Europe is currently experiencing a surge of enthusiasm for digital start-ups, with Silicon Valley-esque hubs developing across the continent, from Brick Lane to Berlin.
Paris-based Sublime Skinz, which specialises in skin-based advertising (also known as wallpaper advertising), is one company which has grown from a small business in France to an international outfit.
Creating high impact, non-intrusive ad formats which surround website content, Sublime Skinz is on show in a range of industries, counting Netflix, Ikea and Calvin Klein as clients.
Talking to PerformanceIN, the company’s publisher account director for EMEA, Hugo Benguesmia shared his insights into the world of start-ups in France, from the support they receive to the challenges of international expansion.
Recently Germany re-evaluated regulations for start-up funding. How much support is there for digital start-ups in France?
Hugo Benguesmia: Pretty good. In France, the good thing is we’ve got the government which are helping digital start-ups a lot, especially when they are technology focused.
The more tech-based the startups are, the more they will be helped by either the government or an association. Take the example of Ubifrance [the agency for export promotion], which we already take advantage of. They helped us grow in other markets like the US. We’ve been participating in the UBI i/o program [and] they've been helping us set up our business in San Francisco.
[We’ve received] real support on how to develop our business activities in a huge market such as the US and how to do it right, and that's the main thing. Thanks to them we’ve opened an office in San Francisco and have participated in the World Tech Cup Challenge, where we won the Audience Award, which was just brilliant.
Then you’ve got PPI which help French start-ups if they are technologically orientated. They give you investment and five years to plough this into human resources and workers, to strengthen and grow your technology. And this is why the hub of Sublime Skinz is based in France, not the US.
Then there are people such as Xavier Niel who is CEO of Free [the French telecommunications company]. He’s doing a lot of work with L’ecole 42, a big hub for start-ups, so there is help, there are entrepreneurs in France and we are in good hands I would say.
Many of the big players in the industry hail from America. Can Europe ever compete with Silicon Valley?
HB: I would say that obviously the US market, especially in Silicon Valley, where that major tech hub is based, they are all working and investing on the latest and emerging technology.
However, France has people like Niel; entrepreneurs who are thinking outside the box and I think he is a very good example of someone that is trying to create a new tech hub in their own country. I do however think that in terms of competing with Silicon Valley, there is no point. We want to keep the technology of Sublime Skinz in France, not to outsource it into the US.
I think companies are quite keen to preserve the research and development that they are doing in their main market and they want to keep this know-how and not export it to the US.
I think the key thing now for a country like France is how the government is going to invest; how they are going to help to create a ‘Silicon Valley’ in each country, that's the main thing.
What do you feel are the main barriers for European companies when it comes to expanding within the continent?
HB: I have been leading the international development of Sublime since the beginning. So we were totally French and covering the whole development in EMEA countries. From my experience, there are indeed several barriers.
First, you don’t know exactly how each market is behaving. There are barriers of cultures and the way people do business. You need to see how companies work [in other countries], to fit and see the best strategy to work with them and as soon as you understand that, it is easier to go forward.
Markets [across Europe] are totally different, there are different behaviours and different cultures, so you need to adapt to each country to do business. This is probably the biggest barrier when looking at expansion.
Then you need to be well organised. When we started out, we had just one business unit. Now we have three - in Paris, London and San Francisco. [It’s about] how to work together, how to get there, to get a workflow that’s going well and how to train people as well - to work at your workflow and your process, so when you go to other countries you also have to learn how to work together.
[When we started], we were only French. Only French people were hired in this company. Now we are working with Irish people, American people, and we have to understand each other and work together.
Investment as well, I’d say is the main part. Obviously when you grow, you need more money, you need to invest in new resources, tech, travel and so on.
Also when you’re a company that is self-funded, you have to find investment to support your international development. We started to open doors, but then we needed people to manage the doors we had opened and that’s one of the barriers: how to find the right investment.
Also the timeline, you need to go step by step. Quite fast, but not too slow otherwise other companies will take a look at your company and try to do what you are doing. So you need to work on a step-by-step basis and ensure the processes are fully aligned to scale your businesses properly and have full control of your international development.
You need to always take control because all technological companies grow very quickly. Today you can be the leader, tomorrow you are the loser. You need to grow steadily but at the same time you need to work on your research and development.
Is there pressure on French companies to expand outside the country?
HB: I wouldn’t say there is pressure. It is more about you or what the CEOs are deciding.
There is no massive pressure - it only depends on your ambition and what you want to do, because expanding your company is not an easy task. It’s a real challenge and as soon as you decide to start expanding your activities, it's a real, real big project you are starting up.
When you start out, you are at point zero. When you start growing, I would say, the show is starting. But there is no pressure - it just depends on what you really want to do, where you want to go and how you want to do it.
At Sublime Skinz, since the beginning, we believed so much in our company and worked hours and hours because we knew that we were responding to a need in the market. We don’t have pressure, we just have great ambition and the courage to go abroad.
How well are start-ups supported in your country? Join the conversation and comment below.