Should France even want to be another Silicon Valley anyway?

If there’s one thing I have a low tolerance for, it’s France-bashing. Sadly, it seems to be a default sport for many journalists. Whenever they have nothing better to write about, a little critique of the oh-so-traditional French Republic will surely fill up the sapce. Take The Economist, for example. It’s a magazine that I actually still highly admire. But I remember reading this one article not too long ago about how London was just all the more attractive for the young, French population – because “France itself is hardly booming.” Uh, right.

Having second thoughts ?

(Some  anti French-bashing humor to lighten the mood)

But then, as if the magazine had suddenly woken up to reality, it decided to follow-up with an article on how startups are actually helping to jump-start reform in the economy. Yes, the media actualy finally picked up on what the article refers to as France’s “silent majority.” This is “the France that does not go on strike…” the France that casually gets ignored whenever the press discusses anything even mildly France-related.  And even better, the article even includes a nice little interview (in English with a twist) with Vente-Privée founder Jacques-Antoine Granjon to prove that yes, good ideas and determination can make big companies – even in France. Now, I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but if the rather traditional Economist is going to change its view of France (even ever-so slighly), maybe it means something.

Still not your average piece of cake.

That being said, France is still not an entrepreneur’s heaven. It’s got its fair amount of administrative headaches and complications. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: US entrepreneurs have it easy. Sure, there are some that think that France will never be like Silicon Valley – but then there are some, like serial entrepreneur Gilles Babinet, that would argue that it is in fact possible.

More than on the right track.

Gilles published a fantastic article in Les Echos -just after the French Government awoke to the fact that Internet companies were responsible for over 700,000 jobs in France -where he made some bold suggestions on how France could help local entrepreneurs make the country an industry leader. Some of his suggestions include developing official university courses dedicated to the Internet industry and multiplying public and private partnerships between universities, research centers and small and large companies. Most of what he proposes actually isn’t foreign to France – it just isn’t as developed or valued as it should be. For example, 3 of France’s top entrepreneurs obviously recognized the need for university cirriculum dedicated to the Internet industry – which is why Xavier Niel, Marc Simoncini and Jacques-Antoine Granjon are launching the Ecole Européenne des Métiers de l’Internet. But in such a centralized State, some of these initiatives may need to be actively promoted by the local administration.

No longer dreaming about Silicon Valley.

But Gilles doesn’t just draw on inspiration from the US to make his suggestions – but from other international models as well (like the Ministry of International Trade and Industry in Japan). Silicon Valley, as incredible as it may be, is not necessarily what France should be trying to be. In fact, France – like all other European countries, currently including the UK – has already tried to make its own Silicon Valley (see the video below, in French).

Fortunately, the country seems to have now recognized that you cannot just cut and paste what works in California on the sunny French Riviera. Therefore, some initiatives – entirely unique to France – have been put into place and prompted innovation and investment in their own way. Some of these include the Crédit d’Impot Recherche, the Statut Jeune Entreprise Innovante – and maybe even the weath tax (ISF) credit for investing in a startup. It takes a little bit of trial and error but I can’t say that these initiatives haven’t had a positive impact in one way or another. But if there is one thing I don’t get, it’s why the Government likes to change some of these startup-oriented benefits on a rather regular basis.

If at first you don’t succeed…

Sure, the Silicon Valley does seem to provide a lot of inspiration for the tech world, whether it be product innovation or stories of rags to riches. France has definitely taken some of the models that have worked abroad and tried to adapt them to the local environment – it’s only natural. And slowly but surely, they seem to be tweeking them to fit the local environment.

Euhhhhh, it’s better when it’s (not only) French.

If there is one thing that the French often take a lot of heat for, it’s being “too” French. I remember in the US, many entrepreneurs used to tell me “but isn’t France is only for French people?” As a foreigner who has known many foreigners in France, the answer is simple: no. There are some hot-shot US entrepreneurs that have left the States to launch projects in France. I also know of some very successful local entrepreneurs and investors that are not of French origin (Spanish, Moroccan, etc.). France may seem somewhat less cosmopolitan than London, but the integration model is also very different and mirrors that of other continental European countries. The entrepreneurial crowd is unique and recognizes the value of being more internationally oriented.

LeBridge.eu

I’ll leave you with a quick word on a new initiative I recently got involved with – because I think it’s a nice way to show how the local tech scene is coming out of its shell. It’s called Le Bridge and it’s an organization that aims to help connect the various European entrepreneurial scenes through events (in English!) and whatnot. For now, it’s primarily targeted towards bridging Paris and London but additional European cities will likely follow. And I wouldn’t be surpirsed if an interconnected European startup scene doesn’t catch the eye of our friends in Northern California…

PS/ Yes, Axelle’s article is what prompted me to write this – but I think deep down inside she was trying to communicate a similar message 🙂

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.

The French A-list

I get lots of local entrepreneurs contacting me, wondering who exactly in France has money in the bank. So just like with the Le Best of French Blogs post that I wrote-up a while ago, it’s perhaps time for a French A-list (or angel-list). Well, here it is kids. These are some names  (in no particular order) that I’d want to be talking to if I was looking to fund my company in France. Obviously, some of these people are also behind funds like ISAI, Jaina and Kima but that doesn’t mean they don’t also invest à titre personnel.

1. Oleg Tscheltzoff.

The CEO of stock photo giant Fotolia, Oleg is honestly one of the few people I’ve met that can just tear a business plan apart. He’s funded over a dozen projects this year, including Dealissime, Leetchi , Restopolitan and PeopleforCinema.

2. Xavier Niel.

Xavier is arguably France’s hottest angel. And don’t just take it from me – an article published in le Journal Du Net in May claimed that he’s invested in over 150 companies, including Leetchi, OpenERP and Deezer. Damn. I mentioned him in an earlier post as one of the 9 French entrepreneur names to know. And if you don’t know him by now, he’s not only the mastermind behind Iliad/Free and makes-up half of the Kima Ventures team with Jérémie Berrebi.

3. Jérémie Berrebi.

Naturally, if I’m going to mention one half of Kima, I’m not about to ignore the other. Berrebi is also a very active investor. Even if he isn’t physically based in France, I’m impressed by what he’s managed to do for local startups from Israel. He’s personally invested in companies like Kwaga and Architurn.

4. Marc Simoncini

Meetic’s current CEO and founder of Jaina Capital is perhaps somewhat less active than Kima’s Niel and Berrebi but still amongst the French investor elite. He’s backed companies including Ouriel Ohayon’s Appsfire, Catherine Barba’s Malinea and Zilok.

5. PKM

The famous face behind Priceminister (acquired this year by Japanese Rakuten for €200 million) is also part of the “entrepreneurs investment fund”, ISAI. He’s one of the many investors in Pearltrees, Novapost and YellowKorner.

And the beat goes on.

There are obviously many more names that I could add to the list, including Kelkoo/Wikio-founder Pierre Chappaz, Vente-Privée founder Jacques-Antoine Granjon, Allociné’s Jean-David Blanc and miore. However these last few appear to be somewhat less active in terms of investments than those listed above. Deezer’s Jonathan Benassaya is also an up-and-coming business angel to add to the list.

Too many cuisiniers.

One thing that I’ve noticed lately is that more and more of the French business angels are coming together for collective investments. Recently, Restopolitan (essentially the French Opentable alongside the likes of LaFourchette and TableOnline) announced a €1 million round with what’s being called the investor “Dream Team”: Oleg Tscheltzoff, Marc Simoncini, Jacques-Antoine Granjon, Jonathan Bennasaya…pretty much the whole gang, quoi. The photo below didn’t happen to go unnoticed on Facebook or in the press either – it’s Restopolitan’s founder, Stéphanie Pelaprat, surrounded by the company’s beautiful bank account. But still, many people are wondering if too many A-level cuisiniers or investors will spoil her startup soup.*

Young Money.

In honor of the theme of our recent TechCrunch France event, the “young” generation of web entrepreneurs and services oriented towards the 15-25 age-range, I’d also like to take this opportunity to give a shout out to 2 of the younger business angels in the space: Fotolia’s Thibaud Elziere and MyMajorCompany’s Simon Istolainen. I don’t think either of them are giving Xavier Niel a run for his money just yet, but it’s definitely nice to see the younger generation giving back to the entrepreneurial community. I could probably also include Berrebi in the youngster investor list too.

Feel free to add additional names to the comments.

*In English, the expression uses “soup” and in French the expression uses “sauce”.

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.

Have You Seen Me? 9 French Entrepreneur Names to Know

Talk to anyone from Silicon Valley about French names in hi-tech and you’ll systematically get the 3 same answers: Loic Le Meur, Jeff Clavier and Pierre Omidyar – if you’re lucky.

But how about French entrepreneurs in France?

In an earlier post I suggested putting French entrepreneur success stories on milk cartons to remind us all of the home-grown sensations. So why not take a minute to consider 9 home-grown French hi-tech names-to-know ?  The list is ideally in some type of order, but then again not really.

Gilles Babinet.

This man is a French serial entrepreneur to know – creating his first company at age 22 back in 1989 (a few years ahead of Zuckerberg?). Some of his success stories include Absolut (acquired by Euro RSCG) and Musiwave (acquired by Openwave and later Microsoft). He recently co-founded 3 hot start-ups including Eyeka, Digicompanion and MXP4.

Jérôme Rota.

This guy is the mastermind behind DivX – the technology and now the company. While he later went on to co-found DivX, Inc. in San Diego, California, Rota initially developed the technology back in 1998/1999 in Montpellier as a 20-something-year-old. But I don’t need to convince anyone that French engineers are la crème de la crème, do I?

Roland Moreno.

Yes, ok, it’s not exactly hot off the press but it’s far from trivial. Wonder why France is so ahead of the US when it comes to electronic ticketing? This is the French face behind the invention of the smartcard in 1974 – now used in just about everything. The following year, he went on to launch Innovatron. And last I heard, he gave everyone a scare in 2008/2009 with rumors of a risky health situation.

Xavier Niel.

The co-founder of Iliad (who has the ugliest website ever – not like it matters) is part of the reason I pay far less for internet in France than I ever did in San Francisco – but I’ve applauded his contribution to the invention of triple-play Freebox before. In addition to Iliad, he also co-founded WorldNet, which was bought by KapTech (Neuf Cegetel) for €40 million in 2000. He recently co-founded seed-fund, Kima Ventures, with Jérémie Berrebi. Oh – and if I’m not mistaken, he’s also part of the college drop-out club. Nice.

Pierre Chappaz.

This guy was not only of the co-founders of Kelkoo (acquired by Yahoo) but has also been behind the successes of Wikio and Netvibes.

Yves Guillemot.

Guillemot is one of the 5 faces behind France’s video game giant, Ubisoft. The Guillemot brothers have also founded a number of additional companies (7 total) – including Gameloft and Guillemot, which both went public along with Ubisoft.

Marc Simoncini.

Another serial entrepreneur to know. Simoncini, like Babinet, founded his first company in 1985 at the age of 22. His first real success came with iFrance, which was sold to Vivendi in 2000. He then went on to create Meetic, which has done a great job at blowing everyone else out of the European online dating market and bought Match.com’s European activities last year. Like Niel, he also recently launched a seed-fund, Jaina Capital, with Michel Kubler.

Pierre Kosciusko-Morizet.

The brother of the current Minister of Digital Economy, Kosciusko-Morizet is one of the co-founders behind e-commerce success, PriceMinister. He, too, got an early start – launching his first company in his (incredibly) early 20’s.

Jacques-Antoine Granjon.

Anyone that gets a €2 billion acquisition offer from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (and additional offers from Gilt and eBay) should definitely make the list – 47-year-old Jacques-Antoine Granjon is the long-haired founder of French success story Vente-privée.

Educate me.

Did I miss someone uber important? There are definitely another 50 people I could easily add. The list is obviously far from exhaustive and highly influenced by my non-expert knowledge. Feel free to add to the comments and enlighten me.

Le Seed: FCombinator and the TechEtoiles

Last week, Zlio’s Jérémie Berrebi and Iliad’s Xavier Niel announced the launch of their new seed fund, Kima Ventures, which I wrote about in TechCrunch Europe. Kima’s aim is to invest between €5,000 and €150,000 in 100 start-ups within the next 2 years.

Uh, that’s a lot of seed.

There’s been a lot of whispering about whether or not this is a good idea. How on earth do they plan to manage 100 companies, let alone make that many investments? With something like 52 weeks/year, Kima would need to make roughly 1 investment per week to reach their goal.

A dime a dozen.

Personally, I don’t really understand the criticism. It isn’t exactly raining seed money in France. And while Niel and Berrebi may be more occupied with making investments than actually managing them, entrepreneurs will have the added benefit of working with 2 of the hottest names in French tech – and their networks. What’s not to like about that? And the relationship comes with a check – better than lining-up at OSEO, no?

Two of a kind.

Funny enough, Marc Simoncini of Meetic announced the launch of a similar seed fund, Jania Capital, only several months before (be sure to check out their gorgeous website). If nothing else, I think France’s seed situation is about to dramatically improve.

FCombinator and the TechEtoiles.

The one model that seems to be locally MIA, is the YCominator or TechStars-type model: also known as mentorship with seed money.  Obviously there is Seedcamp, which is pan-European, but what about a YCombinator program for France? The Founder Institute, which just launched its Paris program, offers the mentorship component without the seed. So until someone decides to put this system into place, Kima and Jaina are essentially the next best thing for seed funding in France.