The French Invasion: why these expats are launching in Brooklyn - Technical.ly Brooklyn

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Jul. 10, 2014 7:44 am

The French Invasion: why these expats are launching in Brooklyn

More and more French founders are coming to Kings County. And though they may miss home a little bit every day at noon, their startups are finding Brooklyn to be a good fit.
Signage from last month’s La French Touch Conference.

Signage from last month's La French Touch Conference.

Updated 7/10/14, 11:46 a.m., with comments from the French Consulate.
Why do people move to a new country to start or grow a company? It seems like starting a venture and finding a community in a whole new culture are two of the hardest things you can do at once.

One entrepreneur, Jean-Baptiste Michel, wrote to us, however, that there is something powerful about moving, “When you move to another country, you don’t feel the boundaries that locals might — you are just oblivious to them. As a consequence you can take more risks.”

Michel is French, and we’ve found that many of his countrymen have come to the same conclusion.

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Shortly after we began covering this fine borough, we discovered our first French startup. At the time, it was called Poutsch. Now it’s Voice. Since then, and a bit to our surprise, it seems like French entrepreneurs are edging out other European nations as the leading exporters of technologists to Brooklyn.

Perhaps the British are slightly ahead, but in our explorations we keep knocking into French people who’ve settled here. We’ve met a lot of Germans, too, but more often than not they seem to be passing through. And we would be remiss if we failed to mention our one Italian. The French, however, have been settling down.

That said, we’d love to hear from anyone who came here from far away to launch a company. My email is at the bottom of this post.

We’re not the only ones to notice the emigration of French entrepreneurs. The New York Times did a story on them, mostly focused on London. Here in New York, there’s a group called New York French Geek that helps French expats network across the city. There’s also a conference called La French Touch that took place here last month, which networks French businesses with American investors.

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The French Consulate has also gotten involved in supporting the city’s innovating expats. On May 20, it launched the first of what we’re told will be quarterly meetings of digital entrepreneurs in New York. The initial gathering included approximately 150 French technologists, according consulate spokesman Yann Yochum.

“We have no comments on French entrepreneurs relocating to Brooklyn and we are not encouraging or discouraging French Tech Entrepreneurs,” Yochum wrote.

“We have also noted American companies’ strong interest in French developers, whose skills seem to be highly appreciated,” he added.

In the French press, these innovators are called les exilés. We reached out to some we know here and asked them a bit about their experiences in and reasons for coming to Brooklyn. Here’s what we found.

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Leaving France

One leading French entrepreneur on our shores, Alban Denoyel, founder of 3D model sharing platform, Sketchfab, wrote on his blog that he didn’t leave France; he moved to the U.S.

Denoyel explains the move and makes a pretty compelling case that the language of moving here is more accurate than saying he left France. For example, most of his company’s dev team is still back in the home country.

He writes in the post:

France has amazing talents, and it’s easier to recruit in your own country. Tax cuts for startups are real, and it means a developer in France will basically cost you half the price of a US one, and there is good chance he’ll be better 🙂 In France, we don’t have omnipresent web giants or over-funded startups poaching your own employees, and they are usually keen on committing to your company for the long run.

Fighting words.

In an email to Technical.ly Brooklyn, Denoyel explained that access to capital was one of his chief motivations in coming to NYC, and that he’s also had some key breaks in distribution channels that probably would not have happened if he still worked from Paris.

The most intriguing point he made, though, was that scaling in Europe is complicated by differences in language and culture that are much more acute than in America. “Going to the US is the easiest / safest / most scalable way to target a large audience who is used to web platforms,” Denoyel wrote.

When we spoke to Melchior Scholler of Voice back in August, the main reason he gave then for coming to America was raising money. And the main reason for landing in Brooklyn was lower rent in advance of funding. “Brooklyn was a natural choice for us because we have not raised funds yet,” Scholler said. “That said, we might stay in Brooklyn even if we end up raising funds.” They are still here, in a pretty sweet Williamsburg apartment.

Solène Maître, a cofounder of Enquire, which we recently covered, spoke to this question of moving to Brooklyn from the perspective of a developer and a woman.

She wrote:

In the US, a developer is called an ‘engineer.’ In France, a developer is called a ‘xx developer.’ It’s going to change but when you are 25 and want to accomplish things now, you can’t wait. Coming here is for me a way to lead the change as I keep strong relationships with my fellows in France.

The various organizations promoting women’s involvement in tech here, including the book Lean In and the “Stop Bossy” campaign, have also encouraged her work in ways, Maître says, she would have missed out on at home.

Meanwhile, both Denoyel and Quentin Delory argued that doing business in France is good and getting better all the time. Delory has been a cofounder at two Dumbo firms, the successful, bootstrapped Fotoclasses, which has been teaching digital photography online for two years, and Learnicious, an education and marketing platform for brands, which is just getting started.

Delory came here because of work his wife found, but he’s already on his second company. Still, he said the startup scene has much improved back home. It’s been enough that Techcrunch, for example, sent a reporter there to cover it full time in January.

Lunch in France

Most of the the entrepreneurs we reached out to made a strong case for the French business lunch.

In France, you don’t eat hurriedly at your desk while still sort of half working. Teams lunch. This is not, they argued, continental decadence. It is another way of working that yields a different sort of result. Delory probably made the best case for smart lunching. He wrote, “A lunch break is actually a very powerful business tool. It’s about building relationships and discussing business in a more relaxed way, disconnected from office pressure and constraints.”

Maxime Leroy, the other cofounder of Enquire (a company started with a wholly French team, though they have an American community manager now), wrote that he also thinks a proper lunch can yield inspirations and build stronger teams.

While the NYT story linked above spoke a lot about bureaucratic hurdles and high taxes as a motivating factor for technologists to leave France, that’s not something any of the leaders we spoke with told us. In fact, in his blog post Denoyel wrote a quick aside praising the general progressivism of France’s tax structure. Negative business climate was not something we heard much about as a motivator for leaving. It was more about there currently being more opportunity here.

They did, however, all agree that Americans should chill out a little. For example:

French frankness

Only one of the French entrepreneurs we spoke to described the language barrier as being an issue here.

Scholler felt that Americans sometimes take people with accents less seriously. Delory viewed the slight misunderstandings as opportunities for bonding. Everyone else seemed to think that New York is cosmopolitan enough to show patience with any complications of language.

That said, language is one thing and communication is another.

A few of our respondents made an interesting point about American disingenuousness. They didn’t use the world “disingenuous,” but we will. Basically, the French will say what they mean. Americans say something like what we mean. In fact, it’s also a problem for the Brits, who made this translation guide for British grad students in American academia.

Maître spoke to frankness in terms of feedback,  “I love the positive attitude of New Yorkers but sometimes I miss the frank and concerned attitude of Parisians.” Denoyel spoke to it in terms of pitching, “I kind of like that in France we tend to stick to the facts instead of overselling things, which is what I often see here in the US. Great things should speak for themselves.”

This is no French enclave

As much as they all miss the food of France, these entrepreneurs are not keeping their own company. We asked all of them if French expats network with each other in an especially focused way, and it seems clear that they do not.

As we pointed out at the top, there is some effort to keep the transplants in touch, but mostly they appear to be working hard to network as broadly as they can. In fact, Maître mentioned the networking culture of the U.S. as one of its draws and when we reported on her company, Enquire. Leroy said the ability to hire U.S. freelancers to help with building products was another draw of coming here.

Delory thinks of his network as largely U.S.-based, which is also true of Michel, who came to New York by way of Boston and never took part in the French business world. That said, he makes a strong argument for anyone to work from here. We first introduced you to his stealth mode startup in September, but this Google alum is also cofounder of a big data consultancy, Quantified Labs.

“I think there’s a sense that anything is possible here,” Michel wrote. “There really is in Brooklyn something special, an intersection of worlds that makes anything possible: you can be whatever you want to be.”

Maître put it another way: “Paris is missing one thing. Paris has Manhattan but not Brooklyn.”

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Here are some of the French founders we know in Brooklyn:

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