Four false friends for French startup lingo

May 19, 2015
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marche_de_nicheI greatly admire French entrepreneurs who step outside their comfort zone to pitch me in English. Regardless of your mastery of second languages, pitching in your native tongue is usually far easier. Your reflexes are more instinctive; it’s easier to think on your feet; and you control the tone and the cadence of the pitch more effectively. There are of course some exceptions to this, such as people who have spent so much time immersed in their second language that it has practically replaced their native one, or those exceptionally gifted individuals who are so comfortably multi-lingual that they can weave in and out seamlessly (my experience is that this set of privileged people includes those who learned multiple languages from practically the day they were born, as well as every Swede and Dutchman I know).

But for most of us in the world born in countries that were sufficiently large enough to have local language TV programming, our second languages, if any, are not native, and accordingly, we’re often condemned to never be quite as effective in them as in our mother tongues.

I certainly do not hold it against French entrepreneurs who prefer to pitch me in French rather than English. On the contrary, if you can more effectively convey your vision to me in 30min in French rather than the 90min it takes in English, I prefer your native tongue. Yet I also encourage all of you French entrepreneurs to challenge yourselves to hone your pitching skills in English. These skills will become indispensable as you expand your business internationally. And do not be afraid to make mistakes. The number one language in the world today is broken English.

In the spirit of constructiveness, here are four ‘false friends’, i.e. words that look the same in both French and English but carry very different connotations in the context of company-building. Please keep these in mind when pitching to an Anglo-saxon investor.

niche

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1. Niche

Connotation in French: generally negative, as in ‘un marché de niche‘, a market that is too small to be worth pursuing

Connotation in English: a good place to start, an attractive sub-segment of early adopters from which you can build traction, a beachhead

reactive

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2. Reactive

Connotation in French: positive, such as a person that is efficient in responding to outside events

Connotation in English: negative, waiting for opportunities to come to you. the polar opposite of proactive, which implies actively seeking out opportunities or creating your own

anticipate

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3. Anticipate

Connotation in French: slightly negative, moving in haste without sufficient foresight or planning

Connotation in English: positive, making educated predictions about something and acting on it to test your hypothesis. anticipating keeps you ahead of the market.

prudence

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4. Prudence

Connotation in French: positive. carefully planned out with all failure scenarios thought through in advance. a character attribute proudly claimed by Ecole Polytechnique for its graduates

Connotation in English: generally negative, at least in a startup setting. prudence implies indecision, or asking for permission before acting. do you think Uber and Airbnb were prudent in their deployments?