Pardon my French

The French for some reason get a lot of crap about their English. Ok, it’s got a little ring to it but that’s not really anything to write home about.

Accents are charming. Period.

What’s not charming, however, is limited market reach – which you unfortunately get if you’re going to limit yourself to a non-English language. I can’t even count the number of times I have discussed the topic – if you want to go global in today’s world, you kind of have to speak English, too. Duh.

Dictionary bilingue.

I actually think that French start-ups understand that they need to be bilingual. France has made remarkable progress, linguistically – and the TechCrunch Paris event that was held entirely in English last week goes to prove it. Plus, I think I’ve brought up before that there are numerous local start-ups, like Silentale, that don’t even have French on their websites.

I still, however, stand by Deezer’s French Twitter account – which was attacked by Robert Scoble last year at LeWeb. Seriously, would Deezer have 11 million users if their Twitter didn’t address the local population? Don’t think so. I sound like a broken record…

Unpronouncable.com

So while French start-ups are definitely beginning to think more global – they should also make sure their company name doesn’t handicap them. After a conversation I had earlier with someone at Advent Venture Partners (funded French companies like DailyMotion), it became more than apparent that French companies may also be limiting their growth by selecting English-unfriendly names. And yes, English speakers are particularly good at butchering beautiful French names – like Vente-Privée, or anything with a “privée” in it for that matter. But on the flip side, this type of name may work in the luxury industry, as French names carry a certain marketing weight that English names never will.

But hey, this isn’t specific to France. Another example of a company that may eventually have a pronounciation identity crisis is Germany’s Qype – or even Xing (can we not just put a “z” in it already?).

Dismoiou (Tellmewhere) is one of the few French companies that I’ve seen that has actually gone out and translated its name for the respective markets. I find this to be another interesting approach that Dismoiou has actually executed very well.

Shame on you, Steve Jobs.

And no – American companies are not fool-proof either when it comes to internationalization and language. I cannot tell you how many times I have been asked how to correctly pronounce “Linkedin” in France (it’s leenkt-in).

But one thing that really shocked me was the iPhone (yes, I dare to criticize the almighty Empire) – which is surprisingly French-unfriendly given its particularly wide adoption in France. Ok, so it’s no secret that typing on the iPhone keyboard requires ridiculous talent. But for French speakers wanting to include accents in their emails or texts, it’s essentially game over. It may seem minor but the devil is in the details. I don’t know what lousy or malicious engineers designed that layout for Apple – but they surely weren’t French.

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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…