Brexit may be a threat to Britain doing business in the EU, but the country retains strong links with our Gallic neighbour across the Channel. Eurostar is an enduring symbol of the Anglo-French connection, and the company organised a masterclass for startups last week on a train ride to the VivaTech conference in Paris.
The startups were challenged to find innovation ways to improve the experience of Eurostar customers in four different categories: measuring passenger flows in stations, inspiring frequent travel, applying facial recognition, and personalising automated interaction.
The successful applicants won a high-speed masterclass from a trio of experts on going global and a VivaTech conference pass. Their products include demand forecasting using social media and news, artificial intelligence to detect customer flows and a holiday itinerary platform using mixed reality to enhance the experience of travel.
In the business lounge on a sunny morning in London's St Pancras station, Early Metrics founder Antoine Baschiera begins the first lesson, on operating a business on both sides of the channel.
"The French are very much centralised, much more so than in the UK," says Baschiera, an engineer and former financial analyst whose company has developed a to help corporations such as Renault rate startups.
"Most of the decision-makers will be based in Paris, or at least in France. The startup ecosystem is much smaller than in the UK. That can be an opportunity."
His optimism is shared at the very peak of French society. Newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron would echo his words at VivaTech later that day.
Baschiera admits that there is less of a private-public partnership in France, and less appetite for risk, but adds that there is also less competition for press and less reliance on foreign talent.
"In France, the pool of talent is huge and way cheaper," he says. "Keep in mind that [laws and regulations] are different, but don’t think that it is always harder. In the UK it can take three days to start a company but three weeks to open an account. In France, it can take three weeks to open a company, but not to open a bank account."
Entering a foreign market
Cultural differences are another area that is often overlooked.
"We always start with some small talk, whereas in the UK it's much more straight to business," says Baschiera, as a voice announces over the PA system that it’s time to board the train.
We take our seats at the front carriage just as we pull in to Ashford International station, the next lecturer stands up at the front of the aisle: the white-suited, sockless Justin Cooke, founder of Fortune Cookie, Venture Partner at Northzone and an expert on scaling a business internationally.
"Find international clients, do a great job for them in one market…then really work that network to get introductions to colleagues of that client in other markets that you feel there is a big opportunity to grow in," he recommends.
"You can apply the same principal to partners. If you can find growth partners that you can generate revenue from through some form of collaboration in other markets that is another good strategy."
Cooke's expansion took him to New York, but he advises others entering the market not to sacrifice who they are when attempting to adapt to a foreign culture and way of working.
"Don’t try to be New York, be British…and apologise often, that’s another Hugh Grant trick," he adds.
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Cooke once lost out on a pitch to another startup at the very last leg. When that company fell apart 11 months later, he was asked to come in to help salvage the hard disks that the half-finished product was on before the liquidators came to take the computers.
They jumped on a train to Bath and delivered. The man they helped turned into a major long-term client.
"The biggest positive thing about failure...is having the energy to ask where did I go wrong," says Cooke. "When you fail, it doesn’t mean it's the end. It means it's the end of the beginning."
Building relationships and helping others will often pay off in the future.
"Think about how you can play a role in the wider industry," he says. "The more you put into it, the more you get out."
Attracting international investment
After we hurtle across the French border at almost 300 kilometres per hour, it's time for the final panellist: Suranga Chandratillake, the founder of video search pioneer blinkx and now a general partner at Balderton Capital, a venture fund focused on early-stage European technology businesses which has previously invested in Citymapper and bebo.
Chandratillake offered his advice on how to attract investment from venture capitalists in Europe.
"You need to have such an incredibly strong belief in the thing that you are building that you can survive the tough times," he says.
The most common reason that Chandratillake and his colleagues pass on a company is the team.
"The number one reason is we don’t believe the team is in it to go all the way," he says. "Many of our questions are trying to probe the reality of that."
Like Cooke, he's a strong believer in marking your own luck.
"There's a lot of serendipity that goes into building a platform, and the way you expand your serendipity surface area is by having connections to useful people, and having those people be part of what you are doing," he says.
Employees, investors, advisors, and even customers can change the future of your company. It was blinkx's customer Ask Jeeves who first told them that search outside Google was dying, and video was the future. They went on built their business around video and its advertising potential, which helped the company hit a market cap £180 million when it went public in 2007.
Chandratillake says the successful startups normally stay in the same market with roughly the same team, but the product itself would often change dramatically.
"It's more about you and less about the project," he says. "Be ready to pivot."
He adds that he doesn't recommend startup change too much too early, but lacking flexibility has doomed many a promising company.
"Anyone that says they know where their company is going to be in eight years is either deluding themselves, or trying to delude me," he says. "Neither are a good thing."
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The train pulls in to Gare du Nord just in time to make President Macron's speech at VivaTech. His election is expected to herald the beginning of a more business-friendly France, and he has already promised to set up a €10 billion euro fund for "industry of the future". Investment in the nation is growing, and Macron will likely try to lure UK tech firms in need of an EU office after Brexit to his country.
"What we have to do is to change in depth our model," said Macron. "I want France to be a startup nation, meaning both a nation that works with and for the startups, but also a nation that thinks and moves like a startup."
To bolster his country's startup credentials, Macron announced a new "French Tech Visa" a fast-track four-year permit to help foreigners and their families live and work in France. He also plans to reform labour laws and lower corporate tax to make the country more attractive for businesses.
Paris is a worthy challenger to the title of European centre of technology, but the British innovation and entrepreneurship that travelled there show London is not yet ready to give up its crown. The city's established startup ecosystem and reputation for trade will remain, and Cooke believes there will also be benefits from Brexit.
"It's about clearly being focused on what those markets are, making sure that you have the appropriate product fit for those markets, seizing those opportunities and playing to the strengths of an extremely weak pound right now, which makes us incredibly cheap to buy from the UK's perspective," he says. "I've seen lots and lots of businesses benefit from that already."