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.

French Innovation Trends: Food, Fashion and Flirting

It’s funny how often the subject of conversation goes back to “Why is there no Google or Facebook coming out of France?” Some people like to point fingers at investors, saying French investors are too risk averse. But then there are others that say this is simply because the local exit market is, well, almost nonexistant (yes, I’m exaggerating but only slighly). But if you think about it, there are some things “made in France” that pretty much sell themselves.

It’s better when its French.

Now other than being good for a chuckle, this Hardee’s advertisement uses a twist of French seduction and food to portray the all-American burger as better when it’s French. Interestingly enough, local startups may be doing something a bit similar – at least in my humble opinion.

Food, Fashion and Flirting.

Honestly, what else comes to mind when you think of France? Ok, perhaps tourism, too. Now, maybe it’s just me but local companies do seem to be innovating more when it comes to their cultural roots. Fashion websites, food-related sites and obviously dating websites seem to be all the rage. Either that or I’m just hungry and need to go shopping.

L’amour à la française.

People who’ve been paying attention to what I’ve been writing on TechCrunch recently are probably starting to think I’m obsessed with dating sites. Let me reassure you, this is not the case. But is just so happens that recently there seems to be a lot of really creative ideas popping up. Maybe they’re all inspired by French dating giant Meetic? I’ve written about the not-so-new Adopteunmec (where women pretend to buy their boyfriends), Smartdate (for dating the friends of your Facebook friends), Attractive World (it’s all in the title – you have to be rich, beautiful or preferably both in order to be OK-ed by the exclusive VIP community), Ladieshoesme (mixing women’s shoe fetishes and dating) and most recently Loueunepetiteamie.com (renting a girlfriend) took a turn towards an online escourt service. Not sure how I feel about this last one but a little flirting never hurt anyone – and definitely seems to benefit the local entrepreneurial crowd.

Miam Miam.

Yes, that’s French for “yum yum.” And food is definitely at the heart of tons of sites across the planet – not uniquely in France. But obviously in a country where food is tied with long-standing traditions, it’s harder to find early adopters for new technologies. Getting traditional wine chateaux or restaurants to use Foodzie or OpenTable-like platforms is by no means an easy task (insert a José Bové comment here – and then check out this hilarious game). Although recently, there seems to be more companies managing to leverage the French passion for good food and wine. Companies like Regioneo (French Foodzie), LePotiron (online marketplace for locally-grown produce), the French Opentables (LaFourchette, Restopolitan, TableOnline…), Restoprivé (Vente-Privée but for exclusive restaurant deals), Vinobest (Groupon for Wine) – and most recently, Super Marmite (a platform where individuals can cook and sell food to others). This last company was one of the finalists for LeWeb this year and I think the oh-so-French pitch (seriously, Jacques Pépin would be proud) was just phenomenal, check it out:

Who is more famous: Louis Vuitton or Louis XIV?

When I was living in LA (painful thought), not a day went by when I didn’t see a Louis Vuitton handbag (another painful thought). The French are good at fashion and I don’t think I need to tell anyone that the French are good at e-commerce, that is all yesterday’s news. Vente-Privée’s acquisition chats with Amazon and PriceMinister’s €200 million acquisition helped solidify this. But while there are tons of companies in the traditional e-commerce space – like MyFab and Spartoo –  there are also some more creative companies that are leveraging French fashion. Ok, maybe the products sold on GoldenHook are not exactly haute couture but it’s definitely creative to employ the elderly to knit products, which are then sold on the platform. Then there are some more recent companies that seem to be going after social shopping, like LooknBe, or video-driven fashion e-commerce, like WallDress. The business models for these last 2 are yet to be proven but it’s definitely an interesting trend.

There’s no local Twitter – but a damn lot of tourists.

So obviously there are tons of travel sites and whatnot as well but honestly I know of fewer sites that really target an international crowd with good insider information (if you know of one, correct me and let me know). MyLittleParis perhaps but the information isn’t necessarily traveler’s info. Oh, but then again, the government went and launched that whole France.fr portal so that the whole world would be able to find travel information on France. But man, what a buzz kill. I honestly think that there are still tons of tourists that have no clue how to find the information they’re seeking. In fact, the NUMBER ONE question I get asked on Aardvark is “what is the best hotel/hostel in Paris.” Actually, some of the more innovative travel/tourist-oriented sites – like AirBnB – are not local, but they are already tapping the French market. Food for thought…

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 ?

A Tale of 2+ Cities

It’s been exactly a year since I arrived in Paris to go back to school, 8 months since I started silly ol’ Techbaguette, 7 months since I started writing for TechCrunch Europe, 5 months since I relaunched TechCrunch France and 3 months since we launched Girls in Tech Paris. Man, oh man, time has sure gone by fast.

It was the best of times. It was (never) the worst of times.

(Yes, that’s modified Charles Dickens quote from a Tale of 2 cities.) Initially, I started TechBaguette just for fun – to shed a little light on the local tech scene in English for any passing readers and to remind myself that there was life after Sciences Po. And somehow, that little project magically transformed into turned into TechCrunch France and Girls in Tech Paris – translation: a nice little bridge between Silicon Valley and the +33. In my opinion, France has come a long way since I arrived – several seed funds, the Founder Institute, Startup Weekend, tons of company launches, some mega acquisitions…and I know that the best is yet to come. I should give credit where credit is due: I wouldn’t have a blog without content and my content is the vibrant French tech scene.

Next stop: London Town.

That’s right, it’s a tale of 2+ cities – or should I say countries ? The US, France and now I’m headed to the UK – because I still have to finish up my degree for the next few months (boo, yes, I thought about dropping out but I haven’t thought of an invention like the iPod or Facebook yet). I’m not about to abandon the French tech crowd. And to prove it, I’ll be back every month – next week, in fact, for several (not all) of the events on my events page. With TechCrunch, Girls in Tech, the Potrepreneurs meetup, Startup Weekend, LeWeb, Midem, etc., I bet that I’ll be back so often that nobody will really notice that I don’t live here. Neither will I, for that matter.

“I’ll be back.”

(Yes, that’s my governator.) Whatever you do, please don’t ask me what will happen to TechCrunch France – it will hopefully only get better. Let’s not forget I also have a fabulous team – Cédric and Clément. Plus, Ouriel managed to do a fantastic job with TechCrunch France while in Israel and I’m fairly certain that I am capable of doing the same. Try me. Plus, the way I’m looking at things – it’s only temporary. I’ll be back.

But still, I find it incredibly important to be available for the local community, even while I’m in London. I’ll be sure to post the dates under the “events” tab on my blog and distribute the info via Twitter for anyone who’d like to arrange to meet. And of course I’ll also be 100% available by all forms of electronic communication and for anyone who passes through London ! Hello TechHub !!

“INSULARITY IS THE EUROPEAN STARTUP KILLER.”

This is a quote that an American VC friend of mine in London (did that give it away?) recently said. It’s brilliant and oh-so-true. My experience in San Francisco inspired projects for France and London will inevitably do the same. Even though my heart may belong to the French market, the next few months will be dedicated to expanding my knowledge beyond the Hexagon and getting a better idea of what is being created out there. And maybe I’ll go to class once in a while too. 🙂

No, tech woman, no cry.

I usually try to keep most of the info on my blog free of personal jargon. But it’s perhaps the right time to say thank you to each and every entrepreneur who has been supportive of the TechCrunch relaunch and Girls in Tech. It’s only reinforced my affinity for the local tech kids and my belief that there is a lot of talent and innovation that deserves to be seen and discovered. I’ve learned an incredible amount from every last person that I’ve met. Know that it’s a pleasure being your sounding board and English-speaking voice. Vous m’inspirez, tous.

(Start chapter 2 here.)