Already 47 companies are in the European Unicorn Club*!
For the crushing majority of these members, their entry has been only possible through their noteworthy international expansion. In France for instance, for the first year, 51% of venture-backed startups revenue has been made abroad**. Cocorico, my friends. We shall witness more and more access to the elite club in the years to come.
Alongside these champions, there are plenty other Europeans champions, of all kind: VCs, accelerators, media companies, design studios, communication agencies, etc. And without surprise, they too have become more and more international. I’m afraid we are not the only pan-European VC fund.
These good stories bring very good news: job creation, increase of expertise, even some wealth.
But as we look at this beautiful wave, we witness something new, like a new colour.
This new colour is a modification of the startup culture.
In young tech ecosystems, entrepreneurship is a place where lots of people who think outside the box meet. The richness of perspectives, paired with the rush of energy allows us to imagine a multitude of possibilities that can unfold. As the time goes by, the energy stays but the myriad of perspectives starts to shrink away fast.
We could think that we stopped being amateurs. We are pros now. Entrepreneurship, and especially startups, where the product/market fit and business models are unguaranteed, has two very strong needs: plasticity and efficacy. Plasticity is the quality of being able to be made into different shapes. We often speak about adaptability. Efficacy means taking the right actions towards a given goal (it is often mentally linked to efficiency, which means maximizing output for a given input, which in corporate terms is described as operational excellence).
The startup culture is increasingly focused on these two pillars. Plasticity is worshipped throughout the acclamation of failure, the supremacy of clients (be user-centric!) and the need of constant innovation (among many other artefacts). Efficacy is worshipped throughout the obsession for scalability, the emphasis put on execution and the need to raise big amounts of capital asap, etc.
And to me, we shouldn’t forget that this way of looking at the world is very American.
Don’t be mistaken: (a) I don’t say that these things are bad in themselves. I’m a VC after all, and these components are part of my evaluation framework and things that I actively look for, (b) I don’t claim that some ventures shouldn’t raise funds or that failure is not an important part in the tech journey. These are old debates. What I’m saying is that we are more and more mimicking the culture of Silicon Valley. We are mimicking a culture where role models such as Warren Buffet can say proudly that he doesn’t even know the colour of the office wall where he has been working daily for decades***, or models such as Bill Gates can boast “not wasting time with frivolous things such as cooking or art” (sic)***. This feels so wrong for us, Europeans.
A culture is built around not only behaviour but underlying values, in a coherent belief system. We mustn't fool ourselves and forget that behind the acts, there are principles and behind the principles, there are values.
There have been two concomitant movements across European hubs: (i) European startups managed to become world champions within their own belief systems; (ii) the younger generation has been exposed and acculturated to the US startup culture, which has become the standard global startup culture. And this new generation is losing ground to their very competitive advantage: their DNA.
The question now is to ask ourselves: how do we contribute to the current global startup culture, which is very US-centered, by injecting our own know-how and values? Culture isn’t something stable or uniform. It is dynamic, hybrid and self-regenerative. It’s time to be aware that we have been very fortunate to observe and learn, but also that we didn’t contribute that much ourselves to the thought leadership. The richness of the European culture(s) might lose some of its influence or at the very least not contribute as it could to the global tech movement. We have already 47 companies in the Europe Unicorn Club. It’s about time to speak up.