TechCrunch writer Paul Carr forced me to write about his on-stage panel discussion at the Le Web conference, and as usual when people threaten me with violence, I was happy to oblige. But it was really a good thing he twisted my arm, especially considering the fact that there was more than one TC’er in the panel: TechCrunch Europe editor Mike Butcher was also very much present.
The other panel members were all Europeans, too, which may well have something to do with the fact that the topic of the conversation was Europe. The session was titled ‘European Gang Live’, which I suspect was Carr’s idea, even though he stopped consuming alcohol recently.
The names of the rest of the very large crew: Lukasz Gadowski (Co-Founder & Partner, Team Europe Ventures), Tariq Krim (Founder & CEO, Jolicloud), Loic Le Meur (Founder, LeWeb), Brent Hoberman (Founder & Executive Chairman, mydeco), JP Rangaswami (Chief Scientist, BT), Michael Jackson (General Partner, Mangrove Capital Partners), Martin Varsavsky (Founder & CEO, FON), Cyril Zimmermann (CEO, Hi-Media) and Freddy Mini (CEO, Netvibes).
Paul Carr: Loic, let’s start with you. How do you reconcile being a big supporter of European entrepreneurship while having moved and still living in Silicon Valley?
Loic Le Meur: How do I reconcile that? By not caring too much. There are really not that many differences. Heck, I even think this entire panel is kind of irrelevant.
Mike Butcher: Don’t necessarily agree. I know UK-based startups who pretend to be based in the United States because they want to make it clear that they want to address a big market. I think they’re right.
Martin Varsavsky: My company Fon got investment from Google and Sequoia, both obviously American companies. When I talked to Sergei Brin, he actually expected that I would be moving to Silicon Valley, and then when I said I would be staying in Spain he asked me to name one major tech company that came out of Spain. I responded: Fon.
Michael Jackson: There are examples in Europe though. Just look at Skype, which originated here and was acquired by the American eBay.
Tariq Krim: I actually did the opposite of what Loic did. I lived and worked in Silicon Valley and decided to move back. Things have changed. Social media changed things. It’s now much easier to make and maintain relationships with people online. The situation is improving.
MB: Agreed, all I need to do is look at the way I use Twitter for my job, which spans the entire world in the end. It’s a bloody brilliant platform.
Freddy Mini: I think the point is: you should be able to get the job done, wherever you are.
Brent Hoberman: Come on, guys. We need to recognize there’s very much a problem, and the examples that prove otherwise are extremely rare. There are a few, but that doesn’t take away the main problem: scaling issues. This is simply harder in Europe than in America. Also, let’s not say it’s not a problem too much, because we need to encourage politicians to fix it.
JP Rangaswami: We have to be careful with polarizing here. Talent, for instance, has no borders or passports. There are 60 countries here in at Le Web. Yes, it was easier to raise money in Silicon Valley in the past, but it’s slowly getting better here in Europe. But then there’s the issue of regulation.
Paul Carr: But what I would like to hear: why would an entrepreneur based in Silicon Valley decide to come to Europe and start a business here?
Loic Le Meur: For the food?
Martin Varsavsky: Well, there’s money here. The GDP is 30% larger than in the United States. Half of my professional career I was in the US, and the other half in Europe. I’ve learned there is less competition here, and in Spain, being humble and modest gets encouraged which means less competition for me.
TK: There are lots of entrepreneurs in Europe. I think five years ago, things started changing. The value of entrepreneurs and their ventures is starting to get more appreciation, which is needed.
Cyril Zimmermann: It’s also a question of maturity. Look at the mobile industry, which pretty much mostly originated in Europe and Asia. I think Europe will be able to produce leading companies in that space and even inspire US-based entrepreneurs and startups.
MV: I’ll tell you what makes the US suck, on the other hand: high legal and medical costs.
MB: We need to stop looking at it like a war between US entrepreneurs and European entrepreneurs, because the latter are really at war with their governments. They don’t get enough encouragement, the regulation isn’t what it should be, and so on.
FM: You can also ask yourself why Tesla Motors was founded in Palo Alto and not in Detroit.
PC: I still haven’t heard why US entrepreneurs should move to Europe. Why should they get on a fucking plane?
CZ: European entrepreneurs in general have the same ideas. But in the US, they know more about how to market and sell.
MV: There are people who go the other way. Remember, I chose Spain over the U.S. for my ventures.
FM: Of course. You start where you feel comfortable.
Lukasz Gadowski: The United States now has a lot of advantages for entrepreneurs. But there is talent here, so things will change.
JPR: BT acquired Ribbit, right? Well, we would have bought that company whichever country it was based in. It really just happened to be American.
MB: Lukasz, what’s going on in Berlin, seems to be a lot moving there (Dopplr moving there, etc.)?
LG: Well, it’s not only Berlin. Talent is all over Germany, and Europe, and that’s what counts.
LM: Something else: I think Europe has a problem with the copying of successful ventures from outside the continent. We should avoid that.
LG: I disagree. We need to copy if the environment is right. It builds ecosystem, so there’s a positive aspect to it in the long run. But you need to copy the good stuff, such as transaction-based systems that can generate revenue. I would personally not choose to copy things like Twitter.
BH: The risk of a copycat is lower. We’re too early here often because there’s no scale like in the US.
MB: Another thing: I argue against clones, but I’m in favor of smaller wins instead of ‘hitting the ball out of the park’. We need to have role models, people who make enough money to do some seed funding. We need more sharing, more feeding experience back into the food chain.
MJ: We just need to deal with different cultures and languages. But let’s not forget that you can build successful businesses locally. There’s an awful lot of opportunities in cross-border commerce.
MV: Again, in defense of Europe: we lead the world in certain sectors. Take alternative energy for example. We should be pointing out what we do right.
CZ: What’s the problem with copying, Loic? It’s like art – artists start out by copying other artists too – so it’s really a way of learning.
BH: Well it’s better than doing nothing, that’s true. But it’s not about creating real winners.
CZ: Come on guys. It’s far too early to be making conclusions.
MB: I’m hearing lots of bullshit about the cloning and copying thing. I mean, Kevin Rose copied Twitter when he debuted Pownce and people called it an iteration rather than a clone. It’s not a European thing.
MV: Take a close look at Israel, which may technically not be European but since they’re in the Eurovision Song Festival … There’s more VC money there than in France, while it’s such a small country. It’s a cultural thing.
PC: To conclude on a positive note: certain things Europe does do well. We mentioned music (Last.fm, Songkick, Spotify, etc.), social gaming (Playfish and others). The film industry as well. Any other examples, guys?
JPR: How about the GSM standard, the telecom industry in general, Nokia in earlier days …
BH: Also: online education, online health, digital gaming. There are lots of sectors that we can name.
MV: We’re leader in cleantech and alternative energy in particular.
TK: I don’t think we can reduce it to industries. It’s about passion, in the end, and talent. You can build great businesses anywhere in the world, success depends on many factors. I really don’t think the barriers to entry that get cited all the time really exist.
(Image credit: Renee Blodgett / DownTheAvenue)