Confessions of a Tech Blogger – Part 1

This past week, a friend of mine from college reached out to me from halfway across the globe. He mentioned to me that he had launched a (pretty damn cool) startup and was seeking advice on how to get in touch with the tech press – TechCrunch, Mashable and the likes. This most definitely isn’t the first time a friend has reached out for this kind of advice. I figured a  number of people could benefit from it, so I’ll just post some of the questions and my answers here. This definitely isn’t completely comprehensive, but it’s my 2 cents on some of the basics…

Not another bedtime story.

If you go on Quora, there is tons of good information for individual publications. For example, “How to get your company covered on TechCrunch” curently has 15 answers. MG Siegler is leading the answer rankings with “Do something amazing, we’ll find you.” And while this is true, I have also found that a story can sometimes get hidden because an entrepreneur thinks they need to present their company in a more traditional fashion – like a standard press release on fundraising, a new product launch, etc.

Photo credit: Eric Rice

“Chickens playing FarmVille.”

The lovely Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, who currently writes for Business Insider, published this article last week. I looked at caption below the picture and just broke out laughing. Really? But hey, it caught my eye. In the same way that the 9-year-old kid publishing magazines with MagMagz’s platform caught my attention. Often, I just want a more creative angle to present a product or a startup, rather than the old “this business does this” approach. If I can break a stereotype or turn a couple of heads with the title AND present the product at the same time, then I’m most likely in. Like the Italian entrepreneur that got funded in 19 days. Then again, don’t go forcing your cat to use your product just so some journalist can write about it. That’s just cheap.

Ride a wave.

In addition to classic announcements (fundraising, opening an international office, etc.), it’s also interesting to cover startups that are part of a larger trend. For example, if your product is related to Facebook, Twitter, Quora, Zynga, etc. Ok, honestly, this gets old after a while. More Groupon clones or French dating sites, anyone? If you’re riding a wave and we’ve already talked about the market quite a bit, your product better be rather innovative or have something special. Simply being a copycat (unless you have killer traction) will not retain my attention very long.

I say “exclusive”, you say “exclusive”.

The way you give the journalist the information is perhaps just as important, if not more important, than the information itself. “Exclusive” is perhaps a journalist’s favorite word. If you’re a little startup and you have a good story, consider allowing one or two of your favorite journalists to publish the story before the others. It probably sounds really basic but if I can publish or provide content that is not available elsewhere, then I am a happy blogger. It’s as simple as that. Consider being precise about the date AND the time of publication as well – and make sure it works for the journalist. Just as an FYI, there are some subjects that I won’t cover unless I have an exclusive. Then again, if it isn’t really hot news, adding an “exclusive” to pitch journalists won’t really get you very far…

If you poke me on Facebook, I probably won’t write about you.

Even though it may not always seem like it, bloggers are people, too. I actually would like to have a personal as well as professional use of various technologies and platforms – just like everyone else. Therefore, I have made it very clear that you can contact me via email, Linkedin, Twitter…even Quora. If we are already friends on Facebook, by all means, shoot me a message if you have info to share. But if I don’t know you and you are trying to contact me on Facebook to pitch a story, my reply will ALWAYS be “email me.” Oh, and please don’t poke me to get my attention on Facebook for an article. That’s just unprofessional (and you run the risk of me publishing something about it in an article, if I write one).

Opinionated.

Once again, this seems rather obvious but I cannot stress it enough; know the journalist you are pitching to. This means not only the subjects they like to write about but also how they are likely to present them. I have had people pitch me things that are not really in the editorial line of TechCrunch (matresses made in Greece, a Chinese wine producer…). And just because your company now has an iPhone application doesn’t mean that you belong on a tech blog (unless your application physically makes coffee – if that is the case please email me ASAP). But even within the same publication, different journalists have different preferences and topics they’re comfortable with. To give you a good example, Michael Arrington and I are probably not likely to write about France in a similar way.

Blogging in the real-time.

Blogs are different from other media because they are perhaps one of the most real-time sources of information. And they are an interactive media. So, clearly avoid snailmail, unless it is your product and there is no other way to send it. When you send information via email, consider including additional media that would be relevant other than just text: links, videos, images, screen shots. And don’t hesitate to send updates after the article is published – they can always be modified and added to.

Be nice…and realistic.

I saw the above question and thought that it is just ridiculous to ask this kind of question. Do journalists go around crowning the “worst entrepreneurs” ? I know I don’t. Journalists make mistakes. It happens. Some of us even write in a language that is not our native language. If you need to make a correction, be polite about it.

“We don’t have any competitors, either.”

I’m not even going to tell you the number of times I have been told by an entrepreneur that he or she has no competitors. It kind of baffles me. I wrote an article once where I talked about a new French startup and it’s VERY HOT competitor – and the startup was not particularly pleased. WTF? What better than to be compared to the one of the hottest companies?! If I compared you to Apple or Facebook would you be upset? And if I didn’t draw the comparison in my article, my readers would clearly point it out in the comments anyway. No need to pretend.

When I ask the question, I am not doing it to undermine the business of the entrepreneur but rather to have a better understanding of the product and the market. At the end of the day, I am going to include a few competitors in the article regardless. If names are not provided by the entrepreneur, I will include names that I feel are appropriate. Therefore, if the entrepreneur has a certain explanation as to why or why not his or her startup may be a competitor of certain companies and not others, it is definitely worth explaining rather than avoiding the question.

Survey says…

Hopefully some of this information was relatively helpful. If you have any questions, comments, concerns or complaints, don’t hesitate to include them in the comments.

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What do Louis Vuitton and Sacre Coeur have in common?

I wrote a (rather exaggerated) post a while back about how French startups seemed to be going after 3 basic areas: food, fashion and flirting. And since writing that post, I’ve discovered even more e-commerce and dating sites popping up. In fact, I’m at the point where I almost don’t want to write about another dating startup for a while. Don’t get me wrong, I love new ideas and I love innovation. But I’m kind of baffled as to why everyone is trying to cram themselves into the same little space. Are all these new sites really making any kind of a difference? Or better yet, do they even generate any revenue?

The startup help-o-meter.

At the end of that same article, I pointed out how I was rather surprised about how there were so few French sites that seemed to address the needs of tourists and international students – who flock to Paris with money to burn pretty much non-stop. If France is the world’s number one tourist destination and I’m still getting people sending me an email everytime they want to know which hotel to stay in or how they should go about renting a flat, there is clearly a need in the market for a good service that specifically addresses a foreign (cash-baring) population. But when there are still needs that are clearly not being addressed and room to innovate, why-o-why is everyone trying to cram themselves into Meetic’s space?

Chasing Meetic’s dream?

Naturally, Meetic’s success has helped local entrepreneurs realize the potential of the dating scene. And obviously, Meetic still has room to innovate. Last year, Marc Simoncini mentioned to me that 2011 would be “the year of the mobile” for Meetic – although the site has yet to bring itself up-to-date with social integration and whathaveyou. So some of the dating newcomers may in fact be addressing the needs of a developing market that Meetic may soon struggle to keep up with. Still, part of me can’t help but wonder if there is some kind of a “Meetic dream” whereby entrepreneurs hope to either have Meetic-like success or get acquired by other dating giants. Or maybe tweeking the Meetic idea is less risky than actually coming up with a totally fresh idea? Then again, perhaps we can witness a similar phenomenon in Vente-Privée’s space as well. Anytime an idea hits the jackpot, entrepreneurs innovate the living hell out of it – but sometimes get so caught up that they don’t see opportunities elsewhere.

Tourist love.

What I think is hilarious is that the government went out and launched France.fr, recognizing that tourists in fact need an online resource with information on France. Several millions were invested to make a very official-looking web portal with your standard France-promo material – but no redirection to a single business site. So I can share articles on visas and whatnot on Facebook and Twitter but I’m very unlikely to get redirected to a hotel website. It may seem odd but let’s not forget that we’re talking about the State. But hey, this still leaves a nice little space in the market for a number of tourist-oriented online services.

If you’re going to launch Groupon in France, do it in English.

Or Arabic. Or Chinese. Or Russian. In fact, if you launch an English Groupon clone with hotel deals only you’ll probably hit the jackpot. I had a conversation not too long ago about how American technology pretty much sells itself – Google, Facebook, Groupon, etc. all has a special stamp of approval just because it’s “made in the USA.” The same can be said for German cars. And for several French industries including fashion, luxury goods and perhaps tourism. Thus, in a land where you have products like Louis Vuitton and Sacre Coeur that pretty much sell themselves, maybe it doesn’t make a lot of sense to want to be a Facebook or Google. French culture has done a rather phenomenal job at marketing on an international level. Now, just add internet.

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 ?

Haha, the Oh-So-Silly French Startup Pitch

I don’t really know when it dawned on me for the first time that the practices of the startup world are actually, well, kind of silly. For people who aren’t in the industry, some of the lingo is probably just incomprehensible. Startup pitches, various business models, investment trends – most of the people I go to school with must look at my facebook status updates and think I’m on drugs. In fact, one person once thought I was talking about religion when I posted an article on the rise of European super angels. 🙂

So, if we’re so funny why aren’t more comedians making fun of us yet?

When the French The Social Network parody came out last week, I realized that startups would make insanely good material for comedians. This one is perhaps more cultural, making fun of the not-so-successful French Facebook, Copains d’Avant and some particularities of the French business enivornment. I tried to get these guys to put English subtitles on this video because it’s just that good. To anyone who doesn’t speak French, I’m honestly sorry that you’re missing out on this one.

More than a good laugh.

More than being good for a laugh, comedians may actually be good critics of business models and have good business ideas. For example, Franco-moroccan comedian Gad Elmaleh presented a rather humorous game-like version of GPS navigation systems in Papa est en haut (2007). But if you get beyond his humorous presentation, what he was saying made a lot of sense ; GPS navigation should have levels, like a game, because some people require more detailed directions than others. Obviously today you have numerous systems with all kinds of possibilities but still, it was good idea for its time perhaps.

Nintendo gone bad.

An upcoming French comedian (who also stars in the Social Network parody posted above), Max Boublil, has gone after a more recent technology: the Nintendo Wii. But before you jump on me for promoting his X-rated humor, take a moment to realize that his idea could potentially sell. I’m pretty sure Max Boublil has hit the nail on the head as to why the Consumer Electronics Showcase is held the same week as the Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas every year.

So Max, why don’t you pitch a startup?

Honestly, this is one idea I’m going to run with as soon as I get a chance in the future : I’d love to invite Max Boublil or any other willing French comedian to pitch a startup or judge a startup competition. The ideas don’t have to be ridiculous – but just out of the box a little. I think it could go down really well. Even if not,  it’ll still be entertaining regardless.

Will The Real French Administration Please Stand Up ?

It’s pretty paradoxical what is happening in France’s startup scene at the moment. On one side of the spectrum, the entrepreneurs, investors and the entire ecosystem seems to be gaining momentum. Several new seed funds were created in the beginning of the year – filling a very obvious gap in the local market and visibly fueling the development of quite a few startups. Then came the various mentorship programs, like the Founder Institute. Followed by the sprouting of regular startup events, like StartinParis, or even Startup Weekend – which is conquering the whole country. The infamous Paris-based co-working hub, LaCantine, is also spreading its wings and setting-up outside of Paris, in addition to a new acceleration program they’ve launched as well. And to top it all off, we’ve now got some of the big-name entrepreneurs talking about potential YCombinator-like programs for local startups. Call me crazy but I truly believe something incredible is going on.

And then the government* showed up.

Let me preface this by saying that I am probably the last person to ever critize France (in case this isn’t already obvious). I’ve even been called France’s cheerleader and community manager at times -probably because questions like this make my blood boil. I’ve always been a fan of the stuff people usually find rather ridiculous – the former 35-hour work week, the strikes, the vacation, etc. Yes, it’s true. So even if I love complaining, I’m not just going to start bashing the French state for the hell of it. I actually think France has a hell of a lot going for it, which surprisingly many people often overlook because they love to grab on to stereotypes and focus on the negative aspects.

But Bercy is apparently out to lunch.

If you’re wondering what the hell I’m talking about, read this. Honestly, it’s something I cannot wrap my head around. If I’m here complaining about it, it’s not at all because I want to bash the government but rather because I want to defend the French entrepreneurs. Plus, wouldn’t the long term effects of such a reform do more harm than good ? I am aware that the deficit is a damn good reason to want to make budget cuts,  but someone needs to wake Bercy up and make it see all the good that the entrepreneurs do for the local economy. The tax breaks that France grants startups – namely the JEI – are probably less well-known abroad but thousands of French startups benefit from them. Startups have been able to put more ressources into hiring and innovation as a result. We’ve already got investors in France that are ever-so-slightly more risk averse than in the US. So in my mind, it should be one of the last things the State should ever want to touch.

Puting Joseph Schumpeter on hold.

Alright, so France wants to ignore Schumpeter for a while, fine. Funny enough, it has also had a positive impact in a way. I have noticed that a majority of the entrepreneurs are really coming together to speak out against it – which is perhaps giving rise to solidarity and bringing them even more together. Some startups and organizations are even offering services for free if it relates to defending the JEI. And this in its turn is also giving more media attention and visibility to certain entrepreneurs and startups. So, France, put Schumpeter on hold all you want, because in the end it’s still producing a positive output – as minimal as it may be…

Shut-up and innovate.

In the end, it may sound a lot like France is telling it’s blossoming entrepreneurial community to shut-up and innovate. And well, that is kind of the case. But France would have to be really disconnected from reality to continue its current path. Once it remembers why it put the JEI in place, I’m sure it’ll come to its senses.

*And as you all know, I’m using “government” to mean “administration“.

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 ?