Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Why Paris isn't Silicon Valley (and doesn't want to be)

I've been plugged-into the Paris start-up scene for over a year now. It hasn't let me down, only because my expectations were nil. It couldn't really be described as vibrant... although I do get the feeling that things have picked up considerably in the past 5 years. Sure, I do know a few young aspiring French entrepreneurs. Most of them, tellingly, have their greatest aspirations in an eventual relocation to a more exciting climate, normally Silicon Valley. Indeed, several of France's success stories have already transplanted themselves to the other side of the Atlantic.

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.


ninafryd said...

Great blog, I just stumbled upon it, from a commentary chez David Lebovitz I think.
I'm a norwegian transplant here in Paris. Me too, I have tried to start my own business after moving here. I agree about a lot that you write here, but I disagree about what you wrote that: "The French despise those who succeed." I guess you have meet all the wrong people or misinterpreted some vibes?
OK, there is no "american dream"-spirit and loud cheering for those you are hardworking and successful in the same ways as what I have understood it's in The U.S. But at least compared to in Great Britain and Scandinavia, here in France people do applaud the success of others way more. I think you have misunderstood completely when you write that "maybe it's a well pulled-off brain washing exercise by the French elite to preserve their protected class". - Instead I feel it's the opposite; it's the "working-class" and lower middle-class people who often frown upon those who aspire to be successful, or who are part of the higher classes (because of jealousy, lack of understanding etc) Perhaps that attitude is some traces from the The French Revolution? "Execute the rich!"
It's like that in many European countries, but the further north in Europe, the more prominent is this "tall-puppy syndrome", and I dare to say it's worst in Scandinavia. So for me, France is heaven.
I don't find French society to be "super elitist" as you write at all, but strangely almost all americans I have meet in Paris feel that France indeed is very elitist... (Why???) The only area I can think of where France can be called elitist is if one wants to make a career in politics, then pretty much, those doors are hard to open. But in general, I would say France is liberal. Obviously, because of Europe's history we have a more defined and rigid class-system here compared to The U.S, but that does not necessary make an elitist society, and I don't think France is.
I don't comment blogs very often, but I just felt like now. :-) Have a great parisian day, and good luck with your entrepreneurship. :-))
Nina Frydenberg

Ryan Haugarth said...

Hi ninafryd, Thanks for your comment!
Funny enough, the first time I was introduced to this French attitude toward professional success was in a French lessons book (DELF) and confirmed by my French instructor.
I later moved to France and have heard the story from many French friends here. You also see it in behavior.. how many in French society aspire to greatness on a professional level?
Maybe Scandinavia is even more so, but from an American perspective, France is incredibly elitist. Not just in politics... also in business. At the top of every business you'll find only a small league of men who are all part of the same class of families and have all attended the same elite schools.

Nadia said...

I'm greek living in Paris since 1983. Adore the place but agree 1000% with everything you wrote. Isn't that a pity?
Take care