France continues to search for a ‘French Google,’ while candidates find no support

Dec 3, 2013
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It’s hard to keep track of the number of initiatives that have been started or proposed in France in order to create a “French Google” – that is, a France-based internet company with equal influence as players like Facebook, Google, Microsoft or Amazon. I often feel that the French government’s entire investment strategy (via BPIFrance) is built around trying to find a diamond in the rough, a needle in the haystack, and propel it to multinational status. During Silicon Sentier’s launch of NUMA last month, one attendee told me that the association which manages LeCamping was originally meant to find a ‘French Google,’ though the mission statement of Silicon Sentier has since evolved & shifted.

One may wonder why Dailymotion never became YouTube, why Exalead never replaced Google, why Viadeo never replaced LinkedIn – many of these second-place trophies and consolation prizes are purely a question of execution – but I’ve begun noticing a stale taste of hypocrisy in the “we need a French Google” mantra that one hears so often. The problem, for me, lies in the difference between the environment that the French Government wants to promote (i.e: “the talk”) and the environment that its policies facilitate (i.e: “the walk”).

Even if there was a startup with the potential to disrupt Internet usage on such an infrastructural level as Google/Android, there’s evidence to suggest that such a startup would not be able to survive with France as its headquarters. One needs only to look at potential candidates to see that it’s not so easy to build “a Google” in France.

If Netvibes – ‘the homepage of your internet’ –  isn’t a good enough example of a startup that could’ve made a monumental impact given the right support and resources, perhaps its founder’s next startup, Jolicloud, may be an indicator. The startup, which looks to be the homepage for your cloud, announced it would discontinue updates to JoliOS last month, with founder Tariq Krim citing ChromeOS’s dominant positioning as a lightweight OS. The operating system, which even came prepacked with a laptop, called Jolibook ,for a short time, received very little support in France, Krim says, a fact which may have been the difference between success and failure.

While it’s difficult to say whether JoliOS failed due to lack of support or just a lack of positioning in the ecosystem, Krim’s sentiments raise a pertinent point about France, which is that the French media, government & entrepreneurs don’t support each other. On the one hand, I believe in choosing the best product over the local product; however, the day Bunkr launched I said I would make an active effort to try to do all future presentations on their platform, because I believed that, with the right support, it could really take off as a product.

Bunkr has taken off as a product, having received large amounts of press about its “Powerpoint Killer” at the same time that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer announced he would be leaving the company; however, their 50,000 users that they welcomed in the first months since their launch wasn’t enough to convince French investors to invest in their seed around, and so the startup has reportedly begun talking with investors outside of France.

What use is BPIFrance, and all the seed funds they invest in, if a product that wants to disrupt Powerpoint can’t raise a seed round after having one of the most successful launches of the year? I don’t know if Bunkr will be successful in their endeavor – there are many features that need to be fine-tuned or, well, included – but the team has done enough to merit being given the opportunity to take things to the next level, and the fact that they can’t raise money because ‘the business model isn’t clear’ or ‘we’re not sure if there’s a market’ is, pardon my French, utter bullshit.

The ceiling of opportunity is determined by the height of the safety net: you can only succeed as much as you permit yourself to potentially fail, and, today, France’s investment ecosystem isn’t permitting itself to fail, which means it will never succeed. There is no lack of money available to startups in France – there’s literally billions available to startups – and there are certainly startups that are not only trying to do ambitious things – Whyd, Algolia, Mindie, Bunkr, etc. – but have proven themselves enough that any US investor would, and is throwing cash at them.

What France lacks today, something which shocks me to this day, given the mustache-laden, baguette-carrying, lady-seducing image of a Frenchman that I and so many other Americans grew up with – is balls.