Working in collaboration with startups allows innovation to bloom, and helps the larger company to accept that failure is allowed.

Interview with Olivier Roussat, CEO of Bouygues Télécom

L’Atelier: How can startups and major firms complement each other in joint development projects?

Olivier Roussat: I think that for a large company such as Bouygues Telecom, working with startups can be beneficial in two ways: on the one hand giving innovative ideas free rein, and on the other learning to respond to market fluctuations. I should point out that one’s view of a market or services is not the same when you have large resources at your disposal as when you don’t. What startups teach us is that innovation is born of constraint. Major firms with substantial budgets quite often do not face the sort of limitations that will push them to take risks and innovate. The main advantage startups have is not being tied to all the procedures a big company has to follow in order to function smoothly. In an established firm, although ideas may well emerge, they’ll most probably get smoothed and honed and shaped by legacy achievements as they go through these processes. A startup doesn’t carry the burden of this historical view of things – or to a far lesser extent at least – and so is free to create and follow through on an idea, a concept, in an unadulterated form, whereas major firms are likely to alter the essence of the idea through a succession of filters. Working with startups allows us to really listen to what’s going on around us without filtering the information.

So it’s the creative aspect you’re primarily interested in – you don’t invest in startups with a view to resale?

Our role in the relationship we have with startups is not that of a business angel.  We work – in the true sense of the word – with startups and we help them along by selecting them according to their line of business and to how they complement our network. We don’t go into something if we’re not sure we’ll be able to make use of it immediately in our existingsetup. To be frank, the few times we have tried to push a startup without having it sponsored by one of our operational units it hasn’t gone well, in spite of the first-rate ideas put forward. What we try to do is to get the best out of the startup in terms of helping us to enhance our own services. This is a well-balanced approach as it benefits both Bouygues Telecom and the startup. We have expressly decided not to integrate startups into our company because this would stifle the way we work together. If you impose those sorts of processes we were speaking about a moment ago, you restrict that very freedom of innovation which is the startup’s forte. Bouygues Telecom brings considerable benefits to startups – administrative knowhow and human resources for instance – without imposing the drawbacks of a large company. Our starting point is simple: you have to acknowledge that the startup can teach you a thing or two that you don’t know, even if you’re a major player.

You mentioned that fear of failure is one of the factors that limit innovation potential. Could you elaborate on that?

The culture of failure is precisely the strong point of startups, the main reason why they produce first-rate innovations. These kinds of companies build themselves through successive failures and they don’t hesitate to make fundamental changes in the way they work in order to respond to the market. However, the cultural problem regarding attitudes to failure begins upstream, in universities and schools, which don’t often teach us that failure isn’t an entirely negative thing – that it’s almost essential to make mistakes if you’re going to succeed later on. It’s unreasonable to try to make students believe you can be the best at everything. No-one knows it all, either in the business world or in daily life. In big companies it’s this fear of failure that is generally behind their inability to admit that a project isn’t working out. Rather than change things, they keep putting more and more resources into it to try and ‘force’ it to succeed. It’s very hard for a major firm to admit that a project won’t work, precisely because this would be an admission of failure, but this is something that startups are very good at.

By Quentin Capelle