Have You Seen Me? 9 French Entrepreneur Names to Know

Talk to anyone from Silicon Valley about French names in hi-tech and you’ll systematically get the 3 same answers: Loic Le Meur, Jeff Clavier and Pierre Omidyar – if you’re lucky.

But how about French entrepreneurs in France?

In an earlier post I suggested putting French entrepreneur success stories on milk cartons to remind us all of the home-grown sensations. So why not take a minute to consider 9 home-grown French hi-tech names-to-know ?  The list is ideally in some type of order, but then again not really.

Gilles Babinet.

This man is a French serial entrepreneur to know – creating his first company at age 22 back in 1989 (a few years ahead of Zuckerberg?). Some of his success stories include Absolut (acquired by Euro RSCG) and Musiwave (acquired by Openwave and later Microsoft). He recently co-founded 3 hot start-ups including Eyeka, Digicompanion and MXP4.

Jérôme Rota.

This guy is the mastermind behind DivX – the technology and now the company. While he later went on to co-found DivX, Inc. in San Diego, California, Rota initially developed the technology back in 1998/1999 in Montpellier as a 20-something-year-old. But I don’t need to convince anyone that French engineers are la crème de la crème, do I?

Roland Moreno.

Yes, ok, it’s not exactly hot off the press but it’s far from trivial. Wonder why France is so ahead of the US when it comes to electronic ticketing? This is the French face behind the invention of the smartcard in 1974 – now used in just about everything. The following year, he went on to launch Innovatron. And last I heard, he gave everyone a scare in 2008/2009 with rumors of a risky health situation.

Xavier Niel.

The co-founder of Iliad (who has the ugliest website ever – not like it matters) is part of the reason I pay far less for internet in France than I ever did in San Francisco – but I’ve applauded his contribution to the invention of triple-play Freebox before. In addition to Iliad, he also co-founded WorldNet, which was bought by KapTech (Neuf Cegetel) for €40 million in 2000. He recently co-founded seed-fund, Kima Ventures, with Jérémie Berrebi. Oh – and if I’m not mistaken, he’s also part of the college drop-out club. Nice.

Pierre Chappaz.

This guy was not only of the co-founders of Kelkoo (acquired by Yahoo) but has also been behind the successes of Wikio and Netvibes.

Yves Guillemot.

Guillemot is one of the 5 faces behind France’s video game giant, Ubisoft. The Guillemot brothers have also founded a number of additional companies (7 total) – including Gameloft and Guillemot, which both went public along with Ubisoft.

Marc Simoncini.

Another serial entrepreneur to know. Simoncini, like Babinet, founded his first company in 1985 at the age of 22. His first real success came with iFrance, which was sold to Vivendi in 2000. He then went on to create Meetic, which has done a great job at blowing everyone else out of the European online dating market and bought Match.com’s European activities last year. Like Niel, he also recently launched a seed-fund, Jaina Capital, with Michel Kubler.

Pierre Kosciusko-Morizet.

The brother of the current Minister of Digital Economy, Kosciusko-Morizet is one of the co-founders behind e-commerce success, PriceMinister. He, too, got an early start – launching his first company in his (incredibly) early 20’s.

Jacques-Antoine Granjon.

Anyone that gets a €2 billion acquisition offer from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (and additional offers from Gilt and eBay) should definitely make the list – 47-year-old Jacques-Antoine Granjon is the long-haired founder of French success story Vente-privée.

Educate me.

Did I miss someone uber important? There are definitely another 50 people I could easily add. The list is obviously far from exhaustive and highly influenced by my non-expert knowledge. Feel free to add to the comments and enlighten me.

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…