There is no place as intense as NYC. When I asked Tony Haile (Chartbeat’s CEO) for a meeting last week, he told me his schedule was full to the nose but he suggested that we went instead for a business jog. At 6.30am.
This work hard, play hard, run early mentality is very well suited to startups, where the first few years require a tremendous amount of energy to put things off the ground. If you add to that the superior size of the US market, the depth of the funding pool, and the many local potential acquirers, it’s easy to understand why many French entrepreneurs have decided to leave the motherland and set shop in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Over the past week I met with many of these adventurers, and here is the subjective list of my 10 favourites:
Sketchfab ambitions to become the Soundcloud of 3D files. They have both a destination website and an embeddable player which can be used by users of 3D (architects, product designers, artists, etc.) to showcase their work and distribute it to a wider audience.
I met with Alban at the Techstars offices, where Sketchfab is currently incubated after graduating from Le Camping in Paris and raising a small round of angel money. To him, moving to NYC was an obvious move: this is the city where design, media and art interact, and where the makers/3D movement is the most advanced. Etsy, Shapeways, MakerBot, Kollabora, to name a few, are all based there.
TechStars was also a good fit for Sketchfab: building a community and a wide audience takes time and money and in Alban’s words this is an area where the incubator excels – the level of intensity and the depth of their relevant investor network has no equivalent in France.
To date, Sketchfab has had 20k models uploaded and gets 200k monthly uniques.
Matthieu Nouzareth, the CEO of game studio FreshPlanet (editor of the massive hit SongPop) is the veteran of this new wave of French start-ups in NYC. He started working in the web in 1995 and already exited 2 companies. He decided to move to New York 4 years ago to start anew and now employs 24 people in quirky Time Square based 14th floor office space.
As is the case for many gaming hits, Songpop was an overnight success 3 years in the making. The company was 5 weeks away from running out of money, having burnt through all of their $2.9m of funding, when they released the music blind test game which has now become one of the most popular social games of all times with over 80 million downloads to date and still 2.5m DAU one year after launching.
The company is now planning to expand its franchise to other verticals within the pop culture and is about to release a few very exciting games and casual apps.
While he sees many advantages to being in NYC, Matthieu says he’s struggling to hire good engineers at reasonable salaries: competition is fierce between the growing number of local startups, and strict visa rules make it really hard to bring developers over (he got a few H1B visa requests declined this year). So much so that he is now considering opening a development centre in Paris, where he says engineers tend to be of an even stronger technical caliber. Ah, the magic of the ever-rebalancing market economy…
(Disclaimer: I’m an angel investor in Gertrude)
I have known Ken for almost ten years (we actually launched a radio together when we were still students) and when he decided to leave his high-flying job at Google to launch Gertrude, we had a long discussion around what the best place to set it up was.
He thought both his professional and social networks were stronger in Paris and would be crucial to get things off the ground. I thought he was lucky enough to have an American passport and that New York was much better suited to his project of creating the art gallery for the 21st century online, and offline.
One year later, Gertrude hosts several exclusive pop-up salons a week where they manage to bring together A-list artists and collectors (400+ and growing) in the most outrageous venues (I went to two salons during the week I spent there – one in a derelict warehouse in Red Hook, Brooklyn, the other one in the poshest Upper East Side triplex you can think of). It turned out that the initial lack of network was rapidly offset by the vitality of the local art scene and its openness to new entrants.
Julien has done the things I often wish I had done myself. He quit his good job as a junior VC at Partech and locked himself up in a basement for two years to teach himself how to code, developing a second screen app called Zapkast in the process.
Two years ago, he decided to launch ChefDay after having experienced the pain of cooking sophisticated dishes in small NYC apartments. They home deliver cooking kits containing all the necessary ingredients in the exact quantities needed to cook delicious dishes in small and under equipped kitchens.
Customers are raving about the quality of the service but competition from the myriad of local restaurants and take-aways is incredibly fierce and the jury is still out to find out whether there is enough demand for the service to really scale.
(Disclaimer: Index is an investor in Datadog)
I met with Olivier for an early morning cafe at the General Worth Square, right besides the Flatiron building. This is the beating heart of Silicon Alley, the central Manhattan where most tech startups are located (Datadog being no exception). As you can see on the picture, it’s not too bad a place to work.
Olivier is a pioneer of the French tech scene in New-York, having moved there in 1999, and witnessed the highs and lows of the Internet bubble through his experience with 2 startups where he was a software engineer. He is also the only CEO on this list who’s focusing on the enterprise software space, New York being more of a magnet for art, design, commerce and consumer startups in general.
Datadog offers dashboards for companies to monitor the health of their cloud services, aggregating third party services like AWS, Pingdom, or PagerDuty and helps them explore correlation between their data. They are also the best-funded of the list: they raised a $6.2m Series A in December 2012.
I have long been a sucker for calendars. A year ago, at a Startup Weekend in London I dreamt loud about a well designed mobile calendar leveraging local and social information. Hence my excitation when I heard 6 months ago that 2 ex-Foursquare developers and designers, Pierre Valade and Jeremy Le Van, were working on that very product.
It is called Sunrise and it’s an app well worth trying out if you are using Google Calendar. It is early days for them but they have already had 200k downloads and are receiving a lot of interest from great New York angels and VCs.
I first met with Mathieu Valoatto, Curioos CEO, a year ago in Paris, when he had just launched the platform and sold his first prints. It was very early for his company but he had already decided to move to NYC. To him it was an obvious destination, as the global centre of print and digital art.
Today, Curioos is offering a solid selection of more than 10k artworks from both established and up-and-coming digital artists – attempting to make this new art form accessible to everyone.
Now is the brainchild of Ben Broca, who hacked together this clever app which leverages Instagram data to tell you what’s happening around you and recommend events.
The Cools is one of the best-known startup of the list, having gathered significant press attention when it launched in June last year. After starting as an hybrid between an inspiration platform (à la Fancy) and a marketplace (à la Etsy), it decided to focus entirely on serving high-end brands by offering them a beautiful online presence where to engage and sell to their audience directly. It is basically attempting to disrupt existing retailers by giving the power (and most of the margin) back to the brands.
The product is beautiful and they are already working with 350 brands, adding 100 a month at the moment. But they still need to prove their value to the end consumer, and, with fashion being one the most competitive spaces online, they have to find a hack to grow fast while keeping their marketing expenses in check.
+ Belgian Bonus: CheckThis
(Disclaimer: Index Seed is an investor in CheckThis)
Here is another beautifully designed product built by a talented team from Belgium. The dev team is still in Europe while Frédéric Dela Faille has made the move to the US (sharing an insane penthouse in Brooklyn with the Poutsch team – where they both live and work) to be closer to some of his inspirators (Tumblr, SquareSpace) and to advertising and media agencies.
A mix between Instagram and a blog, Checkthis allows people to very easily create high quality content on the fly. The app is getting some early traction but still far from the virality Tumblr, Path or Instagram have experienced. The team is about to release a new version of the app which adds some interesting features that could potentially kickstart growth.
Compared to the Valley, this may still be early days for the New York tech scene, and especially the French part of it, but it’s undeniably in the ascendant. For many entrepreneurs in the brand/design/art/entertainment space, this is the best place to be.
And what’s interesting as an investor is that the incredibly painful visa selection process acts as a great quality filter. By definition, the people who have enough patience and drive to go through it are more ambitious than the average.
As Julien Nakache once told me: “if you pretend you can build a billion dollar business, then you must be smart enough to get a visa for the US”.
Anyone I forgot to mention and should definitely make it to this list?
A flavour of the French tech nightlife in NYC: rooftop party organised by Gertrude which brought together most of these teams. Photo courtesy of Jean-Francois Chianetta from Augment.