A lot of people would argue that there are 3 key elements to creating an environment that breeds innovation: bright and talented people, patient money that’s capable of taking risks and an environment that is not just tolerant but accepting of failure. Ok, I’m perhaps dramatically oversimplifying the list just a tad but still, these are definitely key ingredients in the magical land of innovation.
Now, let’s consider whether or not these elements are present in the French tech ecosystem. Smart people? Check. Patient, risk-taking money? Eh, OK, it’s disputable. Honestly a lot of people like to give European investors a hard time (not just the French) for being more risk averse than their American counterparts. And while it may be the case to a certain extent, one could also argue that the French investment scene is going through a bit of an evolution in the right direction, with a handful of active business angels popping up, new seed funds and now Y Combinator-like mentoring programs.
So this brings us to the last element on the list: an environment that is accepting of failure. Seriously, France, like many European countries, kind of likes to push failure under the rug. It’s a taboo subject, plus it often leaves the door open for the ever-so-critical community to say “I told you so” to those strange people (yes, entrepreneurs) that decided not to become civil servants in their quest to satiate their rampant greed (forget the fact that most entrepreneurs are not money-hungry hawks but actually people that want to make a difference). So hey, if you’re already the underdog and things go wrong, why make it worse and make the issue public?
Because shit happens – and talking about it can help the entire entrepreneurial community. It can encourage more people to take risks and try their luck at a crazy innovation. Who knows, it may become the next iPhone. Or not. And if there are lessons to be learned, why keep them for oneself rather than sharing them with others who could benefit as well?
FailCon is a Silicon Valley-based conference that aims to do exactly that; well known people in the tech community – investors and entrepreneurs alike – openly talk about their failures and what they have learned. The 2010 edition of the conference had speakers from companies like Revision3, MySpace, Etsy and Foursquare. And now the conference is preparing to make a stop in Europe in the fall.
In preparation for the European event, Microsoft France organized a mini Fail Conference last night with French law firm Kahn & Associés, Silicon Sentier and TechCrunch France. The event’s Facebook page had more that 1,400 people confirm their interest in attending, which obviously demonstrates that the entire community is interested in the subject. Unfortunately, due to Microsoft’s capacity, the event was capped at 600 attendees – who showed up to see several well known French entrepreneurs and investors discuss failure openly for the first time.
French serial entrepreneur, Gilles Babinet – who is currently invovled with companies like MXP4 and Eyeka and sold his previous company to Microsoft – gave a brilliant speech where he openly talked about some of his personal failures. It definitely made a huge impact on the local crowd, to hear someone of his level speak about his shortcomings. In addition, Michel Dahan of Banexi and Jean-David Chamboredon of ISAI confirmed that investors do not systematically reject entrepreneurs that have had previous failures – even in France; what is most critical is how the entrepreneur presents the failure and whether or not he is able to take responsibility and demonstrate what he has learned.
But, it still seems like a large majority of the French population were somewhat reticent when it came to sharing actual stories and experiences. Sure, everyone agrees that it’s necessary to talk about failure but not a lot of people actually want to do it.
And so, we’re going to kick things up a notch. Obviously FailCon has the potential to have an impact in a number of European countries – not just France. We’re already in the process of coordinating with the FailCon organizers in the US and preparing to host a pan-European event in September. If you’ve got ideas, feedback or would like to sponsor, don’t hesitate to give me a shout (roxanne at techcrunch dot com).