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 🙂

Advertisements

I Left My Heart in San Francisco. But Then I Found it In Europe.

It had been some 20 months since I’d been back to the Homeland, the Mothership,  the land of the free and the home of the brave – or so they say. The birthplace of the oily Big Mac and sugary Coca-cola. But above all, the El Dorado of hi-tech. Yes, it had been almost 2 years since I’d been back to good old Silicon Valley.

Finally putting a little tech into Silicon Valley.

First off, I think I need to congratulate the Bay Area for finally coming around with a few technical improvements.When I first started TechBaguette, I suggested 3 things that Silicon Valley could learn from France. To my knowledge, none of them have been successfully implemented yet. This was later followed by a rant on how Silicon Valley – the Holy land of tech – was still printing paper tickets for public transportation. Yes, paper. But apparently, a lot has changed. The Caltrain finally got its act together and started implementing an Oyster Card-like service – called Clipper #wtf – where users can pay electronically. YAY!

But the fun doesn’t stop here. Another major cool improvement was the credit card-enabled parking meters. Not that I love to pay for parking or anything but I guess the city finally woke up to the fact that the days of carrying mounds of change in our pockets were officially behind us. Double yay.

And of course, what better than selling Facebook Credits in giftcard format alongside pre-paid cards for Amazon, iTunes, Ebay, etc ? I haven’t seen this in either Paris or London yet, but I’m sure it’ll show up sooner or later – if it hasn’t already.

Think different?

Many people say that the difference between entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and elsewhere is that entrepreneurs in the Valley want to change the world. Uh, maybe I took a wrong turn somewhere but I found some of the entrepreneurs I met to be less interested in making a difference than one would’ve thought. The local discourse is still very focused around making money – and more overtly than in Europe (obviously because Europeans are more discrete when it comes to the taboo subject of money in the bank). Oh, and I always tend to find the Silicon Valley crowd to be a bit more arrogant. Just me ? Sure, I did come across a handful of very innovative ideas. But this also means a rise in the bad ideas, too. Then again, if there is one thing those Valley kids know how to do, it’s pitch. Pitch, and sell.

Pride and prejudice.

Then again, I think that when European tech all-stars do go to Silicon Valley the experience can be very humbling. The place is packed with top-notch people – entrepreneurs, investors, you name it. I spoke to a number of people who said the number one myth about Silicon Valley is that things will be easier for foreign entrepreneurs. When the place is swarming with competition, it’s hard to imagine hiring good people, scoring tons of cash and getting tons of traction without putting in mega effort.

E=MC² and mega effort = mega stress.

The one thing that I had forgotten was the stress. Everyone is stressed to the point that nobody bothers to even mention it. It’s a given. In fact, kids and students in Silicon Valley are also stressed out of their minds. For example, I’ve taken a number of trains throughout Europe and not once did I see a sign making a reference to suicide near the tracks (OK, the Paris metro does have an image of a guy getting electrocuted or something, but that’s just your everyday safety tip à la française). In Silicon Valley, the number of people who attempt to kill themselves by jumping in front of a train is apparently so high that they now put up these signs (which I had never seen before, but could’ve very well been there). And every year, I hear about more and more high school students attempting to end their lives this way- many unfortunately succeeding. Not all is cash and smiles.

No man’s techland.

Silicon Valley kind of reminds me of a no man’s land dedicated to tech. There isn’t really that much to do (ok, this is a relative statement), especially if you don’t live in San Francisco. Which I guess kind of lends itself to people working non-stop, just by default. Or trying to pass time by testing and trying new things…

Living Color.

I guess I had kind of forgotten how the local tech community just devours new technologies. They’ll try anything – and I mean, really try it. Not just download the app and forget about it. For example, I went to a dinner where everyone got very into the latest rage, Color. Everyone at the table was taking pictures and posting. I thought it was just because we were at a geeky tech dinner. Then, in some random bar a few days later, we discovered that there were 14 people in that very same bar using Color as well. Using it to photograph their drinks and food, pictures on the wall, etc…and really getting into it.

Madame Michu is not Joe the Plumber.

In London and Paris, your average Joe would probably prefer to have his phones switched completely off when he goes out for a drink. Unless he has to coordinate plans. It’s not polite, classy or cool to pull out a phone, unless you’re in a casual environment with a bunch of techies quoting Star Wars. I’m exaggerating, but you get my point. But all this is just more reasons why entrepreneurs outside the Valley should get more credit. Where it’s more difficult to innovate for legal, political, cultural, financial or whatever reasons, the entrepreneurs are even more dynamite. And when those entrepreneurs succeed, it makes one hell of an impressive story. Not just another dude in a garage in Palo Alto.

Comment dire “bootstrapping” en français ?

One thing that became very apparent to me when I went to stay with some friends in San Francisco was that some European startups – especially those seeking funding – may want to familiarize themselves with bootstrapping. Ironically, I hadn’t really paid too much attention to how much bootstrapping was done by European startups because I assumed it was kind of a given. I do know some stories of French entrepreneurs who gave up foie gras and champagne to eat strictly Cup-o-Noodles in order to launch their companies. But I also know some entrepreneurs that get a luxury, all expenses paid flat in San Francisco when the company is trying to secure funding. Hmm, that doesn’t sound right…

The American Dream. And nightmare.

Still, people in Silicon Valley are not all geniuses and not all the conferences are oodling with people. I was rather surprised (read disappointed) by the Web 2.0 Expo this year. In 2008, that conference had been one of the better conferences I’d attended. This year, it seemed half empty and with little to discover. And this made me realize just how quickly things happen in Silicon Valley. With the same speed that some company can come in, get funded, get bought or announce an IPO, others can flop entirely. I was talking with one entrepreneur friend of mine who brought up the fact that the only reason that the American Dream works is because the American nightmare is so bad and so powerful that entrepreneurs are somewhat flung into a do-or-die situation. I bet seeing the masses of homeless people wandering up and down Market Street in San Francisco serves as a reminder to some.

So while I may’ve left my heart in San Francisco, here are just a few reasons why I found it in Europe. 🙂

France is Putting the “F” into “Failure”

A while back I wrote a post on how the French educational system isn’t exactly entrepreneur friendly. And this is just based off of my simple observations and personal experience at a French university. Now that I have attended university in the US, France and the UK, I can say with complete certainty that French professors are by far the harshest with their students when it comes to mistakes. One would think that they get joy out of making their students look ridiculous – even when they make the smallest of errors. I’ve even heard some “feedback” from professors that could make one borderline suicidal. Not exactly what I would call educationally encouraging.

Learning imperfection ?

So, the French grading system makes it literally impossible to get a perfect score in most cases. Students are taught that they cannot be perfect – in all honesty, I quite like this approach but I cannot imagine going through grade school with the impression that I could never get 100%. This rather unhealthy relationship with mistakes, failure and imperfection starts in French classrooms and manages to breed its way throughout various aspects of life – one of them naturally being in the workplace. So when French entrepreneurs start to look a little wobbly, they’re already being told they’re failing.

Failure: some like it not, some like it hot.

What’s hilarious about this is that making mistakes is perhaps the best way to learn. I’m not saying that someone should strive for failure – but when mistakes are kindly pointed out and corrected, it makes for incredibly effective learning. Failure is therefore natural and healthy. One shouldn’t have a fear of it or be ashamed of it – especially not as an entrepreneur, where projects are constantly evolving and being adjusted.

Good job, nice try.

In the US, it’s almost to the other extreme. I remember that sometimes when we would make mistakes in grade school, teachers would still encourage us and say things like “good job” and “nice try.” It made us feel comfortable with sharing our opinions and trying things, even if they were wrong. And if someone can still respect you – even when you make a mistake – it serves as a huge boost of confidence.

Let’s talk about failure, baby.

So now it’s been a few months that I’ve been in touch with Cassandra Philips, who organizes a number of awesome conferences in the Bay Area – including FailCon, a conference dedicated entirely to failure. The last edition of the conference in San Francisco included speakers from companies like Foursquare, MySpace, Revision3, Etsy and Zappos. I imagine you’ve heard of some of those names, right ? Yes, even the best of the best make mistakes. So we are currently in the process of organizing the first European FailCon to take place in Paris later this year*. We’re hoping to get a number of local entrepreneurs to step up and talk about their failures alongside some of the American and international entrepreneurs. Oh, and obviously we’re also encouraging investors to participate and share their thoughts on the value of failure, too.

FailCon 1, FailCon 2.

So FailCon will make its stop in Paris later this year – but before then, Microsoft France is also hosting a mini-FailCon on the 1st of February with some big names in French entrepreneurship, like Gilles Babinet (he’s on my list of 9 French Entrepreneur Names to Know). Hats off to Gilles by the way for being the first incredibly well-respected French entrepreneur willing to share his thoughts with everyone in the French entrepreneurial community – that is huge. I’ll also be moderating and helping to introduce the FailCon concept to the local crowd. Participation is free and you can RSVP directly on the Facebook event page.

Best successful failure stories.

So now I’m on a hunt for the best successful failure stories. There are definitely tons of fantastic examples in the music space, like Deezer or Jiwa (who is set to relaunch very soon). If you have suggestions of failure stories, don’t hesitate to post them in the comments.

*Please feel free to contact me if you are interested in sponsoring or participating as a speaker for this event.

Hungry for more Techbaguette ?

I admit it, Techbaguette has not only been great geeky fun but this blog has been insanely good to me. It’s kind of taken on a life of its own. I never thought anyone in their right mind would take the good old “TechBaguette” seriously when I launched it. I had one simple goal in mind: share my discoveries and experiences of the French startup scene with the rest of the English speaking world. I guess this means I’m not the only one who likes the French tech crowd ! Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would lead to TechCrunch – although that being said, I can’t deny that TechCrunch didn’t oh-so-slightly inspire it.

“Bonjour, Mademoiselle TechBaguette.”

Since then, I’ve become “Mademoiselle TechBaguette” (nice!) in addition to “Mademoiselle TechCrunch” at conferences. 🙂 A number of people have pitched me cultural variations of TechBaguette, like TechDonut or TechBagel for the US (personally, I’d prefer TechCookie or TechBurger). And so I’ll be celebrating another year of pseudo-Frenchy blogging. Be warned ! Honestly, I’d renew the domain regardless. But now that I’m at it, I’ll take this opportunity to solicit any feedback that may be floating around out there. Questions, comments, conerns, complaints ?

The Truth About French and Belgians

If you don’t already know, the French and the Belgians have a bit of a love-hate relationship. Kind of like the Americans and the Canadians. Who better to poke a bit of fun at than your northern neighbors, eh ? Plus, given Belgium’s rather intricately over-complicated political situation, the southern, French-speaking half of Belgium – yes, Wallonia – is often half jokingly considered a French département. So where better to head as the Editor of TechCrunch France than Belgium’s HQ ? (Yes, that means Brussels.)

Startup baguette or startup with fries ?

Before leaving, I honestly throught that Belgian entrepreneurs probably wouldn’t really be that different than French entrepreneurs. I was pretty sure that I’d find a smaller-scale France but perhaps with a bit of a Belgian twist – like site translations in French and Flemish or something. And that would really be about it. I mean, we’re all in Europe, half of Belgium speaks French and we’re all looking across the Atlantic when it comes to inspiration, right ? But, even though I was only in Brussels for something around 24 hours, what I saw made the Belgians and the French look about as different as, well, cats and dogs.

It’s beginning to sound a lot like Europe.

So first off, I attended an event run by the infamous Betagroup (@betagroup) upon arrival. Seems like this is THE local event, there must’ve been something like 200 people in the room and apparently half the gang was missing because of some simultaneous event at Google. In addition, I was rather surprised to find such an international crowd – I think something like 1 or 2 of the 5 startups we saw were actual Belgians. Even better though is that everyone pitched their startup in English. Guess that naturally makes sense though, if you consider the hostility between the northern Flemish speakers and the southern French speakers.

Belgium, you look so cute in the morning.

But even though Belgium has a king, lots of beer and chocolate and is the home of the saxophone, let’s not forget its also an itty bitty market compared to France. We’re talking a country that’s the size of Paris that doesn’t even speak a common language. Or at least they don’t like to admit it. But English pitches aside, I also found that more entrepreneurs pitch their ideas as “the next European this or that” from the get-go. The Belgian market is too small so naturally they think beyond the +32. French entrepreneurs definitely think international as well. Yet, as a general rule of thumb, I find that French entrepreneurs tend to think France and then an English-speaking market, like the US. Some launch in several European markets but very few actually pitch as THE European je ne sais pas quoi. Well, other than Meetic.

Ladies first.

I was a bit disappointed nonetheless to see that there were even fewer women in the Belgian tech scene than in France.  There were something like 3 women in the room at Betagroup. Thankfully there was Getyoo‘s Marie du Chastel and Brussels Girl Geek Dinners‘ Clo Willaerts, amongst others.

Money in the bank.

The other thing that I thought was rather interesting was the funding scene. Belgium seemed a little void of funding possibilities compared to France, which sometimes seems like its kind of full to the brim with cash these days. Many Belgian entrepreneurs were self-funded or angel-backed – and looking to raise with foreign VCs, because there are hardly any Belgian VCs (other than Gimv) that fund over 1 million euro rounds.

(For any French speakers, this is an excerpt from a terrific Belgian movie, Dikkenek)

“Chaude comme une baraque à frites.”

Ok, so Belgian lingo is a little different from French lingo as well. One Belgian expression, “elle est chaude comme une baraque à frites”, even compares a hot girl to a hot fry stand. Cute and not sure how this would go down in France. Anyhow, even though this idea may sound a bit ridiculous, some of the startup ideas I came across were surpringly original and well-executed. I actually saw very few start-ups that relied on the social web – which I found unusual – and more that seemed to have rather classical e-commerce or standard business models in place.

“The Belgians are coming.”

Like the French, the Belgians also have their eye on the Silicon Valley. They’ve even teamed up with SF New Tech to put on an annual event called “the Belgians are coming”, which is essentially a presentation of Belgian start-ups in the Silicon Valley. I guess the nearest French equivalent would have to be the French Tech Tour, which is organized by UbiFrance and run by my dear friend Gaetan Gachet. But we’re talking about 2 very different events in terms of orientation and scale.

Ne me quitte pas ?

Ultimately, I found there to be certain aspects of the Belgian entrepreneurial scene that were extremeley positive. But it also solidified by pre-existing belief that French entrepreneurs do have it easier than other European markets – especially when it comes to market-size, funding and what not. Yet, some Belgians also leverage the French market to their advantage – like Jacques Brel, Cécile de France, René Magritte, etc. Sometimes, we forget they’re not French because they are as sensational in France as in Belgium. But hey, it’s not like French entrepreneurs don’t do this for French-speaking markets (Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, etc.). I mean, there may be slight differences but it’s all one language after all.

Name a famous Belgian.

I met quite a few interesting companies – all on Twitter and added to my Twitter list @roxannevarza/belgiantechstartups. There’ll surely be more to come and feel free to suggest names to add. Now, who can name a famous Belgian ?