The latest report from European venture fund Serena Capital shows that 381 European Series B companies raised a total of €2.7bn in 2018. In the bigger rounds, we find the usual suspects of BlaBlaCar and Deezer, but there are also some less familiar companies, such as mobile games maker Voodoo (€200m), data platform Dataiku ($100m), and tour marketplace Evaneos (€70m Series C).
With such big rounds, you’d think the founders of those companies would be quite well known, and yet I bet most of you can’t even name them. Can you?
While the 2010s have been the years of the “star entrepreneurs” — the most telling examples include Alex Chesterman (Zoopla) or Frederic Mazzella (BlaBlaCar) or Brent Hoberman (Lastminute.com) — we’re now shifting to an era of less visible, quieter entrepreneurial figures.
The European tech scene is less and less keen on glorifying a few “superstars”. Instead, in terms of media and PR, the quest is now often for more humble representations. There have been too many magazine covers with similar faces, too many of the same names repeated over and over. And let’s not avoid the elephant in the room — there’s long been a common trait among those “star entrepreneurs”: in the last decade, glorifying star entrepreneurs has very often meant glorifying white, male founders in their forties.
We’ve observed the rise of startups with great(er) potential, yet in the past months there has been less of a tendency to elevate their founders to “star” status in terms of media coverage.
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“In the last decade, glorifying star entrepreneurs has very often meant glorifying white, male founders in their forties.”
First, this is because a growing European consciousness has shown just how much being perceived as a “successful European entrepreneur” is still very subjective and ethnocentric. We in the business know all too well that the PR efforts in a certain country are not likely to resonate in other countries. Because Europe remains such a fragmented market (languages, culture, policies…), being raised as a “superstar” figure suddenly puts you in a very weird position: you’re a star in your homeland and absolutely unknown in the neighbouring countries.
For instance, most British tech enthusiasts and/or entrepreneurs have never heard about French star entrepreneur Xavier Niel (you’re French and don’t believe it? Quick, who’s the most famous entrepreneur in Spain?). This fragmentation is why many rising founders struggle to get visibility beyond their main market, and most founders from continental Europe remain below the radar when it comes to the UK or US press. Don’t underestimate the power of the language barrier.
“Media glorification of an entrepreneur ultimately leads to higher scrutiny of their startup.”
Staying on the down low has lately become a strategic PR move. Needless to say, media glorification of an entrepreneur ultimately leads to higher scrutiny of their startup. Boosting a founder’s image can lead to the media waiting for any sign of a screw-up, which can make the business more fragile when it’s growing and when the founders may need to make difficult strategic choices.
Of course, this isn’t just a question of worrying. PR pros know that right now there’s hype around startup founders who run successful businesses and choose to not spend (too much) time on PR and media. I was recently talking to Pierre Mugnier, CEO of one of gig work startup Side, and it struck me — how come this guy is not more well-known? It turns out he is part of the wave of entrepreneurs who don’t want to shout about their milestones. We don’t hear about their big new funding rounds, important customer acquisitions, or key business metrics.
So what does it all mean?
On the founders front, there’s no longer a need to be the invincible entrepreneur. Founders want to be themselves, without having to copy and paste a recipe. They want to be able to make mistakes and are OK with being perceived as they are — and more often than not they’re pretty shy, modest and blushing. They don’t want to portray themselves as flawless, they don’t want to follow the principles of the Miracle Morning anymore (they prefer to sleep, and that’s fine). And this is a good thing, because less glorification of indestructible founders means better mental health for the other founders. Having to compete in a market is already tough, there shouldn’t be another hidden competition between founders to see who can be seen as the most flawless.
“Less glorification of indestructible founders means better mental health for the other founders.”
By now, most of you have likely watched one of the Fyre Festival documentaries — and the mediatisation of Billy McFarland as the stereotype of a show-off, arrogant entrepreneur certainly doesn’t help the cause of entrepreneurship. Bragging is not the quality investors and employees are looking for in founders.
But more and more, we’re openly acknowledging that a founder’s attractiveness doesn’t have much relationship with a founder’s level of noise. As my coworker Pietro Invernizzi (whose job has him spending all day meeting and talking to young founders) puts it in a dedicated post, “Humility should make every investor’s top three core founder qualities they look for. Humble confidence is that skill some founders have to use their abilities and courage to bring others up rather than arrogantly pushing them down.” Being vocal isn’t really the way for today’s founders to raise money. When agritech startup Agricool raises €14m or DIY marketplace ManoMano raises €60m, it’s definitely not because of the mediatisation of their founders.
And a more realistic, humble attitude filters all the way down. As explained in this story, teams with humble leaders perform better and do higher-quality work than teams whose leaders exhibit less humility. Similarly, companies with humble chief executives are more likely than others to have upper-management teams that work smoothly together, help each other and share decision-making.
For founders, getting airtime doesn’t guarantee finding “culture-fit-certified” talent with a startup-oriented mindset. Employees want to be surrounded with inspiring founders who convey a vision, not braggarts who will sometimes be in the office in between doing all the TV shows and startup conferences. Founders have seen the light, and now know more than ever that being the most visible won’t bring them the employees and investors with the mindset they need.
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