TechBaguette launches the Failpage

So, as many of you may already know, Cass Phillips and I are teaming up to launch the first European edition of the FailCon in Paris later this year. It’s a conference that Cass started in the Bay Area so that entrepreneurs could share stories of failure and how to recover/avoid it.

Hot topic.

Failure seems to becoming more and more of a hot topic – and not just in conferences. For example, Failure is this month’s cover story for Wired UK and the April edition of the Harvard Business Review. And just yesterday, the New York Times published an article on a “Facebook class” at Stanford with a few lovely failure stories inside. Failure seems to be popping up left and right and numerous entrepreneurs and investors seem to be popping up to talk about it.

No, you go first.

When I published an article on TechCrunch France announcing that the FailCon would finally be making its way to France, our readers didn’t hesitate to comment that one would have to be very courageous to be a speaker at such an event. But then again, one would have to be very courageous to be an entrepreneur as well, right? Once Gilles Babinet came on board (you can check out his presentation slides here and video here), it was easier to get other speakers to step up to the plate. But I found that it was a little bit like pulling teeth to get some people to actually give concrete, personal examples of failures – big or small – and how they recovered or could avoid it in the future. It was more of a “no, you go first” mindset – which is definitely not the right way to approach the issue, especially as a speaker at such a conference.

Harder than it looks.

Obviously, talking about one’s failures on stage in front of hundreds of people is harder than it looks. And I’ve discussed before how the “You Suck” mindset in French schools definitely isn’t very encouraging for risk-takers. In fact, during one of the panels of the first Failure Conference in Paris in January, someone in the audience sent a tweet asking if everyone on stage could share a personal failure story or take a risk on stage. In retrospect, it would’ve been a terrific way to lead by example but I let comment go unnoticed and the opportunity slip away.

My Failpage

The funny thing is, even if it seems that entrepreneurs and investors are reluctant to grab the microphone when it comes to this topic, they don’t hesitate to share their stories with me. Which is why I’ve decided to add a special page to my blog dedicated to “failure” stories. It’s a sensitive and personal subject, so I’m not about to go broadcasting their stories without their permission. But I definitely think that it can only help get people more comfortable with the subject. I’m going to publish stories that people may or may not already know but I’m also happy to include anonymous tips and stories as well.

Oh yes, you failed.

On a final note, I was recently talking with an entrepreneur that runs a rather large company – something like 500 to 600 employees – and asking a few questions to see if it would make sense for him to speak at the Failcon. I found it rather funny that his first reaction was “of course, but I haven’t failed as an entrepreneur, so I don’t really know what I could talk about.” Seriously? You mean to tell me that your company was an instant success from day one and that building a 600-person company is a piece of cake? Really? I almost wanted to tell him that only such a statement would make him a failed entrepreneur because he obviously didn’t learn anything or take any risks. Of course, no entrepreneur can be called a failure as entrepreneurship is simply about inventing your way out of problems; entrepreneurs are thus problem solvers by definition – the more complex the problem, the better. So to tell me that he didn’t know what he could talk about, well, that was perhaps a good example of a failure…

The un-four-letter-word.

What I realized, is that people are still uncomfortable with the word “failure” because they don’t realize that I’m actually talking about success. I’m obviously not looking for a guy that hit a problem that he couldn’t figure his way out of – but the opposite. I’m looking for the “we did this, it didn’t work, so this is what we did instead” type stories. Stories like why didn’t the first game published by social games developer Kobojo take off? How did they change the model and their approach so that the next games would attract millions of users? Or why did the initial version of Moo.com fail and how did the founders relaunch the site in 2006 and become the success that they are today? So, if you have a story or a tip that you’d like to share (even anonymously), don’t hesitate to send me an email.

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. 🙂