Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry reviews a recent conference in Paris dedicated to, of all things, failure.
Failcon, the delightfully American concept of a conference dedicated to celebrating failure, and what we can learn from it to succeed, has a Paris offshoot. This year’s instalment showed that France, far from the cliché of stuck-up, backward-looking Gauls, has the entrepreneurial drive required to embrace risk-taking and the failure that comes with it.
Shepherded by Cass Phillips and woman about town and Kernel contributor Roxanne Varza, pictured, this year’s edition highlighted all the pitfalls of startup life: pivoting when your concept fails, security disasters, regulatory issues, bad investors, scaling problems, misunderstanding metrics, acquisitions and IPOs.
At each of these steps, start-ups have failed, almost crashed and burned – and yet lived to tell the tale. The two highlights of the day, however, were stories of pivoting and bad venture capitalists.
Pivoting is something that Criteo chief executive JB Rudelle had to learn quickly. Criteo is fast becoming known as “the other billion-dollar French start-up”, a global ad tech leader generating hundreds of millions in revenue. But Criteo did not start as an ad tech company at all, and had to pivot its model several times before its recent successes.
In fact, from its founding in 2005 to 2007, by the time it was almost all out of cash, it still hadn’t figured out anything at all. Yet they pulled it off, and Rudelle was gentlemanly in sharing the story honestly with everyone.
The other striking part of the conference was a stunning public confession by French VC Jean-David Chamboredon. Chamboredon has a sterling track record as an investor and is currently chief executive of ISAI – perhaps the hippest VC fund in France, since it is backed by successful entrepreneurs.
It was not always so. There are some mistakes VCs will fess up to easily: the ones that happen during the investment. Investing too early, or too late, or in the wrong team, or the wrong market. It’s part of a VCs’ job description to make these mistakes sometimes. They will generally own up to such boobs.
What I had never seen a VC own up to yet, in public or in private, were mistakes that happened after the investment: the ones where the VC gets things wrong in his relationship with the entrepreneur.
That’s the story Chamboredon told, with remarkable frankness and humility. His first investment as a VC, 10 years ago, was a voice-over-IP (VoIP) company that launched before VoIP was really possible. It went bankrupt. Chamboredon was clearly wrong on the market but, he admitted, he was also wrong in his relationship with the team.
After they found out the market couldn’t support their software, Chamboredon insisted that they “deliver my investment thesis” instead of trying to pivot to something else, and blamed everyone – poor marketing, poor sales, poor engineering – besides himself for the eventual failure.
Chamboredon has learned from his mistake: today he is both one of the most successful and most respected VCs in France. One reason for that, the guests at FailCon France learned last week, is that he’s the kind of guy who’s not afraid to talk about his past failures more honestly than any other VC I know.
Would that the whole industry were glazed in such sweet and enlightening transparency.