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.

Under the radar: Are some French companies hiding?

Somehow, the conversation always ends up on which Silicon Valley companies are MIA in France.

A week or two ago, Deezer’s Jonathan Benassaya posted this comment on Twitter:

Opentable actually launched in France in 2008 and ironically their product didn’t take off – so I am told. French restaurants were too traditional to go electronic with their reservations at the time.

I agree. But apparently the situation has changed since 2008 and there are actually a few French companies in this space already: LaFourchette, Restopolitan and TableOnline.

Aside from OpenTable, another name that gets brought up frequently as potentially MIA in France is Mint. But guess what – ISWIGO is doing a pretty good job of covering that domain locally.

So why were these names under the radar?

Ok, perhaps some of it is Silicon Valley’s sexy name that seems to dwarf foreign competitors. But French companies may also have different communications strategies than American companies. I noticed, for example, that La Fourchette and ISWIGO are absent from Twitter (PLEASE correct me if I am wrong!). I’m probably starting to sound like Robert Scoble but Twitter is free and makes lots of noise – I don’t really see the point in saying no.

Wait, it gets worse…

Worse than not having a Twitter account, however, is not having a press kit available on a website. Restopolitan happily offers me a subscription to their newsletter when I sign onto their site but doesn’t have a press section? Don’t get me started on the other info missing from the website. The same goes for ISWIGO and La Fourchette isn’t really that much better.

Good noise, bad noise.

Are French companies somewhat more conservative, as a whole, when it comes to communication? Is this due to the fact that mess-ups and blunders are less tolerated in France than in the US? Do US start-ups differentiate less between good noise and bad noise? How would a French company have handled the release of Beacon? Or the Kevin Smith incident with SouthWest on Twitter?

All eyes on the SNCF et the RATP.

If there is one group that consistently takes a lot of flack from angry customers, it’s the French public transporation groups – the national SNCF and the Paris RATP. These two organizations have teamed up and done a fabulous job with Blogencommun – a blog that keeps commuters updated and responds to concerns and complains about strikes, construction, problems, etc. Blogencommun is also on Twitter (@blogencommun). I think this is one terrific example of a French group taking the web 2.0 wheel to help control and communicate regarding mess-ups.

Now all they have to do is release an English translation for the poor tourists…