“The thing that’s wrong with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur”(dubiously attributed to) George W. Bush
The 43rd POTUS was a gaffe-machine possibly only paralleled by Dan Quayle, the man who stoutly asserted that “the future will be better tomorrow”. It’s pretty unlikely however, that Dubya didn’t realise the word we use in English for founding new business comes from the language of romance. English, being a thieving kind of tongue, took the term from the French verb, entreprendre, to undertake. This was a wise decision by all accounts given that undertakers rarely inspire much optimism in their primary customer base.
Entrepreneurship wasn’t just a French export though, and the startup scene in the country is buzzing with Paris firmly among the ranks of cities considered ‘startup hubs’.
Liam Boogar – born a Silicon Valley baby but now living in France – is the Co-Founder and Editor of the Paris-based anglophone tech blog, Rude Baguette. I spoke to him about what’s cooking in the French startup scene.
Liam, can you tell me a little bit about the beginnings of Rude Baguette?
I arrived in France in 2010 and began working for a Parisian startup shortly thereafter. I knew nothing about French startups before then, and quickly discovered that a lot was going on, and very little was being written (in English) about it. After 5 months of writing a personal blog about my discoveries – events, startups, people, and French tech news which interested me – I launched, alongside others, the Rude Baguette, as a one-stop news source for France’s Startup Scene.
While most people journey in the opposite direction, you moved from Menlo Park to Europe. What made you interested in the French tech scene?
I most certainly didn’t move to France to work in the startup industry, let alone write a blog. I moved to France out of a desire not to spend my entire life in California – France seemed as good an option as any – so, fresh out of college, with a brand new passport (I discovered I was eligible for Irish Citizenship due to my grandfather and grandmother being born in Ireland), I hopped on a plane. Months after landing and getting settled, I looked up job opportunities and found a startup – this startup, though it was called Milestone Labs back then – and had a skype call with its founder, and began working 10 days later.
Working at that startup, I discovered just how talented French engineers are – I’ve never been more confident in someone than when a French engineer tells you something is, and will be for the foreseeable future, impossible.
What would you say are the key differences between business approaches in the US and France? Are there different attitudes towards entrepreneurship?
Post-WWII France admired job security, and so France is only just now getting over the idea of the nobility of working for the same company for the duration of your career. This has been onset by the struggling economy, the privatization of a once vastly state-controlled economy, and by the general startup revolution.
Doing business in France is still very relationship-based — companies want to get to know you, which means multiple meetings with multiple executives to close a deal. I often say that, while, in the US, Business is business & friendship is … business, in France, friendships is friendship, and business is …friendship.
What kind of investment or accelerator opportunities are there in France for entrepreneurs?
Well, France is number two, (behind London) in terms of Venture Capital Financing in Europe – ahead of the entire DACH region [that’s the German-speaking region of Europe – Ed] – so the short answer is “a lot.” Private money is abundant – north of €1 Billion in active funds locally, not to mention that London’s Tier 1 VCs (Accel, Balderton, Index) all have French partners, often multiple French partners.
In addition, France boasts a historically high amount of tax credits dedicated to research and development, along with state-sponsored seed fund LPs [Limited Partnerships]
You likely won’t raise your Series C or D with French VCs, but then again, why would you want to?
Can you give me an idea about what’s happening in the French startup scene and how it’s changing?
France excels in 3 Sectors:
1) Sharing Economy: Blablacar’s €100 Million fundraising was arguably the most notable fundraising (outside of IPO [Initial Public Offering] & acquisition) in 2015 for Europe. However, most people don’t know that, for Uber & Airbnb, Paris is also a European hub: the employee responsible for opening Uber & Airbnb’s Paris office (two different individuals) are both now respectively leading European activity for their companies, due largely to success and maturity of the French Market.
2) AdTech/Big Data: France has great mathematicians. It’s been a fact for about 600 years (I’m a Mathematics major). Fields Medals, PhDs, etc. – they do great. That aptitude has found a home in Data Science, AdTech & other big data markets. Successes like Criteo & Teads have paved the way, the market is opening up further.
3) (Connected) Hardware: this year, France will be the 5th most represented country at CES [Consumer Electronics Show]. Great startups like Withings as well as historical players like Parrot know that their ecosystem is much more mature. Robotics (Aldebaran), Drones (Parrot), TelCo’s (SIGFOX, Alcatel Lucent, Orange) & much more are very well developed in France. The Internet-Enabled Hardware Industry – an Industry we focus on in our annual Connected Conference – requires a mixed set of skills and experiences, which France is adept at.
Paris is not normally a city that I’d associate with international tech startups. How is it different to other ‘startup hubs’?
Well, as compared to Berlin, Paris as a city contains Europe’s largest Business Park (La Defense), which the largest number of Fortune (Global) 500 companies call home in Europe. It is also home to the most frequented Airport in Europe (Charles De Gaulle), and is the central economic hub for the country.
As compared to London, Paris is the home for no less than 13 internationally reputed Engineering schools, the alumni of which have built Siri, Netvibes, Criteo, and much more – as well as 3 of the Top 6 MBA programs – INSEAD, HEC, and ENA.
Paris has €1 Billion+ in local venture funds, multiple 9 & 10 figure exits in the last 12 months, a reputation for the smartest engineers in the world, and a historical R&D advantage that has companies like GE making acquisitions in France.
Outside Paris, what are the key startup locations in France?
Other notable cities include Lyon, Nantes, Lille, Bordeaux & Grenoble; however, startups from these regions who plan to go global know they will have to pass through Paris to do so.
What kinds of companies are coming out of France? Are there any major differences between French companies and other locations?
The aforementioned Sector Focuses: IoT, AdTech, & Sharing Economy.
French Companies are generally more R&D-driven than design-driven. This has its advantages and disadvantages.
You grew an amazing business from a blog. Was it a happy accident or did you have goals for Rude Baguette from the start? What are your goals now?
Our goal on Day 1 was to provide transparency to the French Tech Market – I think it’s safe to say that we’ve done that.
Our goal for the last 18 months has been to find the ‘scalability’ element that is missing from all news outlets – we may have built an ‘amazing’ business, but we’ve yet to build a scalable element, and don’t think we’ll find that digging through sponsored ads and paywalls. Today, I’m confident that we have found that element, and so our goal in 2015 is to implement that in the heart of our company, and to leverage it in order to bring our “Rude” business to other markets.
You blogged in October about why Rüde Pretzel hadn’t emerged yet. Is it still on the cards?
Definitely. This comes back to the ‘scalability’ element. We announced our intention to launch in Germany around the same time as we started investing in R&D. 6 months later, we were meant to launch in Germany ( I was meeting with writers in Berlin at the time); however, it became clear, with what we learned, that there was no point in growing our media business until we had worked out the scalability element.
Today we have 3 full-time Developers & myself managing Product Development (out of 7 people on the team), and it is safe to say that we are a Tech company.
Do you think that there will come a time when the fragmented business markets in Europe will centralise/unite, or are they too divided by language and cultural boundaries?
I have said it for a while now: anyone whose business relies on or encourages the unification of Europe will make a lot of money in the next 5-10 years. It is inevitable, for many reasons, and the best part (for me, at least) is that Europeans are too knee-deep in their historical differences to realize that Europe is already one market.
Image credits: “Paris Night” by Benh Lieu Song CC (via Wikimedia Commons) | “MadMapper Workshop @ Freemote” by Sebastiaan ter Burg CC (via Flickr) | “I’m cold go to the caffee” by Angelo González CC (via IMCreator)