Self-doubt about self-driving

October 21, 2017

Perhaps inspired by some discussions at last week’s Innovative City Forum as well as the prior AI Summit, I’ve been reflecting on the impact on our cities of all this exciting innovation in driverless vehicles.

We speak a lot about the virtues of self-driving cars, and there are many. As evidenced by this recent test city near Pittsburgh, the dream of autonomous vehicles operating safely within an urban environment is approaching reality.

Source: CBInsights, The State of Auto Tech, May 2017

It’s not hard to imagine that self-driving cars will usher in a disruption in transport on the order of what the internet did to print journalism. We’re now realizing how much the interwebs have fundamentally changed human behavior. We read news on news apps and social media feeds. We no longer buy CDs but rather subscribe to Spotify. We binge-watch whole TV series’ seasons on Netflix. We rarely spend a day without checking Facebook1.

So if we’re willing to accept the premise that self-driving vehicles could prove fundamentally disruptive, I submit that it’s worth considering some of the potential unintended consequences arising from the widespread adoption of self-driving cars.

One is the risk of increased sprawl of suburbs. I fear that self-driving cars will encourage suburban living by making long commutes more palatable. I’m not a big fan of suburbs. I view them as sidewalk-devoid, culturally bankrupt plots gridded with McMansions, malls, and Macaroni Grills2. A primary residence in a cosmopolitan city center with an escape dwelling in the countryside in the middle of nowhere makes me happiest. Of course, this is my personal preference, and I mean no offense to suburb dwellers. Some of my best friends are suburb dwellers.

The worst part of suburbs in my opinion are their segregating tendencies. Suburbs isolate people into homogeneous, economic and cultural enclaves, robbing them of the benefits of diversity and communal interaction necessary to a functioning society.

I could also imagine that self-driving cars (and more aptly, autonomous drones), will dramatically reduce the delivery cost of physical goods. This is arguably a benefit; however, my concern is that negligible shipping costs will alter human behavior for better and for worse. One consequence is that consumers may shift from owning physical goods to simply renting them. Why own a vacuum when you can simply have one dropped off and picked up for an hour every week seamlessly? Freeing closet space and pantries of clutter sounds wonderful.

However, another consequence is that consumers may laze into expecting everything on demand. Why cycle to the produce store or local farmers market for a fresh tomato when you can order one delivered on-demand for only a few cents? Eliminate the weekly banter with the local cheese merchant or fishmonger, and we eliminate a piece of our soul.

Finally, if the demand for delivery of physical objects increases, and the pain of commuting diminishes, what will limit our threshold for traffic congestion?

Will our roads be clogged around the clock? Will the epic traffic jams of places like Sao Paulo and Beijing become commonplace in all large cities? Will our pleasant sunny days be shaded by overhead clutter?

1 Disclosure: I quit Facebook years ago for precisely this reason.

2 I chose this U.S. restaurant chain for alliterative purposes; in France it might be Hippopotamus or Buffalo Grill. Every country has some equivalent.

Will Japan ban ICOs ? Constructive regulation more likely.

October 14, 2017

A lot of people have been asking my opinion on whether Japan will ban ICOs.

China and South Korea have essentially implemented full-on bans of cryptocurrency and ICOs. A Siberian winter for cryptocurrencies also appears imminent in Russia.

So will Japan follow suit ?

The short answer is: I really don’t know, but I think a categorical outright ban is unlikely.

Make no mistake, a ban on ICOs in Japan is not impossible. The truth is that it is still early days for ICOs in Japan. As I discussed in my book, only a handful of ICOs in Japan are currently in the works.

  • Payments enabler Omise boasts a largely Japanese team but is based in Thailand.
  • Alis represented the first thoroughly Japanese ICO, successfully completed last month.
  • Tokyo-based Telcoin will offer their upcoming ICO in Singapore.
  • The ICOs of Japan’s Comsa and Synchrolife are currently underway.
  • Tokyo-based bitcoin prediction platform Phantom AI also recently announced its upcoming ICO.

Thus far, all of the ICOs linked to Japan appear to encompass legitimate projects run by credible founding teams. Whether or not you believe in the respective projects, brilliant minds generally reside behind each one. Furthermore, some foreign startups are eyeing Japan for their ICO launches, notably Bread from Switzerland and Drivezy from India.

The Japanese government is thus taking a methodical approach to regulating the sector. Theoretically, it may decide on a blanket ban.

Constructive regulation more likely

However, my sense based on empirical observation and some informal conversations with key actors in the ecosystem and in government, is that a blanket ban on token offerings in Japan is unlikely. Quite the contrary, at the end of September Japan’s Financial Services Agency approved license applications for 11 cryptocurrency exchanges. Barring a high-stakes scandal (which could understandably trigger drastic action), I believe that the Japanese authorities will continue on their measured path of constructive regulation.

Perhaps partly motivated by the country’s historical ceding of ground to other Asian financial hubs like Hong Kong and Singapore, Japan has much to gain by sustaining its healthy environment for the development of cryptocurrency. Less visible but happening behind the scenes is the government’s encouragement of incumbent players, such as the mega-banks, large institutional investors, and certain retailers, to embrace cryptocurrency.

Japan arguably stands at the forefront of the global cryptocurrency market today. I’ll be paying close attention to how the environment here evolves.

Finally, I’d like to thank everyone who has purchased Japan: Bitcoin #1. The sales in the first two weeks have already far surpassed expectations. As a reminder, profits from the sale of this book go to Japan’s Tohoku region, still rebuilding from March 2011.

 

Japan: Bitcoin #1

October 7, 2017

Despite Japan’s accounting for half of the worldwide bitcoin trading volume daily (yes, half !), I could not locate any substantial research on this fascinating phenomenon. Frustrated by this absence, I decided to write a book about it.

A primer on the world’s leading country for bitcoin and blockchain adoption

Japan, the world’s third largest economy, has emerged as one of the key players in the cryptocurrency market space. Establishing a clear regulatory framework has fostered an atmosphere of legitimacy in which consumers and businesses alike feel increasingly comfortable to operate. In April 2017, the Japanese government defined bitcoin as a legitimate means of payment, leading to dramatically accelerated adoption of cryptocurrency.

Japan: Bitcoin #1 explores the primary drivers for adoption of cryptocurrency, predominantly bitcoin, in Japan. It explains why Japan surpasses every other developed nation in cryptocurrency. All of the blockchain actors are discussed, including startups, investors, associations, and regulatory bodies. Furthermore, we explore how Japan possesses the key ingredients to remain a global leader in crypto-assets and blockchain innovation. Special thanks to Nai Tsu Chen for helping with much of the heavy lifting on this effort.

Profits from the sale of this book are directed to Japan’s Tohoku region, still rebuilding from the 2011 tsunami.

Station F is real, and it’s spectacular

September 30, 2017

On a brief trip to Paris last week I finally found an opportunity to visit the freshly opened Station F.

In a former railway depot which spans the entire length of Tokyo Tower* on its side, Station F bills itself as the world’s largest startup campus. The facility opened its doors in July.

Many people in Japan and other parts of Asia of varying organizations have asked my opinion about Station F. Now I finally feel qualified to give it.

I’ll start off with a blanket endorsement:

  1. If you are an Asian startup, VC, or innovation-seeking corporation with global ambitions that encompass Europe, Station F could be the perfect beachhead for you.
  2. If you are in one of the three above categories but for whom Europe is in your blind spot, Station F is a perfect way to enhance your vision.
  3. If you are an Asian startup, VC, or innovation-seeking corporation who is ignorant of the plethora of innovation taking place in Europe these days, read this, this, this, and this. Then return to step 1.

In other words, Europe should be on your radar if it isn’t already. And Station F makes it easy for you.

Granted, the construction dust was still settling when I visited, and the startup section seemed a bit empty. However, the ambition is there. You can smell it. Station F is not just another one of those provincial, franco-French initiatives. I deliberately wrote a piece back in 2016 (Free, unsolicited advice for Station F) in hopes they would not fall into this trap. They didn’t.

Quite the opposite. Station F endeavors to become an entire international ecosystem, hosting 1,000 startups, as well as investors, business service providers, public services (e.g visa assistance), event space, a food court, and soon even a housing extension for 600 entrepreneurs.

Concretely, here are some of the most relevant opportunities Station F currently has on offer:

  • For foreign startups — Station F offers over 25 different incubation and acceleration programs for which you may be eligible. Find out more here.
  • For foreign VCs — Station F was offering for a limited time an access package of 5 – 10 days per month (fee of under $1k/mo) for tier-1 foreign funds. I understand this opportunity may be oversubscribed, but feel free to ping me for a direct introduction.
  • For foreign corporations — Station F will soon introduce a one-day summit package, which would involve a custom-tailored session and startup introductions relevant to the corporation’s specific needs. I understand this package is not quite ready but will be happy to connect you to the appropriate person if you’re interested.

On a final note and to address a frequent inquiry: Station F is not a co-working space, nor is it a service for company domiciliation (both such services are already widely available throughout Paris).

I’m bullish on Station F

Yes, it’s still early days. It remains to be seen whether the reality in execution fulfills the ambition. But I’m bullish on Station F and am encouraging all of my foreign portfolio companies to give it a serious look. You should too.

Sincere thanks to Roxanne and Cédric for the personal guided tour !

* Tokyo Tower is 13 meters taller than the Eiffel Tower, yet only half the weight.

Hooray for Harumafuji

September 25, 2017

This month’s aki basho sumo tournament in Tokyo looked as though it would be an underwhelming yawner in the early days. Three of the four grand champion yokozuna pulled themselves out due to injury, followed shortly thereafter by two of the three ozeki (Takayasu and Terunofuji).

With yokozuna Harumafuji and ozeki has-been Goeido as the only championship-caliber rikishi standing, some fans placed hopes that some of the younger up-and-comers would enter the limelight. A few youngsters did indicate signs of potential — notably Takakeisho, Onosho, and Asanoyama — but also underscored the value of experience.

Experienced Harumafuji revealed that he was not at 100%, dropping three of the first five matches to junior wrestlers. Despite clearly ailing, this honorable yokozuna admirably committed himself to play out the tournament in an effort to keep it remotely interesting for the fans.

Harumafuji over-delivered on his promise. He won just enough bouts to remain mathematically in the trophy hunt, keeping pressure on the nearly undefeated Goeido into the final stretch. Then, what do you know, Goeido stumbles a bit, and suddenly we find ourselves in the final day of the tournament with Goeido facing Harumafuji and the championship still up for grabs.

Harumafuji beats Goeido with typical yokozuna dominance in the final regulation match, thus tying their records and forcing a playoff tie-breaker.

The playoff match left even less doubt. Harumafuji pushed out Goeido with a quick yorikiri and climbed through a back window into his 9th sumo championship.

I’ve been a fan of Harumafuji since way back in the early days when he was known as Ama. In many ways he strikes me as one of the most entrepreneurial sumo wrestlers. As one of the lightest, he must leverage his agility and resourcefulness to overcome his weight disadvantage. His back-to-back victories over Goeido on the final day also relied on a strong tachi-ai, the initial charge in a sumo bout, must like a startup needs to hit the ground running.

Hooray for Harumafuji ! よくできました。

Japan fintech startup infographic

September 19, 2017

Eighteen months ago I wrote about how bullish I was for venture investment in Japan’s fintech sector. Since then, a proliferation of new fintech startups have emerged, in parallel with Japanese VCs becoming much more active.

An investor friend of mine even joked that we might now be approaching “peak fintech” here. He said this because today kicks off a two-week period with a plethora of fintech conferences taking place in Tokyo. First up this week is FinSum, organized by Nikkei, the FSA (Japan’s Financial Services Authority), and the FAJ (the Fintech Association of Japan). Then on September 26th, Net Service Ventures is holding the FinTech Forum. Finally, capping off the month will be Rakuten’s Fintech conference on the 28th.

So in the spirit of peak fintech, here is the Rudescape™ of Japan’s fintech startups we’re currently tracking (special thanks to Adelson Goncalves for designing this infographic).

[click for high-resolution version]

The board meeting question that consistently confounds

September 15, 2017
And I don’t know where you wanna go, but I’m willing to take you there.
— Chronixx, Somewhere (Perfect Key riddim)

There is one question that consistently seems to stump startup management teams the first time I ask it in board meetings. I don’t ask it to deliberately throw management off balance. Rather, my goal is to encourage good habits of thinking about this question regularly. The question is this:

What would like to get out of this board meeting?

The first time I ask it in a board meeting usually produces blank stares. In contrast, good entrepreneurs inevitably have a well thought-through answer ready the second time.

It can be very comfortable for a startup CEO to fall into the rut of treating his/her supervisory board as an organ of approval. They dedicate so much effort to the daily grind of building their companies that the periodic board meeting almost comes as a distraction.

They feel obliged to divert time in order to prepare an elaborate deck that reports on company progress. They seek acknowledgement of their efforts and strive to give the impression that they have everything under control. The reality is that in the world of tech startups, the entrepreneur’s realm of control spans only a limited number of factors affecting the business at any given time.

Venture investors and independent boardmembers with an affinity for startups understand this

True, one function of a startup’s supervisory board involves corporate governance: approval of items affecting the company’s debt or equity, approval of certain expenditures above a specified threshold, etc. It is the board’s duty to prevent the company from doing something rash that could imperil the firm’s livelihood.

However, I would contend that an equally if not more important function of a startup’s supervisory board is one of support.

I submit that entrepreneurs will increase their odds of success when view their boards as resources. This requires a level of trust and a commitment to open (and frequent) communication from the entrepreneur. It also requires boardmembers to behave in a genuinely supportive manner, for example by providing constructive not critical feedback, by resisting the urge to micro-manage company operations, and ultimately by giving the entrepreneur the space they need to execute.

So, entrepreneurs, ask yourself regularly: how can your board help you? What do you expect from each board meeting? Consider your boardmembers as allies in your market battles, as sounding boards on your strategy and priorities, as safe places where you can openly share what’s keeping you awake at night. You’ll sleep all the better for it.

Interview from Japan’s Cryptocurrency Conference

September 8, 2017

Here’s the English version of the interview I gave at this week’s Japan Cryptocurrency Conference in Tokyo.

You mentioned that you believe Japan is taking a leadership role in cryptocurrency. What did you mean by that?

I was referring to both the government and the consumer. As another speaker explained, earlier this year the Japanese government defined bitcoin as a means of payment. This is incredibly forward-thinking as it brings legitimacy to the domain, and now over 200 physical retail locations in Japan accept bitcoin already. Furthermore, I understand that Japan-based entities (mostly consumers) now account for 30-50% of bitcoin transaction volume worldwide.

You come from France. How is cryptocurrency viewed there?

Actually I originally come from Silicon Valley, but yes, I lived over 17 years in Europe. The French establishment has been slow to acknowledge crypto. However, there is a niche segment of highly passionate fans of cryptocurrency, with many talented blockchain developers in France. I would say that the European countries demonstrating true leadership in cryptocurrency would be Switzerland, with their Crypto Valley in Zug, and Estonia, who is contemplating issuing their own government-managed crypto token.

When did you first begin investing in cryptocurrency?

Although our fund skipped the first wave, I became a bitcoin investor personally back in 2012 by sheer dumb luck. Somebody on another continent owed me a couple hundred dollars and offered to pay me in bitcoin. I didn’t really know bitcoin at that point but was curious. So I opened a wallet, received his money, and then promptly forgot about it for a few years. It turned out to be the best accidental investment I ever made.

So which cryptocurrencies do you hold today?

I would rather not give specifics, but I will say that I cashed out a chunk of my bitcoin recently because I’ve already lived through two major bubble corrections in the past. I diversified into a basket of tokens too. However, I’m far from being an expert. In fact, it was only recently that I learned the importance of securing cryptocurrency assets off the exchanges. I am prepared to lose my entire crypto portfolio, so any other outcome I view as pure upside.

Do you believe cryptocurrency will disrupt your business as a VC?

I certainly believe that, by granting access and liquidity, ICOs and decentralized funding methods will fundamentally impact our business. The amplitude and sign of the impact will depend on the VC.

What do you mean by “depend on the VC”?

I see 5 types of VCs:

  • First, the true visionaries who developed an early conviction for blockchain and began staking out positions in blockchain infrastructure companies, Union Square Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz probably being the most famous.
  • Second are the new funds dedicated to cryptocurrency, like Panterra or Blockchain Capital.
  • Third are the conventional VC funds who have already amended their LP agreements to allow investment in the asset class and who have been participating in ICO pre-sales.
  • Fourth is the vast majority of VCs: a group who have recently woken up to the potential of cryptocurrency but haven’t yet become active in the asset class. The main hurdle is that their limited partnership agreements require modification to allow for this.
  • The fifth category are those funds who remain blissfully ignorant of the space. This group will probably be the first to be disrupted.
What are your predictions for cryptocurrency?

Reiterating the caveat that I’m no expert, my gut tells me that the potential of cryptocurrency is being overestimated in the short term but dramatically underestimated in the long term.

Secondly, I think we’re going to see more and more non-blockchain companies issue tokens. Many of these projects will not bear fruit. My best guess as of now is that the projects with the greatest chance of success will be those where the token is integrated into their core business activity. For example, next week Kik Messenger will open the crowd-sale of their Kin token which empowers and enriches their active base of millions of users.

Thirdly, I am excited about the potential for portfolio management solutions for cryptocurrency assets. Solutions like ShapeShift’s Prism, which I’ve just started using, have the power to be truly transformative and democratizing in my opinion.

Lastly, I’d like to point out a brilliant prediction my analyst made: insurance companies should consider offering tailored insurance packages which cover crypto assets.

Exciting job opportunities

September 1, 2017

With September marking the return from summer holidays in most countries, it’s a good time to reflect on a new professional challenge. To spur the creative juices, here are some current job openings within my current investment portfolio. There are a ton of incredible opportunities here in exciting locales, so take a look !

Amsterdam:

  • Front-end developer
  • HTML5 game developer
  • JavaScript SDK developer
  • Medior back-end java developer
  • Multiplayer back-end java developer

Paris:

  • Community & Social Media Manager – SaaS firm
  • Growth Hacker — Sharing economy marketplace

Melbourne:

  • Back-end java developer — AI startup

Singapore:

  • Sales and business developer — Adtech firm

Tokyo:

  • Back-end java developer — AI startup
  • Content marketing manager — Consumer app
  • Front-end developer — AI startup
  • Front-end developer — Consumer app
  • Inbound content marketer — AI startup
  • Investment Manager — IoT VC fund (min 3 yrs experience)
  • Web designer — Fintech startup

And of course, internship opportunities abound, particularly in France, Holland, and Japan.

Any interested candidates are welcome to send me your CV by email, and I’ll facilitate an introduction.

 

Five takeaways from Japan’s AI Tech Leaders Summit

August 26, 2017

Some of the Asia’s leading experts in artificial intelligence mingled yesterday with a small group of corporate acquirers, startups, and investors at the first ever Japan AI Summit. Here are my five takeaways from the interactions:

5. The sovereign gap is widening

In advanced AI research, the U.S. still has the lead, but China has the momentum. Other developed nations need to accelerate or will never close the gap.

4. Data is “misunderestimated”

Perhaps the most controversial statement of the day, but the contention was that with techniques like simulation learning, massive data sets are no longer as critical. So size doesn’t matter so much after all…

3. Hardware is overrated

Robotics folks subscribe religiously to the necessity of hardware for data collection to feed AI systems; however, the consensus yesterday disputed this mindset. The prevalence of data already in existence focuses the question more on “how to use it” rather than “how to collect it.”

2. Analog is back, baby !

Ok, I’m getting ahead of myself, but I’ve been claiming for years that rumours of analog’s death had been greatly exaggerated. Well, it turns out that analog chips or mixed signal ICs will soon play an essential role in AI systems. CPU::Intel. GPU::Nvidia. Neuromorphic::X. If anyone can accurately tell me who X is, I’ll give you a medal.

1. Privacy arbitrage opportunities

The disparity in regulations on data privacy may create opportunities for “privacy arbitrage” across countries. For example, obtain access to medical records in China in order to train an AI system on a health care solution with applications globally.

Special congratulations to Dreamquark and Snips for making the trek over from France !

Yet another signal of how far France’s startup ecosystem has come

August 17, 2017

I recall how when I first moved permanently to Paris over 16 years ago, finding people in the office during the month of August was highly unusual. It seemed that after the long weekend of July 14th, one couldn’t count on scheduling a meeting again before September 1st.

This shutdown extended to the startup sector as well, which back in 2001 was still in its infancy. Even for several years, scheduling a meeting with entrepreneurs in late July and August proved difficult. And if anything, this was the segment of the working population that was most likely to be at their desks.

Inversely, for a diligent entrepreneur hoping to pitch to a French VC in the peak of summer: forget about it. Remember, most French VCs at the time were former commercial bankers investing tax rebate money of their retail clients.

How dramatically things have changed !

It was only back in 2014 when then Innovation Minister Fleur Pellerin suggested the French need to reformat their mental software to become less averse to failure. Now, Ms. Pellerin has moved on from the government into creating a venture fund, while leaving a lasting positive impact on the French government’s attitude toward the startup community.

Over the past few weeks, I detected yet another signal that Ms. Pellerin’s recommended mental software upgrade has taken effect. A privileged opportunity for European AI startups presented itself. Concretely, it is a small private summit that brings together leaders of industrial groups and AI entrepreneurs. But here’s the rub: this summit is taking place on August 25th in Tokyo — i.e. peak French holiday season in a faraway land from the perspective of French entrepreneurs.

Given these logistical hurdles, I figured that interest in such an opportunity would be limited, so I casually mentioned it in a blog post. Boy did I underestimate how much things have changed.

The high demand from French startups in the AI space for this opportunity caught me off guard. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, because France possesses arguably some of the greatest engineering talent conducive to creating innovative companies in AI.

Given the small scale and specific subject matter at this initial event, many of the applicants were regrettably not eligible to attend this time. However, it is very likely that this will be a repeat occurrence sometime in 2018.

I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to all of the impressive, globally-minded entrepreneurs who have contacted me about this opportunity and will do my best to ensure that your candidacy is carefully considered for next year.

Things are looking encouraging for French innovation in AI, and in tech overall.

 

An inconvenient sequel about startup subsidies

August 6, 2017

inconvenient-sequel-about-startup-subsidiesLast week’s piece about my contention that government subsidies for startups tend to be anti-lean in nature generated two almost diametrically opposed reactions. So here are some final thoughts about Lean Startup and subsidies, and then I’ll put the topic to rest for now.

On one end, a couple readers became defensive, questioning how I could even imply that France is not the best country in Europe to start a company by criticizing its subsidies. This reaction did not surprise me; indeed there is a small but vocal segment inside the French startup ecosystem who is convinced that France is the best place in Europe to start a company thanks to its generous programs of government subsidies.

Ironically, I too believe that France is a fantastic country in Europe for startups — and submit that it has become dramatically more appealing over the past decade — yet for different reasons. I would argue that the components that make France a fertile startup ecosystem are not its subsidy programs, but rather a whole host of other attributes, which I’ve discussed previously at length. Furthermore, I could cite a handful of co-investors with whom I have worked across Europe who could make a compelling case for Belgium, Germany, Holland, the Nordics, Spain, and the UK.

The other end of the spectrum of feedback to my contention that subsidies are anti-lean is probably best summarized by the following tweet from my partner Alex:

I agree with Alex’s line of thinking. Not only are subsidies anti- Lean Startup, but they can also create fatal conditions for entrepreneurs who readily accept government loan advances only to find themselves in dire straights 12 to 24 months later. I’ve actually witnessed this a lot. Entrepreneurs take as much up-front non-dilutive money as they can, develop a product which usually is fairly technology-intensive due to the constraints accompanying such subsidies, and then subsequently discover that there is no market for their product. At this point the startup finds itself in a quandary: it lacks product-market fit and faces a debt repayment schedule. Which VC in their right mind would invest in such a venture now ?

One of the most prolific forms of early-stage startup subsidy in France is something called the CIR, which stands for crédit d’impôt recherche. The CIR works essentially as a tax credit for R&D expenditures. Its intention of course is benign: to encourage companies to allocate time and resources toward innovative, research-intensive efforts. The consequence of the CIR in startups is that it makes it dramatically cheaper to hire personnel with engineering degrees. This phenomenon is not unique to France; Holland offers the WBSO, for example, and many European countries offer similar programs.

Beware the hidden costs of subsidies

For all of its benefits, however, the CIR is not devoid of costs, particularly hidden costs.

First, by reducing the effective cost of hiring engineers or personnel with advanced degrees, startup founders feel less constrained in such people, perhaps more than they actually need at the time. Or they pay them more, resulting in a subtle inflationary pressure across the sector. This is not a bad thing per se, but when you have a lot of engineers on hand you need to give them products to develop. Allocating a disproportionate level of resources toward product development at an early stage before the market need is validated is, by nature, anti-lean.

A second hidden cost involving the CIR pertains to future tax audit risk. Almost every growing company in France finds itself subject to a tax audit at some point. For the French tax authority, the CIR seems to be one of the top items on its audit checklist. The central thrust of assessment often investigates whether the claimed expenditures genuinely reflect actual research expenses. Remember, the CIR stands for crédit d’impôt recherche, in other words the ‘R’ in ‘R&D’.  It’s no secret that most startups in their R&D expenses tend to incline more toward development than research. So in the event of an audit, the startup must produce documentation from previous years clearly demonstrating that all expenses which were deducted under the tax credit do properly reflect research efforts. I’ve sat on boards of a number of companies who have successfully navigated such audits, but never without a cost: the time and distraction alone usually set back the company for months.

Perhaps the most pernicious hidden cost of the CIR  and similar subsidies is its opportunity cost. By spending 12 to 24 months developing a product which in the end the market will not pay for means that those 12 to 24 months were not allocated toward a value-generating activity.

In Chapter 4 of The Lean Startup, entitled “Experiment,” Eric Ries underscores the importance of answering four questions:

  1. Do consumers recognize that they have a problem you are trying to solve?
  2. If there was a solution, would they buy it?
  3. Would they buy it from us?
  4. Can we build a solution for that problem?

Government subsidies often encourage the startup to ignore questions 1-3 and jump straight to #4.

The allure of non-dilutive subsidies can be enticing when you’re a resourceful entrepreneur scrambling for whatever financing you can find. Be careful.

 

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