Tuesday, September 15, 2009
So what's wrong with this place? It certainly is one of the most beautiful cities on earth, but would one be out of their mind for trying to launch a tech company from here? Sure, Paris lacks the energy and spirit of a well established entrepreneurial hub... but is it only a matter of time? Can this city ever get there? Unfortunately, not in this lifetime... I'm afraid.
Yes, the government and their policies play a role. These are structural issues which could be legislated away overnight if the politicians had the will. More crucially, the real issues are in the country's DNA, in a cultural mindset that is polar opposite to everything embodied in the entrepreneurial spirit. This mentality will change, the question is when & how far down does France have to fall before people realize their mindset is flawed & unsustainable?
The French do one thing well. They really embody the expression "work to live, not live to work". There is something to be said about quality of life. I am a huge believer in it. I once considered relocating to China post-MBA to be part of something big that I felt going on in the region. After spending some time in Shanghai, I realized that opportunities in China might be inspiring from a professional standpoint, but my personal life would have undergone enormous strain in that country. I am spoiled. I am used to fresh air, open spaces, clean streets, and other luxuries normally taken for granted in the west. But placing value on your personal life doesn't preclude having serious professional ambition and pride in professional projects. It is in this respect that Anglo-Saxons and the entrepreneurial spirit directly clash with French attitudes.
One of my most surprising cultural learnings in the past few years has been this: The French despise those who succeed. Those with ambition and a drive to achieve personal rewards are not admired but scoffed.
It's incredible. I don't really know how this happened, but I'm beginning to wonder... maybe it's a well pulled-off brain washing exercise by the French elite to preserve their protected class.
It's no secret that French society is super elitist, one's position in French life is pre-determined by family & schooling. Social mobility is next to impossible. Even the middle class is well protected. There exists a clear boundary separating management (i.e. the cadre) from non-management... no crossing allowed.
The country's employment laws help to (and are possibly even designed in order to) keep the masses complacent with their lack of upward mobility. The employment laws offer stability for the population in terms of an implicit guaranteed job for life. As a result, ability and performance have become less important than tenure and there is zero incentive to work hard. Once into the system, paychecks are guaranteed and "work" becomes only a noun in the French language and not so much a verb.
It's no wonder the French have adopted a deluded sense of entitlement. Frustratingly low levels of customer service are expected in France, what many fail to realize is that the same ambivalence to work prevails throughout the French workforce. It's amazing the lack of ownership and willingness to take responsibility found at all levels.
It is this sense of entitlement that saps from the culture any drive to achieve greatness on the professional level. It has made hard-work and risk taking an absolutely foreign proposition. Why be an entrepreneur? If you fail, not only do you not get the huge severance check & amazing social safety net, but you will never shake the stigma of failure and will find it nearly impossible to find work again. Those who have done such a ridiculous thing and who have succeeded are not admired, but are actually resented.
The system that props up this mentality, the labor laws and social welfare programs, are going to bleed the country to death. Already corporations have no incentive to locate themselves here nor invest in the country. Unless a startup has a very good business reason to do so, it is almost asinine to register and employ people here. The system is clearly not sustainable. Once it crumbles, the anti-entrepreneurial mentality will follow shortly behind. It is only a matter of when and under what dramatic circumstances will a wave of change wash away the old mindsets paving the way for Paris to become a potential hub for entrepreneurs.