Reza Malekzadeh explains the rationale behind the arrival of the French Tech movement in San Francisco.
Everything began in 2013 for French Tech, an initiative which seeks to link up the entire French startup ecosystem. Spearheaded by the Ministry of the Economy, the goal of French Tech, according
to the Ministry website is: to “drive collective action with the objective of placing France among the great startup nations.” The French Tech label has now embarked on a voyage abroad and has first weighed anchor in San Francisco in order to widen its international footprint.
Launched to coincide with the visit of France’s Minister for the Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs, Emmanuel Macron, in January, French Tech San Francisco is quite unlike the French Tech outposts in Lyon, Nantes and Toulouse. Interview with Reza Malekzadeh, who is in charge of promoting the French Tech brand in San Francisco.
So why was French Tech San Francisco set up?
Reza Malekzadeh: According to Romain Serman, Head of Bpifrance in the United States, San Francisco is home to over 70,000 French people. So we have here a huge community which is, by the way, very well-established if we look at the overall status of the posts held by French people in Silicon Valley. However, there is today much less mutual support between the members of the French community than among the Indian or Israeli diaspora, for instance. Moreover we don’t have a real international brand, nothing that provides a good reflection of what we are and what we’re capable of doing.
For example, in 2013, US-based Adobe Group bought the French conversational marketing technology startup Neolane for the tidy sum of $600 million. But who was aware that Neolane was French? The same is true for personalised retargeting company Criteo: in the US today, too few people know that this company is French. Similarly, we simply don’t make enough noise about the Lending Club IPO which founder and CEO Renaud Laplanche carried off in late 2014.
By way of comparison, if an Israeli entrepreneur knocks on the door of a US-based venture capitalist, his/her nationality works in his/her favour, it’s seen as a plus. But we French suffer from an image deficit. The United States still finds it difficult to assess our ecosystem at its true value.
What’s the basic aim of French Tech, then?
French Tech San Francisco is an initiative intended on the one hand to stimulate a sense of goodwill, to generate mutual support among the community so that when a French entrepreneur arrives in San Francisco s/he can count on some help from the community whether we’re talking about obtaining finance, setting up commercial partnerships or winning customers.
On the other hand, French Tech is about promotion, projecting the ‘France’ brand here in San Francisco.
We have a high-performance education system. We have excellent engineers. Moreover, our system of financing innovation has got a lot better. Players such as [national investment bank] Bpifrance have done a lot to establish seed financing, and other organisations such as Partech Ventures – which I recently joined – are now able to handhold promising fledgling companies right through to the growth stage.
Basically, we have aces up our sleeve, so it’s up to us to tell the world about them. It’s not a matter of just blowing our trumpet, but we ought to be making international players aware that among our startups are some very high quality companies.
So what’s needed, in concrete terms?
French Tech San Francisco is basically a brand, a label. So French firms need to display it. When Sigfox, one of the top companies in the world on the Internet of Things front, declares that it’s a member of French Tech, that’s something really symbolic, which has an impact on people.
We’ve also started running PR campaigns and have begun organising events that are open to everyone. The first thing we did was to arrange a lunch for US venture capitalists when Emmanuel Macron came to visit. Players of the calibre of Sequoia Capital, Greylock Partners and Menlo Ventures had their people sitting around the table listening to Mr Macron speak about the strengths of our ecosystem. It was an important moment.
In addition, the French Tech San Francisco label is underpinned by a network of ambassadors such as [French US-based business people] Nicolas El Baze, Anne Bezançon, Frédéric Benqué, Jerome Lecat and Yseulis Costes. The ambassador network should open doors for entrepreneurs who request help. If we can call on each business person’s professional network, we’ve got a powerful strike force available.
What in fact are French entrepreneurs looking for in San Francisco?
First and foremost French entrepreneurs are attracted by the size of the US market, which numbers around 300 million customers. That’s a lot more than they have in France.
But they may also be looking for partnerships, for research and development for instance.
Thirdly, financing is also a good reason to come to the United States. At the present time, a $100 million funding round simply cannot be completed in France alone.
Last but not least, the business culture here differs from the way we view business back in Europe. On the whole, technology is more highly prized here. Looking at the situation from the angle of major firms, you see behaviours here in the United States that at present you won’t see in France. For instance, Walmart, a traditional mass retailer, has bought Vudu, the streaming video platform co-founded by Alain Rossmann. Faced with fierce competition in its sector, Walmart didn’t hesitate to make substantial investments as its managers have grasped the value of technology – a piece of the puzzle that was missing from its setup. In Europe generally, and certainly in France, technology still tends to be underrated.
So what’s your ideal vision for French Tech San Francisco?
Every major French success should be identified as such in the minds of people in the US, especially those involved in innovation. If we succeed in what we’re trying to do, the whole concept of a ‘French Tech’ label should in the long term not be necessary – in the sense that the true value of French entrepreneurs will be recognised as a matter of course. Our long-term goal is that the US public will see French entrepreneurship as a thoroughly reliable product.