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

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

20 Responses

  1. Avatar
    Jean-Marc Loingtier

    Yeah well, French investors are always trying to minimize risk instead of maximizing outcome. That’s why US investors will privilege market size (if it works it better be big) and team quality (enough wits/experience to re-invent/pivot if needed) whereas French investors will often quite foolishly attempt to decrease risks by playing seers: what’s your Biz. Plan at 5 years? Or they will overstress formal education: How many “grandes écoles” alumni do you have in your team?

    • Avatar
      William El Kaim (@welkaim)

      Totally agree with both the author and Jean-Marc.
      ‘Of course you can fail, but you will not’ not in France. You have to start small and stay small to succeed. But with small success no investor will look at you. The terrible cycle!
      It’s hard tout think big in France! Why? It still a mistery to me. Too “cartesian” to build an aggressive plan to conquest the world!

  2. Avatar
    Maja (@MajaCaplett)

    Great article Liam, I certainly agree with your observation that “many of these second-place trophies and consolation prizes are purely a question of execution’. Do French investors seek to fund those start-ups which can prove they don’t need money to take things to the next level? 😉

  3. Avatar
    Philippe D

    I don’t know whose balls exactly you’re talking about here (France is a big country, and not necessarily of the male kind), and will not take personnally your comment. I guess back in 2003 other pundits also told us we didn’t have balls when it came to get on the WMD trainwreck.

    But hey, it’s difficult to change a country’s psyche.

    However, it seems to me that your point is just a bit one-sided. It’s true that French establishment people surely do not have an Andreesen-flair. But I would be quite surprised if successful startups like Criteo, Business Object, or Neolane have not benefited from public seed money (Oseo, CIR).

    • Avatar
      Liam Boogar

      If every startup takes OSEO & CIR, and occasionally some startups succeed, does that mean that OSEO & CIR is successful? Personally, I don’t think so. And the lack of transparency around KPIs and ROI for public investment suggest that the two are very low.

    • Avatar
      Philippe D

      By the same token, does the fact that out of 100 startups that take VC money 1 succeeds means that VCs are unsuccessful?
      Did the fact that the US government successfully rescued the US auto industry in 2009 save it from making a lousy $535 million loan guarantee to Solyndra in 2011?

      I’m begging to know in which case they had the biggest balls…

    • Avatar
      Jean-Marc Loingtier

      I fail to see how the Solyndra story is very different from the French government subsiding solar panel equipments … to ultimately enrich Chinese manufacturers 😉 Anyway the purpose was probably not to compare the US to France (I’m sure everybody has big balls — especially in Texas) but to reflect on the efficiency French subsiding system …

    • Avatar
      Philippe D

      Precisely the point. Does the US government lacks balls? (I can tell you for sure there are a whole bunch of guys inTexas who think so :-))

  4. Avatar
    davidbourguignon

    Is this a pseudo-analysis of a real problem? After a somehow detailed description of the how, when, who, etc., the author concludes by a very trivial insult. Come on!

    • Avatar
      Liam Boogar

      I’m not sure it’s my responsibility to propose the solution, as much as put the spotlight on a problem. What additional analysis would you have liked?

    • Avatar
      davidbourguignon

      If your responsibility as blogger is not necessarily to offer a solution to French entrepreneurs’ problems, it is certainly to write posts that try, at least, to approach the complexity of a particular topic. But I agree, this is difficult.

      What about grounding your strong opinions on figures and verifiable references? This would help us way better than a series of “I often feel”, “one attendee told me” and two examples of failed startups taken as demonstration for a general principle.

    • Avatar
      Jean-Marc Loingtier

      David, you cannot be serious. Since the beginning Liam is the only guy on the place who brings something else than automatic news + back scratching to the startup blogging scene. And if you have followed him you should have realized by now that his opinion matters. We have the chance to have an English writing blogger who is making more for French start-ups visibility than anybody else: so please, give us a break. It’s one thing to be rude (hey we are French !), it’s another to stop thinking whenever we feel criticized. 🙂

    • Avatar
      Philippe D

      We are all very happy and flattered to be covered by US bloggers, especially the ones that are from the Silicon Valley. However, we need to have a debate when there is one to be had.
      First of all, if we get cover maybe that means that there is something to be covered.
      2nd thing, let’s leave emotions at the door and debate objectively. What is the ROI of French public money? Maybe it’s not good as Marc Andreesen’s, maybe it’s not bad at all. But let’s try to make educated guesses when asserting things when in unknown territory. Otherwise it’s a battle of opinion.

    • Avatar
      Jean-Marc Loingtier

      Well, confrontation of opinions is often a good way to spark a more serious debate with numbers and studies … which analysis is in turn a matter of interpretation and so on. So … had anybody found /hard/ numbers or studies about France ROI?

  5. Avatar
    Alain Raynaud

    1. Keep writing about the topic, it’s a great discussion to keep having over and over until it registers in people’s minds.

    2. A key point in my mind is that too many people expect government policy to make a difference for startups. In Silicon Valley, we get 0 support from the government. We even lose our health coverage when we start our startups (crazy). So France is not doing worse in that regard, if anything, the conditions are even better in France than in Silicon Valley for people to take risk. Except they don’t… which is where your article is correct: it’s about risk and ambition. It’s cultural. So it can be improved over time.

  6. Avatar
    Emmanuel Bellity (@ebellity)

    I completely agree with the general idea – although I’m not sure it’s “balls” we need or just smart money / a different kind of VCs. Or maybe an environment that makes US funds want to invest here or even set up shop here.

    My hope would be some sort of French-hackers syndicate on Angellist that can back great startups such as the one you mention with small tickets from various people in the ecosystem.

  7. Avatar
    Jonathan Pilault

    European countries are typically risk averse. Unfortunately, an early-stage investor high risk appetite is a necessary trait for a successful startup culture. On top of this, France has an elitist mentality were an non-Grande-Ecole (GE) graduate is worth less than peanuts, even if the person has the potential to be the next Larry Page. I am 100% sure that this prejudice resonates in the way French VCs invest; especially since many French VCs are former GE grads. Maybe that explains why Bunkr received greater acclaim from American Investors…

  8. Avatar
    Ziad SALLOUM

    I have always asked myself the same question over and over again. While I don’t have the answer myself, there is something logical that implies that the ecosystem in France is not as adapted as elsewhere, particularly in the USA.
    Personally I always blame the the whole machine with government at the center because it is the government job make this machine turn in the right direction and the right speed. By doing this some sectors might be privileged more than others (for the sake of “common good” I dare to say) and I don’t think any french gov has enough balls to do other than raising taxes on the “bad rich people” in order gain acceptance of the average french citizen.
    As long as the majority of the society does not dream more than saving enough to go on summer vacation, a french Google will unfortunately still being an unreachable dream.

  9. Avatar
    davidbourguignon

    What a nice collection of clichés about France one can read in this comment thread! I guess French bashing attracts more French bashing… Interestingly, something we don’t read here is French entrepreneurs wondering if they are really solving someone’s problem and delivering their product the right way. No, it is way easier to complain about the French government, the French taxes, the French culture, the French men and their anatomy, etc.

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