Entrepreneurs should not be afraid to come up with something innovative and ‘have a go’. But if wider success is to be achieved, it’s up to major established companies to reach out to smaller innovative firms, and the mindset in France will have to change as well…

“Innovators should bear in mind that your initial idea is never what you end up with”

L’Atelier met up with Gaël Duval, CEO of JeChange.fr, an online comparison service, at the France Digital Day 2013 event held in Paris on 2 July.

L'Atelier:Do you think that there’s a right moment for young entrepreneurs to get started and turn an idea into a practical solution?

Gaël Duval:No, I don’t think there’s really a single right moment. Of course, before launching yourself into a market, you have to decide whether there’s enough room for you. If the market is overpopulated, it’ll be more difficult to bring out something with real added value. You always need to bear in mind that you’re never the only one who’s currently working on that great idea. So ‘time to market’ will definitely be something to think about. And then, mostly what you have to do is just ‘go for it’.

L'Atelier:Do you think that startups have a greater chance of success with the help of major companies, or is it better to go it alone?

Gaël Duval:Well, established majors do hold all the cards when it comes to fostering the long-term development of small and medium-sized enterprises. Take Germany for example, where SMEs are on average twelve times the size of those in France. The reason behind that is that big German corporations have understood that it’s up to them to reach out to smaller firms, not the other way round. In this way, the larger corporations are able to make use of the skills of smaller firms, and in turn an SME will benefit from the experience and the name of a big company.

L'Atelier:During your session you said that “the Innovation professional is dead.” What did you mean by that?

Gaël Duval:We’ve moved away from the vertical world and have now settled on a more horizontal model. These days, the interaction between use and idea is so strong, and access to knowledge is available to everyone, so there are no limits. Take YouTube for instance. When the founder returned from vacation and realised that no system existed for sharing the videos he wanted to show his friends, he had the idea of creating the website himself. Innovation belongs to everyone and today even someone messing around in his garage has access to knowledge and can come up with a brilliant idea. So you can’t really talk about ‘innovation professionals’ any more.

L'Atelier:You also talked about accepting failure and not being afraid. Can we go back to that point?

Gaël Duval:In my view the worst thing you can do is to have a fixed idea and refuse to let it evolve. Innovators planning to launch their product need to bear in mind that the idea you have at the beginning is never what you ultimately end up with. You start out with an idea; this becomes a technology, which then turns into a product and perhaps finally a market. But in between, many things can happen. This is why people shouldn’t fear failure, because between the original idea and the actual market disruption, failure is a common occurrence.

L'Atelier:Do you think it’s more difficult for a startup to get off the ground in France than elsewhere?

Gaël Duval:Everything depends on the point of view you take. The situation is rosier in France than three-quarters of the other places in the world. But if we compare France with some western countries, France does seem different. There are in fact two main areas where the French need to improve: self-confidence, and their attitude to money. Here in France there’s a sort of phobia as regards failure which seems to be a handicap and holds back many innovators from having a go. This all goes back to the French education system, which penalises failure, unlike the United States for instance, where the education system doesn’t judge failure so harshly. This factor, combined with an unpredictable tax regime, means that France is performing below its true capabilities. So we need to create a psychological climate which encourages innovation, otherwise it simply won’t work.

By Kathleen Comte