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.

You Suck! Entrepreneurship and Elite French Education

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry published an article in Silicon Alley Insider today on the negative impact of the hierarchical French education system on entrepreneurship. Let’s take a look at his argument for “Why France fails at start-ups”, shall we?

Is “Grande école” French for “Ivy League”?

For all the Silicon Alley Insider readers that saw the term “grande école” and went searching for their dictionaries, grande école refers to the prestigious schools where acceptance is done via an entrance exam. No, it is not a standardized, one-size-fits-all test like the SAT.  Instead, each grande école has its own, très special entrance exam. For the rest of the (essentially free) public universities, they admit anyone. So we see why it’s quite chic to say you went to a grande école.

You mean La Sorbonne?

So we have quite a few grande écoles and quite a few categories of grande écoles by subject or sector. Most of the ones that date pre-French Revolution have names that a majority of people outside of France have never heard of. But we have several categories of grande écoles, including business schools like HEC – and then Polytechnique, the ParisTech schools, Telecom Paris, etc.

Grande école, no école.

As a current Masters student at Sciences Po (perhaps the farthest thing from entrepreneurship after La Sorbonne), I obviously have to give Gobry a bit of credit for recognizing that, yes, as a whole the education system does not exactly glorify start-ups and entrepreneurship. That is, unless you’re at HEC. Or ESCP. Or Telecom Paris.

That was then. This is now.

But wait, did I mention that even Sciences Po has a start-up incubator now? Contrary to the expat rants I heard in San Francisco, I think France is actually starting to embrace entrepreneurship. As for Sciences Po, they’re slacking on the marketing front so they don’t exactly have a website or anything,  but the essential bit is that there are companies coming out of the Sciences Po incubator. Ever hear of Ykone? Or perhaps Weblib? Considering that the incubator is still in its infancy, I’m going to go ahead and say that this is most definitely not a bad start.

Life after the diploma.

I do agree, however, that there is a lot of value and prestige attached to the name of your university – but this is not unique to France. In fact, it is no different from the way that kids come out of Stanford and Harvard and get hired at the drop of a dime. Google, for example, used to and may still go and recruit masses of Stanford students before they had their diplomas – not exactly sure they did the same for public school UC Berkeley. If people didn’t want job security on the other end with a fancy name to go with it, Stanford,  Harvard and Princeton would not be making $40,000+ per student.

You suck!

At encouragement, that is. I could go on for hours; when it comes down to it, what bothers me the most is the idea that France “fails at start-ups”. Is this even a fair statement? If so, why is failure such a bad thing? You live, you learn. If anything, the problem I see in the French education system is that when a student makes a mistake, a French professor is jusified in making this student feel like an idiot – literally. And the overly ambitious, idealistic or visionary? Well, they’re unrealistic and egocentric – so they’re labeled as idiots, too. Now you tell me French VCs and entrepreneurs are risk averse – well, guess why. Think Steve Jobs would’ve dared to make a comeback in France?

Failure is sexy.

Now, I recognize that Americans are the complete opposite,  high-fiving and slapping each other on the back non-stop to avoid a lawsuit. But please don’t tell me you think that Silicon Valley is void of failure. In fact, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are all college drop outs. Let’s not forget, however, that we’re once again talking about Stanford and Harvard. That’s $40k in annual tuition, down the drain.

Darwin, is that you?

At the end of the day, it’s a self-selection process. People who become entrepreneurs have to do it for the right reasons and are not likely to be those seeking a simple cushy job at the end of the grande école tunnel. The proof is that there are elitist schools that produce top entrepreneurs. Like Pierre Chappaz, the founder of Kelkoo – which was bought by Yahoo in 2004 for $475 million.  So, not only is the elitist school system is not unique to France but entrepreneurship is slowly but surely creeping into the elite crowd.

Kind of off topic but not really.

Before I left San Francisco, I heard about an event called FailCon – where top entrepreneurs would get together to talk about their failures. Speakers included: Meebo, Aardvark, Zynga and Slide. Hey France, this doesn’t sound like such a bad idea…