Mentoring continues to be a key ingredient in the development of entrepreneurial ecosystems. The latest entrant? France. The article The Next Silicon Valley? Head to France by Tina Trinh describes how newly elected President Emmanual Macron’s plan to build a version of Silicon Valley in France. This represents a major cultural and economic change.
“The tradition has been in Europe and in France to invest in big, traditional companies and not specifically [in] tech startups. So we will dedicate a €10 billion fund to the investment in tech startups in France,” said Mounir Mahjoubi, France’s Secretary of State for Digital Affairs.
The French Tech Visa fast-tracks a process for participants to obtain a renewable, four-year residence permit. The goal is to bring startup founders, employees and investors to the country through a combination of mentorships, grants and subsidized work spaces. Note how mentorships is listed first, before even “subsidized work space.”
Of course, the first question I ask when I see mentorship included in such plans is where will the mentors come from? Macron and his economic development team have an answer for this:
In the French tech world, all eyes are on the privately financed Station F, which is set to open this summer in Paris. Billed as the world’s biggest startup campus, the 34,000-square-meter space already has major tech companies like Microsoft, Facebook and Ubisoft signed on. The companies will develop their products, as well as host and mentor startup founders in incubator programs. One thousand individual startups are expected to set up shop at Station F.
While mentorship from employees of companies like Microsoft and Facebook can no doubt be helpful, the problem with this model is that the best mentors for founders are those who have been founders themselves. If you haven’t started a business, built a team, raised capital, and had to meet payroll I doubt you can help founders with the many different challenges they face. In fact, employees of large tech companies may not even be helpful in mentoring entrepreneurs about product development, as the process in a large, established and well-financed company is so different from a cash-strapped startup.
The reason Silicon Valley has been so successful is due to many factors, not the least of which has been Stanford University, which supplies a steady stream of well-educated engineers and scientists, and has supported entrepreneurship for the past 50 years or more. Mentors tend to be founders who have cashed out successfully and have the time to be angel investors and/or mentors and the desire to “give back” – the key qualification for a mentor.
So trying to create another Silicon Valley by simply funding incubators and recruiting large companies to mentor founders is necessary, but not sufficient. The two main drivers of entrepreneurship are major universities and investors. It’s not clear that France is trying to locate its incubators and “hubs” where these two vital ingredients are present. Another smaller, but increasingly important ingredient is a great transportation system, as millennials are increasingly less interested in owning and driving cars and more interested in using public transportation to get to their jobs. Google, Apple and Facebook now have their own fleets of buses to transport their employees from San Francisco to Silicon Valley.
So if France is truly serious about generating a version of Silicon Valley they need to better understand what has made Silicon Valley so successful and why it continues to succeed through a virtuous circle of startups going public or being acquired and adding to the pool of angel investors and mentors who in turn can help yet more startups succeed.
Bon chance, Macron!