Why French Startups Want an American Touch

By Erin Griffith , written on August 31, 2012

From The News Desk

Berlin gets plenty of attention for its burgeoning startup scene, but London and Paris, sometimes lumped together because of the quick Chunnel connection, have a few things going on, too.

The strange thing about all three of them, though, is that many of them feel they need an American connection. It's a theme I've heard echoed across numerous conversations, and it's strong enough that Liam Boogar is making a living off helping them do it.

Boogar is an American in Paris who grew up in Menlo Park. He moved to France two years ago. After witnessing this demand and helping a few startups as a consultant, he's decided to formalize his efforts into a program that helps French startups "American-ize" their businesses.

He'll actually be offering visas and a full-time job to American startup pros to come live in Paris. They'll work with English-speaking French startups for a year or two. He said it was like "a study abroad program" for American techies.

It stems from his experience: He's been in high demand from startups, several of which have hired him to be their "resident American." He still gets at least one job offer a month from random startups. In his roles at companies like Deezer and Contract Live, he's helped some of his startups get into American events like Jason Calcanis' Launch, made introductions to potential business partners at large American tech companies, and generally played the role of a business development guy. He realized the demand for these types of services were high enough to formalize it into a program.

In his words:

Unlike traditional consulting, we work as temporary employees, getting our hands dirty not only generating leads, but closing sales with companies like Symantec, AT&T, Google & more. We help "American-ize" the startups look & feel, as well as injecting some American attitude into the company culture.
It's a curious idea. As a witness to New York's burgeoning startup scene, I can attest that no underdog likes the idea of an outsider parachuting in, telling people how to make their scene more like the top dog's scene. I don't know that the pretentious idea of "Silicon Vallifying" things would resonate with many New Yorkers. We have local pride, and want to become a scene unto ourselves, not a bunch of Silicon Valley wannabes.

New York techies constantly tout the things that make New York tech unique and special. Paul Graham's visit to NYC one year ago is still fresh in plenty of peoples' minds. He flat-out dissed the city and its startups, saying they were "never going to beat the Valley." Notable quotes included, "The Valley is a magnet for nerdy visionaries. NYC is for rapacious dealmakers." Some found it patronizing, others didn't understand why it had to be a "winner takes all" situation.

Throw in a hint of cultural imperialism and I would imagine European startups might feel the same way about Boogar's plan to help "American-ize" French startups. Why should they hire an American to tell them how to do things his way?

Boogar's answer to that question was actually quite convincing.

For a French company to become large, it has to eventually move outside of the French market. Being huge in France is still quite local, globally speaking. Even the largest French startup in a category can easily be wiped out when a large American equivalent shows up.

"Airbnb had around seven competitors when they entered France and crushed them all," he says. (He quickly noted that not all American competitors trample over the local incumbents when they enter France. Some, such as Le Huffington Post, don't hire the right people to attack the cultural differences and fail to gain traction.)

In the Western World, the US is still where the users, the follow-on investors, and the big clients are. (Not to mention the media: Boogar's blog post on Why TechCrunchFR Sucks sparked a debate about the lack of media attention dedicated to the country's startups.)

A footprint in the States is seen as the key to building a big, global business. Further, selling your company to an American company is one of the most attractive exit options. The IPO market in Europe is nonexistent, and there aren't a lot of big acquisitive tech companies, Boogar says. European success stories like Soundcloud and Skype are now San Francisco and Seattle-based companies. French techies felt just as disappointed as Trevor did when Sparrow sold to Google.

At one point, Boogar profiled one startup per day for his blog and always asked what their plans were for the US. He was always disappointed in their answers. "Often they thought they'd just go to the Valley and pray they'd raise money or find a client." Some would vaguely hint of hiring a freelance business development person like Boogar. Beyond size of market, there is a lack of understanding amid the French startup scene around product marketing and business development, he says.

That doesn't mean the country's startups are doomed. Two important things are going for startups in France: One, the country's government makes lots of seed investments in startups. And two, the city is packed with one resource that is very limited to US startups--engineering talent. Paris boasts some of the top engineering schools in the world, he says. "French technology is more advanced and the research is better than in the US, I would argue."

Ultimately, Boogar wants French companies to realize they don't need to move to Silicon Valley to break into the US. They don't need to become the cheap outsourced engineering offices of Valley companies, either. His goal is to make them into global companies from right where they are.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]