Paris is known for many things, including fine art, fashion and food … but tech startups? Mais oui! Artistic, tech-savvy entrepreneurs, ready to subvert conventional business models and make big money, are using Parisian panache to bump up the P in entrepreneur.
The movement has been fueled by an economic crisis that left France with a surplus of overqualified graduates and a severe shortage of appealing jobs, especially for those with liberal arts degrees. But thanks to ingenuity and government backing, Paris is joining the global startup frenzy that has already taken hold in cities like London and Berlin — and the ace up its sleeve is artistic flair.
The word ‘entrepreneur’ is French; we have it in our genes.
Digital companies like Skype, Spotify and SoundCloud have already proved that Europe is one frontier of up-and-coming technology, but could the city for lovers become its heart?
Renowned French entrepreneur Xavier Niel thinks so. “The word ‘entrepreneur’ is French; we have it in our genes,” he says. “And the ‘ecosystem’ that exists in Paris makes it not only possible but easy to launch something. This is the most beautiful city in the world. It has its flaws, but it is a fantastic place to start a business.”
French digital stars like Marc Simoncini, creator of the dating site Meetic, and Jacques-Antoine Granjon, founder of the private sales site Vente-Privée, have also been big public advocates for a friendlier startup culture.
Following in their footsteps are other smaller but fast-growing companies that people may not realize are “made in France” despite the fact they all share a distinct and artistic French style.
And increasingly style matters to the success of startups. From Steve Jobs’ study of calligraphy to Google’s latest $3 billion buy of the cutesy Nest, design might just be as important as coding.
In order to launch a fashion marketplace, we had to be in Paris.
Such is the case for Leetchi, a company that facilitates social payments; its minimalist website now operates in five languages. Then there’s Bunkr, an elegant presentation API aiming to kill PowerPoint; 60 percent of its users are in the U.S., and the company is looking to expand to China.
Another example of a startup with an unmistakable French accent is Vestiaire Collective, a marketplace for secondhand luxury fashion products that has expanded to the U.K. and Germany and, following a $20 million investment from Condé Nast, is entering the U.S. market.
“The startup culture is very international, but Paris is a truly inspiring place to work from,” says Stanislas Coppin, creator of Mindie (a music video sharing app).Co-founder Sebastien Fabre said that “in order to launch a fashion marketplace, we had to be in Paris” — a feeling shared by many other local entrepreneurs.
Coppin had no technical background when he started his business. In fact, he met co-founders Gregoire Henrion and Clement Raffenoux in art school.
Their sleek app is a perfect example of Parisian design’s savoir faire; it quickly became an App Store hit and a Silicon Valley darling, raising $1.2 million in funding.
But the Mindie team did not get there on its own. “As an entrepreneur, you need constant feedback,” says Stanislas, “and having the support of a tight-knit community is fundamental.”
Which is why the creation of incubators and co-working initiatives has played such a crucial role in building the Parisian startup infrastructure. Not long ago, founders-to-be had to work from cafés. Now they can set up in the 150,000 square meters of co-working space available in the city.
Some spaces are offered for free by incubators while others are community-run or privately owned. But they all help entrepreneurs meet and connect with like-minded self-starters. One prime example is Numa, a stylish, six-floor building buzzing with fashionable young techies pulling coffee-fueled workathons. The third floor serves as headquarters for Le Camping, France’s first publicly funded incubator that started three years ago and has already helped dozens of budding entrepreneurs.
If you attended art school, you are already an entrepreneur of sorts, because you chose to do something hard just for the love of it.
“What is happening is quite incredible. Things have moved so fast,” says startup whisperer Oussama Ammar, who was a mentor at Le Camping before co-founding TheFamily. This unorthodox incubator gives members a strong educational program based on the assumption that entrepreneurs are made, not born.
Even so, Ammar believes that when it comes to launching a startup, the city’s artists might have an advantage over business school grads. “If you attended art school, you are already an entrepreneur of sorts,” he says, “because you chose to do something that you knew was going to be hard just for the love of it.”
Artistry is becoming an essential ingredient for success in the high-tech business worldwide, and Paris is bringing it in spades.
Still, the entrepreneurial path is not easy. As an angel investor with more than 10 years of experience in France and Silicon Valley, Ammar is aware of the challenges. “The major problem in Paris is that most investors are still very conservative; they would rather put their money in less risky assets.”
It will also take patience to change the culture of most big French companies, which are known for their aversion to change and an ingrained fear of outsiders. “Big business can be toxic for startups,” complains Ammar. “They often choose to intimidate instead of welcoming innovation. The other day, two first-time founders presented their idea for a digitally enhanced television to a large TV station. They were threatened with a lawsuit!”
But young entrepreneurs now have a powerful ally: the French government. In a war against stifling unemployment, French leaders have created French Tech, a platform offering resources to the digital community, in a bid to boost entrepreneurship.
The most-celebrated government carrot has been the easing of taxes for crowdfunding, a system that helps many get the initial capital to kick-start their venture. The initiative was launched by Fleur Pellerin, the deputy minister for small and medium businesses, innovation and the digital economy, who has vowed to dedicate her political efforts to supporting startups. “These are the best vectors of innovation; they are the ones that will allow the digital transformation of French society and economy,” she says.
Certain things may never change in Paris — like strong espresso and mouthwatering patisserie. But change is afoot and the groundwork in place for a new generation of entrepreneurs who are ready to challenge the business status quo and turn the City of Light into a startup heavyweight.
Vive la Révolution!
Why you should care
Because there is digital life beyond Silicon Valley, and your new favorite app might very well come from the City of Light.