Serial entrepreneur Marylène Delbourg-Delphis talks to L’Atelier about her experiences in the San Francisco Bay Area.

An entrepreneur needs a good dose of humility

Having launched her first company in France, Marylène Delbourg-Delphis arrived in San Francisco in 1987 and became one of the first European woman entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. A graduate of one of France’s most prestigious higher education establishments, the École Normale Supérieure, this woman who is passionate about literature and fashion has met some inspirational people along the way, including Guy Kawasaki, Apple’s renowned technology evangelist. She encouraged him to write and then translated his books into French herself. The entrepreneurial flame still burns within her and she is today the CEO of a startup, as well as acting as mentor and strategic consultant to fledgling firms.

Marylene Delbourg-Delphis

L'Atelier: You arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1980s. Is it easier today to set up a company in Silicon Valley than it was nearly 30 years ago?

Marylène Delbourg-Delphis: I’ve never thought it was particularly difficult – as far as the administrative side is concerned – to set up a company, whether in France, where I founded my first business, or abroad. Apart from that aspect, when you set up a company the challenges involved in creating a firm remain the same as ever.

A good entrepreneur must have stamina. Passion and patience are two essential qualities, and a third is being able to accept the ups and downs along the way. An entrepreneur mustn’t forget that what s/he has been doing until then is nothing in comparison to what lies ahead. In 2015, just like 25 years ago, a happy entrepreneur is never satisfied!

Does being a French entrepreneur affect the success of one’s venture in Silicon Valley?

Not any more, that’s for sure! When I set up my first company in the United States it probably did have an impact on my success because at that time very few French people came to San Francisco to set up a company, and that was even more so for women. So I was quite a rare bird! And starting up a technology business, linking up databases, didn’t seem to fit with the image I projected of a very feminine person, always very fashionably dressed.

Moreover, Silicon Valley has actually changed enormously since the late 80s. San Francisco was then a very provincial and very American town, whereas it has now become highly cosmopolitan. I don’t think it’s of any importance whatsoever whether you come from India, China, Brazil or Albania. Americans are now in the minority in the Valley. So a French accent is no longer an issue, as it sometimes could be 25 years ago!

How can an entrepreneur give him or herself the best chance of doing well in business in the Valley?

When you arrive in the Valley, you need to realise one thing: there are an amazing number of people here who are just as smart as you are! Intelligence is the most shared resource in this world. So a French entrepreneur who has just landed here needs to learn humility. The brilliant idea you had back home in Montluçon might have also been thought up anywhere else in the world. You’re rarely the only one to come up with a great idea!

Moreover, competition is so fierce here that you basically need to have a really good product. And you have to be right on top of what you’re doing from a technical viewpoint. Preferably you also need to be quite far down the road with your product development and already have some customers testing it out.

In fact the bar is perhaps set a bit higher for foreigners in one sense. In recent years networks of French people and those who empathise with France have developed, but there’s no comparison with the reach of the social networks and the networks of professionals from US universities. So first of all you have to realise that when you arrive in the Bay, you count for very little. You have to be prepared to take up your pilgrim’s staff and set off every day afresh. You must never get it into your head that you’ve already made it.

You’ve written prefaces to books by Guy Kawasaki – who was one of the first Marketing Directors at Apple – and also translated them into French. His latest book is about technology evangelism. What role does technology evangelism play in companies today?

Well, this is a relatively recent idea. One of the first people to come up with the term ‘technology evangelism’ was Guy Kawasaki when he spoke about the beauty, the power and the magic of the Macintosh. When I met him for the first time I was rather surprised by the word ‘evangelism’, which I found a bit too religious. But got used to it when I heard Guy talk. I began to understand the power of communication, the art of conveying the user experience, your passion for a product, which has nothing in common with the highly standardised, measured – almost neutral – kind of presentation we get from PR heads, for example. Technology evangelism means communicating a direct personal experience to other people.

In that sense it’s quite close to what the social media have become today. Nor is it mere coincidence that the father of the concept is also very influential on the social media these days! Companies need their evangelists because this enables them to remind their staff that they really need to ‘live’ the products they’re selling, irrespective of where they are on the company organigram. An evangelist in a firm helps all the other employees to understand their own mission, which is to uphold the company’s values, to be the spokesperson for what they’re helping to create. We should never forget that everything depends on the experience you provide to your customers.

By Pauline Canteneur