Does French Innovation Need a Few More Famous Faces?

This subject has actually been on my mind for a while, triggered by the first time I saw MC Hammer at a conference in San Francisco (pretty sure it was the AlwaysOn Stanford Summit in 2008) and thought it was a total joke. The man had announced the launch of his start-up DanceJam.com and all I can remember thinking to myself, hashtags included, is:

#WTF is a hiphop celebrity from the 80s doing trying to mingle with the Silicon Valley crowd?

(Watch the video and then imagine it playing in your head as you casually see him speaking on stage at a tech conference…)

But Hammer wasn’t the only one making the Hollywood-hall-of-fame-Silicon-Valley-crossover. Ashton Kutcher showed up at TechCrunch50 only a few months later to launch Blah Girls. And regardless of what you think of his investments, U2 lead singer Bono has been doing more than just hanging out with VC firm Elevation Partners since 2004. So as much as I may want to laugh about Hammer’s online dance class site or the name “Blah Girls”, I can’t deny that these celebrities only help make Silicon Valley look sexy –  even if it’s in a ValleyWag type of way.

France has no ValleyWag. Not yet.

I’m not sure it really needs one though. There’s no reason to turn the budding tech community into a gossip rag at this point. Plus, no French tech stars are dating anyone famous à la Digg founder Kevin Rose and I-dont-know-who and if they are, well, quite frankly who really cares. But what the tech community could definitely use is a little more advocacy*, as the words “tech” and “geek” still go hand in hand.

Lights, camera, actionnaire.

Ok, that was a lame joke, since actionnaire is the French translation for shareholder. But back to the point. Some French Hollywood stars, like Thierry Lhermitte and Patrick Bruel, have actually gone the investment route. Cinema star Lhermitte invested in a anti-piracy company TMG and poker-addicted singer Bruel went for Winamax. Sure, they look more like support for personal interests and projects rather than investments in innovation but I could say the same about MC Hammer’s site now couldn’t I? Seriously, Cannes, send over a few more famous French faces!

PS/ Journal Du Net put together a list of top tier French business angels back in March but most of the faces come from the tech world.

The fine line between fame and geekdom.

In the US, I always felt that there was an incredibly fine (read: “invisible”) line between being a star from Silicon Valley and a star from Hollywood. And to prove it, Hollywood’s take on the tech world has also transformed, moving from a documentary-style take on Microsoft’s development (Triumph of the Nerds), to a TV series (Pirates of Silicon Valley) and now to a feature film (The Social Network). The 2 industries almost feed off each other now.

To be honest, I don’t know of any local equivalents to these films/shows (please enlighten me if they exist). So rather than a melodramatic version of Facebook’s history, court cases included, all the “innovation” that gets any media attention is the rather comical yet pathetic saga of France.fr (don’t get me started). But off the top of my head I can already think of at least 2 local start-up stories that would make killer screenplays.

Allez les Bleus, er, entrepreneurs !

But French entrepreneurs are making their way to prime time television, slowly but surely. In fact, one of my favorite initiatives is that of Meetic and Jaïna Capital founder Marc Simoncini, who recently began hosting 15-minute TV segments featuring entrepreneurs on Canal+’s iTele. Sure, Sarkozy may still need a verified Twitter account (Elysée Palace doesn’t count) to be officially considered an early adopter – but a fair share of French soccer players (ignoring the World Cup fiasco + underage prostitution issues) have already beat him to it. Look, all I’m saying is that if the Queen of Jordan can show up for LeWeb and find the time to Tweet, there are definitely more local faces that want to join in the fun…

*By “advocacy” I do not simply mean investment and tweeting but simply adopting certain technologies, participating in conferences, etc.

13 hot French entrepreneurs under 30

I’ve been wanting to do a post on this topic for a while – because whenever someone tells me that it’s insanely difficult to launch a start-up in France, I chuckle to myself and think: “Hey, if 20-something-year-olds are doing it fresh out of school, it can’t be that hard, right?” I also have recently noticed that becoming an entrepreneur from a young age is becoming more à la mode – so here is my list to set the record straight.

Hot or not?

The trouble is there are actually a lot of young entrepreneurs out there. This list is insanely far from exhaustive and is just a few names that I think are likely to stick around for a while. As the entrepreneurial community is predominantly male, I should also probably clarify that by “hot”  I am referring strictly to their start-ups. After all, this is not my attempt to be the Franco-version of Valleywag. PS. You’ll notice that I’ve chosen 8 companies and 13 names.

1. Jonathan Benassaya & Daniel Marhely (Deezer).

The Deezer boys are behind one of the hottest – if not the hottest – online music company to come out of France. While they are still incredibly young, Daniel (25) and Jonathan (29) kicked off their entrepreneurial careers in 2004 and 2005 respectively. Yep, Daniel was still a teenager at the time.

2. Eric Bennephtali (MediaStay).

As the story goes, this 26 year old started his internet career in middle school. He then went on to drop out of school at the age of 13 to launch the internet performance marketing company we currently know as MediaStay – which is also the publisher of games sites like Kingolotto and Grattages. Yes, that makes another one for the drop-out club!

3. Ronan Pelloux & Julien Mechin (Creads).

The 25-year-old team is behind the online participative ad and logo creative platform, Creads, that gives internet allstar Gilles Babinet’s Eyeka a run for its money. Oh, and the 2-year-old company already counts international offices in Spain and Japan.

4. Simon Istolainen (PeopleforCinema, MyMajorCompany, Architurn…).

Yes, he’s been an entrepreneur since 2008 and the 25-year-old is already on his 3rd company (he just announced Architurn, after MyMajorCompany and PeopleforCinema). The participative investment platform model seems to have been very good to him, in both the music and film distribution spaces. But my favorite part about this kid’s success story is that he studied the farthest thing from entrepreneurship and tech in school: that’s right, anthropology.

5. Céline Lazorthes (Leetchi).

Leetchi is the first company of this 27-year-old lady and she’s already got big names like Oleg Tscheltzoff, Jérémie Berrebi and Xavier Niel backing her platform for group gift purchases. Nice.

6. Stéphanie Pelprat (Restopolitan).

The 26-year-old founder of a French company, Restopolitan, that dares to compete with OpenTable has entrepreneurial energy spewing from her veins. As she’s got a few more tricks up her sleeve, she’s not likely to disappear.

7. Boris Saragaglia, Paul Lorne, Jérémie Touchard (Spartoo).

The Spartoo trio (Boris pictured) started right out of school, back in 2006, when the sum of their ages was less than 75 (I’ll let you figure this one out). Today Boris (27), Paul and Jérémie run the très successful French/European equivalent to Zappos. These kiddies also scored €12 million in January. Hello, Jeff Bezos?

8. Hadrien Gardeur & Loic Roussel (Feedbooks).

The 26-year-old team (Hadrien pictured) started their digital publishing/distribution platform, Feedbooks, back in 2007 with a very international vision. The company definitely knows what it’s doing in the English-speaking market, as does Hadrien who is brilliantly bilingual.

More than Mark Zuckerberg.

There are definitely numerous companies that I could add including the boys at Owlient, Ykone, Cafédelabourse or the coed team over at Likiwi. And another one that almost made the list: Benjamin Bejbaum from DailyMotion. Feel free to add more youngster entrepreneur names that come to mind in the comments.