With French entrepreneurs, flattery isn’t always the best strategy.
On Monday evening, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted more than 100 founders at his presidential palace to talk about his government’s plans to put €7bn into funding the digital economy.
But when time came for kudos and congrats, Macron didn’t get the kind of reaction he expected.
“A year ago we set a goal to create 25 unicorns, and we’ve created 13,” Macron cheered. “We’ve shown we’re a country that can spawn startups as well as grow them into unicorns.”
To that, entrepreneurs responded: “Who cares?”
“Let me start by saying: Who cares about unicorns?” said Alexandre Yazdi, the cofounder and chief executive of gaming startup Voodoo. Strong words, especially as Yazdi had been invited on-stage to talk about how his company became a unicorn last August after Tencent bought a stake.
“I agree with Alexandre, who cares — unicorns don’t matter. We need to find another measure for success,” Jean-Charles Samuelian, the founder of health insurance company Alan, called out to the president a little bit later in the evening during questions and answers.
What matters more than funding for startups is the ability to grow business and to quickly expand globally, both founders said. Samuelian pitched the idea that France should aim to spawn mega global tech companies, judged according to their revenues and ability to change the world.
The comments from founders to the president reflect a broader shift in focus in the French ecosystem, after years of government funding. By trickling down through state-backed fund Bpifrance, government investment helped spur a buzzing ecosystem and attract investors from all over.
Now, the view from founders is that what the ecosystem needs most isn’t more funding from the state. Expectations have focused instead on the idea that more business and contracts should be handed out to French and EU startups.
“It’s important to get not just funding money, but also contracts,” Frederic Mazzella, the founder of BlaBlaCar and co-president of startups grouping France Digitale, told Sifted.
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“That’s money that boosts startups in more than one way, by helping them build a better product too,” Mazzella said. “France needs to buy more European solutions.”
France this month unveiled a €100bn envelope for its stimulus package, meant to help the country’s economy bounce back after Covid-19. It’s split into three categories: ecological transition, boosting the competitiveness of businesses, and more cohesion between French regions.
Digital is a sub-category, and of the announced €7bn budget for digital, €3.7bn will go to reinforcing startups financing, including through Bpifrance, Macron said.
But Macron also argued that much of the total €100bn French economic stimulus will actually come back to startups indirectly, including through contracts with the government.
“Digital, of course, is not a single sector,” Macron said on Monday. “A large part of the €100bn will actually get you all involved.”