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Making the American Dream Come Alive: French Passion in Silicon Valley

By Karla Schlaepfer
book jcp journal, tage-buch jcp, interview, silicon valley

In Menlo Park, a quiet neighborhood in Silicon Valley, Christophe has made his home away from Lyon into his own quiet retreat. The space reminds us of a mediation studio complete with Buddha statues, subdued lighting and low furniture. Guests are invited to remove their shoes when entering. Still, it is a technologically sophisticated space with a strong Wifi, hidden sensors and electrical plugs in almost every corner – but no television. His watchdog Spot guards over this sanctuary with his powerful bark which sometimes gets Christophe into trouble with the neighbors. The only sign of flashiness is the large black Audi parked in the driveway.

Christophe B., makes a friendly yet reserved impression too. His appearance acts as a foil for the highly concentrated, agile-driven, enthusiasm of this self-made entrepreneur. After selling his French company in to a US concern as a “get-away”, he moved to Silicon Valley at the age of 33 and continued working for several years for his former company. Until his “growth mindset” drove him on; he quit and started his own company to do things that mattered in the cyber security business. With the help of an incubator who provided cash, contacts and conceptual and creative support, his startup company grew fast. His current company is now 2 years old and employs over 30 people.

“It was always my dream”  – was this the main reason that Christophe moved to California? Or were the opportunities in just too tempting? In the meantime, he’s a sought-after expert in a specialized business field of future security and UX customer experience. We spoke with him about the 3 P’s (people, product, profit – in that order!), design thinking and agile based research, silicon valley company culture and about leadership. He was able to draw certain comparisons between the “old” world and the “new” although his working experience in France was not with a startup but a large cooperation. He continues active contact with engineers and developers in France. Below an excerpt of our interview from July 14.

How would you describe the company culture in your company? Is it typical for a Silicon Valley startup?

“I wouldn’t describe my company any more as a startup. We are trying to build the culture, daily. At the beginning the culture was ourselves. We didn’t have a clear set of organized shared values … we wanted to share the passion for what we were doing and at the same time we had some conflicts. Now we’ve grown to 30 people and we do it differently: if you have a culture based on exchange, openness, shared vision, like most of the Silicon Valley companies do, you have to define all the values and meanings. When you don’t have the maturity to do that, to actually define values of the company culture, and say why this matters, it will fail. And you’ll then fall back into fear, like in the old style of management, you’ll mange by fear and pressure. And people don’t like that, especially here. Good people in Silicon Valley leave the company and easily find another job. The culture comes from the top management, the CEO.”

“It’s about repeating these values every day and asking yourself questions, like, why am I doing what I’m doing. That’s probably a big difference (to working culture in France) is this always asking “why”and self-awareness. Not necessarily to challenge the other but to make sure the purpose of what you’re doing is clear.  One thing I learned is the importance of describing the vision and the meaning of what we are doing. ”

We ask ourselves, if these agile principles like fast failure and quick testing in 2 weeks instead of 2 months will work in other places? How do you think European companies will react if we come and tell them, that’s the way they do it in Silicon Valley. Now change! What do you think? How would you former French company react?

“They can see the benefits. It’s all about leadership. You explain why. You explain it’s better to go fast on the market and learn from the early adaptors. You are listening to them, the users, you are talking together. You are listening – that’s more valuable than actual money. Give them your product for free! You let them use it and they give their feedback. You invest in the community and listen to the community. This way you’ll learn more than if your stay in your lab and try to improve your product based on your assumptions. A kind of a reality- check. The sooner you have this reality- check, the more clarity you have. Don’t be afraid to share your ideas. If someone has the same ideas as you  – that’s great actually! Because that’s really a validation of your thinking. The actual value of ideas is zero. It’s all about execution. Execution is everything. Based on that principle: don’t be afraid. You need a leader that can bring this new way to do the business and innovate. It’s all about the leader and his ability to have an impact on the people.”

Dear reader, what do you think, how important is the business leader for innovation? Let us know in the comments, we’d love to hear from you!

What does Christophe miss about France? We can only guess, but he left us some clues. After peeking into his fridge (yes, we were allowed to!) and glimpsing 3 packages of excellent French cheese, we think that there are certain old world culinary passions that he still finds tempting.

Thanks Christophe for sharing!