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…

Advertisements

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”.

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.

13 hot French entrepreneurs under 30

I’ve been wanting to do a post on this topic for a while – because whenever someone tells me that it’s insanely difficult to launch a start-up in France, I chuckle to myself and think: “Hey, if 20-something-year-olds are doing it fresh out of school, it can’t be that hard, right?” I also have recently noticed that becoming an entrepreneur from a young age is becoming more à la mode – so here is my list to set the record straight.

Hot or not?

The trouble is there are actually a lot of young entrepreneurs out there. This list is insanely far from exhaustive and is just a few names that I think are likely to stick around for a while. As the entrepreneurial community is predominantly male, I should also probably clarify that by “hot”  I am referring strictly to their start-ups. After all, this is not my attempt to be the Franco-version of Valleywag. PS. You’ll notice that I’ve chosen 8 companies and 13 names.

1. Jonathan Benassaya & Daniel Marhely (Deezer).

The Deezer boys are behind one of the hottest – if not the hottest – online music company to come out of France. While they are still incredibly young, Daniel (25) and Jonathan (29) kicked off their entrepreneurial careers in 2004 and 2005 respectively. Yep, Daniel was still a teenager at the time.

2. Eric Bennephtali (MediaStay).

As the story goes, this 26 year old started his internet career in middle school. He then went on to drop out of school at the age of 13 to launch the internet performance marketing company we currently know as MediaStay – which is also the publisher of games sites like Kingolotto and Grattages. Yes, that makes another one for the drop-out club!

3. Ronan Pelloux & Julien Mechin (Creads).

The 25-year-old team is behind the online participative ad and logo creative platform, Creads, that gives internet allstar Gilles Babinet’s Eyeka a run for its money. Oh, and the 2-year-old company already counts international offices in Spain and Japan.

4. Simon Istolainen (PeopleforCinema, MyMajorCompany, Architurn…).

Yes, he’s been an entrepreneur since 2008 and the 25-year-old is already on his 3rd company (he just announced Architurn, after MyMajorCompany and PeopleforCinema). The participative investment platform model seems to have been very good to him, in both the music and film distribution spaces. But my favorite part about this kid’s success story is that he studied the farthest thing from entrepreneurship and tech in school: that’s right, anthropology.

5. Céline Lazorthes (Leetchi).

Leetchi is the first company of this 27-year-old lady and she’s already got big names like Oleg Tscheltzoff, Jérémie Berrebi and Xavier Niel backing her platform for group gift purchases. Nice.

6. Stéphanie Pelprat (Restopolitan).

The 26-year-old founder of a French company, Restopolitan, that dares to compete with OpenTable has entrepreneurial energy spewing from her veins. As she’s got a few more tricks up her sleeve, she’s not likely to disappear.

7. Boris Saragaglia, Paul Lorne, Jérémie Touchard (Spartoo).

The Spartoo trio (Boris pictured) started right out of school, back in 2006, when the sum of their ages was less than 75 (I’ll let you figure this one out). Today Boris (27), Paul and Jérémie run the très successful French/European equivalent to Zappos. These kiddies also scored €12 million in January. Hello, Jeff Bezos?

8. Hadrien Gardeur & Loic Roussel (Feedbooks).

The 26-year-old team (Hadrien pictured) started their digital publishing/distribution platform, Feedbooks, back in 2007 with a very international vision. The company definitely knows what it’s doing in the English-speaking market, as does Hadrien who is brilliantly bilingual.

More than Mark Zuckerberg.

There are definitely numerous companies that I could add including the boys at Owlient, Ykone, Cafédelabourse or the coed team over at Likiwi. And another one that almost made the list: Benjamin Bejbaum from DailyMotion. Feel free to add more youngster entrepreneur names that come to mind in the comments.

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…