Do French Entrepreneurs have Enough Experience?


The startup mentality is great: “this is wrong; I’m going to fix it.” This kind of innovative thinking disrupts how we travel, talk to friends, look at data, keep track of fans, spread music, and more…. In the startup world, quite often we see former employees of big companies creating a startup because their experience in big companies gave light to a problem. When they speak in interviews, we hear things like:

“I didn’t like the way I had to use X to do Y, so I created Z to do it faster and better.”

Successful Entrepreneur

Cut to the budding young entrepreneur – a student looking for an alternative to working for BigCorp., a fresh graduate interning at a startup, or anyone taking considering taking the leap from boring job to startup job. He reads up on his daily tech interviews in order to learn as much as he can about the entrepreneurial world, and he comes across this video. Applying the lesson to his own case, he thinks, “Doing A seems really hard, and it isn’t Social, Mobile, or Local. I’ll make B in order to make A easer and better!”
What’s the problem here? Is it that jump-to-conclusion addition of trendy features? Well, maybe… but that’s not the point here. The problem is young entrepreneurs to enter spaces in which they have no experience. While the former, successful Entrepreneur had a long history with working in his space, identifying it’s weaknesses, and deciding that no sufficient product existed already; the budding entrepreneur decides to enter a space and THEN begins to identify its weaknesses.

If you’re trying to disrupt a space, count how many collective years of experience in that space your founding team has…

NOT a future entrepreneur...

…When I say years of experience, I don’t mean as users, I mean as employees. I recently spoke with a startup with a young team that’s trying to disrupt how we do online dating. I completely agree, from a user’s point of view, that the reputation, interaction, and methodology of online dating could use an overhaul. When talking with them about their product, I curiously asked who among the team had worked at an online dating company before – none of them. I then asked who among them had extensive experience doing online dating – they all had accounts to the major brands, but I had a feeling none of them had any real experience meeting someone through online dating.
As an entrepreneur, this makes me dubious in terms of joining a project like that. As a journalist, this makes me less inclined to write about their cause. And for VCs and Angels, you can bet your boot-strapped behind that they’re going to ask this, and unless you have a mentor or investor who is a king in your space, you are going to have some real trouble convincing investors that you are the team that’s going to disrupt that space.

Be wary of what you don’t like… it might just be you!

I think the idea of disrupting a space with which you’re familiar is an especially important idea in France (along with many other young startup ecosystems). In the same way a teenager gets a nose-piercing to rebel against their parents, it is an easy jump to take a bad personal experience and assume that the answer is to disrupt that space – such as the education space in France. While it’s great to try to improve every space you’ve ever felt disappointed you, I think the fact of the matter is that,  in the same way that someone who had a terrible user experience is much less fit to disrupt that space than someone who made a career out of working in that space, a country with a better reputation in a space is more fit to disrupt that space.
Before you “get a nose-piercing,” think about how many other “teenagers” have thought to get nose-piercings in order to rebel against “their parents.” If you’re not the only one you know who’s done it, what are the odds that your nose-piercing is going to disrupt a space?
Check out some of our other articles, or leave us a RUDE comment below:

  1.  Where will the Mothership Land?
  2. Diversity in French startups: a really (un)touchy subject 
  3. What’s wrong with being a copycat?

16 Responses

  1. davidbruant

    Interesting piece. Solving a problem is definitely a better approach than having an idea.
    “The startup mentality is great: “this is wrong; I’m going to fix it.””
    => the quote you describe is great. Is it really “the startup mentality”? I rarely see startups considered this way.
    Regarding young entrepreneurs, I tend to think that their mistake is not just to not have enough experience. I think it’s rather that they’re being implicitly lied to.
    Startup weekends aren’t describe as events to find solutions to problems, to build the solutions. They are described as events to “test your idea”, to meet “projects to join” for engineering students and “a place to find developers” for business students. While these aspects are interesting and important, they are a mean and not an end.
    The word “startup” also contains an implicit culture of “…and Google is going to buy my startup and i’ll be rich” which doesn’t solve anything, but attracts quite a lot of people.
    With “Startup weekends” and the like becoming mainstream comes the idea that any student can do a startup (and be successful) with almost any (or no!) idea. I disagree with this naive vision.
    Instead of “startup weekends”, entrepreneurs had better meeting each others at “Problem & solutions weekends”
    “Be wary of what you don’t like… it might just be you!”
    => This is true for what you like as well.
    Overall, whatever problem you want to solve, you need to make sure it actually is a problem. And for enough people to make your business model viable.

    • Liam Boogar

      “Overall, whatever problem you want to solve, you need to make sure it actually is a problem. And for enough people to make your business model viable.” – Definitely True.
      For StartupWeekends, there are a lot of alternatives popping up that try to address this idea that Startup Wekend isn’t the ‘right way’ to look at startups – but I personally think that the problem is not Startup Weekend, but how people describe the event based on THEIR experience. Startup Weekend can be a lot of things, some of which you mentioned, but it does not exclude people who want to solve a problem. In fact, I’m sure your pitch at SW could be “this is a problem – I want a team to come together to solve it.”
      I agree that young entrepreneurs are lied to – but that’s part of the learning process, and I think it’s part of what differentiates good entrepreneurs from bad ones.

    • davidbruant

      “I agree that young entrepreneurs are lied to – but that’s part of the learning process,”
      => WHAAAT? You mean that it’s on purpose that they’re lied to?
      I meant once 2 persons who were organizing such an events and the worst i could accuse them to is to not understand the startup world rather than purposefully organizing an event to see who gets that there are lies and who doesn’t.
      Regardless, I agree that there are plenty of things to learn from how business schools encourage entrepreneurship.
      “and I think it’s part of what differentiates good entrepreneurs from bad ones.”
      🙂 Reminds me of a classics of “Les Inconnus”, some French humorists. What’s the difference between a good and a bad hunter: (in French). Starts at 3’00”

  2. ziad salloum

    It is true that the experience count every where, however experience is tightly coupled to failed attempts. So, young entrepreneurs who have their own “disruptive ideas” can’t have experience while they are still young.
    Their only way to acquire one is to jump in the water and try to swim on their own. Few can make it (like Zuckerberg) the majority will eventually fail but on the other hand gain the “experience”.
    The important in this issue is to try, and keep trying while using that cumulative info acquired from failed attempts. For example, I was very surprised to know that Rovio had made 50 games before hitting the jackpot on the 51th which is Angry Bird (

    • Liam Boogar

      I agree with the idea that failing is part of the learning process – i disagree with the idea that the only way to learn is to jump into the waters and try swimming. There are SOME lessons that can only be learned by trying – but lessons like “make sure you know your market before you jump into that field” are lessons you can learn the easy way.
      This idea that some companies failed and pivoted before succeeding is great – I believe in the Lean Startup, and I believe in jumping in and doing it. But the idea is to fail as early as possible – if possible, before you even start.
      That is to say – there are prerequisites to pursuing an idea. Plenty of previous entrepreneurs have made these mistakes and shared them (see FailCon). For a young entrepreneur to recreate this list on their own is a bad kind of failure – the kind that can be prevented by learning from others’ mistakes.

    • davidbruant

      “Few can make it (like Zuckerberg) the majority will eventually fail …”
      => I was thinking about this recently. Are startups the “American Dream” of the 21st century? (*guest post title*… say what? :-p)
      Who are the people who start start-ups at a “Startup week-end”-like event and becomes rich like Zuckerberg or Google? I can’t name any.
      The first Operating System with good marketing and smart partnership took off.
      The first good Search Engine took off.
      The first good Social Network took off.
      The first good Angry Birds took off.
      The first good music player (iPod) took off (and changed how we thought of Apple).
      I read Xavier Neil made his first money with porn-like minitel “sites”, then wired a part of France to become an ISP with cheap fares.
      Each time, the first to have an idea and do it well succeeds, even if starting from scratch. “They started from nothing in their mom’s garage” sounds very much like fairy tale told to people to make them believe they can “succeed” from nothing. Very much like the American Dream. “if you work hard enough”.
      But the business world does not reward those who works the hardest. It rewards those who understand first where there is a market, what product/service they want exactly and to what price they are willing to pay.
      Also, a tremendous number of businesses do not start as startup. They start with a rich enough person who wants to create a company. I’ve web/app dev friends who had business clients who wanted to create a “disruptive online dating service” (yeah, one more). They had no clue of what the market was, how it works or so many obvious things. they just had the money and thought it was a good idea so they wasted money on that.
      Are startups companies created by poor people?

  3. Liam Boogar

    Here’s a list of why I disagree with everything you wrote:
    1. SW is new. It is easy to say that nothing has come of it ‘yet,’ in the same way it’s a safe bet to say that a startup will fail when it is young – SW is a startup, and it’s success depends upon it’s ability to turn out good companies. Only time will tell if it can do that. I’ve heard SW be called France’s version of a garage startup.
    2. Unless you define “Good” as the product in a space that succeeds, than here is a list of products that came before your “firsts”: AltaVista, Rovio’s 50 other games it produced before Angry Birds, the Rio (mp3 player), MySpace or Friendster – I don’t know OS’s that well, but I imagine those big room-sized terminals had rudementary forms of an OS. It seems like you’ve defined “do it well” as succeeding, so the phrase “the first to have an idea and do it well succeeds” doesn’t seem to mean much, otherwise, the sentence is false.
    3. The business-world does not reward, it is not an entity capable of rewarding. Those who execute well on an idea are not ‘rewarded’ with revenue, there good execution is good because it provides a method for them to get revenue.
    4. The Lean Startup provides a very good definition of a Startup: I do not have it next to me, but it is more or less ‘any team looking to solve a problem and create value under extreme uncertainty.’ The definition leaves open the idea that a startup can come from within another company, it can be self-funded, funded by others, or have no funding at all. “A rich person with money who wants to create a company” IS a startup – it’s not necessarily a good one, based on your description, but it is a startup nonetheless.
    5. Startups are created by poor people – it’s hard to remember that Steve Jobs was poor before he started his company – read about his time at Atari. Read about students who have succeeded – they were not rich, as they weren’t even independent from their parents.
    6. Creating a Startup has always been the American dream – “if you put your mind to it, you can do anything.” The issue here is that a ‘startup’ has come to mean a ‘tech startup,’ which it is not. A restaurant is a startup, so is a hardware store, and so is a consulting firm.

    • davidbruant

      Just to clarify, my reply was mainly on “(like Zuckerberg)” and the underlying idea that “if he did it starting from nothing, maybe anyone can” which I disagree with.
      I’m tired of Facebook and Google being used as successful startups which entrepreneurs should inspire from since no one really knows what deals, what people, what press articles made them successful. I think they had unique opportunities, made the right decision at the right time.
      More and more, these entrepreneur-heros have films about them, become role-models for teenagers. But I’m sure the fairy tales told on TV miss the point of explaining what were the exact keys of success. Pretending you can do the same by hanging out at some events sounds like a lie people should be aware of in my opinion.
      Was that what you disagreed on?
      1) I would guess SW is not the first initiative of the kind. Hence the “-like”.
      2) I was probably wrong to use the word “good”.
      Specifically: there were several search engine. The one who won just made the good deals. Back to the original point, this is not something anyone can reproduce. It was some luck, some good decisions, some good deals, meeting some right people.
      I don’t know what made Angry Birds successful, but I think that most people who are trying to do “the next Angry Bird” will fail. As soon as you start comparing, you’re competing with someone who took advantage (and often monopoly or close) of being the first one in the market.
      I’m not entirely familiar with MySpace, but as far as I know, they became a social network as a side-effect. But they never worked toward helping people to share. My understanding of MySpace is that it’s a self-promotion platform (ethymology someone? “My space”).
      OTOH, from the start, that Facebook was designed for sharing. You have no option to customize your page, your interface unlike MySpace.
      I know MySpace and Facebook are often compared, but they seem to be oranges and apples. Facebook took a different market. One that was pretty much unused.
      I didn’t know Friendster, but it seems very strong in Asia. Facebook is ridiculously successful in the Western World, I don’t know if it’s suited for Asia probably for cultural concerns. Do you have infos on that?
      There were plenty of MP3 players. None had a good interface. In terms of pure product quality, the iPod was way beyond anything you can name at the time (that was the meaning of “good” for this particular case).
      Regarding OSes, I meant OSes for a public audience. There are plenty of OSes for other purposes, but they are not relevant to the discussion. There were certainly OSes for the public audience, but in early days, Microsoft took the market.
      Overall, my point is that we should stop naming these as examples of success, because the reasons of their success is not reproductible. It was very opportunistic, based on meeting the right people, being at the right time at the right place.
      Telling to people that they can create “the next Google”, “the next Facebook” is a lie, a form of modern stakanovism.
      3) “the business world rewards” was a metaphor. “business world” was a metaphor for “customers”/”market”. The reward is an indirect side-effect.
      I don’t know why you connect reward to revenue. I didn’t, I was thinking more about “success” in the sense of people using your product/service (of course, enough to have sustainable revenue).
      4) I agree. My point was that most successful companies didn’t start as the fantasy describes “someone in his garage with no money”. They splitted from another company they became the first provider of, or they had enough back-up fund to not make a bunch of bad short-term decisions which screwed them later.
      5) Sorry, I made the mistake of asking the rethorical question after speaking about rich people, but we agree. In line of the idea of the American Dream, a bunch of poor people may think that they can do as good as Facebook or Google while I think they can’t.
      6) Do we disagree? It seems like it’s what I said. I mean, I asked the question, but it was rethorical. Creating a startup is the American Dream which is as much a lie. Oh yeah, of course, “there is this one guy” and we make twenty books, one movie, seven hundred press articles about him. But never do we explain how exactly he did succeed. And never do we explain if this success can be applicable to other businesses or if it was purely based on a unique opportunity.
      So many people had “the same idea than Facebook” ( ), why did Zuckerberg succeed? Is it applicable to other people?

    • ziad salloum

      My own guess, that nowadays you don’t have to be rich to to make a successful startup. However you need to be talented enough to efficiently implement your idea and CONVINCE (can’t emphasize more on the term) users they need to use your software.
      This marketing skills must be in the startup team (which I don’t have). I made few stuff in the past but was unable to convince my closest friends to use them.
      So once you start having recurring users, raising money will become easier.
      This is said, convincing users might not come overnight, but it might take long and hard work this is where money comes into play to sustain your activitiy.
      As for Facebook, I believe he had a big success because he started inside a university which provides a user base that is ready to experience new stuff.
      If I have to remember one thing from “Social Network” movie is when Mark said: “people did not come because they are interested but because thy knew someone there”.
      I think this is the trick

  4. AA

    you guys are not busy…..

  5. AA

    I’ve read it all!
    I am not able to respond to each of the points you discussed, and before I start, you must know I’m 36, I’ve worked in non-internet businesses for the past 15 years and I am currently working on a startup project, so I’m pretty new to the startup world, but no to business.
    This is the reason why I recently attended events like FailCon, StartinParis, W2C11…etc where people talk about how great and sexy it is to be an entrepreneur…. I heard things like:
    1- “The idea makes it all”.
    Young entrepreneurs are told the story (lie?) that their disruptive revolutionnary incredible amazing idea makes it all. This is not true: each of us can name 10 great ideas that never turned into a viable project.
    2- “Startups are going to pitch but if you ask the ‘How do you make money’ question, you will be yelled at”.
    This is devastating. It gets non experienced entrepreneurs to belive they are/can be the next Zuck or Page.
    3- “You don’t need a business plan to start a business”.
    Young entrepreneurs actually tend to believe this since it was true for Zuck and Page. But in real life (ie 99,9% of the time), not having one is going to kill their project.
    4- “In order to start a company you need to be a team of 2 developpers and potentially 1 business person”.
    That’s part of the fairy tale and the garage story.
    By listening to fairy tales, young entrepreneurs think they’re in a magic world. In my opinion this is not bad if it’s ice on the cake: their numbr motivation criteria must be their idea because sooner or later thay will find out that when the curtain falls, magic is over….
    Take care guys and we should discuss this over a beer.

  6. Liam boogar

    @ziad the idea of “convincing” people to use your product, I think, is a bad way to view the task – the same task can be described as building the right product for the right market (“product/market fit”). Yes, in order to get people to see your product, you have to market the product and make it simple to understand the value, but that marketing can be as easy as going to where your market is and, in person, saying “I have this product. Do you want to use it?”
    That Facebook-coined growth is called ‘Viral’ growth, which relies on a type of product for which the actions of each new customer bring a certain number of new customers (wiki “viral coefficient” for more). There are two other types of growth: sticky and paid. Sticky growth relies on customers that return continually in order to sustain itself, and paid growth relies on making sure that the amount of money you pay (marketing/ads/etc) is less than the lifetime value of the customer.
    Suggestion: read the Lean Startup by Eric Ries.

    • ziad salloum

      Hi, I think we are talking about the same thing but I stick to the CONVINCE thing because at some point you need to explain to people and prove to them that they need your idea.
      Take Twitter for example, I think the world was living quite well without it. Actually it took long to be adopted, because people were not very convinced from the start that it is useful for them.
      For example, I worked long enough on a project to let people meet & chat with each other when they visit the same webpage or website. I was very fond of the idea. I considered that people with same interest visit the same websites thus they are surely interested in chatting in real time manner. I spent a year working on it (I crammed so much features in it). Since I am an engineer I did not really pay attention on the marketing side. I was still of those people who consider that once “you build it, they will come”.
      Unfortunately I discovered that, people including my friends did not really care about that. I am still convinced it is a nice idea but still need to convince others that is useful.
      As for Eric Ries book ” Lean Startup”, I will read it for sure because I am interested to know about his experience in IMVU

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