Building a startup is hard. Building a startup that is a global leader in its sector is even harder. While many have argued that the task is more difficult from France, there are some who would care to disagree – there are some who are living proof to the contrary.
3 French entrepreneurs, 3 startups that became global leaders, 3 cases in point of growing from local to international, and pieces of advice for all French startups who plan taking over the world.
“It is absolutely doable to attack the U.S market with a French startup. But you have to do it from the U.S.” – Jerome Lecat, CEO of Scality
Living proof that global leaders can also be born “French startups”, Jérôme Lecat learned how to grow internationally the hard way: by making mistakes. Today, he is well-know for Scality, a large-scale storage management and infrastructure company that raised $22M last year.
Scality is Jerome Lecat’s 3rd startup. He learned about accessing a world-wide market when he sold his first one, Internet Way to UUNET in 1997. Internet Way was a very successful enterprise Internet provider, second on its market in France, which seemed to be a big deal when he was founder, but a very tiny market from his VC Product for Europe’s point of view. Seing France’s market size from above got him the ambition to build an international company afterwards, which he did with Bizanga, his second startup, in 2003. With Bizanga, Jerome Lecat “made all the mistakes a French entrepreneur could do in the US“.
He decided to recruit a salesperson to set up meetings for him in the U.S while he would travel there every two weeks to attend the meetings – and that, for two years. This solution, very costly and tiring, was a least better than having a salesperson do the whole job, which is the worst-case scenario according to the entrepreneur. Thanks to these efforts, Bizanga managed to sign a few big contracts, recruited a local manager and got offices, but recruiting good quality profiles had become so impossible to achieve that he eventually closed his U.S. offices.
Learning from these mistakes, Jerome built Scality as a two-headed company. He moved to San Fransisco to manage the company, and installed one sales-person in Germany and one in Paris. The company also maintained R&D in France. Living in SF completely changed the pace of the company’s development since he, as a founder, was more included in the local ecosystem. Yet at the beginning of Scality, although business was flourishing, recruitments were still an issue: only medium profiles would be interested in working for the startup.
Everything changed when Scality managed to raise money from Menlo Ventures (in other words: a legitimate U.S. VC). The other big lesson Jerome learned from building global startups is that U.S very good profiles only come to startups who have potential. And as Jerome puts it: “A startup potential is directly proportional to the U.S. VC’s pedigree that funds it” for the Americans – not even European VCs, which U.S. job hunters don’t know of. R&D is still based in France, where Scality is recruiting experienced developers – for those who would be interested.
To sum up, Jerome Lecat recommends French entrepreneurs who want to build startups focused on the U.S. market to do so by being physically present, as a co-founder, and to manage to raise money from U.S. investors.
“French companies should not try to build another company when growing internationally, but a subsidiary of the same, unified company culture” – Jonathan Benhamou, CEO of PeopleDoc
Johnathan Benhamou got his first idea 7 years ago when he wanted to create France’s future post office. After 2 years of struggling to convince electricity providers to give access to a safe, cloud-based location for bills to all French users, he decided to switch to an entreprise solution, a HR management tool. Novapost quickly became the number one solution to digitalize pay slips in France, and then employees files’ management, and then employees contracts’ management. By 2013, Novapost got 120 big clients in France, Jonathan then decided it was time to push his company global.
How did he make the decision? “It was an impulse, he says. I truly believe there is something like a “entrepreneur instinct”. I felt it was the right time to attack the American market for Novapost, so I moved there with my wife and kids”.
Things moved very fast once Novapost – now People Doc – reached the U.S: by December, People Doc closed 6 deals and Accel Partners, VC partner of Facebook, Dropbox, Spotify, etc. decided to invest $17M two months later. Jonathan pinpoints that U.S. companies are very ill-equipped, technologically speaking, especially for HR departments: “HR is a technological no man’s land in the US” he says. French products have a very good reputation, and U.S companies are very open to try new solutions, according to the entrepreneur.
The biggest challenge People Doc had to face when the company opened in the U.S was to maintain a unified company culture. “Culture is strategy for breakfast”, they say. It is no detail to maintain a coherence across countries, it is absolutely essential. At People Doc, for instance, every employee has a godfather abroad, and each country has an official Instragram account.
Growing internationally is a very tough endeavour, Jonathan tells us: “I remember sitting in a 10m2 office without windows. It can be hard, but it’s worth it”.
“The company was built with an international mindset right from the start. Today, it is only the beginning!” – Frédéric Mazzella, CEO of BlaBlaCar
There have been 3 key turning points in the history of the French ride-sharing startup. The first one being right in the first developments of the company, in November 2007, when BlaBlaCar won the INSEAD Business Venture Competition. Indeed, Frédéric Mazzella declared “BlaBlaCar was built with an international mindset right from the start”. The first step of internationalization took place in 2010 when the product launched in Spain, followed by Italy and Poland two years later. Then, the company started building a true international perspective following a raise of funds with Accel Partners in January 2012: all teams switched to english internally and a “Growth Team” was structured to transfer best practice to local teams.
Market opportunity played a strong part in the company’s development, says Frédéric: the fact that reaching liquidity on the ride-sharing space is very hard entails that very few marketplaces for ride-sharing have actually started, thus leaving markets free for BlaBlaCar to deploy. It seems that the French know how to build companies in the sharing economy sector – BlaBlaCar and Drivy being worldwide champions. Along with raising international funds and building a highly motivated team, other key factors of international strategy development.
In order to build a strong company culture throughout the world, the team wrote down their international values, among which “Think It. Build It. Use It.”, “Fail. Learn. Succeed”, “Vanity : ( – Sanity : | – Reality : ) ”
BlaBlaCar is now present in 12 countries, counts over 8 million members and 2 billion miles shared, raised a $100M round of funding led by Index Ventures this month, but “it is only the beginning of our global expansion!” says the CEO Frédéric Mazella.
If you want to learn about French co-founder experiences, Frédéric Mazella from Blablacar and Jerome Lecat from Scality are going to reply to Q&A sessions at next Paris Founders Event – a demo-night to discover France’s next big thing followed by a networking apero – join us!