Free, unsolicited advice for Station F: France’s future startup campus

October 13, 2016

“You get what you pay for,” is a good adage to bear in mind whenever I proffer free advice, and this time is no exception.

The beneficiary of my dubious and wholly unsolicited advice is Station F: France’s planned startup campus set in a former freight station in Paris’ 13th arrondissement, due to open next year. Specifically, I recommend that Station F establish and communicate one clear goal — not multiple confusing ones — ideally a hairy audacious goal. [Note: for guidance in goal-setting, consider the S.M.A.R.T. framework: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound]. Here’s my Rude suggestion for a big, hairy, audacious goal for Station F:

rudevc_station-fMake Station F the Startup Hub of Europe

Think for a second of the opportunity here. The uncertainty around Europe as a consequence of Brexit (and several minor factors contributing to the confusion) has given foreign investors pause. France in and of itself is not a big enough market to appeal to outsiders (I recognize that this is a bitter bill to swallow for some, but if it’s any consolation, this holds true for every EU country). The appeal of France to outside investment is largely due to its position inside a larger European market. Yes, we have great engineers in France, great schools, innovative thinkers, blah blah blah. But when foreign tech firms consider France, they do so in the context of a larger European expansion plan.

If Station F could earn the perception on the global stage as the best landing point for outsiders wishing to enter the continent, as the best spot to develop a beachhead for a European expansion, wouldn’t that be formidable ?!

If you prefer to limit your ambition, and restrict this to a Franco-French thing, fine. Encouragingly, however, your landing page’s tagline of “Join the world’s biggest startup campus” suggests that you’re aiming high. So if an audacious idea like Startup Hub of Europe resonates with you, let’s examine what the goal of making Station F the startup hub of Europe might entail:

  1. Make English the language of all correspondence, uniformly and without exception. If outsiders stumble onto a French website, they will likely draw the preliminary conclusion that you’re a French thing. Your current landing page defaults to a French site with an English option. My recommendation: ditch the French version and make it English only. This also means, by extension, that English (broken English is perfectly fine) be the working language for all staff.
  2. Consider something radical like offering any European tech startup a freemium product. For example, any eligible European startup could be granted a Paris mailing address and telephone number for free. Think about the value this might bring to a non-French, European startup eager to demonstrate that they have a pan-European footprint.
  3. Of course, you could offer a panoply of optional, paid services on an à la carte basis, such as: a physical office space, bank account facilitation, labor and tax facilitation, legal and accounting services, company registration, etc.
  4. Let go of the French pride and cheerleading of all things FrenchTech. In fact, for this to work, you must resist this temptation and enculturate everyone in the organization to think as Europeans, not as French.
  5. This also means, by extension, that you must dispense with the thinking that French politicians will draw foreign investors in startups. With all due respect to Monsieur Le Président de la République, I’m not sure his invitation to an opening cocktail/speech will clinch attendance from foreign tech actors. There is a risk, however, that it undermines the message that Station F is a truly pan-European initiative and hence nourish the perception of just another Franco-French shindig.
  6. Another radical and undoubtedly controversial thought: establish concrete metrics for European representation and limit the involvement of French startups to a minority.
  7. Finally, assemble a diverse, pan-European personnel organization from the beginning, which will facilitate all of the above.

Once your goal is clear, the task of crafting consistent messaging will prove easier.

Of course, some of you may respond that doing this is compliqué. In France it often is, given the morass of conflicting interests. My advice (for what it’s worth): transcend all that.

posted in venture capital by mark bivens

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