We all love to quote George W. Bush saying (presumably to Tony Blair) "The problem with the French is that they don't have a word for entrepreneur". Although "entrepreneur" is a French word, many people believe that it's true that France doesn't have entrepreneurs.
I was lucky to have been invited to the eG8 Forum held in Paris in the past 2 days, where the leaders of the world discussed global governance of the Internet and government involvement in our industry. It was pretty unclear to me whether this event will actually produce actionnable items and concrete measures at the G8 held today and tomorrow in Deauville.
France was very well represented by many successful and upcoming entrepreneurs in plenary sessions, workshops, and also in the lobby of the conference, heavily networking and discussing with global peers.
On our way to dinner under the Louvre pyramid for the gala reception, I snapped the above picture of 3 great French entrepreneurs we all love and respect :
- Marc Simoncini, founder of Meetic.com, the leading European dating site (vs. Match.com and many other new startups). It's valued over 300m€ on the market (it's public). He's now heavily investing in the startup scene with his Jaina Capital investment vehicle.
- Jacques-Antoine Granjon, founder of Vente-Privée.com, the leading private sales company in the world (an original French idea) that span accross the globe with hundred of copycats, including Gilt Groupe in the USA, and probably inspired Groupon. He has over a billion € in revenues. VP just announced a JV with American Express to launch in the US. He occasionally invests in startups.
- Xavier Niel, founder of free/Iliad, the best alternative telco in France, that shaped the market to make France a leading country in broadband. Although relatively unknown outside France, his net worth from his company (valued slighly under 5b€ on the market is higher than the much publicized stake of Reid Hoffman for example in LinkedIn after the IPO). With his micro-seed fund Kima Ventures, he's invested in over 100 startups - 2 a week ! - in just one year all around the world.
In the 70s, a popular slogan was : "in France, we don't have Oil, but we have ideas". Well, in 2010s, not only do we have ideas, but we have great entrepreneurs, great execution and great entrepreneurs !
The local ecosystem has changed dramatically in the past 10 years. We have now seasoned entrepreneurs going through their 2nd or 3rd company; we have skilled employees who have already worked at startups and who understand the startup culture; we have successful entrepreneurs who are financing and mentoring younger or less experienced entrepreneurs. We are now having great role-models (such as the 3 folks above ;) for aspiring entrepreneurs to emulate. And bad VC funds are going out of business and being less of a nuisance ;) Experience at all levels of a company I believe is a much more valuable currency today than dumb cash to compete globally. And where there's a good business execution, they will be financing. It's not the other way around.
I don't think that local laws (labour laws particularly) and government hesitations should be a barrier or a reason not to start a company in France. The Internet is a global marketplace. Jeff Jarvis calls it affectionaly the 8th continent. We can start a company anywhere, target customers all over the planet, buy and sell everywhere.
France has great engineers thanks to its education system. And although it's true we don't excel at sales and marketing, we can hire US-trained executives to do just that. I genuinely think that what we lack is global ambition from the get-go and self-confidence that it's possible to succeed on a global scale.
French entrepreneurs are not quite there yet, still impressed by the warm glow of Silicon Valley's influence. But Marc, Xavier and Jacques-Antoine have shown us that it's definitively possible to grow out of France; folks such as the Rosenblum brothers, Oleg Tscheltzoff, Loic Le Meur, Gilles Babinet and PKM are doing it as well and get very much involved with the community (with public policy for example) and giving back with their time, money (angel investing) and network (such as LeWeb conference); not to forget folks such as Bernard Liautaud and Bruno van Ryb before them.