It was an honor to participate in France’s governmental delegation to Japan to launch the Year of Innovation between the two countries. Seriously, I’m not being sarcastic. It’s true that I like to mock government initiatives in innovation, and my first reaction to the ministerial invitation to serve in the official kick-off of FrenchTechTokyo was one of instinctive skepticism.
Yet Prime Minister Manuel Valls conveyed sincerity and vision in fostering cross-cultural collaboration between two of the world’s most important tech ecosystems, France and Japan. Finance Minister Emmanuel Macron reinforced the message, underscoring the significance that entrepreneurship holds for both countries’ futures. France needs to break free of the habit of penalizing both those who encounter failure and those who encounter “too much success,” he acknowledged.
French startups should consider prioritizing the Japanese market in their growth strategies, at least that’s what I’ve liked to preach. Reciprocally too, I would extoll the virtues of Europe, and in particular France, for Asian startups looking westward.
Japan’s startup ecosystem reminds me a bit of how France’s looked not too long ago. The two countries have a lot in common: a broad technical foundation with strong research institutions, a refined palate for design, a pool of talented engineers, a culture of elite educational establishments, and a domestic market that is in many ways both large and not large enough.
Encouragingly, some of the same positive trends we witnessed in France only a few years ago are surfacing in Japan too:
- a growing pioneering spirit of new graduates to decline corporate careers in favor of starting companies
- a new generation of company builders that are thinking internationally
- the emergence of serial entrepreneurs
- a softening of the former stigma associated with failure
- a growing recognition that lifetime employment is over
- an increasing acknowledgement that innovation can happen outside the corporation
My initial skepticism was rooted in the experience that government initiatives, no matter how good the intentions, tend to fizzle out because they are top-down in nature. The most important thing about the current bilateral momentum is that it is more bottom-up, grass roots driven by the startups (and a few VCs) themselves. Time will tell if this early momentum is sustainable, but the initial signals are promising.
[Note: a few organizations and individuals deserve special thanks: BusinessFrance for their connections, Orange Japan for their logistical support, DMM.make Akiba for their characteristically gracious hospitality, and Rude Baguette’s very own Trista Bridges for heroically stepping in as moderator for day two !]