I recently prepared a presentation for an American school here in Aix-en-Provence. The topic I proposed was: The French startup mindset & ecosystem. An interesting topic, which represents part of my professional background.

Here is a summary of the differences I have observed between the American and French mindset in the startup field.

 Who are startup founders?

In France, I have identified 3 kinds of entrepreneurs: (1) young entrepreneurs from business or engineering schools; (2) executives aged 30-40; (3) 40+ entrepreneurs who are often “serial entrepreneurs”.

(1) In general, young entrepreneurs do not have any previous experience and are often driven by passion. They have no significant financial constraints.

(2) Executives in the 30-40 age bracket have usually spent about 10 years in a big company and reached a confortable and stable position. However, from a Maslow perspective, they are in a search for more meaning. This could be freedom, creativity, knowledge… Or they are just looking for an unpredictable future or fortuitous life change. I was exactly in that position 4 years ago. I felt that I had learned what I wanted to know in the corporate world and wished to launch my own venture… Dreaming of success, I didn’t really know what did it took to build a startup so I learnt the hard way.

(3) The third type of founder usually comes from one of the previous categories and has been persistent and motivated enough to become a successful entrepreneur.

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What mindset do the founders have?

A French founder typically has a mindset forged by years of experience in the corporate world. Used to processes, projects managed regardless of the cost, they imagine that they can build a startup in the same way that one might pilot a project in a large company. Unfortunately, or fortunately, it’s not the same thing. In fact, it’s quite the contrary.

Generally, a founder will have a quite strong ego thanks to what what he has achieved in the corporate world, and he will keep his project secret as long as possible. He will try to anticipate everything, which in my view is contradictory to innovation. “If you’re sure it is going to work, it cannot be innovation.”

The fledgling French entrepreneur is usually fearless and will take much more time to set up, build a product, and put it in the hands of the first customer. An American founder will sell from Day 1 with a simple Powerpoint as his unique sales tool. His French counterpart will wait until he has the final product before presenting it to customers. This may seem caricatural or clichéd, but it is actually not far from the reality. This is not only based on my own previous experience, but also on that of numerous entrepreneurs I meet on weekly basis.

The general mindset in France is far less audacious and risk-taking. People will even try to stop you if what you’re trying to do is likely to have an impact on their lives. There is a widespread fear of change in France and French people are predisposed to fighting change instead of trying to work out how they can make the most of it. I am French and I have experienced a mind shift since my own startup failed a few years ago. Today I can recognise the shortcomings of other entrepreneurs. Luckily, accelerators exist today and their role is to help young entrepreneurs perform that shift.

What are the pros & cons of French startups?

– One of the biggest advantages of startups is the weather, especially here in the south of France. I’m not kidding! What is the best asset that any startup might look for? Skilled and happy founders and employees! Being able to go to the beach every weekend, bringing up kids in a nice environment, is a real unfair advantage.

– Another great advantage is related to education, in particular in computer science and business. It’s quite easy to find good employees here in France.
– Like almost anywhere in the world, there are accelerators and some grants to help startups in the early stages.
– From a market prospective, France is very well located, with easy access to the US, Asia, Africa…

On the other hand, there are disadvantages when it comes to building startups in France, especially in the south of France:
– Even if the business is working, it is difficult to grow. Real experts are hard to find in the area.
– There are few investors in the region and it’s not unusual to have to go to Paris to meet Business Angels and find VC.
– French employees are quite bad at English making it more difficult to develop international markets.
– There is a shortage of startup experts in the south and It’s quite easy to know everyone in the local ecosystem

My opinion

I strongly believe that France is a great country to found a startup and develop a stable business. They are many advantages in launching a new venture here. Nevertheless the most challenging part concerns growth. There are several missing components like access to US markets or large-scale funding to boost and accelerate business development … However, I have observed that successful founders who leave France almost always come back.