2010 French Tech Tour.

From June 4-11, 15 leading French companies hand-picked by the following list of leading IT companieswill have a chance to meet with:

Adobe, Apple, AT&T, Cisco, eBay, Fujitsu, Google, Intel Capital, Microsoft, Nokia, Qualcomm, Sony, Sprint, Symantec and Verizon.

French companies can apply online through March 1, 2010. More information can be found here (in French).

Companies that have participated in the past include: A-Volute, CodaSystem, BinarySec, Smart Quantum, Vision SAS, Digitrad (Yes.tel), Orcanthus, Paytap, Taztag, Calinda Software, Gigatribe, Twinsoft, Delcrea, Bobex, Exaprotect, MyERP.com, TellMeWhere, NewScape Technology and Momindum.

Will work for food, er, ticket resto

I’ve lived with a Googler.

So I know – just like the rest of us, as it’s not exactly a secret – that working at Google comes with a lot of free goodies: discounts on tons of services (ZipCar, AT&T internet, etc), that lovely SF-Mountain View charter bus service, on-campus lectures, dry cleaning, babysitting, you name it.

Oh, and of course, the food.

The best way to spot a Googler is by their fridge, since they never have anything in it (other than NakedJuice and the occasional Google take-out box).

But is everyone in Silicon Valley just working for food?

The NY Times published an article in December about the opening of Facebook’s fancy new kitchen – despite the recent Valley relapse on dining establishments – as a continuation of the 1950’s tradition started by HP to breed company loyalty and acquire talent. Thus working at a high-profile tech company comes with a fat paycheck, label and belly – the “Facebook 15″‘ is apparently what the kids are calling it.

Obviously, not every Silicon Valley company does this – even if they can afford to (the NYT article points fingers @ Lucasfilm, Autodesk, Apple and Cisco, in particular).

Now, in France “company loyalty” isn’t exactly synonymous with “food”.

There are maybe a million theories, articles and books on why the French are thin and the Americans are fat. Well – and by all means correct me if I am wrong – but maybe this has something to do with it.  The French may enjoy their food but I don’t exactly see French companies having in-house fancy foie gras competitions. But maybe do-no-evil Google will change that.

Vive le Ticket Resto?

In France, the absence of a (less grandiose) cafeteria means the Ticket Restaurant system, which is like a meal coupon provided by French employers that is only valid for the purchase of food (ideally prepared food or restaurant food). The employer pays a portion of the “Ticket Resto” (usually a minimum of 50%) and the employee pays the other portion. Ticket amounts usually venture around €10.

Why not just opt out for cash?

The Ticket Resto is not exactly man’s best friend. While many restaurants and grocery stores accept them, not every place will reimburse you if you don’t spend the full amount of your ticket. A lot of restaurants will also put a cap on the total number of tickets you can use to pay (2 in most cases), to keep customers from saving them up only to penny pinch on a fancy meal. But if you prefer to opt out for cash, tough luck.

Then again, Ticket Resto money is fortunately exempt from all taxes. The idea behind this is that food money should be non taxable. That equals happy employer and happy employee. Plus no receipts for TurboTax.

Ticket Resto’s website also provides a simulation on how much employers and employees save with different schemes and different numbers of employees. Here’s the link in French.  

No,”Ticket restaurant” is not French for “disloyal employee”.

People are always bitching about the downsides of the French labor laws, as if every entrepreneur was only out to fire the people s/he hired. Now, this may sound outrageous but the majority of French employees are probably keepers (valid you have some kind of recruitment process in place). Thus, no local companies are competing on who can dish-out more to run a Benihanas and an A-list tech company simultaneously, just to keep their top French engineers from going to work down the street.

So, is Mark Zuckerberg making you fat?

Maybe. He may be serving you organic chicken on recycled plates but that doesn’t mean Michael Pollan doesn’t have anything to say about this. Although Pollan was an invited speaker at the Google campus so maybe he is picking his battles.

And if he’s not making you fat, he might be making you lazy. After all, too much of a good thing may very well put our beloved Facebookers into a post-déjeuner food coma. Loyalty at the cost of efficiency?

PS: In France, people on the street beg for cash, cigarettes – and ticket restos.

As they’re only valid for food (no alcohol), you don’t need to think twice before helping someone out.