The splendors and miseries of working in a French startup

Natalie Cernecka
Sep 18, 2018 · 10 min read
city lights ©ncernecka

Would you consider working for a startup in France? Voulez-vous?

The question might have been baffling only a couple of years ago, but today it does not sound so strange. The French startup scene is booming: Paris is leading Europe for the number of venture-capital funding rounds. French startups are setting their eyes on international expansion. The number of French unicorns is rising. France is trying to attract foreign talent with initiatives such as the French Tech Ticket. President Macron himself called on US scientists, academics and entrepreneurs to come to a ‘new homeland, France’.

So, if you are thinking of making a move, what are some of the things to pay attention to? Having been working in a French startup myself, and being familiar with the startup scene not only in France but in the UK and the Nordics, I hereby present my list of pros and cons, which might come in handy to those of you who considering the question. 🤔

Let’s begin with the positives.

  • You have plenty of choices.

France has a vast, vibrant, and well-developed startup ecosystem. In Paris alone, there are more than 3000 startups. Cities, companies, and universities have their own startup incubators and accelerators. The world’s largest incubator Station F opened in summer 2017 in Paris, with over 3000 workstations ready for budding entrepreneurs.

Events, meetups, and initiatives dedicated to startups proliferate: La French Tech. France digital. Cap Digital. Startups are promoted, celebrated, and receive extensive media coverage.

French startups operate in a variety of sectors. Fintech, foodtech, edtech, healthtech, biotech, you name it. Wine, tourism, luxury goods, art, real estate. Especially promising, thanks to France’s strong reputation in mathematics and engineering, is the so-called deep-tech, encompassing such fields as AI, data science, and machine learning. In February, The Economist commended the trend as ‘the most striking case of fresh growth’.

Most certainly, you will not be alone. In only a few years, the proportion of French graduates thinking about becoming entrepreneurs has reached 30%, and working for a startup has become a legitimate career choice.

Despite the chronically high levels of unemployment in France, the tech sector is an exception. Digital talent is increasingly hard to recruit, to such an extent that the situation is sometimes described as le chomage négatif, as there are more vacancies than candidates available. Many startups are having a hard time filling positions for developers, data scientists, and digital marketers, which means that you could find a role that suits your skills.

  • Many people, especially technical, are very competent.

Two years ago, an Englishman working for Criteo, a French unicorn, wrote a hugely popular post with a somewhat provocative title, in light of the common cliches about the French at work: Why you should hire a French person. Among the reasons he mentioned were excellent analytical and quantitative skills. I cannot agree more.

Although France is not widely known for the quality of its education, its top technical education is excellent. Elite engineering schools, such as Polytechnique and Centrale, are highly selective; studying in them is hard and prestigious. Their top notch graduates pursue careers in business, government, and academia in France and abroad. Is has been pointed out that most successful Silicon Valley companies have French engineers contributing in key roles.

The French take great pride in mastering technical subjects and sharing their expertise. Personally, I learned a lot from talking to my tech-savvy colleagues such as developers, data scientists, and instructional designers on topics as varied as paradigms of AI programming, IoT security, and French relative pronouns. It is reassuring to know that when I need a reliable source of technical information, there is always someone nearby who knows.

  • Tangible and intangible perks.

Like in the US, startups in France try to attract and maintain talent by offering different perks. If French startups cannot compete with their American counterparts on the lavishness of their offerings, they compensate with creativity: dance workshops, wine tastings, trips to the picturesque French countryside …

The perks vary by company, and although they should not be the main reason for your decision, I would recommend that you gain a broader understanding of what is common in the French ecosystem, especially if you hail from abroad. Health insurance, transport costs, subsidised meals (often via vouchers that can be used in restaurants, cafes, and boulangeries) are among typical perks. This will help you to evaluate the job offer in an international context, to compare competing offers, and to craft your negotiation strategy.

More interesting, however, are intangible perks — things that you will learn to appreciate, sometimes unexpectedly, and which will broaden your horizons. Long(ish) sit-down lunches 🍽️ is an easy perk to fall for, especially if at your previous workplace people usually gulped down an indigestible supermarket sandwich in front of the computer.

frogs legs for lunch anyone? ©ncernecka

The most unexpected intangible perk for me was learning to appreciate the art of French meetings. If you are not familiar with the concept, I highly recommend this parody on holding an authentic meeting à la francaise:

Don’t plan ahead: The most important thing is to be as scattered as possible when the meeting begins. There is no reason to begin as indicated in any previous communication. Start-times are a mere notion of when to arrive and sip coffee while watching the organizer wonder why nothing is prepared or why another meeting is also scheduled in the same space at the same time.

How is it possible to appreciate something so absurd, you might wonder? Yes, they can be as bad and much worse, and I have a long list of my own ‘French meeting horror stories’ (the top prize goes to the head of sales who used to insist on scheduling a meeting at 9:30 am on Monday morning, and cancel it by email after everyone arrived). But let’s accentuate the positives.

I am of two minds about long meetings. True, they can feel like a waste of time and energy, especially when unstructured, with no agenda, and too many irrelevant people involved, just like in the parody. Yet, when meetings are well prepared and include key people, even if they last for hours, they can be extremely useful not only in reaching a decision but in building a trusting business relationship. Paradoxically, I found that spending time on meetings at the beginning of a project saves time during the project’s lifetime. ⏲️

Now, as they say in France, passons aux choses sérieueses — let’s get serious, and move to miseries.

Recently, startups received a lot of bad press. In the US, a former startup employee wrote about his ‘startup hell’. In France, the usually pro-business magazine Les échos ran a piece entitled The hidden face of startups, or why you should not work for one. Another newspaper, La Tribune, conducted an investigation whether working in a startup was hell or heaven. A young French woman published a book narrating her survival in the supposedly cool, but, in reality, brutal world of startups.

The book was based on her real experiences, ironically not in France, but in Berlin — which reminded me of a German film, Das Leben ist eine Baustelle (Life is a building site). In the film, the protagonist’s life falls apart as he loses his job, father, and girlfriend, and he runs for his life amidst the ubiquitous building sites of the 1990s post-Communist Berlin.

The negatives of working for a start-up can be accurately compared to a never-ending building site. You know that something — allegedly big and beautiful — is being built, but you do not know what exactly, when the work will be finished, what kind of stones you will be asked to carry, how safety regulations are observed, and whether you will be protected if something goes wrong.

life is a building site ©ncernecka

Back to France. How is the situation with startups here? What potholes should you try to avoid if you are considering joining Station F, applying for a French Tech visa, or being offered a job? Based on my own observations and experiences of foreign friends working in startups in this country, there are three major problems.

  • First, a weak level of internationalisation.

Compared to startups in the US, UK, and even Berlin, most French startups are exactly that — French. Most people will be French. Many people will not speak much or any English. People will be behaving in typical French ways.

Please, don’t get me wrong. Most of us who have moved to France, have done so for professional opportunities, personal choices, or other perfectly good reasons (love for Paris, interest for nouvelle vague cinema, obsession with French cheese…), and we enjoy living and working here.

Still, in French startups, the proportion of foreign employees is remarkably low, 20% compared to 50 % in London. More significantly, most of the foreigners are typically employed in the roles directly related to their language skills, such as telesales in English or content marketing in Spanish. Those whose jobs do not fit their ‘ethnic’ pigeonhole are few and far between. This factor might have a negative impact on your career prospects.

Surprising as it may sound, it is not unusual to see even international expansion strategy piloted by people who have never worked abroad and speak hardly any foreign language. No wonder internationalisation is commonly considered to be the weak point of many French startups. Rare are those that succeed abroad, and those that do, such as Michel and Augustin and BlaBlaCar, have struggled to adapt their strategy.

  • Second, a lack of diversity.

A typical startup founder is a white French guy in his late 20s, from a middle-class family, with a degree in engineering or business, and international experience limited to an Erasmus exchange. Most top managers will have similar profile.

According to Syntec Numérique, an industry advocate, women in tech amount to only 33%, but even in the startups with a higher percentage, the distribution is far from equal. The top jobs would be held by predominantly white French guys, whereas women and visible minorities would work mostly at the bottom of the pyramid (office manager, telesales, administrative support), and have limited promotion opportunities.

Despite efforts, initiatives, and campaigns aiming to improve diversity, the situation — and internal culture that it entails — changes slowly and painfully. Again, this might have negative implications for you if you belong to an under-represented group.

This uniformity breeds groupthink, and you will have to brace yourself with courage if you want to undertake something different.

On a lighter side, it will give raise to humorous situations. For example, your coworkers most likely will comment on your eating habits, if these are different from the French ‘norm’. I vividly remember the look of absolute horror on my colleagues’ faces when I put some ice-cream 🍦 in my morning coffee ☕️.

  • Third, pay attention to legal issues.

The French labour market is tightly regulated, which is in contradiction with the flexible and unstable nature of startups. As a result, it is not easy to let people go, even if they are no longer needed. Some arcane rules, which might seem completely innocent to you during the honeymoon of getting your job offer, might be turned against you later.

A story shared by an English friend: a startup he was working for offered an opportunity of working remotely. Upon signing his contract, he was reassured by the CEO that the strict rules about remote work were pro forma only, ‘because in France a télétravail was heavily regulated’. Great was his surprise when one day he received a formal letter from the same CEO written in legalistic French he could barely understand, alleging he was ‘abusing the télétravail system’. Not knowing how to interpret the letter, it was only his French girlfriend who explained the situation was pretty serious: he was in fact given a disciplinary warning as the CEO was clearly building a case for sacking him.


To conclude, what would be my recommendations for those who want to work for a startup in France?

  1. Observe and ask questions. Talk not only to your future manager and founders, but also to rank-and-file employees. Feel the vibes of the place. In startups, even more than in big companies, the expression ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’ is true. The strategy might — and most likely will — change. The culture will remain long term. Do you like what you see and hear? Will your difference be accepted? Will you be able to contribute?
  2. Know which issues are important to you and ask how they are implemented in a startup you are wooing. If diversity is your thing, a diversity committee is a nice gesture, but having coworkers of different ages, backgrounds, and ethnicities is what counts. If you are passionate about women in tech, ask how many senior level women are there and how women are promoted. If you care about internationalisation, ask about your future foreign colleagues and their roles in the company.
  3. Be extra careful about anything legal you are asked to sign, particularly if your French is weak. Bring someone whom you trust to help you understanding the arcane paragraphs of your contract, and do not be seduced by a sweet voice singing ‘this is only a formality’.

In any event, do not despair, do not jump at the first opportunity offered. Talk to several companies. There are more than 3000 startups in Paris alone, and digital talent is increasingly hard to recruit. Weigh the positives and negatives. Joining a startup is an adventure worth trying, and doing so abroad will certainly be an interesting learning experience, be it in Silicon Valley, Berlin — or Paris.

Natalie Cernecka

Written by

Academic (Cambridge, Keio, CNRS) converted to tech. Linguist. TEDx speaker & organiser. Diversity is the spice of life.

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