Interview  •  Sectors & markets

Station F : Putting Paris on the tech map

INFO speaks with Roxanne Varza, Director of Paris-based Station F, the world’s largest start-up campus and tech incubator, about France’s tech boom and the challenges of setting up a successful start-up

Have many British entrepreneurs chosen Station F? What has attracted them to your incubator?

Currently, more than a third of our 1,000 companies come from abroad and the UK is one of the best represented countries in our international community. While Brexit is mentioned as one of the reasons that British entrepreneurs choose to set up their businesses in Paris, it is currently marginal. What we are noticing is that the French ecosystem is gaining momentum and credibility on an international level – entrepreneurs and investors from around the world are turning their attention to France. At Station F in particular, we strive to provide the best possible resources for early-stage start-ups. We gather a whole entrepreneurial ecosystem under one roof. Right on our campus, startups are able to find a VC community of 40+ investors, 30+ public services, a makerspace, 30+ top-tier incubation and acceleration programmes, and perks and discounts on anything that entrepreneurs might need, from cloudservices to more lifestyle perks like food, air travel, and mobility. And we more recently added housing, so we are able to provide easy, flexible and affordable housing to 600 of the entrepreneurs at Station F. We’re striving to build the perfect launch pad for start-ups to take off and that’s what we think attracts entrepreneurs to join us.

Does Brexit present an opportunity for Paris to catch up to London in terms of start-up and VC activity?

Possibly, but we actually had seen lots of changes and progress in the ecosystem even prior to Brexit. President Macron has also greatly impacted the business climate of France so it's difficult to know which changes should be attributed to Brexit. That said, France is already reaping some Brexit benefits with the number of British investment projects on French soil rising 33 percent in 2018. Paris is behind London in total VC funding but while investment in London has fallen in the last year from $2.5bn in 2017 to $1.8bn in 2018 – a 29 percent drop – investment in Paris has been growing and closing the gap. In fact, this is going to be a record year for investment in France.

Knowing that France is so protective of its language, has there been any fall out to selecting English as the official language of Station F?

Not at all. We don't find that language is an issue with our community – the tech and start-up community is really very English-language-friendly. We have a very big community of international entrepreneurs and about 600 people at Station F do not speak French at all. Electing English as our official language has, on one hand, allowed us to create a more inclusive environment for our international community. On the other hand, speaking a world-common language sets the example for our entrepreneurs: we encourage them to have international ambition and this starts by being able to close deals everywhere in the world.

As the majority of start-ups fail, how do you prepare entrepreneurs for this likely outcome?

Failure does indeed impact a large portion of start-ups. However failure numbers at Station F are still relatively low. What we’ve seen since our opening two years ago is that only 3 percent of our companies have stopped activity. This is probably due to the fact that we are only selecting 6-9 percent of applicants. That said, more than 26 percent of our companies have ‘pivoted’ or changed their business model or strategy during their time at Station F! This means that they have not yet found the right model for their business. To date, the biggest issues impacting failure are co-founder issues or start-ups that are unable to find product-market fit. So, we are looking at how we can best help entrepreneurs avoid recurrent issues that may impact the livelihood of their start-up.

What are the common challenges that entrepreneurs face, and how does your incubator help them through these hurdles?

Entrepreneurs face many challenges including funding, attracting clients, finding product market fit, hiring, scaling, and more. All the services and resources at Station F have been designed with these challenges in mind – and everything we provide is tried, tested and recommended by another entrepreneur. But the number one resource that we provide at Station F is our community – entrepreneurs come here to be surrounded by other likeminded, handpicked, ambitious entrepreneurs. And usually they can find what they are looking for by asking someone next to them that has encountered a similar situation.

What role does the city of Paris play in the success story of Station F?

Paris is one of the most beautiful cities in the world but, for a long time, not associated with tech and innovation. However, things have been changing. The ecosystem is booming at the moment and we are getting a lot of attention from worldwide talents and investors. On top of French engineers being some of the best-known engineers in the world, France is also making it easier for foreign talent to create or join start-ups in France by launching a new French Tech Visa. France is the leader in Europe for tech talent, early-stage funding, and now there are tons of start-up programmes and all the infrastructure necessary to build a top company.

What are your priorities going forward?

From a practical standpoint, bearing in mind the aim to deliver the best resources to early stage start-ups, we will be reinforcing a number of our services, tools and programmes. As an example, we just opened Flatmates, our co-living extension to house up to 600 entrepreneurs, starting at €399 per month (way cheaper than a traditional rent), because we saw housing was one of the main pain points of our entrepreneurs when arriving from abroad or outside Paris. On a mission basis, we obviously want to create leading companies but we also want to create value-driven companies that have impact at their core. Our goal is also to make entrepreneurship more accessible, creating programmes like the Fighters Programme for underprivileged entrepreneurs and launching other diversity initiatives. As we move towards a university model, the goal is also to create a unified campus experience for all our start-ups across 30+ programmes and to create even more opportunities for non-residents to engage with our start-ups and community.

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