France doesnt need more accelerators, it needs more mentors


This article is written specifically using my knowledge of the French ecosystem, but I think that this easily applies to any “emerging” ecosystem – every ecosystem outside of the Silicon Valley, New York & London can be seen as “emerging.”
I’m often asked what I think is the best incubator, accelerator, co-working space or cafe in Paris for startups – it’s a great way for people to ask “where can I go to leach off of other people?” I’ve spent time at LeCamping, I helped out at Dojoboost for its first season, and I recently had the pleasure to meet Juan Hernandez, one of the coaches at l’Accelerateur. While I think these are all great initiatives, I’m not convinced that accelerators are the answer for an Emerging eocsystem. After all, Tech Stars & Y Combinator aren’t what made Boulder, Seattle, New York, or Boston great places to build startups. It was the other way around – their success was an indicator, and was a result of the fact that those places had build an environment to foster innovation.

But what do they have that we don’t have?

Mentors. What is a mentor? Is it a former entrepreneur just trying to feed off of young talent? Is it a corporate guy telling you how he build his company in 1842 thinking you’ll be able to relate to his stroy? Is it a presentation uploaded on to SlideShare that we can read with no context? If so, Paris has got TONS of mentors.
Last week I asked a question on Quora: Which Paris startup mentors help their startups the most? the least? The question got plenty of attention on the social networks where I posted it, with people agreeing that they wanted to hear the answers, but no one has come forward to say anything. Perhaps this is because it’s hard to criticize someone publicly, especially someone who has achieved the elite level of “mentor” status (sarcasm), but I at least expected to hear one stroy of someone who worked their butt off just to get a startup a meeting with a client. No financial return, no sweet partnership with their company, just helping great people succeed.
Just look at the equivalent question for the Silicon Valley – the questions mentors help startups get through are the same ones that accelerators are claiming to answer in Europe & in France.
I fear that we’re creating accelerators in the hopes of attracting mentors to the startups, instead of creating a solid network of mentors, and then bringing them together in an official network like an accelerator.
I understand that it’s hard to be critical in France – it’s not in the culture – but I’m not French, so I don’t care. If we’re ever going to get anywhere, we need to learn to be a bit more critical of each other, and stop saying “everything’s great” when we know it’s not.
Looking forward to hearing your Mentor stories below!

10 Responses

  1. Lynn

    I was with you until the last paragraph when I read “I understand that it’s hard to be critical in France – it’s not in the culture “. I find the French (well, Parisians) to be more direct and free-flowing with their criticism than Americans. Maybe in this case it’s that the criticism would be directed toward someone with more standing, so there’s a hesistance due to the fear of repercussions?

    • Pierre-Antoine

      I agree. If there’s one thing French people excell at is criticism. You’re not disrupting anything by saying something sucks in the system.
      That said, I agree with Liam’s point that we need more mentors and not “serial entrepreneurs” that spent their whole career in big firms like Sncf and Edf. But since our ecosystem is emerging, I think we should embrace “young” mentors, people who have maybe only created one startup but have nonetheless learned so many things.
      I guess in France we have the paradox that the most interesting people are young startupers rarer than 50-somethings.

  2. Alistaire Le Grande

    All the mentors with any skills or brains are fleeing France and the socialist regime of Hollande. I think this is the best advice and a strong signal. Any French entrepreneur and startup wannabe should take heed of this, and the advice is for free; get out of France, the socialists have arrived and if you want to succeed go to Estonia (Skype), or Britain (as a first stage to escaping to Estonia or the USA).
    You say it all with the assertion that being critical is hard in France because it’s not in the culture. This is a signal to every man that has is Entrepreneurial, nay, scientific, that France is toxic to business and innovation.
    I wish it were not so, but its the truth.

    • Liam Boogar

      Spoken like a true French expat. Thanks for adding “it’s the trouth,” at the end – I beleive that’s the argument equivalent of adding “it was so funny” at the end of a story.
      In short, I think you’re wrong. Not only to “regimes” change every 5 years, but France is constantly changing, and it has a lot of qualities that estonia (weird reference, but whatever) & Britain lack. Like smart people, creative people, and money. Generations of money that Estonia will take centuries to acrew.
      I love when Entrepreneurs say “If you really are an entrepreneur, just do what everyone else is doing (and go where everyone else is)” The hypocracy within the statement is so apparent to me, and yet, followers will follow.
      I see amazing capabilities in France – while the French government is not ideal, they have the potential, and I’d rather be in France than London or California.

    • Sandra Day

      Sorry, but I disagree. Living in France for 9 years now. Time to get out. You call rectangular “cités” of concrete progress? What percentage of the population has iPhones? I’m afraid to use my iPad in public for fear of being “showy” or robbed. Socialism has slowed progress, and my personal experience is that I pay twice as much in taxes for half the services. Have any kids? How long did you wait to get a spot in the local daycare? If at all? How much do you pay to use the toll roads from Paris to Normandy – each way? How long do you wait just to pass through the toll booth on a busy weekend? 80 cents/liter of gas. 20% sales tax. And yet the schools are still using methods from the 1950’s, where the teacher stands in front of the class A..L….L day looooonnnggg. Rote learning is great, and French have a particular talent for memorization. However, attending meetings in large, international companies can leave you with suicidal feelings over the lack of objective, scattered communication and their inability to speak up. After working many years for a top scale company, witnessing the political landscape in this environment, I can attest that the employees who’ve been in these companies for 20 years or more, are only there because the union is so strong that they can’t be fired. They are not there because they are filled with innovative ideas and hard work. Thanks to the state for the grants or these places would be out of business. It constantly feels like the blind leading the blind. Aside from that criticism, I can attest that the young population of recent grads do have promising attitudes, education, and ideas. Unfortunately, they will be nearly impossible to realize with the current government in power.

    • Sandra Day

      PS: after they robbed and burned our car – the only time I’ve experienced such a situation…I’ve learned that car burning is normal par for the course in france. How do you explain this? How do you explain all the “velo-libs” in Paris getting thrown into the Seine? The truth is those who have not paid any taxes do not grasp the notion for public property. Just leaches on the backs of the few who are still fortunate to have jobs and pay for these types of programs.

    • Liam Boogar

      Sounds like an unfortunate experience. I think you make some valid points – I think others are results of your individual experience, which is either unfortunate or justified.
      I don’t think “burning cars” is on par with the norm – I don’t think that a Socialist outlook is inherantly wrong, it’s just that Capitalism affords a bit more liberty with “human rights” and things like that which ultimately drive profits.
      I’m not too sure any of your arguments are for or against the message of the article, but I appreciate you sharing,

    • Sandra Day

      Thanks for your reply. So I had a little spiel about a combination of the things that are wrong with France, that may have deviated from the topic. Sorry abou that. I suppose, what I was trying to get at, is that finding a mentor in a place that is so far behind, is like finding a needle in a haystack. Unfortunately continuing education for adults is very expensive and very deficient. When I said “blind leading the blind,” this is atmosphere I feel has a grasp on France. Don’t get me wrong, there are some good, intelligent, out-of-the-box thinkers in France. But the majority of them…it’s as if they can’t change a lightbulb without asking the state first for permission, injecting at least 5 x the effort, and taking 3 x the time, any other citizen would take. So how can we expect to find mentors here when the vast majority is so far behind? I lived in Silicon Valley for many years, I am proud to have been a part of it. Regretful to have left. But the truth is, France is decades behind, not only infrastructurally, but the mentality. Like another poster said, you can’t fight hundreds of years of history. So the simplest solution is to leave – like attracts like – go to places where advances are being made. Where those with ambition can make something of their ambition. But France is not the place.

    • Sandra Day

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