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France, the land of entrepreneurs…

French President Emmanuel Macron (C- bottom) poses with participants of the “Tech for Planet” event in Paris, on December 12, 2017, ahead of the One Planet Summit. Philippe Wojazer/AFP

In a recent Twitter post, President Macron wanted us to remember something; the word entrepreneur is in fact French.

Meanwhile, French start-ups still need to take a more dominant role on the international scene. The Minister of State for the Digital Sector, Mounir Mahjoubi, wants to make sure that France becomes better at taking its firms abroad. Conditions imply that this is the moment for France to profit from a unique opportunity; the momentum of the growing VC and funding scene; the large participation of government led funds like BPI, the consequences of Brexit… in a moment when conditions seem to be perfect, I present next the reasons why, as a professor of entrepreneurship and long advocate of internationalisation, French start-ups will continue to struggle to go abroad. And if they realise this, perhaps they will able to circumvent the challenge!

The world does not understand us!

No, they do not. The world does not understand that no one in France seems to pick up the phone during August. That even young entrepreneurs put out of the office messages for more than two weeks of holidays. But I understand it. It is not only the entrepreneur is the system.

For those of you who are unaware, kids in France have two weeks of holidays for every 6-7 weeks of classes. And then two months during the summer. I have 45 days of holidays a year. Any normal employee will have at least 35 days with a 35-hour-a-week contract. Difficult to change such system, and the consequences it carries.

For instance, try to open a business during the month of August. It is an impossible task. Between government employees being absent, lawyers travelling to Corsica and accountants closing their entire offices, counting on their support to do business becomes an entrepreneurial nightmare. So when business is dead the temptation is to close for business as well.

But when in Rome… yes you need to be open for business! French Entrepreneurs must learn this (although typically they do it the hard way) and acknowledge that the world will not wait; and will not understand. To join the international arena businesses must adapt; they must acknowledge that it is not the world that must understand them, but they that must anticipate the needs of the world and the functioning of the countries where they wish to have operations. They must anticipate, be ready, be available and be open (both in mind and for business)!

Because French start-ups love the United States!

In 2018 France had the largest representation of start-ups in the world at the CES. The United States is the number-one country of choice for exchange students coming from business schools. It is also the first country that comes to the minds of all entrepreneurs when thinking about going abroad.

But why the United States? Because it is large, because it is attractive, because there is a lot of money, because we must, are the usual answers. But what if we started opening up for other more “obvious” opportunities, especially during a start-up’s early months and years. After all, there are quite a large number of French-speaking countries in Europe and around the world. Let’s take the example of an application, platform or e-store. It is quite an investment to translate, hire employees for customer service and community management and to adapt to different time zones and geographical distances.

But what about Belgium? How long would it take for any of these businesses to launch there? Or in French-speaking Switzerland? Many start-ups fail to do what they probably learned in school: first, that internationalisation can be done in stages (Uppsala, remember); second, that it is easier to test what you know best, and finally the fail fast fail cheap motto.

Because we encourage it, but we do not prepare for it!

I have performed a long benchmark of the contents of French business-school programmes and the majority of them (please correct me in the comments below if I am wrong) do not include modules that link internationalisation and entrepreneurship.

In a recent workshop I gave to Mexican students willing to take their projects abroad, I told them an experience I had some years ago when working in the banking sector. We had to create a new “field” to secure some additional and very relevant customer data in our digital archives. This information would boost our CRM efforts and make our marketing more performant.

Well, the problem was that creating a new “field” in a large business data centre is the definition of a nightmare. What about start-ups? Are they leaving the “fields” necessary for internationalisation? Are they considering the flexibility and adaptability of their systems, employees, procedures, project management skills and budgets? Unfortunately, they are usually not.

This is because we do not encourage them to anticipate internationalisation! In acceleration programs, incubators, management education and public programs we need to become better at communicating/enforcing this message. Internationalisation is something to be included, planned, and strategized for. Otherwise it becomes difficult, expensive and unattractive.

So in all, we must become more aware of the natural difficulties, self-imposed obstacles and perhaps lost business opportunities that entrepreneurs in France face to go abroad.

Allez les bleus!

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