Joie De Vivre: The Europeans Are Out To Lunch

I write this from a hotel room at Newark airport in New Jersey. I’m half way home from a wonderful week in Paris at the Le Web conference where I mingled with 1,700 or so attendees. My mood: jetlagged, sated and cranky.

My week was spent in luxury. I was treated to a business class flight to Paris, a stay at one of the nicest hotels in the city, and at least three of the best meals I’ve had since the last Le Web conference in 2007. I’m still a little dazed after a five hour, fourteen course dinner last night at Restaurant Guy Savoy, my first foray into a Michelin three star restaurant, for example. A fleet of Peugeots sallied us across town. Europe is more formal than Silicon Valley, so I wore a suit each day to the conference. In all, an atypical week for me in every way (jeans, tshirt, Jet Blue and Motel 6 is how I roll on most of my trips).

Life is good in Paris.

The conference agenda was packed with excellent content. There were a few well documented logistical hiccups (there was effectively no Internet connectivity either day, and the venue was cold). But apart from that Le Web was a success.

As an American I found that I was treated more warmly than any time I’ve visited Europe in the last few years. Obama is on deck, and the Euros like him. America is cool again.

But Europe’s persistent background pessimism was out in full force, even at an event full of entrepreneurs. Americans dominated the stage and spoke mostly about the tremendous opportunities that arise in down markets. Engineers are much easier to hire. The press have fewer startups and stories to divide their attention. The pond certainly gets smaller, but there are far fewer people fishing, too. For most startups, this is a time to blossom.

The last session at Le Web was a live Gillmor Gang It will be posted soon but you can watch it below, care of Ustream. At about the 14 minute mark a discussion of Europe v. Silicon Valley erupts.

Conference organizer Loic Le Meur (a French entrepreneur who moved to Silicon Valley for his most recent startup Seesmic) says that Silicon Valley moves too fast, and that Europeans enjoy a good two hour lunch just to experience the joy of life.

My response, at about 17:40: the joy of life is great, but all these two hour lunches over a bottle or two of great wine and general unwillingness to do whatever it takes to compete and win is the reason why all the big public Internet companies are U.S. based. And those European startups that do manage to break through cultural and tax hurdles and find success are quickly gobbled up by those U.S. companies. Skype (acquired by eBay) and MySQL (acquired by Sun) are recent examples.

The crowd jeered but the stark reality of it all is unavoidable. And the fact that the panelists on stage, all either American or living in America, suggested that you can somehow succeed with a startup while maintaining a healthy work-life balance is unfortunate. Too many people choose to be entrepreneurs as a lifestyle, without realizing that it takes everything you have and more to win. And if you aren’t in it to win, why not just take that nice job down the street that gives you five weeks of vacation.

Two hour lunches are great. But when you have investors to answer to and employees (and their families) to provide for, something has to give. Perhaps that’s why many of Europe’s hardest charging and most successful entrepreneurs tend to move to Silicon Valley, where they are surrounded by like minded people.

The panelists would have better served the audience by urging them to help shift European culture to be more supportive of their entrepreneurs. These people need a fighting chance to survive, and just telling them what they want to hear isn’t helpful. Joie de vivre is fine once you’ve sold that startup and have a summer house in the south of France. In the meantime, get to work. Le Web needs more Europeans on stage next year, and it just may be you up there telling the world how you overcame European culture and grew a successful company.

Update: An offended Le Meur asks his readers if I should not be invited back after I expressed these opinions on stage and in this post. My response is here.