The French startups vying to conquer New York
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Nine French startups competed Thursday for recognition in the US when they pitched their business plans to judges at “La French Touch” conference in New York. From handbags, to travel and SIM-less phones, the French say they have it covered.
The bi-lingual conference took place in the tranquillity of upscale Midtown Manhattan as Paris taxi drivers caused fiery mayhem in the French capital, ironically, protesting one of the US’s most famous startup exports – low-cost taxi service Uber.
For the French entrepreneurs hoping to take their business in the other direction, the challenge is to triumph in the same environment that spawned the controversial alternative cabbie app.
That’s not to say the French don’t champion their own startups. Despite its reputation for rigidity and red tape, the French government has invested heavily in new businesses in the past few years, spending €2 million on incubator infrastructure alone since 2013 and allowing entrepreneurs to access up to €1 mln ahead of any external supervision. There have been more French companies on Deloitte’s fastest-growers ranking than any other European country for four consecutive years, and a French company has topped the charts for the past two.
Thursday’s "La French Touch" event featured both France-based startups seeking to break into the American market, and those which are US-based but French-run, or as organisers described them: “Startups [that] have kept their ‘French Touch’ spirit despite their implementation in the USA.”
Interestingly, the four New York-based entrepreneurs seemed to be almost decade younger than their five France-based counterparts, perhaps signalling France’s brain-drain dilemma, which has seen many young graduates leaving the country to launch projects abroad.
US-based startups – all about luxury
First up, “ArtList,” a website that allows people to safely buy and sell fine art, effectively cutting out the 250-year-old duopoly of auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Creator Kenneth Schlenker says that you can’t sell fine art online like a T-shirt, which is why it needs its own website. The company ensures payment (taking a 10 percent cut), safe delivery, and that the piece is genuine.
Another art-focused initiative, but for younger (or not super wealthy) buyers, “Curioos” catalogs original digital prints by thousands of registered artists and will print out a limited number on something wacky (if not wack), like aluminium, and ship to customers for a few hundred dollars. The scheme benefits non-established artists who might otherwise be selling pieces for considerably less, or not at all – CEO Matt Valoatto cited the case of a 24-year-old Malaysian artist who made a year’s salary in just a few days after uploading his work to Curioos.
“Rebagg” allows wealthy women who grow bored easily of their as-new designer handbags to sell them. The project got the panel’s vote for the best New York-based initiative. The guys who came up with the scheme had to launch a totally separate website, “Trendlee” to sell the bags they acquire on Rebagg. According to CEO Charles-Albert Gorra, the “high-end Upper East Side girl” selling her Chanel piece does not want anything to do with the “aspirational” person buying it “elsewhere in the US”. Sadly, he’s right.
UniqueSound is a website that connects music composers with ad agencies, brands and whoever else wants a bespoke song made for them. Like Curioos, the scheme could benefit up-and-coming artists. Founder Romain Cochet said one composer made the music for a new Nissan ad via UniqueSound, earning a few thousand dollars in just a couple of hours. Clients already include Vice, Samsung and L’Oreal.
France-based startups – practicality prevails
Fabrice Jaeger of “Adways” is determined he can make people pay attention to in-video advertising. Instead of preceding the video you want to watch, his clients’ ads appear somewhere in the middle, and feature fancy choices. He says watchers are at least 10 times more likely to pay attention to what is being sold to them his way. But perhaps that’s because they have to engage in order to get back to their video – great for clients but less so for those of us who have already honed our “ignoring YouTube ads” skills.
Brothers Jocelyn and Stéphane Rémy say they can help employees and managers make decisions together without actually holding a meeting. Their software allows employees to suggest, share and vote on a proposal, all anonymously. Judges questioned whether “Fluidity” was just “one big suggestion box” but the Rémy brothers say it can help a manager make an informed decision, with the feedback of hundreds of colleagues, within hours – a process that would traditionally take days. French supermarket giant Carrefour is already using it.
“How does your travel journey start? When you start dreaming.” That’s how cofounder of “ClippCity,” Xavier Savall, began his somewhat elusive pitch. ClippCity is a travel app that gives you cultural and historical information about the exact location you’re in. You can also take notes, bookmark stuff, and share. It’s one of the features of fancy new bus stops in Paris, and launches in October.
Founder Philippe Leval came up with Evercontact when his assistant left and he struggled to find up-to-date numbers for his business contacts. The system’s contact mining software monitors your emails and automatically edits numbers in your address book depending on what nuggets it gleans. The words “I have a new number” probably pique its interest. But it’s cleverer than that. It can decipher more complex messages, and can always check with you if you don’t trust its robotic savvy. For now it’s really only business-friendly, at $149 per user, but judges in New York crowned it winner of the France-based startups.
Finally, OnOff unshackles your phone number from your SIM card. This seems so obvious it’s surprising it dosn't exist already. Your number is kept in the cloud, like literally everything else on our mobile phones, as founder and CEO Taig Chris pointed out. So when your phone is stolen, you don’t have to get a new SIM card to retrieve your number. It also means you can have multiple numbers, and in different countries, all on the same phone. It sounds mischievous, and marvellous.