French tech startups take matters into their own hands

France’s internet economy appears to be caught in a hurricane. Uber’s recent troubles in the country seem to say as much. However, not every tech company’s outlook is as dire. In fact, the image of France as a country of lost opportunities for emerging tech startups is changing.

A study by GP Bullhound published last May shows that France ranks fifth in Europe for the number of “unicorns” it has produced. Unicorns are fast growing startups valued at more than $1bn; France has three companies in that category: Criteo, BlaBlaCar and Vente-Privee.com, with a cumulative value of $6.7bn. France ranks fourth, after the UK, Sweden and Germany, if you look at EU countries only.

Services provided by the so-called “sharing economy” (such as ride-sharing or peer-to-peer flat rental) are more popular than ever, too. San Francisco-based AirBnB recently disclosed that Paris has become its first market in terms of number of listings.

A recent French survey also shows that 22% of French people use services provided by the sharing economy. More interestingly, 30% of respondents said they plan to use such a service within a year. Looks like a friendly country.

The French, however, are realistic about the possible impact of some of these services on the wider economy. 57% want the government to create a legal framework for the sharing economy. 35% think the government should actively stimulate its development.

The current French government includes a young generation of politicians, in particular Minister of the Economy Emmanuel Macron and State Secretary for the Digital Economy Axelle Lemaire, both in their late thirties. These politicians have spotted the trend and are working to revitalize the “France” brand among entrepreneurs.

In June, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls presented the French Digital Strategy. The plan includes measures focused on encouraging startup creation. It also proposes initiatives to foster a wider “digital transition”, i.e. ensure that every business and public administration in the country fully embraces digital technologies. Of course, this is France and the plan would not be complete without a bit of regulation, so it includes rules aimed at Internet platforms. Some of them could impact the sharing economy, too.

This notwithstanding, the Digital Strategy signals a profound change. Until recently, France considered itself an industrial nation built around national champions, i.e. big companies in strategic sectors (often with as much or more success abroad than at home). France has always had a strong SMEs sector but, as opposed to the family-based and export-oriented businesses that made the success of the German economy, French SMEs have mostly focused on serving their domestic market.

This is changing with the rise of a new generation of technology startups characterized by fast growth and a global ambition. These companies are not too different from Silicon Valley businesses. Like them, they are driven by a young, energetic workforce and propose tech-based solutions to problems that aren’t being addressed by traditional players.

But, unlike US startups, French companies have come to realize that they lack the right talent to scale up and successfully take over the world. At an event for entrepreneurs and engineers in San Francisco on June 26, French SME leaders outlined two profiles particularly hard to find in France: product managers and experts in international startup growth.

To fill those needs, ten startups about to scale up got together in May 2015 to create Reviens Leon and deploy a charm offensive to entice French tech emigrants to move back to France. The initiative is designed to make the country more attractive, facilitate the recruitment of candidates and support their return home.

To promote France, Reviens Leon’s representatives travelled to where the talent is: in the Silicon Valley, New York and London. Those places have one thing in common: they have dynamic workplaces that offer exciting and well-paid career opportunities in what has become an attractive industry. It’s not surprising that they have lured over the years tens of thousands of well-trained French engineers in search for a chance to innovate and inclined to shun what is, in many ways, a more rigid, less imaginative economy in their home country.

Reviens Leon San Francisco

Reviens Leon recruits in San Francisco

However, even if tempted, potential candidates often encounter barriers to their return and many decide not to make the big jump. To remedy this situation, Reviens Leon helps with:

  • A centralized job search platform populated by participating companies with the possibility to apply directly online through the Applicant Tracking System provided by SmartRecruiters (a startup with teams on both sides of the Atlantic).
  • Guidance by Reviens Leon’s experts to handle issues linked to the move: administrative paperwork, finding housing and schools, healthcare, taxes, etc.

In addition, Marc Rougier, Founder of Scoop.it who supports the initiative, points out to the French quality of life: cheaper housing, education and healthcare and the possibility to live in country towns far from Paris’ bustle. Working in startups in France has changed, too, according to Rougier: recent reforms in labor and corporate rules support business creation and make the labor market more flexible.

Reviens Leon’s founders are realistic. They know this package will mostly appeal to people in their thirties with young kids. This notwithstanding, a couple of months after its start, Reviens Leon has already received 150 applications from professionals ready to come back home.

Reviens Leon’s most vocal supporter is Frederic Mazzella, the easygoing Founder and CEO of ridesharing platform BlaBlaCar. He is joined by nine other companies with similar recruitment needs and eager to benefit from the increased exposure toward their dream candidates: Capitaine Train, Chauffeur-Prive, Criteo, Drivy, Dataiku, iAdvize, La Fourchette, Showroomprive.com and Sigfox. The aim is to have about 100 companies join the project.

Upon hearing about the initial success of Reviens Leon, government-led initiative La French Tech (whose mission is to promote the French startup scene in and outside of France) decided to join the fun and contacted Mr. Mazzella. What happened next is a true classic French story, as shared by Mr. Mazzella himself at the San Francisco June 26 event.

La French Tech called Mr. Mazzella proposing to contribute financially to Reviens Leon. Mr. Mazzella accepted, and was asked to start a heavy 6-month application process to receive the funding. Reviens Leon was already moving fast and Mr. Mazzella had no intention of slowing down, so he replied that if La French Tech wanted its logo on Reviens Leon’s materials, it would have to do better than that. Surprisingly, La French Tech proved that things can move fast in France, too. Somehow, a solution was found and Reviens Leon welcomed it as an official supporter in a matter of weeks.

As a BlaBlaCar spokesperson puts it, Reviens Leon is not about reversing the French brain drain or telling French engineers not to leave France, but about ensuring a circular flow of talent. Mr. Mazzella himself spent time in Silicon Valley at Stanford and the NASA. His co-founder worked for a VC company there, too. They both brought back the Valley’s energy and innovative spirit into their French ventures.

Poaching Silicon Valley seems to be in fashion. 33entrepreneurs, a French incubator, has been touring the US in a bus “like Obama” throughout July. It is organizing pitching competitions to select startups to support and bring to France. Based in the Bordeaux wine country, 33entrepreneurs focuses on food, wine and tourism, sectors that make up a significant part of the French economy but are underrepresented in startup incubators and accelerators.

Former US President George W. Bush is known for having told former British Prime Minister Tony Blair that “the trouble with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur.” Vincent Pretet, founder of 33entrepreneurs, aims to reclaim the word – which happens to be French, after all!

What’s interesting about both Reviens Leon and 33entrepreneurs is that they are not government-led campaigns, but rather have a genuine grassroots origin. It looks like a wind of change is blowing in France, coming from its youth. Who’s in?