After 76 meetings, what does the world think of French entrepreneurs?
Having met 76 entrepreneurs and visited 7 countries, we are halfway through our journey. In nearly four and a half months, we have been to Mexico, Colombia, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand. Although got used to visiting one country a month, everything speeded up when we got to Asia, where we started averaging a new country every 10 days.
It’s not always easy to take time out, and forget about all the hustle and bustle going on around you. This article is an opportunity for us to take stock of what we have learned, our state of mind after 4 months of traveling through 3 continents, the occasional disappointment, and our expectations for the remainder of the project.
At the moment, what’s strikes us most as we leave for India is the way that westerners are seen, particularly the French, in Latin America and Asia.
In Latin America, the ‘French Touch’ is a plus, a badge that you can wear and make use of. Diplomatic and business ties are getting stronger with France, which is already Colombia’s biggest trading partner, for example. However, things seemed very different in Asia, where all foreigners are treated like guests. For Franck Martin, the founder of VO communication and who has been living in Hanoi for the past 15 years: “Vietnam will never be my country, but Hanoi is my city.” In Vietnam, however long you spend there, it is impossible for a foreigner to take Vietnamese nationality.
In Thailand, even with a work visa, you have to leave the country every three months, and re-do your papers every year. And it’s more or less the same with business: quite simply, Asia doesn’t need the Old Continent anymore, and it is developing at lightning pace — driven by Chinese and South Korean investment. And a national preference is systematic. “The Vietnamese do not want to make things as easy for foreigners as they do for locals,” says Loïc Gautier, founder of LeFlaire, an online Vietnamese marketplace — and local equivalent of Vente Privée. Foreigners must demonstrate their contribution to the economy. In Thailand, for example, no more than 49% of a company can be owned by a foreigner, and every company — even those created by Thai nationals, must employ four locals for every foreigner. In Singapore, you must be able to prove that you couldn’t find a suitable Singaporean candidate for a given post. The result of these policies is that it’s virtually impossible to start a company as soon as you arrive in Asia. By contrast, it seems that you can start a business and succeed in any sector of the economy in Latin America. For Olivier Rodney, President of the Franco-Mexican Chamber of Commerce in Mexico, you sense that there are still huge opportunities to be seized, and that what’s already being achieved could be done even better. What’s more, competition there isn’t a problem.
In Asia, the sectors with the most potential for new companies are tech-related and, more specifically, the disruptive innovation being delivered by ‘deep tech.’ Emilie Philippe is Managing Director of Webdrone in Singapore, a French cybersecurity start-up. She firmly believes in collective intelligence and has joined the Economic Development Board of Singapore, one of whose missions is to bring foreign deep tech start-ups to Singapore, as Singaporean companies still need to make progress in this area.
What’s been more surprising is finding the same views about the difficulties of integrating a new business in the local economy when we arrived in Australia. We all loved Australia: it’s a fascinating country, you can create a company there in just a few clicks, and the bureaucracy and taxation arrangements are all ‘light touch.’ But we also discovered a country that is isolated, and focused on just itself and South East Asia. There is also a real preference still for buying local, business networks are very closed, and the domestic market is much smaller (25 million people), even though consumer spending power is high. That said, it benefits from having an ideal position in the geographical zone and is a very good test market for Asia.
To continue the comparison, with regard to management, we found a lot of similarities with Asia and Latin America. “People here don’t know how to say ‘no’, and you have to be able to discern the ‘no’ in a ‘yes.’” We’ve given up counting the number of times we heard that phrase in Colombia and Vietnam. Equally familiar is the phrase “They are very hard-working — but they are not very pro-active” in Mexico and Malaysia. Overall, while some generalizations are justified, these are cultures where trust is only built up gradually, and managers will need to work long and hard to achieve that — especially as these countries have full employment. Whereas, in France, we get the impression that trust can be quickly gained — and quickly lost. However, one of our preconceptions was justified: culturally speaking, Asia really is ‘another planet’ for us, and understanding the local market takes longer than in Latin America, which remains just that — very Latin. As a result, the French find their feet there far more quickly.
I repeat, you can’t just make naïve generalizations about such things. If we have learned anything — it’s that. Of course, we have reported on people’s views, a number of good practices, and some advice. But it’s very clearly not enough. To create a business in a country and to understand all the ins and outs of the local market, you have to live there — and I mean really live there. At the same time, you cannot just rely on the local institutions and existing business networks; and that’s probably been one of our biggest disappointments. French Chambers of Commerce and other Business France organizations are of some use to major companies setting up there, but these services are extremely expensive and are unaffordable for most start-ups. To go furthers still, we were sometimes very surprised by the gap between the reality experienced by entrepreneurs and the information provided by such institutions. Even so, some international Chambers of Commerce were shining examples of a dynamic organization and were unanimously praised by entrepreneurs, as in Singapore.
It’s possible that the realities we have described are very different to those experienced by many people who read this. Whatever the case, we feel that we have learned a lot. We are regularly asked if weariness doesn’t set in sometimes, if we don’t miss France, and if we haven’t become a bit blasé after all the meetings we’ve had! And the answer is ‘Of course not!’ In fact, quite the opposite, our desire for understanding is even greater. We are less naïve and impressionable than we were when we left, our view of business models is sharper, and our questions are now more probing. We can also adapt more quickly to a situation, and we are less wary of having a full immersion in a country’s culture, of sometimes having to confront things, and of getting carried away by the local dynamic.
Next stop: India, which will probably be our biggest culture shock since we started our world tour…